The 10 plagues of Egypt make for
engaging church school stories and dramatic film depictions as Moses leads the Israelites to freedom. We memorize the plagues as if one day there will be a quiz (keep reading, there just might be!). And they are remembered whenever followers of God celebrate the Passover. But are the plagues of Egypt more relevant than we might initially consider? Might they also foreshadow coming events and even deliver a message about the danger and audacity of idolatry?
What Are the 10 Plagues of Egypt in the Bible?
In the time of Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis, the Israelites had found provision amid famine in Egypt. Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, had risen to second in authority in the land. He forgave the brothers who sold him into slavery and asked them to relocate their father and all their people to Egypt so he could care for them. As Genesis closes, all seems well with relations between Egypt and Israel.
At the opening of Exodus, however, generations have lived and died in Egypt. At one point, the Israelites grew to such a number they were a threat to Egypt and so became enslaved. Now, they are suffering under Pharaoh, but God hears their prayers, and Moses is born.
When Moses was well into adulthood (he was actually about 80 at the time God sent Him to Pharaoh), he was empowered by God to go with his brother, Aaron to demand that Pharaoh “let My people go.” Pharaoh is not inclined to release his workforce and so, in a series of back-and-forth negotiations, Moses urges Pharaoh to relent and when he doesn’t, God sends plague after plague against the nation of Egypt.
The first plague is described at the end of Exodus seven. Here, under God’s instruction, Moses strikes the Nile, and it turns to blood, killing all the fish and sending a stench throughout the land. Further, Aaron stretches out his staff and all the other bodies of water also turn to blood—even the water already gathered into containers. (God is nothing, if not thorough when He makes a point.)
Next, God sends a plague of frogs to cover the land and follows that with plagues of gnats/lice and then flies, detailed in Exodus 8. In Exodus 9, God sends a plague that kills the livestock of the Egyptians but doesn’t touch the livestock of Israel. Also in Exodus 9, He sends a plague of boils on the Egyptians and then a rain of hail with flashes of fire that fell on the Egyptians but not in the land Israel inhabited.
Pharaoh continues to resist the Lord’s command so in Exodus 10, God sends a plague of locusts who devour every plant the hail did not destroy. This was followed by three days of darkness so thick, none of the Egyptians moved for three days (although there was plenty of light in the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelled).
The final plague, detailed in Exodus 11 and 12, was the death of every firstborn child in Egypt. This event is what is commemorated in the Passover. Every Israelite house sacrificed a lamb and put the blood of the lamb on the two doorposts and the lintels of their home so the Lord would pass over that home. At this final and terrible plague, Pharaoh finally relented, and Moses led the Israelites to freedom. They made their “exodus” from slavery.
This final plague, severe as it was, foreshadowed the death of God’s own Son, who would become the lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world. Jesus rose to life again, becoming the “firstborn of the dead” as referenced in Revelation 1:5 and Colossians 1:18.
Why Did God Send Plagues of Egypt in Exodus?
The choice of specific plagues is fascinating and speaks directly to God’s nature and His clear message about the danger of idolatry. Everything God does has a purpose and usually a layered message. Besides the nuisance nature of each plague, they were each also designed to be an affront to the false gods worshipped in Egypt at that time. God demonstrating to Pharaoh that He, alone, is the One True God. Here are the plagues and the corresponding Egyptian god.
The Nile turns to blood: The Egyptian god Hapi was pictured as a water bearer and was known as the God of the Nile.
Frogs: Heket goddess of fertility, was depicted with the head of a frog.
Gnats/Lice: Geb was the god of the earth (or the dust of the earth). When Aaron waved his staff over the “dust of the earth,” there arose a plague of gnats or lice.
Flies: Khepri, the god of creation, was depicted as having the head of a fly.
Livestock: Hathor, the goddess of love and protection, was depicted with the head of a cow.
Boils: Isis was the goddess of medicine, so God sent unyielding boils to affect the people.
Hail: Nut, the goddess of the sky, is what inspired God to send hail and fire from above.
Locusts: Seth was the god of storms and disorder. God sent a storm cloud of locusts that destroyed their food supply.
Darkness: Ra is the famous Egyptian god of the sun which God darkened for three days while sustaining light in the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelled.
