The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus

Author: Louis Ginzberg

The Plagues Brought Through Moses

The fourth plague was also announced to the king early in the morning by the river’s brink. Pharaoh went thither regularly, for he was one of the magi, who need water for their enchantments.[186] Moses’ daily morning visits were beginning to annoy him, and he left the house early, in the hope of circumventing his monitor. But God, who knows the thoughts of man, sent Moses to Pharaoh at the very moment of his going forth.

The warning of the plague that was imminent not having had any effect upon Pharaoh, God sent the fourth plague upon Egypt,[187] a mixed horde of wild animals, lions, bears, wolves, and panthers, and so many birds of prey of different kinds that the light of the sun and the moon was darkened as they circled through the air. These beasts came upon the Egyptians as a punishment for desiring to force the seed of Abraham to amalgamate with the other nations. God retaliated by bringing a mixture upon them that cost them their life.[188]

As Pharaoh had been the first of the Egyptians to lay evil plans against the children of Israel, so he was the first upon whom descended punishment. Into his house the mixed horde of beasts came first of all, and then into the houses of the rest of the Egyptians. Goshen, the land inhabited by the Israelites, was spared entirely, for God put a division between the two peoples. It is true, the Israelites had committed sins enough to deserve punishment, but the Holy One, blessed be He, permitted the Egyptians to act as a ransom for Israel.

Again Pharaoh expressed his willingness to let the children of Israel sacrifice unto their God, but they were to stay in the land and do it, not go outside, into the wilderness. Moses pointed out to Pharaoh how unbecoming it would be for the Israelites to sacrifice, before the very eyes of his people, the animals that the Egyptians worshipped as gods. Then Pharaoh consented to let them go beyond the borders of his land, only they were not to go very far away, and Moses, to mislead him, asked for a three days’ journey into the wilderness. But, again, when Moses had entreated God on Pharaoh’s behalf, and the horde of wild beasts had vanished, the king hardened his heart, and did not let the people go.

The cessation of the fourth plague was as miraculous as the plague itself. The very animals that had been slain by the Egyptians in self-defense returned to life and departed from the land with the rest. This was ordained to prevent the wicked oppressors from profiting by the punishment even so much as the value of the hides and the flesh of the dead animals. It had not been so with the useless frogs, they had died on the spot, and their carcasses had remained where they fell.[189]

The fifth plague inflicted by God upon the Egyptians was a grievous pestilence, which mowed down the cattle and beasts chiefly, yet it did not spare men altogether. This pestilence was a distinct plague, but it also accompanied all the other plagues, and the death of many Egyptians was due to it.[190] The Israelites again came off unscathed. Indeed, if an Israelite had a just claim upon a beast held by an Egyptian, it, too, was spared, and the same good fortune waited upon such cattle as was the common property of Israelites and Egyptians.

The sixth plague, the plague of boils, was produced by Moses and Aaron together in a miraculous way. Each took a handful of ashes of the furnace, then Moses held the contents of the two heaps in the hollow of one of his hands, and sprinkled the ashes tip toward the heaven, and it flew so high that it reached the Divine throne. Returning earthward, it scattered over the whole land of Egypt, a space equal to four hundred square parasangs. The small dust of the ashes produced leprosy upon the skin of the Egyptians,[191] and blains of a peculiar kind, soft within and dry on top.[192]

The first five plagues the magicians had tried to imitate, and partly they had succeeded. But in this sixth plague they could not stand before Moses, and thenceforth they gave up the attempt to do as he did. Their craft had all along been harmful to themselves. Although they could produce the plagues, they could not imitate Moses in causing them to disappear. They would put their hands into their bosom, and draw them out white with leprosy, exactly like Moses, but their flesh remained leprous until the day of their death. And the same happened with all the other plagues that they imitated: until their dying day they were afflicted with the ills they produced.[193]

As Pharaoh had wittingly hardened his heart with each of the first five plagues, and refused to turn from his sinful purpose, God punished him thereafter in such wise that he could not mend his ways if he would. God said, "Even though he should desire to do penance now, I will harden his heart until he pays off the whole of his debt."

