Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

Can we make sense of the Biblical plagues?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in July 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.

Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

This painting, “He turned their waters into blood,” by the 19th-century American folk painter Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900), depicts the first of the Biblical plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. One understanding of the Egyptian plagues explains them as expressions of natural events. A second view of the Biblical plagues sees them as attacks on the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Accordingly, the first plague described in Exodus in the Bible—turning the waters of Egypt to blood—is directed against one of several gods associate with Nile or with water. Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington/Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.

The Book of Exodus in the Bible describes ten Egyptian plagues that bring suffering to the land of pharaoh. Are these Biblical plagues plausible on any level? In the following article, “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Ziony Zevit looks at these Biblical plagues from various vantage points. There’s something unique about these Egyptian plagues as presented in Exodus in the Bible. They’re different from the curses to Israelites as mentioned in Leviticus. Some have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A second set of meteorological disasters, hailstorms (the seventh of the Biblical plagues) and locusts, may have been followed by a Libyan dust storm—causing darkness.

Many of the Egyptian plagues could also be interpreted as “attacks against the Egyptian pantheon,” Zevit notes. Many of the Egyptian plagues mentioned in Exodus in the Bible have some correlation to an Egyptian god or goddess. For example, Heket was represented as a frog and Hathor as a cow. An ancient Egyptian “Coffin Text” refers to the slaying of first-born gods.

A third way to look at the Biblical plagues is by asking, “why ten?” Ultimately the plagues served to increase the faith of the surviving Israelites. On this count ten could be connected to the ten divine utterances of the creation account of Genesis 1. In relating the ten Egyptian plagues, the Exodus in the Bible could represent a parallel account of liberation, affecting all aspects of the created world.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues
Were they natural disasters, a demonstration of the impotence of the Egyptian gods or an undoing of Creation?

by Ziony Zevit

When the enslaved Israelites sought to leave Egypt, Pharaoh said no. The Lord then visited ten plagues upon the Egyptians until finally Pharaoh permanently relented—the last of the plagues being the slaying of the first-born males of Egypt. Some of the plagues are the type of disasters that recur often in human history—hailstorms and locusts—and therefore appear possible and realistic. Others, less realistic, border on the comic—frogs and lice. Still others are almost surrealistic—blood and darkness—and appear highly improbable.

Many questions have been raised about the plagues on different levels. Some questions are naturalistic and historical: Did the plagues actually occur in the order and manner described in Exodus? Are there any ancient documents or other types of evidence corroborating that they took place or that something like them took place? Can the less realistic and surrealistic plagues be explained as natural phenomena? Other questions are literary and theological: Is the plague narrative a hodgepodge of sources pasted together by ancient editors (redactors)? What is the origin of the traditions in the extant plague narrative? What is the meaning of the narrative in its biblical context? Beyond the obvious story, did the plague narrative have any theological implications for ancient Israel?

My research has not provided answers to all these questions, but it will, I believe, provide some new insights.

For centuries exegetes have been struggling with the order, the number and the meaning of the plagues. As early as the medieval period, Jewish commentators noticed certain patterns in the narrative that reflected a highly organized literary structure. In the 12th century, a rabbi known as the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir),1 who lived in northern France, recognized that only certain plagues were introduced by warnings to Pharaoh, while others were not. To appreciate the pattern, divide the first nine plagues into three groups each; in the first two of each group, Pharaoh is warned that if he does not let the Israelites go, the plague will be visited on the Egyptians; in the third plague of each group, the plague strikes without warning.

In the 13th century Bahya ben Asher2 and in the 15th century Don Isaac Abravanel3 noted a certain repetitive pattern in who brought on the plagues. The first three plagues are brought on by Moses’ brother Aaron, who holds out his staff as the effective instrument (Exodus 7:19; 8:1; 8:12).a In the next group of three, the first two are brought on by God and the third by Moses (Exodus 8:20: 9:6; 9:10). In the last group of three the plagues are brought on by Moses’ holding out his arm with his staff (Exodus 9:22–23; 10:12–13; 10:21 [the last without mention of his staff]).

These patterns indicate that the plague narrative is a conscientiously articulated and tightly wrought composition.

Taking the plagues as a whole, however, it is clear that they differ considerably from the curses with which the Israelites are threatened in the so-called curse-lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the curse-lists, the Lord tells the Israelites what will happen to them if they do not obey the Lord’s laws and commandments, if they breach the covenant. They will suffer, according to Leviticus, terror, consumption, fever, crop failure, defeat at the hands of their enemies, unnecessary fear; wild beasts will consume their children and cattle; they will die by the sword; they will be so hungry that they will eat the flesh of their children and, in the end, go into exile (Leviticus 26:14–26). Similarly in the augmented list of curses in Deuteronomy 28:15–60, they will suffer confusion, consumption, inflammation, madness, blindness, social chaos, military defeat, etc.

The maledictions in the curse-lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have been shown to be part of a stock of traditional curses employed during the biblical period in the geographical area extending from Israel to ancient Mesopotamia. Not only are they attested in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), but also in the prophets; they also appear in the “curse” sections of contemporaneous ancient Near Eastern treaties.4 These “curses” reflect the kinds of things that could, and probably did, happen in this geographical area as a result of natural or humanly-impose calamities. True there is some overlap between these curses and the plagues. Dever (pestilence) occurs both in the Egyptian plagues and in the curse lists of Leviticus. 26:25 and Deuteronomy 28:21. “Boils” occurs in the curse list of Deuteronomy 28:35 while a locust-like plague is mentioned in. Deuteronomy 28:42. Nevertheless, in the Pentateuchal curse lists, the Israelites—on their way to the Promised land—are threatened with disasters they might expect in the ecological system of the land to which they were headed, not those of the land of Egypt from which they were fleeing.

The plagues visited on the Egyptians are quite different.5 To understand their significance we should focus on Egypt in particular rather than the ancient Near East as a whole.

Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

Two Egyptian deities, Hathor, in the form of a cow (foreground), and Amon-Re (seated, on far wall). This scene was discovered at Deir el-Bahari in 1906 and dates to the beginning of the reign of Amenophis II, about 1440 B.C. The new pharaoh, successor to Tuthmosis III, stands protected beneath Hathor’s horned head; his name is inscribed on her neck. On the far wall, Tuthmosis III pours a libation to Amon-Re. Photo: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern/Photo by Jurgen Liepe

The most sophisticated attempt to relate the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena does so in terms of Egypt’s ecosystem. According to this interpretation, the first six plagues can even be explained in their sequential order: The naturalistic account is connected initially with the violent rain storms that occur in the mountains of Ethiopia. The first plague, blood, is the red clay swept down into the Nile from the Ethiopian highlands. The mud then choked the fish in the area inhabited by the Israelites. The fish clogged the swamps where the frogs lived; the fish, soon infected with anthrax, caused the frogs (the second plague) to leave the Nile for cool areas, taking refuge in people’s houses. But, since the frogs were already infected with the disease, they died in their new habitats. As a consequence, lice, the third plague, and flies, the fourth plague, began to multiply, feeding off the dead frogs. This gave rise to a pestilence that attacked animals, the fifth plague, because the cattle were feeding on grass which by then had also become infected. In man, the symptom of the same disease was boils, the sixth plague.

A second sequence of plagues, according to this explanation, is related to atmospheric and climatic conditions in Egypt. Hailstorms, the seventh plague, came out of nowhere. Although not common, hailstorms do occur rarely in Upper Egypt and occasionally in Lower Egypt during late spring and early fall. In this reconstruction, the hailstorm was followed by the eighth plague, locusts, a more common occurrence. The ninth plague, darkness, was a Libyan dust storm.6

The final plague, the death of the first-born, although not strictly commensurate with the other plagues, can be explained in ecological terms. It may be a reflection of the infant mortality rate in ancient Egypt.7 There is a problem with this explanation, however. According to the biblical narrative, the tenth plague struck all first-born males of whatever age, not just new-born infants.

This ecological explanation of the plagues does not prove that the biblical account is true, but only that it may have some basis in reality. As indicated, it also has weaknesses: The ecological chain is broken after the sixth plague, there being no causality between the plague of boils (the sixth plague) and the hail. The chain is again broken between the ninth and tenth plagues. In addition, there is no real link between the plagues in the seventh-eighth-ninth sequence (hail-locusts-darkness). Nevertheless, this explanation does firmly anchor the first six plagues in the Egyptian ecosystem, just as the curse-lists in the Torah reflect real conditions in the Land of Israel.

Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

Death incarnate. A huge, hideous, scaly messenger of destruction stalks his Egyptian prey in a watercolor, entitled “Pestilence,” by the English artist, Poet and mystic William Blake (1757–1827). With victims lying prostrate or clutched in their mothers arms, the scene easily illustrates the tenth and final plague, the death of first-born males. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Moreover, two ancient Egyptian texts provide additional support. One is relevant to the first plague, blood. In “The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer,” dated at the latest to 2050 B.C.E., the author describes a chaotic period in Egypt: “Why really, the River [Nile] is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects (it) as human and thirsts for water.”8

The second text, known as “The Prophecy of Nefer-Rohu” dates towards the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, about 2040–1650 B.C.E.; it relates to the ninth plague, darkness: “The sun disc is covered over. It will not shine (so that) people may see … No one knows when midday falls, for his shadow cannot be distinguished.”9

The ten plagues may also be interpreted as a series of attacks against the Egyptian pantheon. This suggestion finds support in Numbers 33:4 where we are told that the Egyptians buried those who had died by the tenth plague, by which plague “the Lord executed judgments against their gods.”

Watch full-length lectures from the Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination conference, which addressed some of the most challenging issues in Exodus scholarship. The international conference was hosted by Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego in San Diego, CA.

According to this suggestion, the plague of blood (No. 1) was directed against the god Khnum, creator of water and life; or against Hapi, the Nile god; or against Osiris, whose bloodstream was the Nile. Frogs (No.2) was directed against Heket, a goddess of childbirth who was represented as a frog. The pestilence against cattle (No. 5) might have been directed against Hathor, the mother and sky goddess, represented in the form of a cow; or against Apis, symbol of fertility represented as a bull. Hail (No. 7) and locusts (No. 8 ) were, according to this explanation, directed against Seth, who manifests himself in wind and storms; and/or against Isis, goddess of life, who grinds, spins flax and weaves cloth; or against Min, who was worshiped as a god of fertility and vegetation and as a protector of crops. Min is an especially likely candidate for these two plagues because the notations in Exodus 9:31 indicate that the first plague came as the flax and barley were about to be harvested, but before the wheat and spelt had matured. A widely celebrated “Coming out of Min” was celebrated in Egypt at the beginning of the harvest.10 These plagues, in effect, devastated Min’s coming-out party.

Darkness (No. 9), pursuing this line of interpretation, could have been directed against various deities associated with the sun—Amon-Re, Aten, Atum or Horus.

Finally, the death of the firstborn (No. 10) was directed against the patron deity of Pharaoh, and the judge of the dead, Osiris.

Additional data from Egyptian religious texts clarifies the terrifying tenth plague. The famous “Cannibal Hymn,” carved in the Old Kingdom pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, about 2300 B.C.E., states: “It is the king who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on that day of slaying the first born.” Variations of this verse appear in a few Coffin Texts, magic texts derived from royal pyramid inscriptions of the Old Kingdom and written on the coffins of nobility of the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 B.C.E. For example, “I am he who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on that night of slaying the first born.”11 Although the first-born referred to in the Coffin Text and probably also in the “Cannibal Hymn” are the first-born of gods, these texts indicate that an ancient tradition in Egypt recalled the slaying of all or some of the first-born of gods on a particular night.12

Assuming that some form of this pre-Israelite Egyptian tradition was known during the period of the enslavement, it may have motivated the story of the final plague. However, in the biblical story, he who revealed his hidden name to Moses at the burning bramble bush revealed himself as the Him-whose-name-is-hidden of the Egyptian myth, and alone slew the first-born males of Egypt. In this final plague, then, there was no conflict between the Lord and an Egyptian deity; rather through this plague the triumphant god of Israel fulfilled the role of an anonymous destroyer in a nightmarish prophecy from the Egyptian past.

One weakness in interpreting the plagues solely as a religious polemic against Egyptian gods, however, is that some of the plagues are unaccounted for; and not all of the plagues can be conveniently matched up with Egyptian gods or texts. Specifically, divine candidates are lacking for the third, fourth and sixth plagues—lice, flies and boils. Even if scratching through Egyptian sources might produce some minor candidates that could fill these lacunae, there is another difficulty with the religious polemic interpretation. The Egyptian material on which this interpretation rests comes from different times and different places. The extant data do not enable us to claim that the perception of the pantheon presented above was historically probable in the Western Delta during the 14th–12th centuries B.C.E. when and where Israelites became familiar with it. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the Egyptian material describing links between Egyptian deities and natural phenomena does provide us with some insights into the way the plagues were intended to be understood.

Another line of interpretation, however, results from Posing the questions: Why ten plagues? Why these ten plagues?

According to Exodus 7:4–5, the function of the plagues is didactic: “I will lay my hands upon Egypt and deliver hosts, my people, the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with great acts of judgment. And the Egyptians shall know that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt.” Despite the reference to the Egyptians learning a lesson—namely, the Lord’s power—it seems clear that the real beneficiaries of the plagues were not intended to be Egyptians. If the education of the Egyptians was the reason for the plagues, the lesson was certainly lost on the intended beneficiaries. The true beneficiaries of the lesson that God said he would teach were the Israelites. As we read in Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the mighty act [literally ‘hand/arm’] which the Lord had done in Egypt, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”

What ignited the faith of the Israelites was not their physical redemption from Egypt, but rather “the mighty act which the Lord had done in Egypt”—that is, the plagues.

What was there about the plagues that triggered Israel’s response in faith? Through the plagues the Lord demonstrated that he was the God of creation. As we examine the narrative closely, we will see how this notion is conveyed.

The first plague, blood, is described in Exodus 7:19. There we are told that Aaron is to take his staff and hold it over all of Egypt’s bodies (or gatherings) of water and they will become blood. The Hebrew word for “bodies” or “gatherings” of water is mikveh. This is the same word that appears in the opening chapters of Genesis when God creates the seas: “God called the dry land Earth, and the gatherings (mikveh) of waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). The use of the word mikveh in Exodus 7:19 in connection with the plague of blood cannot fail to evoke an association with the creation of the seas in Genesis 1:10 and indicates the cosmic import of the plague. Similarly, the expression in Exodus 7:19 “Let them become blood” echoes the use of “Let there be(come)” in the creation story in Genesis.

However, in contrast to the creation, where the primeval waters are not altered by a creative act, the first plague demonstrates that God is able to change the very nature of things.

Plagues two, three and four—frogs, lice and flies—form an interesting triad. The frogs are associated with water, the lice with earth, and the flies with air. Frogs, we are told, came out of the “rivers, the canals, and the ponds of Egypt” (Exodus 8:1). In Exodus, the Nile swarmed with frogs which then covered all the land (Exodus 7:28–29), while in Genesis God says, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). Understood against the background of Genesis, the frog plague in Egypt was a new creation of life, although not a beneficent one.

Similarly, with lice (the third plague) that came forth from the dust of the earth (Exodus 8:12–13). The lice correspond to the crawling creatures (remes) that come forth from the earth in Genesis 1:24.

Flies (the fourth plague) correspond to the flying creatures; in Genesis God orders that “flying creatures multiply in the land” (Genesis 1:22). In Egypt, the flies not only multiplied in the land, they filled the land. After the fly plague the situation in Egypt was a complete reversal of the one anticipated by the divine blessing to mankind in Genesis 1:28, where God tells man to “Rule the fish of the sea, the winged creatures of the heavens, and all living creatures which creep on the earth.” In Egypt, these creatures were totally out of control.

Was Moses more than an Exodus hero? Discovering the Biblical Moses in “The Man Moses” by Peter Machinist, originally published in Bible Review and now available for free in Bible History Daily.

The fifth plague (pestilence) affected only animals, not men; and only the field animals of the Egyptians, not those of the Israelites (Exodus 9:3–7). In Genesis 2:18–20 the animals are created specifically for man. In the plague of pestilence, the domestic animals that were under man’s dominion were taken away from the Egyptians. That which was first created for man was first removed from the Egyptians by the first plague directed specifically against created things.

The sixth plague, boils, is the only one that does not fit easily into the pattern I have been describing. Perhaps it should be understood against the background of the Torah’s laws of purity: A person afflicted with boils is ritually unclean (Leviticus 13:18–23). This is complemented by the stringent demands of Egyptian religion during the New Kingdom, about 1550–1080 B.C.E., concerning the ritual and physical purity requited of priests before entering a sanctuary.13 Egyptians considered themselves superior to other peoples. Pharaoh himself was a god and his officers were priests. Perhaps the image of these superior, “holier than thou” individuals suffering from boils, a painful and unaesthetic affliction, was humorous to the Israelites and was considered a barb against Egyptian religion.

The next two plagues, hail and locusts involve the destruction of another part of creation, primarily vegetation. What was not destroyed by the hail was consumed by the locusts. When these two plagues had run their course, Egypt could be contrasted to the way the world appeared after the third day of creation: “The land brought forth vegetation: seed bearing fruit with seed in it” (Genesis 1:12). By contrast, in Exodus 10:15 we are told that “nothing green was left of tree or grass of the field in all the land of Egypt.”

Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the plagues is darkness, the ninth plague. In Exodus 10:21–23 we read that a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23). What is described here is not simply the absence of light. The darkness is something physical, “a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21b). The alternation of light and darkness, of day and night, has ceased. Yet darkness and light exist side by side in geographically distinct places. The Israelites did have light. In short, in Egypt, God had reverted the relationship between darkness and light to what had been prior to the end of the first day of creation—that is, to the state that existed briefly between Genesis 1:4 and Genesis 1:5.

The final plague, the death of the first-born, is only a forerunner to the complete destruction of all the Egyptians at the Red Sea, or Reed Sea.b Here we hear a twisted, obverse echo of the optimism expressed in Genesis 1:26, where God said, “I will make man in my image and after my likeness.” Instead of creating, he is destroying—first, the first-born, and then, at the sea, all of Egypt.

Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

The firstborn slain, by Gustave Doré (1832?–1883). Photo: The Doré Bible Illustrations, Dover Publications

At the end of the narrative in Exodus, Israel looks back over the stilled water of the sea at a land with no people, no animals and no vegetation, a land in which creation had been undone. Israel is convinced that her redeemer is the Lord of all creation. It is this implicit theological principle that motivated the explicit creation of the literary pattern. He who had just reduced order to chaos was the same as he who had previously ordered the chaos.

One question still remains. What is the significance of the number ten in the Exodus tradition? Why ten plagues? The answer, I believe, is clear. The number of plagues in Exodus was meant to correspond to the ten divine utterances by which the world was created and ordered (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29).14 The destruction of Egypt was part of the redemption of Israel, so the Exodus narrator tied his story of redemption to the story of creation through subtle echoes and word plays.15

Interestingly enough, there are two other accounts of the plagues in the Bible, one in Psalm 78:44–51 and the other in Psalm 105:28–36. These psalms differ somewhat between themselves; they also differ with the narrative in Exodus—regarding what constitutes a plague and the order in which they occurred.16 These differences can be taken to indicate that the specific number and order of the plagues was less important to Israel than the fact of the plagues and what was revealed to Israel through them.

For the psalmists, authors of liturgical texts, there were only seven plagues, a number clearly evoking the seven days of creation. In Egypt, however, the cycle did not end in a Sabbath; it culminated in a silent devastation. At the end of the seventh day (plague), creation in Egypt had been undone.

This tangle of threads—creation, on the one hand, and deliverance from slavery, on the other—is gathered together and neatly knotted in the Sabbath commandment of the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments as set forth in Exodus, the motivation for observing the sabbath (the fifth commandment) is to commemorate creation: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: You shall not do any work … for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:9–11). In the Ten Commandments as set forth in Deuteronomy, however, the reason Israel is commanded to observe the sabbath is different—not creation, but the delivery from Egyptian slavery. After being told to refrain from work on the sabbath—in the same language as in Exodus—the reason is given: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm [a reference to the plagues]; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

As we have already noted, Psalms 78 and 105 preserve a tradition of seven plagues. In the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, Israel is told to remember the seventh-day sabbath to commemorate the six-day creation; in Deuteronomy 5, Israel is to observe the seventh-day sabbath to commemorate the deliverance from Egyptian slavery by God’s outstretched arm involving, according to the tradition in the Psalms, seven plagues.

This explanation of the plagues and their number also answers some historical questions concerning the biblical tradition of the ten plagues:

1. The plague tradition includes calamitous events that do not derive from experiences in the Land of Israel; this establishes a prima facie case that the tradition has roots in an ecological system unknown to the Israelites living in their own land.

2. An Egyptian milieu not only provides a basis for explaining the plagues in terms of natural phenomena, it also allows us plausibly to link at least some of the sequences of plagues.

These two points lead me to conclude that a historical kernel must underlie the Egyptian plague traditions preserved in the Bible.

3. We can speculate a bit further: perhaps a series of natural disasters occurred in Egypt in a relatively short period of time. Egyptian religion would have had to explain it. A link between these disasters and various Egyptian deities (expressing their displeasure) formed.17 No matter how Egyptians interpreted these disasters, Israelites could have accepted the notion that they were divinely caused but would have viewed them as contests between their patron and the gods of Egypt, the result of which were judgments against the gods of Egypt and their earthly representatives.18 Trace of this stage in the development of the tradition can be found in the Biblical narrative. During this, the interpretative stage, the plagues were theologized, providing cosmic meaning to the natural phenomena even as they were removed from the realm of what we would call “nature.”

4. The Plague traditions, which were maintained orally by the Israelites until some time after the establishment of the monarchy, continued to be reworked in the land of Israel. There, far from the ecological context of Egypt, some phenomena natural in Egypt would have appeared incomprehensible to them and even fantastic, inviting imaginative embellishment.

The Israelite traditors, those who passed on the tradition, were no longer familiar with the Egyptian cultural milieu in which the disasters had been theoligized and made meaningful by their ancestors. These traditors, therefore, made them meaningful within their own world view by connection the plagues, which initiated the emergence of Israel as a covenant community, with the creation of the world.

For further details, see “The Priestly Redaction and Interpretation of the Plague Narrative in Exodus,” Jewish Quarterly Review 66 (1976) 193–211. The present article contains new material, however, some of which was not available when the aforementioned study was written, as well as a reevaluation of the significance of the data discussed there. Readers interested in a more technical discussion or in the literary history of the plague narratives or in more bibliographical information that is presented here may consult my earlier study and the remarks of N. M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986) 68–80.


“Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues” by Ziony Zevit originally appeared in Bible Review, June 1990.



1. Commentary to Exodus 7:26. The verse citations follow the traditional Hebrew enumeration.

2. Commentary to Exodus 10:1.

3. Commentary to Exodus 7:26.

4. D. R. Hillers, Treaty and the Old Testament Prophets (Rome: PBI, 1964); M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomy School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 116–146.

5. The devastating plague of locusts described in the book of Joel (6th century B.C.E.) is considered a unique event, not comparable to the Egyptian plagues. Similarly, in Joel 3:3–4 (2:30–31 in English), where the moon turns to blood and the sun to darkness; this is very unlike the plagues in Egypt if, in fact, the images in Joel are to be taken literally and not metaphorically.

6. G. Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69 (1957), pp. 84–103; 70 (1958), pp. 48–59. This is a very important and very sophisticated study which is most humble in drawing its conclusions.

7. P. Montet, L’Egypte et la Bible (Neuchatel: Paris, 1959), pp. 97–98.

8. J. B. Pritchard Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ANET), (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 441.

