PLAGUES OF EGYPT. Ten in number, these were the means by which God induced Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. A series chiefly of natural phenomena, they were unusual (1) in their severity, (2) in that all occurred within one year, (3) in their accurate timing, (4) in that Goshen and its people were spared some of them, and (5) in the evidence of God’s control over them. The plagues overcame the opposition of Pharaoh, discredited the gods of Egypt (the Nile and the sun), and defiled their temples.
1. Water Became Blood (Exod.7.14-Exod.7.25). When the Nile is at flood in June, its water turns red from soil brought down from Ethiopia, but is still fit to drink, nor do fish die. But when the river is at its lowest, in May, the water is sometimes red, not fit to drink, and fish die. The Egyptians had to dig wells, into which river water would filter through sand. God directed Moses to lift up his rod at the right time. Once the time was disclosed, the Egyptian magicians could do likewise.
2. Frogs (Exod.8.1-Exod.8.15). When the flood waters recede, frogs spawn in the marshes and invade the dry land. God directed Moses to lift up his rod at such a time. This sign the Egyptian magicians also claimed to produce.
3. Lice (Exod.8.16-Exod.8.19). What insect is meant is uncertain; RSV and NIV have “gnats”; ASV footnote, “sand flies or fleas.” So many biting, stinging pests abound in Egypt that people might not be discriminating in naming them. The magicians failed, by their own admission, to reproduce this plague and recognized in it “the finger of God”; but Pharaoh would not listen to them.
4. Flies (Exod.8.20-Exod.8.31). The rod is no longer mentioned. Swarms of flies came over Egypt in unusual density to feed on dead frogs. God directed Moses as to the time. The magicians no longer competed with Moses. Now there was a differentiation between Goshen and the rest of Egypt. Pharaoh tentatively offered to let the people go to sacrifice to their God, only in the land of Egypt (Exod.8.25). Moses protested that their sacrifice would be an animal that the Egyptians think it improper to sacrifice and insisted that they must go three days’ journey into the wilderness. Pharaoh assented, provided they did not go far, and the plague was stayed at the intercession of Moses. When the plague was removed, Pharaoh again refused to let Israel go.
5. The plague (rsv, niv) of murrain (kjv) on cattle (Exod.9.1-Exod.9.7). This was announced with a set time (tomorrow) for its occurrence. There is no record of its removal. Presumably it wore itself out. The Israelite cattle were spared, evidence of God’s favor and power.
6. Boils (kjv, niv), blains (asv), or sores (rsv) on man and beast (Exod.9.8-Exod.9.12). Moses was told to take soot (kjv “ashes”) from a furnace and sprinkle it in the air. The air over Egypt was filled with dust, and it became boils breaking out on man and beast. The magicians, still watching Moses, could not stand because of the boils. From the specific mention that the plague was on “all the Egyptians” we may infer that the Israelites were not attacked. This plague was not recalled. Presumably it also wore itself out.
7. Hail (Exod.9.13-Exod.9.35). God directed Moses to stretch forth his hand, and hail (which rarely occurs in Egypt) descended in unusual violence. Egyptians who feared the word of the Lord—and after such displays of power there may have been many—brought their cattle in out of the coming storm. Those who did not, lost them to the violent hail. Only in Goshen was there no hail. The hand of God directed its local incidence. The season must have been January or February, for the flax was in the ear and the barley in bud or bloom.
8. Locusts (Exod.10.1-Exod.10.20). After seven plagues, even a frequently recurring one such as locusts, was so dreaded that Pharaoh’s servants used bold language in advising that the Israelites be let go (Exod.10.7). Goshen was not spared the locusts’ visitation. Still Pharaoh was obdurate.
9. Darkness (Exod.10.21-Exod.10.29). A sandstorm, accentuated by the dust-bowl condition of the land and borne on the west wind that drove off the locusts, brought a tawny, choking darkness. The patience of God was at an end: Pharaoh would see the face of Moses no more. The darkness lasted three days, but the children of Israel had light where they lived.
