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Plagues of Egypt

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Plaifere (or Playfere), John, D.D.
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(for the use of the Hebrew word, (See PLAGUE) ), the term usually applied to the series of divine visitations of wrath with which Jehovah punished the Egyptians, and especially their king, for their refusal to let Israel go. In considering the history of the Ten Plagues we have to notice the place where they occurred and the occasion on which they were sent, and to examine the narrative of each judgment, with a view to ascertain what it was and in what manner Pharaoh and the Egyptians were punished by it, as well as to see if we can trace any general connection between the several judgments; and we shall thus be prepared to estimate their providential character, as well as to determine how far they were miraculous events, and how far natural or simulated. In this discussion we combine the Scriptural information with that derived from modern investigations. (See EGYPT); (See MOSES).

I. The History of the Occurrences.

1. The Place. Although it is distinctly stated that the plagues prevailed throughout Egypt, save, in the case of some, the Israelitish territory, the land of Goshen, yet the descriptions seem principally to apply to that part of Egypt which lay nearest to Goshen, and more especially to "the field of Zoan," or the tract about that city, since it seems almost certain that Pharaoh dwelt in the Delta, and that territory is especially indicated in Psalms 78:43. That the capital at this time was not more distant is evident from the time in which a message could be sent from Pharaoh to Moses on the occasion of the Exodus. The descriptions of the first and second plagues seem especially to refer to a land abounding in streams and lakes, and so rather to the Lower than to the Upper country. We must therefore look especially to Lower Egypt for our illustrations, while bearing in mind the evident prevalence of the plagues throughout the land.

2. The Occasion. When that Pharaoh who seems to have been the first oppressor was dead, God sent Moses to deliver Israel, commanding him to gather the elders of his people together, and to tell them his commission. It is added, "And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The Lord God of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go" (Exodus 3:18-20). From what follows, that the Israelites should borrow jewels and raiment, and "spoil Egypt" (Exodus 3:21-22), it seems evident that they were to leave as if only for the purpose of sacrificing; but it will be seen that if they did so, Pharaoh, by his armed pursuit and overtaking them when they had encamped at the close of the third day's journey, released Moses from his engagement.

When Moses went to Pharaoh. Aaron went with him, because Moses, not judging himself to be eloquent, was diffident of speaking to Pharaoh. "And Moses said before the Lord, Behold, I [am] of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me? And the Lord said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet" (Exodus 6:30; Exodus 7:1; Exodus 4:10-16). We are therefore to understand that even when Moses speaks it is rather by Aaron than himself. It is perhaps worthy of note that in the tradition of the Exodus which Manetho gives, the calamities preceding the event are said to have been caused by the king's consulting an Egyptian prophet; for this suggests a course which Pharaoh is likely to have adopted, rendering it probable that the magicians were sent for as the priests of the gods of the country, so that Moses was exalted by contrast with these vain objects of worship.

It has been, asked, What period of time was occupied in the infliction of these successive plagues? In answer to this, some contend for a year; but they have no better reason for this than that it enables them to compare the plagues with certain natural phenomena occurring at fixed seasons of the year in Egypt. This has been done with considerable ingenuity, though not without some rather violent straining in particular cases; but without some better reason than this we should not feel justified in accepting a hypothesis which the general tone of the narrative does not suggest. Each plague, according to the historian, lasted only for a short time; and unless we suppose an interval of several weeks between each, a few months or even weeks would afford sufficient time for the happening of the whole. We may now examine the narrative of each plague.

3. The Plagues themselves. We here notice first a preliminary phenomenon of the same general character with the "plagues." When Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh a miracle was required of them. Then Aaron's rod became a "serpent" (A.V.), or rather "a crocodile" (תִּנַּין ). Its being changed into an animal reverenced by all the Egyptians, or by some of them, would have been an especial warning to Pharaoh. The Egyptian magicians called by the king produced what seemed to be the same wonder, yet Aaron's rod swallowed up the others (Exodus 7:3-12). This passage, taken alone, would appear to indicate that the magicians succeeded in working wonders, but if it is compared with those others relating their opposition on the occasions of the first three plagues, a contrary inference seems more reasonable. In this case the expression "they also did in like manner with their enchantments" (Exodus Exodus 7:11) is used, and it is repeated in the cases of their seeming success on the occasions of the first plague (Exodus ver; 22), and the second (Exodus 8:7), as well as when they failed on the occasion of the third plague (Exodus 8:18). A comparison with other passages strengthens us in the inference that the magicians succeeded merely by juggling. Yet, even if they were able to produce any real effects by magic, a broad distinction should be drawn between the general and powerful nature of the wonders wrought by the hand of Moses and Aaron and their partial and weak imitations. (See MAGIC).

