With Ridley Scott’s new motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings nearing its release date of December 12, I thought the Exodus would make a good topic for analysis. The tale of Moses, the ten (or so) plagues, and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is in many ways the climax of the Pentateuch’s narrative arc — a Bible story that defines the nation of Israel and the most important figure in Judaism, Moses.
Investigation of the book of Exodus could fill (and has filled) innumerable articles and books, but even a fairly cursory look at the story of the plagues reveals tantalizing details and odd inconsistencies that imply a rich and complex history of authorship and revision.
The Biggest Question without an Answer
“Who was the pharaoh of the Exodus?” is a question countless people have asked. If we read the book of Exodus expecting to find an account of historical events, the refusal of the text to name any datable specifics — particularly the identity of the pharaoh who spars with Moses and Aaron — is perplexing. After all, specific pharaohs are named in other biblical stories, not to mention kings of Assyria, Babylon, and other nations.
The Exodus, however, is not a story rooted in any specific time period. It is a complex amalgamation of various traditions, cultural memories, ideological claims, religious rituals, folklore motifs, and outright literary invention that cannot be tied to any single historical event. We can go further and suggest, as Hendel does, that the name of Pharaoh is purposely left blank so that “the memory of Egyptian oppression could extend to all who had felt the oppression of Pharaoh at any time in the remembered past.”¹ After all, Palestine was under the direct control of the Pharaohs numerous times throughout Israelite/Judean history, from the Bronze Age right through to the Ptolemies. The relationship between Egypt and Israel is complicated in the Bible — often, Egypt is seen as an oppressor, yet just as often, it functions as a place of refuge.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt
The miracles that wreak havoc upon Egypt at the command of Moses and Aaron are generally known as the “ten plagues” of Egypt, although the exact number depends on how you count them. Some passages refer to them as “signs” rather than plagues, and in terms of narrative structure, the transformation of Aaron’s staff seems to be the first miracle although it is not counted among the traditional ten.
The story of these miracles (Exodus chapters 7 through 14) is a strange read, full of repetition and logical inconsistencies. Although the traditional Documentary Hypothesis is nearly dead these days (at least in Europe), nearly all scholars recognize numerous sources or layers that have been combined to create the final text as we have it.
Take, for example, the staff that is repeatedly used to perform miracles. Is it Moses’ staff or Aaron’s? In Exodus 4, Yahweh has Moses turn his staff into a snake and back again as a sign he may use to convince the Israelites that he is sent by God. Yahweh concludes the lesson with this instruction in verse 17: “Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.” And again in v. 20, the text clearly states that Moses is the one who will wield the staff when performing miracles: “So Moses …went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.” But later on in v. 27, it is Aaron and not Moses who performs the signs before the people. And again, when we get to chapter 7, it is Aaron’s staff that is thrown down and becomes a snake (v. 10).
The confusion continues in the next plague — the water turning to blood. For example:
Yahweh said to Moses, “…Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water…take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. Say to him, ‘…See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood…’” (vv. 14–18)
Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood…’” (v. 19)
Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died.” (vv. 20–21a)
Note in particular the singular pronoun “he”, which is grammatically at odds with its plural antecedent. This is almost certainly one of the text’s many editorial seams, an oversight on the part of one of its editors or redactors.
Although there are many differing theories as to exactly how many layers the Exodus story has, scholars are almost unanimous about the existence of the “Priestly” writer, who was associated with the post-exilic Aaronide priesthood. This writer (or group of writers) modified an earlier story that was originally just about Moses, introducing the character of Aaron (the eponymous ancestor of the Aaronide priests) and elevating him to Moses’ level. The same writer supplies other original or rewritten content into the story, leaving traces in the form of story doublets, textual incongruities (e.g. singular/plural mismatches), distinctive wording, and so on.
