This article has been written in response to an Ask Footsteps! question received recently. If you have a question feel free to send it in and we’ll do our best to respond.
Were the children of Israel affected by any of the plagues of Egypt?
Thank you for a really interesting question.
The simple answer is yes – from a careful reading of all the relevant chapters in Exodus (7-12) it would seem that the Israelites were affected by some of the plagues. For others, we are clearly told they were not impacted at all and this separation was a key part of God’s message to Pharoah.
It’s worth a more detailed look, however, as in these well-known accounts we find some important teaching about God and his great plan of redemption.
Firstly, a quick reminder. God sent 10 plagues to teach Pharoah and the Egyptians lessons and ultimately as a means to rescue the children of Israel from slavery. The first 9 plagues came in three cycles of three:
- 1 – River Nile turns to Blood, 2 – Frogs, 3 – Lice
- 4 – Flies, 5 – Death of Livestock, 6 – Boils
- 7 – Hail, 8 – Locusts, 9 – Darkness
Finally, there is the 10th plague, the most terrible of all, the death of the firstborn.
Within each of the three cycles, Moses warns Pharoah of the first two plagues and gives him time to change his mind. Each time the third plague in each cycle comes without warning.
First Cycle – Blood, Frogs, Lice – God’s Supremacy
In this first cycle of plagues, God is clearly demonstrating his supremacy, over Pharoah, over the Egyptian magicians and over their false gods. Before the first plague God’s message to Pharoah is ‘In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD‘ (Exodus 7:17), and there is a similar message with plagues 2 and 3 (see Exodus 8:10, 19).
From reading the descriptions of these plagues, and also comparing them with some of the later plagues (see Exodus 8:22 and comments on cycle 2 below), it seems clear that these must have affected the Israelites as well. Indeed, given the significance of the Nile to the Egyptian economy and way of life, when it turned to blood, this would have had an impact on everyone in Egypt. Note also that the land of Goshen (where the Israelites lived) is thought to have been in the Nile Delta region.
The simple teaching for Pharoah and for us in these first three plagues is that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe and can quite justly do whatever he pleases to whoever he pleases.
Second Cycle – Flies, Cattle, Boils – God Separates
In this second cycle of plagues God again shows his supremacy, but also makes it clear that he will separate between the Egyptians and the Israelite. ‘And I will sever in that day the land of Goshen, in which my people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there; to the end thou mayest know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth.’ (Exodus 8:22). Exodus 9:4 states a similar thing regarding the cattle (Plague 5) and the implication of Exodus 9:11 is the same for the boils (Plague 6). Having shown Pharoah his power in plagues 1-3, God then takes it to another level – he demonstrates, if there was any doubt, that these plagues were not random natural events, but were acts of God. He also shows that his people are special.
The simple teaching here is that in his judgements God does and will distinguish between those who are and are not his people. As the first three plagues demonstrate, God’s people are not immune from his judgements, however, God is able to distinguish and ultimately on the final judgement day he will (Matthew 25:31-46).
It is interesting with the death of the cattle, that God gives an exact time that the plague will strike and it does so exactly (see Exodus 9:5-6).
Third Cycle – Hail, Locusts, Darkness – God Devastates
In this third cycle of plagues God is again showing his power and the separation between Israelite and Egyptian. However, each of these plagues also shows the extreme devastation God’s judgements can bring. We are told that:
- The hail was ‘very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.’ (Exodus 9:25). However, the hail did not affect the children of Israel (Exodus 9:26).
- The ‘locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such. For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.‘ (Exodus 10:14-15). It is not explicitly stated whether the locust affected the Israelites, however, the context would suggest this plague was limited to the Egyptians. It would make sense, given that the hail and darkness were, and also we’re told that the locust ate everything that the hail had not damaged (Exodus 10:15), which implies that the locust only came where that hail had been.
- The darkness was ‘thick‘ (Exodus 10:22), could be ‘felt‘ (Exodus 10:21) and the Egyptians ‘saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.‘ (Exodus 10:23)
God is showing Pharoah that there is no limit to the level of destruction that he will bring on Egypt. The message for Pharoah is clear – think very carefully, this is the level of destruction I can bring. If you still disobey me, imagine what will come next. God is repeatedly giving Pharoah the opportunity to repent and humble himself, but also making it clear that if he does not, worse judgement will come. For us, God sends many warnings, in the Bible, through preaching, by events in the world. He warns of the consequence of sin but tells us that if we repent there is forgiveness and safety from his anger. However, if we continue to harden our hearts like Pharoah did, imagine what the ultimate consequences will be?
Interestingly, by this time, some of the Egyptians were on a different page to Pharoah. Some of them ‘feared the word of the Lord‘ and brought their cattle into shelter and stayed indoors themselves and so were spared from the hail (Exodus 9:20). When the warning was given about the locust, Pharoah’s servants urged him to let the Israelites go saying ‘knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?‘ (Exodus 10:7)
Tenth Plague – Death of the Firstborn
The account of the tenth plague and the Passover is well known. God would kill the firstborn in every house in Egypt. The Israelites were told that the only way to escape this plague was to sacrifice a lamb, paint the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintel of their houses and stay inside sheltering under the blood. All this happened as God had said it would and ‘there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.’ (Exodus 12:30) At last, Pharoah tells the Israelites to go (Exodus 12:20) and the ‘Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men.’ (Exodus 12:33) So God used this final plague to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt (although there was one final judgement against the Egyptian army a few days later at the Red Sea).
There is a huge amount of teaching here – so just a few quick points to think about. The Passover is a clear picture of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ:
- The sacrificial lamb ‘without blemish‘ (Exodus 12:5) represents Christ’s perfect life and suffering on the cross.
- God told the people that they needed to make this sacrifice and shelter under the blood in order to be safe from the plague. The gospel teaches that to escape God’s judgement for our sins we need to be sheltering in Christ, and trusting in him and what he has done on our behalf to save us.
- With the previous plagues when God had separated between the Israelites and the Egyptians, he had done this himself. With this tenth plague, the Israelites needed to do something as well. Whilst God gives faith to believe in him, his people need to exercise that faith. There needs to be an active turning to God in repentance, trusting in the Lord Jesus.
- Also, this shows us that God’s wonderful redemptive plan is made up of many parts. The Israelites, God’s chosen people (representing the elect), also needed to be ‘under the blood’. So it is with all God’s people – they are elect, but they also need the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ through which comes redemption and all the blessings of the gospel.
That’s quite a long answer to the original question, but hopefully interesting and helpful.
In summary, the Bible makes it clear that some of the plagues did affect the Israelites. However, looking in more detail at the accounts shows us that the messages God was sending to Pharaoh are messages we should take on board as well. Ultimately the plagues, culminating in the Passover, are a picture of the way God rescues his people from the slavery of sin through the work of the Lord Jesus.[A00155 – 17/05/2021]