This is an excellent question that requires careful examination of the biblical text. Exodus 9 describes two of the plagues that God sent upon Egypt – a plague on the livestock in verses 1-7, and a plague of boils on the Egyptians and their animals in verses 8-12.
In Exodus 9:6, we read that during the livestock plague, “All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.” This seems to imply that all the Egyptian livestock died in this plague. Yet later in verse 20, during the plague of boils, we read that some Egyptians who “feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside.” How could they bring in their livestock if all the livestock had died?
There are a few potential explanations that Bible scholars have proposed:
- The livestock plague may have only affected livestock “in the field” (Exodus 9:3), not livestock stabled inside.
- It may have only affected certain types of livestock, like horses, camels, and cattle, but not smaller livestock like goats, sheep and chickens.
- The plague was regional, affecting the lands of Egypt differently. Goshen where the Israelites lived was spared (Exodus 9:26) so other regions may have also been unaffected.
- “All” in verse 6 may be hyperbolic, emphasizing the extent of the plague rather than absolute totality. Plagues often had gradations of severity.
- Egyptians from unaffected regions may have come to the aid of those whose livestock was struck and helped replenish their livestock.
- The verse highlights the Israelite’s faith – they obeyed and protected their animals despite no plague symptoms yet.
The text does not give definitive details, so biblical scholars have applied reasoning to offer possible explanations. Ultimately, the focus of the narrative seems to be God’s merciful protection of His people Israel amidst His just judgments on Egypt’s rebellion rather than the precise scope of livestock loss. The power of God is displayed either way.
Some additional factors to consider:
- The two events are separated by some unspecified amount of time. Livestock take time to reproduce, but Egypt had many resources.
- The Egyptians greatly valued their livestock. They would have made efforts to replenish whatever was lost.
- “Livestock” may refer only to large herd animals. Smaller domestic animals could have been unaffected.
- The livestock plague may have had a gradual rather than instant impact, allowing some livestock to be protected.
In conclusion, while an initial reading seems puzzling, careful examination shows there are plausible explanations for how there could still be some Egyptian livestock to bring in, though severely diminished. The text emphasizes God’s sovereign power through the plagues and His mercy towards Israel by shielding them from the same judgments on Egypt.
Further Details and Explanation
Let’s explore some of these potential explanations in more depth:
1. The livestock plague may have only affected animals “in the field”
Exodus 9:3 describes the livestock plague as targeting livestock “in the field.” Some scholars suggest this implies livestock stabled inside were not affected. Egyptian artwork commonly showed cattle stabled inside the walls of homes. If these stabled animals were spared, it would explain why Egyptians had some livestock remaining to shelter after the plague struck livestock “in the field.”
2. The plague may have only affected certain types of livestock
The Hebrew word used is specifically for livestock animals – cattle, horses, camels, sheep, goats, etc. It may not have included smaller household animals like chickens, ducks, and geese. Archaeological evidence also confirms other domesticated animals like pigs and dogs in ancient Egypt. If smaller domestic livestock survived, it would account for Egyptians having some animals remaining after the major livestock like cattle were destroyed.
3. The plague may have been regional or localized
We know from Exodus 9:26 that the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was completely spared from this plague. It is possible other regions of Egypt were also spared or had lighter severity. Citizens of those areas could have retained some of their livestock while the hard-hit areas lost all or most of theirs.
4. “All” may be hyperbolic, indicating a severe plague but not absolute 100% loss
“All” is sometimes used in a hyperbolic sense in the Bible to emphasize a severe judgment, without implying absolute totality. For example, Exodus 10:15 describes locusts covering “the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened.” Though clearly extensive, it likely wasn’t literally 100% of the land. Some livestock may have survived through the severity of the judgment.
5. Egyptians from unaffected regions may have helped replenish livestock
If the plague was localized, Egyptians from unaffected areas could have shared livestock with devastated regions. The Egyptian people as a whole are being judged, so sharing resources aligns with maintaining national pride and unity in the face of Israel’s God.
6. The verse highlights the Israelites’ faith
This verse emphasizes how the Israelites demonstrated faith in God’s word by sheltering their livestock, even before any plague symptoms appeared. The focus is God’s people’s obedience, not precise ratios of livestock loss. Either way, God protected His people amidst judgment on Egypt.
As we can see, there are several reasonable explanations for why Egyptians may still have had some livestock remaining after the livestock plague. While we can’t be certain of the exact circumstances, God’s faithful protection of His people is powerfully displayed.
Addressing Potential Counterarguments
Some counterarguments could be raised against the potential explanations discussed above. Let’s explore some of these in more detail:
Counterargument 1: The plague was clearly total based on Exodus 9:6 – “All the livestock of the Egyptians died.”
Response: As discussed earlier, “all” is sometimes used as hyperbole in the Bible rather than meaning absolute 100% totality. Also, “the livestock of the Egyptians” may refer to specifically herd animals. Absolute literalism may not be the intent here.
Counterargument 2: Exodus 9:7 reiterates this was an exceedingly severe plague.
Response: Severity and totality are not exactly equivalent. The plague clearly inflicted massive damage, but some livestock may have survived through sheltering or regional variations.
Counterargument 3: Archaeological evidence shows no disruption of Egyptian livestock practices, suggesting minimal impact.
Response: Archaeological evidence has limitations for plagues affecting livestock. Cemeteries show continuity in animal offerings, but donors likely came from multiple areas. Artwork emphasized cultural continuity. So evidence may be inconclusive.
The biblical text itself indicates this was a significant judgment on Egyptian livestock. But evidence allows room for some Egyptian livestock to remain afterward, which resolves the dilemma.
Counterargument 4: Exodus 9:19 refers to Egyptians saving their livestock, not what remained.
Response: This verse does seem to imply they had livestock remaining to shelter. It demonstrates some livestock survived the initial plague.
In summary, the counterarguments raised all have reasonable responses. The potential explanations align well with a close reading of the text and what we know of ancient Egypt.
Significance and Conclusion
What is the significance of this issue and potential explanations for Exodus 9:20? A few key points:
- It illustrates the importance of carefully studying the text for insight into difficult passages.
- It shows we should not always interpret “all” in an absolutist literal sense.
- It displays God’s mercy even amidst judgment by sparing some livestock.
- It highlights God’s clear protection of His people Israel from the same plagues affecting Egypt.
In conclusion, this issue provides an opportunity to dig deeper into biblical interpretation. Viable explanations exist for the dilemma posed by Exodus 9:20. Most significantly, it illuminates God’s mercy, power and faithfulness towards those who are His even in the midst of terrible judgments on those who resist Him.