Question: "Is there extra-biblical evidence of the ten plagues in Egypt?"
Answer: Some critics of the Bible claim that there is no verifiable evidence to support the Bible’s account of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. They say that Egyptologists have found no record of the Hebrew people in Egypt or the ten plagues as described in the book of Exodus. Christians accept that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and they do not doubt that these events happened. They do not require extra-biblical accounts. However, external evidence can be useful in silencing detractors who say the ten plagues and the Exodus are just myths.
The Ipuwer Papyrus is an ancient document that provides a possible independent record of the ten plagues in Egypt. It describes a great disaster that took place in ancient Egypt. The oldest copy dates to around 1400 BC, placing it close to the time of the Exodus (circa 1446 BC). The Ipuwer Papyrus is the sole surviving manuscript of an ancient Egyptian poem officially designated as Papyrus Leiden I-344. The poem is known as “The Admonitions of Ipuwer.” A new edition is available now entitled “The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All.” Dutchman Giovanni Anastasi purchased the Ipuwer Papyrus in 1828, and it is now housed in Leiden, the Netherlands, at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.
We shall now compare the Bible’s account of the plagues with the relevant parts of the Ipuwer Papyrus.
The first plague (turning the Nile to blood). The Nile River, which formed the basis of daily life and the national economy in Egypt, was devastated as millions of fish died and the water was unusable. Pharaoh was told by God, “By this you will know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 7:17). The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere” (2:5–6). “The river is blood. . . . Men shrink from tasting—human beings, and thirst after water” (2:10). “That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof? All is ruin” (3:10–13).
The fifth plague (the death of livestock). God protected His people from this plague, while the cattle of the Egyptians died. God was steadily destroying the economy of Egypt, while showing His ability to protect and provide for those who obeyed Him. Pharaoh even sent investigators (Exodus 9:18–35) to find out if the Israelites were suffering along with the Egyptians, but the result was a hardening of his heart against them. The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan” (5:5). “Behold, cattle are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together (9:2–3).
The seventh plague (hail and fire). This hail was unlike any that had been seen before. It was accompanied by a fire which ran along the ground, and everything left out in the open was devastated by the hail and fire. Again, the children of Israel were miraculously protected, and no hail damaged anything in their lands (Exodus 9:35). The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire” (2:10). “Lower Egypt weeps. . . . The entire palace is without its revenues. To it belong [by right] wheat and barley, geese and fish” (10:3–6). “Forsooth, grain has perished on every side” (6:3). “Forsooth, that has perished which was yesterday seen. The land is left over to its weariness like the cutting of flax” (5:12).
The ninth plague (darkness). For three days, the land of Egypt was smothered with an unearthly darkness, but the homes of the Israelites had light (Exodus 10:22–23). The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “The land is without light” (9:11).
The tenth and last plague (the death of firstborn males). Every household that did not apply the blood of the Passover sacrifice saw the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:23). The Ipuwer Papyrus says, “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls” (4:3 and 5:6). “Forsooth, the children of princes are cast out in the streets” (6:12). “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere” (2:13). “It is groaning throughout the land, mingled with lamentations” (3:14).
The Ipuwer Papyrus also contains a possible reference to the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt, laden with treasures: “Gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze . . . are fastened on the neck of female slaves” (3:2; cf. Exodus 12:35–38). Further, there is a possible description of the pillar of fire: “Behold, the fire has mounted up on high. Its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land” (7:1; cf. Exodus 13:20–22).
Egyptologist David Rohl, who doesn’t claim to be a Christian, has written two books on how biblical accounts relating to Egypt, Joseph, and Moses are astonishingly accurate. He believes Joseph and Moses were historic characters and cites Bronze Age slave lists containing Hebrew names, the grave goods of an underclass discovered at Avaris (the biblical Goshen), and Egyptian “plague pits” full of skeletal remains.
While the Bible does not need confirmation from secular historians, and Christians do not require extra-biblical accounts in order to believe the Bible, it is interesting that independent records of biblical events exist—records with remarkable parallels to the biblical accounts.