The 10 plagues of Egypt: meaning and scientific explanation

The ten plagues of Egypt (in order) are: turning water into blood; frog plague; mosquito infestation (lice or fleas); horsefly infestation (flies); cattle plague; ulcers; igneous hail; locust plague; darkness and death of the firstborn.

The plagues of Egypt were a series of misfortunes that, according to the Bible, fell on the Egyptian kingdom after refusing to free the Hebrews. The story is found in the book of Exodus, chapters 7 through 12, in the Old Testament.

The meaning of the plagues of Egypt focuses on three fundamental aspects:

  • First , the revelation of Yahweh as the only God, Lord and Judge. Divine intervention in favor of the liberation of the people of God discredits the polytheistic religion, undermines the bases of the political and economic power of the authorities and expresses the sense of divine justice and freedom.
  • Second , the presentation of Yahweh’s worshipers as the chosen people. The story states that Yahweh mercifully listened to the cries of his people, favored him, protected him from plagues, and guided him on his way.
  • Third , the presentation of misfortune as an instrument of moral correction in the face of the persistence of sin. It is a condemnation of sin committed consciously, deliberately and obstinately. Pharaoh’s downfall lies in his pride and arrogance, which prevent him from listening to the prophet’s warnings and making amends for his actions.

To understand in detail, let’s see a summary of the plagues of Egypt, their scientific explanation and the biblical meaning of each one separately.

1. Conversion of water into blood

Summary of the conversion of water into blood

In the first interview with Pharaoh, Moses demanded that he release the Hebrews and let them go into the desert to worship God, as he had ordered. If he didn’t, God would turn the water into blood, but Pharaoh didn’t listen.

Then Aaron raised his staff and the waters of rivers, lakes and basins turned into blood. Seeing that the Egyptian priests could imitate him, Pharaoh downplayed the phenomenon.

Scientific explanation

Some experts affirm that the transformation of the Nile into blood was a phenomenon of pollution that poisoned the water and gave it a reddish appearance. It is possible that this contamination was caused by an excess of red algae, which would have released toxins, compromising the drinkability of the water.

Meaning of the conversion of water into blood

From the biblical point of view, water pollution symbolizes:

  1. The first demonstration of Yahweh’s power in front of Egyptian idols and Pharaoh, who claimed to be divine. The natives believed the gods Osiris, Hatmehyt, Jnum, Hapi, Satet and Sotis protected the Nile.
  2. A punishment for the massacre of the Hebrew children. Before the plagues, Pharaoh ordered the death of newborn Hebrew males, who were either drowned in the Nile or thrown as food for crocodiles.
  3. A blow to the political and economic power of Egypt that hurt the pride of Pharaoh. The Nile was the economic center and the main route of communication of Egypt.

2. Plague of Frogs


Moses and Aaron again warned Pharaoh that God would cause an invasion of frogs if he did not let them go. At his second refusal, Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters and the frogs invaded the land.

The Egyptian priests imitated him. Pharaoh asked the brothers to drive away the infestation, in exchange for allowing them to offer their sacrifices to Yahweh in the desert. The brothers begged Yahweh and he agreed, but Pharaoh did not keep his word.

Scientific explanation

Scientific studies describe a phenomenon called “rain of frogs”. On some occasions, after storms or phenomena that alter the conditions of the aquatic habitat, the frogs leave en masse and disperse in search of food, destroy crops and create other problems. This could have occurred as a result of the reddening of the Nile.

Meaning of the plague of frogs

The plague of frogs symbolizes the breakdown of the religious normative system of the Egyptians and, again, a blow to the agricultural economy of the kingdom. The first is because the frogs were considered sacred, so they could not be exterminated. Growing out of proportion, they were forced to break their religious laws.

3. Infestation of mosquitoes, lice and fleas


The third plague was not preceded by a warning, but Yave ordered its execution when he saw Pharaoh’s attitude. Aaron struck the ground with his staff, and immediately a cloud of mosquitoes, fleas, and lice appeared everywhere.

The Egyptian priests tried to imitate the prodigy for the third time, but were unsuccessful. It was then that they recognized the power of Yahweh. But Pharaoh would not listen to Moses or his own priests.

Scientific explanation

Experts believe that it was an infestation of mosquitoes, lice and fleas at the same time. These insects are attracted when there are not good hygienic conditions, which could be a consequence of previous pests. For example, the accumulation of dead fish and other animals on the banks of rivers and lakes and other waste. These pests are the cause of diseases that can cause the death of people and animals.

