The Biblical Book of Exodus describes that the Lord commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh [who is not specifically identified] to call for the release of the Israelites who were under oppression in Egypt. When Pharaoh refused to cooperate, Egypt became afflicted with ten "signs and wonders"1: waters turning into blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first-borns.2 This is often referred to as "the narrative of the plagues."3 The nature of these plagues has historically been interpreted in two ways. The traditional understanding has been that these signs were the miraculous and "direct work of God for His purposes"4 -- that being to demonstrate His power and to gain release of the Israelites. Another theory that has received some popularity is to explain the series of plagues as the effect of natural causes and particularly related to the ancient Santorini volcano eruption.5
'Abdu'l-Bahá offers another understanding of this narrative by explaining the nature of the first plague, the water turning to blood, as a symbol of the degradation caused by holding onto traditional forms of power and thereby denying the current Word of God. The "waters that were in the rivers" symbolize the wealth, power, and religion that had been the cause of life and prosperity in Pharaoh's nation. Due to pride and denial of the Word of God as revealed by Moses, attachment to traditional ways became the cause of their demise. Metaphorically, what had been life-giving waters were turned to blood:
So the kingdom, wealth and power of Pharaoh and his people, which were the causes of the life of the nation, became, through their opposition, denial and pride, the cause of death, destruction, dispersion, degradation and poverty.6
Although 'Abdu'l-Bahá interpreted only the first plague, His explanation opens a new perspective on the entire plague narrative: neither God nor the Manifestation inflicts suffering on anyone -- the plagues symbolize the suffering brought on oneself and entire peoples with the choice to turn away from the Word of God and to hold onto traditional power. This is an archetypal truth.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the remaining nine plagues through an exploration of how these terms (frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness, and first born) are used in other contexts in the Bahá'í Writings in order to get a sense of the symbolism that may be contained in these Biblical verses. The paper will close with an examination of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation of the culmination of the Exodus story: the crossing of the Red Sea.
Houston, Walter. "Exodus" in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 73.
Trevesano, Siro Igino. The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History, and Science Look at the Bible. New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005.