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The Plagues and The Exodus

by Dr. David Livingston

Egyptian bull wearing a sun disk and a cobra
Bronze figure of a bull wearing a sun disk and a cobra (uraeus) on his head. His cult center was in Memphis.

The Exodus: Did It really happen? There is little, if any, archaeological evidence for it. Therefore, many non-evangelical scholars do not believe it occurred. Even if the Egyptians did obliterate evidence of the cataclysms, surely, these scholars say, we should find some evidence.

The best approach is to wait and see. An argument from silence will be destroyed with the first trace of evidence. And then there might be evidence when one looks for it at the proper time in history. If the Exodus occurred 150 years earlier than most scholars think it did (at the Biblical date of ca 1440 BC), there may be evidence for it not recognized as such. (See the Summer 1989 issue of Archaeology and Biblical Research for the article on the true pharaoh of the Exodus by Joseph Lomusio. He presents evidence for the Exodus at the Biblical date.)

Various Interpretations of the Plagues

In the June 1990 issue of Bible Review is an article by Ziony Zevit on "Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues."  Unfortunately, his conclusion undermines all that goes before and is typical of modern scholarship. He says, ". . . a historical kernel [but little more, Ed.] must underlie the Egyptian plague traditions preserved in the Bible. . . . The plague traditions, which were maintained orally by the Israelites until some time after the establishment of the monarchy, continued to be reworked in the land of Israel" (p. 42). Obvious in these statements is his position that the narratives of the plagues and the Exodus were not written by Moses, but were handed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth, and finally written down (with all their errors and accretions) by scribes during the late monarchy -- many hundreds of years after Moses. In his opinion, they could not possibly be authentic history.

In spite of his attitude to the stories, the article has some valuable information as he analyzes possible meanings for the plagues. His own approach (the third way to look at the plagues) is that they parallel the stories of the creation of the world. This may he the least valuable point he makes, however, since he puts no credence in the creation account either. It may be interesting to note, in passing, that the Egyptian gods Ptah and Khnum were believed by the Egyptians to be the creators of all things.

Before going into Zevit's other two points, another interpretation of the plagues is that of James Hoffmeier in his forthcoming article in Anchor Bible Dictionary under "Plagues in Egypt."  Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist well qualified to interpret the Egyptian materials, sums up all the plagues as an indication that pharaoh was not able to maintain order in Egypt. So how, in the eyes of Yahweh and Israel, could he be the supreme god of Egypt? According to Hoffmeier, no individual plague is directed against a specific god of Egypt, except for pharaoh. They were all meant to denigrate pharaoh's supposed divinity in that he is incapable of maintaining order in the cosmos. (See also his article in Biblica Vol. 67:3:378-387, "The Arm of God Vs. The Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives.")

There is a great deal of merit to his thesis and, if it is correct, it will undermine our presentation of the plagues as against specific gods. Nevertheless, we feel there is also value to the latter interpretation.

Returning to Zevit's article, his first two suggestions for the interpretation of the plagues are: 1) as natural disasters, 2) as miracles of the Lord aimed at overcoming the gods of Egypt. Actually, they are not his interpretations, but rather a review of the two prevalent views held by scholars.

The naturalistic account is connected initially with violent rainstorms that occur in the mountains of Ethiopia.

The first plague, blood, is the red clay swept down into the Nile from the Ethiopian highlands. The mud then choked the fish in the area inhabited by the Israelites. The fish clogged the swamps where the frogs lived; the fish, soon infected with anthrax, caused the frogs (the second plague) to leave the Nile for cool areas, taking refuge in people's houses. But, since the frogs were already infected with the disease, they died in their new habitats. As a consequence, lice, the third plague, and flies, the fourth plague, began to multiply, feeding off the dead frogs. This gave rise to a pestilence that attacked animals, the fifth plague, because the cattle were feeding on grass which by then had also become infected. In man, the symptom of the same disease was boils, the sixth plague.

A second sequence of plagues, according to this explanation, is related to atmospheric and climactic conditions in Egypt. Hailstorms, the seventh plague, came out of nowhere. Although not common, hailstorms do occur rarely in Upper Egypt and occasionally in Lower Egypt during a late spring and early fall. In this reconstruction, the hailstorm was followed by the eighth plague, locusts, a more common occurrence. The ninth plague, darkness, was a Libyan dust storm (pages 19-20).