Meaning of the plague of mosquitoes, lice and fleas

On the one hand, the plague of mosquitoes represents the first fracture between the political and religious power of Egypt, since Pharaoh refused to listen to his own priests, who had been persuaded of Yahweh’s power.

On the other hand, it discredits the Egyptian religion. First, because it compromised the priestly caste, unable to fulfill their duties because they were in a state of impurity. Second, because it affected the abundance protected by the idol Geb, and the control of wild animals (insects), protected by the infant form of Horus.

4. Plague of horseflies


Back before Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron warned him that Yahweh would send a plague of horseflies (flies). This time there would be a difference: the Hebrews would not be touched to recognize that God blessed them.

When the plague broke out, Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews offer their sacrifices in the desert, provided they did not stray too far. Yahweh withdrew the plague and saved Egypt, but Pharaoh broke his promise again.

Scientific explanation

Some experts believe that the horsefly infestation was a reaction to climate variations that occurred in Egypt. Flies and other similar insects are characterized by causing bites in animals and people that can cause serious illnesses. In fact, horseflies have the ability to generate tumors.

Meaning of the plague of horseflies

The plague of horseflies (flies) can be interpreted as a symbol of the corruption of sin and a reminder of human mortality. It can also be an affront against the deity Dua-Ur, in charge of purifying the face of the Pharaoh. But above all, this passage is an exposition of Yahweh’s solidarity with the people of his worshipers.

5. Cattle plague


The brothers Moses and Aaron returned to the presence of Pharaoh, warning him that if he did not free the Hebrews, all the cattle would suffer a deadly plague.

To recognize in this the presence of Yave among the Hebrews, their cattle would remain healthy. All the cattle of the Egyptians suffered the consequences, but the Pharaoh did not give in.

Scientific explanation

The scientists suggest that the disease that decimated the animals may have been rinderpest. This disease is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis , transmitted by insects such as flies. Five thousand years earlier, the disease would have reached Egypt from Asia through trade routes. Given the sanitary conditions since the beginning of the plagues, it could have found a favorable environment to spread.

Cattle Plague Plague Meaning

The plague of cattle represents, on the one hand, another blow to the economic security of the Egyptian kingdom of that time. On the other, it points to the fall of Hathor, a goddess who is represented as a cow with a solar disk and who is associated with renewal and fertility.

6. Ulcers


God commanded Moses and Aaron to appear again before Pharaoh, take a handful of soot from the furnaces, and throw it into the air. This dust spread through the air and caused ulcers on all the natives, including the Egyptian priests, who could not face the brothers. However, Pharaoh did not agree.

Scientific explanation

For this plague there are two theories or explanations. The first holds that the skin ulcers were caused by toxic gases released by decomposing cattle.

The second maintains that it was a proliferation of smallpox, caused by a virus. Indeed, there is evidence that there was an outbreak of smallpox in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Such evidence is found in some marks found on the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V and other mummies of the time.

Meaning of the plague of ulcers

The ulcers can be interpreted as a punishment to the Egyptians for forbidding the Hebrews rest (including the right to scratch). The Egyptians also forced them to prepare their baths with hot water, which was very laborious. Contracting the ulcers, the Egyptians suffered irreparable itching and were unable to bathe.

7. Rain of igneous hail


In a new interview with Pharaoh, Aaron and Moses warned him that a thunderstorm with fiery hail would fall on Egypt. If they wanted to be saved, they had to take shelter indoors, but not everyone believed. Thus flax and barley were destroyed, but wheat and spelt were saved because they had not flourished.

Pharaoh called the brothers and acknowledged their sin. They interceded for him and Yave stopped the storm. However, Pharaoh held the Israelites captive.

Scientific explanation

Studies seem to indicate that near the Island of Crete, located in the Aegean Sea, there was an eruption of the Santorini volcano about 3,500 years ago. Volcanic ash is likely to have been blown into the region of Egypt. There, when mixed with the electric storms typical of the place, it could have become igneous hail, formed from ice and volcanic matter.

Meaning of the fiery hail plague

In this episode, the warning was not addressed only to Pharaoh but to everyone who wanted to be saved. Therefore, it represents the extension of Yahweh’s mercy to the Gentiles (not Hebrews). It is not surprising that the symbol of punishment is the union of ice and fire, which symbolizes the union of opposites.