Pharaoh had observed that whenever he walked on the brink of the Nile, Moses would intercept him. He therefore gave up his morning walk. But God bade Moses seek the king in his palace in the early hours of the day and urge him to repent of his evil ways. Therefore Moses spake to him as follows, in the name of God: "O thou villain! Thou thinkest that I cannot destroy thee from the world. Consider, if I had desired it, instead of smiting the cattle, I might have smitten thee and thy people with the pestilence, and thou wouldst have been cut off from the earth. I inflicted the plague only in such degree as was necessary to show thee My power, and that My Name may be declared throughout all the earth. But thou dost not leave off treading My people underfoot. Behold, to-morrow when the sun passes this point,"—whereat Moses made a stroke upon the wall— "I will cause a very grievous hail to pour down, such as will be only once more, when I annihilate Gog with hail, fire, and brimstone."

But God’s lovingkindness is so great that even in His wrath He has mercy upon the wicked, and as His chief object was not to injure men and beasts, but to damage the vegetation in the fields of the Egyptians, He bade Moses admonish Pharaoh to send and hasten in his cattle and all that he had in the field. But the warning fell on heedless ears. Job was the only one to take it to heart, while Pharaoh and his people regarded not the word of the Lord. Therefore the Lord let the hail smite both man and beast, instead of confining it to the herbs and the trees of the field, as He had intended from the first.

As a rule, fire and water are elements at war with each other, but in the hailstones that smote the land of Egypt they were reconciled. A fire rested in the hailstones as the burning wick swims in the oil of a lamp; the surrounding fluid cannot extinguish the flame. The Egyptians were smitten either by the hail or by the fire. In the one case as the other their flesh was seared, and the bodies of the many that were slain by the hail were consumed by the fire. The hailstones heaped themselves up like a wall, so that the carcasses of the slain beasts could not be removed, and if the people succeeded in dividing the dead animals and carrying their flesh off, the birds of prey would attack them on their way home, and snatch their prize away. But the vegetation in the field suffered even more than man and beast, for the hail came down like an axe upon the trees and broke them. That the wheat and the spelt were not crushed was a miracle.

Now, at last, Pharaoh acknowledged, and said, "The Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. He was righteous when He bade us hasten in our cattle from before the hail, and I and my people were wicked, for we heeded not His warning, and men and beasts were found in the field by the hail, and slain." Again he begged Moses to supplicate God in his behalf, that He turn the plague away, and he promised to let the children of Israel go. Moses consented to do his will, saying, however: "Think not that I do not know what will happen after the plague is stayed. I know that thou and thy servants, ye will fear the Lord God, once His punishment is removed, as little as ye feared Him before. But to show His greatness, I will pray to Him to make the hail to cease."

Moses went a short distance out of the city from Pharaoh, and spread abroad his hands unto the Lord, for he did not desire to pray to God within, where there were many idols and images. At once the hail remained suspended in the air. Part of it dropped down while Joshua was engaged in battle with the Amorites, and the rest God will send down in His fury against Gog. Also the thunders ceased at Moses’ intercession, and were stored up for a later time, for they were the noise which the Lord made the host of the Syrians to hear at the siege of Samaria, wherefore they arose and fled in the twilight.[194]

As Moses had foreseen, so it happened. No sooner had the hail stopped than Pharaoh abandoned his resolve, and refused to let Israel go. Moses lost no time in announcing the eighth plague to him, the plague of the locusts. Observing that his words had made an impression upon the king’s counsellors, he turned and went out from Pharaoh, to give them the opportunity of discussing the matter among themselves. And, indeed, his servants urged Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and serve the Lord their God. But, again, when Moses insisted that the whole people must go, the young and the old, the sons and the daughters, Pharaoh demurred, saying, "I know it to be customary for young men and old men to take part in sacrifices, but surely not little children, and when you demand their presence, too, you betray your evil purpose. It is but a pretense, your saying that you will go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, and then return. You mean to escape and never come back. I will have nothing more to do with the matter.[195] My god Baal-zephon will oppose you in the way, and hinder you on your journey." Pharaoh’s last words were a dim presentiment. As a magician he foresaw that on their going forth from Egypt the children of Israel would find themselves in desperate straits before the sanctuary of Baal-zephon.[196]

