The Plagues: Evidence or No Evidence

Date: 13th century BCE

Discovered: Saqqara, Egypt

Period: Exodus

Torah Passage: Exodus 7:14–12:36

I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned to blood…and the blood was through all the land of Egypt (Exodus 7:17,21).

An ancient Egyptian text, written by a man named Ipuwer and referred to as the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, was a poetic lamentation addressed to the “All Lord,” who is typically understood to be the sun god Ra. The poem describes a time in which the natural order in Egypt was severely disrupted by death, destruction, and plagues.

The only surviving copy of the papyrus dates to the 13th century BCE, perhaps as early as 1300 BCE. While most scholars suggest it was originally written in the Second Intermediate Period due to content, the linguistics of the text and the date of the copy indicate that it was composed during the 18th Dynasty around the 16th–14th centuries BCE.

The name Ipuwer is also know from inscriptions of the 18th Dynasty, and in particular one from the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III just prior to the Exodus. Any historical events mentioned in the text must have occurred prior to the 13th century BCE and possibly in the 18th Dynasty. If the Admonitions describes events similar to the plagues recorded in Exodus, and the Egyptian account was composed in the same general time period as the events of the Exodus, then it is plausible that the two documents contain independent accounts of the identical episode in history but from different perspectives.

Passages in the poem, such as the river being blood, blood everywhere, plague and pestilence throughout the land, the grain being destroyed, disease causing physical disfigurement, the prevalence of death, mourning throughout the land, rebellion against Ra the sun god, the death of children, the authority of the pharaoh being lost, the gods of Egypt being ineffective and losing a battle, and jewelry now being in the possession of the slaves, are all occurrences in common with the Exodus story.

Thematic and even linguistic links between the Admonitions and the plagues of Exodus have been recognized by scholars, but typically these connections are discounted on the presupposition that neither the book of Exodus nor the Admonitions of Ipuwer describe historical events, and that even if they did, the two texts would be too far separated in time from one another.

However, since the chronology may overlap, and the match in specificity of many of the events suggests the possibility that the documents are describing the same general events and period of hardship in Egypt, the Admonitions could be an Egyptian remembrance and near contemporary account of the time of the Exodus plagues.

Sources: Essential Judaism, Unearthing the Bible, myjewishlearning.com, Chabad.org.

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