10. Death of the firstborn (Exod.11.1-Exod.12.36). This final and convincing demonstration of God’s power broke down the resistance of Pharaoh long enough for the Israelites to escape. The Israelites were directed to protect their firstborn with the blood of the Passover lamb, that they might not be killed along with the firstborn of the Egyptians. They “borrowed” valuables of the Egyptians and, amid the lamentations of the latter, were allowed to leave. Egypt had had enough. Even if the deaths were due to bubonic plague, as many think, the incidence on the firstborn alone is not thereby explained. Bubonic plague is said to take the strongest, but this does not explain why all the firstborn and only the firstborn died. The character of this plague is clearly that of divine judgment on incurable obstinacy.
The memory of the plagues was cultivated as a warning to Israel for generations to come (Ps.78.43-Ps.78.51; Ps.105.26-Ps.105.36; Ps.135.8-Ps.135.9; Acts.7.36; Acts.13.17; Heb.11.28).——ER
PLAGUES OF EGYPT. A series of ten penal miracles performed upon the pharaoh and people of Egypt (Exod 7-12).
The Biblical plagues.
(וַיֵּהָֽפְכ֛וּ לְדָֽם, “and they were turned to blood”). The verb הָפַכְ, H2200, means “lead away,” “take away,” and the noun דָּם, H1947, means “blood.”
That this was really mammalian blood is actually not indicated as has been traditionally assumed. However, nowhere in the OT is the noun used in any other sense without some qualifying term, as “blood of the grape” (Deut 32:14). On the other hand, this transposition of the waters and another natural fluid was performed by the magicians of the pharaoh. To allow such a feat as a demoniac event is to open the door of Biblical interpretation to all manner of superstitious and paganistic notions.
(בַּֽצְפַרְדְּעִֽים, “with frogs”). This rare word appears only thirteen times in the OT in this context and in Psalms 78:45; 105:30. It is probable that the word is a participial form based on some concept such as “chirp” or “croak.”
(כִּנִּ֖ם) a term which may have cognates in some of the lesser Sem. languages.
(עָרֹ֑ב, “insects”). This was prob. a biting swamp fly, some sort of phlebotomistic insect. The etymology of this term is not clear, since there are many homophonic words; the rabbinic tradition connects it to many of them.
(דֶּ֖בֶר כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד, “very grievous ulcer”). This smote the cattle and draft animals of the country. The precise description or etiology is not indicated, but its result was death (v. 6). In the parallel retelling of the plagues (Ps 78:48), this affliction of the cattle is modified, “He gave over their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts.” There is no necessity to assume that the two accounts are mutually contradictory.
(שְׁחִין אֲבַעְבֻּעֹ֔ת פֹּרֵ֕חַ, “inflammations breaking out in pustules”). This difficult phrase contains two terms found infrequently in the OT. The term שְׁחִין is a nominal form of the same root as Akkad. “to burn.” The participle “breaking out” is fairly common in the OT, but the pl. noun appears only in this passage (Exod 9:9, 10). The term is cognate to Akkad. where it is found frequently in the Assyrian medical texts. The Assyrian contexts in which it appears would tend to support a meaning of a swelling “filled with pus.” Thus the plague was a disease entity raising vesicles or abscesses, such as bubonic plague. The text specifically states, “And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils [inflammations, abscesses], for the boils were upon the magicians” (9:11). This sixth plague reached the counselors of the pharaoh.
(בָּרָ֖ד, “hail”). Hail is mentioned a number of times as a judgment of God (Exod 9:18 et al.; Isa 28:2, 17; Hag 2:17; Rev 8:7 et al.).
(אַרְבֶּה, H746, literally, “swarm” but usually understood as “locusts in a swarm,” cf. Deut 28:38 et al.). The scourge of locusts that frequently afflicted Egypt are well known from many non-Biblical sources.
(חֹ֫שֶׁכְ, H3125, “darkness”). This term carries a special cosmic or sinister sense, used initially in Genesis 1:2 and throughout the OT. Traditionally the passage in Exodus 10:21-23, 27 has been explained as a result of the clouding over of the sun by the locusts of the eighth plague. More of a catastrophe is involved, however, because it stands between the last of the grievous but natural plagues and the one great and utterly supernatural one, the harbinger of the tenth.
Death of the firstborn.
(וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר, “first-born shall die”). This last and most awesome scourge demonstrated without any doubt the providence of God in regard to Israel and His determinate council regarding the eldest in each family of both man and beast. Nowhere else in Scripture is such a terrible illustration of God’s judgment displayed. The contrast of Israel’s deliverance and Egypt’s condemnation is repeated over and over in later ages. The total separation, the antithesis between Israelite and Egyptian is stressed in v. 7 of ch. 11.
The theological significance.
That Egypt’s gods (the animistic worship of idols) were being cursed is made clear, “and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exod 12:12). Just in what way and to what degree the pagan cult of the Egyptians was involved in the plagues is not clear. The knowledge extant concerning the practical everyday worship of the Egyp. pantheon is meager, and for all intents and purposes little or nothing is known about their metaphysical assumptions from the documented sources. It is obvious, however, that the twenty-two Egyp. provinces each had their respective religious center and totemic animal or plant. It is precisely the attributes of these deities that are involved in the plagues, but whether each of the plagues was thought to be the special domain of one or another of the Egyp. gods cannot be stated with certainty. The plagues, however, were outward physical consequents of inward moral conditions. “Not merely the Egyptians, but likewise the Egyptians’ gods are involved in the conflict” (G. Vos, Biblical Theology , 124-130, quoted from 126). The situation of the Exodus from Egypt comprised not merely the physical bondage of the Jews but also the spiritual oppression of sin from which they were released by an act of God’s special grace. In the same fashion that Yahweh intervened to free them from pharaoh, so also He freed them from the restraints and penalty of their iniquity. Nowhere in the OT is the particularistic quality of God’s grace so openly declared as in the Exodus. The identical judgments and circumstances that delivered Israel sentenced Egypt—the one to salvation, the other to reprobation. As a prefigurement of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, the Exodus and the plagues that accompanied it derive their true meaning and proper perspective. The sacred poetry of later ages celebrate the ev ent, and the clear remembrance of it is reiterated at the Passover and celebration of the first communion by Jesus before His death. The two events, the Exodus and the Passion, are acts of God’s special grace, by which not only deliverance but atonement and redemption are accomplished. In the OT motif of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the Exodus and the plagues are an event of momentous proportions; upon them rests the faith of Israel in the covenant promises of God. The restriction of the miraculous events of the Exodus to one small area and to one short period of time demonstrates the divine character of the action. The miracles of Scripture are not magical ways to accomplish difficult feats before an illiterate, credulous, and prescientific audience. They are transcendent and supernatural assurances that the word-revelation—given at the same time, in this case the ordinances of the Passover and the law—are true and of absolute divine authority. The declaration of God, “and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and...multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exod 7:3) is for the purpose that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (7:5). Ultimately the plagues caused Egypt in its suffering to admit Yahweh’s sovereignty and to glorify the God of Israel.
Modern interpretations of the plagues.
In both rabbinic and Christian exegesis, a number of attempts have been made to accomodate the narrative of the plagues to the theological Zeitgeist. The anti-Semitism of the medieval church caused its scholars to dwell upon the fig. relationships within the story. A favorite study was the numeristic meaning of the “10” that was thought to be the number of perfection. With the rise of rationalism, after the Renaissance and Reformation, the theme of the plagues was felt to be a crude and barbaric legend, a vestige of the evolution of sophisticated religion. With the coming of the negative higher critical theses in the 19th cent., the Exodus narratives were dismembered according to the documentary hypothesis. It may be admitted that certain portions of the Pentateuch do indicate the use and collation of prior documents, but Exodus 7-12 is a prime example of the subjectivity of the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen method. The division of the text into “J,” Yahwist sources; “E,” Elohist sources; and “P,” Priestly sources is proposed on the basis of “style” and the fact that the Psalmic reiterations of the plagues (Ps 78; 105) do not include all the plagues and rearrange the order as given in Exodus 7-12. The scheme of division is as follows:
The sources and their literary genres are deduced. If this division is made, however, and each of the lines of evidence then followed through, the resultant stories are meaningless in themselves. It must also be added, in retrospect, that many diverse opinions concerning the alignment of the above sources also exist. Another and more recent development in the exegesis of the narrative has been the attempt to locate some extra-Biblical account of the plagues in the Egyp. sources available. This was attempted in the 19th cent., but has gained wider recognition in the 20th, particularly through the efforts of a group of scholars advocating a neo-catastrophic view of earth history. According to this presentation, extraterrestrial events such as the passage of comets and alterations in the earth’s elliptic affected human history. The Jewish scholar I. Velikovsky has been a storm center of controversy for proposing that a natural catastrophe of astronomical origin and cosmic proportions caused the events of the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the fire and smoke from Sinai. This and similar speculations have been set forth in such books as, Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos. Velikovsky seeks the synchronism of the Exodus account with the Egyp. Middle Kingdom papyrus, The Admonitions of Ipu-Wer (Leiden Papyrus I, 344). This badly damaged text is assumed to have been written on the basis of a work current about 2000 b.c. and thought to indicate the situation of Egyp. society in the First Intermediate Period. Undoubtedly the date of the Exodus is one of the most perplexing problems in Old World archeology as it is placed on a scale which, in turn, is useless if indeed Velikovsky’s theories or any substantial portion of them are correct. Entirely too much of the 19th cent. organization of the Biblical history was based upon a dependence upon Egyptian and Mesopotamian chronology, which has been seriously eroded in the 20th cent. The expansion of man’s horizon by the American and Soviet achievements in space will no doubt alter fundamentally the way in which the history of the past is comprehended. Although Velikovsky and his followers may well be discredited in regard to their views of the ancient world, yet the reliability of their methods of understanding the past will carry the day. It is necessary, however, to point out that these speculations do not involve nor require a divine initiation for the plagues, a point on which the Biblical narrative is adamant. Recent works on comparative religions have tended to treat the story of the ten plagues simply as a Sem. myth. The events of the Exodus are undeniable, and the archeological record of the conquest of Pal. under Joshua is beyond question; no humanistic explanations yet devised will suffice. The rest of Scripture, including the gospel traditions, presupposes and comments upon the fact of the Exodus, and its historicity is confirmed beyond question by the NT writers. To excise it from the OT as some mere aggregate of ancient fancy is to deprive the Christian religion of its greatest single example of God’s salvation in the OT period. To do such would undercut the teaching of Jesus and the purpose of the Atonement.
C. Leemans, Monumens égyptiens du Musée d’antiquités des Pays-Bas à Leide (1841-1882), II pls. cv-cxiii; E. W. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses (1843); A. H. Gardiner, The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage (1909); J. H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (1933); M. G. Kyle, ISBE vol. IV (1939), 2403-2406; J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture, III-IV (1940), 725-737; ed. A. de Grazia, The Velikovsky Affair (1966).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(niphle’oth, "wonders "from pala’, "to be separate," i.e. in a class by themselves; also called negheph, "plague," from naghaph, "to smite" (Ex 9:14), and negha`, "a stroke," from nagha`, "to touch" (Ex 11:1; compare Jos 24:10)):
I. NATURAL PHENOMENA
1. Water Turned to Blood
2. The Plague of Frogs
3. The Plague of Lice
4. The Plague of Flies
5. The Plague of Murrain
6. The Plague of Boils
7. The Plague of Hail
8. The Plague of Locusts
9. The Plague of Darkness
10. Death of the Firstborn
II. MIRACULOUS USE OF THE PHENOMENA
4. Orderliness and Increasing Severity
5. Arrangement to Accomplish Divine Moral Purpose
III. DIVINE MORAL PURPOSE
1. Discrediting of the gods of Egypt
2. Pharaoh Made to Know that Yahweh Is Lord
3. Revelation of God as Saviour
4. Exhibition of the Divine Use of Evil
Much elaborate effort has been made to derive from the description of the plagues evidence for different documents in the narrative. It is pointed out that Moses (E) declared to Pharaoh that he would smite the waters (Ex 7:17), and then the account, as it proceeds, tells us that Aaron smote the waters (Ex 7:19,20). But this is quite in accord with the preceding statement (Ex 4:16) that Aaron was to be the spokesman. Moses was to deal with God, Aaron with Pharaoh. Again it is noticed that some of the plagues are ascribed to the immediate agency of Yahweh, some are represented as coming through the mediation of Moses, and still others through the mediation of Moses and Aaron. Certainly this may be an exact statement of facts, and, if the facts were just so, the record of the facts affords no evidence of different documents.
An examination of the account of the plagues as it stands will bring them before us in a most graphic and connected story.