(1.) The "Plague" of Blood. When Pharaoh had refused to let the Israelites go, Moses was sent again, and, on the second refusal, was commanded to smite upon the waters of the river, and to turn them and all the waters of Egypt into blood. The miracle was to be wrought when Pharaoh went forth in the morning to the river. Its general character is very remarkable, for not only was the water of the Nile smitten, but all the water, even that in vessels, throughout the country. The fish died, and the river stank. The Egyptians could not drink of it, and digged around it for water. This plague appears to have lasted seven days, for the account of it ends, "And seven days were fulfilled, after that the Lord had smitten the river" (Exodus 7:13-25), and the narrative of the second plague immediately follows, as if the other had then ceased. Some difficulty has been occasioned by the mention that the Egyptians digged for water, but it is not stated that they so gained what they sought, although it may be conjectured that only the water that was seen was smitten, in order that the nation should not perish. It appears that the water, when filtered through the soil of the banks, regained its salubrity. This plague was doubly humiliating to the religion of the country, as the Nile was held sacred, as well as some kinds of its fish, not to speak of the crocodiles, which probably were destroyed. It may have been a marked reproof for the cruel edict that the Israelitish children should be drowned, and could scarcely have failed to strike guilty consciences as such, though Pharaoh does not seem to have been alarmed by it. He saw what was probably an imitation wrought by the magicians, who accompanied him, as if he were engaged in some sacred rites, perhaps connected with the worship of the Nile. Events having some resemblance to this are mentioned by ancient writers; the most remarkable is related by Manetho, according to whom it was said that, in the reign of Nephercheres, seventh king of the second dynasty. the Nile flowed mixed with honey for eleven days. Some of the historical notices of the earliest dynasties seem to be of very doubtful authenticity, and Manetho seems to treat this one as a fable, or perhaps as a tradition. Nephercheres, it must be remarked, reigned several hundred years before the Exodus. Those who have endeavored to explain this plague by natural causes have referred to the changes of color to which the Nile is subject, the appearance of the Red Sea, and the so-called rain and dew of blood of the Middle Ages; the last two occasioned by small fungi of very rapid growth. But such theories do not explain why the wonder happened at a time of year when the Nile is most clear, nor why it killed the fish and made the water unfit to be drunk. These are the really weighty points, rather than the change into blood, which seems to mean a change into the semblance of blood. The employment of natural means in effecting a miracle is equally seen in the passage of the Red Sea; but the divine power is proved by the intensifying or extending that means, and the opportune occurrence of the result, and its fitness for a great moral purpose. (See NILE).

(2.) The "Plague" of Frogs. When seven days had passed after the smiting of the river, Pharaoh was threatened with another judgment, and, on his refusing to let the Israelites go, the second plague was sent. The river and all the open waters of Egypt brought forth countless frogs, which not only covered the land, but filled the houses, even in their driest parts and vessels, for the ovens and kneading-troughs are specified. The magicians again had a seeming success in their opposition; yet Pharaoh, whose very palaces were filled by the reptiles, entreated Moses to pray that they might be removed, promising to let the Israelites go; but, on the removal of the plague, again hardened his heart (Exodus 7:25; Exodus 8:1-15). This must have been an especially trying judgment to the Egyptians, as frogs were included among the sacred animals, probably not among those which were reverenced throughout Egypt, like the cat, but in the second class of local objects of worship, like the crocodile. The frog was sacred to the goddess Hekt, who is represented with the head of this reptile. In hieroglyphics the frog signifies "very many," "millions," doubtless from its abundance. In the present day frogs abound in Egypt, and in the summer and autumn their loud and incessant croaking in all the waters of the country gives some idea of this plague. They are not, however, heard in the spring, nor is there any record, excepting the Biblical one, of their having been injurious to the inhabitants. It must be added that the supposed cases of the same kind elsewhere, quoted from ancient authors, are of very doubtful authenticity. The species of reptile which was made the instrument of this infliction was probably the small frog of Egypt called by the natives dofda, the Rana Mosaica of Seetzen (Reisen, 2, 245, 350 sq.). (See FROG).

(3.) The "Plague" of Lice. The account of the third plague is not preceded by the mention of any warning to Pharaoh. We read that Aaron was commanded to stretch out his rod and smite the dust, which became, as the A. V. reads the word, "lice" in man and beast. The magicians again attempted opposition; but, failing, confessed that the wonder was of God (Exodus 8:16-19). There is much difficulty as to the animals meant by the term כנם . The Masoretic punctuation in Exodus 8:13-14 is כַּנָּם, kinnoam, which would probably make it a collective noun with ם formative; but the pointing כַּנַּם (Exodus 8:12) and the more decided plural form כַּנַּים, kinnim, also occur (Exodus 8:13-14; Psalms 105:31), of which we once find the singular כֵּן in Isaiah 51:6. It is therefore reasonable to conjecture that the first form should be punctuated כַּנַּם, as the defective writing of כַּנַּים; and it should also be observed that the Samaritan has כנים . The Sept. has σκνίφες, and the Vulg. sciniphes, mosquitoes, mentioned by Herodotus (2, 95) and Philo (De Vilt Mosis, 1, 20, p. 97, ed. Mang.) as troublesome in Egypt. Josephus, however, makes the כנם lice (Ant. 2, 14, 3), with which Bochart agrees (Hieroz. 2, 572 sq.). The etymology is doubtful, and perhaps the word is Egyptian. The narrative does not enable us to decide which is the more probable of the two renderings, except, indeed, that if it be meant that exactly the same kind of animal attacked man and beast, mosquitoes would be the more likely translation. In this case the plague does not seem to be especially directed against the superstitions of the Egyptians; if, however, it were of lice, it would have been most distressing to their priests, who were very cleanly, apparently, like the Moslems, as a religious duty. In the present day both mosquitoes and lice are abundant in Egypt: the latter may be avoided, but there is no escape from the former, which are so distressing an annoyance that an increase of them would render life almost insupportable to beasts as well as men. It is therefore probable that some species of gnat or mosquito is meant. (See LICE).

