Invoking Creation in the Story of the Ten Plagues
Introduction: Final Form of the Ten Plagues
The account of the ten plagues as we have it, in its final, redacted form, is a crafted piece of religious historiographical literature. In my essay "The Ten Plagues and Egyptian Ecology," I addressed the possibility that this account is based on some sort of historical occurrence in Egypt, but the final form of the text is certainly much more than a distant recollection of Egyptian natural disasters. To understand what the redactors of this text were trying to express when they drew together P and non-P material, we need to consider some statements in the text.
The Purpose of the Plagues
To Teach the Egyptians
According to Exodus 7:4–5, the function of the plagues is didactic:
I will lay my hands upon Egypt and deliver hosts, my people, the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with great acts of judgment. And the Egyptians shall know that I am God when I stretch out my hand against Egypt.
Despite the reference to the Egyptians learning a lesson—namely, the Lord’s power—it seems clear that the Egyptians were never meant to be the real beneficiaries of the plagues. If the education of the Egyptians is the reason for the plagues, the lesson is certainly lost on them.
To Teach the Israelites
The true beneficiaries of the lesson that God said he would teach are the Israelites. As we read in Exodus 14:31:
When Israel saw the mighty act [literally ‘hand/arm’] which the Lord had done in Egypt, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
What ignited the faith of the Israelites was not their physical redemption from Egypt, but rather “the mighty act which the Lord had done in Egypt”—that is, the plagues.
What was there about the plagues that triggered Israel’s response in faith? The answer, I believe, has to do with their invoking the image of God as Creator. Through the plagues, the Lord demonstrates that he is the God of creation. As we examine the narrative closely, we will see how this notion is conveyed.
Blood (Plague 1)
To initiate the plague of blood, we are told that Aaron is to take his staff and hold it over all of Egypt’s bodies (or gatherings) of water. The Hebrew word used in Exodus 7:19 to describe the “bodies” or “gatherings” of water is מקוה. This is the same word that appears in the opening chapters of Genesis when God creates the seas:
“God called the dry land Earth, and the gatherings (מקוה) of waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10).
The use of the unusual word מקוה in connection with the plague of blood cannot fail to evoke an association with the creation of the seas in Genesis 1:10 and indicates the cosmic import of the plague.
Similarly, the expression in Exodus 7:19 “Let them be(come) blood” (וְהָיָה דָם) echoes the use of the same verb (though not in the exact same form owing to a different linguistic context), “Let there be(come)” (יְהִי), in the creation story in Genesis.
However, in contrast to the creation, where the primeval waters are not altered by a creative act, the first plague demonstrates that God is able to change the very nature of things.
Frogs, Lice, and Flies (Plagues 2, 3 & 4)
The next three plagues form a triad. The frogs are associated with water, the lice with earth, and the flies with air. Each of these three elements are part of the creation story as well.
Frogs (#2) emerged from the rivers, canals, and ponds of Egypt, swarmed together entering the houses, sleeping chambers, beds, and even the bake-ovens and kneading troughs of all Egyptians and their slaves (Exodus 7:28-29 + 8:1-2). This refers to what God says in Gen 1:20, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures." Bother Genesis and Exodus use the root sh-r-ts).
Understood against the background of Genesis, in Exodus, the frogs, who usually occupied outdoor ecological niches by the waters of Egypt, temporarily moved into new niches within the homes of the Egyptians. They acted in a way incongruent with their own nature.
Similarly, lice (#3) come forth from the clumped earth (Exodus 8:12–13). The description of lice corresponds to that of crawling creatures (remes) that come forth from the earth in Genesis 1:24. Lice, however, discomfort he Egyptians, even though many of them—according to Egyptian tomb paintings—shaved their body hair.
Flies (#4) (or a swarm of insects; Exod 8: 16-21) correspond to the flying creatures of the creation story. In Genesis God orders that “flying creatures multiply in the land” (Genesis 1:22). In Egypt, the flies not only multiply in the land, they fill the land. After the fly plague, the situation in Egypt is a complete reversal of the one anticipated by the divine blessing to humanity in Genesis 1:28, where God tells people to “Rule the fish of the sea, the winged creatures of the heavens, and all living creatures which creep on the earth.” In Egypt, these creatures are totally out of control; it is they that rule the humans, not the other way around.
Pestilence (Plague 5)
The plague of pestilence affects animals, specifically field animals. In Genesis 2:18–20 the animals are created specifically for man. In the plague of pestilence, the domestic animals that were under man’s dominion were taken away from the Egyptians. That which was first created for the first man was first removed from the Egyptians by the first plague directed specifically against created things.
