The Structural Paradigm of the Ten Plagues Narrative and the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

in Vetus Testamentum
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The Ten Plagues narrative is classically considered a heavily redacted unit. The most widely accepted structural division in research is the model of three units of three plagues, which concludes with the death of the firstborn (3-3-3-1). This theory, well justified as it is from a structural and textual perspective, is not without its problems. One notable issue is its failure to explain the anomalous description of the seventh and eighth plagues, hail and locusts. This study proposes a new division of the plagues into a unit of seven plagues followed by a unit of three. This division, which, I will show, is supported by the redactive design, has special theological significance. Through this model, I will illustrate how (at least) two different structural paradigms can coexist within a single narrative, illuminating different facets of the multilayered text. In this paradigm, the plagues narrative emerges as two educational processes: the first seven plagues, ending with the plague of hail, are designed to educate Pharaoh and the Egyptians, while the unit of three is also geared towards the education of the Israelites.

The Structural Paradigm of the Ten Plagues Narrative and the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

in Vetus Testamentum




Durham Exodus p. 134.


Propp Exodus 1-18 p. 321 vs. Childs and Durham (above n. 3).


S. B. Noegel“The Significance of the Seventh Plague,” Biblica 76 (1995) pp. 532-539.


Noegel“Seventh Plague” p. 534.


CassutoExodus p. 122.


Noegel“Seventh Plague” p. 359. Similarly: Jacob Exodus p. 187.


Hyatt Exodus p. 117. Compare: G. Beer Exodus (hat; Tübingen 1939) pp. 53-54; Childs Exodus pp. 131 141-142 158-159.


ProppExodus 1-18 p. 336. I am not convinced by Propp’s claim because after the mention of “your son and your son’s son” the use of the plural referring to the entire nation is appropriate. Propp argued that once again the hand of E is evident alongside that of P here. These verses are more widely attributed to J (see for example Noth: “The J narrative stands to the forefront of the section” Exodus p. 82). In fact the most prevalent opinion today is that these verses cannot be attributed to P.


JacobExodus p. 194. The anomaly in these verses stems from the unique nature of the plague of locusts as the introduction to a new unit of plagues and should therefore not be viewed as a corruption of the text despite the Qumran sources. See: B. Lemmelijn “Influence of a So-called P-Redaction in the ‘Major Expansions’ of Exod 7-11? Finding Oneself at the Crossroads of Textual and Literary Criticism” in A. P. Otero and P. A. T. Morales (eds.) Textual Criticism and Dead Sea Scrolls Studies in Honour of Julio Trebolle Barrera; Florilegium Complutense (Leiden 2012) p. 212.


See also: ChildsExodus136; C. Isbell “Exodus 1-2 in the Context of Exodus 1-14: Story Lines and Key Words” in D. J. A. Clines D. Gunn and A. J. Hauser (eds.) Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature (Sheffield 1982) pp. 37-61; G. F. Davies Israel in Egypt: Reading Exodus 1-2 (JSOTSup 135; Sheffield 1992) pp. 58-59; G. Fischer “Exodus 1–15. Eine Erzählung” in M. Vervenne (ed.) Studies in the Book of Exodus: Redaction Reception Interpretation Leuven: Peeters Publishers 1996 p. 176. My argument contradicts Peter Weimar’s claim that the plague of boils concludes the first process of the plagues with the purpose of educating the Egyptians while the purpose of the series of plagues initiated by the hail was to prove God’s strength to the entire world. See P. Weimar “Nicht konnten die Magier vor Mose hintreten” (Ex 911): Rolle und Bedeutung von Ex 98-12 im Rahmen der Plagenerzählung” in I. Kottsieper R. Schmitt und J. Wöhrle (eds.) Berührungspunkte: Studien zur Sozial- und Religionsgeschichte Israels und seiner Umwelt (aoat 350; Münster 2008) pp. 97-117.


G. K. Beale“An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9,” Trinity Journal 5 (1984) pp. 129-154. On the approaches of Origen Gregory of Nyssa Midrash Rabbah Augustine and Luther see: C. M. McGinnis “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6 (2012) pp. 43-64 and compare to: L. F. Pizzolato “L’’indurimento’ del cuore del Faraone tra Gregorio di Nissa e Agostino” Augustinianum 35 (1995) pp. 511-525. For recent studies see references in: R. R. Wilson “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart” cbq 41 (1979) p. 18 n. 2; R. B. Chisholm Jr. “Divine Hardening in the Old Testament” Bibliotheka Sacra 153 (1996) pp. 410-434; M. McAffee “The Heart of Pharaoh in Exodus 4-15” Bulletin of Biblical Research 20 (2010) p. 331 n. 1.


See also McGinnis“The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart” pp. 50-52.


For example: Gunn“The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart” p. 77.


Wilson“The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart” p. 22. See also Hyatt Exodus p. 102; Propp Exodus 1-18 pp. 311-12.


G.K. Beale“An Exegetical and Theological Consideration Of The Hardening Of Pharaoh’s Heart In Exodus 4-14 And Romans 9,” Trinity Journal 5 (1984) pp. 140-141.


McAffee“The Heart of Pharaoh” pp. 349-350.


GertzTradition und Redaktion pp. 92-93.


See Osborn and HattonA Handbook on Exodus161. The plague of hail which concludes the first group does not include the phrases ‘did not listen’ or ‘did not send’ present in the second group of plagues. The anomalies in the formulation of the plague of hail stem from the fact that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in this plague although this fact is only related in retrospect to the introduction to the last group of plagues as discussed below.


Weimar“Nicht Konnten” p. 100.


See also: JacobExodus p. 187. Here too I refer to the final redaction of the narrative. Some claimed that the plague of the firstborn was a later addition to the basic unit of the first nine plagues (for a discussion of this claim see: J. L. Ska “Les plaies d’Egypte dans le récit sacerdotal” Biblica 60 [1979] pp. 23-35; Lemmelijn “Setting and Function” pp. 443-460).


Compare: CassutoExodus p. 134.

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