Inconsistencies in Exodus’ Ten Plagues

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. This last week included the first twenty chapters of Exodus, about 13 chapters of Numbers, and corresponding commentaries. The topic about which I chose to write was inconsistencies in the account of the ten plagues.

I was limited to one single-spaced page, but probably could have gone on for a while longer. For example, the topic of naturally occurring disasters that could explain the plagues intrigues me quite a lot. But, I digress.

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper. Enjoy!

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Ten plagues wreaked utter devastation on the Egyptian people, land and spirit before Pharaoh ultimately allowed Moses and his fellow Israelites to proceed out to the desert (Ex 7:14-12:30).  In a fascinating fashion, the Exodus narrative simultaneously highlights the power of God over Pharaoh and the forces of nature in a display that Victor P. Hamilton claims will allow all parties – Pharaoh, Egyptians and Israelites – to “indeed acquire knowledge of the true God.”[1] All may not have realized that goal, however, and the account of the ten plagues unfortunately leaves inquisitive readers with as many questions as answers.  This reflection paper explores such questions regarding two major inconsistencies in the Exodus reading.

After repeatedly hardening his heart and having his heart hardened by God through four plagues, Pharaoh is once again offered an opportunity to let the Israelites leave.  Pharaoh does not respond, and God sends a plague of pestilence upon the Egyptian field livestock – or more specifically, upon “horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats” (Ex 9:3 NIV).  Shortly thereafter, it is reported that “all” of the Egyptian livestock died, whereas “not one animal belonging to the Israelites died” (Ex 9:6 NIV).  Bart D. Ehrman asks, “How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields?  What livestock?”[2] Furthermore, the tenth plague relates that not only have the firstborn of Egyptians from all different kinds of social classes and backgrounds been killed, but “the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Ex 12:29 NIV).

If one assumes the particular view of Biblical inerrancy, he or she might also have to deduce fanciful manners of spawning by Egyptian livestock.  Perhaps, however, a more apt explanation is simply lost in translation.  In their exploration of the ten plagues as “an aberrant El Niño-Southern Oscillation teleconnection that brought unseasonable and progressive climate warming” to portions of Egypt other than inland Goshen[3], N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson make a decidedly linguistic deduction.  “We take ‘cattle’ to be a generic term for two distinct collections of livestock: animals in pasture that are killed in plague 5 and animals destroyed in plague 10 that are located elsewhere – presumably at Egyptian dwellings.”[4] Still, this assumption begs the question: what division of animals died in the hailstorm (Ex 9:21)?

Another significant inconsistency in the account of the ten plagues comes after an irritated Pharaoh orders Moses away following the ninth plague, of darkness.  Pharaoh claims that Moses will die if the Israelite sees his face again, and Moses affirms that he will never again appear before Pharaoh (Ex 10:28-29).  But depending on one’s reading of the passages that follow, Moses and Pharaoh definitely meet again at least one more time (Ex 12:31-32), and possibly even twice (Ex 11:4-8).  And chronologically, on the latter of these two occasions, Pharaoh urges Moses to bless him – a far cry from attempting to kill God’s messenger.

Even with his willingness to bring up – and explain away – criticisms within the source text, Hamilton does not address apparent inconsistencies within the ten plagues narrative.  To be sure, the presence of inconsistent textual renderings does not detract significantly from my comprehension of the story, and neither is such a phenomenon limited to these five chapters.  However, they do create certain problems for Christians with more lofty views of the Bible.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 159.

 

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 10.

[3] N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson, “Origin of the Old Testament Plagues: Explications and Implications,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 81, no. 1 (March 2008), under “Abstract,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2442724/ (accessed September 25, 2010).

[4] Ibid.