The fifth plague that God brought upon Egypt was the death of their livestock by means of a pestilence. After informing Pharaoh of God’s decision to destroy Egypt’s animals if he refused to let Israel leave the country, “the next day...all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one died” (Exodus 9:6, emp. added). Some question the reliability of this statement in light of later comments about Egypt’s remaining livestock. Prior to the seventh plague, Moses warned Egypt to “send now and gather your livestock and all that you have in the field, for the hail shall come down on every man and every animal which is found in the field and is not brought home; and they shall die” (Exodus 9:19). Furthermore, the final plague that God sent upon Egypt was the death of the firstborn—of man and livestock (Exodus 12:29). According to skeptic Steve Wells, “[T]here shouldn’t have been any cattle since God already killed them with a ‘grievous murrain’” (2007). Additionally, in light of the fact that horses also were mentioned as dying by disease (Exodus 9:3), critic Dennis McKinsey has asked, “How...could the Pharaohs [sic] army have pursued the Israelites on horses and horse-drawn chariots” following the tenth plague (1998, 181:4; cf. Exodus 14:7)? Are such biblical statements contradictory?
First, one must recognize that the term “all” frequently is used in Scripture (as well as in modern times) to mean “the greater part of” or “all of a particular category,” and not necessarily “all” in the absolute sense. Earlier in the book of Exodus, Moses recorded that “all the Egyptians dug all around the river for water to drink” following the first plague (Exodus 7:24, emp. added). No sensible, fair-minded person believes that Moses meant that every single Egyptian, including infant, disabled, elderly, etc. was digging for water. Moses was using “all” in a relative sense. When Scripture says that “Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel” (2 Samuel 16:22, emp. added), the inspired writer did not mean that every single Israelite on Earth witnessed the event, but that Absalom’s actions were public in nature and apparent for anyone to see. When Luke wrote that “all the tax collectors and the sinners” drew near to Jesus (15:1, emp. added), he did not intend to communicate to his readers that every single tax collector and sinner in the world (or even in one area) gathered around Jesus. Rather, a great many of the tax collectors and sinners went to see Jesus.
A similar figurative use of “all” often is used in modern times. Consider the basketball broadcaster who comments on a player shooting two free throws with .5 seconds remaining in a tied game. “All eyes are on him,” the announcer says. Literally, most people in the arena would be watching the player, but not all, and certainly not everyone in the world. One might say that “all the world knows what happened in America on September 11, 2001,” and yet he means that most all the world is aware of the events, i.e., the event is common knowledge. In Exodus 9:6, Moses simply used a figure of speech, known as synecdoche, common in both ancient and modern times.
Second, a careful examination of Exodus nine reveals that God actually clarified which of the Egyptian livestock would perish. God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh: “If you refuse to let them [Israel] go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats” (vss. 2-3, NIV). Thus, not only is “all” frequently used in a relative sense, but in the very passage that supposedly is unreliable, God limited the livestock to those “which are in the field” (NASB). Undoubtedly, many horses, oxen, etc. would have been in stalls and escaped death, including Pharaoh’s war horses (cf. Exodus 14:6-7).
Third, following the fifth plague and prior to subsequent plagues, Pharaoh could have begun replenishing Egypt’s livestock by purchasing or confiscating animals from surrounding peoples, including the Israelites. The burden of proof is upon skeptics to show that such could not have happened.
Considering how detailed Moses was in recording God’s judgment upon Egypt, it is extremely frustrating to read the careless, condescending criticisms of modern-day skeptics. The same writer who carefully documented (1) that “the Egyptians dug all around the river for water to drink” following the first plague (Exodus 7:4), (2) how
“[t]hick swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh” during the fourth plague (8:24), and (3) that “wheat and the spelt were not struck” when God rained hail from heaven, because “they are late crops” (9:32), supposedly forgot about every single cow, horse, etc. that died during the fifth plague? Although good evidence exists that exonerates Moses and dismisses assertions of discrepancy, even on the surface one should be taken aback by the skeptic’s overconfident, unsubstantiated criticisms.
McKinsey, Dennis (1998), “Does the Bible Contradict Itself? (Part 1),” Biblical Errancy, 181:3-4, January.
Wells, Steve (2007), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/ex/12.html#29.