But there is a problem when one comes to the tenth plague. It cannot be explained ecologically. It is a mystery. Its only explanation can be that of a supernatural occurrence. Thus at the climax of the plagues this interpretation collapses without any viable explanation for the death of the first-born of both man and beast, and the salvation of Israel through blood sprinkled on the doorposts.

Zevit's second explanation, the best in our opinion, interprets the plagues "as a series of attacks against the Egyptian pantheon."  The remainder of the article will take these up one by one.

Historical Background

Map of Ancient Egypt

In Mesopotamia, a religio-political system controlled the city-states. The king, presumed to be a son of the patron god of his city-state and the priesthood, supported the system. Some of these city-states later expanded to empires. But the religio-political system remained intact -- it was just expanded.

In Egypt, the situation was somewhat different. At the very beginning of Egyptian history, the two parts of Egypt, Upper and Lower, were united in one and pharaoh was represented as the god of all Egypt. Of course, he was not the only god. Over the centuries, the priests and the pharaoh invented all sorts of gods from objects of nature. Among them were animals, fish, and insects. But one of the most important was the Nile River.

The Nile was the very lifeline of Egypt. A long snake of a river, all life exists along it. One can today literally step out of green, irrigated fields into the desert. But it was not always so. During the earliest Egyptian dynasties (shortly after the Flood), much of lower Egypt was covered by water and the surrounding deserts were lush pastures with people living in them. In fact, the Nile valley was a jungle. Herodotus reported that priests told him that in earliest times there was no delta and the coastline of the sea was near where Cairo is today. Since there had not been time for a delta to form in those early days, the Nile evidently had not been flowing for long after the great Flood. Since then, the climate has become increasingly dry; the desert has dried up and the Nile has become the source of life for Egypt. It was certainly this way by the time of the Exodus. In fact, by then the Nile had come to be revered in many ways by the Egyptians.

The Plagues Were Against the Gods of Egypt

For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments -- I am the Lord. (Exodus 12:12)

The Lord had also executed judgments on their gods. (Numbers 33:4)

Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people (Jethro's testimony). (Exodus 18:11)

Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the Lord:

And, I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted;
The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my Salvation;
This is my God and I will praise Him: My father's God, and I will extol Him. . . .
Thy right hand, 0 Lord, is majestic in power,
Thy right hand, 0 Lord, shatters the enemy.
And in the greatness of Thine excellence Thou dost over throw those who rise up against Thee;
Thou dost send forth Thy burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff.
Who is like Thee among the gods, 0 Lord?
Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?
Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed;
The leaders of Moab, trembling grips them;
All the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
The Lord shall reign forever and ever. (From Exodus 15)

He smote the first-born of Egypt, both of man and beast. He sent signs and wonders into your midst, 0 Egypt, upon Pharaoh and all his servants. (Psalms 135:8,9)

And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to Himself, and to make Him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for Thy land, before Thy people, which Thou redeemedst to Thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods? (II Samuel 7:23)

. . . Put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood [Mesopotamia], and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord (Joshua 24:14).

The Plagues

As we consider the plagues, one can discern the purpose of the plagues. In the descriptions that follow, page references are made to the excellent study The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt (Manfred Lurker, Thames and Hudson, 1980).

Frieze of cobras on Djozer's mortuary temple at Memphis.
Frieze of cobras on Djozer's mortuary temple of Memphis. Its date in the 27th century BC shows how early the cobra was revered in Egypt.

Pre-plague: Snake (Exodus 7:9-12):
When Moses came before pharaoh he carried a rod which became a snake. The court magicians' rods also became snakes, but Moses' rod ate theirs.

The cobra or "urae" was a symbol of ruling power(108-109,125). The cobra motif is frequently found in Egyptian "art."  On the forehead of pharaoh's crown there was a cobra ready to strike. On the throne of King Tut is a coiled cobra ready to strike. So, to overcome the cobra symbol is to overcome the power of pharaoh.

Glass fish used as a  cosmetic vessel.
Glass fish from the El Amarna Period used as a cosmetic vessel. Fish, although regarded as unclean, were also sacred animals. All the Nile fish died in the plague.

Nile River (Exodus 7:14-25):
The Nile River was changed to blood. This plague was against the god Hapi, spirit of the Nile in flood and "giver of life to all men."  The annual innundation was called "the arrival of Hapi" (57). He was especially worshipped at Gebel Silsileh and Elephantine. The Nile water was the transformed life-blood of Osiris. The fact that the Nile turned to blood, which was abominable to Egyptians, was a direct affront to one of their chief gods. Although the fish-goddess was Hatmeyt, all the fish in the Nile River died!

To illustrate the fact that the plagues of the Exodus were directed against the gods of Egypt, we note some Egyptian prayers to those gods. (The reference to "Nine Gods" apparently did not include pharaoh. It may be of interest that there were just nine plagues before Yahweh killed the sons of pharaoh.)

Praise to thee, 0 Nile, that issueth from the earth and cometh to nourish Egypt . . . That watereth the meadows, he that Ra hath created to nourish all cattle. That giveth drink to the desert places, which are far from water . . . When the Nile floodeth, offering is made to thee, cattle are slaughtered for thee, a great oblation is made for thee . . . Offering is also made to every other god, even as is done for the Nile, with incense, oxen, cattle, and birds upon the flame . . . All ye men, extol the Nine Gods, and stand in awe of the might which his son, the Lord of All, hath displayed, even he that maketh green the Two Riverbanks. Thou art verdant, 0 Nile, thou art verdant. He that maketh man to live on this cattle, and his cattle on the meadow . . ." (Adolph Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, 1966, p. 146.)

The Nile flooded every year, making the land fertile. If the Nile did not flood enough there was famine; if it flooded too much there was famine. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt, and thus it became one of their gods. Heathen gods often have some connection with the economics of daily life.

Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15):
The land was filled with them so that they became objects of loathing. The frog-headed goddess, Hekt (52, 62), played a part in "creation."  Hers was one of the oldest fertility cults in Egypt. But she could not control the fertility of a these frogs! Through this plague they became a stench to the Egyptians.

Lice (Exodus 8:16-19):
At present there is no known link between this plague and a god of the Egyptian pantheon. However, the Egyptian magicians, unable to duplicate this plague, attribute it to "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:19), and they withdraw.

The underside of a heart scarab from the New Kingdom.
Underside of a heart scarab from the New Kingdom. It was laid on the heart of a mummy to ensure favorable testimony at the Judgment.

Flies, or Beetles ("insects" -- Exodus 20 - 32):
Although it is not clear which insect the Hebrew word 'arob refers to, this plague may have been against Khephera(74), a scarab-headed (104) god regarded as a manifestation of Atum or Ra. It was supposed to be god of the resurrection, perhaps because the dung ball it rolled around, and in which it laid its egg, produced a "new creation." Priests wore scarabs as charms.

Or It may have been against the fly-god. One sorcerer in the New Kingdom threatened, "I will enter your body as a fly and see your body from the inside." As a symbol of bravery, soldiers who had proven themselves were decorated with the golden fly (52).

Murrain, or Anthrax (Exodus 9:1-7):
This judgment was against the bull god (revered as early as the Archaic Period (35), and the sacred cattle of Hathor, the cow-headed love goddess. It was a special reproach to pharaoh who worshipped Hathor. Hathor, whose name means "house of Horus,"  was sacred as early as the Old Kingdom (41, 58). Other gods associated with cattle were Ptah and Amon.

Great cemeteries of embalmed cattle have been excavated. The symbol of the bull was the symbol of pharaoh himself. In the "Hymn to Amon," it is difficult to distinguish the Pharaoh from the bull. The title is: "Adoration of Amunre (Amon-Ra), Bull of Heliopolus, chiefest of all gods, the good god, the beloved, who giveth life to all that is warm, and to every good herd."

Praise be to thee, Amunre, Lord of Karnak, who presideth in Thebes. Bull of his Mother, the first on his field! Wide of stride, first in Upper Egypt. . . . Greatest of heaven, eldest of earth, lord of what existeth, who abideth in all things. Unique in his nature among the gods, goodly bull of the Nine Gods, chiefest of all gods. Lord of Truth, father of the gods, who maketh mankind, and createth beast. (Erman, p. 283.)