In fact, we can use these characteristics to separate the text into two separate lists of plagues. Not all scholars agree on every detail, but I will generally be following the observations of renowned Old Testament professor Thomas Römer.²
The “non-Priestly” author, who apparently wrote the first version of the Exodus story based on the very brief and ambiguous account in Deuteronomy, told a story that consisted of seven plagues:
- The poisoning of the Nile
- The plague on the livestock
- Hail and lightning
- The death of the firstborn
The Priestly author wrote and incorporated his own list of wonders:
- The transformation of Aaron’s staff
- The turning of water into blood
- The plague of boils
- The death of the firstborn
Separated in this way, the two sets of miracles read quite differently. For example, the non-Priestly episodes all follow this formula:
- Yahweh speaks only to Moses.
- The command is given to Pharaoh, “let my people go.”
- A plague is first threatened and then carried out.
- The Israelites are spared.
- Moses intercedes at Pharaoh’s request and stops the plague.
- Pharaoh remains obstinate.
By contrast, the Priestly episodes follow a different formula:
- Yahweh tells Moses, “Say to Aaron…”
- Aaron stretches out his hand and staff to perform the wonder.
- The Egyptian magicians mimic or attempt to mimic the miracle.
- Yahweh hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
Such differences are only the tip of the iceberg, but the division is unmistakeable. Some of the Priestly writer’s plagues have been combined with their non-Priestly parallels, while others stand along in the present text as separate plagues. Later additions and revisions that occurred after their merger and the formation of the Pentateuch as a whole can also be identified.
Bloody Water or Fetid Fish?
The second plague (or first, if you don’t count Aaron’s staff turning into a dragon) is a textbook example of this mixing of narrative sources. The very nature of the miracle is contradictory. Some verses imply that the fish in the Nile all died, rendering the river fetid and undrinkable, and forcing the Egyptians to dig wells. Others say that all the water of Egypt was undrinkable because it had turned into blood. Fortunately, enough of both versions remain intact enough that we can separate them into two different, coherent stories.
|The Non-Priestly Version: The Poisoning of the Nile
14 Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; 16 Say to him, ‘Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened. 17 Thus says Yahweh, “By this you shall know that I am Yahweh.” 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’” 20 Moses … did just as Yahweh commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials, he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and… 21 … the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river. 25 Seven days passed after Yahweh had struck the Nile.
|The Priestly Version: The Turning of All Water into Blood
19 Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”
20 Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded. 21 There was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as Yahweh had said.
As an aside, one wonders how the magicians of Egypt managed to duplicate Aaron’s miracle of turning all the water of Egypt—even the water stored in pots—into blood. What water did they have left to work with? Of course, the entire story is mythical and hyperbolic. The “contest between magicians” was a popular folktale genre,³ and keeping that theme intact trumped the need for logical consistency.
The Passage across the Sea
Let’s jump ahead to the last wonder, the miraculous crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea. Here again, we have a blend of at least two distinct narratives.
In one version, a pillar of cloud and/or fire goes behind the Israelites to ward off the pursuing Egyptian army (14:20). Meanwhile, Yahweh dries up the sea with a “strong east wind” that blows all night (v. 21). The Egyptians panic and decide to flee, “for Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt” (v. 25). Yahweh, however, finishes off the Egyptians by throwing them into the sea the next day once the waters have returned (v. 27). Römer refers to this as the “Deuteronomistic” version—an account that describes Yahweh himself fighting against Pharaoh and Egypt. This is the tale that is reflected in the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15: “I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
In the Priestly version, Yahweh hardens the hearts of the Egyptians to pursue the Israelites (v. 17). Moses stretches out his hand and parts the sea, forming a dry passage with walls of water on either side (v. 22). Undeterred by any pillar of cloud, the Egyptian chariots follow them into the dry corridor, but Moses causes the walls of water to collapse behind the Israelites, engulfing and drowning the Egyptians. This is the version that always makes it into the movies, since it is rather more dramatic an escape than waiting for water to evaporate.
