The 10 Plagues of Egypt

The Ten Plagues of Egypt is a story related in the Book of Exodus. It is the second of the first five books of the Judeo-Christian Bible, also called the Torah or Pentateuch.

According to the story in Exodus, the Hebrew people living in Egypt were suffering under the cruel rule of the Pharaoh. Their leader Moses (Moshe) asked Pharaoh to let them return to their homelands in Canaan, but Pharaoh refused. In response, the 10 plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians in a divine demonstration of power and displeasure designed to persuade Pharaoh to "let my people go," in the words of the spiritual "Go Down Moses."

Enslaved in Egypt

The Torah relates that Hebrews from the land of Canaan had lived in Egypt for many years, and had become numerous under kind treatment by the kingdom's rulers. The Pharaoh became intimidated by the sheer number of Hebrews in his kingdom and ordered them all to be enslaved. Lives of bitter hardship ensued for 400 years, at one time including a decree from the Pharaoh that all male Hebrew children be drowned at birth.

Moses, the son of a slave who was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh, is said to have been chosen by his God to lead the Israelite people to freedom. With his brother Aaron (Aharon), Moses asked the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave Egypt in order to celebrate a feast in the wilderness to honor their God. The Pharaoh refused.

Moses and the 10 Plagues

God promised Moses that he would demonstrate his power to convince Pharaoh, but at the same time, he would be convincing the Hebrews to follow his path. First, God would "harden the heart" of the Pharaoh, making him adamantly against the Hebrews' leaving. Then he would produce a series of plagues with escalating severity that culminated with the death of every firstborn Egyptian male.

Though Moses asked Pharoah before each plague for his people's freedom, he continued to refuse. Ultimately, it took all 10 plagues to convince the unnamed Pharaoh to free all of Egypt's Hebrew slaves, who started their exodus back to Canaan. The drama of the plagues and their role in the liberation of the Jewish people are remembered during the Jewish holiday of Pesach, or Passover.

Views of the Plagues: Tradition vs. Hollywood

Hollywood's treatment of the Plagues as portrayed in movies such as Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" is decidedly different from the way that Jewish families regard them during the celebration of Passover. DeMille's Pharaoh was an out-and-out bad guy, but the Torah teaches that God was the one who made him so intransigent. The Plagues were less about punishing the Egyptians than showing the Hebrews—who were not yet Jews since they had not received the Ten Commandments—how mighty their God was.

At the seder, the ritual meal accompanying Passover, it is customary to recite the 10 plagues and remove a drop of wine from each cup. This is done to remember the suffering of the Egyptians and to diminish in some way the happiness of a liberation that cost so many innocent lives.

When Did the 10 Plagues Happen?

The historicity of anything in ancient texts is dicey. Scholars argue that the story of the Hebrews in Egypt is told about the Egyptian New Kingdom during the late Bronze Age. The Pharaoh in the story is thought to be Ramses II.

The following Biblical passages are line references to King James' Version of Exodus.

01
of 10

Water to Blood

Water to blood
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When Aaron's staff hit the Nile River, the water became blood and the first plague began. The water, even in wood and stone jars, was undrinkable, fish died, and the air was filled with a horrid stench. Like some of the plagues, Pharoah's magicians were able to replicate this phenomenon.

Exodus 7:19 And the Lord spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.

02
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Frogs

Plague of frogs
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The second plague brought an influx of millions of frogs. They came from every water source around and inundated the Egyptian people and everything around them. This was also duplicated by the Egyptian magicians.

Exodus 8:2 And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs:

8:3 And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs:

8:4 And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.

03
of 10

Gnats or Lice

Cloud of mosquitoes
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Aaron's staff was used again in the third plague. This time he would strike the dirt and gnats flew up from the dust. The infestation would take over every man and animal around. The Egyptians could not recreate this one with their magic, saying instead, "This is the finger of God."

Exodus 8:16 And the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.

04
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Flies

Flies
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The fourth plague affected only the lands of Egypt and not those where the Hebrews lived in Goshen. The swarm of flies was unbearable and this time Pharoah agreed to allow the people to go into the desert, with restrictions, to make sacrifices to God.

Exodus 8:21 Else, if thou wilt not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thy houses: and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground whereon they are.

05
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Livestock Diseased

Livestock plague
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Again, affecting only the herds of the Egyptians, the fifth plague sent a deadly disease through the animals they relied on. It destroyed the livestock and flocks, but those of the Hebrews remained untouched.

Exodus 9:3 Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain.

06
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Boils

Plague of boils
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To bring on the sixth plague, God told Moses and Aaron to toss ashes into the air. This resulted in horrendous and painful boils appearing on every Egyptian and their livestock. The pain was so excruciating that when the Egyptian sorcerers tried to stand in front of Moses, they could not.

Exodus 9:8 And the Lord said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh.

9:9 And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.

07
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Thunder and Hail

Hail
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In Exodus 9:16, Moses conveyed a personal message to Pharoah from God. It said that he had purposely brought the plagues upon him and Egypt "to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. "

The seventh plague brought torrential rains, thunder, and hail that killed people, animals, and crops. Despite the fact that Pharoah admitted his sin, once the storm calmed he again refused freedom to the Hebrews.

Exodus 9:18 Behold, to morrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now.

08
of 10

Locusts

Plague of Locusts
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If Pharoah thought frogs and lice were bad, the locusts of the eighth plague would prove to be the most devastating. These insects ate every green plant they could find. Afterwards, Pharoah admitted to Moses that he had sinned "once."

Exodus 10:4 Else, if thou refuse to let my people go, behold, to morrow will I bring the locusts into thy coast:

10:5 And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field.

09
of 10

Darkness

The plague of darkness
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Three days of complete darkness stretched over the lands of Egypt—not those of the Hebrews, who enjoyed light by day—in the ninth plague. It was so dark that the Egyptians could not see each other.

After this plague, the Pharoah attempted to negotiate the freedom of the Hebrews. His bargain that they could leave if their flocks were left behind was not accepted.

Exodus 10:21 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.

10:22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days.

10
of 10

Death of the Firstborn

Death of first-born
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Pharoah was warned that the tenth and final plague would be the most devastating. God told the Hebrews to sacrifice lambs and eat the meat before morning, but not before they used the blood to paint their doorposts.

The Hebrews followed these directions and also asked for and received all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothes from the Egyptians. These treasures would later be used for the tabernacle.

Over the night, an angel came and passed over all of the Hebrew homes. The firstborn in every Egyptian household would die, including Pharoah's son. This caused such a clamor that Pharoah ordered the Hebrews to leave and take all they owned.

Exodus 11:4 And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt:

11:5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst