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Bible Review 19:2, April 2003

Beasts or Bugs?

Solving the Problem of the Fourth Plague

By Gary A. Rendsburg

Blood, frogs, lice, cattle disease, boils … Every spring at the Jewish holiday of Passover, the ten nasties that plagued Egypt are described in the Haggadah, the midrashic retelling of the Exodus from Egypt that is read aloud during the Passover Seder meal.

It is thus appropriate, in this April issue of BR, to raise a question that may spark some discussion among Jews (and some Christians)1 at the Seder ceremony this year: Just what is the fourth plague?

The identities of the other nine are clear: The first three (already mentioned) are blood, frogs and lice; and numbers five through ten are cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn at midnight.2 But the precise nature of the fourth plague, described in Exodus 8:16–20 (verses 20–24 in many English Bibles), has been debated in Jewish sources for nearly 2,000 years.

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