The Plagues: A Hell of Uncreated Chaos

Many commentators on Exodus have noted the following themes in the ten plagues: un/de-creation, an attack on Egyptian gods, and Yahweh’s judgment for wickedness.  For example, Zevit in “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Sarna in his commentary, Fretheim in his commentary on Exodus, the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (ed. by Longman, et. al), and so forth all bring out these themes in one way or another.  I’ll use Peter Enns to help summarize some of the key images of the plagues (in his commentary on Exodus and his article in DTIB).  Please note that these examples are really just the tip of the interpretive iceberg – so much more could be said!

1) Many of the plagues are probably direct attacks on Egyptian gods.  Though we can’t press this too far, notes Enns, there are clear hints at this.  For example, when Aaron hit the Nile, it turned to blood.  Enns notes (with other OT scholars) that the “Nile was personified and worshiped as a god in Egypt” (Exodus, p. 200).  The Nile “bleeding” symbolized for Egypt the bloody death of their river-god, Hapi.  Another example: the ninth plague is “touchable” darkness (thick inky blackness).  Re was the sun-god of Egypt, so when the sun was gone for three days, it would shake Egyptian cosmology/religion to the core: where is Re (p. 228)?  One can imply similar polemic against other Egyptian gods in other plagues as well.  It is as if Yahweh is lining the gods up one by one and executing them one by one.

2) The plagues can also be shown to be a coming apart of the cosmos at the seams.  For example, people were supposed to rule and fill the land (Gen 1-2).  In the plagues, the opposite is true: bugs and locust fill and rule the land.  In Genesis 1-2, things are green and lush: in the plagues, the locusts devour the green and all is black/brown.  Light and dark are supposed to be day/night in a cycle (Gen 1-2), but in the ninth plague, the cycle is gone, darkness swallows.  “A reintroduction of darkness brings creation back to its chaotic beginnings, which is a signal to the Egyptians of what awaits them at the sea” (Exodus, p. 229).  The hail and fire-rain evoke the image of the sky breaking up and falling while at the same time the earth beneath is coming alive to swallow humans – again finally in the sea swallowing the wicked Egyptians.  In Enns’ words again, “Yahweh enacts redemption of Israel through a series of creation reversals…an undoing of the created order.  …Chaos results where once there was order” (DTIB, p. 216).  Even in the ultimate power-display, the parting of the sea, God separates the waters and there is dry ground: but it comes undone when the wicked touch the dust.  “God brings the waters of chaos crashing down upon the army” (Ibid.).

If one uses his/her Christian imagination to picture the plagues, it is indeed a hellish picture of uncreated chaos (cf. Revelation’s judgments), a stark and disgusting judgment on wickedness and false gods.  In the plagues, God also shows he isn’t just “flipping out” as the saying goes.  Rather, he has control over even the number of frogs and locust (read the polemic in Isaiah 40 in light of the plagues/Exodus).  They come and go at his beck and call, and all are for the good of his people, his “firstborn,” Israel.  The knife of judgment cuts both ways: death for wicked, life for God’s people.  Though the topic of another post, Enns reads the plagues in light of the cross and resurrection: Jesus took judgment for sin (plague-curses, uncreation) on the cross, while his resurrection was a real sort of new creation and victory over the wicked minions (Exodus, 232-3).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

2 Replies to “The Plagues: A Hell of Uncreated Chaos”

  1. Shane,

    Good stuff, thanks.

    Would you recommend the DTIB? I’ve seen it in the bookstore, and have been intrigued, but I’ve never heard it recommended from any professors. Just wondering what your thoughts are. Is it a worth while investment? Thanks.



  2. Chris:

    Yes, DTIB is worth having. However, before you get it, sit down with it to see what it is and what it is doing. It isn’t a dictionary of the Bible, or a dictionary of Systematics or Biblical Theology; it isn’t ISBE or TDNT. Instead, it is a general theological dictionary that covers certain theological things such as narrative, exodus, summaries of Bible books, hermeneutics, philosophy, criticism, postmodernism, modernism, and so forth.

    It does what it does quite well, so I do recommend it.



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