Learn About the Plagues of Egypt

The legend of the Ten Plagues of Egypt is a story related in the book of Exodus, the second book of the first five books of the Judeo-Christian bible, also called the Torah or Pentateuch. The story in Exodus is that 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. Pharaoh refused; and the ten 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. But Pharaoh became intimidated by the sheer number of Hebrews in his kingdom's midst and ordered them all to be enslaved. Lives of bitter hardship ensued: among the hardships was a decree from the Pharaoh for drowning all male Hebrew children at birth.

Moses, the son of a slave but 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 Ten Plagues

God has 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 whose escalating severity culminated with the death of every firstborn Egyptian male.

The plagues ultimately convinced the unnamed Pharaoh to free all of Egypt's Hebrew slaves, and the Hebrews 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.

Understanding the Ten Plagues

Hollywood's treatment of the Plagues as portrayed in movies such as The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille, 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 Ten Plagues and remove a drop of wine from each cup to remember the suffering of the Egyptians and to diminish in some way the happiness of a liberation that cost so many innocent lives.

The historicity of anything in ancient texts such as these is dicey, but scholars argue that the story of the Hebrews in Egypt is told about the Egyptian New Kingdom during the late Bronze Age, and the Pharaoh in the story is thought to be Ramses II.

The Ten Plagues of Egypt

Here are the Biblical passages on the individual plagues, some of which are illustrated by a variety of artists. Line references are to King James' Version of Exodus.

Updated and edited by K. Kris Hirst

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Water to Blood

Water to blood
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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.

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Plague of frogs
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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.

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Gnats or Lice

cloud of mosquitoes
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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.

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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.

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Livestock Diseased

Livestock plague
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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.

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Plague of boils
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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.

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Thunder and Hail

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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.

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Plague of Locusts
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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.

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The plague of darkness
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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

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Death of the Firstborn

Death of first-born
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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.