International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
plag (negha`, makkah, maggephah; mastix, plege): This word which occurs more than 120 times is applied, like pestilence, to such sudden outbursts of disease as are regarded in the light of divine visitations. It is used in the description of leprosy about 60 times in Leviticus 13 and 14, as well as in Deuteronomy 24:8. In the poetical, prophetic and eschatological books it occurs about 20 times in the general sense of a punitive disaster. The Gospel references (Mark 3:10; Mark 5:29, 34 Luke 7:21) use the word as a synonym for disease.
The specific disease now named "plague" has been from the earliest historic times a frequent visitant to Palestine and Egypt. Indeed in the Southeast between Gaza and Bubastis it has occurred so frequently that it may almost be regarded as endemic. The suddenness of its attack, the shortness of its incubation period and the rapidity of its course give it the characters which of old have been associated with manifestations of divine anger. In the early days of an epidemic it is no infrequent occurrence that 60 per cent of those attacked die within three days. I have seen a case in which death took place ten hours after the first symptoms. In the filthy and insanitary houses of eastern towns, the disease spreads rapidly. In a recent epidemic in one village of 534 inhabitants 311 died within 21 days, and I once crossed the track of a party of pilgrims to Mecca of whom two-thirds died of plague on the road. Even with modern sanitary activity, it is very difficult to root it out, as our recent experiences in Hong Kong and India have shown.
Of the Biblical outbreaks that were not improbably bubonic plague, the first recorded is the slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt-the 10th plague. We have too little information to identify it (Exodus 11:1). The Philistines, however, used the same name, negha`, for the Egyptian plagues (1 Samuel 4:8) as is used in Exodus. The next outbreak was at Kibroth-hataavah (Numbers 11:33). This was synchronous with the phenomenal flight of quails, and if these were, as is probable, driven by the wind from the plague-stricken Serbonian region, they were equally probably the carriers of the infection. Experience in both India and China has shown that animals of very diverse kinds can carry germs of the disease. A third visitation fell on the spies who brought back an evil report (Numbers 14:37). A fourth destroyed those who murmured at the destruction of Korah and his fellow-rebels (Numbers 16:47). These may have been recrudescences of the infection brought by the quails. The fifth outbreak was that which followed the gross religious and moral defection at, Baal-peor (Numbers 25:8, 9, 18; Numbers 26:1; Numbers 31:16 Joshua 22:17 Psalm 106:29, 30). Here the disease was probably conveyed by the Moabites.
A later epidemic, which was probably of bubonic plague, was that which avenged the capture of the ark (1 Samuel 5:6). We read of the tumors which were probably the glandular enlargements characteristic of this disease; also that at the time there was a plague of rats (1 Samuel 6:5)-"mice," in our version, but the word is also used as the name of the rat. The cattle seem to have carried the plague to Beth-shemesh, as has been observed in more than one place in China (1 Samuel 6:19). Concerning the three days' pestilence that followed David's census (2 Samuel 24:15 1 Chronicles 21:12), see Josephus, Ant, VII, xiii, 3. The destruction of the army of Sennacherib may have been a sudden outbreak of plague (2 Kings 19:35 Isaiah 37:36). It is perhaps worthy of note that in Herodotus' account of the destruction of this army (ii.141) he refers to the incursion of swarms of mice.
One of the latest prophetic mentions of plague is Hosea 13:14, where the plague (debher, Septuagint dike) of death and the destruction (qaTabh, Septuagint kentron) of the grave are mentioned. From this passage Paul quotes his apostrophe at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:55, but the apostle correlates the sting (kentron) with death, and changes the dike into nikos.