—Biblical Data:

Word which is used in the English versions of the Bible as a rendering of several Hebrew words, all closely related in meaning. These are:

  • (1) "Maggefah" (a striking, or smiting): Used in a general way of the plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians (Ex. ix. 3-4); of the fatal disease which overtook the spies (Num. xiv. 37), and of that which slew many of the people after the rebellion of Korah (Num. xvi. 48-49), and at Shittim because of idolatrous practises at the shrine of Baal-peor (Num. xxv. 8, 9, 18; Ps. cvi. 29-30); of the tumors which attacked the Philistines on account of the presence of the Ark (I Sam. vi. 4), and of the three days' pestilence which ravaged Israel after David's numbering of the people (II Sam. xxiv. 21, 25); of a disease of the bowels (II Chron. xxi. 14-15), and, prophetically, of a plague which shall consume the flesh of the enemies of Jerusalem, both man and beast (Zech. xiv. 12, 15, 18).
  • (2) "Negef" from the same root and with the same general meaning as "maggefah" (a blow, a striking): Used of the plague of Baal-peor (Josh. xxii. 17), of that which followed the rebellion of Korah (Num. xvi. 46-47.), and with a general application (Ex. xii. 13, xxx. 12; Num. viii. 19). The corresponding verb is used with the sense of "to plague" in Ex. xxxii, 35, Josh. xxiv. 5, and Ps. lxxxix. 23.
  • (3) "Nega" (a touch, a stroke): Used of the last of the Egyptian plagues (Ex. xi. 1) and many times of leprosy (Lev. xiii., xiv., and xxiv., and generally in I Kings viii. 37-38 and Ps. xci. 10). The corresponding verb, in addition to a general use in Ps. lxxiii. 5, 14, is used of the plague which afflicted Pharaoh and his house because of the wrong done to Abram (Gen. xii. 17).
  • (4) "Makkah" (a blow, a wound): Used of the plague which was due to the eating of quails (Num. xi. 33), of the plagues of Egypt (I Sam. iv. 8), and more generally (Lev. xxvi. 21; Deut. xxviii. 59, 61; xxix. 22; Jer. xix. 8, xlix. 17, l. 13)
  • (5) "Deber": Rendered "plagues" in Hos. xiii. 14; "murrain" (i.e., cattle-plague) in Ex. ix. 3; and "pestilence" in Ex. v. 3, ix. 15; Num. xiv. 12, and Hab. iii. 5.
E. C. J. F. McL."Lex Talionis." —In Rabbinical Literature:

Commenting on the words of Jethro, "For in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them" (Ex. xviii. 11), the Talmud says: "The Egyptians were cooked in the pot in which they cooked others" (Soṭah 11a), that is, the punishment was made to correspond to their crime, on the "jus talionis," principle. This refers to Pharaoh's. edict to the effect that all Jewish infants were to be cast into the Nile, the Egyptians being punished by the plague that turned the water of the Nile to blood. At the same time this plague proved that the Nile was not a deity as the Egyptians believed. Furthermore, the Egyptians suffered to the full extent the evils of the plagues, and did not derive any benefit, however indirect, therefrom. Hence, the frogs died in heaps "and the land stank"; while the '"arob," which the Rabbis say was a mixture or drove of wild animals (not "a swarm of flies"), disappeared after the plague ceased, and "there remained not one": so that the Egyptians might not profit from the hides of the animals, which they might have done had the latter died like the frogs. Two theories have been advanced for the plague of darkness, one of which is that the plague was intended to hide the annihilation of the wicked Israelites who, refusing to leave Egypt died there.

The period of each plague was seven days (Ex. vii. 25); and twenty-four days intervened between one plague and the next. The ten plagues lasted nearly twelve months ('Eduy. ii. 10; comp. Ex. R. ix. 12). The order and nature of the plagues are described by R. Levi b. Zachariah in the name of R. Berechiah, who says: "God used military tactics against the Egyptians. First, He stopped their water-supply (the water turned to blood). Second, He brought a shouting army (frogs). Third, He shot arrows at them (lice). Fourth, He directed His legions against them (wild animals). Fifth, He caused an epidemic (murrain). Sixth, He poured naphtha on them (blains). Seventh, He hurled at them stones from a catapult (hail). Eighth, He ordered His storming troops (locusts) against them. Ninth, He put them under the torturing stock (darkness). Tenth, He killed till their leaders (first-born)" (Yalḳ., Ex. 182; Pesiḳ. R, xvii. [ed. Friedmann, 89b]).

Plagues in the Red Sea.

Ten other plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Ab. v. 6; Ab. R. N. xxxiii.; comp. ed. Schechter, 2d version, xxxvi.), in the various ways in which Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned. R. Jose the Galilean says: "The Egyptians in the Red Sea suffered fifty plagues. In Egypt the 'finger' of God was recognized by the ten plagues; but at the Red Sea God's powerful 'hand' was visible [Ex. xiv. 31, Hebr.], which being multiplied by five fingers makes fifty plagues." R. Eliezer multiplied these by 4, making 200 plagues; and R. Akiba multiplied them by 5 making 250 plagues. Each adduced his multiplier from the verse: "He cast upon them (1) the fierceness of his anger, (2) wrath, (3) and indignation, (4) and trouble, (5) by sending evil angels among them" (Ps. lxxviii. 49). R. Eliezer does not count "fierceness of his anger" (Mek., Ex. vi.; comp. Ex. R. xxiii. 10; see also the Passover Haggadah).

The order of the plagues in the Psalms differs from that in Exodus. R. Judah indicated the latter order by the mnemonic combination , consisting of the initial letters of the ten plagues as follows: = (1) water turning to blood, (2) frogs, (3) lice, (4) swarms of beasts, (5) murrain, (6) blains, (7) hail, (8) locusts, (9) darkness, (10) slaying of the first-born. The ten plagues are furthermore divided thus: three performed through Moses, three through Aaron, three directly by God, and one, the sixth, through Moses and Aaron together (Ex. vii. 17-x. 21; "Shibbole ha-Leḳeṭ," ed. Buber, p. 97b).

E. C. J. D. E.—Critical View:

In the majority of cases the plague is regarded and spoken of as a divine visitation, a penalty inflicted upon the individual, family, or nation because of sin. Even the common disease of leprosy is said to be "put in a house" by God (Lev. xiv. 34). The exact nature of the fatal sickness which attacked the people on more than one occasion in the wilderness is a matter of conjecture, but there can be little doubt that it was the bubonic plague which destroyed the Philistines (I Sam. v. 6-12).

Plagues of Egypt.

The calamities inflicted upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh's refusal to let the people of Israel go into the wilderness to observe a feast to Yhwh are designated "plagues" (Ex. ix. 14, xi. 1). The narrative in Exodus tells of ten such visitations. According to the critical analysis of the sources of this narrative it appears that one, probably the earliest, story (J) tells of seven of the ten plagues (viz., 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10); another (E), of four, or possibly six (viz., 1, 3, [?], 7, 8, 9, 10 [?]); and the third (P), of six (viz., 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10). Psalm lxxviii. recalls seven, and Psalm cv. eight, of these. It is possible that one or more of the plagues may be duplicated in the narrative as it now stands.

Details of Plagues. The Ten Plagues, According to a Passover Haggadah of 1695.(From the Sulzberger collection in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.)

The first plague was the defilement of the river. "All the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died" (Ex. vii. 21). The Egyptians regarded the Nile as a god (see Maspero, "Dawn of Civilization," pp. 36-42), and no doubt, to the Hebrew writer, this visitation seemed peculiarly appropriate. The water of the Nile regularly becomes discolored from minute organisms or from decaying vegetable matter and mud carried down by the floods which reach Egypt in June. The color is said to vary from gray-blue to dark red. A cause of this plague might therefore be found in the presence of an unusually large quantity of such impurities, making the water putrid. The second plague was a multitude of frogs. The third and fourth consisted of swarms of insect pests, probably stinging flies or gnats. The fifth was a murrain, or cattle-plague, probably anthrax or rinderpest. Pruner ("Krankheiten des Orients," Erlangen, 1847) describes an outbreak of the last-named in Egypt in 1842.

The sixth plague was one of boils which Philo ("De Vita Moysis") describes as a red eruption in which the spots became swollen and pustular, and in which "the pustules, confluent into a mass, were spread over the body and limbs." This description, if correct, would point to smallpox. The seventh plague was a great storm of hail; the eighth, a swarm of locusts destroying the crops and even the leaves and fruit of the trees. The ninth was a "thick darkness" continuing for three days. It has been suggested that such a darkness might have been caused by the south or southwest wind, which blows about the time of the vernal equinox, bearing clouds of sand and fine dust that darken the air (see Denon, "Voyage dans l'Egypte," p. 286, Paris, 1802); this wind blows for two or three days at a time. The tenth and last plague was the destruction of the first-born, when Yhwh "gave their life over to the pestilence and smote all the first-born of Egypt" (Ps. lxxviii. 50-51).

  • Dilimann-Ryssel, Exodus und Leviticus, Leipsic, 1897;
  • Pruner, Krankheiten des Orients, Erlangen, 1847;
  • A. Macalister, Medicine and Plague, in Hastings, Dict. Bible.
E. C. J. F. McL.