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.

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5 thoughts on “Inconsistencies in Exodus’ Ten Plagues

  1. Hi Rob, thanks for sorting this out for me.

    I made a quick check of the plague section broken out between the J and the E strands which are sometimes used as hermeneutical tools, and found it very interesting that the Elohist mentions only the plagues of red Nile, hail, and thick darkness.

    If J possessed different stories than E, this might explain why we have two reports of livestock destruction, since E’s hailstorm is linked to such destruction (which may have been superimposed on a tradition of livestock plague in the possession of the J author).

    I have only seen and heard Ehrman in a couple videos and have never heard him say anything constructive. I consider him to be a kind of imploded fundamentalist. But he promises a ‘why we don’t know about the discrepancies’ in that book you cite. Can you check it to see if he mentions the JE theory, or does he just think the whole thing is a fantasy? I don’t like his style in person, but like I say, I’ve never bothered to read him because inerrancy problems don’t thrill me.

    I think the Elohist traditions have a higher religion than the Jahwist, but I do not think they are necessarily ‘later’ since I find them to be closely related in Exodus to the family of Moses’ in-laws (especially Jethro the father-in-law, who appears to have been a wine-and-bread man (Exod 18) much like the priest whom Abraham was tithing (Gen 14:18-20 which is also Elohist tradition) and Jesus himself. This is huge, I think (a family tradition AND a resemblance in rites) It is with the Elohist strand that I would look the most closely for an inspired text.

    I may have to go to a post of my own with this. But thanks for putting this up, and for the blog, an occasion of reflection this afternoon.

    1. Thanks for visiting and engaging, John, and I made the revision to your original comment as you asked.

      Being that I am limited in these papers to a single-spaced page, and being that the professor – as a self-proclaimed “whole-Bibleist” – is not particularly interested in source criticism or JEDP, I did not research the textual origins of the passage. But absolutely, different stories or renderings make the most sense in respect to the different traditions, and it also is easy to understand how the livestock would’ve been independently or interdependently a part of both J and E.

      Not to suggest that I’m finding myself with or against drones – far from it, in a lot of cases – but I’m somewhat setting my own course against inerrancy as a response to ideas I’ve heard postulated in seminary classrooms (and even further back, church). When I learned of it personally several years ago, it changed/set my course in the faith, and I believe it’s necessary to understand for a richer system of belief. Ehrman comes into the picture simply due to the inerrancy crusade – at least as far as popular literature goes, he’s the one leading it right now. I find his work enjoyable, but he does lend himself to be a punching bag for fundamentalists – for better or for worse. My recollection of the book I cited is that Ehrman is only vaguely disposed to critical analysis of the Old Testament (as a reflection on the Bible as a whole) – his focus is the New, and especially, the accounts of Jesus. I can’t recall reading anything concerning JEDP from him, and the subtitle of his book is more about marketing than a detailed analysis of the forces withholding historical criticism from the public’s eye.

      With all this said, the fact that some livestock happen to die three times over isn’t necessarily the point here. Either we’re dealing with exaggeration and artistic license by the author(s)/redactor(s), or those author(s)/redactor(s) didn’t find it important to merge what could have been very different sources – especially in the plagues account. Even more likely: they found it to be impossible to do so, given the death of livestock in plagues 5, 7 and 10.

      I look forward to your additional thoughts on the matter, if in fact they do materialize. Thanks for coming ’round!

  2. Thank you Rob for the editorial and review help I asked for.

    After dissing Ehrman I must admit that there has been precious little constructive on my blog, where I am focusing too much right now on inerrancy problems that lie much deeper than mere discrepancies. When I said that ‘inerrancy problems don’t thrill me’ I of course only meant ‘Scripture discrepancies don’t scare me because I am not a believer in inerrancy.’ But I promise to offer a constructive view in the future.

    And yes, the problem of how these things got together in the same respected book calls for decision. I think the basic view of possibilities for explaining E and J discrepancies has three parts:

    (1) the later author would be in so much awe of the earlier stuff (inerrancy is a fetish with a long pedigree) that they could not justify direct redaction but simply tacked their material on or inter-spersed it without smoothing things out;

    (2) the later author had to contend with ‘schools’ of men who knew the older material very well and who probably wouldn’t give it up without a breakup of the congregation).

    (3) Both authors wrote separately from their group’s traditions and teachings and it was only their compiler who failed at the seam work(see point (2)).

    Thanks again for stirring the pot. Your professor is one of those people I like for the simple reason that when I use scripture texts in discussion or argument they at least know my references. One cannot break down inerrancy beliefs for someone else because they are a huge over-arching principle of understanding – reconstruction is a private and sometimes painful process of growth between oneself and the God who is real, certainly more real than the text, and available in prayer.

    May God who is real continue to bless you.

  3. Hi just thought i would tell you something.. This is twice now i?ve landed on your blog in the last 3 weeks looking for completely unrelated things. Great Info! Keep up the good work.

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