Moses & the Plagues - the Bible story

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Moses is angered by the Hebrews who are worshipping the Golden Calf

Bible People: Moses

Scroll of the Bible

Bible text, Exodus

Shawshank Redemption

Bible Study Activities

The Stele of Hammurabi - a link with the stone tablets of Moses?

The Stone Tablets

Detail of Michelangelo's marble statue of Moses

Bible Art: Moses

The back of a man's neck covered with boils

Ten Plagues of Egypt

A still from the movie 'The Ten Commandments'

Bible Movies
'The Ten Commandments'

Map of the lands of the Bible

Where it happened

Bronze bull calf, excavated in northern Israel

Aaron, Moses' brother


Norma Rae hold up a 'Union' sign in the factory where she words, from the movie 'Norma Rae'

There are similarities between the stories of 'Norma Rae' and Moses. Both feel inadequate to the task, but eventually unite a group of 'slaves' to lead them to a better world

Looking for an escape route: from the movie 'Poseidon Adventure'

An oldie but a goodie, the movie 'Poseidon' steals many of its themes from the Moses story. The people are in a dangerous place and must escape by going through water; their leader is reluctant to take on the task and does not make it out of the ship; the people who climb up through the Christmas tree are saved






Moses: the Bible explains the name 'Moses' by saying it is related to the Hebrew masha- 'to draw out'. But it is more likely that it comes from the Egyptian word for child, as in Thut-moses (child of Thut) or Ra-msis (child of Ra). 

Pharaoh: the great monarch of Upper and Lower Egypt, a man/god with absolute power 

Aaron: Moses' older brother and helper; spokesman for Moses, he also helped Moses with the Ten Plagues, stirring up the frogs and gnats, and turning the Nile water to blood. 


Moses & the 10 Plagues

This story is about God's power - over earthly rulers no matter how powerful, and over Nature itself. 

It also illustrates one of God's strange habits: using an unworthy person (Moses, who is an inept speaker and a reluctant instrument of God) to change the course of human destiny - in this case to confront the most powerful ruler in the world and out-manoeuvre him, and lead a disorganised rabble of slaves into a new life and a new land. 

 The story of Moses has 6 episodes. This is the third: 

  • The baby Moses is cast adrift in the waters of the Nile: Exodus 2:1-10

  • The Burning Bush, God tells Moses to save the Hebrews: Exodus 2:23-4

  • Moses and Pharaoh, ‘Let My People Go’, the Ten Plagues: Exodus 5-12

  • Wandering in the Desert, Crossing the Red Sea: Exodus 13-18

  • The Ten Commandments: Exodus 20

  • The Golden Calf: Exodus 32

Background to this storyMoses' mother and sister cast him adrift in the River Nile

Moses, a Hebrew baby rescued from certain death in the Nile River, was adopted/protected by the Egyptian royal household. When he eventually learned of his origins he began to take an interest in his kin. 

He had been born into a group of people who worked as slave labourers for the Egyptians. One of their main tasks was brick-making -- almost all ordinary buildings throughout Egypt were made of mud bricks. 

Perhaps because of the ritual cleanliness laws which meant their babies survived and their people were healthy, the Hebrew population had grown so much that the native Egyptians, especially Pharaoh, began to fear them. As a result, they were probably treated worse than the native Egyptian workers, but they had strong family loyalties and little affection for their Egyptian overlords, and this unified them.

.The laborious process of brick-making in ancient Egypt. This wall painting from the tomb of Rekhmara shows slave workers making bricks in the 15th century BC.

The laborious process of brick-making in ancient Egypt. This wall painting from the tomb of Rekhmara shows the process of making bricks in the 15th century BC.

One day Moses saw an Egyptian maltreating a Hebrew worker. In a fit of rage he killed the Egyptian, and had to flee Egypt. He found refuge in the territory of  Midian where he became a shepherd for Jethro, a priest. He married Jethro's daughter Zipporah and had two sons. 

Moses returns to Egypt

Then he had an extraordinary encounter with God who spoke to a reluctant Moses, appearing to him in the form of a Burning Bush. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom. Moses was reluThe mummified face of Seti I, photograph by Emil Brugschctant to do this. How could he, a relative nobody, do such a thing? God reassured him. God would be at his side and give him the necessary courage and skills to carry out this task. 