9. Pritchard, ANET. p. 445.

10. J. Cerny, Ancient Egyptian Religion (AER) (London: Hutchison’s University Library, 1952), pp. 119–120.

11. M. Gilula, “The Smiting of the First-Born—An Egyptian Myth?” Tel Aviv 4 (1977), p. 94. Technical references and additional discussion are available in this brief study. M. Lichtheim renders the line from the ‘Cannibal Hymn’: “Unas will judge with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on the day of slaying the eldest,” noting that the line is difficult (Ancient Egyptian Literature. A Book of Readings. Vol 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973], pp. 36–38). The Coffin Text cited is CT VI:178.

12. M. Gilula, p. 95.

13. Cerny, AER, 118; S. Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt (New York: Grove Press, 1960), pp. 37–39.

14. Cf. Mishnah Aboth 5:1, 4.

15. This conclusion does not contradict the findings of source criticism. According to source criticism, the final redactor of the plague narratives and of the creation stories was from the priestly school, P.

16. Both psalms are pre-Exilic, and probably formed part of the temple liturgy. (D. A. Robertson, Linguistic Evidence in Dating Early Hebrew Poetry [Missoula, Montana: SBL, 1972], pp. 135, 138, 143, 15–52; A. Hurvitz, The Transition Period in Biblical Hebrew: A study in Post-Exilic Hebrew and Its Implications for the Dating of Psalms [Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1972] finds no linguistic reason to consider these psalms late.) A comparison of the three different presentations indicates a certain plasticity in the Israelite tradition of the plagues. The coexistence of conflicting, somewhat contradictory, parallel plague traditions tells against any attempt to explain the order of the ten plagues as reflecting a connected series of natural catastrophes and provides a qualification to the discussion above concerning the possibility of a sequential disaster. Although it is not impossible that some natural disasters ultimately lie behind the various plagues, the traditions in their extant forms cannot be employed to reconstruct what actually occurred. The implication of the three lists of plagues is that Israel did not preserve the details of the plagues or their number for their own sake, but rather recalled the significance of the plagues as events demonstrating a theological principle.

17. Natural disasters would be perceived as forms of divine communication. Compare Amos 4:6–12.

18. Cf. the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18.

a. The verse citations follow the traditional Hebrew enumeration. See, for example, the New Jewish Publication Society translation (Philadelphia: 1985).

b. See Bernard F. Batto, “Red Sea or Reed Sea?BAR 10:04.

Ziony Zevit is professor of Biblical literature and Northwest Semitic languages at the University of Judaism, the Los Angeles affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


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  1. RAY says

    Interesting article, but you fail to evidence the fundamental premise that an Exodus or mass migration of Hebrews ever occurred. We know from the archaeological landscape that ancient Egypt was meticulous in recording major historical events. There exists no reference to a mass migration of Jews from ancient Egypt. The absence of relevant artifacts or epigraphic evidence establishes that no Exodus occurred. This conclusion is reinforced by the absence of “any” epigraphic evidence by neighboring or regional civilizations which would have recorded this historical event in Egypt. There is no evidence of an Exodus. Further, we know from DNA studies and recorded history of Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu that ancient Israelites “migrated” as small independent nomadic tribes from Western Syria, Mesopotamia and the Sub-Sahara region (Ehiopia). Ancient Israelites migrated into Palestine-Canaan centuries after the Pelesets of the Sea Peoples’ invasion from the north, Southern & Central Europe, Black Sea Region and Western and Northern Anatolia occurred in 1180 BC. King Ramses III records this invasion and his concession of all land occupied by the Pelesets up to the Nile River. Pelesets called their new land, “Palestine.” Pottery dating shows Athenian, Mycenaean pottery being introduced into Palestine decades later than the establishment of Palestine by the Pelesets. There is not even miniscule evidence that an Exodus occurred. This fact is supported by the archaeological evidence and historical record available on KRIII’s victory stele at his funerary temple at Medinet Habu. If you cannot prove an Exodus, references to supernatural curses and plagues are reduced to mythology and stories.
    Cf: Sanford Holst, World History Conference, on the Sea Peoples.


  2. RAY says

    Too much of the written material on ancient Israel and biblical archaeology is Sophistry at best.

    Writers clearly take a theological conclusion from the Torah-Old Testament and attempt to prove it by bending facts to fit their “chosen” conclusion.

    Sophistry is incongruous reasoning.

    The proper analytic approach is to accept the archaeological hard-evidence facts given and reach a sound conclusion from those empirical facts.

    Warping the facts to reach an unproven premise serves no one’s interest.

  3. Mervyn says

    Has no one read Dr. Imanuel Velikovsky’s works explaining the Exodus?
    His theory with vast supporting evidence should have obviated all the above.

  4. Jawnunwifylaw says

    Approvo interamente insieme le idee espresse finora. Andate avanti cosi.

  5. good says

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each
    time a comment is added I get three e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?


  6. Ron says

    Very shortly this web page will be famous among all
    blogging viewers, due to it’s good articles

  7. alef says

    Great article fantastic, incites. I think that Ray’s Comment is in-appropriate archaeology be such a precise science and all especially when the archaeologists have a particular anti religious bias. I do believe that evidence for a population of Hebrew does exist both in the area known as Goshen.