Boils (Exodus 9:8-12):
Against the god of healing, Im-Hotep (69), an outstanding nobleman of the Old Kingdom. Although not actually deified until later than the time of the Exodus, he was no doubt revered at this time. But he could do nothing to help the Egyptians. The goddess Sekhmet was also known for her healing ability (106).

Hail (Exodus 9:13-15):
The sky goddess Nut was "the mother of the sun-god Ra, whom she swallowed in the evening and gave birth to again in the morning" (90). She was especially culpable in this plague in that she was supposed to protect the land from destructions which came down from heaven. Exodus 9:31 mentions that the flax and barley were hit. Destruction of the flax was trying because it was used to wrap mummies and to make clothes.

Grasshoppers, or Locusts (Exodus 10:1-20):
The locust-headed god was Senehem. During the plague, the locusts were so thick that the "eye of the earth" was darkened (Exodus 10:5). One of the epithets of the sun-god Ra was "the eye of Ra." By causing darkness while the sun was shining, Ra was discredited.

Gold coffin of King Tut-ankh-amon.
Gold coffin of King Tut-ankh-amon. Note the signs of authority held in his hands, also the poised cobra on his forehead along with the vulture symbol. These two beasts symbolized Upper and Lower Egypt.

Darkness (Exodus 10:21-27):
One of the greatest gods of Egypt, next to the pharaoh, was the sun (65, 100, 118). The sun-god Amon-Ra was the principle deity of the pantheon. He made all growth possible. Pharaoh called himself "son of the sun." With three days of darkness, the principle deity was scorned. One of many hymns to the sun may help us feel their devotion to this deity:

Beautiful is thine appearing in the horizon of heaven, thou living sun, the first who lived. Thou risest in the eastern horizon, and fillest every land with thy beauty. Thou art beautiful and great, and glistenest, and art high above every land. Thy rays, they encompass the lands, so far as all that thou hast created. Thou art Ra, and thou reachest unto their end and subduest them for thy dear son [the Pharaoh]. Thou art afar, yet are thy rays upon the earth . . . etc., ad nauseum. (Erman, p. 289.)

In all the above, many other gods could have been named which were denigrated by the various plagues. But this sampling demonstrates that Yahweh (YHVH) openly and violently, through his servants, put every one of them to shame.

Statue of Amon with crown of sun disk and plumes.
Statue of Amon with crown of sun disk and plumes. He was the supreme state god at the time of the Exodus, and as Amon-Ra was identified with the sun-god.

Pharaoh (Exodus 11-12):
The last plague was not only against the supreme god of Egypt, Pharaoh himself, but also against the future pharaoh, his son, the very next god (Horus) of Egypt.  He was to die on the same level as animals (not as a god), for the prophecy was that the firstborn of man and cattle would die.

Hymns of worship to many pharaohs have been found. Here is one to Rameses II:

The good god, the strong one, whom men praise, the lord, in whom men make their boast; who protecteth his soldiers, who maketh his boundaries on earth as he will. . . . (Erman, p. 258.)

Concerning the divinity of the pharaohs, William Edgerton notes:

As for the organization and powers of the government, everyone knows that the Pharaoh was an absolute monarch and that his authority rested theoretically on his supposed divinity. He is constantly called"the good god." One of his most frequent titles designates him as the son of the sun-god Ra, and we know that his claim of divine parentage was not a mere figure of speech; it was meant to be taken literally. Theoretically, of course, the Pharaoh's right-to-rule rested on his divinity. He was begotten by the sun-god Amon-Ra, who took the form of the previous king for this purpose, and Amon-Ra with the enthusiastic approval of the other gods placed him on the throne and decreed a long and brilliant reign for him. No doubt those theological fictions helped to strengthen the Pharaoh's position. But the really solid basis of his power was his control of the machinery of government, including the army and police. (Edgerton, Journal of Near Eastern Studies: 6, 1967, pp. 153-4.)

A great majority of the historical monuments were intended as official propaganda with the purpose of transmitting to posterity a "correct" impression of the glory and power of the pharaohs. Crises of revolution and that type of inner strife so common in the Orient, as well as military defeats in foreign wars, were either passed over completely or were interpreted so that the monuments conveyed impressions much distorted and unduly colored to the credit of the Egyptians. (Steindorff and Seele, When Egypt Ruled the East, p. 6, our emphasis.)