I. The Natural Phenomena.
All the "wonders" represented anywhere in Scripture as done by the power of God are intimately associated with natural phenomena, and necessarily so. Human beings have no other way of perceiving external events than through those senses which only deal with natural phenomena. Accordingly, all theophanies and miraculous doings are embodied in natural events.
The presence of Yahweh with the sacrifice by Abraham was manifested by the passing of a "smoking furnace and a burning lamp" between the pieces of the offerings (Ge 15:17 the King James Version). The majesty and power of God at Sinai were manifested in the "cloud" and the "brightness," the "voice" and the "sound of a trumpet" (Heb 12:19). The Holy Spirit descended "as a dove" (Mt 3:16). The Deity of Jesus was attested on the mountain by a "voice" (Mt 17:5). Jesus Himself was "God .... manifest in the flesh" (1Ti 3:16 the King James Version). He was "found in fashion as a man’ (Php 2:8). And all the miracles of Jesus were coupled with sensible phenomena: He spoke to the sea and it was calm; He touched the leper and he was clean; He called to Lazarus and he came forth.
Yet in all these natural events, the miraculous working of God was as clearly seen as the natural phenomena. It is thus to be expected that the "wonders" of God in the land of Pharaoh should also be associated with natural events as well as manifest miraculous elements. The "blood" in the river, the "frogs" hopping about on the land, the "lice," the "flies," the "murrain," the "boils," the "hail," the "locusts," the "darkness," and the "pestilence" are all named as natural phenomena. Long familiarity with the land of Egypt has made it perfectly plain to many intelligent people, also, that nearly, if not quite, all the plagues of Egypt are still in that land as natural phenomena, and occur, when they do occur, very exactly in the order in which we find them recorded in the narrative in Exodus. But natural events in the plagues as in other "wonders" of God embodied miraculous doings.
1. Water Turned to Blood:
The first of the plagues (dam, from ’adham, "to be red" (Ex 7:19-25)) was brought about by the smiting of the water with the rod in the hand of Aaron, and it consisted in the defilement of the water so that it became as "blood." The waters were polluted and the fish died. Even the water in vessels which had been taken from the river became corrupt. The people were forced to get water only from wells in which the river water was filtered through the sand. There are two Egyptian seasons when, at times, the water resembles blood. At the full Nile the water is sometimes of a reddish color, but at that season the water is quite potable and the fish do not die. But a similar phenomenon is witnessed sometimes at the time of the lowest Nile just before the rise begins. Then also the water sometimes becomes defiled and very red, so polluted that the fish die (Bib. Sacra, 1905, 409). This latter time is evidently the time of the first plague. It would be some time in the month of May. The dreadful severity of the plague constituted the "wonder" in this first plague. The startling character of the plague is apparent when it is remembered that Egypt is the product of the Nile, the very soil being all brought down by it, and its irrigation being constantly dependent upon it. Because of this it became one of the earliest and greatest of the gods (Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Egypt, 3-47; "Hymn to the Nile," Records of the Past, New Series, III, 46-54). The magicians imitated this plague with their enchantments. Their success may have been by means of sleight of hand or other devices of magic, as may be seen in the East today, with claim of supernatural aid, and as used in western lands for entertainment, as mere cleverness. Or it may be, as has been suggested, that they counted upon the continuance of the plague for at least a time, and so took advantage of the materials the "wonder" had provided.
2. The Plague of Frogs:
Frogs (tsphardeim, probably "marsh-leapers" (Ex 8:1-15)) are very abundant just after the high Nile when the waters begin to recede. Spawn in the mud is hatched by the sun, and the marshes are filled with myriads of these creatures. The frog was the hieroglyph for myriads. The frogs usually remain in the marshes, but in this case they came forth to the horror and disgust of the people. "Frogs in the houses, frogs in the beds, frogs baked with the food in the ovens, frogs in the kneading troughs worked up with the flour; frogs with their monotonous croak, frogs with their cold slimy skins, everywhere--from morning to night, from night to morning--frogs." The frog was also associated with Divinity, was the symbol of Heqt, a form of Hathor, and seems also at times to have been worshipped as divinity. This plague created such horror that thus early Pharaoh came to an agreement (Ex 8:8-10). A time was set for the disappearance of the frogs that he might know that "there is none like unto Yahweh our God," but when the frogs were dead, Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex 8:15). In this plague "the magicians did in like manner with their enchantments" (Ex 8:7). Frogs were plentiful, and it would not seem to be difficult to claim to have produced some of them.
