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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Plagues of Egypt

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PLAGUES OF EGYPT . There are not many references in the Bible to the plagues outside the Book of Exodus. They are epitomized in Psalms 78:44-51; Psalms 105:28-36 . In Romans 9:14-24 God’s treatment of Pharaoh is dwelt upon, to show His absolute right to do what He will with the creatures of His own handiwork. And in Revelation 8:1-13; Revelation 9:1-21; Revelation 16:1-21 much of the imagery in the visions of the trumpets and the bowls is based upon the plagues hail and fire ( Revelation 8:7; Revelation 16:17 f.), water becoming blood, and the death of the creatures that were in it ( Revelation 8:8 f., Revelation 16:3 f.), darkness ( Revelation 8:12 , Revelation 16:10 ), locusts ( Revelation 9:1-11 ), boils ( Revelation 16:2 ), frogs ( Revelation 16:13 ).

The narratives of the plagues demand study from three points of view: (1) their literary history; (2) the relation of the several plagues to natural phenomena; (3) their religious significance.

1. The sources . For a full discussion of the reasons for the literary analysis reference must be made to commentaries. The analysis, on which critics are in the main agreed, is as follows:

J 7:14 15 17a 18 21a 24 25 8:1 4 8 15a E 15 17b 20b 23 P 19 20a 21b 22 5 7 R J 20 32 9:1 7 13 17 18 23b 24b J Jahwist.

E Elohist.

P Priestly Narrative.

R Redactor.

J Jahwist

If the sources have here been rightly separated, it becomes probable that the original account of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] contained eight and not ten plagues. The 3rd and 4th are insect pests, the former kinnîm, kinnâm , i.e. gnats or mosquitoes (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ), the latter ‘ârôbh , i.e. swarms of flies (J [Note: Jahwist.] ). These may with probability be considered duplicates. And similarly the 5th and 6th, murrain (J [Note: Jahwist.] ) and boils (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ). If this is so, all the eight were originally contained in J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s narrative; E [Note: Elohist.] has elements in the 1st, 7th, 8th, and 9th, and in the 9th E [Note: Elohist.] ’s narrative has largely displaced that of J [Note: Jahwist.] .

2. Relation to natural phenomena . The hostility which used to exist between religion and natural science is rapidly passing away, as it is becoming more clearly recognized that science is concerned solely with the observation of physical sequences, while religion embraces science as the greater includes the less. Nothing can lie outside the activity of a God who is both a transcendent Person and an immanent sustaining Power in the universe. And therefore to point out a connexion between some of the ‘miracles’ of Scripture and ‘natural phenomena’ does not eliminate from them the Divine element; it rather transfigures an unreasoning ‘faith in the impossible’ into a faith which recognizes the ‘finger of God’ in everything. Thus the following discussion of the plagues may claim to be entirely constructive; it seeks to destroy nothing, but aims at showing it to be probable that the providence of God worked in Egypt by means of a series of natural phenomena, upon which the religious instinct of the Hebrew writers unerringly seized as signs of God’s favour to their forefathers, and of punishment to their oppressors. This religious conviction led in process of time to accretions and amplifications; as the stories were handed down, they acquired more and more of what is popularly called the miraculous. The earliest stage at which they emerge into writing is in J [Note: Jahwist.]; In the remains of E [Note: Elohist.] the wonders have increased, while in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] they are greatly multiplied.

1 st Plague . According to J [Note: Jahwist.] , this consisted in the smiting of the river by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , and the consequent death of the fish, causing the necessity of obtaining water by digging in the neighbourhood of the river. Nothing is here said of blood , but that is introduced in the next stage of development. In E [Note: Elohist.] the marvel is performed not directly by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] in the ordinary course of nature, but through Moses’ wonder-working staff, and the river is turned to blood. Two suggestions have been made as to the natural phenomena which might give rise to the story. When the Nile rises in June, its waters become discoloured from fragments of vegetable matter, which gradually turn to a dull red colour as the river rises to its height in August. This is confirmed by many travellers, who also speak of offensive odours emitted at the later stage. Others refer the reddening of the water to enormous quantities of minute organisms. Whatever may have been the actual cause, J [Note: Jahwist.] comes the nearest to the natural fact; a fetid exhalation killed the fish, or in Hebrew language J″ [Note: Jahweh.] smote the river. And the ease with which the belief could arise that the water was turned to blood is illustrated in 2 Kings 3:23 . In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ’s final amplification, every drop of water in Egypt was turned to blood.

2 nd Plague . From whatever cause the river became fetid, a mass of organic matter and of animal life would be collected. And these conditions would be suitable to the rapid multiplication of frogs. In J [Note: Jahwist.] , J″ [Note: Jahweh.] foretells that He will Himself smite Egypt with frogs; in the ordinary course of nature ‘the river shall swarm with frogs.’ In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , Aaron (as usual) is bidden by Moses to bring the plague by stretching out his staff. Plagues of frogs were not unknown in ancient times; and Haggard tells of a plague in the upper Nile valley in modern times ( Under Crescent and Star , p. 279). Frogs are most plentiful in Egypt in September.

