A Deeper Look at the 10 Plagues

The 10 plagues were portrayed in the movie “The Ten Commandments,” and we may feel we know them. Yet have we missed some details and Christian-living lessons?

The nation of Israel had been forced into harsh slavery in Egypt, and God called Moses and his brother Aaron to stand up to the Pharaoh and demand that he let God’s people go.

But God knew it would take much more than that to convince the stubborn Egyptian king. He used Moses and Aaron to demonstrate His power and then to warn of a series of plagues. (All this is recorded in the first part of the book of Exodus.)

Plague No. 1: Water to blood

“Behold, I will strike the waters which are in the river with the rod that is in my hand, and they shall be turned to blood” (Exodus 7:17).

Moses struck first blood, if you will, puncturing the heart of one of Egypt’s most revered pagan gods, Khnum, the god of “the river” (the Nile). The rest of these plagues were also against Egypt’s gods, directly or indirectly. God miraculously changed the Nile River to blood, killing the fish, making the water stink and preventing the Egyptians from drinking it.

This miracle was performed through Moses and Aaron.

Exodus 7:19: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their streams, over their rivers … that they may become blood … both in buckets of wood and pitchers of stone”’” (emphasis added throughout except where noted).

God used Aaron’s rod to turn water outside of the Nile River to blood as well.

Egyptian magicians seemed to duplicate this miracle via some type of sleight of hand (verse 22). Therefore, Pharaoh’s heart remained stubborn.

Plague No. 2: Frogs

“Behold, I will smite all your territory with frogs … which shall go up and come into your house, into your bedroom, on your bed, into the houses of your servants, on your people, into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls” (Exodus 8:2-4).

This outbreak of frogs struck at the Egyptians’ pride in the ancient god Heqet, who was depicted as a woman with a frog’s head. She was a fertility goddess.

The Egyptians appear to have been targeted by this plague. “The word order of the Hebrew text is important because it shows how the plague was pointedly directed at Pharaoh: ‘and against you, and against your people, and against all your servants frogs will go up’” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).

Notice, again, the use of Aaron: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams … and cause frogs to come up on the land of Egypt”’” (Exodus 8:5).

And once again, the magicians’ tricks seemingly matched this miracle—but they couldn’t remove the frogs. This was followed by the first trace of Pharaoh’s heart being softened (verse 8). His repentance was fleeting, as his rebellion returned after God removed the frogs (verse 15).

Plague No. 3: Lice

“So the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron, “Stretch out your rod, and strike the dust of the land, so that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt”’ … and it became lice on man and beast” (Exodus 8:16-17).

Again, this was carried out via Aaron’s rod.

This time “the magicians so worked with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not” (verse 18). From this point forward, the magicians’ efforts to mimic the plagues were unsuccessful. As for Pharaoh’s heart, it “grew hard, and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had said” (verse 19).

Plague No. 4: Flies

God warned Pharaoh, “If you will not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants, on your people and into your houses” (Exodus 8:21, italics in the original).

The words “of flies” are in italics throughout this chapter, indicating that they’re not part of the Hebrew text but were supplied by the translators to try to complete the thought. The Hebrew word for “swarms” (‘ârôb, Brown-Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon) could have been referring to a “mixture” of insects, which is one of its definitions.

Or it could have been swarms of a particular insect, perhaps one that they worshipped. “Khepri … was associated with the scarab or dung beetle … making him one of the most famous insect gods.”

This is the first plague that was delivered directly from God, without the use of the rods of Moses and Aaron. Also God protected the Israelites: “And in that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there. … I will make a difference between My people and your people” (Exodus 8:22-23).

Pharaoh’s heart softened momentarily. “I will let you go … only you shall not go very far away” (Exodus 8:28). Of course, Moses rejected this offer, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness returned when the swarms were taken away.

Plague No. 5: Livestock

“Behold, the hand of the LORD will be on your cattle in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the oxen, and on the sheep—a very severe pestilence” (Exodus 9:3).

The Egyptians worshipped many such animals. (It’s likely where the Israelites got the idea for the golden calf.) So, they would have viewed the Israelites’ sacrifice of these animals as an abomination (Exodus 8:26).

This is the second consecutive miracle by God alone. And, again, God says, “The LORD will make a difference between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt” (Exodus 9:4).

Yet none of this changed Pharaoh’s attitude. “The heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go” (verse 7).

Plague No. 6: Boils

“So the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Take for yourselves handfuls of ashes from a furnace, and let Moses scatter it toward the heavens. … And it will become fine dust, … and it will cause boils that break out in sores on man and beast” (Exodus 9:8-9).

Notice how God performs this miracle—both Moses and Aaron took ashes from the furnace. But only Moses threw the ashes into the air. God returned to working through Moses and Aaron.