Pharaoh was not content with merely denying the request preferred by Moses and Aaron. He ordered them to be forcibly expelled from the palace. Then God sent the plague of the locusts announced by Moses before. They ate every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left, and there remained not any green thing. And again Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, to ask their forgiveness, both for his sin against the Lord God, in not having hearkened unto His word, and for his sin against them, in having chased them forth and intended to curse them. Moses, as before, prayed to God in Pharaoh’s behalf, and his petition was granted, the plague was taken away, and in a rather surprising manner. When the swarms of locusts began to darken the land, the Egyptians caught them and preserved them in brine as a dainty to be eaten. Now the Lord turned an exceeding strong west wind, which took up the locusts, and drove them into the Red Sea. Even those they were keeping in their pots flew up and away, and they had none of the expected profit.[197]

The last plague but one, like those which had preceded it, endured seven days. All the time the land was enveloped in darkness, only it was not always of the same degree of density. During the first three days, it was not so thick but that the Egyptians could change their posture when they desired to do so. If they were sitting down, they could rise up, and if they were standing, they could sit down. On the fourth, fifth, and sixth days, the darkness was so dense that they could not stir from their place. They either sat the whole time, or stood; as they were at the beginning, so they remained until the end. The last day of darkness overtook the Egyptians, not in their own land, but at the Red Sea, on their pursuit of Israel. The darkness was not of the ordinary, earthly kind; it came from hell, and it could be felt. It was as thick as a dinar, and all the time it prevailed a celestial light brightened the dwellings of the children of Israel, whereby they could see what the Egyptians were doing under cover of the darkness. This was of great advantage to them, for when they were about to go forth from the land, and they asked their neighbors to lend them raiment, and jewels of gold and jewels of silver, for the journey, the Egyptians tried to deny having any in their possession. But the children of Israel, having spied out all their treasures during the days of darkness, could describe the objects they needed with accuracy, and designate their hiding-places. The Egyptians reasoned that the words of the Israelites could be taken implicitly as they spoke them, for if they had had any idea of deceiving them, asking for a loan when they intended to keep what they laid hands on, they might have taken unobserved during the days of darkness whatever: they desired. Hence the Egyptians felt no hesitation in lending the children of Israel all the treasures they asked for.[198]

The darkness was of such a nature that it could not be dispelled by artificial means. The light of the fire kindled for household uses was either extinguished by the violence of the storm, or else it was made invisible and swallowed up in the density of the darkness. Sight, that most indispensable of all the external senses, though unimpaired, was deprived of its office, for nothing could be discerned, and all the other senses were overthrown like subjects whose leader has fallen. None was able to speak or to hear, nor could anyone venture to take food, but they lay themselves down in quiet and hunger, their outward senses in a trance. Thus they remained, overwhelmed by the affliction, until Moses had compassion on them again, and besought God in their behalf, who granted him the power of restoring fine weather, light instead of darkness and day instead of night.[199]

Intimidated by this affliction, Pharaoh permitted the people to go, the little ones as well as the men and the women, only he asked that they let their flocks and their herds be stayed. But Moses said: "As thou livest, our cattle also shall go with us. Yea, if but the hoof of an animal belongs to an Israelite, the beast shall not be left behind in Egypt." This speech exasperated Pharaoh to such a degree that he threatened Moses with death in the day he should see his face again.

At this very moment the Lord appeared unto Moses, and bade him inform Pharaoh of the infliction of the last plague, the slaying of the first-born. It was the first and the last time that God revealed Himself in the royal palace. He chose the residence of Pharaoh on this occasion that Moses might not be branded as a liar, for he had replied to Pharaoh’s threat of killing him if he saw his face again, with the words, "Thou hast spoken well; I will see thy face again no more."

With a loud voice Moses proclaimed the last plague, closing his announcement with the words: "And all these thy servants shall come down unto me and bow down themselves unto me, saying, Get thee out: and all the people that follow thee; and after that I will go out." Moses knew well enough that Pharaoh himself would come and urge him to lead Israel forth with as great haste as possible, but he mentioned only the servants of the king, and not the king himself, because he never forgot the respect due to a ruler.[200]


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Chicago: Louis Ginzberg, "The Plagues Brought Through Moses," The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. Rodwell, J. M. in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022,

MLA: Ginzberg, Louis. "The Plagues Brought Through Moses." The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, translted by Rodwell, J. M., in The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Ginzberg, L, 'The Plagues Brought Through Moses' in The Legends of the Jews— Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus, trans. . cited in , The Legends of the Jews—Volume 2: From Joseph to the Exodus. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from