(4.) The "Plague" of Flies. In the case of the fourth plague, as in that of the first, Moses was commanded to meet Pharaoh in the morning as he came forth to the water, and to threaten him with a judgment f he still refused to give the Israelites leave to go and worship. He was to be punished by עָרֹב, aro'b, which the A.V. renders "swarms [of flies]," "a swarm [of flies]," or, in the margin, "a mixture [of noisome beasts]." These creatures were to cover the people, and fill both the houses and the ground. Here, for the first time, we read that the land of Goshen, where the Israelites dwelt, was to be exempt from the plague. So terrible was it that Pharaoh granted permission for the Israelites to sacrifice in the land, which Moses refused to do, as the Egyptians would stone his people for sacrificing their "abomination." Then Pharaoh gave them leave to sacrifice in the wilderness, provided they did not go far; but on the plague being removed broke his agreement (Exodus 8:20-32). The proper meaning of the word עָרֹב is a question of extreme difficulty. The explanation of Josephus (Ant. 2, 14, 3), and almost all the Hebrew commentators, is that it means "a mixture," and here designates a mixture of wild animals, in accordance with the derivation from the root עָרִב, "he mixed." Similarly, Jerome renders it onune genus muscarum, and Aquila πάμμυια. The Sept., however, and Philo (De Vita Mosis, 1, 23; 2, 101, ed. Mang.) suppose it to be a dog-fly, κυνόμυια . The second of these explanations seems to be a compromise between the first and the third. It is almost certain, from two passages (Exodus 8:29; Exodus 8:31; Hebrew, 25, 27), that a single creature is intended. If so, what reason is there in favor of the Sept. rendering? Oedmann (Verm. Sammlunegen, 2, 150, ap. Gesen. Thesaur. s.v.) proposes the blatta orientalis, a kind of beetle, instead of a dog-fly; but Gesenius objects that this creature devours things rather than stings men, whereas it is evident that the animal of this plague attacked or at least annoyed men, besides apparently injuring the land. From Psalms 78:45, where we read, "He sent the עָרֹב, which devoured them," it must have been a creature of devouring habits, as is observed by Kalisch (Comment. on Exodus p.,138), who supports the theory that a beetle is intended. The Egyptian language might be hoped to give us a clew to the rendering of the Sept. and Philo. In hieroglyphics a fly is af, and a bee sheb, or kheb, sh and kh being interchangeable in different dialects; and in Coptic these two words are confounded in aaf, ar; ab, haf, meaning musca, apis, scarabceus. We can therefore only judge from the description of the plague; and here Gesenius seems to have too hastily decided against the rendering "beetle," since the beetle sometimes attacks men. Yet modern experience does not bear out the idea that any kind of beetle is injurious to man in Egypt; but there is a kind of gadfly found in that country which sometimes stings men, though usually attacking beasts. The difficulty, however, in the way of the supposition that a stinging fly is meant is that all such flies are, like this one, plagues to beasts rather than men; and if we conjecture that a fly is intended, perhaps it is more reasonable to infer that it was the common fly, which in the present day is probably the most troublesome insect in Egypt. That this was a more severe plague than those preceding it appears from its effect on Pharaoh, rather than from the mention of the exemption of the Israelites, for it can scarcely be supposed that the earlier plagues affected them. As we do not know what creature is here intended, we cannot say if there were any reference in this case to the Egyptian religion. Those who suppose it to have been a beetle might draw attention to the great reverence in which that insect was held among the sacred animals, and the consequent distress that the Egyptians would have felt at destroying it, even if they did so unintentionally. As already noticed, no insect is now so troublesome in Egypt as the common fly, and this is not the case with any kind of beetle, which fact, from our general conclusions, will be seen to favor the evidence for the former. In the hot season the flies not only cover the food and drink, but they torment the people by settling on their faces, and especially round their eyes, thus promoting ophthalmia. (See FLY).

(5.) The "Plague" of the Murcrin of Beasts. Pharaoh was next warned that, if he did not let the people go, there should be on the day following "a very grievous murrain," upon the horses, asses, camels, oxen, and sheep of Egypt, whereas those of the children of Israel should not die. This came to pass, and we read that "all the cattle of Egypt died, but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one." Yet Pharaoh still continued obstinate (Exodus 9:1-7). It is to be observed that the expression "all the cattle" cannot be under-stood to be universal, but only general, for the narrative of the plague of hail shows that there were still at a later time some cattle left, and that the want of universal terms in Hebrew explains this seeming difficulty. The mention of camels is important, since it appears to favor, our opinion that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a foreigner, camels apparently not having been kept by the Egyptians of the time of the Pharaohs. This plague would have been a heavy punishment to the Egyptians as falling upon their sacred animals of two of the kinds specified, the oxen and the sheep; but it would have been most felt in the destruction of the greatest part of their useful beasts. In modern times murrain is not an infrequent visitation in Egypt, and is supposed to precede the plague. A very severe murrain occurred in that country in 1842, which lasted nine months, during the latter half of that year and the spring of the following one, and was succeeded by the plague, as had been anticipated (Mrs. Poole, Englishwoman in Egypt, 2, 32; 1, 59, 114). A very grievous murrain,' forcibly reminding us of that which visited this same country in the days of Moses, has prevailed during the last three months" the letter is dated Oct. 18, 1842, "and the already distressed peasants feel the calamity severely, or rather (I should say) the few who possess cattle. Among the rich men of the country the loss has been enormous. During our voyage up the Nile," in the July preceding, "we observed several dead cows and buffaloes lying in the river as I mentioned in a former letter; and some friends who followed us, two months after, saw many on the banks; indeed up to this time "great numbers of cattle are dying in every part of the country" (ibid. 1, 114,115). The similarity of the calamity in character is remarkably in contrast with its difference in duration: the miraculous murrain seems to have been as sudden and nearly as brief as the destruction of the first-born (though far less terrible), and to have therefore produced, on ceasing, less effect than other plagues upon Pharaoh, nothing remaining to be removed. (See MURRAIN).

