(Ex. 7:14) Why weren’t these 10 plagues recorded by the Egyptians?

CLAIM: None of these plagues exist in extra-biblical history. If supernatural events like this occurred on such a massive level, wouldn’t we have record of these events somewhere else outside of the Bible? One critical scholar writes, “The Odyssey… is basically a piece of children’s literature. So, in its way, is the story of the Exodus. It is the historical myth of an entire people, a focal point of national identity… The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn.”[1] This is an argument from silence. However, critics argue that this is a conspicuous silence. Is this a valid argument?

RESPONSE: Consider several responses to this argument from silence:

This event occurred 3,500 years ago

Because this event was 3,500 years ago, the evidence decays from “natural forces, such as moisture in many forms, deflation, and earthquakes, as well as human impact in the form of later occupation (in ancient times), reusing earlier building materials, human destruction (war and burning), and modern development (urban and agricultural).”[2]

We shouldn’t expect the Egyptians to have recorded this humiliating defeat

The Ten Plagues were a public relations nightmare. Pharaoh claimed to be the son of Amon-Ra, and the Egyptians worshipped him and the nature deities. The Ten Plagues publicly humiliated and exposed Pharaoh as a fraud and his pantheon of deities as fraudulent as well. Moreover, Pharaoh’s poor leadership led to the death to tremendous suffering in Egypt, culminating in the death of the firstborn. It was common practice for the Egyptians to not record any sort of failure—not to mention a catastrophe of this magnitude. Egyptologist James Hoffmeier writes, “The biblical plagues are not documented in Egyptian texts, which is not unexpected since royal inscriptions typically did not record disasters and setbacks experienced by Egypt or its royalty.”[3] When we read Egyptian texts, they only record their victories. This is so common that we might think that they never lost a battle! For this reason, we shouldn’t expect the Egyptians to record these judgments from God.

Egyptian evidence for the Ten Plagues exists, but it is debated

Papyrus Leiden (13th century BC). An Egyptian sage named Ipuwer writes a poem that describes horrible plagues falling on Egypt.[4] The papyrus itself dates to the 13th century BC. However, there are good reasons for dating it even earlier. Indeed, the language in the text fits with the period between the 16th and 14th centuries BC, and the name “Ipuwer” comes from this era as well.[5] Here are key excerpts:

“Poor men have become owners of wealth, and he who could not make sandals for himself is now a possessor of riches” (Section II; Ex. 12:35).

“Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere… The river is blood, yet men drink of it” (Section II; Ex. 7:17-18, 24).

“The robber is a possessor of riches and [the rich man is become] a plunderer… The river is blood” (Section II).

“Gold and lapis lazuli, silver and turquoise, carnelian and amethyst… are strung on the necks of maidservants” (Section III; Ex. 12:35-36).

“Trees are felled and branches are stripped off” (Section IV; Ex. 9:25).

“All animals, their hearts weep; cattle moan because of the state of the land” (Section V; Ex. 9:2-3).

“The children of princes are dashed against walls, and the children of the neck are laid out on the high ground” (Section V; Ex. 12:29).

Egyptian texts refer to the death of the firstborn. The tenth plague might be recorded in several Egyptian texts. In the Pyramid Texts, we read about “that day of slaying the firstborn” (par. 339 a-b), and in the Coffin Texts, we read about “that night… that day of slaying the firstborn” (VI:178; II:163 b-c).[6] The problem with these texts is that they predate the time of the Exodus (2,000 BC), and these might refer to gods—not people. It could be argued, however, that this historical tradition could explain why God chose to take the lives of the firstborn. We’re unsure.

Conclusion. We don’t have strong evidence for the Ten Plagues. At the same time, we shouldn’t expect the Egyptians to record such a devastating defeat. Therefore, this isn’t a conspicuous silence from history.

[1] Baruch Halpern, “The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality?” in Hershel Shanks et. Al., Rise of Ancient Israel, 88-91.

[2] James Hoffmeier, “These Things Happened: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), p.101.

[3] Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 54.

[4] The Ipuwer Papyrus (Papyrus Leiden 344 recto) was first translated by Egyptologist Alan Gardiner and called The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage from a Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden (1909).

[5] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 54.

[6] Mordechai Gilula, “The Smiting of the Firstborn: An Egyptian Myth?” Tel Aviv 4 (1977), 94-95. Cited in Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 369-370.