Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
A Foundational, Unavoidable Issue

For the most part, the texts of the Bible refer to the Ten Plagues as “wonders” and “acts,” etc., not as “plagues.” The word “plague” itself is from the Greek pleghé, meaning a blow so violent as to cause injuries and sometimes even death. Similarly, a footnote in the New American Bible states that the ancient Egyptian word pesach also means a stunning blow, as in the case of the death of the first-born, and this might be the origin of the Hebrew word pesach, which now means “Passover.” Some Jewish scholars say that the plagues were in the nature of military tactics against the Egyptians, so that the modern equivalent idea might be like that of the “shock and awe” campaign that was used in the early days of the Iraq War.

Before getting into any substantial analysis of that text, however, there is a fundamental and foundational issue that must be addressed --

How should we read the passages on the Plagues? Should we read the Plagues as a whole as literal history fact? Should we read each individual plague literally, or might we read one or more of them more metaphorically or as an application of hyperbole, without destroying the historical fact of the whole?

Or does it matter one way or the other? Will we miss the forest for the trees if we unduly focus on the question of the historicity of the Plagues?

Did the Plagues really happen? If they really happened historically, were they caused by nature or by God? Are the accounts in scripture purely mythical allegorical stories, or mythological explanations of naturally-caused disasters?

If they did not really happen, as some modern scholars might hold, then why would the Egyptians have let the Israelites go? Or did they? Clearly it would have taken a powerful, cataclysmic event for the Egyptians to allow tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of slave laborers to leave. (It took the United States a massive Civil War to free the slaves.)

If the Plagues did not actually happen, then we have a major problem because that calls into question the Exodus itself, and that calls into question whether Israel was ever in bondage in the first place.

However, God delivering Israel from bondage is the foundational event of the Old Testament and, hence, a foundational event of the New Testament. Indeed, the question of the historicity of the Plagues would seem to be on a par with the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ. If the Resurrection did not happen (as many modern scholars maintain), then Christianity is a lie. And if the Plagues did not happen, then the Exodus likely did not happen, and Salvation History is itself a lie.

It is clear then, that we cannot avoid the foundational question of the historicity of the Plagues, just as a Christian must inevitably answer the question: did Jesus rise from the dead or not?

It should be noted that extra-biblical historical sources have little, if any, mention of a large group of slaves leaving Egypt. However, it is not unusual that the most momentous acts and events of God should go unnoticed by mankind.

Next: Questions about God and the Plagues


Jan said...

Here's a little extra for you - Jeff Cavins (Time Line of the Bible) says that the purpose of the plagues was to prove to the Egyptians that God was so much greater than their gods.

Each plague apparently corresponds to an Egyptian god; there's Hapi, who was the god of the Nile, and Heqt - the frog god (or goddess). But those were the only two we heard about so far.

Flexo said...

Yes, that is one major theme. For example, part of the reason for the plague of darkness was to show God is more powerful than Ra, the sun god.

Flexo said...
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Flexo said...

A large portion of Jewish history is God repeatedly having to confront and defeat polytheism and idolatry. That's a big reason why He promised Abraham, a guy from a family in southern Iraq that was itself polytheistic, not a land near home, but instead a far away land, to show that He was not only God of this place, but the God of that place and every other place.