Book of Exodus
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
We know, we know. You're here because you want to know if these plagues really happened. Well, don't hold your breath.
To tell you the truth, fire coming down from God—or not—three thousand years ago isn't going to help you understand the influence these passages have had on our culture. So if you ever figure out the real-or-not-so-much-ness of the plagues, let us know. Until then, we'll have to stick to the stories.
The First Plague: Blood
Rivers were the life blood of ancient civilizations—pun totally intended.
Turning the river to blood isn't just a neat trick; it's an attempt to undermine the way Egypt works. The chapter is very careful to tell us that even the tributaries are turned to blood: "Over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water […] may become blood" (7:19).
We're talking total destruction here.
The Second Plague: Frogs
The major takeaway for Plague #2 is that Moses chooses the moment to end the plague. Pharaoh's magicians able to reproduce it, but they can't control it. God can, giving him another moment to outfox Pharaoh's magician power.
Also, these plagues get in your face. Just picture it—frogs in your face. We'd say it's a pretty decent punishment. And after all, that's all these plagues are: a power trippy punishment of the Egyptians for being nasty to the Israelites.
The Third and Fourth Plagues: Gnats and Flies
Although the third plague's "gnats" have generally been translated as "lice," everyone pretty much agrees that the Hebrew word refers to mosquitoes. We're going to move on before we get itchy.
The fourth plague gets some pretty distinct interpretations, including both "wild animals" and "flies." That's quite a difference, but we think flies are just fine. We'll let the wild animals hang with Noah. This is the first plague that actually begins to cripple Egypt's very infrastructure: "in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of flies" (8.24). Bloody water might seem grosser, but it takes a lot longer to repair land than it does to dig a well.
The Fifth Plague: Livestock Pestilence
Talk about a direct shot. Sure, Egypt is a more urban area than the wilderness, but the economy still relies big time on animals. Donkeys carry goods through the cities, camels carry trade products across the desert, and sheep and oxen help feed the population. Killing these animals would be like destroying all farm equipment, cars, and planes in the modern world. It's crippling, at best.
The Sixth Plague: Boils
Now it gets personal. By giving them boils, God is sending a message to each and every Egyptian about his power and anger. Even Pharaoh's magicians can't protect themselves from this one. Sounds like a fun week at the office.
The Seventh Plague: Hail and Fire
Remember when the U.S. military used "shock and awe" tactics to convince the Iraqis that they couldn't win? Yep. They borrowed that from Exodus.
Aside from destroying a whole bunch of ground structures, this plague is designed to scare the living daylights out of people when they walk outside, morning coffee in hand. Imagine if you walked out your front door, groggy, and you saw fire and hail raining from the sky. Might raise a few eyebrows right?
It's no wonder Pharaoh surrenders on this one—even though, as always, he changes his mind once it stops.
The Eighth Plague: Locusts
As if all this weren't enough, God now deploys his locust army on the Egyptians. In the ancient world, locusts were the worst thing since drought. Even urban economies were based on farming done by hand, so destroyed crops meant destroyed economies. Locusts are also pretty tough to get rid of without a big fat dose of industrial pesticide, and the ancient Egyptians definitely didn't have DDT on hand.
This is the final blow to Egyptian daily business. No trees, no green—just complete and total desolation.
The Ninth Plague: Darkness
Might sound fun to us, but this plague was absolutely terrifying. This isn't like living in an Arctic or Antarctic region where it's night all the time. No, the text implies something deeply disturbing and crippling about the darkness: it's "a darkness that can be felt" (10:21). It's frightening, impossible to get rid of, and crippling to even the most mundane of tasks (like, say, going outside).
The Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn
Why is murdering the firstborn such a big deal? Well, aside from the obvious, the death of the firstborn is a message from God to the Egyptians. In ancient culture, the firstborn son inherits everything. He's the next link in the hierarchy, the inheritance chain, and the royal line—that's a lot of money and a lot of power to lose.
This is no longer just a war between gods, it's also an attempt to mess up the way Egyptian society works. Imagine if half of all legal contracts in the United States were suddenly declared invalid—there'd be institutional chaos for years, right? The tenth plague is God's final strike into the heart of Egyptian civilization. God destroys their economy, their lifestyle, even their bodies. And now, he's crippling their main means of societal continuity.
But remember, Passover isn't just God's opportunity to do a victory dance. It's the beginning of a tradition for the Israelites. Being freed from slavery is a huge milestone, and it affects their rituals, traditions, and cultural thinking for years to come.
Curious? Start with Passover.