Any reader who comes to the story of the plagues (or “signs” and “wonders”) in the book of Exodus cannot help but have questions about the narrative.
Why are these particular plagues described, and how are we to interpret them?
The biblical story of the plagues of Egypt (Exod 6-12) recounts how the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron, were able to escape Egyptian bondage. The Exodus narrative describes ten plagues (not numbered in the biblical text) afflicted on the Egyptians by Israel’s god, which then prompted the pharaoh of Egypt to release the Israelites: (1) the waters of the Nile are turned to blood, (2) frogs emerge from the Nile to infest the land, (3) gnats (or mosquitoes) afflict people and animals, (4) swarms of flies afflict the Egyptians and infest their dwellings, (5) pestilence afflicts Egyptian livestock, (6) boils afflict people and animals, (7) hail (with thunder and fire) afflicts humans, animals, and plants, (8) locusts devour vegetation, (9) darkness covers the land, and (10) death takes the firstborn humans and livestock.
The story contains a number of internal inconsistencies and anomalies. For example, the narrative contains two differing accounts of Moses’s commission to go before Pharaoh and deliver the plagues—one in Midian and the other one in Egypt. Plus it is not always clear who performs the signs and wields the rod or staff (Moses or Aaron?) in inflicting the plagues. The “magicians” of Egypt are able to duplicate the first two plagues, but it is not clear how this is accomplished; is the blood “throughout all the land of Egypt” turned back into water? Despite the established pattern, in some plagues (nos. 3, 6, and 9) there is no forewarning or any interaction with Pharaoh prior to the plague. Finally, in some cases the Israelites are explicitly said to be spared from a plague (nos. 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10), but in others they are not.
The above features, along with other details in the narrative, have led biblical scholars to isolate and identify multiple independent literary sources in the composition and redaction of the plagues story, although there is continuing disagreement over the identity, nature, and date of these sources. Some discern an intentional numerical structure in the narrative (e.g., dividing the plagues into corresponding pairs or into three groups of three, minus the final plague) and argue for compositional unity (no separate sources), although these structures could also be the result of later editing. Outside of the Exodus account, Ps 78:43-51 and Ps 105:28-36 also mention the plagues, but each contains only seven plagues, and both differ from the order in Exodus.
Do we have any evidence from Egypt for such catastrophic events involving Israelites and an Egyptian Pharaoh?
For the past half century or so biblical scholars, Egyptologists and others have offered a variety of naturalistic explanations for the plagues, ranging from ecological disasters associated with the Nile River to volcanic eruptions and even comet strikes. But as others have noted, while some of the plagues are suitable to an Egyptian Nilotic setting, such correlations are highly speculative and, more importantly, lack any support in ancient Egyptian records relating to the Nile. Attempts to identify specific Egyptian gods behind the various plagues also falter, given the vague nature of the story where details regarding Egyptian religion are concerned. Moreover, the idea of such divinely inflicted plagues is not unique to ancient Egypt. Similar plagues are invoked as divine punishment among curses described in Mesopotamian treaties (e.g., boils, locusts, disease, darkness, death of firstborn), while the water-to-blood motif is attested as an omen of defeat and destruction in Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology and military campaign narratives.
Naturalistic readings of the plagues account tend to ignore the literary or story-like nature of the narrative with its escalating confrontation between the Pharaoh and Moses, and its frequent use of hyperbole, as well as its clear miraculous intent. For the biblical authors, the plagues are not understood as natural events (see, for example, the precursor to the first plague in Exod 4:9) but are the result of direct divine intervention. Whatever vague historical clues might be teased out of (or read into) the story, these are overshadowed by its larger theological and didactic purpose: (1) to make known the identity and power of Israel’s superior god both to the Israelites and the Egyptians (Exod 6:7, Exod 7:3-5, Exod 9:14-16, Exod 14:17-18; and (2) to ensure that this story is told and ritually memorialized for generations to come (Exod 10:1-2, Exod 12:24-27, Exod 13:14-16). Both themes offered hope to Judean deportees in Babylonian exile as they heard or read these accounts of their all-powerful god delivering his captive people out of bondage.