This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in July 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.
This painting, “He turned their waters into blood,” by the 19th-century American folk painter Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900), depicts the first of the Biblical plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. One understanding of the Egyptian plagues explains them as expressions of natural events. A second view of the Biblical plagues sees them as attacks on the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Accordingly, the first plague described in Exodus in the Bible—turning the waters of Egypt to blood—is directed against one of several gods associate with Nile or with water. Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington/Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.
The Book of Exodus in the Bible describes ten Egyptian plagues that bring suffering to the land of pharaoh. Are these Biblical plagues plausible on any level? In the following article, “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Ziony Zevit looks at these Biblical plagues from various vantage points. There’s something unique about these Egyptian plagues as presented in Exodus in the Bible. They’re different from the curses to Israelites as mentioned in Leviticus. Some have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A second set of meteorological disasters, hailstorms (the seventh of the Biblical plagues) and locusts, may have been followed by a Libyan dust storm—causing darkness.
Many of the Egyptian plagues could also be interpreted as “attacks against the Egyptian pantheon,” Zevit notes. Many of the Egyptian plagues mentioned in Exodus in the Bible have some correlation to an Egyptian god or goddess. For example, Heket was represented as a frog and Hathor as a cow. An ancient Egyptian “Coffin Text” refers to the slaying of first-born gods.
A third way to look at the Biblical plagues is by asking, “why ten?” Ultimately the plagues served to increase the faith of the surviving Israelites. On this count ten could be connected to the ten divine utterances of the creation account of Genesis 1. In relating the ten Egyptian plagues, the Exodus in the Bible could represent a parallel account of liberation, affecting all aspects of the created world.