8. Plague of locusts


Moses and Aaron announced to Pharaoh a plague of locusts that would destroy what the hail did not destroy. Pharaoh’s servants begged him to relent, but the monarch would not. The next day, the locusts consumed all the vegetation in their path.

Pharaoh asked for forgiveness for his sin and God rushed the lobsters into the Red Sea. Then the monarch offered Moses to let the men go alone, but this was inadmissible for them, and they could not leave.

Scientific explanation

Experts point out that the locust plague was a consequence of the eruption of the Santorini volcano. The expulsion of volcanic ash would have caused a series of climatic alterations that favored the phenomenon. Such conditions would specifically be excessive rain and a high concentration of humidity, all of which would favor the uncontrolled reproduction of these insects.

Meaning of the plague of locusts

The plague of locusts represents the final economic breakdown of Pharaoh and the division with his own people, since they asked him to let the Hebrews go. Therefore, only after this plague did Pharaoh recognize his faults and wanted to negotiate an alternative by letting men go. But for the Hebrews, the liberation would be for all, or it would not be at all.

9. Darkness


God commanded Moses to extend his hand so that darkness covered the sky of Egypt for three days. During that time, no one could be seen. Only the houses of the Hebrews had lighting.

Pharaoh allowed Moses to go with their families, but without their cattle. But this one refused. So Pharaoh did not let them out. He then drove Moses out and threatened to kill him if he dared to return.

Scientific explanation

The phenomenon of darkness over Egypt has not yet had a definitive answer. The most accepted thesis maintains that it could have been a solar eclipse, since there is documentation on a phenomenon of this type that occurred around the year 1223 BC.

Meaning of the plague of darkness

Symbolically, the plague of darkness represents the blindness of Pharaoh (and, by extension, of the sinner), who refuses to recognize the voice of God. Let’s also remember that the Egyptians worshiped the Sun god, so the darkness also symbolizes the fall of the last Egyptian idol, from the biblical perspective.

10. Death of the firstborn of Egypt


The Lord warned Moses that he would put the firstborn of Egypt to death. To protect themselves from the passage of death, the Hebrews had to mark the lintel of their door with the blood of a lamb sacrificed in honor of Yahweh. That night the Hebrews would celebrate the first Passover, that is, the passage of the Lord.

Death passed through the houses of Egypt and also claimed the life of Pharaoh’s firstborn. In his despair, he drove out the Hebrews with all his goods. These immediately marched into the desert, but not before receiving gold and silver objects from the Egyptians as God had predicted.

Scientific explanation

There are two hypotheses to explain the death of the firstborn. Both link the scientific with the social and labor organization of Ancient Egypt.

The first explanation holds that excess red algae in the Nile released large concentrations of lethal mycotoxins. The wheat fields would have absorbed the water contaminated with the mycotoxins. However, the firstborn were usually the first to gather the grain of the crops, so they were more exposed to poisoning.

The second explanation proposes the possibility that there was an aftershock of the volcanic eruption. This would have raised a cloud of carbon dioxide from the ground, which can cause death. Since the firstborn had the privilege of sleeping on the ground floor, they would have been the first to inhale the deadly gas.

Meaning of the death of the firstborn

In ancient times, the firstborn son was the most valued as the successor of the family lineage. Therefore, this passage represents the breaking point of Pharaoh, unable to measure the consequences of his actions. Pharaoh himself would have written his fate by killing the first-born Hebrews, without ever giving them the opportunity for salvation.

The passage is also part of the symbology of sacrificial rituals. For Christians, a foreshadowing of the death of Christ can be seen: just as liberation would come to the Hebrews through the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn, salvation would come to the world through the sacrifice of Jesus.

Background and context of the plagues of Egypt

According to the book of Exodus, the Hebrews lived in Egypt since the time of the patriarch Jacob and his son, Joseph. But at the death of both, Pharaoh made them slaves for fear of their prosperity and great number, and ordered the newborn males to be killed. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him as her own.

As an adult, Moses saw how an Egyptian mistreated a slave and killed him. Discovered, he fled to Midian, took a wife, and became a shepherd. During that period, God commissioned him to free the people and lead them to the promised land, with the help of his brother, Aaron.

The brothers met repeatedly with Pharaoh to communicate the divine message, but he did not want to listen. Moses and Aaron warned him that if he persisted in his refusal, Yahweh would send various plagues on Egypt to persuade him. Only after the tenth (the death of the firstborn) did Pharaoh agree.

After these events, the Hebrews celebrated the first Passover, left Egypt and began their pilgrimage through the desert in search of the Promised Land.

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