So the subject of this post is, what exactly were the plagues? with asides into how they’re depicted in The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt because I’m a nerd like that, and I really do think that movies are one of the ways we’ve come to midrash the Bible in the modern era.
There’s an that all the plagues can be explained naturalistically, which was a pet theory back when scholars wanted to argue that the Exodus account is based on an exaggerated version of something that really happened. A lot of people nowadays are more content to consider it entirely a fabrication, and I suppose I fall somewhere in between. I’ll talk more about the historicity of Exodus and the invasion stories later – much later at the rate I’m going – but for now, let’s be blunt: these plagues clearly did not happen as they’re literally described because of a numbers of in-text contradictions.
As I noted in my recap yesterday, the most obvious one by far is that while all of the livestock of Egypt die in plague #5, they’re still mentioned in other plagues, suffering from boils (#6) and killed by hail if they’re outside (#7). What, did they re-buy all their livestock in between plagues 5 and 6? I suppose die-hard literalists would argue that has to be the case because every word has to be true, even if that means inserting words that aren’t there. For me, it seems obvious that this is meant to be hyperbolic. The whole narrative can be summarized as “all hell breaks loose in Egypt.”
Which, as the video I linked to last time shows, is how Prince of Egypt chose to depict it. The plague song (which is awesome) collapses the plagues into one nightmarish stream of madness. There’s no attempt to duplicate the repetitive back-and-forth, where Pharaoh constantly backs out of his promises like an idiot.
The Ten Commandments treats all the plagues as separate events, but only shows a few of them, opting for those to be reported and focusing the drama on the confrontations between Rameses and Moses. There’s even a great underhanded jab at the naturalistic explanations of the plagues. Rather than being dismissive of the plagues because his magicians can duplicate them, Rameses smugly announces to Moses that he’s come up with an explanation for everything that doesn’t require divine intervention: soil deposits upstream fouled the Nile, making it appear to be blood, and driving out the frogs, who then died, which brought gnats and flies to their corpses, and with them disease that spread to cattle and humans. It all makes sense, right? And so Moses holds his hands up, and burning hail starts falling from the empty sky. Explain that, eh?
Now, that last bit is not at all how the Bible describes that plague happening. In fact, Moses gives the Egyptians ample warning, and apparently many of them heed it. Which means, I suppose, that this plague was meant more to be witnessed than to cause any particular damage: “But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.” (v 16)
Returning to contradictory elements, there’s the sheer level of destruction that the plagues are said to wreak. All the livestock is said to die in plague #5 (though obviously it didn’t), then half the crops in plague #7, then the remaining crops and grass and trees in plague #8 (locust swarms are a real thing in the Middle East and actually do this kind of damage). You wouldn’t even need the tenth plague at that point. Children would be dying left and right because there would be a complete famine going on in the country! And yet nobody seems to react as though the plagues are anything other than temporary problems that are lifted as soon as Moses calls them off. There are no consequences, and while some of that can be attributed to pharaoh’s POV (he’s not a poor peasant whose entire livelihood is being destroyed), by the time you get to plague #8 this is really ridiculous. Nobody is talking about how they’re doomed to starve at this point?
Some of these plagues seem to miss the Israelites and some of them don’t. Plagues #1, 2, 3, 6, and 8 all seem to apply to the Israelites, or at least no exemption is made. Presumably this would mean that they were digging well, fending off frogs and gnats, enduring boils, and then having all their crops destroyed by locusts. Well, I guess that last one doesn’t matter much since they’re not staying there.
One of the ideas that some scholars who consider the Exodus account to be 90-100% construction note is that many of these plagues are an attack on Egyptians deities. The Nile is a god (Hapy), frogs and bulls are sacred animals, and of course the sun was one of the supreme deities, and it is completely blocked out in plague #9. This makes sense with one of the repeated reasons God offers as to why he’s prolonging the plagues in Egypt rather than just wiping out all the Egyptians and letting the Israelites leave. He wants to prove to the Egyptians and to the Israelites that he is the greatest god there is.
It clearly had an impact on the Israelites, but the Egyptians? Not so much. Even Akhenaten was at best a henotheist, taking up the exclusive worship of Aten for himself personally but not forcing it on other people.
There’s another explanation offered too, but I’ll get to that in the last of this series, where we talk about hardened hearts.
The Japanese: iedomo “even though, despite” (v 7), umi “puss,” haremono “boils” (v 9), shoujiru “to produce, to arise” (v 10), saigai “calamity, disaster” (v 14), tayasu “to exterminate” (v 15), takaburu “to be high-strung, to be haughty” (v 17), taemanai “constant, unending” (v 24), oomugi “barley” (v 31), hadakamugi “naked barley,” manukareru “to avoid, to be exempted” (v 32).