Today we read about the first nine plagues of Egypt, and tomorrow will cover the tenth and final plague. Many people are familiar with these plagues and the events surrounding them, but I just want to go over a few interesting points and themes.
The plagues come, one after the next, due to pharaoh refusing to listen to God and release the people of Israel to go worship in the wilderness. And so God issues these judgments, but it’s also interesting to note that they aren’t against pharaoh alone, the people of Egypt share in the suffering because they’ve also benefited from 400 years of Hebrew slavery. Another thing to take note of, is that almost all of the plagues strike at something that is at the heart of Egyptian life and at the heart of their religion, because most of the plagues strike down a god of the Egyptian pantheon. This shows that God is in control of this world, and that He is greater than their false gods.
Starting with the first sign that Moses and Aaron show to pharaoh, and that’s his staff becoming a snake. This is matched by the magicians of the kingdom, now it’s not entirely clear if they’re using illusions or perhaps some kind of demonic dark magic, nevertheless they match the sign of Aaron. But just as they’re probably congratulating themselves for this magic trick, Aaron one rod/snake swallowed all of theirs.
This is notable for a couple reasons, first being Aaron’s rod was obviously greater than theirs, and so by extension the power that caused his rod to become a snake was greater than whatever power caused theirs to do the same. Also because symbolically a cobra represented the power of the Egyptian pharaoh and represented the god Wadjet. So this would be interpreted as a very bad omen by the Egyptians.
First Plague: Nile Turns to Blood
Moses appears at the bank of the Nile and when pharaoh refuses to release his people, Aaron strikes the water and it turns to blood. This is the same river that killed so many Hebrew infants, and so metaphorically spilled the blood of those children. Now the Nile, the source of life for Egyptian agriculture, and a symbol of life for the entire nation, is now a source of rancidness and pollution of the land.
In Egyptian religion the Nile had a deity named Hapi, that caused its annual life giving flood, and protected the river. Turning the water to blood can be seen as a judgment against this god and being overthrown. Also the god Knum was considered a guardian of the Nile river and he was proved to be no match to guard against this calamity.
Not only was the water in the Nile turned to blood, but also all the water in Egypt. I’ve made lots of mentions of Jesus being the new and greater Moses, and this is another commonality between them. Moses turns the water to blood, Jesus turns water to wine, and then wine into His precious blood.
Second Plague: Frogs
Again, what becomes a familiar refrain; Moses relays God’s demand to release the people, and pharaoh says no. So Aaron stretched his hands over the river and out comes the frogs. Amusingly the magicians can match this one as well, but they just add to the amount of frogs swarming the country.
Heqet and Hapi were both fertility goddesses and were represented in the form of a frog. They were also closely associated with the annual flooding of the Nile, so this plague naturally follows after the river being struck by its plague.
Unlike the first plague, where he just turned and went home, this one makes pharaoh beg Moses to have God remove the frogs and he will let the people go. But because this is the second of ten plagues, we know he goes back on his word. Also, when Moses prays and the frogs die off, the Egyptians shovel them into piles and they stank. Which one is worse, the live frogs all over the place, or mountains of dead and rotting frogs?
Third Plague: Gnats
After reneging on his promise to Moses, pharaoh doesn’t even get a chance to deny the request before this plague hits. I’ve looked and can’t find a corresponding deity for the swarms of gnats (or sometimes translated as lice), but my resources for Egyptian gods is not exhaustive so I may have just overlooked it. Either way, this plague would’ve been torturous. If you’ve ever been somewhere tropical or swampy and have been swarmed by gnats you know how annoying it can be, now imagine so many that they look like clouds. Honestly I’d be begging for the frogs to return.
The royal magicians fail to produce their own swarms of gnats and tell pharaoh “this is the finger of God” but his heart remained hardened.
Fourth Plague: Swarm of Flies
Moses and Aaron return to the nile and Make their demand to pharaoh, but because of his hardness of heart he doesn’t release them, and so swarms of flies descend on Egypt. This plague is slightly different in that now Moses just speaks the plague over the land, no longer involving Aaron’s actions, and also the land of Goshen and houses belonging to the Israelites are spared from this plague, and all the plagues going forward.