3. The Plague of Lice:
It is impossible to determine what particular troublesome insect pest of Egypt is meant by the 3rd plague, whether body-lice or mosquitoes or sandflies or ticks or fleas (kinnim, "gnats" (Ex 8:16)). Those who have experience of these pests in Egypt are quite ready to accept any of them as adequate for the plague. Lice seem rather to be ruled out, unless different kinds of lice were sent, as there is no one kind that torments both man and beast. All the other insect pests appear in incredible numbers out of the "dust" when the pools have dried up after the receding of the waters. The assertion that the account of this plague is not complete, because it is not recorded that Pharaoh asked its removal or that Moses secured it, is amazing. Perhaps Pharaoh did not, in fact, ask its removal. There seems also at this time some difficulty in Moses having access to Pharaoh after this plague (Ex 8:20). Perhaps the plague was not removed at all. The Egyptians are disposed to think it was not! Certainly that season of the year spent in Egypt, not in a dahabiyeh on the Nile, but in a native village, will furnish very satisfying evidence that stinging and biting insects are a very real plague in Egypt yet. The magicians failed with their enchantments and acknowledged that divine power was at work, and seem to have acknowledged that Yahweh was supreme (Ex 8:19), but Pharaoh would not heed them.
4. The Plague of Flies:
As the seasons pass on, after the recession of the waters, the flies (`arobh, "swarms," probably of flies (Ex 8:20-32)) become more and more numerous until they are almost a plague every year. The increased severity of this plague, and the providential interference to separate between Israel and the Egyptians, drove Pharaoh and his people to such desperation that Pharaoh gave a half-promise of liberty for Israel to sacrifice "in the land." This called out the statement that they would sacrifice the "abomination of the Egyptians." This may have referred to the sacrifice of sheep, which were always held in more or less detestation by Egyptians, or it may have had reference to the sacrifice of heifers, the cow being the animal sacred to the goddess Hathor. The new element of separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians introduced into this plague was another step toward establishing the claims of Yahweh to be the God of all the earth and to have taken Israel under His especial care.
5. The Plague of Murrain:
In addition to the separation established between Israel and the Egyptians, a definite time is now set for the coming of the 5th plague. It is to be noticed also that diseases of cattle (debher, "destruction" (Ex 9:1-7)) and of men follow quickly after the plague of insects. This is in exact accord with the order of Nature as now thoroughly understood through the discovered relation of mosquitoes and flies to the spread of diseases. Rinderpest is still prevalent at times in Egypt, so that beef becomes very scarce in market and is sometimes almost impossible to obtain. It is a fact, also, that the prevalence eft cattle plague, the presence of boils among men (see ''''6, below) and the appearance of bubonic plague are found to be closely associated together and in this order. The mention of camels as affected by this plague is interesting. It is doubtful if any clear indication of the presence of the camel in Egypt so early as this has yet been found among the monuments of Egypt. There is in the Louvre museum one small antiquity which seems to me to be intended for the camel. But Professor Maspero does not agree that it is so. It would seem likely that the Hyksos, who were Bedouin princes, princes of the desert, would have introduced the beasts of the desert into Egypt. If they did so, that may have been sufficient reason that the Egyptians would not picture it, as the Hyksos and all that was theirs were hated in Egypt.
6. The Plague of Boils:
In the plague of boils (shechin, and ’abha`bu`oth, "boils" (Ex 9:8-17)) ashes were used, probably in the same way and to the same end as the clay was used in opening the eyes of the blind man (Joh 9:6), i.e. to attract attention and to fasten the mind of the observer upon what the Lord was doing. This plague in the order of its coming, immediately after the murrain, and in the description given of it and in the significant warning of the "pestilence" yet to come (Ex 9:15), appears most likely to have been pestis minor, the milder form of bubonic plague. Virulent rinder-pest among cattle in the East is regarded as the precursor of plague among men and is believed to be of the same nature. It may well be, as has been thought by some, that the great aversion of the ancient Egyptians to the contamination of the soil by decaying animals was from the danger thereby of starting an epidemic of plague among men (Dr. Merrins, Biblical Sacra, 1908, 422-23).
