What were the plagues of Egypt?
When the Hebrew slaves began giving him trouble, Pharaoh responded with a heavy hand.
Then a series of natural calamities happened – called by the Bible ‘the Plagues’.
Pharaoh associated these calamities with his treatment of the slaves, and saw them as a sign of divine wrath.
He acted immediately to dispel this wrath, and told Moses he and his Hebrews could leave.
The Ten Plagues:
- The River Nile turned to blood, so there was nothing to drink and nothing to wash with (and the Egyptians prided themselves on their cleanliness).
- Frogs One frog is cute; ten million are not. Frogs were everywhere, in the water, on the land, inside the houses, squashed underfoot.
- Lice and mosquitoes Insects entered the eyes, ears and noses of the field workers, laying eggs everywhere, so that the place crawled with larvae.
- Flies The Hebrew word in the Bible refers to biting flies – so they were not just a pest, but a source of pain and infection
- Diseased livestock The scene was one of utter horror, as suffering animals collapsed and died.
- Boils Stinging, suppurating infections covered the whole body and caused swellings which became itchy and painful.
Thunder and hail When Moses stretched his staff towards heaven, the rumble of thunder was heard. Hail, rain and zigzags of lightning filled the sky.
- Locusts Locusts can be a real catastrophe in the Middle East. There is no way of stopping them, since their swarms number in the billions.
- Darkness The darkness was so thick that people had to feel their way around. This was an escalation in terror.
- Death of the first born Social rank or wealth made no difference. You could not buy your way out of this.
1 The Nile turns to blood
There was blood everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and stone jars that stood inside the houses. There was
- nothing to drink,
- nothing to wash with (and the Egyptians prided themselves on their cleanliness),
- nothing to clean their white linen garments
- an awful stench, as the fish died in the polluted river.
Water, that had given them life, now brought them death instead. It polluted, it stank, and the power of death was over it.
Ordered creation – the way things should have been, the way they always had been – now gave way to chaos.
Why? Because Pharaoh’s ‘heart’ was hardened, and he would not let the Hebrew people go.
It helps to know that in Hebrew the word ‘heart’ is linked to thinking and decision-making, not to emotion.
Pharaoh didn’t know it, but his problems were just starting.
Bible text: Exodus 7:14-25
One frog is cute; millions are not.
Frogs were everywhere when God punished the ancient Egyptians –
- in the water
- on the land
- inside the houses – hopping, noisy, getting squashed underfoot
- they were piled into heaps, pile after pile
- they made the land stink
Now both land and water were completely polluted.
What did it mean? Creation was out of balance. The Egyptian frog goddess Heqet, who assisted women in childbirth, was running amok.
Even when this plague stopped, the stench remained.
Bible text: Exodus 8:1-15
3 Lice and mosquitoes
Lice and mosquitoes suck the blood of humans and animals and cause a terrible itch. They make people sick and unclean.
- The insects described in the Bible could have been sand flies, carriers of dengue fever, or anopheles mosquitoes, transmitters of malaria
- They entered the eyes, ears and noses of the field workers.
- They laid their eggs everywhere, so that the place crawled with their larvae.
The soil of Egypt was not rich and black anymore, but covered with creeping insects, which like dust blew all over the place, tormenting humans and animals with a maddening itch. Again, creation was out of balance.
Bible text: Exodus 8:16-19
This plague consisted of dense swarms of flies. They were everywhere, harassing people and animals alike.
The Hebrew word in the Bible text refers to biting flies – so they were not just a pest, but a source of pain and infection as well. With them they brought illness, disease and death.
The plague of flies showed that JHWH possessed the power to wreak havoc and death.
Bible text: Exodus 8:20-32
5 Diseased cattle and sheep
The fifth plague brought the deaths of Egyptian domestic animals: horses, donkeys, cows, sheep and goats. The animals were struck by a fatal epidemic.
The scene was one of utter horror, as suffering animals collapsed and died.
The people too were indirectly affected, by the loss of their livestock – this plague took
- their source of income from work animals – horses and donkeys, and
- their source of food – cows, sheep and goats
Bible text: Exodus 9:1-7
So far, the plagues had attacked animals and things.
Now they attacked the bodies of the Egyptians themselves.
Stinging, suppurating infections covered the whole body and caused swellings which became itching and painful boils. There was not a place in Egypt where living creatures were safe from the plague of boils.
What was this horrible illness? Medical experts have suggested burning sores, smallpox, elephantiasis, leprosy, and festering boils. The skin disease described in the Bible, whatever it was, covered the entire body.
Bible text: Exodus 9:8-12
7 Thunder and hail
The Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire came down, hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it.’ (Exodus 9:34)
When Moses stretched his staff towards heaven, the rumble of thunder was heard. Hail, rain and zigzags of lightning filled the sky. JHWH showed that he ruled the world, and that he could use meteorological phenomena as weapons.
Hail storms are very rare in Egypt.
- For this reason the thunder and hail made a deep impression on Pharaoh.
- The storms made a deep impression on the land as well, destroying crops all over the country.
The hammering hail was pay-back for the heavy load the Hebrews carried in Egypt.
Bible text: Exodus 9:13-35
Locusts can be a real catastrophe in North Africa and the Near East. They swarm over crops, settle on the greenery, and then devour every single leaf. There is no way of stopping them, since their swarms number in the billions of insects.
Now they brought death and destruction to what was left of Egypt’s vegetation. The land became unfit for human habitation.
Locusts are often mentioned in the Bible as agents of divine judgment, appearing in association with such things as mildew, caterpillars, pestilence, drought and enemies. In wartime, an invading army would be described as a plague of destructive locusts, destroying everything in its path.
Bible text: Exodus 10:1-20
A darkness lasting three days covered the land of Egypt, rendering it completely uninhabitable. The darkness was so thick that people had to feel their way around. This was an escalation in terror.
Modern commentators suggest that the darkness was caused by a suffocating sandstorm, like the ones that blow in northern Africa from March to May, filling the air, darkening the sun and lasting two or three days.
It was particularly significant in ancient Egypt, since one of the main deities was Ra, the sun god.
Darkness is associated with pre-creation chaos, evil, sin, and ignorance. God is associated with light – God’s first creative act was to bring light out of darkness.
Bible text: Exodus 10:21-29
10 Death of the first born
The final plague brought a terrible catastrophe to Egypt: at the hour of midnight, all the firstborn of humans and animals died.
Social rank or wealth made. You could not buy your way out of this. Every first born was struck down, from Pharaoh’s own first born to the lowliest slave in the land.
The firstborn of a family symbolized the future of a country. In ancient times this child was legally privileged and the most highly regarded among the children of the family, and most deeply mourned if it died.
So the death of Egypt’s first born children robbed it of its whole future.
Bible text: Exodus 12:29-32
Then YHWH said to Moses: Rise early in the morning and confront Pharaoh and say to him: Thus says YHWH, the God of the Hebrews: “Let my people go, or I will bring my plagues upon you, your courtiers and all your people.”