The sea passage ends with two separate conclusions: v. 29 (the Priestly conclusion) and vv. 30–31 (the Deuteronomistic conclusion).
Origins of the Plague Motif
A once-popular but now discredited method of analyzing the plague narrative was the Rationalist approach. This hermeneutic assumed that the plague story was essentially a historical account of unusual yet non-supernatural events that were mythologized as miracles. The plague of blood might have been a toxic algae bloom, for example; the hail and darkness might have been ash from the eruption of Santorini (c. 17th century BCE); and so on. Of course, no one is disputing that epidemics and natural disasters did occur in ancient times; but to claim the story “really happened” in that way indicates a failure to appreciate what the story actually says, not to mention the complete lack of archaeological corroboration for the Exodus narrative in general. The real purpose of the story is to show how Yahweh has defeated the gods of Egypt, to provide an origin story for the festival of Passover, and to establish an identity for the Israelite people in the writer’s own much later time.
A better explanation for the plagues can be found in the curses described by Assyrian vassal-treaties, whose language was already being employed by the Deuteronomistic writers to describe Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. We see a similar list of curses being threatened in Deut. 28: curses against children, crops, and livestock; pestilence, boils, darkness, locusts, drought, dust, and more—the parallels to the Exodus plague story are numerous.
The vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon are particularly noted as being analogous to the curses enumerated in various Old Testament passages, including the plague narrative. These treaties invoke the wrath of various Assyrian gods against anyone who defies the king, naming such punishments as disease, darkness, death of offspring, locusts, floods, death without proper burial, poisonous drinking water, fire from the sky (cf. Exod. 9:23), the plundering of wealth, and lice. It is not difficult to find parallels with every plague and misfortune in the Exodus story except for the frogs, which are probably unique due to their association with the Nile.⁴ Redundancy is another feature shared by such treaties and the plague narrative; the land would be destroyed many times over if all the curses threatened were to actually happen.⁵
There are other significant parallels between the plague narrative and stories told by Hellenistic historians, particularly Manetho and Hecataeus of Abdera, but that is too much to go into here.
Other Biblical Sources
Texts written earlier than the Exodus narrative do not show familiarity with the specific plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. However, several passages in Deuteronomy refer to “signs and wonders” that Yahweh performed in Egypt.⁶ What’s stranger, though, is that Deuteronomy hints at at a tradition in which it was the Israelites who suffered from plagues in Egypt.
Yahweh will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, he will not inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. (Deut. 7:15)
If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, … [Yahweh] will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were in dread, and they shall cling to you. (Deut. 28:58–60)
According to Van Seters, this would be a very strange thing to write if the author knew the Exodus plague tradition. It is interesting, however, that the latter passage from Deut. 28 is loosely quoted in Exodus 15—altered possibly to fit a new context in which the Egyptians were the ones who suffered.
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of Yahweh your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians.” (Ex. 15:26)
Van Seters argues that the author of the earlier layer of the plague narrative took the references in Deuteronomy to signs and wonders in Egypt and to plagues that afflicted the Israelites, together with the long list of curses pronounced in Deut. 28, and developed these into a new story in which the signs and wonders were in fact terrible plagues inflicted on the Egyptians by Yahweh.
The complete silence in all the prophets regarding the plagues of Egypt is also notable. However, we do find the suggestion in Ezekiel 20 that it was the Israelites whom God wanted to punish in Egypt.
I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against [the Israelites] in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. (Ezekiel 20:8b–9)
Redundancy in the Plague Narrative
I’ve already mentioned the logical problem of the Egyptian magicians mimicking Aaron and turning water into blood when all the water in the entire land of Egypt was already turned to blood. An attentive reader will spot other examples of overkill as well—often verging on the comedic. In the second plague, for example, Aaron causes the land to be overrun with frogs; and then the Egyptian magicians do the same thing! One can only imagine how pleased Pharaoh was with their performance.
