The Plagues of Egypt: Fact or Fiction?

The ten Plagues of Egypt are the ten catastrophes imposed on ancient Egypt by Yahweh to convince Pharaoh to let the enslaved Israelite go as recorded in the Torah (Exodus, chapters 7–12). Pharaoh did not permit this “exodus” (Greek for “departure”) until after the final plague.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the plagues of Egypt were applied in order to reveal the reality of Israel’s God in contrast to the impotence of Egypt’s gods... this fact or fiction?

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Above: Moses (Charlton Heston) and Rameses (Yul Brynner) in the movie The Ten Commandments.

Some biblical commentators have suggested that the various plagues are a judgment on specific gods associated with the Nile, fertility and other natural phenomena. While there is no basis in scholarship for this suggestion, the Book of Exodus does affirm that Yahweh proclaims that all the gods of Egypt are judged through the final plague:

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD." (Exod. 12:12)

The Plagues of Egypt are believed to be historical by many Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some scientists and bible researchers have speculated on possible natural inspirations behind the narrative and that the successive plagues of Egypt are accounts of ordinary natural disasters, not supernatural miracles.

A weakness with this theory is that natural disasters do not discriminate as do the plagues described in the Torah. After the third plague (lice) the biblical account claims that all the subsequent plagues affected only the Egyptians and not the Israelites.

Other scholars contend that the plague narratives are simply mythical or allegorical. Gary Greenberg, President of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Education insists, "the plagues in the Bible are ordinary events described in typical Egyptian literary metaphors.”

Greenberg argues that the give and take between Moses and Pharaoh resembles the contest between the Egyptian deities Horus and Set before the council of the gods at Heliopolis.

Set challenges Horus to a contest to resolve their dispute over who would succeed Osiris on the throne. Horus defeats Set by use of magic. After each defeat Set reneged on his promise to let the winner have the throne.

Greenberg concludes: “What reads to us like a series of escalating plagues brought upon Egypt by Moses actually presents an exaggerated account of the trials and tribulations of life in ancient times.”

The Plagues of Egypt as Listed in Exodus

Plague of frogs

1. Water turned to blood killing all fish and other water life (Hebrew, dam) (Exod. 7:14-25)

2. Frogs (tsifardeah) (8:1-15)

3. Lice (Kinim) (8:16-19)

4. Flies (arov) (8:20-30)

5. Disease on livestock (dever) (9:1-7)

6. Incurable boils (shkhin) (9:8-12)

7. Hail and thunder (barad) (9:13-35)

8. Locusts (arbeh) (10:1-20)

9. Darkness (choshech) (10:21-29)

10. Death of the first-born of all humans and animals who do not have marked doorposts. (makat b'chorot) (chs. 11-12)

The biblical account of the ten plagues of Egypt reflect events described in an ancient Egyptian document known as the Ipuwer Papyrus; a single papyrus containing an ancient Egyptian poem, called The Admonitions of Ipuwer.

Why does Egypt's chief archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass claim the Exodus was a myth?

Join journalist Bruce Feiler as he treks through Egypt investigating the ancient story of the ten plagues in his acclaimed PBS documentary series, Walking the Bible.

The Plagues of Egypt: The Current Debate

A growing number of Old Testament scholars question the historical accuracy of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus, because of the alleged lack of historical and archaeological evidence in Egypt.

Egypt's chief archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass claims the Exodus was a myth.

On the one hand, while Greenberg concedes, “to the extent that one believed the Hebrew God caused these bad times, one was inclined to let him take the credit.” He insists that "there is nothing miraculous about the conditions described, nor is there any evidence from Egyptian records that the firstborn child of each Egyptian family died on one night."

James Hoffmeier

On the other hand, Dr. James K Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois argues that the use of mythological language and images in a biblical narrative of the plagues of Egypt does not mean that a fictitious event is being described.

"In the end," he writes, "those who consider the Exodus stories historicized myths, folklorist tales, or legends rest on assumptions about the nature of the literature that cannot be proven.”

John Van Seters, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, suggests that an author he calls the Jahwist (J) wrote the base-story of the Exodus in the 6th century BCE. This was later expanded by the Priestly school of writers (P) in the redacting of the Torah.

It is certainly possible that the J and P writers of the Torah borrowed from the Ipuwer Papyrus and other ancient Egyptian traditions at least in terms of form if not strictly in content and purpose. The Torah undoubtedly reflects the same genre in ancient Near Eastern literature.

Notwithstanding, Dr. Hoffmeier's conclusion remains...

...that the Exodus stories themselves are more than historicized myths or legends. We readily concede that the literary form is mythic, but we maintain that the content is based in historical events, at least in general terms if not in specific detail.

I recommend the following books and resources for further study of ancient Egyptian history, mythology and culture.

Return from the Plagues of Egypt to Egyptian History.

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