7. The Plague of Hail:
Hail (baradh, "hail" (Ex 9:18-35)) is rare in Egypt, but is not unknown. The writer has himself seen a very little, and has known of one instance when a considerable quantity of hail as large as small marbles fell. Lightning, also, is not as frequent in Egypt as in many semi-tropical countries, yet great electric storms sometimes occur. This plague is quite accurately dated in the seasons of the year (Ex 9:31,32). As the first plague was just before the rising of the Nile, so this one is evidently about 9 months later, when the new crops after the inundation were beginning to mature, January-February. This plague also marks another great step forward in the revelation of Yahweh to Israel and to the Egyptians. First only His power was shown, then His wisdom in the timing of the plagues, and now His mercy appears in the warning to all godly-disposed Egyptians to save themselves, their herds and their servants by keeping all indoors (Ex 9:19-21). Pharaoh also now distinctly acknowledged Yahweh (Ex 9:27).
The plague of locusts (’arbeh, "locust" (Ex 10:1-20)) was threatened, and so frightened were the servants of Pharaoh that they persuaded him to try to make some agreement with Moses, but the attempt of Pharaoh still to limit in some way the going of Israel thwarted the plan (Ex 10:7-10).
8. The Plague of Locusts:
Then devouring swarms of locusts came up over the land from the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. They devoured every green thing left by the hail. The desperate situation created by the locusts soon brought Pharaoh again to acknowledgment of Yahweh (Ex 10:16). This was the greatest profession of repentance yet manifested by Pharaoh, but he soon showed that it was deceitful, and again he would not let the people go. When the wind had swept the locusts away, he hardened his heart once more.
9. The Plague of Darkness:
The progress of the seasons has been quite marked from the first plague, just before the rising of the waters, on through the year until now the khamsin period (choshekh, "darkness" from any cause (Ex 10:21-29)) has come. When this dreadful scourge comes with its hot sand-laden breath, more impenetrable than a London fog, it is in very truth a "darkness which may be felt." The dreadful horror of this monster from the desert can hardly be exaggerated. Once again Pharaoh said "Go," but this time he wished to retain the flocks and herds, a hostage for the return of the people (Ex 10:24). Upon Moses’ refusal to accept this condition, he threatened his life. Why had he not done so ere this? Why, indeed, did he let this man Moses come and go with such freedom, defying him and his people in the very palace? Probably Moses’ former career in Egypt explains this. If, as is most probable, he had grown up at court with this Merenptah, and had been known as "the son of Pharaoh’s daughter," heir to the throne and successor to Rameses II, instead of Merenptah, then this refugee had undoubtedly many friends still in Egypt who would make his death a danger to the reigning Pharaoh.
10. Death of the Firstborn:
No intimation is given of the exact character of the death inflicted on the firstborn (bekhor, "firstborn," "chief" or "best"; compare Job 18:13; Isa 14:30 (Ex 11-12:36)) by the angel of the Lord, or its appearance. But it is already foretold as the "pestilence" (Ex 9:15). The pestis major or virulent bubonic plague corresponds most nearly in its natural phenomena to this plague. It culminates in a sudden and overwhelming virulence, takes the strongest and best, and then subsides with startling suddenness.
Thus, it appears that probably all the plagues were based upon natural phenomena which still exist in Egypt in the same order, and, when they do occur, find place somewhere during the course of one year.
II. Miraculous Use of the Phenomena.
The miraculous elements in the plagues are no less distinctly manifest than the natural phenomena themselves.
There was an intensification of the effect of the various plagues so much beyond all precedent as to impress everyone as being a special divine manifestation, and it was so. There was national horror of the blood-like water, disgust at the frogs, intolerable torture by the stinging insects and flies, utter ruin of the farmers in the loss of the cattle, the beating down of the crops by the hail, and the devouring of every green thing by the locusts, the sufferings and dread of the inhabitants by reason of the boils, the frightful electric storm, the suffocating darkness and, finally, the crushing disaster of the death of the firstborn. All these calamities may be found in Egypt to the present day, but never any of them, not to say all of them, in such overwhelming severity. That all of them should come in one year and all with such devastation was plainly a divine arrangement. Merely natural events do not arrange themselves so systematically. In this systematic severity were seen miracles of power.
