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The Ten Plagues

Rav Michael Hattin



Last week's Parasha concluded with the disheartening failure of Moshe and Aharon's first mission to Pharaoh.  Unimpressed by their impassioned demand for the peoples' release, unmoved by their invocation of God's name, Pharaoh dismisses their words with disdain and escalates the harshness of the servitude.  "That day, Pharaoh gave orders to the taskmasters and to the foremen: 'Do not give the people straw for bricks as before.  Let them go and gather their own straw.  The quota of bricks that they must make, however, shall remain the same as it was, and will not be lessened.  They are indolent and therefore cry out that they want to go sacrifice to their God.  Let the work be heavier upon them to occupy them, so that they are not distracted by lies!'"


Encountering the people after their unceremonious exit from Pharaoh's palace, Moshe and Aharon can only bear the brunt of their understandable anger and disappointment. "Let God see your deed and judge you both accordingly, for you have made us repugnant in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors; you have placed in their hands a sword to kill us!"  Disgruntled, Moshe returns to God and cries out: "Oh Lord, why have You dealt harshly with this people, and why did You send me?  From the time that I have come before Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made conditions worse for them, and You have done nothing to save your people!"  Though not denying the thrust of Moshe's harsh words, God responds: "Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send them forth, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land!"


Understanding Moshe's Disappointment


The commentaries are in fact puzzled by Moshe's reaction to Pharaoh's intransigence.  After all, God had informed Moshe on the dawn of his appointment that his initial demands for the peoples' release would be met with Pharaoh's fierce resistance.  Pharaoh will not relent, God had explained, until "I send forth My hand and smite Egypt with all of My wonders that I shall do in its midst, and then he will send you forth." The portent had been repeated a second time to Moshe as he took leave of his father-in-law and began the trek from Midian back to Egypt (see Shemot 3:18-20, and 4:21-23).   Why then is Moshe now surprised, indignant and disillusioned?


Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) explains that Moshe had expected that the severity of the servitude would decrease in the aftermath of his first confrontation with Pharaoh.  "God would begin to save them.  Instead, Pharaoh acted more sternly with them.  This is the reason for Moshe's query 'Oh Lord, why have You dealt harshly with this people, and why did You send me?  From the time that I have come before Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made conditions worse for them, and You have done nothing to save your people!  Did You not claim that 'I have surely seen the oppression of My people...and I have come down to save them'?!"


Ramban (Moshe ben Nachman, 13th century, Spain) disagrees, claiming on textual grounds that Moshe not only expected the gradual reduction of servitude as the journey towards Redemption began, but rather the complete and immediate cessation of the oppression and the restoration of Bnei Yisrael to their ancestral land without delay.  "In my opinion," writes the Ramban, "Moshe correctly understood God's caveat that Pharaoh would be obstinate, and unwilling to instantly accede to the demand of freedom.  A sign or wonder would have little effect, and the stasis would continue until the God would perform His many mighty miracles.  Moshe, however, mistakenly believed that God would unleash those grievous wonders in quick succession over the course of a few days.  When Pharaoh would claim ignorance of Hashem's name and display no regard for His demand, Moshe thought that he would immediately be commanded to perform the sign of the 'tanin' (crocodile). Encountering Pharaoh's refusal, he would immediately turn the Nile to blood and similarly perform the remainder of the Plagues forthwith...Instead, much time elapsed, and Moshe came to the realization that the process would be a protracted one..."


The Purpose of the Plagues


Why is it that the so-called Ten Plagues are not visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians in staccato-like blows, as Moshe and Bnei Yisrael had surely anticipated?  Why instead is the sequence of events drawn-out and lengthy?  According to an ancient tradition (Midrash Shemot Rabba 9:12) the period of the Plagues lasts for approximately eight to nine months!  According to other views an entire year elapses between the episode of Moshe and Aharon's first appearance at Pharaoh's court and the triumphant march from slavery to freedom (Mishna Eiduyot 2:10).  Surely if the Divine objective had been to simply compel the god king into compliance or, alternatively, to punish decades of state-sponsored brutality and oppression, a much shorter time frame would have been more than sufficient!  Clearly, what this indicates is that the PRIMARY aim of the Plagues is neither coercive nor punitive, but something else entirely.  We shall devote the remainder of the lesson to ascertain the plausible purpose of the plagues.  We shall be aided in our endeavor if we can first determine the existence of an ordering principle or pattern to the plagues, which will assist us in delineating their underlying intent. 


It may be recalled from an earlier discussion (Parashat Vayeira) that in the Biblical frame of reference, the number ten carries significance.  The Mishna in Avot 1: 1-6 lists a lengthy series of 'tens' beginning with the 'Ten Utterances' by which the cosmos were brought into being.  The Torah enumerates ten generations from Adam to Noach, and ten additional generations from Noach to Avraham. According to tradition, Avraham undergoes ten trials of faith.  We speak of the 'Ten Plagues' as well as of the 'Ten Commandments.'  As we pointed out at the time, the groupings of ten are indicative of complete units.  Here as well, the 'Ten Plagues' clearly constitute an integral unit, but a unit of what?


Patterns in the Plagues


Let us begin by carefully examining the text to ascertain if indeed any patterns can be established.  In the past, natural scientists have attempted to explain the sequential unfolding of the plagues as reflecting a causal and almost mechanistic progression, but we are more interested in the literary aspects of the matter.  Let us carefully list the pertinent details that relate to each plague so that we are able to detect the ordering principles:


1.      "DAM": BLOOD is introduced with a WARNING that is administered by Moshe to Pharaoh as he goes out to the Nile at DAYBREAK - "Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water…say to him: 'Hashem, Lord of the Hebrews, has sent me to demand of you the release His people, so that they may serve Him in the wilderness, but you have refused to listen."  Moshe is then to relate a PURPOSE to the plague -  "Hashem now says: 'by this you shall know that I am Hashem,' I will strike the water of the Nile with my staff and it shall turn to blood...'" Pharaoh summons his SORCERERS who are able to duplicate the affliction, and he remains obstinate.

2.      "TZEPHARDEA":  FROGS is preceded by a WARNING  - "Go to Pharaoh and say to him 'thus says Hashem: send forth my people so that they may serve Me.  If you refuse to do so, I will strike all of your territory with frogs.'"   Pharaoh's SORCERERS are again able to duplicate the feat, and although momentarily he considers allowing the people to go, his heart remains stubborn.

3.      "CHINIM":  LICE arrives WITHOUT WARNING.  At God's behest, Aharon strikes the earth with his staff and the lice appear, attacking man and beast.  The SORCERERS attempt to also produce lice but are unsuccessful, conceding that "it is the finger of God."  Pharaoh remains obdurate.

4.      "A'ROV": WILD BEASTS is introduced by a WARNING that Moshe administers early in the MORNING, as Pharaoh goes out to the Nile.  A PURPOSE to the plague is also communicated to Pharaoh: "...that you might know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land."  This time, there is no mention of the sorcerers, but for the first time a DISTINCTION is explicitly drawn between the Hebrews and the Egyptians: "On that day I will set apart the region of Goshen where My people Israel dwell, so that there will be no wild beasts there."  Also, a TIME is designated for the onset of the plague: "Tomorrow this wonder will come to pass."  Almost ready to relent, Pharaoh refuses after the plague dissipates.

5.      "DEVER": PESTILENCE is preceded by a WARNING – "Go to Pharaoh and say to him: 'Thus says Hashem the God of the Hebrews: send forth My people to serve Me.  If you refuse and continue to hold them, then God's hand will be directed against the livestock in the field..."  Again, a DISTINCTION is introduced between the Egyptian animals and those of the Hebrews: "God will differentiate between the livestock of Israel and that of the Egyptians, for not a single animal of Bnei Yisrael will perish."  As above, a specific TIME is spelled out: "Hashem set a fixed time saying: 'tomorrow Hashem will execute this wonder in the land.'"  Pharaoh is unmoved, and his heart remains stubborn.

6.      "SHECHIN": BOILS arrives WITHOUT WARNING.  Moshe casts a handful of ash heavenwards, and the plague of boils ensues.  This time, the Torah indicates that the SORCERERS were not able to stand before Moshe because the boils as well afflicted them.  For the first time, God hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he will not surrender.

7.      "BARAD": HAIL is introduced by a WARNING that Moshe communicates to Pharaoh early in the MORNING.  "This time" says Hashem, "if you will not release My people to serve me, I will send a most grievous plague against you, your ministers and your people."  The PURPOSE of this display is "that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land."  Again, a highly precise TIME is delineated: "at this time tomorrow I will cause a very heavy hail to fall..." The land of Goshen where the Hebrews dwell, is spared the effects of the hail, as a DISTINCTION is drawn once again.  As above, God hardens Pharaoh's heart so that he refuses to let the people go.

8.      "ARBE": LOCUSTS is preceded by a WARNING, as Pharaoh is told that his refusal to free the people will be countered by their arrival at a specific TIME on the morrow.  For the first time Pharaoh's own SORCERERS advise him to heed Moshe's demand, but God hardens his heart so that he refuses to do so. 