  8. Kurt says

    Tit for Tat
    An Egyptian historian, Ahmed Behgat, has published a book charging that “during the Exodus ancient Israelites smuggled gold out of Egypt and used it to make the golden calf.” Mr. Behgat’s research into ancient Egyptian archives has led him to conclude that Israel should pay Egypt $40 billion (U.S.) but without interest, according to Islamic law. However, when his findings were published, according to an item in World Press Review, “the Voice of Israel radio demanded reparations for the slave labor the Pharaohs pressed on the Israelites.”
    Accuracy, Truthfulness. On the part of the writer of Exodus “an intimate acquaintance with Ancient Egypt may be discerned. The position of the Egyptians with respect to foreigners—their separation from them, yet their allowance of them in their country, their special hatred of shepherds, the suspicion of strangers from Palestine as spies—their internal government, its settled character, the power of the King, the influence of the Priests, the great works, the employment of foreigners in their construction, the use of bricks, . . . and of bricks with straw in them, . . . the taskmasters, the embalming of dead bodies, the consequent importation of spices, . . . the violent mournings, . . . the fighting with horses and chariots . . .—these are a few out of the many points which might be noted marking an intimate knowledge of Egyptian manners and customs on the part of the author of the Pentateuch.”—The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records, by George Rawlinson, 1862, pp. 290, 291.
    Authenticity of the Exodus Account. An objection against the Exodus account has been that the Pharaohs of Egypt did not make any record of the Exodus. However, this is not unusual, for kings of more modern times have recorded only their victories and not their defeats and have often tried to erase anything historical that is contrary to their personal or nationalistic image or to the ideology they are trying to inculcate in their people. Even in recent times rulers have tried to obliterate the works and reputations of their predecessors. Anything regarded as embarrassing or distasteful was left out of Egyptian inscriptions or effaced as soon as possible. An example is the chiseling away by her successor, Thutmose III, of the name and representation of Queen Hatshepsut on a stone monumental record uncovered at Deir al-Bahri in Egypt.—See Archaeology and Bible History, by J. P. Free, 1964, p. 98 and photograph opposite p. 94.
    Manetho, an Egyptian priest who evidently hated the Jews, wrote in the Greek language about 280 B.C.E. The Jewish historian Josephus quotes Manetho as saying that the ancestors of the Jews “entered Egypt in their myriads and subdued the inhabitants,” and then Josephus says that Manetho “goes on to admit that they were afterwards driven out of the country, occupied what is now Judaea, founded Jerusalem, and built the temple.”—Against Apion, I, 228 (26).
    While Manetho’s account is in general very unhistorical, the significant fact is that he mentions the Jews as being in Egypt and as going out, and in further writings, according to Josephus, he identifies Moses with Osarsiph, an Egyptian priest, indicating that, even though Egyptian monuments do not record the fact, the Jews were in Egypt and Moses was their leader. Josephus speaks of another Egyptian historian, Chaeremon, who says that Joseph and Moses were driven out of Egypt at the same time; also Josephus mentions a Lysimachus who tells a similar story.—Against Apion, I, 228, 238 (26); 288, 290 (32); 299 (33); 304-311 (34).
    Absence of information concerning Israel. This is not surprising, since the Egyptians not only refused to record matters uncomplimentary to themselves but also were not above effacing records of a previous monarch if the information in such records proved distasteful to the then reigning pharaoh. Thus, after the death of Queen Hatshepsut, Thutmose III had her name and representations chiseled out of the monumental reliefs. This practice doubtless explains why there is no known Egyptian record of the 215 years of Israelite residence in Egypt or of their Exodus.
    The pharaoh ruling at the time of the Exodus is not named in the Bible; hence, efforts to identify him are based on conjecture. This partly explains why modern historians’ calculations of the date of the Exodus vary from 1441 to 1225 B.C.E., a difference of over 200 years.
    Read more:

  9. Felicity says

    I just read Graham Phillips book Atlantis and the Ten Plagues. A volcanic eruption would explain most of the plagues and the fact that the pharoahs did not have male children for fifty years around that timeline goes toward explaining the story of firstborn’s as there were no sons.

  10. Veli says

    During 1159-1140 BC there was a cold climate period in Northern Europe, and possibly also in the Middle East. There is discussion whether it was caused by a volcano or a by a comet. That might have caused weather effects in Egypt at that time, and an easier desert travel. The tenth plague could be a lunar eclipse, if the Egyptians interpreted it as a bad sign. There was a total eclipse visible in Egypt after the midnight in 1159 BC, ten days after the spring equinox. Moses returned to Egypt after a long time, after the pharaoh had died (Ramses 3), thus exodus was in Ramses 4 time. Quite late, but fits in the 1120 BC settlement theory. If we think that 40 years means one generation = 20 solar years, then after 12 generations we get 920 BC, which is Solomon’s time

  11. Varghese says

    “Leiden papyrus” which contains excellent allusions to the events of exodus and Hyksos has the better support from the historical standpoint but a philological consideration makes us wish to,put back the date of the composition as far as possible. The language was found beyond doubt to be not of the New Kingdom but of an earlier time. The text also contains some references to the establishment of “Great Houses” (law courts), which became obsolete in or soon after the Middle Kingdom.