(6.) The "Plague" of Boils. The next judgment appears to have been preceded by no warning, except, indeed, that when Moses publicly sent it abroad in Egypt, Pharaoh might no doubt have repented at the last moment. We read that Moses and Aaron were to take ashes of the furnace, and Moses was to "sprinkle it toward the heavens in the sight of Pharaoh." It was to become "small dust" throughout Egypt, and "be a boil breaking forth [with] blains upon man and upon beast." This accordingly came to pass. The magicians now once more seem to have attempted opposition, for it is related that they "could not stand before Moses because of the boil; for the boil was upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians." Notwithstanding, Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go (Exodus 9:8-12). This plague may be supposed to have been either an infliction of boils, or a pestilence like the plague of modern times, which is an extremely severe kind of typhus fever, accompanied by swellings. (See PLAGUE). The former is, however, the more likely explanation, since, if the plague had been of the latter nature it probably would have been less' severe than the ordinary pestilence of Egypt has been in this 19th century, whereas with other plagues which can be illustrated from the present phenomena of Egypt: the reverse is the case. That this plague followed that of the murrain seems, however, an argument on the other side, and it may be asked whether it is not likely that the great pestilence of the country, probably known in antiquity, would have been one of the ten plagues; but to this it may be replied that it is more probable, and in accordance with the whole narrative, that extraordinary and unexpected wonders should be effected than what could be paralleled in the history of Egypt. The tenth plague, moreover, is so much like the great Egyptian disease in its suddenness, that it might rather be compared to it if it were not so wholly miraculous in every respect as to be beyond the reach of human inquiry. The position of the magicians must be noticed as indicative of the gradation of the plagues: at first they succeeded, as we suppose, by deception, in imitating what was wrought by Moses, then they failed, and acknowledged the finger of God in the wonders of the Hebrew prophet, and at last they could not even stand before him, being themselves smitten by the plague he was commissioned to send. The boil (שְׁחַין, shechin) was a scab or pustule, which might of might not break out into an ulcerous sore (Leviticus 13:18 sq.). With this, in one of its worst forms, Job was afflicted (Job 2:7), and by this Hezekiah was brought to the verge of the grave (2 Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21): it was an eruption of a very painful kind, accompanied with a burning itch, and tending to produce a permanent state of foul and wasting disease. One species of it which seized upon the legs and knees, and was regarded as incurable, was peculiar to Egypt, and was hence called "the botch of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 28:27; Deuteronomy 28:35). In the case before us, this eruption had a tendency to break out into larger swellings (אנעבעת, from unused בוע, to boil up, to swell), and became probably the disease called elephantiasis, a disease said to be peculiar to Egypt, or the black leprosy, a disease which also affects cattle under the name of melandria (Jahn, Arch Sol. I, 1, 381 sq.). It was something evidently more severe and deadly than the endemic Nile-fever, or eruption which visits Egypt periodically about the time of the overflowing of the Nile; and with which some writers would identify it. (See BOIL).

(7.) The "Plague" of Hail. The account of the seventh plague is preceded by a warning, which Moses was commanded to deliver to Pharaoh, respecting the terrible nature of the plagues that were to ensue if he remained obstinate. First of all of the hail it is said, "Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now." He was then told to collect his cattle and men into shelter, for everything hailed upon should die. Accordingly, such of Pharaoh's servants as "feared the Lord," brought in their servants and cattle from the field. We read that "Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground." Thus man and beast were smitten, and the herbs and every tree broken, save in the land of Goshen. Upon this Pharaoh acknowledged his wickedness and that of his people, and the righteousness of God, and promised if the plague were withdrawn to let the Israelites go. Then Moses went forth from the city, and spread out his hands, and the plague ceased, when Pharaoh, supported by his servants, again broke his promise (Exodus 9:13-35). The character of this and the following plagues must be carefully examined, as the warning seems to indicate an important turning-point. The ruin caused by the hail was evidently far greater than that effected by any of the earlier plagues; it destroyed men which those others seem not to have done, and not only men, but beasts and the produce of the earth. In this case Moses, while addressing Pharaoh, openly warns his servants how to save something from the calamity. Pharaoh for the first time acknowledges his wickedness. We also learn that his people joined with him in the oppression, and that at this time he dwelt in a city. Hail is now extremely rare, but not unknown, in Egypt, and it is interesting that the narrative seems to imply that it sometimes falls there. Thunder- storms occur, but, though very loud and accompanied by rain and wind, they rarely do serious injury. Those long resident in Egypt do not remember to have heard while there of a person struck by lightning, nor of any ruin excepting that of decayed buildings washed down by rain. (See HAIL).