3 rd and 4th Plagues . The mass of dead frogs collected in heaps ( Exodus 8:14 ) would lead to the breeding of innumerable insects. In J [Note: Jahwist.] , J″ [Note: Jahweh.] Himself sends ‘swarms of flies ’; in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , through the stretching out of Aaron’s staff, ‘all the dust of Egypt became mosquitoes’ (EV [Note: English Version.] lice [wh. see]). The ‘mosquitoes’ cannot have been, according to any natural sequence, distinct from the ‘swarms’; P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] particularizes the general statement of J [Note: Jahwist.] . Stinging gnats of various kinds are common in Egypt about October. The insects come to maturity after the waters of the Nile inundation have receded, and the pools in which the larvæ have lived have dried up. Note that in Psalms 105:31 the ‘swarm’ and the ‘mosquitoes’ are coupled in one sentence; and Psalms 78:45 omits the ‘mosquitoes’ altogether.

5 th and 6 th Plagues . The decomposing bodies of the frogs would produce pestilential effects; and bacteriological research shows that some insects, especially mosquitoes, are a serious factor in the spread of disease. Thus the murrain (J [Note: Jahwist.] ) is amply accounted for. In the preceding narrative J [Note: Jahwist.] relates that Goshen enjoyed complete immunity from the insects. It is not impossible that the direction of the wind or other natural causes, under God’s guidance, prevented them from reaching the Israelite territory. And if the insects, which spread disease, did not enter Goshen, the statement that the murrain did not touch the cattle of the Israelites is also explained. P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , on the other hand, departs from natural causes. Moses and Aaron flung soot into the air, which became boils on man and beast. Cattle plagues, causing enormous mortality, are reported in Egypt. One such in a.d. 1842 killed 40,000 oxen.

7 th Plague . Thus far the series of plagues have followed one another in a natural sequence. But at this point a new series begins with a destructive thunderstorm, accompanied by hail . Such storms are rare in Egypt, but are not without example. Those which have been reported in modern times have occurred about January; and that is the point of time defined in Exodus 9:31 f., ‘the barley was in the ear, and the flax was in bud, but the wheat and the vetch … were not grown up.’ Thus the cattle plague had lasted about two months and a half (Nov. to the middle of Jan.) when the storm came; and the first five plagues (reckoning 3, 4 and 5, 6 as duplicates) occupied a period of about five months.

8 th Ptague . The atmospheric conditions which resulted in the storm also led to other plagues. A strong east wind (the sirocco) was sent by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , and brought a dense mass of locusts (J [Note: Jahwist.] ). In E [Note: Elohist.] , Moses brought them by lifting his staff. The lightness and fragility of the locusts render them helpless before a wind (cf. Psalms 109:23 b). And when the wind shifted to the west, they were completely swept away into the Red Sea (J [Note: Jahwist.] ); cf. Joel 2:20 .

9 th Plague . Only a fragment of J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s narrative has been preserved, which relates the effect of the ‘ darkness ’ upon Pharaoh. E [Note: Elohist.] , as before, says that it was due to the lifting of the staff by Moses. But it is not impossible that it was a further consequence of the west wind. Dr. A. Macalister (art. ‘Plagues of Egypt’ in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] iii.) writes: ‘The condition of darkness referred to is strikingly like that brought about by the severer form of the electrical wind hamsin . This is a S. or S.W. wind that is so named because it is liable to blow during the 25 days before and the 25 days after the vernal equinox ( hamsin = 50). It is often not so much a storm or violent wind as an oppressive hot blast charged with so much sand and fine dust that the air is darkened. It causes a blackness equal to the worst of London fogs, while the air is so hot and full of dust that respiration is impeded.… Denon says that it sometimes travels as a narrow stream, so that one part of the land is light while the rest is dark.’ And he adds that three days is not an uncommon duration for the hamsin .

10 th Plague . Malignant epidemics have at all times been the scourge of Bible lands; and it is worthy of note that many authorities state that pestilence is often worst at the time of the hamsin wind. In the Hebrew narratives, however, all thought of a ‘natural’ occurrence has passed away. Only the firstborn are smitten, as a just retribution for Pharaoh’s attempt to destroy the firstborn of the Israelites.

3. Religious value . This is manifold. Considered from the point of view of natural phenomena, the narratives teach the all-important truth that God’s providential care of men is not confined to ‘miracles’ in the commonly accepted sense of the term, else were God’s providential actions unknown to-day. The lifting of Moses’ staff to bring the plagues, and his successive entreaties for their removal, teach that prayer is not out of place or unavailing in cases where natural laws can be co-ordinated and guided by God to bring about the wished-for result. And from whatever point of view the plagues are regarded, the same great facts shine through the narratives that J″ [Note: Jahweh.] is supreme in power over the world which He made; that He has an absolute right, if He so wills, to punish Pharaoh in order to show forth in him His power; that He does so, however, only because Pharaoh is impenitent, and consequently ‘fitted for destruction,’ for J″ [Note: Jahweh.] is a God who hates sin; that if a man hardens his heart, the result will be as inevitable as results in the natural world so inevitable that it may truly be said that J″ [Note: Jahweh.] hardens his heart; that the sin of Pharaoh, and so of any other man, may entail sufferings upon many innocent men and animals; and finally, that J″ [Note: Jahweh.] is mindful of His own, and delivers them from the ‘noisome pestilence,’ ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness,’ and ‘the destruction that wasteth at noonday,’ so that ‘no plague can come nigh their dwelling’ ( Psalms 91:1-16 ).

A. H. M‘Neile.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Plagues of Egypt'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/p/plagues-of-egypt.html. 1909.

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