Twentieth-century Americans find it difficult to comprehend the notion of plagues. Plagues border on the realm of the unreal; they are the stuff of tall tales, myths and legends. But in the Biblical world, plagues were very real, even ever-present. The plagues of pestilence that were visited on Pharaoh and the Egyptians before he agreed to let the Israelites go reflected an immediacy to the Biblical writer and his initial audience. We, living in the 20th century, must make an affirmative effort to recover this immediacy if we are to enter the Biblical world.
Archaeologically recovered texts help us to do this. For example, in the so-called Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage,1 dating to about 2000 B.C., the prophet Ipu-wer laments the consequences of several plagues that devastated Egypt.
Plagues and pestilence were no respecters of persons. What we would call epidemics attacked king and commoner alike, to say nothing of livestock.
A letter from the cache of cuneiform tablets found at Tell el-Amarna reports that a certain Babylonian princess, whom the Pharaoh Amenophis III (c. 1402–1364 B.C.) had requested to marry, has died during an epidemic.2 The Babylonian king, Burna-Buriash II, therefore offers another princess. On this basis, a diplomatic marriage was to be successfully negotiated. Kings were thus concerned with the consequences of epidemics on both a personal level and a political level.
In another Tell el-Amarna letter, the king of Alashiya (probably the ancient name of Cyprus) writes to the Pharaoh to inform him that a severe plague has been devastating the land of Alashiya for some time. One of the notable victims of the “hand of Nergal”3 is a young prince of Alashiya who has died in the palace. The Egyptian ambassador to Alashiya evidently also died in this epidemic.
The expression “hand of Nergal” to designate an outbreak of a plague has an exact parallel in the Biblical Hebrew euphemism yad Yahweh, “the hand of Yahweh,” a phrase used in Exodus 9-3 to describe the fifth plague that struck Egypt. This plague, called daber in Exodus 9-15, affected only the livestock of Egypt, killing all the livestock.
In a letter from another cuneiform archive, this one from Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and dating to the 14th century B.C.,a we find the expression yd ilm,b “the hand of the god(s),”4 possibly referring to an outbreak of pestilence.
The severe economic repercussions that could be caused by a plague are reflected in the same letter to Pharaoh from the king of Alashiya referred to above. There the king states that he can dispatch only a small quantity of copper as a gift to the Pharaoh, “since in my land the hand of Nergal, my Lord, has killed all the people of my country, and there is no copper-smith.” Copper production, the main export product of Cyprus, apparently had to be halted because of the epidemic.
Egypt was particularly famous for its physicians, and this gave the pestilential plagues in Exodus a special force, confounding even the elite corps of Egyptian physicians. In one letter5 from Tell el-Amarna, king Niqmaddu II of Ugarit writes to the Pharaoh to request an Egyptian royal physician. Niqmaddu emphasizes that there is no such physician at Ugarit.6
In a 13th-century B.C. Hittite text,7 we learn that Pharaoh Ramesses II sent an Egyptian royal scribe and physician named Pariamahu to the court of Hattusûili III, in order to prepare plant prescriptions for use by Kurunta, the king of Tarhundasa in southern Anatolia.
Centuries later, Homer8 characterized Egypt as a land of famous physicians, where every man is a doctor, since their race “is descended from the healing god Paieon.” This Greek tradition no doubt originated in the Bronze Age, probably in the 14th century B.C., when Egypt maintained extensive contacts with the Aegean.
It was precisely against these famous Egyptian physicians that the hand of Yahweh manifested its powers. In the course of the third plague, lice (Hebrew kinniµm), the Egyptian magicians tell Pharaoh, “This is the finger of god” (Exodus 8-15). That is, they themselves interpret this outbreak as divine in origin.
Another Tell el-Amarna letter (No. 96) reports on a plague at the important Egyptian garrison town of Sumur in Syria. The Canaanite prince of nearby Byblos has acted to keep the people of Sumur from entering his town because of this plague, indicating that the rulers understand quite well the nature of communicable diseases. The Egyptian military governor then requested that the Canaanite prince submit to him a complete report on the impact of this plague. The military governor’s handling of the matter was then reported to Pharaoh himself.
Once a plague broke out, a physician (asû) might be required, or possibly a magical-healer (aµsûipu), or a conjurer (sûaµilu)—either separately or all three working together.9
The ancients’ understanding of the nature of communicable diseases is reflected particularly in the use of a quarantine to isolate infected individuals. In a letter from the cache of cuneiform tablets found at 11th-century B.C. Mari (a major city on the Euphrates River), Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari, instructs his chief wife, Queen Sðibtu, to isolate a woman called Nanname from the harem, because she suffers from skin lesions.10 Furthermore, even the personal possessions of the patient are to be avoided. Incidentally, the sixth of the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt was some kind of skin disease (commonly translated “boils”), affecting both human and beast, called sûehiµn in Hebrew (Exodus 9-10).
The Code of Hammurabi11 states that a shepherd was not liable if an affliction of a god occurred in the sheep and goat fold. The expression used to describe this divine wrath (lipit ili[DINGIR]) is also known from other texts to signify a god-caused disease, plague or pestilence.12 This reflects the understanding that certain plagues came from the gods or God, as did the plagues in the Book of Exodus.
In the case of the ten plagues in Exodus, the Bible portrays the Pharaoh and his magicians and physicians confronted first by some plagues that were known previously—blood and frogs. Other plagues, however,—hail and darkness—were unprecedented, and thus defied Egyptian understanding and experience. When that happened, Pharaoh was forced to let the Hebrews go—at least for the moment.
a. Peter C. Craigie, “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Study,” BAR 09-05).
b. The Hebrew cognate would be yad elim.
1. Adolf Erman, The Ancient Egyptians. A Sourcebook of Their Writings, transl. Aylward M. Blackman (New York- Torchbooks/Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 92–108.
2. Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Tell el-Amarna Tablets (EA), 2 vols. (Toronto- Macmillan, 1939), Text No. 11, line 14.
3. Mercer, EA, Text No. 35, line 37.
4. For this text, see Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (Rome, Italy- Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965), Text No. 54, lines 11–12.
5. Mercer, EA, Text No. 49.
6. Mercer, EA, Text No. 49, lines 22–26.
7. See Elmar Edel, Agyptische Arete und agyptische Medizin am hethitischen Konigshof (Opladen, West Germany- Rheinisch-Westflische Akademie der Wissenschafter, 1976), p. 89.
8. Homer, The Odyssey 4-222–232.
9. Edith K. Ritter, “Magical-Expert (+ASIPU), and Physician (+ASU)- Notes on Two Complementary Professions in Babylonian Medicine,” Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger. Assyriological Studies 16 (Chicago, IL- Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 229–321.
10. Georges Dassin, Archives Royales de Mari, vol. 10 (Paris, 1967), No. 129.
11. The Code of Hammurabi, case law #266.
12. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, (Chicago, IL- Univ. of Chicago Press), vol. L, p. 200, s.v. liptu A2.