9.      "CHOSHECH": DARKNESS arrives without warning, as thick gloom envelopes the Egyptians for three days, while Bnei Yisrael, in DISTINCTION to them, enjoy light in their dwelling places.  At the brink of surrender, Pharaoh remains adamant as God hardens his heart.

10.  "BECHOROT": STRIKING OF THE FIRSTBORN is introduced by a WARNING in which God designates the exact TIME of its arrival: "Thus says Hashem: 'at the stroke of midnight I will go forth in the midst of Egypt.  All of the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from Pharaoh's firstborn who sits on his throne to the first born of the slave girl who grinds at the millstone, as well as the firstborn of all animals.'"  It goes without saying that a DISTINCTION is again made between the firstborn of Egypt, and the firstborn of Bnei Yisrael who are spared.


Analyzing the Data


Studying the above breakdown carefully, we notice that a basic structure underlies the plagues, which can now be broken down into three distinct groups:


1.      BLOOD – FROGS – LICE



The first plague of the series (blood, wild animals, hail) is always introduced with a WARNING administered in the MORNING, the second (frogs, pestilence, locusts) is simply preceded by a WARNING, and the third (lice, boils, darkness) arrives WITHOUT WARNING.  

A statement of PURPOSE always accompanies the first plague of each series (blood, wild animals, hail), but as the series progress, the profundity and scope of the respective purposes expands:


Blood – "by this you shall know that I am Hashem" 


Wild animals - "...that you might know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land."


Hail - "that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land."


Thus, as blood strikes the Nile, Pharaoh is to realize that there is a God at least equal to the other myriad deities that populate his pantheon.  With the onset of wild beasts, Pharaoh will come to appreciate that this God's authority extends over the land.  By the time that the final series is unleashed with hail, it will be apparent that the God of the Hebrews is, unlike any other god of Egypt, an absolute being.


As we continue to study the structure of the plagues, we begin to notice other consequential aspects.  The first series of plagues (blood, frogs, lice) records no DISTINCTION between the Egyptians and the Hebrews.  Only with the plague of wild beasts does the Torah state that "On that day I will set apart the region of Goshen where My people Israel dwell, so that there will be no wild beasts there".  This lexical nuance led the Ibn Ezra to make the remarkable (and iconoclastic) assertion that "in my view, the first three plagues of blood, frogs and lice struck the Egyptians and Hebrews without distinction, for we must follow the text".  What could be the possible import of this insight?  If indeed the plagues are about God's exercise of power, it is reasonable to assert that the ability to direct that power at specific targets constitutes a greater measure of it.  It is one thing to unleash a destructive force that knows no borders and quite another to direct that force at a specific area or population.  Thus, as the plagues progress, the distinctions become sharper and more pronounced.  The first series of plagues strikes Egypt and Israel without impunity, while the second and third series strike only Egypt. 


Similarly, the issue of TIMING becomes more crucial as the plagues progress.  The first series of plagues arrives with no prior appointment by God of a set time.  The second and third series, with the exception of the final plague of each series (boils, darkness) which arrives without warning, always occurs at an appointed time.  As well, the precision of the timing seems to increase with each successive plague.  Thus, Pharaoh is told that wild beasts will arrive 'tomorrow', that pestilence will occur at a 'fixed time tomorrow', and that hail will begin to fall at 'this very time tomorrow' (see however locusts that will enter Egypt's borders 'tomorrow').   In like fashion to the notion of DISTINCTION in which the ability to achieve more precise distinctions is indicative of more pronounced control, the capacity to exert force at increasingly more exact moments in TIME suggests a greater degree of mastery of those forces.


As the precision and severity of the plagues increases, we note a corresponding decrease in the power exhibited by Pharaoh's SORCERERS.  The first series of plagues sees them successful at duplicating blood and frogs.  They are, however, unsuccessful at duplicating lice and are forced to acknowledge the intervention of God.  We can certainly assume that the lack of their mention in the second series indicates their continuing inability to match God's prowess.  The Torah, however, tells us that during the plague of boils (which completes the second series) the sorcerers of Pharaoh could not appear in Moshe's presence, for they too suffered from the affliction.  "Disgraced and humiliated, their pocked faces hidden, the sorcerers could not save themselves from the shame of the boils.  Therefore they dared not enter Pharaoh's palace or appear before Moshe in the street, but of necessity remained shut up in their homes" comments the Ramban.  Thus, the first series concludes with their inability to duplicate the plague, and the second series concludes with their inability to preserve even themselves from its effects. 