(8.) The "Plague" of Locusts. Pharaoh was now threatened with a plague of locusts, to begin the next day, by which everything the hail had left was to be devoured. This was to exceed any like visitations that had happened in the time of the king's ancestors. At last Pharaoh's own servants, who had before supported him, remonstrated, for we read, "And Pharaoh's servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?" They suggested a compromise with Moses, proposing that the men should be allowed to go with him to offer sacrifice to Jehovah in the wilderness, while by retaining the females they made sure of the men's returning to their servitude. Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and offered to let the people go, but refused when they required that all should go, even with their flocks and herds. "And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all [that] night; [and] when it was morning the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous [were they]; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such. For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt." Then Pharaoh hastily sent for Moses and Aaron, and confessed his sin against God and the Israelites, and begged them to forgive him: "Now, therefore, forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat the Lord your God that he may take away from me this death only." Moses accordingly prayed. "And the Lord turned a mighty strong west wind, which took away the locusts, and cast them into the Red Sea; there remained not one locust in all the coasts of Egypt." The plague being removed, Pharaoh again would not let the people go (Exodus 10:1-20). This plague has not the unusual nature of the one that preceded it, but it even exceeds it in severity, and so occupies its place in the gradation of the more terrible judgments that form the later part of the series. Its severity can be well understood by those who have been in Egypt in a part of the country where a flight of locusts has alighted. In this case the plague was greater than an ordinary visitation, since it extended over a far wider space, rather than because it was more intense; for it is impossible to imagine any more complete destruction than that always caused by a swarm of locusts. So well did the people of Egypt know what these creatures effected, that when their coming was threatened Pharaoh's servants at once remonstrated. In the present day locusts suddenly appear in the cultivated land, coming from the desert in a column of great length. They fly rapidly across the country, darkening the air with their compact ranks, which are undisturbed by the constant attacks of kites, crows, and vultures, and making a strange whizzing sound like that of fire, or many distant wheels. Where they alight they devour every green thing, even stripping the trees of their leaves. Rewards are offered for their destruction, but no labor can seriously reduce their numbers. Soon they continue their course, and disappear gradually in a short time, leaving the place where they have been a desert. The following careful description of the effects of a flight of locusts is from Mr. Lane's manuscript notes. He writes of Nubia:

"Locusts not infrequently commit dreadful havoc in this country. In my second voyage up the Nile, when before the village of Bustá n, a little above Ibrim, many locusts pitched upon the boat. They were beautifully variegated, yellow and blue. In the following night a southerly wind brought other locusts in immense swarms. Next morning the air was darkened by them, as by a heavy fall of snow; and the surface of the ground was thickly scattered over by those which had fallen and were unable to rise again. Great numbers came upon and within the boat, and alighted upon our persons. They were different from those of the preceding day, being of a bright yellow color, with brown marks. The desolation they made was dreadful. In four hours a field of young durrah [millet] was cropped to the ground. In another field of durrah more advanced only the stalks were left. Nowhere was there space on the ground to set the foot without treading on many. A field of cotton-plants was quite stripped. Even the acacias along the batiks were made bare, and palm-trees were stripped of the fruit and leaves. Last night we heard the creaking of the sekiyehs [water-wheels], and the singing of women driving the cows which turned them: today not one sakiyeh was in motion, and the women were going about howling, and vainly attempting to frighten away the locusts. On the preceding day I had preserved two of the more beautiful Kind of these creatures with a solution of arsenic: on the next day some of the other locusts ate them almost entirely, poisoned as they were, unseen by me till they had nearly finished their meal. On the third day they were less numerous, and gradually disappeared. Locusts ate eaten by most of the Bedawin of Arabia, and by some of the Nubians. We ate a few, dressed in the most approved manner, being stripped of the legs, wings, and head, and fried in butter. They had a flavor somewhat like that of the woodcock, owing to their food. The Arabs preserve them as a common article of provision by parboiling them in salt and water, and then drying them in the sun."

The parallel passages in the prophecy of Joel form a remarkable commentary on the description of the plague in Exodus, and a few must be here quoted, for they describe with wonderful exactness and vigor the devastations of a swarm of locusts: "Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for [it is] nigh at hand; a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains: a great people and a strong; there hath not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, [even] to the years of many generations. A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth: the land [is] as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them. The appearance of them [is] as the appearance of horses; and as horsemen, so shall they run. Like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array.... They shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war; and they shall march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks.... The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining" (2:1-5, 7, 10; see also 6:8 & 9, 11- 25; Revelation 9:1-12). Here, and probably also in the parallel passage of Revelation, locusts are taken as a type of a destroying army or horde, since they are more terrible in the devastation they cause than any other creatures. (See LOCUST).

(9.) The "Plague" of Darkness. After the plague of locusts we read at once of a fresh judgment: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, that [one] may feel darkness. And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days: they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings." Pharaoh then gave the Israelites leave to go if only they left their cattle; but when Moses required that they should take these also he again refused (Exodus 10:21-29). The expression we have rendered "that [one] may feel darkness," according to the A.V. in the margin, where in the text the freer translation "darkness [which] may be felt" is given, has occasioned much difficulty. The Sept. and Vulg. give this rendering, and the moderns generally follow them. It has been proposed to read "and they shall grope in darkness," by a slight change of rendering, and the supposition that the particle בְּ is understood (Kalisch, Comment. on Exodus p. 171). It is unreasonable to argue that the forcible words of the A. V. are too strong for Shemitic phraseology. The difficulty is, however, rather to be solved by a consideration of the nature of the plague. It has been illustrated by reference to the simuim and the hot wind of the khamsin. The former is a sandstorm which occurs in the desert, seldom lasting, according to Mr. Lane, more than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes (Mod. Eg. 5th ed. p. 2); but for the time often causing the darkness of twilight, and affecting man and beast. Mrs. Poole, on Mr. Lane's authority, has described the simû m as follows:

