Ten plagues

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Template:NPOV The book of Exodus (שמות), chapters 7:14 - 12:42, recounts the story of ten plagues (Eser Ha-Makot עשר המכות in Hebrew): 10 disasters, executed against Egypt by God, in order to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

To the author (or authors) of the Torah, the plagues were manifestations of God's great power which he had caused to be declared among the nations (Ex 9:14, 16), and which other peoples would discuss for generations afterward (Jos 2:9-11; 9:9; Isa 4:8; 6:6). In this view, the plagues were proof that the gods of Egypt were powerless (Ex 12:12; Nu 33:4).

The account of the ten plagues is exclusively Biblical; it does not appear in any known Egyptian records from the era. This leaves open the question whether this story, like the rest of Exodus, is historical, mythic, or some combination of the two. (See the entries on Exodus and the Bible and history for broader discussion.)


Brief summary

The plagues were:

  1. rivers turned to blood (Exodus 7:14-25)
  2. a plague of frogs (Exodus 8:1-25)
  3. lice (Exodus 8:16-19)
  4. flies (Exodus 8:20-32)
  5. pestilence on livestock (Exodus 9:1-7)
  6. boils (Exodus 9:8-12)
  7. hail (Exodus 9:13-35)
  8. locusts (Exodus 10:13-14,19)
  9. three days of darkness (Exodus 10:21-29)
  10. death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:29-36)


The main reason for the plagues was Pharaohs repeated refusal to release the Jewish people from slavery. Moses, acting as a messenger, and his brother Aaron, who spoke for Moses due to his speech impediment, requested leave for the people to "sacrifice to God in the desert". Although Pharaoh usually promised to let them go after each plague, he usually withdrew his permission shortly afterwards.

The third, sixth and ninth plague came without warning, suggesting that the plagues came in three iterations of three. Indeed, Biblical commentators point out parallels between individual plagues.


Several characteristics mark the account of the plagues. They were predicted and came precisely as indicated. Advance warnings enabled those who heeded them to escape certain plagues (Ex 9:18-21; 12:1-13). God could be selective as to the plagues' effect, causing some to leave a specific area exempt, thereby identifying who were his approved servants (Ex 8:22, 23; 9:3-7, 26). He could start and stop the plagues at will (Ex 8:8-11; 9:29).

Though Pharaoh's magic-practicing priests appeared to duplicate the first two plagues (perhaps even trying to credit them to their Egyptian deities), their secret arts soon failed them, and they were obliged to acknowledge "the finger of God" in the execution of the third plague (Ex 7:22; 8:6, 7, 16-19). They could not reverse the plagues and were themselves affected (Ex 9:11).

God "proved himself God to Israel" and "near to them" by reclaiming them with "an outstretched arm and with great judgments" (Ex 6:6, 7; De 4:7). Following the destruction of Pharaoh's hosts in the Red Sea, the people of Israel "began to fear God and to put faith in God and in Moses his servant" (Ex 14:31).

Egyptian gods

Some authorities say that the teaching purpose of the plagues is to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Egyptian deities, affirming God's uniqueness and power. If God triumphed over the gods of Egypt, a world-leading nation, then the people of God would be strengthened in their faith although they are a small people, and would not be tempted to follow the deities that God put to shame. Although some have advanced theories as to which of the Egyptian gods was affected by which plague, this is only scantily supported by Midrashic sources, and these attempts have generally produced widely divergent results.

The plagues

Blood (7:19 - 7:25) דם

The first plague was blood. Its main purpose was to give Pharaoh a taste of God's might and strength, and to demonstrate Moses's confidence in God. According to the Hebrew Bible, Aaron touched the river Nile with Moses's staff, and all the water turned into blood. It says specifically Aaron, because Moses was not allowed to. This is because the Nile saved him when he was a baby and he had to appreciate what it did. This is called Ha-koras ha-tov. As a result of the blood, the fish of the Nile died, and Egypt was filled with stench. Other water resources used by the Egyptians were turned to blood as well (7:19). This plague lasted for seven days.

Frogs (7:26 - 8:11) צפרדע

The second plague of Egypt was frogs. Herds of frogs overran Egypt and forced Pharaoh to call upon Moses, to ask him to remove the frogs. Moses agreed and told him that the next day the frogs would be gone, as proof of God's might. The next day all the frogs in the Egyptian courts and houses died. Nevertheless, Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews worship their God in the desert, according to the biblical account.

Fleas or Lice (8:12 - 8:15) כינים

The third plague of Egypt was fleas. According to the Bible, the dust of the earth became many fleas which the Egyptians could not get rid of.

Beasts or Flies (8:16 - 8:28) ערוב

The fourth plague of Egypt was Arov. Commentaries usually render this word as flies, but others as beasts, capable of harming people and livestock. The Bible emphasizes that the arov only came against Egypt, and that the Land of Goshen (where the Hebrews dwelt) was clean from it. Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow the Hebrews to worship God in the desert. However, after the plague was gone, Pharaoh "hardened his heart" and refused to keep his promise...

Livestock (9:1 - 9:7) דבר

The fifth plague of Egypt was a disease which exterminated the Egyptian livestock; that is, horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep and goats. The Hebrew cattle were unharmed.

Boils (9:8 - 9:12) שחין

The sixth plague of Egypt was Shkhin. The Shkhin was a kind of skin disease, known as boils. The Hartum priests of Egypt could not heal this disease.

Storm (9:13 - 9:25) ברד

Missing image
John Martin's engraving of the seventh plague

The seventh plague of Egypt was a destructive storm. The storm was a powerful shower of hail, combined with fire burning onto the ground. The storm heavily damaged Egyptian shrubbery and crops, as well as men and livestock. The storm struck all Egypt, except for the land of Goshen. Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow the Hebrews to worship God in the desert, saying "I have sinned: God is righteous, I and my people are evil". However, after the storm ceased, Pharaoh "hardened his heart" and refused to keep his promise.

Locusts (10:1 - 10:20) ארבה

The eighth plague of Egypt was locusts. The locusts swarmed Egypt and consumed all Egyptian crops, leaving no tree or plant standing on the face of Egypt. The swarm of locusts covered the sky and created darkness in Egypt. After Moses' threats and Egyptian pleas Pharaoh agreed to let only Hebrew men to go out to the desert, while women, children and livestock are to remain in Egypt. Moses demanded that all shall go, and when Pharaoh refused, this plague struck Egypt. Pharaoh again asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to allow all the Hebrews to worship God in the desert. However, after the locusts went away, Pharaoh "hardened his heart" and refused to keep his promise.

Darkness (10:21 - 10:29) חושך

The ninth plague of Egypt was complete darkness, lasting for three days. Pharaoh called upon Moses, agreeing to let the Hebrews go out to the desert, but leaving their livestock in Egypt. Moses refused this condition, and in addition required that Pharaoh would donate a sacrifice. This outraged Pharaoh, and he threatened Moses in death.

Death of Firstborn (11:1 - 12:42) מכת בכורות

The tenth and final plague of Egypt was the death of all Egyptian first born - from the king's first born to the widow's first born, including first born of livestock. This was the hardest and cruelest blow upon Egypt and the plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to submit, and let the Hebrews go.

God told Moses that this plague would cause Pharaoh to send the Hebrews away, and ordered him to prepare the people for leaving. He also ordered Moses to teach the ritual of Pesah sacrificing a lamb for God, and eating Matzot ("Poor's Bread" לחם עוני). God told Moses to order the Hebrews to mark their doorstep with the lamb's blood, in order that the plague of death would pass over them.

In the middle of the night, God himself (in the form of the angel of death) came upon Egypt and took the life of all the Egyptian first born sons, including Pharaoh's own. There was a great cry in Egypt, such as had never been heard before. No Hebrew first born was killed, as God passed over Hebrew houses.

After this, Pharaoh, furious and sad, ordered the Hebrews to go away, taking whatever they want. The Hebrews don't hesitate; and at the end of that night Moses led them out of Egypt. Jews celebrate this plague with redemption of the firstborn, as detailed in Exodus (13), and fast of the firstborn.

Discussions on the plagues

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Did the plagues happen?

The vast majority of scientists and secular thinkers believe the plague stories are simply mythical or allegorical, or inspired by passed-down accounts of natural disasters. Some, however, have speculated on the possible "natural" inspirations behind the plague stories.

Speculations on natural disasters

This is not the normal secular academic explanation. Also note that frogs always leave the river at the time of the floods, so much so that the annual nile inundation was symbolised by the arrival of massive amounts of frogs, and a nile-and-fertility goddess was depicted as a frog.

As noted above, some science writers and bible researchers have suggested that the plagues were passed-down accounts of natural disasters, and not supernatural miracles. Natural explanations have been suggested for most of the phenomena: the blood in the Nile (1) could have actually been pollution caused by volcanic activity. Abnormal algae rapid growth could have caused frogs (2) to leave the river, which in turn could have brought herds of insects (3,4) which spread diseases (5,6). They also suggest explanations for the locusts (8), and speculate that the darkness (9) was caused by a solar eclipse or sandstorm.

The Egyptian Admonitions of Ipuwer describe a series of calamities befalling Egypt, including a river turned to blood, men behaving as wild ibises, and the land generally turned upside down . The document is usually dated to the end of the Middle Kingdom (more rarely, to its beginning), long before the earliest theorized dates for the Exodus. Immanuel Velikovsky decided that this papyrus did, in fact, describe the events of Exodus, along with the major natural catastrophes that he thought preceded it; it was the conventional chronologies of Egypt that were wrong by several hundred years.[1] (http://www.varchive.org/dag/reconst.htm) His theory has never gained credibility among Egyptologists.