Some speculate that these flies may have been of the bitting or stinging kind, and not just regular house flys. But even if they weren’t, we all know how annoying a single fly can be, now multiply that by divine judgment levels.
The god represented by the flies could be either Uatchit or Khepri, or both. And yes, they had gods and goddesses for almost every animal and event, but though this sounds strange to us it wasn’t uncommon in polytheistic pagan societies. They needed a way to make sense of the world around them, and so they invent a force behind everything they seen, and if one contradicted the other they’d just reconcile them with more layers of mythology.
Fifth Plague: Death Of Livestock
Remember back during the story of Joseph, that the people traded cattle in to the storehouses in exchange for things they can eat. Meaning that they didn’t even consider eating the cattle. Also they considered animal sacrifice in Egypt to be an abomination, in the words of Joseph and Moses, so this plague probably hit them the hardest so far.T
The goddess most likely to be the target here is Hathor, who is represented by a cow or calf, and is a goddess of fertility. Hathor is also likely the goddess that Aaron leads the people in worshiping during the golden calf incident that comes in the book of exodus.
Sixth Plague: Boils
The fifth plague is an outbreak of boils affecting man and animals. Sekhmet was a goddess of healing, and ironically also the pandemic goddess because she was called on to control outbreaks of disease. By striking the nation with this disease, the God of the Israelites is showing how powerless the Egyptian pantheon really is. The court magicians couldn’t even get to pharaoh, never mind try to replicate this one (if they even wanted to).
Seventh Plague: Hail
Before this plague is called down, Moses makes a proclamation that God could’ve easily struck down pharaoh at any time, but has kept him alive to essentially make an example out of him. He tells him to bring any animal and all people inside for the next calamity to strike, and anyone caught outside that didn’t heed this warning died in the fields. The sky rained down fiery hailstones unlike anything ever seen before. And obvious to all the people in Egypt was the sky goddess Nut was powerless to stop it, and even the powerful god Isis was unable to protect the crops in his care.
This plague seems to be the first to get pharaoh’s attention because he confesses his sin and agrees to release them, but as soon as the hail stops he goes back on his word
Eighth Plague: Locusts
This plague piggybacks on the previous one because the locusts come from the east and devoured all the plants that the hail didn’t destroy. This would’ve been devastating to the Egyptians because they’re obviously loosing this war, and now face the possibility of starvation and famine with no crops to harvest. Set the god of the sky is unable to stop these clouds of destructive insects.
At this point pharaoh begins to negotiate, but this is an all or nothing situation and he’s in no position to negotiate.
Ninth Plague: Darkness
Egypt had several sun gods and at least two moon gods, and these were all shown to be powerless during the three days of darkness that enveloped Egypt. Ra, one of the most powerful gods in the Egyptian pantheon cannot pierce this darkness and even the moon gives no light.
Another interesting note, is that depending on the dating of the exodus, these events may have taken place during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, in the 15th century BC. This would’ve been during the reign of either Thutmose III or Amenhotep II, and less than a century later another pharaoh named Amenhotep would reign over Egypt, but this pharaoh would be better known by the name he took on after a he led a religious revolution that saw Egypt turn to a form of monotheism for the first and only time until the rise of Christianity. His name was Akhenaten, and it’s interesting to think that if the early dating of the exodus is correct, he could’ve been influenced by seeing how powerless the gods of his ancestors were against the One True God, and so made a religion influenced by this monotheism that created so much tumult in his land. Just my theory here.
Anyhow, when pharaoh sees (or actually doesn’t see) this ninth plague he tries to make another deal, and offers to let them go with everything but their belongings. Moses says no deal. The worship of God is dictated by God, and not this foreign king, so the livestock have to travel with the Israelites because there’s no telling how many they’ll need to sacrifice and that call isn’t up to pharaoh to make.
After this God begins to prepare them for the final plague, and this includes going around and asking the Egyptians for some treasure to take with them, which they freely hand over to them, fulfilling a promise to the patriarchs that they’ll leave Egypt enriched with wealth.