Boils (Plague 6)
The one plague that does not fit easily into the pattern I have been describing is boils, but it still fits quite well with the Priestly Text’s worldview, particularly when it comes to the laws of purity. A person afflicted with boils is ritually unclean (Leviticus 13:18–23). This is quite similar to Egyptian notions of priestly purity as well, and is complemented by the stringent demands of Egyptian religion during the New Kingdom (1550–1080 B.C.E.), concerning the ritual and physical purity required of priests before entering a sanctuary.Egyptians considered themselves superior to other peoples. Pharaoh himself was a god and his officers were priests. Perhaps the image of these superior, “holier than thou” individuals suffering from boils, a painful and unaesthetic affliction, was humorous to the Israelites and was considered a barb against Egyptian religion.
Hail and Locusts (Plagues 7 & 8)
The next two plagues, hail and locusts involve the destruction of another part of creation—primarily vegetation. What was not destroyed by the hail was consumed by the locusts. When these two plagues had run their course, Egypt could be contrasted to the way the world appeared after the third day of creation: “The land brought forth vegetation: seed bearing fruit with seed in it” (Genesis 1:12). By contrast, in Exodus 10:15 we are told that “nothing green was left of tree or grass of the field in all the land of Egypt.”
Darkness (Plague 9)
Perhaps the most surprising of all the plagues is darkness. In Exodus 10:21–23 we read that a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days.
People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).
What is described here is not simply the absence of light. The darkness is something physical; it is actually palpable: “a darkness that can be touched (וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ)” (Exodus 10:21b).
The Torah describes here the cessation of the alternation of light and darkness, of day and night. Yet darkness and light exist side by side in geographically distinct places. The Israelites did have light. In short, in Egypt, God has reverted the relationship between darkness and light to what had been prior to the end of the first day of creation—that is, to the state that existed briefly between Genesis 1:4 and Genesis 1:5.
Death of the First Born (Plague 10)
The final plague, the death of the first-born, is only a forerunner to the complete destruction of all the Egyptians at the Red Sea, or Reed Sea. Here we discern an echo of what expressed in Genesis 1:26, where God said, “We will make man in our image and after our likeness.” Instead of creating, he is destroying human males who in form are like the prototype human, in his image and his likeness—first, the first-born, and then, at the sea, all of Egypt.
The Lord of Creation is Israel's Redeemer from Egypt
At the end of the narrative in Exodus, Israel looks back over the stilled water of the sea at a land with no people, no animals and no vegetation, a land in which creation had been undone. Israel is convinced that its redeemer is the Lord of all creation. It is this implicit theological principle that motivates the literary pattern. He who had just reduced order to chaos was the same as he who had previously ordered that which had once been unformed and void (Genesis 1:2).
Jeremiah 4:23-28 predicts a similar undoing of creation in Judah, in the sixth century BCE:
רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִנֵּה תֹ֖הוּ וָבֹ֑הוּ וְאֶל הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ין אוֹרָֽם… רָאִ֕יתִי וְהִנֵּ֖ה אֵ֣ין הָאָדָ֑ם וְכָל ע֥וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם נָדָֽדוּ. רָאִ֕יתִי וְהִנֵּ֥ה הַכַּרְמֶ֖ל הַמִּדְבָּ֑ר… מִפְּנֵ֣י יְ-הוָ֔ה מִפְּנֵ֖י חֲר֥וֹן אַפּֽוֹ
“I look at the earth, it is unformed and void; at the skies, and their light is gone... I look: no man is left, and all the birds of the sky have fled. I look: the farm land is desert...because of the Lord, because of the His blazing anger” (NJPS).
Why Ten Plagues?
Is their significance to the number ten in the Exodus tradition? The answer, I believe, is again to be found in the Priestly creation story. The number of plagues in Exodus was intended to correspond to the ten divine utterances by which the world was created and ordered (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29), though not necessarily to the order of creation.
The destruction of Egypt was part of the redemption of Israel, so the Exodus narrator tied his story of redemption to the story of creation through allusions, echoes, and word plays.
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March 25, 2015
March 30, 2020
Professor Ziony Zevit is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at the American Jewish University. He earned his BA at USC, and his MA, Can. Phil., and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Among his books are The Religions of Ancient Israel (2001),Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (2012) (with Cynthia Miller-Naudé), andWhat Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (2013).
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