The Ten Plagues did more than bring pain and suffering onto the Egyptian people. Each plague attacked at least one of the Egyptians’ many gods, demonstrating the powerlessness of their idols and the omnipotence God.

Staff into Snake: The Preliminary Plague

A cobra was one of the protectors of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and featured in the royal headdress that they wore. It was a representation of Thermuthis1, protector goddess of the Pharaoh. When Moses’ staff turned into a snake and then swallowed the staves/snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians2, it was a way of demonstrating that the God of the Israelites was more powerful than the god and protector of Pharaoh.

Blood:

The Egyptians did not just worship one god of the Nile. They worshiped several, each connected to a different aspect of the life-giving river3: Khnum, a creator god and god of the source of the Nile; Hapi, the god of the inundation of the Nile; and Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile. They also worshiped Taweret, the hippopotamus goddess of pregnancy and childbirth, who was believed to live in the Nile. When the river turned to blood, it would have seemed to the Egyptians as though the Nile gods had been killed4.

Frogs:

The Egyptian goddess of fertility and resurrection, Heket, was worshipped as a frog. Egyptian women wore amulets with an image of Heket for protection during childbirth. It was forbidden to deliberately kill a frog, and even doing so by mistake could be punishable by death. Frogs represented long life and eternity5.

This plague attacked the Egyptians using their own symbol of protection. It brought them to hate their own deity6, and forced them to kill the animal which to them was the manifestation of a goddess. When the dead frogs were left in stinking heaps at the end of the plague7, it would have reinforced the message that their goddess was dead and disgusting.

Lice:

Although the Nile was far more important to the Egyptians than the earth, they did worship Geb, god of the ground8. The plague of lice which appeared out of the dust9 transformed their god from a protector and benefactor into a source of danger.

Arov:

Like me, you probably grew up learning that this was a plague of wild animals. Well, it turns out that the Septuagint and some rabbinic sources10 interpret it as a plague of biting flies.

It’s hard for us to imagine this, but in Ancient Egypt, flies represented tenacity and courage, eternal life, and sometimes fertility too11. Stone carvings and amulets shaped as flies were found in ancient Egyptian tombs12. To be attacked by the insect they revered would have been a major blow to the Egyptian psyche.

Pestilence

Many Egyptian gods were depicted as animals, especially as cows, bulls and rams13. Amun, one of the most powerful gods in Egypt, was depicted as a ram, as was Ra; Hathor, goddess of love, was shown as a cow; Apis, god of strength and fertility, was worshiped as a bull; Khnum, a god of creation and the god of the Nile inundation, was shown with a ram’s head. Holy animals were worshipped as the embodiment of the god and were even embalmed when they died. As well as damaging the food source and livelihood of the Egyptians, this plague killed their gods by killing the cattle and sheep which represented them.

Boils

No specific god was attacked by this plague, but it’s possible that this very medical plague demonstrated the powerlessness of Sekhmet14 and Khonsu15, the Egyptian gods of medicine and healing.

Hail

The hail which fell from the sky showed that Nut, goddess of the sky and Shu, god of the air, were unable to protect the Egyptians. It didn’t rain often in Egypt and most of their water came from the Nile, so the Egyptians were scared whenever it was cloudy or rainy16. They believed that the sun god Ra travelled across the sky in his boat every day, fighting the forces of evil which tried to stop him. Hail would have seemed to them like an attack on Ra, their most important god, and an attempt to stop him from continuing in his journey across the sky.

The hail also destroyed the crops standing in the fields in an attack on Nepri17, god of the grain, and Renenutet18, goddess of fertility and food, who were shown to be powerless to protect their people’s harvest.

Locusts

The locusts destroyed all the crops of Egypt that weren’t ruined by the hail, thus also attacking Nepri and Renenutet. There were so many locusts that they blotted out the sun19, overpowering the sun-god Ra.

The ancient Egyptians also worshipped the ‘eye of Horus’, which they believed was a symbol of protection20. It is possible that when the locusts are described as ‘covering the eye of the land’21, it refers to the perception of the Egyptians that the protecting eye of Horus was ‘dimmed’ by God.

Darkness

For the Egyptians, thick black darkness for seven unceasing days and nights was a clear sign of the defeat of the sun-god Ra.

Death of The First-Born

Egyptian society was built upon the cult of primogeniture. Osiris, the first-born son of Ra, was the first Pharaoh solely due to his birth order22. The Egyptians believed that every pharaoh was also a god, the first-born son of the first-born son stretching back to Osiris himself. This plague destroyed the final illusion of the power and immortality of the Egyptian first-born leader.

When God first sent Moses to Pharaoh, He told him ‘Israel is my first-born son’23. By killing the first-born of Egypt and sparing Israel, God showed that His first-born are the real first-born, and dealt the final blow to the Egyptians’ entire first-born-based belief structure24.

The plagues were not just creative vengeance; they came to teach a lesson. It was Recognition of God 101, a step-by-step dismantling of the entire Egyptian belief system.

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1. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
2. Ex 7:11-12
3. The British Museum Online www.ancientegypt.co.uk
4. Heard from Rabbi Ari Kahn
5. AbsoluteEgyptology http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/index.htm
6. Ex 7:4
7. Ex 7:11
8. Wikipedia http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Egyptian_gods_and_goddesses
9. Ex 7:14
10. Shemos Rabbah 11:3
11. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/bestiary/fly.htm
12. Examples can be seen in the British Museum.
13. The British Museum Online, http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html
14. Wikipedia
15. http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/khonsu.html
16. http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/1egypt/
17. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/religion/nepri.htm
18. http://www.egyptianmyths.net/renenutet.htm
19. Ex 10:5
20. British Museum Online, Ibid.
21. Ex 10:5
22. British Museum Online
23. Ex 4:22
24. Heard from Rabbi Ari Kahn