Then YHWH said to Moses: Rise early in the morning and confront Pharaoh and say to him: Thus says YHWH, the God of the Hebrews: “Let my people go, or I will bring my plagues upon you, your courtiers and all your people.”
What were the plagues?
The leaders of the Jewish slaves in Egypt do not seem to have been particularly impressed with Moses, but Pharaoh was. When Moses began to make his demands, Pharaoh clamped down even more heavily on the slave population. This made them angry – which may have suited Moses’ purpose. Then a series of natural calamities happened – called by the Bible ‘the Plagues’. Pharaoh associated these calamities with his treatment of the slaves, and saw them as a sign of divine wrath. He acted immediately to dispel this wrath, and told Moses he and his Hebrews could leave.
These are the Ten Plagues:
The River Nile turned to blood, so there was nothing to drink and nothing to wash with (and the Egyptians prided themselves on their cleanliness).
Frogs One frog is cute; ten million are not. Frogs were everywhere, in the water, on the land, inside the houses, squashed underfoot.
Lice and mosquitoes Insects entered the eyes, ears and noses of the field workers, laying eggs everywhere, so that the place crawled with larvae.
Flies The Hebrew word in the Bible refers to biting flies – so they were not just a pest, but a source of pain and infection
Diseased livestock The scene was one of utter horror, as suffering animals collapsed and died.
Boils Stinging, suppurating infections covered the whole body and caused swellings which became itching and painful boils.
Man with severe boils covering the back of his neck
Thunder and hail When Moses stretched his staff towards heaven, the rumble of thunder was heard. Hail, rain and zigzags of lightning filled the sky.
Locusts Locusts can be a real catastrophe in the Middle East. There is no way of stopping them, since their swarms number in the billions of insects.
Darkness The darkness was so thick that people had to feel their way around. This was an escalation in terror.
Death of the first born Social rank or wealth made. You could not buy your way out of this.
The Nile turns to blood
Dead fish float in the blood-red water of the Nile River
There was blood everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and stone jars that stood inside the houses. There was nothing to drink, nothing to wash with (and the Egyptians prided themselves on their cleanliness), nothing to clean their white linen garments.
The fish died, and the air near the river was filled with a terrible stench.
Water, that had given them life, now brought them death instead. It polluted, it stank, and the power of death was over it. Ordered creation – the way things should have been, the way they always had been – now gave way to chaos.
Why? Because Pharaoh’s ‘heart’ was hardened, and he would not let the Hebrew people go. For us, ‘heart’ is associated with the emotions, but in Hebrew the word refers more to the seat of thinking and decision-making, the ‘mind’.
Pharaoh’s problems are just starting.
Bible text: Exodus 7:14-25
Eight green frogs, representing the millions that swarmed out of the Nile and onto the land of Egypt
One frog is cute; millions are not.
Frogs were everywhere when God punished the ancient Egyptians – in the water, on the land, inside the houses – hopping, noisy, getting squashed underfoot. They were piled into heaps, pile after pile. They made the land stink.
Not only the water, but now the land itself was completely polluted. They swarmed – a sign of creation out of balance. The Egyptian frog goddess Heqet, who assisted women in childbirth, was running amok.
Even when the plague stopped, the stench remained.
Bible text: Exodus 8:1-15
Lice and mosquitoes
Gnat larvae representing the millions of lice and mosquitoes that attacked the skin of the Egyptians
Lice and mosquitoes suck the blood of humans and animals and cause a terrible itch. They make people sick and unclean. The insects described in the Bible could have been sand flies, carriers of dengue fever, or anopheles mosquitoes, transmitters of malaria.
The insects of this plague entered the eyes, ears and noses of the field workers. They laid their eggs everywhere, so that the place crawled with their larvae.
The soil of Egypt was not rich and black anymore, but covered with creeping insects, which like dust blew all over the place, tormenting humans and animals with a maddening itch. Again, creation was out of balance.
