Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Plagues: 10 or 6?

 The Plagues Stories (Exod 7:14—13:10) demonstrate the sterility of the old world that the pharaohs built. They are a parody or satire that ridicules Egypt and its traditions by treating them flippantly and by telling the creation stories of Egypt in an inappropriate and trivial manner. They contrast the Egypt of the pharaohs with the world of Yahweh.

In the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth (Gen 1:1–2:4) the world of Yahweh is orderly and its creatures are noble. The firstborn of this world plant the land and populate it with children. In the Plagues Stories the world of the pharaohs is disorderly and polluted with ignoble creatures. In the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth Yahweh hangs a light and then creates a world. In the Plagues Stories Yahweh decommissions the world of Egypt and then turns out the light. Pharaoh’s firstborn are stillborn.

In the Egypt that the pharaohs create, fertility is a curse. In the Israel that Yahweh creates, fertility is a blessing. The plagues do not destroy Egypt, but simply dramatize that its fertility is superficial. They demonstrate that the fertility of Egypt only plagues the cosmos with creatures that are out of place. They portray Egypt as destroying life rather than supporting it. Egypt is a house of slaves and a land of death.

For example, the Nile River brings not only the life-giving organisms and minerals to the plants and animals of Egypt, but deadly red clay from landslides upriver as well. Swamp frogs not only control the populations of insects like gnats and flies, but attract these germ-bearers to animals and humans as well. Livestock not only enriches the diet of humans and lightens their work, but infects them with hoof-and-mouth disease. Rain not only causes the crops to grow, but the locusts to migrate. The same principle of fertility that creates the world of the pharaohs also destroys it.

To understand the Plagues Stories it is necessary to understand something of both the technology and the traditions of Egypt. The creatures in the plagues are caricatures of the great households of Egypt and their totems. Totems are the animal ancestors who give birth to humans and then protect and befriend them. The Nile is the totem of the household of Hapy. The sun is the totem of the household of Ra. The bull is the totem of the household of Apis. Plagues shame these great households. The Nile and its canals, which were the pride of Egypt, are satirized as a sewer that pollutes the fields and infects the villages. The cattle bred by temple ranchers and the great Apis bull are scorned as carriers of the hoof-and-mouth disease that decimates Egypt’s population.

One pattern proposed for the Plagues Stories divides them into ten episodes with one plague in each episode. There are plagues (1) of water pollution, (2) of frogs, (3) of mosquitoes, (4) of flies, (5) of hoof-and-mouth disease, (6) of boils, (7) of hail, (8) of locusts, (9) of darkness, and finally, (10) of sudden infant death. This popular pattern of ten is understood as having developed from earlier stories with patterns of eight, seven, three, one, or no plagues at all.

Other patterns proposed for the Plagues Stories divide them into three episodes on the basis of the weapons that Moses and Aaron use against Egypt. The Enuma Elish Stories from Mesopotamia arm Marduk from a vast arsenal. He wields snakes (Enuma 1:134), spells (Enuma 1:161), scepters (Enuma 4:29), arrows (Enuma 4:35–40), or winds (Enuma 4:47–49). Moses and Aaron wield divine power simply by stretching out their hands (Exod 9:15, 22, 29, 33; 10:21–22) or use a staff called the finger of God (Exod 7:15–20; 8:1–15; 10:12–13). Sometimes, Moses and Aaron throw soot into the air to bring on the plague of darkness (Exod 9:8).

The pattern used here for the Plagues Stories is based on the pattern in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth. The intention of both creation stories is to demonstrate that Yahweh alone destroys chaos and creates cosmos.

Creation-story language appears throughout the Plagues Stories. For example, the divine title Yahweh, our Creator (Exod 9:30) rarely occurs in the Bible, except in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth and here. Furthermore, the events of each day are labeled as works of creation— signs (Exod 4:21; 7:3, 21) and wonders (Exod 4:21).

The centerpiece of the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth is a cosmogony (Gen 1:3–31) of six days on which noble twins like light and darkness (Gen 1:3–5) are born. On the seventh day, Yahweh endows this new world with the gift of Sabbath.

Similarly, the centerpiece of the Plagues Stories is also a cosmonecrosis of six days on which ignoble twins like the Nile and its canals (Exod 7:14–24//Gen 1:6–8) are destroyed. On the seventh day, Yahweh endows Israel with the gift of Passover to remember the destruction of Egypt.