  12. ALVARO says

    STEWART, Ted T. SOLVING THE EXODUS MYSTERY – Volume 1: Discovery of the True Pharaohs of Joseph, Moses and the Exodus. Lubbock (TX): Biblemart.com, 2003.
    This book identifies the names and detailed activities of all thes twelfth-dinasty Pharaohts, including the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Egyptologists date the twelfth dinasty 300 year before the Bible dates. However, carbon-14 dating and NEW astronomical dating prove that the twelfth dynasty should be redated 300 years later in confirmation of Bible dates.

  13. Helen says

    Anthrax does NOT infect fish or frogs. That puts the naturalistic theory out of reach.

  14. Leonard says

    I am gambling, but, with respect to the tenth plague, I would like to know if exists some kind of literary or archaeological evidence that confirms the practice of the sacrifice of the first-born at some period of the second or thrid millenium B.C.E. In case of exists, would have this practice some connection with the same phoenician ritual offered to Moloch and strongly condemned in Deuteronomy 18:10 and others. This plague, could be a sentence of a practice that remains in the collective memory or even was still held in cases of extreme necessity.

  15. ilan says

    The whole natural disaster scenario lacks much. Red Alge that killed the fish the drove the frogs out of the nile etc.

    First I think the Egyptians knew the difference between Algae and the blood that gushed out from the bodies of enemies and sacrifice.

    Second, these were timed plagues, they occurred on cue, with Aaron or Moses using their rods mostly Aaron.

    Third, Moses was raised in Pharaohs palace. I think he had the education to know what was a trick and what was the hand of God. It seems at first that science called the Bible a bunch of fairy tales. Then when they started serious archaeology ruined cities and Stella and such bearing testimony to many of the events started to come out. Now the archaeologists want to say okay so some of it may be based on true events or naturalistic events. This is the song many sing now. Its just face saving as far as I’m concerned because their bigotry towards the bible caused them to overlook many historical events of the ancient days.

    Now they publish books and many are bigshots, and many still want to reinterpret what they found as though those who were there were a bunch of blind people guessing at what caused certain events. You wanna re date things, fine do what you want. But some like David Rohl rewrite the characters as other people and force fit them into the box they are comfortable with. Problem is that while using events of a characters life, take Rohls analysis of Kng Saul’s life relates him to someone name Labaya and writes a different story. Labaya fights Egyptians not Philistines and is killed by ordinary citizens in an area near about todays Jenin. It says nothing relating to Samuel, nothing about Saul’s and his sons bodies hanging on the walls of the philistine temple nor the rescue of those bodies by residents of nearby Jabesh.
    I guess since such revisionists are alive today, they control the present and ergo the past and like Orwells Ministry of Love, rewrite yesterdays headlines in order that future generations only are taught whey they wish them taught, right or wrong. faulty scholarship and all.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Act III: The King Chooses a People and Gives a Law « Fr. Sean's Journal linked to this post on February 27, 2013

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    [...] Understanding the Plagues Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterGoogleMoreDiggRedditStumbleUponLike this:Like Loading… [...]

  3. The God Pharaoh Should Have Been | Leadingchurch.com linked to this post on October 4, 2013

    [...] are really catastrophic natural and environmental disasters. Other scholars have noted how they link up with the Genesis 1 creation story. We’ll see in later pronouncements that these messages are designed to communicate not only [...]

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  5. A Passover Perspective | What He Said... linked to this post on March 17, 2014

    […] Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues […]

  6. Passover: Promise and Deliverance linked to this post on April 15, 2014

    […] But after the angel of death passed through, the grief was so great that Pharaoh practically forced them to leave (at first, he had a change of heart later.)123 […]

  7. UP results 10th 2014 linked to this post on May 25, 2014

    UP results 10th 2014

    Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues – Biblical Archaeology Society

  8. The Ice, Bugs, and Abyss of Exodus | savannaclaudia linked to this post on September 7, 2014

    […] other research, I found an article by Ziony Zevit, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/exodus/exodus-in-the-bible-and-the-egyptian…, and it talks about many things in relation to the plagues. He states that hail, locusts, and […]

  9. Evidence for the plagues | That Bible blog linked to this post on November 7, 2014

    […] This site quotes two ancient Egyptian texts as supporting the general proposition, but they were written: The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer‘ (see also this table for other references), and ‘The Prophecy of Nefer-Rohu‘.  But both these texts are dated to a time before the Exodus events are believed to have happened. […]

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