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Plagues of Egypt

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

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plāgz ( נפלאת , niphle'ōth , "wonders "from פּלא , pālā' , "to be separate," i.e. in a class by themselves; also called נגף , negheph , "plague," from נגף , nāghaph , "to smite" ( Exodus 9:14 ), and נגע , negha‛ , "a stroke," from נגע , nāgha‛ , "to touch" (Exodus 11:1; compare Joshua 24:10 )):



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


1. Intensification

2. Prediction

3. Discrimination

4. Orderliness and Increasing Severity

5. Arrangement to Accomplish 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



The Hebrew words are so used as to give the name "plagues" to all the "wonders" God did against Pharaoh. Thus, it appears that the language in the account in Exodus puts forward the wondrous character of these dealings of Yahweh with Pharaoh. The account of the plagues is found in Exodus 7:8 through 12:31; Psalm 78:42-51; Psalm 105:27-36 . These poetical accounts of the plagues have a devotional purpose and do not give a full historical narrative. Ps 78 omits plagues 4, 6, 9; Ps 105 omits plagues 5 and 6. Both psalms change the order of the plagues. Account of the preparation which led up to the plagues is found in the narrative of the burning bush (see BURNING BUSH ), the meeting of Aaron with Moses, the gathering together of the elders of Israel for instruction and the preliminary wonders before Pharaoh (Ex 3; 4). This preparation contemplated two things important to be kept in view in considering the plague, namely, that the consummation of plagues was contemplated from the beginning (Exodus 4:22 , Exodus 4:23 ), and that the skepticism of Israel concerning Moses authority and power was likewise anticipated (Exodus 4:1 ). It was thus manifestly not an age of miracles when the Israelites were expecting such "wonders" and ready to receive anything marvelous as a divine interposition. This skepticism of Israel is a valuable asset for the credibility of the account of the "wonders." The immediate occasion of the plagues was the refusal of Pharaoh to let the people have liberty for sacrifice, together with the consequent hardening of Pharaoh's heart. No indication of any localizing of the plagues is given except in Psalm 78:12 , Psalm 78:43 , where the "field of Zoan" is mentioned as the scene of the contest between Yahweh and the Egyptians. But this is poetry, and the "field of Zoan" means simply the territory of the great capital Zoan. This expression might be localized in the Delta or it might extend to the whole of Egypt. Discussion of the plagues has brought out various classifications of them, some of which are philosophical, as that of Philo, others fanciful, as that of Origen. Arrangements of the order of the plagues for the purpose of moralizing are entirely useless for historical consideration of the plagues. The only order of any real value is the order of Nature, i.e. the order in which the plagues occurred, which will be found to be the order of the natural phenomena which were the embodiment of the plagues.

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 (Exodus 7:17 ), and then the account, as it proceeds, tells us that Aaron smote the waters (Exodus 7:19 , Exodus 7:20 ). But this is quite in accord with the preceding statement (Exodus 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 (Genesis 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" ( Hebrews 12:19 ). The Holy Spirit descended "as a dove" (Matthew 3:16 ). The Deity of Jesus was attested on the mountain by a "voice" (Matthew 17:5 ). Jesus Himself was "God ... manifest in the flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16 the King James Version). He was "found in fashion as a man' ( Philippians 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 ( דּם , dām , from אדם , 'ādham , "to be red" ( Exodus 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 ( צפרדּעים , cepharde‛ı̄m , probably "marsh-leapers" ( Exodus 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 (Exodus 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 (Exodus 8:15 ). In this plague "the magicians did in like manner with their enchantments" (Exodus 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 3plague, whether body-lice or mosquitoes or sandflies or ticks or fleas ( כּנּם , kinnı̄m , "gnats" ( Exodus 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 (Exodus 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 (Exodus 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 ( ערב , ‛ārōbh , "swarms," probably of flies ( Exodus 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 ( דּבר , debher , "destruction" ( Exodus 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 ( שׁחין , sheḥı̄n , and אבעבּעת , 'ăbha‛bu‛ōth , "boils" ( Exodus 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 (John 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 (Exodus 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 ( בּרד , bārādh , "hail" ( Exodus 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 (Exodus 9:31 , Exodus 9:32 ). 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 (Exodus 9:19-21 ). Pharaoh also now distinctly acknowledged Yahweh (Exodus 9:27 ).

8. The Plague of Locusts:

The plague of locusts ( ארבּה , 'arbeh , "locust" ( Exodus 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 (Exodus 10:7-10 ). 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 (Exodus 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 ( חשׁך , ḥōshekh , "darkness" from any cause ( Exodus 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 (Exodus 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 ( בּכור , bekhōr , "firstborn," "chief" or "best"; compare Job 18:13; Isaiah 14:30 (Ex 11 through 12:36)) by the angel of the Lord, or its appearance. But it is already foretold as the "pestilence" ( Exodus 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.

1. Intensification:

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 .

2. Prediction:

The prediction of the plagues and the fulfillment of the prediction at the exact time to a day, sometimes to an hour (as the cessation of the thunder and lightning): There was first a general prediction (Exodus 3:19 , Exodus 3:20; Exodus 7:3; Exodus 9:14 , Exodus 9:15 ) and an indication as the plagues went on that the climax would be pestilence (Exodus 9:15 ). Then several of the plagues were specifically announced and a time was set for them; e.g. the flies (Exodus 8:23 ), the murrain (Exodus 9:5 ), the hail (Exodus 9:18 ), the locusts (Exodus 10:4 ), the death of the firstborn (Exodus 11:4 ). In some cases a time for the removal of the plague was also specified: e.g. the frogs (Exodus 8:10 ), the thunder and lightning (Exodus 9:29 ). In every instance these predictions were exactly fulfilled. In some instances careful foresight might seem to supply in part this ability to predict. Perhaps it was by means of such foresight that the magicians "did so with their enchantments" for the first two plagues. The plague being in existence, foresight might safely predict that it would continue for a little time at least, so that, if the magicians sought for bloody water or called for frogs, they would seem to be successful. But the evidence which Yahweh produced went beyond them, and, at the third plague, they were unable to do anything. These things postulate, on the part of Moses and Aaron, knowledge far beyond human ken. Not only magicians could not do so with their enchantments, but modern science and discoveries are no more able so to predict events. Even meteorological phenomena are only predicted within the limits of reasonable foresight. Such wonders as the plagues of Egypt can in no wise be explained as merely natural. The prediction was a miracle of knowledge .

3. Discrimination:

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' (Exodus 12:12 ), and the people and princes brought great pressure to bear upon Pharaoh to let the people go (Exodus 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 (Exodus 9:27; Exodus 10:16 ). To this end the issue was clearly drawn. Pharaoh challenged the right of Yahweh to command him (Exodus 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" (Exodus 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.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Plagues of Egypt'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​p/plagues-of-egypt.html. 1915.
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