Reading the Plagues in their Ancient Egyptian Context
The Importance of Historical Context
Time and again, the Bible’s stories reflect the cultural and geographical contexts in which they occur. The early stories in Genesis, for example, with mention of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the city of Babylon, can be understood only against the backdrop of Mesopotamian culture, with the most famous parallel being the flood story in Genesis 6-8 and its counterpart in the Atrahasis and Utnapishtim stories, the latter embedded within the Gilgamesh Epic. Similarly, the story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) is illuminated only with a firm knowledge of Canaanite mythology (in particular, the Ugaritic texts) at hand; while the book of Esther needs to be read against the backdrop of Persian history and culture.
It comes as no surprise, accordingly, to find Egyptian mythological material lingering beneath the surface of the extended narrative within Exodus 1-14.
Moses as God to Pharaoh
At the beginning of Parashat Va-ʾEra, Moses objects to being sent to speak to Pharaoh for a second time (see earlier Exod 4:10), claiming that he is not a good speaker. To which God responds: “See, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet” (Exod 7:1). This verse, which has so vexed commentators throughout the ages (see also Exod 4:16, for a similar statement by God to Moses), can be understood only within the context of ancient Egyptian theology and royal ideology.
The Pharaoh was considered divine, the living embodiment of the god Horus, god of kingship, represented by the falcon. Now, in any other context, it would be heretical to find Moses attaining the status of divinity, but if he is to appear before Pharaoh, he must appear as an equal. And since Pharaoh is considered divine by his people, Moses must achieve the same eminence for the purposes of this summit conference.
Moses, accordingly, is elevated to the status of god, while Aaron receives a concomitant promotion from his normal rank of priest to that of prophet. Which is to say, each of the two leading figures in the narrative is advanced in rank for the purpose of this crucial meeting with Pharaoh. The exigencies of the moment, accordingly, along with the unique Egyptian setting here, override the ancient Israelite tenet that no human can achieve the level of deity. Or to put this in other words, in this particular instance within the Bible, the narrative needs trump the theological ones.
Transforming Staffs into Crocodiles
When the two brothers appear before Pharaoh a few verses later, they are asked to produce their wonder, which they do by transforming the staff into a crocodile (the proper understanding of תַּנִּין tannin, to my mind) (Exod 7:9-10), and then back again (by implication).
This act is not a random act of transformation, but rather one known from ancient Egyptian literature. It is best represented in “The Wax Crocodile” story (c. 1800 b.c.e.), in which the chief lector-priest Webaoner, by means of the proper magical spell, transforms a crocodile made of wax into a living crocodile, and then back again. This tale is but one of many such stories from ancient Egypt, which the consumers of this literature apparently enjoyed.
This will explain why Pharaoh’s own magician-priests (חַרְטֻמִּים ḥarṭumim—a loanword from Egyptian) are able to accomplish the same act בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם bǝ-lahaṭɛm ‘with their magic-spells’), transforming their staffs into crocodiles as well (Exod 7:11). True, the staff/crocodile of Moses and Aaron devours the staffs/crocodiles of the Egyptian magicians – a portent of things to come – but the main points here are something else.
First, the entire episode can be properly understood only with a background knowledge of Egyptian culture. Second, and most significantly for the purposes of the Torah’s narrative, the reader observes the difference between the two means which accomplish the same end. Moses and Aaron perform this task because they are empowered by God to do so; by contrast, the Egyptian magicians employ magical praxis, a phenomenon foreign to the official religion of ancient Israel as outlined in the Torah.
The Egyptian Background for the Plagues
The book of Exodus continues with the extended narrative of the Ten Plagues, the first seven of which appear in Parashat Va-ʾEra. Space does not allow a full detailing of the Egyptological background of each of these plagues, so I shall limit myself here to comments on three of these seven plagues.
The first plague of blood parallels the mention of this same catastrophe in an ancient Egyptian text, the “Admonitions of Ipuwer”:
Indeed, the river is blood, yet one drinks from it; one turns away from people, yet one thirsts for water.
The author of this text, moreover, mentions the river turning to blood in conjunction with foreign-tribes who have entered Egypt. This is not to say that we have here a reference to the first plague in an ancient Egyptian text (for Ipuwer lived centuries earlier than the date of this plague according to any reconstruction of Israelite history and chronology), but rather that the biblical author utilized an ancient Egyptian trope, one that would be recognizable to his well-educated readers.
There is no parallel to the second plague of frogs in ancient Egyptian literature, but it is noteworthy that Heqet, the goddess of life and fertility, is represented by a frog in Egyptian art and iconography. The importance of this point is realized in the following interplay between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron. The former requests that the two brothers pray to YHWH simply to remove (Hebrew ס-ו-ר) the frogs (Exod 8:4), with the implication that they would return to the Nile. But the end result is not only the death of the frogs (v. 9), but the piles of rotting frog corpses so that the land stank (v. 10). Once symbols of the goddess of life, the frogs now embody the stench of death.
The Egyptian magicians reproduce the first two plagues and try to reproduce the third בְּלָטֵיהֶם bǝ-laṭehɛm ‘with their magic-spells’ (Exod 7:22, 8:3, 8:14), at which point, they disappear from the story until Exod 9:11, where we read that they too were stricken by the sixth plague of boils.
The significance of this is heightened for the reader when he or she realizes that the Egyptian priests shaved their entire bodies every day, to ensure perfect and hence pure skin, or else they would be considered impure and disqualified from temple worship. Priests with boils means no offerings in the temples; no offerings in the temples means distress for the gods; distress of the gods means chaos and collapse in Egypt – yes, all that from what appears at first blush to be an aside comment by the biblical author (Exod 9:11).
The Torah in Context Comes Alive
The Bible was written millennia ago and, like all good literature, integrates many of the cultural cues and premises of the authors’ society. As modern readers, living in a totally different cultural matrix, we often miss many of the nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning. This is why understanding the ancient context of the Bible is so important. The biblical text comes alive when studying the narrative in its proper cultural, religious, and geographical context. In many cases, this means understanding ancient Israelite culture, Canaanite culture or even Babylonian culture. In the case of the Exodus story, it means understanding the fascinating world of ancient Egypt.
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Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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