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Ten calamities inflicted on the Egyptians to overcome Pharao's obstinacy and force him to let the Israelites to leave Egypt (Exodus 7:8-12:30; Psalm 77:42-51; 104:26-36). Moses's notification of God's will to Pharao only produced an aggravation of the condition of the Israelites, and the wonder of changing Aaron's rod into a serpent, which was wrought in proof of Moses's Divine mission, made no impression, as it was imitated by the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 5; 7:8-13). A series of afflictions, culminating in the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt, was required before Pharao yielded.
Of the ten plagues seven were produced through the agency of Moses an Aaron or of Moses alone, and three, namely the fourth, fifth, and tenth, by the direct action of God Himself. The interval of time within which they occurred cannot be stated with certainty. The last four must have followed in close succession between the beginning of March and the first days of April. For when the hail fell barley was in the ear and flax in bud, which in Lower Egypt happens about March, and the Israelites left on the 14th of Nisan, which falls in the latter part of March or the early part of April. The first six seem also to have succeeded one another at short intervals, but the interval, if any, between them and the last four is uncertain. The Scriptural account produces the impression that the ten plagues were a series of blows in quick succession, and this is what the case would seem to have required. The scene of the interviews of Moses and Aaron with Pharao was Tanis or Soan in Lower Egypt (Ps. lxxvii, 12, 43).
In the first plague, the water of the river and of all the canals and pools of Egypt was turned to blood and became corrupted, so that the Egyptians could not drink it, and even the fishes died (Exodus 7:14-25). Commentators are divided as to whether the water was really changed into blood, or whether only a phenomenon was produced similar to the red discoloration of the Nile during its annual rise, which gave the water the appearance of blood. The latter view is now commonly accepted. It should be noted, however, that the red discoloration is not usual in Lower Egypt, and that, when so discoloured, the water is not unfit to drink, though it is during the first, or green, stage of the rise. Besides, the change did not take place during the inundation (cf. Exodus 7:15). The second plague came seven days later. Aaron stretched his hand upon the waters and there appeared an immense number of frogs, which covered the land and penetrated into the land to the great discomfort of the inhabitants. Pharao now promised to let the Israelites go to sacrifice in the desert if the frogs were removed, but broke his promise when this was done. The third plague consisted of swarms of gnats which tormented man and beast. The magicians who in some way had imitated the first two wonders could not imitate this, and were forced to exclaim "This is the finger of God". The fourth was a pest of flies. Pharao now agreed to allow the Israelites a three days' journey into the desert, but when at the prayer of Moses the flies were taken away, he failed to keep his promise. The fifth was a murrain or cattle-pest, which killed the beasts of the Egyptians, while sparing those of the Israelites. The sixth consisted in boils which broke out both on men and beasts. The seventh was a fearful hailstorm. "The hail destroyed through all the land of Egypt all things that were in the field, both man and beast: and the hail smote every herb of the field, and it broke every tree of the country. Only in the land of Gessen, where the children of Israel were, the hail fell not." The frightened king again promised and again became obstinate when the storm was stopped. At the threat of an unheard of plague of locusts (the eighth) the servants of Pharao interceded with him and he consented to let the men go, but refused to grant more. Moses therefore stretched forth his rod, and a south wind brought innumerable locusts which devoured what the hailstorm had left. The ninth plague was a horrible darkness which for three days covered all Egypt except the land of Gessen. The immediate cause of this plague was probably the hamsin, a south or southwest wind charged with sand and dust, which blows about the spring equinox and at times produces darkness rivalling that of the worst London fogs. As Pharao, though willing to allow the departure, insisted that the flocks should be left behind, the final and most painful blow (the tenth) was struck the destruction in one night of all the first-born of Egypt.
As the plagues of Egypt find parallels in natural phenomena of the country, many consider them as merely natural occurrences. The last evidently does not admit of a natural explanation, since a pestilence does not select its victims according to method. The others, howsoever natural they may be at times, must in this instance be considered miraculous by reason of the manner in which they were produced. They belong to the class of miracles which the theologians call preternatural. For not to mention that they were of extraordinary intensity, and that the first occurred at an unusual time and place and with unusual effects, they happened at the exact time and in the exact manner predicted. Most of them were produced at Moses's command, and ceased at his prayer, in one case at the time set by Pharao himself. Purely natural phenomena, it is clear, do not occur under such conditions. Moreover, the ordinary phenomena, which were well known to the Egyptians, would not have produced such a deep impression on Pharao and his court.
VIGOUROUX, La Bible et les découv. mod., II (Paris, 1889), 285 sqq.; HUMMELAUER, Comment. in Exod. et Levit. (Paris, 1897), 83 sqq.; SELBST, Handbuch zur biblisch. Geschichte (Freiburg, 1910), 405 sqq.
APA citation. (1911). Plagues of Egypt. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12143a.htm
MLA citation. "Plagues of Egypt." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12143a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sean Hyland.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.