The patterns inherent in the plagues were recognized early on and commented upon by Rabbi Yehuda, one of the sages of the Mishna (2nd century).  His words are recorded in the Haggada, which contains the required readings for the Seder service.  After we make mention of the Ten Plagues and pour out some of the wine in our goblets to recall the suffering of the Egyptians, the Haggada mentions that "Rabbi Yehuda used to employ a mnemonic device:  DTzaCh, A'DaSh, BeAChaV."  Rabbi Yehuda takes the first Hebrew letter of each of the plagues and combines them to form three separate words, in order to simplify their memorization.  Significantly, his division into three groups corresponds to the three series discussed above.


As for the striking of the firstborn, it represents the culmination of the process.  It is at once an integral part of the whole as well as an episode sui generis (in its own category).  Not only is God able to differentiate between nations, but between individuals as well.  The plague is set to arrive at precisely the moment of midnight and thus indicates God's complete mastery over time.  Not even Pharaoh, much less his sorcerers, is spared, for he, like them, is in reality powerless before the God of the Hebrews.


The Meaning of the Plagues


Having examined the structure of the plagues, we are now in a much better position to analyze their meaning.  Such subtle patterning makes it quite clear that straightforward punishment of Pharaoh and Egypt must be rejected as their primary purpose.  The duration of the plague period also litigates against this possibility.  In light of all of the above evidence, we can only conclude that the major thrust of the plagues is pedagogical in nature.  Education is a time-dependent process that cannot be accomplished instantaneously. It is most potent in effecting internalization of principles when those principles are presented incrementally but progressively. 


In the eyes of ancient Egypt and its captive slave population of Hebrews, Pharaoh and by extension his trusted ministers were regarded as gods.  Their claim to absolute power was supported by a state apparatus that encouraged obeisance to their hegemony and dependence upon their authority.  The larger pantheon included a great number of gods large and small, who were themselves subject to the vagaries of fate and the cruel whims of nature.  For the vast majority of these gods, the providential knowledge of and concern for an individual human being was both anathema as well as impossible.  


In essence, then, the unfolding of the Ten Plagues can be regarded as the slow but steady demolishment of these cherished but erroneous ideas.  Thus, God introduces himself as exercising control over the complete spectrum of natural forces as well as over the most redoubtable of the gods of ancient Egypt.  Surely it is not mere coincidence that the plagues are bracketed by the striking of the Nile (Blood) and the sun (Darkness) respectively.  Recall that, practically speaking, these two were the most important deities in the land. 


We should also note that the first series of plagues strikes the 'subterranean' (such as the water) and 'terrestrial' (such as the earth from which the lice were bred) realms.  The second series pertains to the living things that inhabit that realm (wild and domesticated beasts, as well as human beings), and the third series addresses the celestial realm (hailstorms, locusts borne by winds and darkness that obscures the sun).  In other words, the progression of the plagues makes it very clear that the God of the Hebrews suffers none of the limitations to His power that, in polytheism, tended to confine gods to rather circumscribed spheres of control.


God's mastery is further emphasized by His ability to control time and to differentiate between nations and even individuals within a national grouping.  If God is capable of singling out individuals (firstborn) then surely He is aware of their existence and involved in their lives.  Finally, even Pharaoh and his sorcerers must surrender to God's might, for no absolute ruler, even one who claims divinity, is a match for the Omnipotent One. 


Revealing Himself to His people, who may have chafed under the oppressor's yoke but also imbibed his beliefs and values, God patiently begins to convey to them the difficult and lengthy teaching that will culminate in their Exodus. Their Egyptian counterparts, in the meantime, will also learn the error of their way of life and have the opportunity to rectify those flawed values.  The Ten Plagues may therefore be thought of as a basic but complete course of instruction in the fundamentals of monotheism, whose 'graduates' can proceed to 'study' more advanced topics such as faith, trust and reliance.


Shabbat Shalom


For further study: see the comments of the Seforno (15th century, Italy) on Shemot 4:23, as well as 7:3-4.  Seforno points out that the PURPOSE which initiates each series focuses on 'knowledge': Blood – "by this you shall KNOW that I am Hashem", wild animals - "...that you might KNOW that I am Hashem in the midst of the land," hail - "that you will KNOW that there is none like Me in all the land."  This suggests that the plagues were geared towards enhancing the knowledge both of the Egyptians as well as of the Hebrews.  'Knowledge' here is to be understood not in the narrow sense of information, but in the broad sense of instruction for living. Significantly, according to Seforno's thesis, the plagues were primarily for the theological and spiritual development of the Egyptians. For Seforno, only the final plague of the striking of the firstborn was punitive in nature, to avenge their brutal and cruel persecution of Bnei Yisrael, God's 'firstborn.'


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