By Dr. Jim Mead
The Judeo-Christian tradition has used the term “plagues” for the ten miraculous judgments against ancient Egypt, recorded in Exodus 7-12; but technically speaking, only one or two of them were akin to what we might call infectious diseases. To be sure, our English Bibles use “plague” in a couple of places to categorize these events (Exod. 7:27; 9:14), and I will continue to refer to them as such. However, we should understand that other descriptions of the plagues seem to be much more important to God, and he uses those terms before the fireworks begin: “wonders” (3:20); “signs and wonders” (7:3); and “great acts of judgment” (7:4). I’ll return to this point because it is essential to understanding the theological message of the plagues against Egypt.
Setting aside the matter of definition for a moment, we should also observe that the plagues are perhaps the Bible’s most concentrated expression of divine power over nature outside of the creation story itself. That fact alone should give us pause . . . We’re dealing here with something truly extraordinary, even for the Bible; indeed, they’re something so profound and awe-inspiring that God never again used such a collection of actions in the course of redemptive history. To be sure, the great flood in Genesis 7-8 was a massive event, but it was basically meteorological. Only when we come to the end of the Bible do we see a similar collection of plague-like events; and they are certainly intended to echo God’s judgment to secure Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
I would make one more observation before returning to the theological message of the plague stories. There is no contradiction between natural explanations of the plague phenomena and divine causation behind, in, and through nature. A German theologian in the 18th century, J. G. Eichhorn, interpreted the plagues as a series of rare but completely natural events. While this perspective was understandably upsetting to believers then, Christians today have no quarrel with scientific accounts of the natural world. We simply maintain the conviction that God, by virtue of being the creator of the universe, can act in ways that use nature’s mechanisms to achieve divine purposes. And, with the mention of purpose, we can turn again to the theological issues and implication of the plagues.
Although the enslaved Hebrews probably had no trouble rejoicing over events that disrupted their taskmasters’ lives, believers today may read the plague stories with great consternation and even sorrow over the destruction of property, animals, and ultimately human beings. Followers of the Prince of Peace—because his Spirit dwells within them—instinctively respond with compassion for those who suffer. Yes, tyrants and despots have forced their citizens to commit atrocities against nations and people groups, but we’re mindful of historical complexities and therefore able “to weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) and to trust that God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek 33:11). Thus, we have a right to be troubled by the plagues; but we also have an obligation to understand the situation they addressed.
The God of the Bible, Israel’s God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, did not start with the plagues. That is, the plagues were not God’s first strategy to end Israel’s slavery. We’d be reading a much shorter book of Exodus were that the case. Invariably, the biblical God initially seeks change in our world through small, reasonable requests. Consider the order of events in Exodus leading up to and including plagues. First, Moses asks permission for a brief holiday so that Israel can worship God in the wilderness (5:1). Second, although rudely rebuffed and insulted, God tries to persuade Pharaoh by a miraculous sign: the staff that transforms into a snake and even swallows up the staff-snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians (7:10-13). Third, the plagues develop with increasing severity, such as water turned to blood and the annoyance of frogs, gnats and flies (7:14-24). Fourth, God even discontinues the effects of some of the plagues so as not to create a cumulative effect (8:12-13, 30-31), but Pharaoh keeps hardening his own heart. Fifth, humans are not physically affected until the festering boils of the sixth plague (9:8-12).
For me, at least, the Exodus narrative couldn’t be any clearer. God does not immediately “go nuclear,” as people now say. Initially, we remain at Defcon 5, an incredibly long distance from the final plague in which God “strikes down” Egyptians by means of a “destroyer” (12:23). Why the slowness to react? For one thing, it is in God’s nature to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). It is also in God’s nature to be just; and the gradual intensity of the entire process gave the Egyptians a little taste of Israel’s centuries of hardship at their hands, something to balance the scales of justice, as it were. But let us make no mistake. It is Pharaoh, not God, who is responsible for enslavement of a foreign people, acts of genocide to control their population, unreasonable labor conditions, and the commencement as well as the continuation of the plagues. At any time, Pharaoh could have stopped the suffering. He could have acted wisely and justly toward Israel.
Therein lies the mystery of God’s purposes. Yahweh’s primary goal was not to punish or destroy Egypt, but rather “to show [Pharaoh] my power and to make my name resound through all the earth” (9:16). A closely related goal was “so that [Pharaoh] may know that I am the Lord” (10:2). That is why the Bible prefers to speak in terms of “signs and wonders,” for those are things that point people back to God.