A student recently asked me why the Bible seems to have so many plagues in it and what all these plagues are for.
To give a quick answer, in the Bible, plagues occur because the Almighty is angry about something or someone and decides to send a plague as a punishment.
According to one estimate, there are more than 120 times in the King James Bible in which the term plague is used, and other translations will vary. The reason for the uncertainty of the exact number of plagues is that there are several words in Hebrew and Greek for the English word plague.
In this reply, we shall examine the two best known plagues, one in the Hebrew and one in the Greek Scriptures.
There are nearly 70 references to plagues and pestilences in the Hebrew Bible and at least five Hebrew words are used for plagues. In Hebrew, the most common term is maggephah, although there are other related words used. It can mean slaughter, a disease, a strong blow or a death blow.
Another Hebrew term is debher, which more explicitly means a disease, and in the Hebrew Scriptures this is normally associated with divine anger. Sometimes this is translated as pestilence.
There are several Greek words in the New Testament that refer to plagues, the most common being plage, which means a blow, a wound or a disease. Another term is panoukla, which means a disease or illness. These words are often tied to the wrath of God, which inflicts the plagues. A common biblical Greek term for wrath that is unleashed as plagues on the earth is orgis, which can mean fury or a harsh punishment administered by a law court. Orgis can also refer to unrestrained emotion or desire, hence the English word orgy.
Another term used is thumos, which means am outburst of anger or expressed anger that has serious consequences.
The best known plagues of the Hebrew Bible are the 10 plagues inflicted on the Egyptians by God through Moses, when the wicked pharaoh would not the Hebrews go free. The story is well known, how God called to Moses on Mount Sinai and charged him with freeing the children of Israel who had languished in slavery for more than 400 years. God gave Moses powers to do many wonderful signs, but the king of Egypt was obstinate and refused to release his slaves.
These plagues are described in chapters 7 through 11 of the book of Exodus. The plagues were water turned into blood, frogs, lice, gnats, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness for three days and killing of firstborn sons. A considerable amount of devout interpretation has been given to these passages, and some have argued that each of the 10 plagues represents one of the many gods of ancient Egypt, showing the superiority of the Hebrew God to the pagan gods.
For example, it is argued that the plague on cattle is a symbolic thrashing of the goddess Hathor, the goddess of cattle, and the plague of darkness was a slap in the face to the sun god, Amun-Re. This argument is fascinating but it is not clear.
The plague of gnats, or flies, is tied to the goddess Uatchit, who is called the goddess of flies in many sources. Her Egyptian name was Wadjet; she was the patron of the Lower Nile and the cobra was sacred to her. But while the Nile had many flies, it is not clear that she was specifically a goddess of them.
This interpretation also presumes a detailed knowledge of Egyptian gods, which were many. Much of the worship of the gods by the powerful priests was secretive, and not many Egyptians had a detailed knowledge of it. But it is an interesting interpretation, and the Scriptures do say that God will bring down his wrath on the Egyptian gods.
The best known collection of plagues in the New Testament is the seven bowls of God’s wrath that are poured out on the earth at the end of time and are described in the Revelation. In this Christian vision, the situation is that a man named John, who is presumed to be John the Apostle in old age on the island of Patmos, has a series of visions of the end of time and judgment day.
The catastrophic plagues occurs in Chapter 16. Here a voice from inside a temple commands seven angels to pour out seven bowls of the wrath of God.
God’s wrath is apparently rather powerful. With the pouring out of the first bowl, foul sores appear on all those who worshipped the evil beast, while the second pouring kills everything in the sea and makes it like blood. The third bowl turns rivers to blood, and the fourth bowl is poured on the sun, creating intense heat to scorch men. The fifth brings darkness over the land.
The sixth bowl brings the destruction of the river Euphrates, which unleashes horrible demons. The seventh bowl brings lightnings and earthquakes that devastate the land. This is followed by the overthrow of the great city of Babylon, which is depicted as a mother of harlots sitting on a city of seven hills, drunk with the blood of saints.
The interpretation of the plagues is difficult, but the similarity of several of them with the Egyptian plagues tells us the author sees a similarity between the liberation of the Hebrews and the end of time and the redemption of the faithful.
In the Revelation, these cosmic disasters are a preparation for the doom of the wicked city of Babylon. Who is this scarlet whore of Babylon? Roman historians believe it to be an allegory for the city of Rome in the first century, and the whore is Emperor Nero, who launched the first persecution of the Christians. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the following chapter seems inspired by and resembles the great destructive fire of Rome in A.D. 64.
As many readers know, a number of Christian authors since the 15th and 16th centuries have identified the scarlet whore not with the Roman imperial family, but with the papacy, which rules from Rome. Scarlet is one of the colors of the pope’s uniform and of the cardinals as well. The Vatican’s occasional penchant for inquisitions in centuries past is seen prophesied in the references to the whore drinking the blood of the saints.