And, unlike the previous two plagues, there’s no explicit first-person statement from God concerning His personal protection of Israel. However, it’s safe to say that they were still protected.

Paul explains that God desires that everyone ultimately repent (1 Timothy 2:4)—even those few whom He hardens for a greater long-term purpose.Pharaoh’s stubbornness is described differently: “But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (verse 12). God had promised that He would do this, according to His overall plan (more on this later).

Plague No. 7: Hail

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt—on man, on beast, and on every herb of the field’” (Exodus 9:22).

This is the first miracle that’s clearly performed through the “rod” of Moses alone (verse 23). Israel’s protection is noted as a historical fact, rather than a zealous declaration from God (verse 26).

The Egyptians had more control over protecting themselves from this plague. God warned them to “gather your livestock, … for the hail shall come down on every man and every animal which is found in the field; … and they shall die’” (verse 19). Yet, unbelievably, after having suffered the previous six plagues, some still did not heed this warning. Likewise, in the end times man’s rebellious attitude against God will be unfathomable (Revelation 9:18-21).

God was using Pharaoh to teach a powerful lesson: “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up … that My name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Paul quotes this passage in Romans 9:17. Paul also explains that God desires that everyone ultimately repent (1 Timothy 2:4)—even those few whom He hardens for a greater long-term purpose.

Plague No. 8: Locusts

“If you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory” (Exodus 10:4).

The protection of Israelites is not mentioned with this plague. However, once again, the Egyptians were targeted: “They shall fill your houses, the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians” (verse 6). The protection of Israelites didn’t have to be repeated or listed each time for them to receive it.

This is the second miracle that was carried out through the rod of Moses only (verses 12-13).

And though Pharaoh remained stubborn, his efforts toward repentance seemed to increase during the interim, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you. Now therefore, please forgive my sin” (verses 16-17).

Plague No. 9: Darkness

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, darkness which may even be felt’” (Exodus 10:21).

Blocking the sunlight struck one of Egypt’s most esteemed gods—the sun god, Ra.

This is the third plague that was administered through Moses alone. God told him to raise his “hand” (it’s unclear whether the rod was in his hand). Again, Israel’s protection is recorded in the past tense.

Again, Pharaoh displayed temporary repentance, but asked that Israelite flocks and herds be left behind. Moses, of course, rejected this, and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again (Exodus 10:29).

“Then Pharaoh said to him, ‘Get away from me! … For in the day you see my face you shall die!’ So Moses said, ‘You have spoken well. I will never see your face again’” (verses 28-29). And Moses never did see Pharaoh again.

Plague No. 10: Firstborn

“Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die’” (Exodus 11:4-5).

This is the third plague that was delivered by God alone. And for the third time, God notes that Israel would be unaffected—“that you may know that the LORD does make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel” (verse 7). So this statement is only used with God’s direct, unmediated deliverance of a plague. Nevertheless, when God worked through Moses and Aaron (such as plagues 6-9), it seems the Israelites were still protected.

Before this 10th plague, God instituted the Passover festival and promised to save the Israelites who put the blood of a lamb over their doorposts—foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

After the ninth plague, there’s no record of Moses departing from Pharaoh until Exodus 11:8: “Then he went out from Pharaoh in great anger.” Later, after the firstborn were killed, Pharaoh “called for Moses and Aaron by night” (Exodus 12:31). But it doesn’t say that Moses came to Pharaoh. As Moses prophesied, Pharaoh never saw him again (Exodus 10:29).

The accompanying chart provides an overview of these plagues, where interesting patterns and trends can be seen. For example, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart during four of the last five plagues, suggesting that Pharaoh held greater ownership of his earlier rebellion.

By faith Moses kept the Passover

Hebrews 11:28 explains, “By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them.”

Faith is one of the Christian lessons driven home repeatedly throughout the 10 plagues. James 2:20 says, “Faith without works is dead.” Do we have the faith to observe God’s instructions, festivals and commandments? If not, then our faith is dead. What would have happened if Moses, Aaron and Israel had ignored God’s commands that preceded their protection?

God still makes a difference between spiritual Israelites—those who submit to His will and laws—and spiritual Egypt. When we humbly submit to God, then He backs the results—He always does His part. This is one of the great lessons learned from the 10 plagues.

Read more about the story of the Exodus in our article about the book of Exodus. For more information about the lessons of Passover and God’s other festivals, see the section on the “Plan of Salvation.”

Survey of the 10 Plagues Chart

About the Author

Kevin Epps

Kevin Epps

Kevin Epps lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Belinda. He enjoys his current opportunity to pastor three congregations of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association—Central New Jersey; Queens, New York; and Quakertown, Pennsylvania. He’s been in the ministry for more than 20 years, serving several congregations on the U.S. east coast and in Texas.

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