The discrimination shown in the visitation by the plagues presents another miraculous element more significant and important than either the miracles of power or the miracles of knowledge. God put a difference between the Egyptians and the Israelites, beginning with the plague of flies and continuing, apparently, without exception, until the end. Such miracles of moral purpose admit of no possible explanation but the exercise of a holy will. Merely natural events make no such regular, systematic discriminations.
4. Orderliness and Increasing Severity:
The orderliness and gradually increasing severity of the plagues with such arrangement as brought "judgment upon the gods of Egypt," vindicating Yahweh as Ruler over all, and educating the people to know Yahweh as Lord of all the earth, present an aspect of events distinctly non-natural. Such method reveals also a divine mind at work.
5. Arrangement to Accomplish Divine Moral Purpose:
Last of all and most important of all, the plagues were so arranged as to accomplish in particular a great divine moral purpose in the revelation of God to the Israelites, to the Egyptians and to all the world. This is the distinctive mark of every real miracle. And this leads us directly to the consideration of the most important aspect of the plagues.
III. Divine Moral Purpose.
1. Discrediting of the gods of Egypt:
This discrediting of the gods of Egypt is marked at every step of the progress of the plagues, and the accumulated effect of the repeated discrediting of the gods must have had, and, indeed, had, a great influence upon the Egyptians. The plagues did `execute judgment against the gods of Egypt’ (Ex 12:12), and the people and princes brought great pressure to bear upon Pharaoh to let the people go (Ex 10:7). The magicians who claimed to represent the gods of Egypt were defeated, Pharaoh himself, who was accounted divine, was humbled, the great god, the Nile, was polluted, frogs defiled the temples and, at last, the sun, the greatest god of Egypt, was blotted out in darkness.
2. Pharaoh Made to Know that Yahweh Is Lord:
Pharaoh was made to know that Yahweh is Lord, and acknowledged it (Ex 9:27; 10:16). To this end the issue was clearly drawn. Pharaoh challenged the right of Yahweh to command him (Ex 5:2), and God required him then to "stand" to the trial until the evidence could be fully presented, in accordance with the fundamental principle that he who makes a charge is bound to stand to it until either he acknowledges its utter falsity or affords opportunity for full presentation of evidence. So we see God made Pharaoh to "stand" (Ex 9:16) (while the Bible, which speaks in the concrete language of life, calls it the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart) until the case was tried out (compare Lamb, Miracle of Science, 126-49).
3. Revelation of God as Saviour:
A more blessed and gracious moral purpose of the plagues was the revelation of God as the Saviour of the world. This began in the revelation at the burning bush, where God, in fire, appeared in the bush, yet the bush was not consumed, but saved. This revelation, thus given to the people, was further evidenced by the separation between Israel and the Egyptians; was made known even to the Egyptians by the warning before the plague of hail, that those Egyptians who had been impressed with the power of God might also learn that He is a God that will save those who give heed unto Him; and, at last, reached its startling climax when the angel of the Lord passed over the blood-marked door the night of the death of the firstborn and the institution of the Passover.
4. Exhibition of the Divine Use of Evil:
Last of all, the plagues had a great moral purpose in that they embodied the divine use of evil in the experience of men in this world. As the experience of Job illustrates the use of evil in the life of the righteous, so the plagues of Egypt illustrate the same great problem of evil in the lot of the wicked. In the one case, as in the other, the wonders of God are so arranged as "to justify the ways of God to men."
The minutely accurate knowledge of life in Egypt displayed by this narrative in the Book of Exodus is inconceivable in an age of so little and difficult intercommunication between nations, except by actual residence of the author in Egypt. This has an important bearing upon the time of the composition of this narrative, and so upon the question of its author.
The literature of this subject is almost endless. It will suffice to refer the reader to all the general comms., and the special commentaries on Ex, for discussion of doctrinal and critical questions. Two admirable recent discussions of the plagues, in English, are Lamb, Miracle of Science, and Merrins, "The Plagues of Egypt," in Bibliotheca Sacra, 1908, July and October.