Plagues of Egypt

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The Bible has three accounts of the plagues (maggefot, Ex. 9:14; negʿaim, cf. Ex. 11:1; makkot, cf. i Sam. 4:8; cf. lxx, Targ.) that struck Egypt prior to the Exodus: a full, prose account is given in Exodus 7:14–11:10; 12:29–33, and brief, poetic ones in Psalms 78:43–51 and 105:27–36. The variations are set out in the Table: Plagues of Egypt listing the plagues and their effects. While the ten items of the Exodus narrative are distinctly separate, some of the items in Psalms

ExodusPsalm 78:44–51Psalm 105:28–36
1 Heb. 'arov; LXX: "dogflies"; R. Nehemiah (Ex. R.) "gnats and mosquitoes"; NJPS "swarms of insects." But Josephus (Ant., 2:303), R. Judah (Ex. R.), and Targ. "mixture of birds and beasts."
2 A kind (or stage of development) of locusts.
3 Meaning obscure; LXX: "frost"; medieval conjectures: "locust," "stones."
4 Symmachus: "pestilence" (dever for MT barad).
5 Traditionally "fiery bolts," but Reshef is a Canaanite plague-god, and reshef in Deuteronomy 32:24 (|| qetev) and Habakkuk 3:5 (|| dever) means "pestilence" (cf. note 4).
6 Ḥayyatam = nafsham, "their life" (Ibn Ezra; cf. Rashi); LXX, Targ. misconstrue as "their beasts".
7 Ibn Ezra joins to the preceding.
1. Blood1. Blood1. Darkness
Nile; all water; fish diedNile; liquids
2. Frogs2. Swarms12. Blood
nuisance to3 men"consumed them"water; fish died
3. LiceFrogs3. Frogs
nuisance to men and beasts"ruined them"nuisance
4. Swarms13. Ḥasil24. Swarms1Nuisance
nuisance to men; ruined landate produceLice
5. PestilenceLocusts5. Hail}destroyed vines, figs, trees
killed livestockate "toil"Fire
6. Boils4. Hail6. Locustsdestroyed all vegetation
pained men and beastsdestroyed vinesYeleq2
7. Hail and fireḤanamel37. Firstborn death
destroyed plants, men, and beastsdestroyed sycamores
8. Locusts5. Hail4
destroyed plantsdestroyed beasts
9. DarknessReshafim5
immobilized mendestroyed livestock
10. Firstborn death6. DeathKilled men6
7. Firstborn death7

are but synonyms or components of plagues. Thus Psalm 105 lists ten items, but refers to seven plagues only. Psalm 78 lists 11 items, but only seven (or six) plagues. The climactic order in Psalm 78 is most satisfactory: nuisances, destruction of plant life, of animals, and of human beings. The order of Psalm 105 is similar, while in the Exodus account the ascending line is not consistently realized. The Psalms' divergence from Exodus has been ascribed to poetic license; the likelihood is, however, that it attests to independent, variant traditions (see further below).

Their Function

The leading motif of the plague series in the Exodus account is introduced in 7:5: "The Egyptians shall know that I am yhwh when I stretch my hand over Egypt…" Repeated variously (7:17; 8:6, 18; 9:14, 16, 29), it shows the plagues to be the answer to Pharaoh's challenge in 5:2: "Who is yhwh…? I do not know yhwh, nor will I release Israel." Intended, thus, as revelations of the nature and power of Israel's God, the plagues are distinguished from both magic and natural calamities. The magicians' failure to produce lice elicits from them the confession that "it is the finger of God" (8:15). The plagues' onset after an announcement or at a signal, and their removal by order, links them to yhwh, whose agents, Moses and Aaron, announced, signaled, and removed them in His name. The accumulation of disasters, their discriminating between Israel and the Egyptians (starting from 8:18), and the unprecedentedness of the last four plagues succeed in eliciting from Pharaoh's court increasingly frequent acknowledgments of God's authority (8:4, 21, 24; 9:20, 27–28; 10:7–8, 16–17, 24), ending with the release of Israel to worship Him (12:31–32). As 9:14–16 and 10:1–2 make clear, the reason for prolonging the series is not to secure Israel's release (which might have been achieved by one crushing blow), but to establish for all time the fame of yhwh and the folly of defying Him.

