#107. “All the cattle died” OR the cattle are still alive? (Ex 9:6 vs Ex 9:18, 10:25, 11:5, 14:28, etc.)


The fifth plague falls upon the Egyptian livestock. Yahweh inflicts a heavy plague upon cattle, horses, sheep, goats, camels, and asses. “And Yahweh did this thing on the next day. And all Egypt’s cattle died” (9:6).

Yet later on in the same narrative, there is mention of cattle. In 9:18-25 the text speaks of cattle being struck by Yahweh’s seventh deed, hail; in 10:25 it is implied that the Egyptians will provide the Israelites with sacrificial animals; in 11:5 the cattle are also present only to die again to the plague inflicting all the first born; and finally in 14:28 and following, the Egyptians pursue the Israelites with horse-driven chariots, which die a second death in the sea.

It is quite possible that the plague narrative may have originated as separate stories, each with its own plague, and then later combined together. At any event, it is clear that our author has a penchant for exaggeration.

8 thoughts on “#107. “All the cattle died” OR the cattle are still alive? (Ex 9:6 vs Ex 9:18, 10:25, 11:5, 14:28, etc.)

  1. Sorry to nitpick, but is “fiction” really accurate? Sure, they were myths and legends, and they weren’t historical records, but wouldn’t the people for whom it was written have *thought* it was real history?

    1. I suppose that depends on what you think I’m implying in my use of “fiction.” I almost use it synonymously with “narrative” and I certainly don’t mean to imply “false”—but that’s a larger discussion there. Concerning how these stories were understood by their audiences, I suppose, like modern misinformed individuals, they were understood literally, and later figuratively through elaborate re-interpretive enterprises that sought to bring the texts inline with these readers’ own beliefs and worldviews.

      With respect to the educated scribes who actually recorded these traditions and who were also familiar with similar traditions and stories in the texts of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, this is more difficult to ascertain. For example, when we see later scribes, particularly the Priestly writer and more apparently the Deuteronomist (when we get there), consciously alter, modify, and even contradict the stories that they themselves received, we have to wonder if they themselves viewed these stories as factual history. The evidence weighs against this. And this too is something the public is quite unaware of. The best examples of this come from the book of Deuteronomy, because we literally see the traditional stories, now preserved in passages from Exodus and Numbers, and “Moses” retelling of these very same stories in Deuteronomy are radically different and contradictory! And furthermore, we see the Deuteronomist, through the mouthpiece of Moses altering the tradition he inherited so that it better supported and addressed his own beliefs and worldviews. There is ample textual evidence for this. The same thing is happening with the Priestly writers’ reworking of the stories he knew from the Yahwist tradition, but it’s more difficult to see in the text. Nevertheless, maybe we’ll readdress this question this weekend when I’ll be posting the contradictions between the Yahwist version of the crossing of the Red Sea and the Priestly writer’s modified version, which is now stitched into the Yahwist text.

  2. Were any of these plagues actually recorded by the Egyptians, who as we know were great record keepers. I have read that there is no mention of the exodus of 1 million slaves, so assume all these stories relating to the Israelites in Egypt are folk tales. Another puzzle for me is that if you ask a Christian why bad things happen to good people, they claim that God doesn’t intervene in our affairs because he gave us free will. If that is the case, why did he keep interfering in Biblical times?

    1. Of course not. We’re reading fiction, and, notwithstanding, ancient literature—stories from the ancient world that must be approached from within their own historical AND literary worlds. For example, there are a number of Sumerian tales that narrate how the goddess Inanna brought forth three plagues upon the land, the last of which was turning all the water of the land to blood. Various plagues and skin diseases, such as boils, are prominent curses among numerous different covenantal treaty documents in the literature of the ancient Near East. Hail is visibly one of the plagues sent by Inanna as well, and swarms of plant eating locusts are a popular divine punishment in Assyrian vassal treaties and other texts from Mesopotamia. Our biblical authors drew from these literary traditions. You might be interested in reading more about the alleged Exodus in contradiction #81, and more about how we know that the biblical authors were not recording history.

  3. RL,

    All bets are off when people start pulling out the excuse that some of these things are figurative. I usually try to draw attention to the contrast in 9:6: “all of the livestock of the Egyptians” died, but “not one of the livestock of Israel died.” “All” is contrasted with “not one.” The force of the writer’s point is lost if it’s merely figurative. At that point I expect the believer to tell me that the Egyptians went and either took livestock from the land of Goshen or they imported it from other countries. OK. How many times does that work?

    Then I expect they’ll go on to inform me that a bunch of the livestock must have been brought inside before the hail struck. OK, but what about the boils, the firstborn, etc? Not to mention the question of what the heck are they feeding this super-resilient livestock. It’s pretty clear that what the hail doesn’t get the locusts eat.

    If things really would’ve gone down the way they are portrayed in Exodus, Egypt would never have recovered as a civilization. Period. Of course, in the real world things never would’ve progressed that far. I suspect there would’ve been so much civil unrest from the supposed first plague that any government would’ve lost complete control of the populace at that point, hard-hearted ruler or no.

    1. Hymenaeus, You’ve got some very nice, and textually grounded, responses. I can see you’ve been at this much longer than I have. I appreciate your input and the amount of sophistication and knowledge you bring to the discussions, that especially holds true with respect to your comments in #1. Thanks!

  4. This does seem pretty direct. I have seen some people say that the word “all” therefore “must” be figurative, or hyperbolic, meaning something to the effect that what was left afterwards was like nothing in comparison to what was there before, but given the degree of damage and the sheer numbers of deaths afterwards, that seems like a rather untenable position. Still, how would you respond to that attempt to explain away that clear inconsistency?

    1. Just that, an attempt to explain it away. On the other hand, I do not see any inherit problem in identifying this as hyperbole, which we are all prone to at some point in time, and most of all ancient writers. For me, this contradiction is a bit trivial. Recall that approximately 99% of the Bible’s contradictions were created as a result of later editorial endeavors that brought together vastly different texts and traditions, authenticated them as scripture, and marketed them as “the Book.” In most cases, traditions naturally grew over time, and new and/or revised narratives and most especially laws were merely added onto an already existing scroll, thus also producing contradictions in any given work—which was more correctly a repository of traditions rather than a coherent narrative. The above example seems to be neither of these cases, and just looks to be hyperbole. But we’ll note it among our contradictions, and it certainly lends to some inconsistency in the narrative if not outright humor.

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