History Crash Course #10: Ten Plagues

With the Ten Plagues, the laws of nature are turned upside down to free the Jews.

Once the plagues hit Egypt ― blood, lice, frogs, etc. ― the devastation continues for over a year (Talmud – Ediyos 2:10). Each plague is an open miracle, because each one represents a fantastic manipulation of nature. The laws of nature are turned upside down to help the Jews.

Open miracles are a very important part of early Jewish history. After the destruction of the First Temple they’re going to cease, although arguably the Jews couldn’t have survived this long without continual hidden miracles.

The obvious question we must ask when we examine The Plagues is why? Why did God choose to set the Jewish people free through this very long, drawn-out process ― an entire year? If He wanted, God, an all-powerful being that He is, could have made all the Egyptians drop dead on the first encounter with Moses, or He could have frozen them in place, then all the Jews could have packed up and left in five minutes.

To explain why the Ten Plagues had to be, we need to first explain the Jewish view of miracles in general.

The first point to focus on is that all existence ― all the processes of the physical universe ― is a miracle. We have become so used to it in out day to day lives that we simply don’t notice it.

Judaism holds that nature does not act independently of God, but, at the same time, God created the laws of nature and does not like to interfere with them. God is certainly capable of doing whatever He likes, but He doesn’t play around with the physical world and its workings. Therefore, most miracles are natural phenomena with awesomely good timing.

But to this rule, the Ten Plagues are a notable exception.

The Ten Plagues are a clear example of God flipping the laws of nature on its end.

We have hail ― which should be frozen ― that is on fire; we have darkness so dense that no one can see or move; things that happened to Egyptians not happening to Jews. All supernatural stuff. Why? Here is the reason:

The whole essence of idolatry is the belief that every force in nature has a god that controls it. In Egypt they worshipped the Nile god, the sun god, the cat god, the sheep god, etc. The Ten Plagues were designed by God to flip all the laws of nature on end to demonstrate ― not just for the Jewish people but for all of humanity, for all of history ― that He alone controls all of nature, all of the physical world, and that there is nothing outside of His control.

If we examine the plagues carefully we can readily see that each one was designed to show God’s control of all forces in nature: water and earth, fire and ice, insects, reptiles and mammals, light and darkness, and finally, life and death.

Archeological Evidence

Do we have evidence for the Ten Plagues in archeological records?

Surely the Egyptians would have recorded such amazing events!! First we must understand that the events of the Exodus take place during the period of time before there were historians, newspapers or any other form of mass communication. As previously mentioned, any events that were recorded by ancient Egypt (or any other ancient civilization) were solely for the purpose of making the Egyptians look good. Combine this idea together with the knowledge that thousands of years ago, people were far less impressed with the supernatural than we are today and we have our answer. The last thing that an Egyptian priest would inscribe on the wall of one of their temples 3,300 years ago would be the Exodus story, regardless of how amazing it seems to us today.

There is some circumstantial evidence that should be mentioned. As noted in the last installment in this series there is recorded a ten-year period in Egyptian history (right around this time) when chaos reigned. There are other oblique references, the most famous being the Ipuwer Papyrus. This is actually a series of papyri, which describe various cataclysmic events in Egypt ― blood everywhere, people dying etc.

Immanuel Velikovsky uses the Ipuwer Papyrus as the basis for his books, Ages in Chaos and Worlds in Collision in which he argues that the whole Exodus story is true, but that the plagues happened because a comet came close to the earth. He says the dust from the comet turned the water red, and the pull of the comet’s gravitational field split the sea, etc.

However, if you read the Bible, you see that with the plague of blood, it’s not just water turning a “dusty red.” The Midrash also tells us that Egyptians perish from this bloody water but not the Jews.

Despite that, there is an amazing amount of resistance on the part of the Egyptians ― not just the Pharaoh, but the whole of Egypt ― to let the Jews leave. It is classic anti-Semitism, “I don’t care if I take my whole country down as long as I can take the Jews with me.”

This actually is a very common historical pattern. You’ll see this certainly when we get to Hitler ― by 1944 they needed the trains to send reinforcements to the Eastern Front, but they diverted them to ship Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. They were losing the war, but their main energy still went, not to win, not to even save themselves, but to kill the Jews.

Finally, finally, after the death of the first-born, the Pharaoh says, “Go!”

The Jews leave, the sea splits, the Egyptians follow and they drown. That’s the final great event until… Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Ken Spiro’s quick-paced, humorous style catches and keeps an audience’s interest; his ability to explain deep concepts clearly makes an impact that lasts long after the presentation. Rabbi Spiro is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminars and the JerusalemU. In addition, he is a licensed tour guide from the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Rabbi Spiro graduated from Vassar College with a BA in Russian Language and Literature and did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He has an MA in History from The Vermont College of Norwich University and Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs such as B.B.C. Radio and TV., The National Geographic Channel, The History Channel, Channel 4 England and Arutz Sheva-Israel National Radio. He is the author of WorldPerfect – The Jewish Impact on Civilization published by HCI books and Crash Course in Jewish History published by Targum Press. His writings and seminars can be accessed on this website and www.aish.com. Born and raised in the U.S. Rabbi Spiro has lived in Israel since 1982. He served in a combat infantry unit in the IDF and currently lives in Givat Zeev with his wife and five children.
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