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.

Labels

In varying circumstances, labels help us and they hurt us. They help our brain sort out the puzzle of life, but they irreparably prejudice our thoughts about what we’re labeling. Consider, for a minute: fishy aftertaste, used car salesman, feminist, Southern Baptist…

[Had to get in a denominational dig there. I’m sure I’ll write more about the poison of denominations at a later date!]

Anyway, McLaren writes at length about the things his detractors say about him, including the labels and terms used to discredit. My favorite among these, “heretic,” made its way into my blog’s title, because I’m sure I’m destined to be labeled the same way. Consider it some tongue-in-cheek truth in advertising.

So last night in the course of penning my first Truth and/or Heresy post, I wanted to check the date that Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus was published. My source became the all-knowing Wikipedia, and in the midst of fact-checking, my eyes were drawn to a quote from a critical review of the book:

Alex Beam, of the Boston Globe, wrote that the book is “a series of dramatic revelations for the ignorant”, and continues to say, “Ehrman notes that there have been a lot of changes to the Bible in the past 2,000 years. I don’t want to come between Mr. Ehrman and his payday, but this point has been made much more eloquently by … others.”

Now, I believe Ehrman’s intentions to be good and proper. He states quite plainly that he is agnostic, an ex-Christian who left the faith after wrestling with the question of suffering in the world. Fine and dandy! He notes, also, that among his goals is to educate lay people about the scholarly thought accepted by the large part of Biblical academia, a task that is very admirable and to which I also hold dear. But in the end, the reviewer takes offense because [1] he’s read better writers, and [2] Ehrman is getting (gasp) paid. As if the critique was written out of the benevolence of the writer’s heart.

Heretic and money-grubber. What isn’t to love about the path I’ve chosen?

My hope is that we could rise above categorizing one another by a handful of quotations or beliefs, to see more deeply the relative truths we speak within our narratives. That’s how the puzzle of life should be sorted.

A Weekend In Literature

This Saturday, my wife and I awoke to three large mounds of laundry, and her weekend master’s classes meant that I was the lucky one to head to the laundromat. In doing so I wanted to revisit one of my favorite passages in Brian D. McLaren’s recent work of genius, A New Kind of Christianity. You see, I’d heard a lot of preaching lately on “the way and the truth and the life,” attributed to Jesus in John 14:6, and I remembered that McLaren rebuffed folks who read the passage as an eschatological and evangelical golden ticket for Christians. If you have the book, dive your nose in pages 215-224; if you don’t have it, get it tomorrow. You may not agree with the totality of the book, and even I don’t, but you will be inspired.

For our wedding, one of Lauren’s friends got us a gift card to Barnes & Noble, which we split last night. She bought some curriculum-related thing for her first grade classroom, and I got Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman. A little bit of backstory here: I first heard of Ehrman about three months ago when in the library I stumbled upon a book that took issue with his 2005 work Misquoting Jesus. I checked it out, but returned it soon after. It wasn’t well written, despite the references to John Lennon and The Beatles, and it read completely like a contrived defense against some heinous madman think-tank scholar. To my surprise, Ehrman also popped up recently in a History Channel documentary I was watching, where his credibility was obvious. Sure, he said radical things, but I think radical things myself… oh well. Long story short, I bought his book Saturday night.

After church and youth group today, and after completing Day 27 of my 30-day trip through the four gospels, I started reading out of Jesus, Interrupted. I’m one chapter in, and the story is a story that needs to be told. The Bible has errors, many small but several that are significant. It’s not the perfect, God-breathed story that is preserved for us without flaw. And that’s okay.

When I first realized this at Miami University around the spring of 2006, my eyes were opened. I was set on a course for academic Biblical scholarship, a reality that will finally come true next week at Anderson University. I plan to discuss my theological goals, wishes, etc. in a later post, however. For now, back to Ehrman.

He writes that too many people are stuck in a devotional reading of the Bible, trying to glean some measure of wisdom appropriate for application to their lives. This is positive, fruitful and necessary, I believe. But churchgoers are largely oblivious to the realm of historical-critical Biblical analysis. Yes, it’s out there and can be found if they want it, but well-meaning pastors also shield them from it. As if people can’t handle the supposed can of worms it might open if there are any inconsistencies with the texts, or if the Exodus is called into question… and so on.

Tomorrow is a new day and I plan to post more about my goals at Anderson, my reasons for going to seminary, ideas for practical application of my postgraduate education, and the like. And I should get to a biographical page, as well. For tonight, thanks for reading!