Now I have to hold my hands up here. Dates really aren’t my bag. Nevertheless, the news that a new timeline for ancient Egypt has now been established by archaeologists,* along with the promise of a forthcoming feature film, got me thinking about the plagues. Not something I usually ponder on while hoovering – after all, we’ve enough problems in the world to worry about today, never mind 5000 and odd years ago! Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to do some research.
So what were they all about, these plagues? Most people have heard how Moses, commissioned by God, confronted the Egyptian Pharaoh and demanded freedom for the Jewish slaves. Had this haughty ruler been more reasonable there’d be no story but, unfortunately for him and his subjects, he refused to even consider this request, dismissing Moses and brother Aaron with the words: “Who is this God and why should I obey him?”
The Pharaoh’s intransigence was to be his undoing as, time and time again, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob brought a series of catastrophes against Egypt, the greatest world power of its day. These plagues not only forced Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites but served an even higher purpose; to magnify God’s name amongst the nations, in the process humiliating and executing judgement on Egypt’s most revered gods and goddesses:
Turning Nile waters into blood
After Aaron struck the river with his rod, he struck a major bow against Nile-god Hapi. As all the rivers pools and waters of Egypt turned to blood, fish died creating a stink. Some types of fish were venerated by the Egyptians and even mummified.
Plague of Frogs
This miracle proved the Hebrew God’s superiority over Heqt, the Frog-goddess. In Egypt, frogs symbolised fertility and resurrection but now they teemed throughout the nation, getting into ovens, troughs and every corner of the home.
Dust turned into Gnats
Up to this point, Egypt’s priests, headed by Jannes and Jambres, were able to duplicate God’s miracles through magic arts supposedly bestowed by the god Thoth. But on this occasion their powers proved unequal to the task and they were forced to acknowledge the Hebrew God’s superiority: “It is the finger of God!”
Swarms of Gadflies
This presented another demarcation being the first plague not to affect the Israelites in Goshen. From now on, only the Egyptians would suffer from God’s miracles. No one knows for sure what type of insect gadflies were but the English term usually includes bloodsucking horseflies and botflies. Botfly larvae are parasites which burrow into human and animal flesh, causing great distress and even death.
Pestilence on Livestock
Attention now turned to Cow-goddess Hathor, Apis who resembled a bull, and Nut, a female deity conceived as a cow with stars fixed to its belly. Again, God made a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. Not one animal in Goshen died from this severe disease.
This was a direct attack upon deities with supposed healing powers such as Thoth, Isis and Ptah. Again, Egypt’s gods were put to shame, along with the priests who became so badly afflicted they couldn’t appear before Pharaoh.
As well as his other roles, Thoth was apparently responsible for rain and thunder too, while lightning came under the power of Reshpu. Neither, of course, could prevent Almighty God from showering “a very heavy hail” which killed many Egyptians and their animals.
Anyone who has seen a swarm of locusts on the attack can imagine the devastation caused by this eighth plague which highlighted the impotence of Min, a fertility god whom worshippers believed protected crops.
The whole nation was plunged into pitch-blackness which Sun-gods Ra and Horus were unable to alleviate. Despite his other ‘hat’ as god of sun, moon and stars, Thoth was just as helpless to cast light upon his followers.
Death of Firstborn
This final plague hit right at the heart of Egypt’s entire belief system. Like every Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh believed he was a son of Ra or Amon-Ra and that his first-born son likewise resulted from a union between the Sun-god and the queen. As a god incarnate, death was unthinkable, yet the death of Pharaoh’s heir proved no one – not even their gods - could stand against the power of the Almighty.