Bible text: Exodus 8:16-19
A swarm of flies on meat
This plague consisted of dense swarms of flies. They were everywhere, harassing people and animals alike.
The Hebrew word in the Bible text refers to biting flies – so they were not just a pest, but a source of pain and infection as well. With them they brought illness, disease and death.
The plague of flies showed that JHWH possessed the power to wreak havoc and death.
Bible text: Exodus 8:20-32
Diseased cattle and sheep
Photograph of a cow with a skin disease; it would be unwise to eat the flesh of this animal, or drink its milk
The fifth plague brought the deaths of Egyptian domestic animals: horses, donkeys, cows, sheep and goats. The animals were struck by a fatal epidemic.
The scene was one of utter horror, as suffering animals collapsed and died. The people too were indirectly affected, by the loss of their livestock – this plague took their source of income from work animals – horses and donkeys, and a source of food – cows, sheep and goats Bible text: Exodus 9:1-7
Man with an inflamed, suppurating boil on his neck
So far, the plagues had attacked animals and things. Now they attacked the bodies of the Egyptians themselves.
Stinging, suppurating infections covered the whole body and caused swellings which became itching and painful boils. There was not a place in Egypt where living creatures were safe from the plague of boils.
What was this horrible illness? Medical experts have suggested burning sores, smallpox, elephantiasis, leprosy, and festering boils. The skin disease described in the Bible, whatever it was, covered the entire body.
Bible text: Exodus 9:8-12
Thunder and hail
Medieval manuscript showing the damage to foliage and livestock caused by heavy hail
The Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire came down, hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it.’ (Exodus 9:34)
When Moses stretched his staff towards heaven, the rumble of thunder was heard. Hail, rain and zigzags of lightning filled the sky. JHWH showed that he ruled the world, and that he could use meteorological phenomena as weapons.
Hail storms are very rare in Egypt. For this reason the thunder and hail made a deep impression on Pharaoh. The storms made a deep impression on the land as well, destroying crops all over the country. The hammering hail was pay-back for the heavy load the Hebrews carried in Egypt.
Bible text: Exodus 9:13-35
A swarm of locusts darkens the sky and hides the sun
Locusts can be a real catastrophe in North Africa and the Near East. They swarm over crops, settle on the greenery, and then devour every single leaf. There is no way of stopping them, since their swarms number in the billions of insects.
Now they brought death and destruction to what was left of Egypt’s vegetation. The land became unfit for human habitation.
Locusts are often mentioned in the Bible as agents of divine judgment, appearing in association with such things as mildew, caterpillars, pestilence, drought and enemies. In wartime, an invading army would be described as a plague of destructive locusts, destroying everything in its path.
Bible text: Exodus 10:1-20
A dust storm rolls in from the desert, completely obliterating the land and sky and making it difficult to breath
A darkness lasting three days covered the land of Egypt, rendering it completely uninhabitable. The darkness was so thick that people had to feel their way around. This was an escalation in terror.
Modern commentators suggest that the darkness was caused by a suffocating sandstorm, like the ones that blow in northern Africa from March to May, filling the air, darkening the sun and lasting two or three days. It was particularly significant in ancient Egypt, since one of the main deities was Ra, the sun god.
Darkness is associated with pre-creation chaos, evil, sin, and ignorance. God is associated with light – God’s first creative act was to bring light out of darkness.
Bible text: Exodus 10:21-29
Death of the first born
Death of the firstborn: a parent’s hand holds the tiny foot of a small baby
The final plague brought a terrible catastrophe to Egypt: at the hour of midnight, all the firstborn of humans and animals died. Social rank or wealth made. You could not buy your way out of this. Every first born was struck down, from Pharaoh’s own first born to the lowliest slave in the land.
The firstborn of a family symbolized the future of a country. In ancient times this child was legally privileged and the most highly regarded among the children of the family, and most deeply mourned if it died. So the death of Egypt’s first born children robbed it of its whole future.
Bible text: Exodus 12:29-32
Bible Study Resource
Moses and the Ten Great Plagues of Egypt