by R. Alec Goldstein
I would like to explore a thesis, not new but also not widespread in the Jewish world, that the plagues were in response to Egyptian mythology. However, a few points are necessary. First, I am not an Egyptologist; I strongly urge the reader to treat any findings here as preliminary. Second, the Egyptian pantheon was extremely populous: there are in excess of 500 Egyptian gods, referred to by over 2000 names, and many of the gods were depicted in multiple forms. In other words, the risk of a false positive is extremely high, since we seek to find a correspondence of ten plagues to thousands of candidates. Third, even with the risk of false positives, there are some plagues that have no obvious corresponding Egyptian deity (or at least none I have been able to find).
Despite these reservations, which are significant, I believe that there is a strong prima facie case that the ten plagues are clearly responding to Egyptian mythology, as evidence exists in both Scripture and interpreters of Scripture for this theory.
- BLOOD: It is commonly circulated that the Egyptians deified the Nile, and this point is not particularly disputed. Hence when the Nile was transmuted from water to blood, this was clearly an attack on Egyptian deities. Nahum Sarna writes, “Insofar as the Nile was deified by the Egyptians as Hapi the Nile god, and its inundation was viewed as a manifestation of the great god Osiris, the plague of blood had to be locally interpreted as a diminution of the powers of these two gods.”1 I have also found opinions that the blood was an attack on Khnum, believed to be the source of the Nile.
- FROGS: Many sources say this is an attack against the Heqt (Heqet), who had the head of a frog and was a fertility god. Martin Noth records that the frog “plays a part in Egyptian mythology as an embodiment of life-giving power.”2 Similarly, Umberto Cassuto writes, “The Egyptians attributed to the frogs, which swarmed in the waters in countless numbers, a divine power, and regarded them as a symbol of fertility. One of the goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon, Heket, the spouse of Khnum, was is depicted in the form of a woman with a frog’s head, was held to blow the breath of life into the nostrils of the bodies that her husband fashioned on the potter’s wheel from the dust of the earth…. The Pentateuchal narrative intends to convey that Israel’s God alone rules the world, and that He only bestows on His creates, according to His will, the power of fertility, and that these frogs, which were considered by the Egyptians as a symbol of fecundity, can be transformed, in He so desires (and particularly as a result of their overabundant prolificacy), from a token of blessing to one of blight.”3
- LICE: First, it must be noted that the plague of lice is not about the lice per se, but that the lice emerged from the dust (Exod. 8:12). The earth, of course, should be a source of growth and fertility, but in this case was made by God to manufacture these unpleasant creatures. Once we acknowledge that the plague is related to dust, then the proper place to look in Egyptian mythology is for gods of the dust, not gods resembling lice. So this plague could be understood as an attack on the Egyptian god Geb (also called Seb or Keb), god of the Earth (though depicted usually as a good, snake, bull, or barley), but is the god of dust and dirt.
- AROV: Here we have a separate problem, because rabbinic tradition understands arov as cattle and wild birds mixed together (Exodus Rabbah 11:2), while modern scholarship understands arov as “flies” or “gnats.” If we follow the modern interpretation, then it can be noted that Khepri was depicted as having the head of a beetle, though this correspondence might not be convincing.
- PESTILENCE: Here too one struggles to find a clear correspondence, though perhaps this plague is directed against Hathor, who was depicted with the head of a cow.
- BOILS: Perhaps this was directed against the gods of healing, Sekhmet and Isis.
- HAIL: According to Ziony Zevit, hail and locusts (the following plague) were “directed against Seth, who manifests himself in winds and storms; and/or against Isis, goddess of life, who grinds, spins flax and weaves cloth; or against Min, who was worshiped as a god of fertility and vegetation and as a protector of crops. Min is an especially likely candidate for these two plagues because the notations in Exodus 9:31 indicate that the first plague came as soon as the flax and barley were about to be harvested, but before the wheat and spelt had matured.”4 Additionally, hail is related to the Egyptian god Nut, who married Geb (attacked by the plague of lice), and who had Isis, who may have been targeted in the plague of boils.
- LOCUSTS: The simple explanation is that the purposes of locusts was to create darkness (Exod. 10:15). However, as noted in the earlier section, Zevit sees this as coupled with the plague of hail, directed against either Seth, Isis, or Min. Alternatively, Cassuto sees a biblical pun, since the verse uses ra’ah regarding locusts (Exod. 10:11), which is a possible “allusion… to the god Re‘, the sun-deity, the head of the Egyptian pantheon” (126; see also 129), noting the homonymity of the Egyptian god of the sun and the Hebrew word for “evil.” However, it seems more likely that Re was attacked in the following plague.
- DARKNESS: Rashi has famously commented, “I have heard that there is a star whose name is Ra’ah” (on Exod. 10:10), noting the similarity of the Hebrew word ra’ah and the Egyptian deity. Similarly, Nahum Sarna writes, “The plague of darkness… would have been regarded as a humiliation of the sun god” (79). Day and night were envisioned as locked in a constant struggle. Three days of darkness would be conceived as a victory for Apophis, god of darkness, as opposed to Ma’at, god of justice (Ma’at later become the basic word for “justice”).
- DEATH OF THE FIRSTBORN: In the “Cannibal Hymn,” the firstborn of the gods are said to be killed. Hence in the last plague, God acts, so to speak, like an Egyptian god in killing the firstborn, but also as the God of Israel, killing the firstborn of Pharaoh, who believed himself to be a god. Cassuto, implicitly asking the question of why the firstborn of humans and animals were slain indiscriminately, writes, “even the first-born of the animals to which you attribute a divine character, like the bulls of Apis and the cows of Hathor; then you will realize that I execute judgements upon all the gods of Egypt” (133).
It is surprising that among the moderns, this thesis is not developed more robustly. Noth hints at it once, but for him the plagues seem to correspond to the physical oppression and labor the Egyptians afflicted. Cassuto seems more sensitive to reading the plagues as a disruption of Egyptian belief, and makes reference to that several times in his commentary. However, it would be a stretch to say he sees this as an overarching theory of the plagues.
Before the plague of the firstborn, God says, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment, I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12). It is possible that Nahmanides also understood it this way, writing, “Scripture alludes here to the lord on high, the gods of Egypt, something like the verse, ‘The Eternal will punish the host of the high heavens on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth’ (Isa. 24:21). Thus He subdued the power of the Egyptians and that of the lords over them. But Scripture hints and deals briefly with hidden matters” (on Exod. 12:12). In other words, the plagues according Nahmanides had a dual purpose: to humiliate the Egyptian gods above, and to vanquish the Egyptian mortals below.
One final point is in order. The Paschal offering was a lamb, and as Maimonides writes, “the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep” (Guide 3:46). This is a well-trodden teaching: we eat the lamb as a Passover offering to demonstrate that the Egyptian gods have no power over us, a point which is consistent with the plagues being a miraculous polemic against the Egyptian belief system. Hizkuni drives the point even further; of all the cooking methods available, we are required to roast the Passover offering so that “its smell will waft in the noses of the Egyptians, and they will know that you are eating their deity” (on Exod. 12:8).
As mentioned above, I am no Egyptologist. Yet there does seem to be a case, both historically and theologically, that the plagues were directed at dispelling Egyptian conceptions of worship, and that point appears to have roots in Scripture itself. Perhaps it is more of a hypothesis than a theory at this point, but one worth considering nonetheless.