What the Bible Tells Us About the 10 Plagues of Egypt
One of the Bible’s most dramatic scenes plays out in a showdown between God and an Egyptian Pharaoh, resulting in 10 nightmarish plagues. The Hebrew nation that God formed to worship and represent him was enslaved in Egypt, and he was demanding their release through his servant, Moses.
As Pharaoh continues to resist Moses, God inflicts upon Egypt a series of plagues. As the standoff drags on, the plagues become more severe, eventually escalating to the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn sons.
Why did God choose the plagues he did? And why did he harden Pharaoh’s heart, ensuring that Egypt would experience the entire series of plagues? These are some of the questions that Dr. Gary E. Schnittjer, professor of the Old Testament at Cairn University, tackles in his online course, The Torah Story. The following post is adapted from his course material.
What can we learn from Egypt’s 10 plagues?
The conflict between God and the human rebellion is in full view in the exodus story. Moses spoke God’s word, and Pharaoh resisted and defied the will of Yahweh. The Creator responded with cosmological terrors, one after another, until he accomplished his purposes.
The account of the plagues contains several items that need careful attention:
- The rationale for the plagues is a recurring theme. Because of the repetition, and also in light of how these passages present God’s character and ways, the reported reasons for the signs and judgments are of first importance.
- The matter of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart remains a classic example of the puzzle of God’s relationship with human beings. Within the account of the first nine plagues the author shines the light of the story inside Pharaoh’s soul between each of the judgments.
Were the 10 plagues directed at Egyptian gods?
Why did God use these plagues against the Egyptians? Some biblical interpreters see the ten plagues as directed against ten Egyptian gods, effectively embarrassing and defeating them.
Egyptian Gods Against Whom the Plagues Were Possibly Directed
|Nile to blood
|Hapi (also called Apis), the bull god, god of the Nile; Isis, goddess of the Nile; Khnum, ram god, guardian of the Nile; others
|Heqet, goddess of birth, with a frog head
|Set, god of the desert storms
|Re, a sun god; Uatchit, possibly represented by the fly
|Death of livestock
|Hathor, goddess with a cow head; Apis, the bull god, symbol of fertility
|Sekhmet, goddess with power over disease; Sunu, the pestilence god; Isis, healing goddess
|Nut, the sky goddess; Osiris, god of the crops and fertility; Set, god of the desert storms
|Nut, the sky goddess; Osiris, god of the crops and fertility
|Re, the sun god; Horus, a sun god; Nut, a sky goddess; Hathor, a sky goddess
|Death of firstborn
|Min, god of reproduction; Heqet, goddess who attended women at childbirth; Isis, goddess who protected children; Pharaoh’s firstborn son considered a god
This reading infers that God was demonstrating his supremacy above the deities of Israel’s polytheistic oppressors. I partially agree with this reading.
The Pentateuch does support the view that God defied or defeated the gods of the Egyptians in general:
- Referring to the tenth plague, God said, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Ex. 12:12).
- Reflecting on the exodus as a whole Moses stated, “Who among the gods is like you, O Yahweh?” (15:11).
- Also, “Moses told his father-in-law about everything Yahweh had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake....[Jethro] said, ‘Praise be to Yahweh, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly’” (18:8, 10–11).
- Again, “They marched out boldly in full view of the Egyptians … for Yahweh had brought judgment on their gods” (Num. 33:3–4, italics added in all passages).
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
Interpreting the plague story with discretion
The fact that God defeated the gods of the Egyptians in general, however, does not give interpreters license to read into the narrative a specific blow-by-blow list of the supposed deities whom Yahweh defeated. There are historical problems with correlating each plague with a particular ancient Egyptian deity. Many of the gods and goddesses had multiple functions or responsibilities, making it difficult to know which deity was being attacked by a given sign.
Also, according to our present knowledge, many Egyptian deities were only worshiped in certain locales and some only during certain times. There was no group of ancient Egyptians or Israelites—as far as we know—that could have correlated the ten plagues against ten particular Egyptian gods.