The Structure of the Narrative

The narrative evidences a deliberate, if imperfectly realized design:

(1) The plagues gradually intensify, beginning with nuisances, passing through destruction of livestock and crops, and ending with the death of human beings. The intensification sometimes falters (e.g., boils after pestilence), and sometimes the effects of a plague transgress its proper limits (e.g., the death of men and beasts in the hail). These appear to result, on the one hand, from the combination of variant traditions, and, on the other, from a desire to aggrandize God (see further below). A comparison with the strategy of reducing a rebellious population is found in the Midrash: God used the tactics of kings against the Egyptians. First He cut off their water supply (blood), then He raised a clamor around them (frogs), then shot arrows at them (lice), then arrayed legions against them (swarms), then caused a pestilence, then threw burning naphtha at them (fever boils), then sent hosts against them (locusts), then incarcerated them in dungeons (darkness), then put to death their chiefs (firstborn; Tanḥ. Bo 4). Levi b. Gershom perceives cycles of increasing severity: God began with a harmless wonder (Ex. 7:8–13); when that failed, He spoiled their water – but not totally; next He sent the frogs, which caused discomfort; but that was less than the distress caused by the lice. A second round began with the swarms that attacked livestock and food; then pestilence that killed off the livestock; then boils that afflicted the body. A third round followed, starting with hail and locusts, wiping out the food supply, followed by darkness – a bodily affliction just short of death. The death of the firstborn climaxed the series.

(2) These rounds correspond to the formal division of the story into three sets of three plagues, capped by a tenth, in a pattern determined by an invariably recurring order of introductory clauses. Plagues one, four, and seven begin with God commanding Moses to stand before Pharaoh in the morning (at the Nile) to warn him; two, five, and eight begin with a command to enter Pharaoh's residence to warn him there; three, six, and nine begin with a command to bring on the plague without warning. Early perception of this pattern is reflected in R. Judah's mnemonic, cited in the Haggadah, דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב (cf. also Rashbam to 7:26; Baḥya to 10:1).

(3) A certain design can also be discerned in the various agents who induce the plagues. In the first triplet Moses warns, but Aaron signals the coming of the plague; in each case the Egyptian magicians respond. The triplet continues, on an intensified level, the contest begun with the accreditation episode (7:10–12) between the very same characters. It is decided only in the third plague, when the magicians, unable to produce lice, confess it is the work of a higher power. In this contest, the principles – Moses and Pharaoh – are each represented by their seconds; when the magicians retire from the fray, Aaron does too (and when Aaron reappears in a subsidiary role in the sixth plague, the magicians momentarily reappear with him). In the last triplet Moses both announces and induces the plagues, thus enhancing his prestige as God's plenipotentiary in the negotiations that mark this climactic triplet (cf. 11:3). God directly brings on two plagues of the middle triplet – the third (boils), induced by Moses and Aaron, is asymmetrical – and the final firstborn plague. The reason emerges from an examination of the distinctive motif of each triplet.