The plight of the Egyptian livestock also stands out. In Exod. 9:1–7, Yahweh sends a pestilence upon all the livestock: horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep. Verse 6 tells us that “all the livestock of the Egyptians died.” Then the Priestly writer jumps in with the plague of boils (vv. 8–12), which afflict all the humans and animals. One assumes the text is referring about livestock, except that they’re all supposed to be dead.
The livestock is targeted again in the plague of hail and lightning. All livestock that is left in the field instead of being put into shelters is killed (vv. 19, 25). And finally, with the so-called tenth plague, all the firstborn of the livestock are killed (12:29). That’s three times the livestock of the Egyptians dies, if you’re keeping count.
The plants of Egypt don’t fare much better. The hail and fire of the seventh plague destroy all the plants and trees (9:25). Then locusts come and eat every single plant, tree and fruit in the land (ch. 10).
Psalm 78:47–48 offers an interesting creative reinterpretation of these two plagues. Putting them in reverse order, it says the crops were eaten by caterpillars and locusts, while the vines were destroyed with hail and the sycamores with frost.
Where Are the Israelites During All of This?
In a few places, the text indicates that the Israelites live in a separate land, the “land of Goshen”. The non-P episodes sometimes single out this land as being spared from the plagues.
But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people live, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I Yahweh am in this land. (8:22)
Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail. (9:26)
So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days…but all the Israelites had light where they lived. (10:22, 23b)
This idea that the Israelites live in their own land apart from the Egyptians (albeit under Egyptian oppression) is clearly abandoned in later additions to the text. If the Israelites all lived in Goshen, for example, why would it be necessary for them to distinguish their houses with blood on the lintel and doorposts? Similarly, the plundering of the Egyptians implies that they lived alongside each other.⁷ The Priestly plagues do not mention Goshen or any distinction between the Israelites and Egyptians.
The fact is, the location and origin of this “Goshen” is a mystery. Egyptian sources mention no such place. The Septuagint’s name for Goshen, “Gesem of Arabia,” implies a specific region in the eastern Nile delta. The name may actually come the names of several Qedarite (Arabian) kings who ruled a kingdom next to Egypt in the Persian period.⁸ (In addition to epigraphic evidence, there are also mentions of a “Geshem the Arab” in Nehemiah.)
Goshen is mentioned numerous times in Genesis 46–50 as a region in or near Egypt where Joseph brought his family. For example:
You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. (Gen. 45:10)
When Pharaoh calls you, and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our ancestors’—in order that you may settle in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians. (Gen. 46:33–34)
The latter passage implies that Goshen was a separate territory from where the Egyptians themselves lived. (It also reflects the well-known animosity of the Egyptians toward the Hyksos.) There is a certain tension in the present text that sees the Israelites as living in their own land separately from the Egyptians and exempt from the plagues, yet the exodus is premised on Israelites living among the Egyptians and being oppressed by them.
There’s no shortage of curious details to examine in the story of Moses, the exodus, and the plagues of Egypt. Until I have time to research and write more, you can also read an earlier article of mine on an alternate Moses tradition in the Bible: Moses: The (Mostly) Untold Story.
- Ronald Hendel, “The Exodus in Biblical Memory”, JBL 120/4 (2001) 601–622.
- Thomas Römer, Lecture: “A Competition of Magicians? The «Plagues» of Egypt”, http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2014-04-03-14h00.htm.
- F.V. Greifenhagen, Egypt on the Pentateuch’s Ideological Map (JSOT 361), p. 99 n. 194.
- The full texts of Esarhaddon’s treaties can be found in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Third Edition with Supplement.
- John Van Seters, “The Plagues of Egypt: Ancient Tradition or Literary Invention?”, ZAW 98.
- Ibid. p. 35.
- Greifenhagen, pp. 103-104.
- See Russell Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (LHB/OTS 433, CI 15), pp. 222ff for an in-depth analysis