More significantly, the narrative itself makes no mention of any individual judgment being directed toward any particular god. Each of the cited passages concerning the plagues and the gods are generalizations. For historical and literary reasons, it seems better to take our clues for the meaning of the plagues from the biblical account itself.
How should we understand the ten plagues?
Four passages put forward explicit explanations for the judgments. The explanations in 4:21–23 and 6:1–9 focus on reasons for the deliverance, albeit by signs of judgment, and those in 6:26–7:7 and 9:14–16 target the reasons for the plagues themselves.
These interpretations of God’s terrible judgments are embedded within the story itself and offer the reader the theological meaning of the plagues. The narrative interpretation of the signs against the Egyptians reveals the significance of God’s wrath and partially explains the next major issue concerning the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
God explained his intention to kill Pharaoh’s son as the climactic and final plague. Readers, even in first reading, anticipate the final judgment and realize that God will not stop until he kills Pharaoh’s son.
Summary of the Rationale for the Deliverance of Israel from Egypt by Plagues
|Reasons for Deliverance by Plagues
|God would kill Pharaoh’s son because he would refuse to release God’s son Israel even after many wonders.
|Moses and the people could see God’s power; because of God’s word to the Hebrew ancestors; God would take Israel as his own possession.
|Reasons for the Plagues Themselves
|The Egyptians would know that Yahweh is God.
|God wanted to demonstrate his uniqueness.
The Bible itself explains the rationale for the plagues:
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what Yahweh says: ‘Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’”’ (4:21–23)
The main reason for God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, according to this passage, was in order to perform all the plagues and escalate the confrontation to the point at which God would kill Pharaoh’s son. This explanation fits with the third reason in the second explanation—God would use the exodus to claim Israel as his own possession (6:7).
God wanted the Israelites and the Egyptians to see his power (Ex. 6:1; 7:5). That power manifest in the signs of judgment revealed both his faithfulness to his word and his uniqueness (6:3–5; 9:14–16).
Yahweh was not merely trying to deliver his people from bondage. He could have done that with a single act of wrath. Rather, he chose to deliver his people through the many plagues in order to publicly display his uniqueness.
“Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.” (9:13b–15)
It is only partially correct to view the plagues as God’s deliverance of his people. The ten signs revealed his mighty power, his uniqueness, and his faithfulness to his word.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
What’s the significance of hardening Pharaoh’s heart?
The basic meaning of hard-heartedness is stubbornness and rebellion—the opposite of humility, faith, a circumcised heart, obedience, and so forth. The troubling feature of Pharaoh’s hard heart is that God hardened it. In order to understand the significance of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, the context in which it is embedded needs to be understood. Thus, we’ll need to understand the structure of the plagues.
The ten signs are arranged in three sets of three plagues, escalating toward the predicted tenth plague. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart appears before and after the series of plagues as well as in between each of the judgments. The narrative shows that the hardening of his heart is the single feature common to all ten plagues. The repetitive attention to Pharaoh's heart condition forces readers to ponder the issue. The narrator has located Pharaoh’s heart as the central concern of the series of judgments that led to the killing of his firstborn son.
The Structure of the Plague Narrative in the Book of Exodus
|THE SIGNS BEFORE PHARAOH
|THE FIRST CYCLE OF PLAGUES
First—Nile turns to blood (7:14–25)
Pharaoh was warned at the Nile (7:14–18), and the water is struck with Aaron’s staff (7:19–21), turning all the Nile into blood. The wizards performed the same sign (7:22a), and Pharaoh’s “heart became hard” (7:22b–25)
Pharaoh warned of frogs (8:1–4). Aaron stretched his staff over the waters of Egypt (8:5–6) and the land was covered in frogs. The wizards performed the same sign (8:7). Pharaoh agreed to let the people go sacrifice if the frogs were taken away, but later “he hardened his heart” (8:8–15)
Aaron stretched his staff over the dust and it became gnats (8:16–17) The wizards failed to produce the sign and acknowledge God’s power (8:18–19), but Pharaoh’s “heart was hard” (8:19)
|THE SECOND CYCLE OF PLAGUES
Pharaoh was warned at the Nile in Goshen (8:20–23) The plague came (8:24), and Pharaoh suggested they sacrifice in Egypt close by, but later “hardened his heart” (8:25–32).