(4) A purpose clause in the first member of each triplet adumbrates its distinctive motif. As the aim of the first triplet is to dispel the courtiers' notion that the power of the Hebrew envoys is magical, God fittingly admonishes Pharaoh before the blood plague: "By this you shall know that I am yhwh" (7:17). Two plagues of the second triplet explicitly (and the third implicitly) discriminate the Israelites from the Egyptians (8:18–19; 9:4, 6, 11). Such discrimination realizes the purpose stated in 8:18, "That you may know that I, yhwh, am in the midst of the land," for the presence of God – His overseeing providence (cf. Ex. 17:7; 33:5; Num. 14:42; Deut. 6:15; 31:17) – is typically manifest in the separation between the fates of the innocent and the guilty. The opening speech of the third triplet asserts that its aim is to let Pharaoh know "that there is none like Me in all the earth" (Ex. 9:14). The words are echoed four times in phrases expressing the unparalleled intensity of the first two plagues of the triplet (the last member (darkness) again is asymmetrical). There is a notable accumulation of motifs in the last plagues. Thus the last triplet twice refers to discrimination (in different words; 9:26; 10:23) besides its own motif, while the warning of the last plague mentions the last two motifs (11:6–7) and alludes to an intensified form of the first (11:8; the court will bow to Moses). That God directly brings on plagues of the second triplet suits its stated purpose of demonstrating God's presence in the land. The presence-discrimination motif is linked again to God's direct action in the last plague (11:4, 7; 12:12, 29). Where God's presence is to be felt, mediators are out of place.

(5) Design (without strict systematization) is also evident in the characterization of Pharaoh and Moses. Pharaoh's reactions oscillate erratically during the first two triplets between impassivity (7:23; 8:15; 9:7, 12) and insincere concessions (8:4, 21, 24). In the first plague of the third triplet he confesses guilt (9:27), and in the last two he negotiates seriously over Israel's release, as is indicated by his measured concessions at each stage (10:8, 11, 24). Moses' manner changes from a certain sportiveness (8:5) to pained rebuke (8:25), to disbelief (9:30), and finally, in negotiation, to provocative baiting that enrages Pharaoh (10:25–26).

Hardening Pharaoh's Heart

This drama is embedded in (and manages to overcome the stultifying potential of) a deterministic framework. God's policy of hardening Pharaoh's heart is announced in advance (7:3), and notice of its operation is repeatedly given (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10). Some mitigation of it is probably to be seen in the fact that during the first five plagues Pharaoh's stubbornness is consistently represented as self-motivated (7:22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7; cf. Ex. R. 13:3: God hardened Pharaoh's heart from the sixth plague in order to punish him for his voluntary defiance during the first five; cf. further Maimonides, introduction to Avot, ch. 8; Yad, Teshuvah 6). But this still makes the last, worst plagues – an infliction of suffering on an involuntary sinner – paradoxical, since precisely in the last plagues Pharaoh's reactions are adequately motivated, perhaps even justifiable in view of Moses' provocations. There is here the parade example of the "two-level" view of history characteristic of biblical narrative. Human events are shaped by the will of God, yet they unfold in accord with the motives of actors who do God's will without realizing it (Gen. 45:5, 8; Judg. 14:4; i Kings 12:15). Thus God determined for His own purposes that Pharaoh should resist the plagues; indeed He saw to it. But Pharaoh conducted himself throughout conformably with his own motives and his own godless arrogance. God made it so, but Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God's will.

Interpretations of the Plagues

Attempts have been made to interpret the plagues in terms of ancient Egyptian beliefs or the natural conditions of Egypt. A Middle Kingdom description of anarchy speaks of the Nile's turning into blood (The Admonitions of Ipuwer; Pritchard, Texts, 441); a New Kingdom prophecy of the darkening of the sun (Nefer-rohu; Pritchard, Texts, 445). Philo and the Midrash understand the blood plague as an attack on the deified Nile (I Mos. 98; Ex. R. 9:9), and this clue has been followed by some moderns who look for the humiliation of Egyptian deities in the course of the plagues (e.g., Hapi, the Nile god; Ḥekt, a frog-headed goddess; Re, the sun god), though no hint of this is to be found in the biblical plague narrative. On the other hand, most of the plagues can be linked with local or seasonal phenomena. During its annual rise, in the summer, the Nile is reddened by organisms carried in it; swarms of frogs and insects follow the inundation (insects normally abound in Egypt); Egyptian boils were proverbial (Deut. 28:27); hail, though uncommon, has been known to fall in January – the time indicated by the agricultural data of Exodus 9:31–32; locusts may be blown across the country in winter or spring; three-day, palpable darkness conforms with the heavy sandstorms raised by the ḥamsin winds that blow in the early spring. Thus the plagues have been viewed as a miraculous intensification and concentration of local phenomena, crowded into a single year (Moses was 80 years old when they began (7:7), lived 40 years more, and died at the age of 120 (Deut. 34:7); cf. also Eduy. 2:10).