"The simfir,' which is a very violent, hot, and almost suffocating wind, is of more rare occurrence than the khamsin winds, and of shorter duration; its continuance being more brief in proportion to the intensity of its parching heat and the impetuosity of its course. Its direction is generally from the southeast, or south southeast. It is commonly preceded by a fearful calm. As it approaches, the atmosphere assumes a yellowish hue, tinged with red; the sun appears of a deep blood color, and gradually becomes quite concealed before the hot blast is felt in its full violence. The sand and dust raised by the wind add to the gloom, and increase the painful effects of the heat and rarity of the air. Respiration becomes uneasy, perspiration seems to be entirely stopped; the tongue is dry, the skin parched, and a pricking sensation is experienced, as if caused by electric sparks. It is sometimes impossible for a person to remain erect, on account of the force of the wind; and the sand and dust oblige all who are exposed to it to keep their eyes closed. It is, however, most distressing when it overtakes travelers in the desert. My brother encountered at Kus, in Upper Egypt, a simû m, which was said to be one of the most violent ever witnessed. It lasted less than half an hour, and a very violent simû m seldom continues longer. My brother is of opinion that, although it is extremely distressing, it can never prove fatal, unless to persons already brought almost to the point of death by disease, fatigue, thirst, or some other cause. The poor camel seems to suffer from it equally with his master; and will often lie down with his back to the wind, close his eyes, stretch out his long neck upon the ground, and so remain until the storm has passed over" (Englishwoman in Egypt, 1, 96, 97).

The hot wind of the khamsin usually blows for three days and nights, and carries so much sand with it that it produces the appearance of a yellow fog. It thus resembles the simû m, though far less powerful and far less distressing in its effects. It is not known to cause actual darkness; at least residents in Egypt mention no example either on experience or hearsay evidence. By a confusion of the simû m and the khamsin wind it has even been supposed that a simû m in its utmost violence usually lasts three days (Kalisch, Comment. on Exodus p. 170), but this is an error. The plague may, however, have been an extremely severe sandstorm, miraculous in its violence and its duration, for the length of three days does not make it natural, since the severe storms are always very brief. Perhaps the three days was the limit, as about the longest period that the people could exist without leaving their houses. It has been supposed that this plague rather caused a supernatural terror than actual suffering and loss, but this is by no means certain. The impossibility of moving about, and the natural fear of darkness which affects beasts and birds as well as men, as in a total eclipse, would have caused suffering; and if the plague were a sandstorm of unequalled severity, it would have produced the conditions of fever by its parching heat, besides causing much distress of other kinds. An evidence in favor of the wholly supernatural character of this plague is its preceding the last judgment of all, the death of the first-born, as if it were a terrible foreshadowing of that great calamity. (See SIMUM).

(10.) The Death of the First-born. Before the tenth plague Moses went to warn Pharaoh: "And Moses said, Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that [is] behind the mill; and all the first-born of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more." He then foretold that Pharaoh's servants would pray him to go forth. Positive as is this declaration, it seems to have been a conditional warning, for we read, "And he went out from Pharaoh in heat of anger," and it is added that God said that Pharaoh would not hearken to Moses, and that the king of Egypt still refused to let Israel go (Exodus 11:4; Exodus 11:10). The Passover was then instituted, and the houses of the Israelites sprinkled with the blood of the victims. The first-born of the Egyptians were smitten at midnight, as Moses had forewarned Pharaoh. "And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for [there was] not a house where [there was] not one dead" (Exodus 12:30). The clearly miraculous nature of this plague, in its severity, its falling upon man and beast, and the singling out of the first- born, puts it wholly beyond comparison with any natural pestilence, even the severest recorded in history, whether of the peculiar Egyptian plague, or other like epidemics. The Bible affords a parallel in the smiting of Sennacherib's army, and still more closely in some of the punishments of murmurers in the wilderness. The prevailing customs of Egypt furnish a curious illustration of the narrative of this plague. It is well known that many ancient Egyptian customs are yet observed. Among these one of the most prominent is the wailing for the dead by the women of the household, as well as those hired to mourn. It was thus in the great cholera of 1848 at Cairo. This pestilence, as we all know, frequently follows the course of rivers. Thus, on that occasion, it ascended the Nile, and showed itself in great strength at Bulak, the port of Cairo, distant from the city about a mile and a half to the westward. For some days it did not traverse this space. Every evening at sunset it is the custom to go up to the terrace on the roof of the house. There, in that calm, still time, might be heard each night the wail of the women of Bulak for their dead borne along in a great wave of sound a distance of two miles, the lamentation of a city stricken with pestilence. So, when the first-born were smitten, "there was a great cry in Egypt." (See FIRST-BORN).

The history of the ten plagues strictly ends with the death of the first-born. The pursuit and the passage of the Red Sea are discussed elsewhere. (See RED SEA, PASSAGE OF). Here it is only necessary to notice that with the event last mentioned the recital of the wonders wrought in Egypt concludes, and the history of Israel as a separate people begins. (See EXODE).

II. General Considerations. Having examined the narrative of the ten plagues in detail, we can now speak of their character and relations as a whole.

