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The plague of livestock - Artist unknown

After the plague of gnats, Pharaoh went back on his word and would not release the Israelites from bondage. God told Moses,

“Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of God will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field – on your horses, donkeys, camels, sheep, and goats. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.’”

God set a time, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this in the land.”

The fifth plague of Egypt, cattle dying - Artist unknown (1775)The next day, all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites perished. Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites died. Yet his heart was unyielding, and he would not let the Israelites go.

What the story means to us today

Disbelief and arrogance drive Pharaoh’s stubbornness

After the livestock died, Pharaoh sent people into the fields to see if Israelite livestock were indeed spared from the plague. It was confirmed that no livestock of the Israelites died, just as Moses had said. Without question, Pharaoh understood that the plague was delivered by the hand of the Israelite god. This demonstration of God’s power was enormous, yet Pharaoh still refused to heed God’s word and let the Israelites go.

Additional thoughts and considerations

God’s wrath begins to target Egyptian gods who are helpless against the true god

The plague that killed Egypt’s livestock would have had a special impact on the people, not just economically, but spiritually as well. The animals that died in the plague represented some of Egypt’s most important gods. Ammon the ram would have died, the sheep of Sais would have perished, and the goat of Mendes would have fallen. Heset, Mehet-Weret, Banebdjedet, Heryshaf, Khenmu, Kherty and more would have been impacted by the plague on Egypt’s livestock. Even more alarming to the Egyptians, Osiris, the Egyptian savior, was unable to protect them.

The impending plague of firstborn kills more of Egypt’s animals

The Fifth Plague - livestock disease - Dore's English Bible (1866)Later we will see God employ a plague of hail and a plague that kills every firstborn in Egypt. It is mentioned that the firstborn of cattle were also killed in these later plagues. If cattle were killed in later plagues, it would appear on the surface that cattle were not involved with the plague that killed the livestock.

Indeed, cattle were not specifically mentioned in the list of livestock that Moses says will be impacted (the word that some translations render as “cattle” is more accurately represented as “herd” or “oxen”). Possibly cattle were spared because they were not in the fields at the time of the plague. Moses told Pharaoh the plague would impact “your livestock in the field” (i.e. not in their shelters). During the Fall, when many believe the plagues took place, the cattle would have been in the stables and not yet turned out to pasture.

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Alternatively, it is possible that cattle were killed in the plague of livestock but Egypt had replaced their lost cattle by the time the plagues of hail and firstborn were inflicted. Egyptians could have easily imported the cattle or even acquired them from the Israelite’s herds that were untouched.

The science and history behind the story

Were camels domesticated during the time of Moses?

Exodus 9:3 says,

“The hand of the Lord will bring a very terrible plague on your livestock in the field, on the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks.”

Religious detractors argue that camels had not been domesticated during the time of Moses. In 2014, archaeologists dated the arrival of camels into the region several hundred years later than Moses. This had been the general assumption since the mid-1900’s. Today however, archaeologists have backtracked on their claim after several outside references from earlier periods have been discovered referencing camels in the area being used as domesticated beasts of burden. Again, the historical accuracy of the Bible is proven correct.

Notes on Biblical translation

The “plague”

The original Hebrew word translated here as “plague” describes a disease – a disease of epidemic proportions that results in mass deaths. The type of disease is not specified in the verses and any such guess would solely be conjecture.

Bible Text

Moses and the plague of livestock - Artist unknownNIV

9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” 2 If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, 3 the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses, donkeys and camels and on your cattle, sheep and goats. 4 But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.’ ”

5 The LORD set a time and said, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this in the land.” 6 And the next day the LORD did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died. 7 Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

9:1  Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Release my people that they may serve me! 9:2 For if you refuse to release them and continue holding them, 9:3 then the hand of the LORD will surely bring a very terrible plague on your livestock in the field, on the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. 9:4 But the Lord will distinguish between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and nothing will die of all that the Israelites have.” ’ ”

9:5 The LORD set an appointed time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this in the land.” 9:6 And the LORD did this on the next day; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the Israelites’ livestock not one died. 9:7 Pharaoh sent representatives to investigate, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of Israel had died. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not release the people.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. 2 For if you refuse to let them go, and still hold them, 3 behold, the hand of the LORD will be on your cattle in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the oxen, and on the sheep—a very severe pestilence. 4 And the LORD will make a difference between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. So nothing shall die of all that belongs to the children of Israel.” ’ ” 5 Then the LORD appointed a set time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.”

6 So the LORD did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one died. 7 Then Pharaoh sent, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

4 9 GOD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘GOD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Release my people so they can worship me. If you refuse to release them and continue to hold on to them, I’m giving you fair warning: GOD will come down hard on your livestock out in the fields—horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep—striking them with a severe disease. GOD will draw a sharp line between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. Not one animal that belongs to the Israelites will die.’ ”

5 Then GOD set the time: “Tomorrow GOD will do this thing.”

6–7 And the next day GOD did it. All the livestock of Egypt died, but not one animal of the Israelites died. Pharaoh sent men to find out what had happened and there it was: none of the livestock of the Israelites had died—not one death. But Pharaoh stayed stubborn. He wouldn’t release the people.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

9 Then the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. 2 For if thou refuse to let them go, and wilt hold them still, 3 Behold, the hand of the LORD is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain. 4 And the LORD shall sever between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt: and there shall nothing die of all that is the children’s of Israel. 5 And the LORD appointed a set time, saying, To morrow the LORD shall do this thing in the land. 6 And the LORD did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one. 7 And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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