Firstborn Death: Pharaoh set himself up to be worshiped as a god, so God came against him with the death of every firstborn in the land, including Pharaoh’s child.
God is God and there is no other. In Exodus 20, God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, the first of which is to “have no other god before me.” Exodus 20:3 In Isaiah 44:6 ESV, God repeats Himself when He emphasizes, “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.’”
In the Bible, the number ten indicates completion. The Egyptians were “completely” plagued. The 10 Commandments were the complete foundation for God’s law for His people once they were delivered from slavery. God is clear that He is our Creator and He designed us to be in relationship with Him, to worship Him alone. He repeats this message throughout the Bible and makes the dangers of idolatry evident. Idolatry deceives us into wandering from the One True God. What could be more dangerous than walking away from life toward death?
Where Else Can We Find Instances of Plagues in the Bible?
There are other mentions of plagues in the Bible. When the Israelites complained about manna in the wilderness and agitators stirred the people up with a craving for quail, God sent them quail. They consumed so much God also sent them a plague to teach them a lesson about gratitude. This fascinating story is in Numbers 11. Then in Numbers 16, God sends another plague to address a rebellion. Yet again, in Numbers 26, there is a plague associated with the people’s worship of Baal. In 2 Samuel 24, David’s sin is punished by a pestilence or plague that kills 70,000 men.
God appears to send plagues or pestilence to thwart and punish idolatry and to persuade the rebellious to repent and turn from their ways. As harsh as a plague is, God knows that it is harsher to spend eternity separated from Him, the true source of all light, love, and eternal life. So, even though the 10 plagues were directed at Pharaoh, their message still resonates for us.
I remember talking with a single dad once about raising boys in a tough neighborhood. He told me he was very strict when it came to behavioral expectations outside their home because “I need them to be more concerned about what I think than about what the gangs think. They believe I’m tough but I’m tough to prevent them from being influenced by people who are dangerous and don’t love them the way I do.” God’s strictest actions are still motivated by His love and from His holy and righteous nature.
How Can the 10 Plagues of Egypt Prepare Us for the Events of Revelation?
Plagues make a strong comeback in the Book of Revelation. After the Rapture when the believers are reunited with Christ, God revisits plagues on the earth, now largely populated by those who refuse to enter a saving relationship with Jesus. Each plague is intensified, and they are intended to persuade rebellious humanity to repent and turn to God.
The plagues God sends in Revelation will sound familiar—sores, oceans turned to blood, freshwater turned to blood, the sun’s heat intensified, darkness, drying up of the Euphrates river, hail. There is an invasion of locusts that are not like any locusts we’ve seen yet—with the power of scorpions to inflict pain on humans.
Revelation 9:20-21 ESV provides insight into the purpose of these terrible plagues and the persistence of some people who harden their hearts against God, like Pharaoh, even killing the few people on earth who come to salvation following the Rapture. “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” God’s purpose, even towards the end of the age, is to draw people to repentance.
Plagues and pestilence are harsh forces to bring to bear to motivate people to abandon idolatry and turn to God. Taken out of the context of the story of God’s relentless love and plan for redemption, they could give less than a full picture of God’s character. But consider this. If a parent discovers a rebellious child is using drugs, they may first use incentives or rewards to persuade. But, if the young person progresses to heroin or crack cocaine, they may need to take more drastic measures. These drastic measures are not intended to harm their child but rather to deliver them from a serious danger the child is not acknowledging. If we are friends with the parent from the beginning of their child’s life, we understand his or her actions in the context of love. If we only meet the parent when they are taking drastic measures to secure their child’s freedom from heroin, we may not readily see the love motivating the actions.
When God employs plagues, His desire is not to harm, but to use drastic measures to deliver the people He loves from their life-threatening addiction to sin. It will eventually destroy them, whereas turning to Him, will provide them with eternal life. Pulling the plagues out of the greater story is tempting because they do fuel the imagination. Instead, it’s important whenever we teach about the plagues that we teach them in the context of God’s loving, redemptive plan in which He sends His Only Son to become the Passover lamb, sacrificed for the sins of the world. If we rely on Jesus for our deliverance, we will not face the plagues when they revisit the earth in the time of Revelation.