1. Miraculous Nature of the Inflictions. In the above account we have constantly kept in view the arguments of those who hold that the plagues were not miraculous, and, while fully admitting all the illustration that the physical history of Egypt has afforded us, both in our own observation and the observation of others, we have found no reason for the naturalistic view in a single instance, while in many instances the illustrations from known phenomena have been so different as to bring out the miraculous element in the narrative with the greatest force, and in every case that element has been necessary, unless the narrative be deprived of its rights as historical evidence. Yet more, we have found that the advocates of a naturalistic explanation have been forced by their bias into a distortion and exaggeration of natural phenomena in their endeavor to find in them an explanation of the wonders recorded in the Bible. As miraculous the historian obviously intends us to regard them, and they are elsewhere spoken of as the "wonders" (מופתים ) which God wrought in the land of Ham (Psalms 105:27), as his miracles (נפלאותים ) in Egypt (Psalms 106:7), as his signs and prodigies (אתות ומפתים ) which he sent into the midst of Egypt (Psalms 135:9), etc. It is only under this aspect that we can accept the narrative as historical. It is true that many of them appear to have been of the same kind with phenomena natural to the country; but this cannot be said of all of them; and in the case of those of which it can be said, the presence of the supernatural is seen not only in the unparalleled degree to which the infliction reached, but still more in the complete command which was exercised by Moses as the agent of Jehovah over the coming and going of the visitation. The exemption of the Israelites from the general calamity is also clearly assigned to the miraculous. The only alternative, therefore, allowed to us is to reject the whole narrative as mythic, or to accept it as miraculous. The attempts made by Eichhorn and the older rationalists to give natural explanations of these plagues, only exhibit the deplorable expedients to which an unsound hypothesis may compel able men to resort. They were evidently nearly all miraculous in time of occurrence and degree rather than essentially, in accordance with the theory that God generally employs natural means in producing miraculous effects. They seem to have been sent as a series of warnings, each being somewhat more severe than its predecessor, to which we see an analogy in the warnings which the providential government of the world often puts before the sinner. The first plague corrupted the sweet water of the Nile and slew the fish. The second filled the land with frogs, which corrupted the whole country. The third covered man and beast with vermin or other annoying insects. The fourth was of the same kind, and probably a yet severer judgment. With the fifth plague, the murrain of beasts, a loss of property began. The sixth, the plague of boils, was worse than the earlier plagues that had affected man and beast. The seventh plague that of hail exceeded those that went before it, since it destroyed everything in the field, man and beast and herb. The eighth plague was evidently still more grievous, since the devastation by locusts must have been far more thorough than that by the hail, and since at that time no greater calamity of the kind could have happened than the destruction of all remaining vegetable food. The ninth plague we do not sufficiently understand to be sure that it exceeded this in actual injury, but it is clear from the narrative that it must have caused great terror. The last plague is the only one that was general in the destruction of human life, for the effects of the hail cannot have been comparable to those it produced, and it completes the climax, unless indeed it be held that the passage of the Red Sea was the crowning point of the whole series of wonders, rather than a separate miracle. In this case its magnitude, as publicly destroying the king and his whole army, might even surpass that of the tenth plague.

2. Their Historical Character. These events, though supernatural, all find a foundation in the natural phenomena of Egypt, and stand in close connection with ordinary occurrences. Hence the rationalist Bohlen says that "Moses, in order to avoid the suspicion of self-deception, was at least obliged to express himself in the mildest manner possible among his contemporaries, who were so well acquainted with Egypt, if he wished to make the commonly observed natural phenomena avail as miracles." To this remark Hengstenberg replies (Egypt and the Books of Moses, in English, Edinb. 1851):

"But it is perfectly clear that these occurrences, as they are related, In withstanding their foundation in nature, always maintained their character as miracles, and consequently are sufficient to prove what they are intended to prove, and to accomplish what they did accomplish. Indeed, the unusual force in which the common exhibitions of nature here manifest themselves, and especially their rapid succession, while at other times only am single one exhibits itself with unusual intensity-if we at the same time consider these events in connection with the changing cause of them, and also take into account the exemption of the land of Goshen bring us to the limits of the miraculous; for the transition to the miraculous is reached through the extraordinary in its highest gradation. But we are brought into the sphere of the miraculous itself, by the circumstance that these things are introduced and performed by Moses, that they cease at his request, and a part of them at a time fixed upon by Pharaoh himself (Exodus 8:5 sq.). Hence the connection with natural phenomena can be made to avail against the Pentateuch only when, going beyond the present narrative, we limit what in it can be explained by the natural occurrences of Egypt, and establish the presumption that the remainder belongs to fiction. But this assumption wants all foundation. The supernatural presents generally, in the Scriptures, no violent opposition to the - natural, but rather unites in a friendly alliance with it. This follows from the most intimate relation in which natural events also stand to God. The endeavor to isolate the miraculous can aid only impiety. But there was here a particular reason also for uniting the supernatural as closely as possible with the natural. The object to which all of these occurrences were directed, according to Exodus 8:20, was to show that Jehovah is Lord in the midst of the land. Well-rounded proof of this could not have been produced by bringing suddenly upon Egypt a succession of strange terrors. From these it would only have followed that Jehovah had received a momentary and external power over Egypt. On the contrary, if their annual return were placed under the immediate control of Jehovah, it would be appropriately shown that he was God in the midst of the land, and the doom of the false gods which had been placed in his stead would go forth, and they would be entirely driven out of the jurisdiction which was contested as belonging to them."