Seven-Day Pattern in Plagues Stories

Day one: Nile & Canals (Exod 7:14–24//Water Below & Water Above (Gen 1:6–8)

Day two: Frogs & Mosquitoes (Exod 7:25–8:3//Fish & Birds (Gen 1:20–23)

Day three: Cattle & Humans (Exod 9:1–12)//Cattle & Humans (Gen 1:24–31)

Day four: Grain & Dates (Exod 9:13–10:20)//Earth & Sea (Gen 1:9–13)

Day five: Darkness & Light (Exod 10:21–29)//Light & Darkness (Gen 1:3–5)

Day six: Firstborn & Heirs (Exod 11:1–10+12:29–32)//Male & Female (Gen 1:26–31)

Day seven: Passover (Exod 12:1–13:16)//Sabbath (Gen 2:1–4)

Virtually the same twins are paired in both stories, but their birth order is different. The Nile and its canals (Exod 7:14–24) are followed by frogs and mosquitoes (Exod 7:25–8:28), cattle and humans (Exod 9:1–12), fields of grain and date palms (Exod 9:13–10:20), darkness and light (Exod 10:21–28), and then the firstborn and heirs (Exod 11:1–10).

Just as the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth lead up to the seventh day with two three-day episodes, the Plagues Stories lead up to the final plague with two three-plague episodes.

On the six days, the old world of Egypt is decommissioned, and on the seventh day Passover is celebrated. The gnats (Exod 8:16–19) and the flies (Exod 8:20–32) are a pair. The plague upon cattle (Exod 9:1–7) and the boils (Exod 9:8–12) are a pair. The locusts (Exod 10:1–20) and the darkness (Exod 10:21–29) are a pair.

The Nile and the canals (Exod 7:14–24) are parallel to the waters under and above (Gen 1:6–8). The frogs and mosquitoes (Exod 7:25–8:28) are parallel to the water creatures and birds (Gen 1:20–33). The cattle and humans in the book of Exodus (Exod 9:1–12) are parallel to the cattle and humans in the book of Genesis (Gen 1:24–31). The fields of grain and date palms (Exod 9:13–10:20) are parallel to the earth and sea (Gen 1:9–13). The darkness and light in the book of Exodus (Exod 10:21–28) are parallel to the light and darkness in the book of Genesis (Gen 1:3–5) and the firstborn and heirs (Exod 11:1–10) are parallel to the man and the woman (Gen 1:26–31).

The frogs-mosquitoes (Exod 7:25–8:28), darkness-light (Exod 10:21–28), and firstborn-heirs (Exod 11:1–10) twins remain the same whether the climax episode in the stories of the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt (Exod 7:14–10:29) is a story about ten plagues or seven days. The rest of the twins, however, are replaced by their victims in the Plagues Stories in the Bible today. For example, the Nile and its canals replace blood (Exod 7:14–24).

Cattle appear twice in the Plagues Stories (Exod 9:1–7, 13–34). The twins in one episode are cattle and humans, in the other they are fields of grain and date palms, which preserves both the seven-day pattern and the parallel to two sets of twins in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth.

The greater and lesser lights in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth (Gen 1:14–19) are missing in the Plagues Stories. The sun and the moon were such popular members of the divine assembly that the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth includes them, but does not refer to them by their liturgical titles: The Sun and The Moon. The same reticence may have led the Plagues Stories to omit them altogether and replace them with Passover, which is a moon feast.

Technically, the entry for the firstborn and heirs (Exod 11:1–10) is a death certificate or a death sentence. The firstborn and heirs are stillborn. Although the certificate refers only to firstborn, the parallel: firstborn (Exod 4:22–23) and son appears elsewhere in the Plagues Stories.

Firstborn is regularly used by itself without son. There are only six exceptions (Gen 27:32; Exod 4:22–23; Deut 2:15; 1 Sam 8:2; 1 Chr 8:30; 9:36). Nonetheless, the parallelism is at least implied here and would strengthen the connection between the Birth of Moses where Pharaoh drowns the firstborn and heirs of Yahweh in the Nile and here where Yahweh puts the firstborn and heirs of Egypt to death.

The denouement of the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt (Exod 12:1–13:16) is short, because it is elaborated by the Creation of the Firstborn of Israel. In the denouement, Yahweh lays claim to the Hebrews who are to acknowledge Yahweh, and not Pharaoh, as their divine patron. Therefore, in the covenant with which the Death of the Firstborn ends, Pharaoh transfers the Hebrews from his jurisdiction to Yahweh’s jurisdiction.

Immediately, Yahweh begins to shape the new world inaugurated when Moses was sent to lead the Hebrews out of the chaos of Egypt. As a down payment on the fertility of this new world, Yahweh sends them out of Egypt with food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and rings on their fingers. Yahweh also endows the Hebrews with the skill to make bread (Exod 12:33–34).

Yahweh similarly endows Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12:9–13:4) before their exodus. Just as the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth end with the endowment of Sabbath, the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt ends with the endowment of Passover. Sabbath and Passover both teach the Hebrews how to acknowledge Yahweh as their divine patron.

Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were originally celebrated separately. At Passover, shepherds butchered and ate the first lambs born during the grazing season. At the Feast of Unleavened Bread, farmers baked the first grain from the harvest. Eating the first fruits of the herd and field acknowledged that these were divine gifts, and not human wages. It also demonstrated the confidence of the farmers and herders that Yahweh would continue to bless them with herds and harvests, so the households did not have to hoard the first fruits as a hedge against famine.[1](Benjamin 2004)

Among scholars who research provides some support for interpreting the Plagues Stories as a parallel to the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth is Terence E. Fretheim.[2]  For Fretheim the plagues are ecological signs of historical disaster.  Yahweh targets the land Egypt, because it was a world of death and slavery – the exact opposite of the world Yahweh created. Egyptians misused the land and threw off Yahweh’s world by distorting Yahweh’s creation. Therefore, Yahweh needed to not only re-create the world in order to fix what Egypt had messed up, but Yahweh also needed to punish the Egypt by attacking the land of Egypt itself.

Egypt’s misuse of the land does not just affect Egypt, but rather all of creation. Throughout the plague stories, the language used reflects the idea that all of creation suffered from the plagues. Phrases like, every tree, all the fruit, and not a single locust, are used to emphasize the fact that either everything was affected or nothing was affected. Typically, the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves is the focus for Yahweh’s use of the plagues. The larger focus is the emancipation of creation.

Just as the Hebrews were slaves of Egypt, the world Yahweh created was being held captive and needed to be liberated as well. Furthermore, not only were the people Yahweh created in need of liberation but all things natural and created by Yahweh needed to be liberated.

The plagues concerned the entire natural order of the world and many of the plagues victimized or were caused by nonhuman aspects of creation. In the fifth plague, the livestock are diseased and therefore are made a victim of the plagues (Exod 9:3).

In contrast, the plagues of frogs, lice, and flies made humans the victims (Exod. 8:2-4, 16, 21). Additionally, in many of the plagues, nonhuman creation was the cause of destruction as well as the victim of the plague. In the plague of the locust, the locust caused destruction of land and made a victim out of the crops and ultimately, like all of the plagues, the Egyptian people (Exod. 10:4-5). Overall, the key point is that all of Yahweh’s creation – not only the Hebrew slaves -- is to be liberated from the land of death that Egypt has created.

The reason there is a need for liberation, is because Egypt has created a land in contrast to the land Yahweh created. In creating a contradictory world, the pharaoh put an end to, or deviated from, Yahweh’s ultimate purpose and plan for the world. Yahweh’s mission and purpose for the world was that Yahweh’s name would be spread all over the earth. (Fretheim 1991, 385-396) For example, Yahweh is referred to as Lord of the earth and owner of the earth and that Yahweh desires all of the earth to know the name and power of Yahweh (Exod. 8:18, 9:29, 9:16).

In order for Yahweh’s plan to come to fruition, the earth must be a world of life and fertility. However, because the pharaoh has created Egypt to be a land focused on death and anti-life at the same time Yahweh attempts to execute the purpose of creation, Yahweh’s mission is threatened. It is only through the plagues, that Yahweh is able to recreate the world as it was intended to be and to fulfill Yahweh’s mission.

Pharaoh created an anti-world to the world of Yahweh.  The plagues used are all hyper natural forms of Yahweh’s creations. The plagues take natural events and elements and turn them into unnatural events and elements due to their extremeness and excessiveness. Each of the plagues is represented by something Yahweh created, yet it is hyper naturalized to show Egypt the destruction that can occur through the distortion of Yahweh’s creations. If every speck of dust becomes a gnat, consider the amount and size of the swarms. Water becomes blood and even light and dark cease to be separated. Through all of the plagues, the creations of Yahweh are distorted and destructive.

Aside from simply showing Egypt the destructiveness of their contrary world, Yahweh punishes pharaoh for creating a land of death and slavery for the Hebrews, by having the plagues imitate the sufferings of the Hebrews. To imitate the long suffering of the Hebrews, Yahweh imposes the plagues upon the Egyptians for a prolonged period of time. Throughout their time of slavery, the Hebrews lost their property, health, and freedom, and because of the plagues so did the Egyptians.