Reluctant and resolute at the same time, Moses returned to Egypt and, helped by his older brother Aaron, he confronted Pharaoh (one wonders how he gained access to the royal presence). The photograph at right shows the mummified face of Seti I, whom many scholars believe to be the Pharaoh described in the story of Moses.

Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Naturally, Pharaoh declined. 

The Ten Plagues

As a sign that they were backed up by an all-powerful God, Moses and Aaron engaged in a sort of contest with the court magicians/priests. A bronze snakeThey performed a variety of miraculous feats designed to show the superiority of one type of magic (theirs) over another (the Egyptian priests'). 

The climax of the contest came when the priests and Aaron both turned their wooden staffs into snakes - but Aaron's snake/staff devoured the snakes/staffs of the priests. The Egyptian priests were defeated, a prefiguration of the contest that would develop between Pharaoh and God which God, of course, would win. 

In spite of the defeat of his priests, Pharaoh continued to refuse the demand for freedom. The Israelites had to stay in Egypt - and what is more, they had to work harder. 

In response, God afflicted Egypt with the Ten Plagues

  • the River Nile turned to bloodBoils, one of the ten plagues

  • frogs overran the country

  • lice and mosquitoes tormented the people

  • flies swarmed everywhere

  • livestock became diseased

  • boils erupted on people's bodies

  • thunder and hail rained down

  • locusts ate the crops

  • darkness fell in day-time

  • all the firstborn sons of Egyptians died

The Plagues were not punishments, but a demonstration of God's power. Moses, under God's guidance, predicted each one, and his predictions were fulfilled each time. This made it appear to the Egyptians that his magic was stronger than theirs and that he could command the support of a more powerful god than they had. 

The First Passover

Under the weight of these afflictions, Pharaoh was finally moved to allow the Israelites and their families to go, but he insisted that they leave their animals behind. This was clearly impossible, since they depended on their flocks for food on the journey. 

When Pharaoh still refused Moses' (and God's) command, Moses proclaimed the death of the first-born of all Egypt. 

Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son, Lawrence Alma Tadema

Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son, Lawrence Alma Tadema

Death of the Egyptian firstborn, Charles Pearce

Death of the Egyptian firstborn, Charles Pearce

The Hebrews were spared when they daubed the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their door jambs. They ate a hasty meal, the first Passover, gathered up their few belongings, and prepared to leave. This time, Pharaoh consented to the Hebrews' departure, and they set out on what was to be a very long journey. 


God told Moses to free the Hebrew people and lead them out of Egypt, to the Promised Land. Moses hesitated at first but then, almost despite himself, took on the task and succeeded. It did not happen without a struggle. Pharaoh did not want to let his labor force to leave the country. Moses was forced to inflict a series of plagues on Egypt before Pharaoh agreed to relinquish his hold. The last plague was the worst: the death of every firstborn Egyptian. Only then could the Hebrews, led by Moses, escape from Egypt.

There's a short biography of Moses at Leader, Lawgiver, Legend 

Bible Study Activities   Topics for Discussion or Meditation

1. The Journey 

Trite but true: life is a journey, and we are all at different places on the road. 
Think about your own life, with happy and sad times as hills and valleys. What has been the landscape of your life? Too many valleys and not enough hills? A rather flat plain? Visualize your life as a landscape. How do you see it? What is there in front of you? Behind you? A road not taken? 

2. Believe in Yourself 

Moses felt inadequate to the task ahead. Perhaps he saw his own failings too clearly, and let his doubts blot out his potential. Only when God persisted did Moses give in, accepting God's commission to free the Hebrews and lead them out of Egypt - even though he was reluctant to do so. 

  • Do you over-emphasise your failings? 

  • Do you let your lack of confidence shape your life, stopping you doing things you might be capable of? 

  • What are the best things you have achieved? 

  • Forget about modesty for the moment: make a good long list of the good things about yourself. Then thank God for being what you are! 

Duststorm in the Middle East

Duststorm in the Middle East - the darkness that came over the land?

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Bible Study Resource: Bible People: God commands Moses to unleash the Ten Plagues

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher