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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Plagues of Egypt

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The design of these visitations, growing more awful and tremendous in their progress, was to make Pharaoh know, and confess, that the God of the Hebrews was the supreme Lord, and to exhibit his power and his justice in the strongest light to all the nations of the earth, Exodus 9:16 ; 1 Samuel 4:8 , &c; to execute judgment upon the Egyptians and upon all their gods, inanimate and bestial, for their cruelty to the Israelites, and for their grovelling polytheism and idolatry, Exodus 7:14-17 ; Exodus 12:12 . The Nile was the principal divinity of the Egyptians. According to Heliodorus, they paid divine honours to this river, and revered it as the first of their gods. They declared him to be the rival of heaven, since he watered the country without the aid of the clouds and rain. His principal festival was at the summer solstice, when the inundation commenced; at which season, in the dog days, by a cruel idolatrous rite, they sacrificed red-haired persons, principally foreigners, to Typhon, or the power that presided over tempests, at Busiris, Heliopolis, &c, by burning them alive, and scattering their ashes in the air, for the good of the people, as we learn from Plutarch. Hence Bryant infers the probability, that these victims were chosen from among the Israelites, during their residence in Egypt. The judgment then inflicted upon the river, and all the waters of Egypt, in the presence of Pharaoh and of his servants, as foretold,—when, as soon as Aaron had smitten the waters of the river, they were turned into blood, and continued in that state for seven days, so that all the fish died, and the Egyptians could not drink of the waters of the river, in which they delighted as the most wholesome of all waters, but were forced to dig wells, for pure water to drink,—was a significant sign of God's displeasure for their senseless idolatry in worshipping the river and its fish, and also "a manifest reproof of that bloody edict whereby the infants were slain," Wis_11:7 .

In the plague of frogs, their sacred river itself was made an active instrument of their punishment, together with another of their gods. The frog was one of their sacred animals, consecrated to the sun, and considered as an emblem of divine inspiration in its inflations.

The plague of lice, which was produced without any previous intimation to Pharaoh, was peculiarly offensive to a people so superstitiously nice and cleanly as the Egyptians; and, above all, to their priests, who used to shave their whole body every third day, that neither louse, nor any other vermin, might be found upon them while they were employed in serving their gods, as we learn from Herodotus; and Plutarch informs us, that they never wore woollen garments, but linen only, because linen is least apt to produce lice. This plague, therefore, was particularly disgraceful to the magicians themselves; and when they tried to imitate it, but failed, on account of the minuteness of the objects, (not like serpents, water, or frogs, of a sensible bulk that could be handled,) they were forced to confess that this was no human feat of legerdemain, but rather "the finger of God." Thus were "the illusions of their magic put down, and their vaunting in wisdom reproved with disgrace," Wis_17:7 . "Their folly was manifest unto all men," in absurdly and wickedly attempting at first to place the feats of human art on a level with the stupendous operations of divine power, in the first two plagues; and being foiled in the third, by shamefully miscarrying, they exposed themselves to the contempt of their admirers. Philo, the Jew, has a fine observation on the plagues of Egypt: "Some, perhaps, may require, Why did God punish the country by such minute and contemptible animals as frogs, lice, flies, rather than by bears, lions, leopards, or other kinds of savage beasts which prey on human flesh? Or, if not by these, why not by the Egyptian asp, whose bite is instant death? But let him learn, if he be ignorant, first, that God chose rather to correct than to destroy the inhabitants; for, if he desired to annihilate them utterly, he had no need to have made use of animals as his auxiliaries, but of the divinely inflicted evils of famine and pestilence. Next, let him farther learn that lesson so necessary for every state of life, namely, that men, when they war, seek the most powerful aid to supply their own weakness; but God, the highest and the greatest power, who stands in need of nothing, if at any time he chooses to employ instruments, as it were, to inflict chastisement, chooses not the strongest and greatest, disregarding their strength, but rather the mean and the minute, whom he endues with invincible and irresistible power to chastise offenders." The first three plagues were common to the Egyptians and the Israelites, to convince both that "there was none like the Lord;" and to wean the latter from their Egyptian idolatries, and induce them to return to the Lord their God. And when this end was answered, the Israelites were exempted from the ensuing plagues; for the Lord severed the land of Goshen from the rest of Egypt; whence the ensuing plagues, confined to the latter, more plainly appeared to have been inflicted by the God of the Hebrews, Exodus 8:20-23 , to convince both more clearly of "the goodness and severity of God," Romans 11:22 ; that "great plagues remain for the ungodly, but mercy embraceth the righteous on every side," Psalms 32:10 .