Fifth—death of livestock (9:1–7)
Pharaoh warned that God will strike Egypt’s livestock while protecting Israel’s. (9:1–5) The plague came (9:6) and though Pharaoh saw the distinction, his “heart was unyielding” (9:7)
Moses and Aaron threw dust in the air and boils spread on the people and cattle (9:8–10). The wizards could not come before Moses because they had boils (9:11). “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (9:12)
|THE THIRD CYCLE OF PLAGUES
Pharoah is given a morning warning (9:13–21). Moses stretched his staff to the sky and the storm began (9:22–26). Pharaoh “confessed his sin” and promised to let the people go if the hail was stopped, but later he hardened his heart (9:27–35).
Pharaoh is warned again (10:1–6). Pharaoh’s servants asked him to let the men go (10:7), and Pharaoh suggested that only the men go (10:8–11). Moses stretched his staff over the land and the locusts came (10:12–15). Pharaoh “confessed his sin” and asked for the plague to be removed, but later “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:16–20)
Moses stretched his hand to the sky and darkness fell—except in Goshen where the Israelites were (10:21–23). Pharaoh agreed to let go all the people but not the animals, but later “Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:24–29)
The first cycle of plagues features the use of the staff and the presence of Pharaoh’s wizards. The wizards are able to turn water to blood and produce frogs—just what Egypt needs! They even try to produce gnats during a national gnat infestation. Their failure to produce gnats points toward the incomparability of God’s “magic” or power with that of Pharaoh’s wizards.
The second cycle presents the absence of both the staff and the wizards, who only appear in the narrative of plague 6 in order to humorously accent the escalation of the judgments—they cannot come before Moses because they have boils themselves.
The third cycle again features the staff for the plagues 7 and 8, but Moses uses his hand for plague 9. The first plague in each group comes after a morning warning to Pharaoh. The second in each cycle features Pharaoh warned. The third plague in each cycle simply comes on the Egyptians.
The cumulative effect of each plague on the next is apparent from the appearance of Pharaoh’s servants in the account of plague 8, where they plead with him to release the Israelites (10:7). Notice too the growing concessions Pharaoh offers. It is especially noteworthy that Pharaoh “confessed his sin” after plagues 7 and 8. His confessions do not appear to represent true repentance but mere words to secure the changes in the physical world.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
The author wants us to be aware of Pharaoh's heart
The fundamental issue of the plague stories is the string of reports concerning Pharaoh’s heart.
Readers are afforded a plague-by-plague moral sonogram image of Pharaoh’s soul. The fact that both Pharaoh and God are each responsible for the stubbornness of Pharaoh is no secret. The author wants readers to see this point, repeatedly.
It is true that Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times before God did.
But it’s an inaccurate to say that God merely confirmed the stubborn pattern of Pharaoh’s heart.
As discussed above, God was explicit that he was planning to harden Pharaoh’s heart because he wanted to perform all of his acts of judgment against the Egyptians (4:21–23; 9:14–16). God did not have to do it that way, but this is the way he chose to do it. Thus, the significance of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the immediate context is related to the sovereign display of God’s power. No one let the Israelites go. It was God who brought them out of Egypt by his fear-inspiring acts of judgment.
I am attentive to the fact, of course, that I have not answered all the issues involved in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I think that the author was aware of how startling readers would find the repeated attention to God’s assistance with Pharaoh’s obstinacy. The narrator did not try to hide it—exactly the opposite. He wanted it to be impossible for readers to simply brush it aside or ignore it.
To explain away God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart because of the biblical witness to the holiness and goodness of God misses the other side—the explicit side—of this case. God is sovereign. Whether or not readers understand why or how, they can read for themselves that judging Pharaoh as he did was God’s prerogative. He is God. Part of that means he has the right and the power to rightly and justly make his enemy stubborn in order to display his mighty power in redeeming his chosen people from bondage.
Learn more in The Torah Story online course.
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