The most obvious correlation between the Hebrews’ sufferings and the plagues is the death of the first born son (Exod. 11:4-5). Just as the pharaoh ordered the murder of Hebrew infants, Yahweh ordered the death of the Egyptians’ infants.

Just as the pharaoh’s sins made the Hebrews suffer, his refusal to submit to Yahweh’s request made all of Egypt suffer through the plagues.

Finally, the world which pharaoh created hindered Yahweh’s mission for all of creation to know the name and power of Yahweh, therefore Yahweh needed to recreate the world as it was first intended. Yahweh needed to correct what the pharaoh had destroyed. At the end of each plague, Yahweh reverses it by removing the plague. By overcoming the chaos of the plague, Yahweh restores order in the world as it was created to be.

Creation language is used throughout these times of reversal and even language of judgment is seen by using the phrase, not one remained (Exod. 8:27). Yahweh expels evil from the world and returns it to a world of life and fertility, similar to the story of the great flood.

Yahweh’s actions in the Plague Stories are redemptive and re-creational. By sending the plagues to attack Egypt and, ultimately, its divine assembly, Yahweh shows power, control and restoration in the world that the pharaoh created. Instead of allowing Egypt to become a land of death and slavery, and in turn allowing all of creation to become such, Yahweh recreates the world as it was meant to be and shows that only Yahweh has the power to create and destroy chaos or cosmos.

Ari Mark Cartun studies the structural and symbolic use of numbers in the Plagues Stories. The numbers three, seven and ten are used throughout the Plagues Stories to represent perfection and completeness. Ultimately, the structure and repetition of these complete and perfect numbers show that Yahweh had a hand in the creation of the plagues and although the plagues were meant to shame the land of Egypt, they brought glory to Yahweh by using perfect numbers.

Cyndy Kissel-Ito studies the power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. The Plague Stories describe pharaoh with a hard heart, whereas they describe Yahweh as a divine patron who, ultimately, cares for the people.[3] The pharaoh’s refusal to let the Hebrews go shows his struggle with the power of Yahweh. Pharaoh struggles to retain some power and some creative control over Egypt, despite knowing Yahweh is waiting for him to submit. By sending the plagues to attack Egypt, Yahweh shows the pharaoh that only Yahweh has the power to create, destroy and control anything and only when Yahweh sees fit, are the plagues installed and removed.

Karen Martens studies the …with strong hand and outstretched arm motif.[4]  Yahweh uses the formula to promise the Hebrews deliverance. Yahweh claims that the pharaoh will let the Israelites go because of Yahweh’s strong hand and outstretched arm which is seen in the devastating plagues. The formula shows that only Yahweh has the power to bring about the plagues which end pharaoh’s rule and end the pharaoh’s creation of a land of death.

Dennis J. McCarthy studies the structure of each episode in the Plagues Stories.[5] In each episode a plague is revealed to Moses, the plague is carried out, the damage is assessed, and then the pharaoh’s heart is hardened in conclusion. The conflict of the plagues is not between the pharaoh and Moses; the conflict ultimately is between Yahweh and Egypt’s divine assembly. The use of Moses as the messenger and the pharaoh and Egypt as the recipient of the plagues is, in the end, Yahweh’s example of how all of creation should be.


Benjamin, Don C. The Old Testament Story: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Pr, 2004.

Fretheim, Terence E. "The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster." Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 3 (09/01, 1991): 385-396.

Kissel-Ito, Cindy. "Exodus 8-11." Interpretation 59, no. 1 (01/01, 2005): 54-56.

Martens, Karen. ""with a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm": The Meaning of the Expression." SJOT 15, no. 1 (01/01, 2001): 123-141.

McCarthy, Dennis J. "Moses' Dealings with Pharaoh : Ex 7:8-10:27." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27, no. 4 (10/01, 1965): 336-347.

[1] Don C. Benjamin, The Old Testament Story: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Pr, 2004), 89-93.

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, "The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster," Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 3 (09/01, 1991), 385-396.

[3] Cindy Kissel-Ito, "Exodus 8-11," Interpretation 59, no. 1 (01/01, 2005), 54-56.

[4] Karen Martens, ""with a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm" SJOT 15, no. 1 (01/01, 2001), 123-141.

[5] Dennis J. McCarthy, "Moses' Dealings with Pharaoh : Ex 7:8-10:27," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27, no. 4 (10/01, 1965), 336-347.