The visitation of flies, of the gad fly, or hornet, was more intolerable than any of the preceding. By this, his minute, but mighty army, God afterward drove out some of the devoted nations of Canaan before Joshua, Exodus 23:28 ; Deuteronomy 7:20 ; Joshua 24:12 . This insect was worshipped in Palestine and elsewhere under the title of Baal-zebub, "lord of the gad fly," 2 Kings 1:1-2 . Egypt, we learn from Herodotus, abounded with prodigious swarms of flies, or gnats; but this was in the heat of summer, during the dog days; whence this fly is called by the Septuagint κυνομυια , the dog fly. But the appointed time of this plague was in the middle of winter; and, accordingly, this plague extorted Pharaoh's partial consent, "Go ye, sacrifice to your God, but in the land;" and when Moses and Aaron objected the offence they would give to the Egyptians, who would stone them for sacrificing "the abomination of the Egyptians," namely, animal sacrifices, he reluctantly consented, "only ye shall not go very far away;" for he was apprehensive of their flight, like his predecessor, who first enslaved the Israelites, Exodus 1:10 ; and he again desired them to "entreat for him." But he again dealt deceitfully; and after the flies were removed so effectually that not one was left, when Moses "entreated the Lord, Pharaoh hardened his heart this fifth time also, neither would he let the people go."

This second breach of promise on the part of Pharaoh drew down a plague of a more deadly description than the preceding. The fifth plague of murrain destroyed all the cattle of Egypt, but of "the cattle of the Israelites died not one." It was immediately inflicted by God himself, after previous notification, and without the agency of Moses and Aaron, to manifest the divine indignation at Pharaoh's falsehood. And though the king sent and found that not one of the Israelites was dead, yet his heart was hardened this sixth time also, and he would not let the people go, Exodus 9:1-7 .

At length, after Pharaoh had repeatedly abused the gracious respites and warnings vouchsafed to him and his servants, a sorer set of plagues, affecting themselves, began to be inflicted; and Moses now, for the first time, appears as the executioner of divine vengeance; for in the presence of Pharaoh, by the divine command, he sprinkled ashes of the furnace toward heaven, and it became a boil, breaking forth with blains upon man and upon beast. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boil, which affected them and all the Egyptians, Exodus 9:8-11 . This was a very significant plague: the furnace from which the ashes were taken aptly represented "the iron furnace" of Egyptian bondage, Deuteronomy 4:20 ; and the scattering of the ashes in the air might have referred to the usage of the Egyptians in their Typhonian sacrifices of human victims; while it converted another of the elements, and of their gods, the air, or ether, into an instrument of their chastisement. And now "the Lord," for the first time, "hardened the heart of Pharaoh," after he had so repeatedly hardened it himself, "and he hearkened not unto them, as the Lord had foretold unto Moses," Exodus 9:12 . Though Pharaoh probably felt the scourge of the boil, as well as his people, it did not soften nor humble his heart; and when he wilfully and obstinately turned away from the light, and shut his eyes against the luminous evidences vouchsafed to him of the supremacy of the God of the Hebrews, and had twice broken his promise when he was indulged with a respite, and dealt deceitfully, he became a just object of punishment; and God now began to increase the hardness or obduracy of his heart. And such is the usual and the righteous course of his providence; when nations or individuals despise the warnings of Heaven, abuse their best gifts, and resist the means of grace, God then "delivers them over to a reprobate" or undiscerning "mind, to work all uncleanness with greediness," Romans 1:28 .

In the tremendous plague of hail, the united elements of air, water, and fire, were employed to terrify and punish the Egyptians by their principal divinities. This plague was formally announced to Pharaoh and his people: "I will at this season send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth. For now I could stretch out my hand, and smite thee and thy people with pestilence," or destroy thee at once, like thy cattle with the murrain, "and thou shouldest be cut off from the earth; but, in truth, for this cause have I sustained thee, that I might manifest in thee my power, and that my name might be declared throughout the whole earth,"

Exodus 9:13-16 . This rendering of the passage is more conformable to the context, the Chaldee paraphrase, and to Philo, than the received translation, "For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence;" for surely Pharaoh and his people were not smitten with pestilence; and "they were preserved" or kept from immediate destruction, according to the Septuagint, διετηρηθης , "to manifest the divine power," by the number and variety of their plagues. Still, however, in the midst of judgment, God remembered mercy; he gave a gracious warning to the Egyptians, to avoid, if they chose, the threatened calamity: "Send, therefore, now, and gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field; every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die." And this warning had some effect: "He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh, made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; and he that regarded not the word of the Lord, left his servants and his cattle in the field," Exodus 9:17-21 . But it may be asked, If all the cattle of the Egyptians were destroyed by the foregoing plague of murrain, as asserted Exodus 9:6 , how came there to be any cattle left? Surely the Egyptians might have recruited their stock from the land of Goshen, where "not one of the cattle of the Israelites died." And this justifies the supposition, that there was some respite, or interval, between the several plagues, and confirms the conjecture of the duration of the whole, about a quarter of a year. And that the warning, in this case, was respected by many of the Egyptians, we may infer from the number of chariots and horsemen that went in pursuit of the Israelites afterward. This was foretold to be "a very grievous hail, such as had not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof: and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along the ground; and the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, there was no hail." Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, "I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked: entreat the Lord," for it is enough, "that there might be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer." But when there was respite, Pharaoh "sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants; neither would he let the people go," Exodus 9:27-35 . In this instance, there is a remarkable suspension of the judicial infatuation. Pharaoh had humbled himself, and acknowledged his own and his people's guilt, and the justice of the divine plague: the Lord, therefore, forbore this time to harden his heart. But he abused the long sufferance of God, and this additional respite; he sinned yet more, because he now sinned wilfully, after he had received information of the truth; he relapsed, and hardened his own heart a seventh time. He became, therefore, "a vessel of wrath, fitted to destruction," Hebrews 10:26 ; Romans 9:22 .

