God sent a series of plagues on the nation of Egypt to punish them for their treatment of the Israelites and to convince them to set the Israelites free. The fifth judgment was a terrible plague, possibly a type of murrain, among the livestock of the Egyptians. Exodus 9:6 describes the results of this plague: “All of the livestock of the Egyptians died.”
Later in the same chapter, God tells Moses to warn the Israelites to bring their livestock in to protect them from the seventh plague, the plague of hail. Exodus 9:20 then declares, “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside.” This detail causes a seeming discrepancy: if all the livestock of Egypt were destroyed in Exodus 9:6, how did some of the Egyptians still have livestock remaining in Exodus 9:20?
Skeptics and critics of the Bible like to point to Exodus 9:6 and 20 as an example of a contradiction in the Bible. However, there is a reasonable explanation for how the Egyptians could have their livestock destroyed and then possess livestock again in the same chapter. Exodus 9:6 and Exodus 9:20 can be reconciled.
One way to reconcile the fact that “all of the livestock of the Egyptians died” in the fifth plague with the presence of livestock in the seventh plague is to assume enough time passed between those two plagues to allow for the Egyptians to replenish their stock. The book of Exodus does not say how much time was in between the various plagues. We often assume that the plagues occurred almost immediately after each other. That is not necessarily the case.
There could have been a significant amount of time in between some of the plagues. After all of Egypt’s livestock was destroyed in Exodus 9:6, the Egyptians would have needed to quickly rebuild their herds. Where would the Egyptians have found livestock? They could have imported (or forcefully acquired) animals from neighboring countries. The animals could also have been taken from the Israelites, whose livestock were spared from the fifth plague. The Israelites were slaves, after all. In these ways, a portion of the Egyptian herds could have been rapidly restored.
Another way to reconcile the details of the fifth plague with the details of the seventh plague is to define the word all loosely. When Exodus 9:6 says that “all the livestock of the Egyptians died,” all does not have to be interpreted in an absolute sense; it could denote a very large quantity—the mortality rate was so high that what remained of the herds was nothing in comparison. The plague decimated the livestock but did not wholly destroy them.
Further, the context of Exodus 9:6 suggests that all should be understood in a limited sense. Moses’ warning of the coming plague seems to place a spatial limit on it: “The hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses, donkeys and camels and on your cattle, sheep and goats” (Exodus 9:3). The fifth plague would affect all types of livestock, but only those “in the field,” it seems. Perhaps animals secured in shelters were immune from the lethal effects of the plague.
Whatever the case, there is no real conflict between Exodus 9:6 and 20. As with other “contradictions” and “errors” in the Bible, the Egyptian livestock question has a viable and intellectually plausible answer.