There are a number of different traditions in the Bible concerning the number and order of Yahweh’s signs and wonders when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The less obvious of these differences are those between the Elohist and Priestly versions which we have already encountered (#105). There are, however, a couple of variant traditions preserved in the Psalms, both of which exhibit differences in the number and sequence of Yahweh’s signs. Psalm 78:43-51 presents them as follows:
How he displayed his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the fields of Zoan.
He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of their streams.
He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them, and frogs which destroyed them.
He gave their crops to the caterpillar, and the fruits of their labor to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamores with frost.
He gave over their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts.
He let loose on them his fierce anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels.
He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague.
He struck all the firstborn in Egypt, the first issue of their strength in the tents of Ham.
When we compare this account to that of Exodus, we find that there is some disagreement in the order of the signs. These signs run as follows in comparison to the Exodus version: 1, 4, 2, 8, 7, and 10. This version additionally mentions two signs that are not present in the Exodus account: caterpillars and thunderbolts. Similarly, Psalm 105:27-36 presents the signs in this order: 9, 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 10. These variations reveal that the tradition was flexible.
The scribes who wrote these traditions down did not do so as a record of historical events. Rather, the purpose of these and similar stories was to inculcate faith and fear in Yahweh to a much later generation of Israelites and to forge the identity of a people. In the Elohist version, the narrative served the purpose of displaying a theological demonstration of who Yahweh was. The Elohist places this on the lips of Pharaoh as the guiding theological question of the passage: “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to his voice?” (Ex 5:2). The whole Elohist plague narrative is a response to that very question. Like a leitmotif throughout the narrative, the Elohist has both Moses and Yahweh proclaim that such signs were produced so that “You will know that I am Yahweh by this” (7:17); “so that you will know that there is no one like Yahweh our god” (8:7); “so that you will know that I am Yahweh” (8:19); “so that you know there is no one like me in all the land” (9:14). So the complete desolation of the land and killing of the livestock and all human firstborns was done for the sole purpose of presenting a theological argument: “I am Yahweh and there is none like me.” And indeed the narrative achieves its aims. By the end Pharaoh knows, and knows well, who Yahweh is!
But who is the real audience for this narrative—a character within the narrative itself, Pharaoh? Hardly. The real audience of this powerful theological demonstration, the “you” that the text addresses, are the Israelites themselves. The text verifies this. Speaking to Moses and all future generations, the Elohist’s Yahweh claims that the purpose of these signs are so “that you [Moses] will tell in the ears of your son and your son’s son about how I abused Egypt and about my signs that I set among them, and you will know that I am Yahweh” (10:2), and “so that you may know that Yahweh discriminates between Egypt and Israel” (11:7). But the Elohist, as well as the Deuteronomist (Deut 28:60-61), takes this purpose even further by having the very diseases, plagues, and signs deployed on Egypt as a potential threat to Israel if the Israelites do not keep Yahweh’s commandments and laws (15:26). Thus the narrative serves the purpose of reminding the Israelites of later generations of their covenant commitments and what will happen if these are not met.
Finally, the creation of the biblical plague narrative itself was influenced by older ancient Near Eastern literary—and not historical—traditions. 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.1 Moreover, in the ancient Near Eastern world one of the most significant ways a scribe could argue for the supremacy of his national deity over and against another nation’s god was to present his god, in the present case Yahweh, as ultimate sovereign over the forces of fertility, life, and death—and this is exactly what the whole plague narrative accomplishes. In other words, these stories must be understood and read as products of their own literary and historical contexts.
- See Propp, Exodus 1-18, pp. 349-352.↵