A candidate for a volcanic eruption that could have inspired the stories of the ten plagues is the eruption of the Thera volcano 650 miles to the northwest of Egypt. Controversially dated to about 1628 BC, this eruption is one of the largest on record, rivaling that of Tambora, which resulted in 1816's Year Without a Summer. Records of the enormous global impact of this eruption have been recorded in an ash layer deposit found in the Nile delta, tree ring frost scars in the bristlecone pines of the western United States, and a coating of ash in the Greenland ice caps, all dated to the same time and with the same chemical fingerprint as the ash from Thera. According to the theory, the volcanic ash could have then polluted the Nile red (1), leading to frogs leaving the river (2). The ash also would have impacted the ecology of the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly resulting in plagues 3, 4, 5, and 8. Hot ash coming into contact with skin could have caused plague 6, and storms caused by the Theran ash cloud could have resulted in plague 7, and the ash would have subsequently blotted out the sun (well documented in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens) to make day into night for plague 9. However, all the proposed dates for this eruption are hundreds of years before the proposed dates of the Exodus; thus only a radical revision of the chronology, like Velikovsky's, can link the two.

These explanations do not account for the selectiveness of the plagues: according to the Hebrew Bible the plagues damaged only Egyptians, while the Hebrews remain intact. The double-selectiveness of the last plague (10) - only first born dies - also does not have a naturalistic explanation. (But there was a hypothesis told that the food left in storage was polluted by the excrement of locusts, and Cladosporium,or black mold, grew in the crops. Because the first son might received double food in tradition, they would take more mildew than other would. In result, allergies occurred and killed those first-borns.) Typically, details of the account which do not accord with these natural explanations, skeptics and other modern writers account for as being pious exaggerations intended to encourage faith.

An alternative interpretation of "firstborn" has come to mean the cream of the crop of Egyptian society instead of literal firstborns in every household.

Following the assumption that at least some of the details are accurately reported, many modern Jews agree that some of the plagues were indeed natural disasters, but argue from the fact that they followed one another with such uncommon rapidity, that God's hand was behind them.

Indeed, several Biblical commentators (Nachmanides and, more recently, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky) have pointed out that for the plagues to be a real test, they had to contain an element leading to doubt. For example, the splitting of the Red Sea in Exodus appeared to be caused by "a strong eastern wind", providing the Egyptian pursuers, and also those who later recount the story, grounds to doubt the Divine origin of the plague.

Was the tenth plague moral?

The last plague has seemed to many to be a very cruel and unjustifiable punishment for the Egyptians, and is criticised for promoting an unethical delight in the suffering of others. A common and widely accepted Jewish Midrash explains the dreadful plague by expanding upon 10:28, where Pharaoh threatens to kill Moses:

When Moses went to Pharaoh to demand of him that he let the people go, the whole event is happening in front of Pharaoh's first born son who teases and mocks his father for allowing the Hebrew shepherd to humiliate him. Enraged by the insult and mad with pride, Pharaoh resolved to have revenge for the plagues, and told Moses that he shall deal with the Hebrews in such a manner that a great cry will be heard in Egypt, such that has never been heard before. This was an allusion to the crimes of his father, who ordered the drowning of the male children of the Hebrews. Therefore, Pharaoh brought this harsh punishment upon his own people. His cruel plan was turned back upon him, so that what Pharaoh wanted to do to the Hebrews, God made to happen to him.

This Midrash justifies the last plague with two main arguments:

  • Mida ke-neged mida מידה כנגד מידה ("retribution in kind") principle: in Bible the punishment fits to the crime (sin), not only in severity, but also in symbolism. This is for a pedagogic reason: so that everyone, including the sinner himself, shall know why he has been punished by God.
  • Ha-kam le-horgecha hashkem le-horgo הקם להרגך, השכם להורגו Self defense: Pharaoh planned to slaughter all Hebrew children. By inflicting upon Pharaoh the same thing he planned for the Hebrews, his evil plan was thwarted.

The Plagues in Popular Culture

The Ten Plagues of Egypt were dramatized by the heavy metal group Metallica in their song "Creeping Death", on their 1984 release Ride the Lightning. Late bassist Cliff Burton came up with the title of the song while watching the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, specifically when the Angel of Death moved among Egyptians, killing the firstborn in each family. The plagues were also dramatized as part of a modern horror film in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

See also

External Links

Exodus - relevant chapters

  • Hebrew: ch 7 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0207.htm) - ch 8 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0208.htm) - ch 9 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0209.htm) - ch 10 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0210.htm) - ch 11 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0211.htm) - ch 12 (http://kodesh.snunit.k12.il/i/t/t0212.htm) .
  • English: ch7 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus7.html) - ch8 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus8.html) - ch9 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus9.html) - ch10 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus10.html) - ch11 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus11.html) - ch12 (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Bible/Exodus12.html).da:Egyptens ti plager

de:Zehn Plagen fr:Dix plaies d'gypte nl:Plagen van Egypte ja:十の災い


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