Or consider one of my all-time favorite passages, the description of the ten plagues that Moses brought down on the heads of the Egyptians in order to compel Pharaoh to “let my people go.” The fifth plague was a pestilence that killed “all of the livestock of the Egyptians (Exodus 9:5). How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields (Exodus 9:21-22)? What livestock? [Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, page 10]
One thing you have to give my old university professor credit for is that he writes in an intriguing style. As you’ve seen in the so-called “contradictions” of Ehrman’s I’ve tackled so far, there are no contradictions, yet Ehrman keeps you interested in what he’s got cooked up next.
But our work here is not about intrigue or fascination, but rather, the claim that the Bible contains contradictions. We’ve defended the idea that Abiathar and Ahimelech were both priests in 1 Samuel 21, that the rooster crowed twice before Peter denied Jesus the third time, and that Matthew’s wise men (Magi) and Luke’s shepherds in their respective gospels came to visit Jesus at different times and are not giving two different, unique accounts of the Christ visitation. Our journey now takes us to the Old Testament for a while, where we investigate the fifth and seven plagues the Lord brought on Egypt.
Ehrman says in the quote above that the issue he has between these two plagues concerns the livestock: in the fifth plague, the Lord tells the Egyptians that He will kill all their livestock in the fifth plague — and it happens. And yet, a few verses later in the seventh plague, the Lord warns Egypt that He will attack their livestock.
Even worse, there are some in Egypt who hide this supposedly non-existent, “exterminated” livestock. In short, if all the Egyptian livestock was wiped out in the fifth plague, how then, does any livestock of Egypt’s remain in the seventh plague?
Reconciling “all livestock” and “some livestock”
This does seem contradictory, no doubt, until you consider that there is a way to reconcile the passages. My theory here is that the fifth and seventh plagues are incorrectly ordered: that is, the seventh plague should come first, then the sixth plague regarding boils, and finally the fifth plague. In other words, before the Lord wipes out all the livestock in the fifth plague, He tells Egypt to hide their livestock and only eliminates some of the livestock in the seventh plague.
The fifth and seventh plagues in Exodus 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 Sixth Plague: Boils
8 So the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take for yourselves handfuls of ashes from a furnace, and let Moses scatter it toward the heavens in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 And it will become fine dust in all the land of Egypt, and it will cause boils that break out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” 10 Then they took ashes from the furnace and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses scattered them toward heaven. And they caused boils that break out in sores on man and beast. 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians. 12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
The Seventh Plague: Hail
13 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me, 14 for at this time I will send all My plagues to your very heart, and on your servants and on your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth. 15 Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth. 17 As yet you exalt yourself against My people in that you will not let them go. 18 Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause very heavy hail to rain down, such as has not been in Egypt since its founding until now. 19 Therefore send now and gather your livestock and all that you have in the field, for the hail shall come down on every man and every animal which is found in the field and is not brought home; and they shall die.”’”
20 He who feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his livestock flee to the houses. 21 But he who did not regard the word of the Lord left his servants and his livestock in the field.
22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt—on man, on beast, and on every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt.” 23 And Moses stretched out his rod toward heaven; and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire darted to the ground. And the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt. 24 So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, so very heavy that there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 And the hail struck throughout the whole land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail struck every herb of the field and broke every tree of the field. 26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, there was no hail. (Exodus 9:1-26)
In Exodus 9:6, we read that “all the livestock of Egypt died,” but in Exodus 9:19, we read the Lord telling Egypt to “Send now and gather your livestock and all that you have in the field, for the hail shall come down on every man and every animal which is found in the field and is not brought home; and they shall die.” If all the livestock of Egypt died, how is it, then, that thirteen verses later, the Lord threatens to kill “every animal which is found in the field” and “they shall die”? If all the livestock are killed in the fifth plague, then there would be none to kill in the seventh plague.
And yet, if the plagues are reversed, with the seventh plague becoming “fifth” and the fifth plague becoming “seventh,” then it all makes sense: the seventh plague comes first, where the Lord threatens to kill all the livestock in the field, and then the fifth plague comes last, where the Lord warns, after sparing the livestock brought in the fields, that He would kill all the livestock whether in hiding or in the open field.
We’ve looked at the so-called contradiction of Exodus 9 and seen that the fifth and seventh plagues can be reconciled if one reverses the places: that is, the fifth plague becomes the seventh and the seventh becomes the fifth. Then, the account reads coherently.
All it took to reconcile these was a simple reordering of the plagues. No matter what order the plagues came in, Scripture is clear that the God of Israel caused them — and that He did it to display His power over Pharaoh and Egypt.