The Variant Versions

The narrative appears to combine two major versions of the plague series. Hence arose such inconsistencies as are found in the depiction of the agent, the signal, and the extent of the blood plague in Exodus 7:17–21 (cf. the dispute between R. Judah and R. Nehemiah in Ex. R. 9:11); such inconsequence as the skipping of the boils in the backward glance of 9:15, or the unmotivated reappearance of Aaron and the boils-afflicted magicians after the lapse of two plagues; and such asymmetry and stylistic differences as set lice, boils, and darkness apart from the rest of the plagues.

(1) One version began with the accreditation sign given by God to Aaron and Moses: Moses orders Aaron to turn his staff into a serpent; the magicians imitate the sign (7:8–13). The plagues proper follow;

(2) Moses orders Aaron to turn all the waters of Egypt to blood; this is imitated by the magicians (7:19–20a a, 21b–22);

(3) Moses orders Aaron to induce frogs; this is again imitated by the magicians (8:1–3, 11b (fragmentary));

(4) Moses orders Aaron to produce lice; the magicians fail and confess God's power (8:12–15);

(5) Moses, aided by Aaron, induces boils; the magicians are themselves afflicted and retire routed (9:8–12);

(6) Moses alone induces darkness, immobilizing everyone for three days (10:21–23, 27a (fragmentary));

(7) God strikes the firstborn (cf. 12:12, belonging to this version). In this conjecturally restored version (which, with the exception of item 6, agrees with conventional criticism's P) the agents of the plagues ascend climactically, the effects intensify steadily, and all before the last are designed to outdo and overwhelm rather than destroy. They are tokens of God's might rather than punishments.

The second version ran thus:

(1) After a morning warning, Moses turned the Nile into blood, which killed its fish; Pharaoh was unmoved (7:14–17, 20a b–21a, 23–25);

(2) After a warning in the palace… (there follows the other version of frogs); negotiation with Pharaoh (7:26–29 (gap), 8:4–11a (fragmentary));

(3) After a morning warning by Moses, God sends swarms of insects, separating the Israelites; negotiations (8:16–28);

(4) After a warning in the palace by Moses, God strikes Egypt's livestock with a pestilence, separating the Israelites (9:1–7);

(5) After a morning warning, heeded by some courtiers, Moses signals the onslaught of an unprecedented hail mixed with fire; negotiations (9:13–35);

(6) After a warning in the palace, followed by fruitless negotiation, Moses signals the coming of an unprecedentedly severe locust plague; Pharaoh asks relief just this once; further negotiations end in Moses' expulsion (10:1–19, 24–29);

(7) Moses announces the death of the firstborn (11:4–8), which comes that night (12:29–33).

This conjectured version (roughly consisting of the conventional je) represents the plagues as increasingly severe injuries to Egyptian property and life, as blows designed to afflict the land. The story seems to have been expanded at times by reflective comment (9:15–16; 10:1b–2), or to broaden the scope of a plague (e.g., 9:19–21 includes men and beasts among the victims of the hail). The redactorial interweaving of the two accounts was relatively smooth once the first triplet was constituted on the basis of the overlapping of the two versions and the lice plague's deciding the issue posed in the accreditation sign. The formal pattern of that triplet determined the rest of the interweaving, the genial device of three triplets plus one (an expansion of the 3.3.1 pattern of Gen. 1:1–2:3) nicely accommodating the total of ten separate plagues. Since both versions were climactic, their fusion was on the whole reasonable, although it impaired thematic symmetry, stylistic unity, and strict progress of the narrative. The variant Psalms passages may attest to independent traditions of the plagues. The affinity of the listing in Psalm 78 to the reconstructed second version is particularly striking: both lack the three distinctive plagues of the first – lice, boils, darkness. The present Exodus narrative presumably represents an effort to create a standard account of the plagues, embodying maximally the data of the various traditions known to the author-redactor.

Midrashic Embellishment

The local color of a number of the plagues makes it plausible to assume that the traditions concerning them rose out of events that happened in Egypt. In time, the events were added to, embellished, and reflected upon, most likely in connection with the religious celebrations of the Exodus. The Passover laws of Exodus 12:26–27; 13:8 and the firstborn redemption rite in 13:11–16 suggest occasions for use of a liturgical formulation of the pre-Exodus events. Various statements of the plague series may have originated in and for such occasions, just as, in post-biblical times, the standard Exodus listing was taken up into the Haggadah. The tendency to enlarge the scope of the plagues – formally legitimized in the Midrash cited in the Haggadah ("How can you prove from Scripture that each plague was really four [or five] plagues…?") – shows itself already in the components of the Exodus narrative, e.g., while in one version the blood plague affects the Nile only, in the other it spreads to all the waters of Egypt. Similarly, just as the Exodus version of hail has already made it deadly to man and beast, so does Philo raise blood (1 Mos. 98) and Josephus raise lice, swarms (of beasts), ulcers, and darkness to the level of death-dealing scourges (Ant., 2:293ff.). The Midrash gives free rein to the imagination in this direction: the Egyptians' spittle and fruit juice turned to blood; their wood and stone household objects oozed blood (Ex. R. 9:11; Mid. Hag. to 7:19); the frogs castrated them (Ex. R. 10:4); deadly pestilence accompanied all the plagues (Ex. R. 10:2); the darkness lasted six days, and at its worst was so thick that no one could move a muscle (Ex. R. 14:3). The Midrash also enlarges upon the brief biblical reflections on the rationale of the plagues. The "measure for measure" interpretation is typical: blood – because they kept Israel's women from their post-menstrual immersion, to stop their childbearing (another view – because they cast the male infants into the Nile); frogs – because they made Israel clean and repair streets; lice – because they made them sweep homes and markets; mixture of beasts – because they made them catch wild beasts; pestilence – because they made them tend flocks; fever boils – because they made them tend baths; hail – because they made them tend fields; locusts – because they made them plant trees; darkness – so that they could not witness the burial of wicked Israelites; firstborn – because they enslaved Israel, whom God called "my firstborn son" (Ex. 4:22; Mid. Hag. to 10:2). Thus the plagues grew ever more marvelous "to spread the fame of God's great power… that Israel might realize that He is the Lord, and teach it to their descendants, so that this true belief might live on in Israel forever" (Ralbag, Comment., end of Va-Era and Bo).


A. Macalister, in: db, s.v.; J.C. Mihelic and G.E. Wright, in: idb, 3 (1962), 822ff.; G. Hort, in: zaw, 69 (1957), 84ff.; 70 (1958), 48ff.; H. Eising, in: Lex tua veritas (Junker Festschrift, 1961), 75ff.; G. Fohrer, Ueberlieferung und Geschichte des Exodus (1964), 60ff.; S.E. Loewenstamm, Masoret Yeẓi'at Miẓrayim be-Hishtalshelutah (1965), 25ff.; M. Greenberg, Understanding Exodus (1969), 151ff.; Ginzberg, Legends, 2 (1910), 341ff. add. bibliography: J. Hoffmaier, in: abd ii, 374–78; W. Propp, Exodus 1–18 (ab; 1998).

[Moshe Greenberg]