The design of the eighth and the ensuing plagues, was to confirm the faith of the Israelites: "That thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord." This plague of locusts, inflicted on the now devoted Egyptians and their king, completed the havoc begun by the hail; by this "the wheat and rye were destroyed, and every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any verdure in the trees, nor in the herbs of the field, throughout the land of Egypt. Very grievous were they; before them were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall there be such,"

Exodus 10:3-15 .

The awful plague of darkness over all the land of Egypt, for three days, "a thick darkness which might be felt," in the emphatic language of Scripture, was inflicted on the Egyptians, and their chief god, the sun; and was, indeed, a most significant sign of the divine displeasure, and of that mental darkness under which they now laboured. Their consternation thereat is strongly represented by their total inaction; neither rose any from his place for three days, petrified, as they were, with horror. They were also "scared with strange apparitions and visions, while a heavy night was spread over them, an image of that darkness which should afterward receive them. But yet, they were unto themselves more grievous than that darkness," Wis_17:3-21 ; Psalms 78:49 . This terrific and horrible plague compelled Pharaoh to relax; he offered to let the men and their families go; but he wished to keep the flocks and herds as security for their return; but Moses peremptorily declared, that not a hoof should be left behind. Again "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let them go,"

Exodus 10:21-27 . "And the Lord said unto Moses, Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the Lord" ultimately "hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land," Exodus 11:9-10 . This passage forms the conclusion to the nine plagues, and should properly follow the preceding; for the result of the tenth and last plague was foretold, that Pharaoh should not only let them go, but surely thrust them out altogether, Exodus 11:1 .

The tenth plague was announced to Pharaoh with much solemnity: "Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid- servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle. And there shall be a great cry throughout the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be any more. But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast; that ye may know, how that the Lord doth make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel. And all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and bow themselves unto me, saying, Get thee out, and all the people that follow thee. And after that I will go out," Exodus 11:4-8 . Such a threat, delivered in so high a tone, both in the name of the God of Israel and of Moses, did not fail to exasperate the infatuated Pharaoh, and he said, "Get thee from me; take heed to thyself; see my face no more: for in the day thou seest my face thou shalt die. And Moses said, Be it so as thou hast spoken; I will see thy face again no more. And he went out from Pharaoh in great anger,"

Exodus 10:28-29 ; Exodus 11:8 . "And at midnight the Lord smote all the first- born in the land of Egypt; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house in which there was not one dead," Exodus 12:1-30 . This last tremendous judgment is described with much sublimity in the book of Wis_18:14-18 .

"For when all things were wrapt in still silence,

And night, in her proper speed, holding her mid course, Thy all powerful oracle leapt down from heaven,

Out of the royal throne, a fierce warrior,

Into the midst of the land of destruction, Wielding a sharp sword, thine unfeigned command,

And standing up, he filled the whole with death,

He touched the heavens, indeed, but trod upon the earth!"

"And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and he called for," or sent to, "Moses and Aaron by night, and said, Get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as ye said; take also your flocks and your herds, and be gone; and bless me also. And the Egyptians also were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We shall all be dead." It is evident from the extreme urgency of the occasion, when all the Egyptians apprehended total destruction, if the departure of the Israelites was delayed any longer, that Pharaoh had no personal interview with Moses and Aaron, which would have wasted time, and was quite unnecessary; he only sent them a peremptory mandate to be one on their own terms. "And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they freely gave what they required, and they spoiled the Egyptians," Exodus 12:31-36 , as originally foretold to Abraham, Genesis 15:14 ; and to Moses before the plagues began. This was an act of perfect retributive justice, to make the Egyptians pay for the long and laborious services of the Israelites, whom they had unjustly enslaved, in violation of their charter.

The Israelites were thrust out of Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month, "about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside women and children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks and herds, even very much cattle," Exodus 12:37-38 ; Numbers 11:4 ; Numbers 33:3 . "And they went out with a high hand; for the Lord went before them by day, in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, to go by day and night. He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people," Exodus 13:22 ; Numbers 9:15-23 . And the motion or rest of this divine guide regulated their marches, and their stations or encampments during the whole of their route, Numbers 10:33-36 . See RED SEA .


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Plagues of Egypt'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/p/plagues-of-egypt.html. 1831-2.

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