Some objectors have affected to throw discredit upon the Mosaic narrative by remarking that no traces of any allusion to these plagues of the Egyptians are discoverable upon the monuments of that country. To this the reply is easy. The monuments in question were reared under the superintendence of the heathen priesthood, and miracles such as these were too humbling to their pride, and too destructive of their influence with the people, to render it likely that they would allow them to be recorded in any manner. Victories triumphs, religious processions, and whatever was calculated to exalt the gods and kings in the minds of the people, were the only subjects permitted to be sculptured on the walls of the temples; and the usages of domestic life furnish the subjects of the paintings of the tombs. In the examination we have made it will have been seen that the Biblical narrative has been illustrated by reference to the phenomena of Egypt and the manners of the inhabitants, and that, throughout, its accuracy in minute particulars has been remarkably shown, to a degree that is sufficient of itself to prove its historical truth. This in a narrative of wonders is of no small importance. (See MOSES).

3. The Egyptian Counterfeits. Of the deeds performed by Moses some were imitated by the magicians of the Pharaoh. To account for this, various hypotheses have been resorted to.

1. It has been supposed that they were enabled to do this by diabolic aid. But this assumes the position that men can enter into agreement or compact with evil spirits so as to receive their aid-a position which has never been proved, and consequently cannot be legitimately assumed to explain an actual phenomenon. This hypothesis assumes also that evil spirits can work miracles, a position no less gratuitous and improbable.

2. It has been maintained that the magicians were aided by God to do what they did; that they were instruments in his hand, as was the witch who raised Samuel, and were therefore as much surprised at their own success as she was; and that God thus employed them probably to show in the most decisive manner that the agency at work was his, and that it was just as he gave the power or withheld it that the miracle was performed. For this hypothesis there is much to be, said. At the same time it is open to objection, for

(1) While Moses distinctly asserts that it was by divine power that he and Aaron wrought, he never hints, even in the most distant way, that it was by this that the magicians succeeded in their attempts; and

(2) It is expressly said, on the contrary, that what they did they did by means of their "enchantments." The word here used (להט ) means a secret art-hence magical arts, enchantments; and may be properly used to designate the covert, tricks or juggling artifices by which practicers of legerdemain impose upon others. This leads to the 3rd hypothesis, which is that the achievements of the magicians were merely clever tricks by which they imposed upon the people, and tended to confirm the Pharaoh in his obduracy. This hypothesis has in its favor the fact that the magicians of Egypt, and of the East generally, have always, down: to our own day, possessed an unparalleled and almost incredible dexterity in artificial magic (see Lane, Modern Egyptians, p. 352 sq.). It is to be borne in mind, also, that in the cases before us these magicians were allowed time: to prepare themselves, and to go through those introductory processes by means of which jugglers mainly succeed in cheating the beholders; and, moreover, it is important to keep in view that they performed before witnesses who were interested in believing in their success. Above all, in the three feats in which they succeeded, there was really nothing but what the jugglers of the present day could easily do. The jugglers- of India will, for a few pence, do tricks with serpents far more wonderful than making them rigid so as to resemble staves; and any juggler could make water in a basin or a tank resemble blood, or, when the country was already swarming with frogs, could cover some place that had been cleared for the purpose with these reptiles, as if he had suddenly produced them. The performances of these magicians are really below par as compared with those which may be witnessed in the room of any travelling conjurer among ourselves. Let it be noted, also, that they failed as soon as they were required to perform the miracle on the instant, as in the case of the plague of lice, for their attempts to imitate which no time was allowed; and, as a consequence of this it is emphatically said, "they could not." When to all this it is added that they were impotent not only to remove the infliction, but even to exempt themselves from it, there seems abundant reason for concluding that these magicians attained to nothing beyond the performance of a few successful tricks (Scot, Congregational Lecture, p. 210-226; Wardlaw, On Miracles, p. 231 sq.). (See JANNES AND JAMBRES).

4. The Design of these Inflictions. This-is a most important inquiry. That their ultimate object was the effecting of the liberation of the Israelites from their cruel bondage lies on the surface of the narrative; but with this there may have been, and probably were, other ends contemplated. We may suppose.

1. That God designed to produce an effect on the mind of Moses himself, tending to educate and discipline him for the great work on which he was about to enter the conduct and rule of the people during their passage through the wilderness. For such a task great fortitude and implicit confidence in the power and majesty of Jehovah were required; and as Moses, timid at first, and ready to retire on the first rebuff, gradually acquired courage and determination as the manifestations of God's power in the chastisements inflicted on the Pharaoh and his land proceeded, it is very probable that the series of inflictions of which he was the instrument were designed to confirm him in faith, obedience, and confidence, and so fit him for his great work.

2. We may suppose that a salutary effect was intended to be produced on the minds of the Israelites, the mass of whom had, under their long protracted debasement, sunk low in religious and intellectual life. The marvelous manner in which God interposed for their deliverance, and the mighty power by which he brought them forth, could not but arouse them to thought, and elevate and quicken their religious emotions.

3. It appears that a salutary religious effect was, produced on many of the Egyptians themselves, as is evidenced by the multitudes who united themselves to the Israelites when they made their escape; and also on the surrounding nations, as is attested by Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses (Exodus 18:10-11). We may presume, therefore, that this also was part of the design of these inflictions, especially as we

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Plagues of Egypt'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​p/plagues-of-egypt.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.