The above is the reason there is no Egyptian record of the Exodus. The Egyptians simply would not record it because it was such a calamity. That may be true. However, we think evidence will yet be discovered for it. Although his mummy has been discovered, the temple of the man who was likely the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Amenhotep II, has never been found. If it is ever found and opened it may contain evidence of the plagues or the Exodus.

In Exodus 4:22-23 God told the Egyptians, "Israel is my son, my first-born. Let him go! If not, I will slay thy first-born!"  Then in Exodus 11:5-7 and 12:29 we we that the last plague was against the first-born.

As if losing the future pharaoh was not enough, even the god of storms, Baal-Zephon, could not help the army which was pursuing Israel into the desert. In plain view of his temple, the whole army of Pharaoh was destroyed (Ex 14:2,9). Baal of Syria was equated by the Egyptians with their god Seth (19, 109). And the cruel sea was believed to be a manifestation of Seth.

Yahweh's Purpose in the Plagues

The first reason for the final plague was that the Egyptians may know that Yahweh is God! (Exodus 7:5; 8:10; 9:14-16,27; 10:16; 14:4.) The Lord is gracious in that He says over and over that He is doing this for the Egyptians that they might know He is the Lord. In fact, among the Egyptians, those who exercised faith were saved (Exodus 9:20-21; 12:38). Just as we today have an incentive to believe in Christ because of His miracles (John 20:31), so the Egyptians had opportunity to believe because of the plagues.

The second reason for the plagues was that Israel might know Yahweh, their God, is The God and that there is no other (Exodus 10:1-2; 11:7; 14:31; Deuteronomy 4:32-35, Psalms 135:5-10). Some of the Israelites seem to have lost faith in Jehovah during their servitude. Possibly they were impressed with Egypt's gods since they seemed to be helping the Egyptians. But now Israel was to see evidence of Yahweh's absolute sovereignty and superiority over all the gods of Egypt. In fact, in Exodus 10:2 (NASB) we read that the Lord mocked the Egyptian gods.

Why didn't pharaoh believe? Why should he? He was a god! If he believed, he would lose his "divinity."  But God hardened his heart. Why? Because, if he had repented and let Israel go after the first plague, all the gods of Egypt would have retained their greatness in the eyes of the Egyptians and of Israel. People had to suffer to demonstrate that all gods other than Yahweh were nothing.

Jethro summed it up well when he later said, "Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly He was above them!" (Exodus 18:11)

Necessary in the plan for Israel's salvation was that they should do a simple, visible act. That was to take a lamb, kill it, and put some of its blood on the doorpost of their dwelling. Egyptian symbolism is interesting even in this act, for a door was a symbol of both entry and defense (47). And gates played a special role in the journey of the deceased through the nether world. For Israel, putting blood on the doorposts indicated that something done in one's heart is not enough. They had to act out their faith. Pharaoh could have saved his first-born if he had done that. But it would have destroyed the Egyptian system. In doing so, he would have acknowledged Yahweh as God. Furthermore, sheep were an abomination to the Egyptians.

Yahweh's plan of salvation for Israel was not only to put down the gods of Egypt. God was calling out a people for Himself. This was His greater and higher purpose. For Israel to be a special people to the Lord they had to break with the associations they had in Egypt. They had to see that:

  1. He is over all gods (I John 3:8; John 12:31-33);
  2. that the lamb was slain and blood brought deliverance (John 1:29; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:7; I Peter 1:18-20; Revelations 5:9);
  3. this is family oriented salvation (Exodus 12:3,4,26).

A final thought -- Jesus (Yeshua, Hebrew, means "salvation") instituted the New Covenant as a Passover meal. Today, the family of faith partakes of this meal, a sign of deliverance (Moshiach, Hebrew, means "deliverer") from the bondage of Egypt and from their gods (Luke 22:1-20). Jeremiah and Ezekiel both prophesied a new covenant which would include not only outward signs, but renewed hearts and minds. Anyone today can enter this New Covenant through acknowledging Jesus Christ (Yeshua Ha Moshiach) as their Lord and Savior.

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© 2003 David Livingston