Although the plagues may seem like random punishments, they are actually a Divine plan to teach the Egyptians some fundamental lessons.
Consider for example the first plague of water turning into blood. It can, as the Midrash points out, be seen as an attack on the Egyptian god, the Nile River. The point of this plague was to drive home to the Egyptians the true impotency of their god.
Alternatively, the plague of blood can be viewed as a measure for measure punishment. Since, as the Midrash adds, the Egyptians drowned Jewish children, shedding their blood in water, hence their water was turned into blood.
The Maharal insists that the plagues reveal God’s unlimited power. The first three are attacks from below—turning the land and sea against the Egyptians (blood, frogs and lice). The next three are attacks from the ground level (beasts, pestilence and boils). And the last three emerge from the heavens (hail, locusts and darkness).
Most important: the plagues do not reveal a God of vengeance but a God of compassion. The movement of the plagues is from the external (blood first attacking water outside the house) to that which is closer (the frogs which enter the home) to the body itself (lice affecting individuals).
Rather than increasing in intensity, the plagues then diminish in power, withdrawing once again to the external (beasts), moving to the inner home (pestilence) and finally to the body (boils). The seventh, eighth and ninth plagues repeat the same cycle. The plagues fluctuate and after each triplet, they give the Egyptians the chance to repent.
Some commentators even insist that in reality there were only three plaques prior to the smiting of the first born as only the third, sixth and ninth plagues impacted directly on the bodies of the Egyptians. From this perspective, the first two of each triplet were in effect warnings for plagues three, six and nine.
Another display of God’s compassion was the nature of the warning. Note that for the first, fourth and seventh plagues Pharaoh was warned near the Nile. For the second, fifth and eighth he is warned in the privacy of his palace. But for the third, sixth and ninth there are no warnings, as the first two of each of the triplets serve that purpose.
Even the plague of the first born, the one that seems to be the harshest, was not random and it reveals a God who judges mercifully. After all, the elders were the priests, the leadership in Egypt, who, together with Pharaoh masterminded the enslavement of the Jews. God’s mercy is manifested in that virtually all of Egypt was spared. Only the elders who had orchestrated the whole plan were attacked.
There is one other approach to the plagues that ought be noted. The story of Genesis is the story of a God unleashing his power to create the world. The story of the plagues is another display of that Godly creative energy. Our rabbis say that “with ten sayings the world was created.” (Ethics 5:1) And here, with ten plagues, a section of the world was being unraveled.
As creation was carefully carried out by God for a world that was potentially “very good,” (Genesis 1:31 ) so too were the plagues a carefully designed plan by God to undo part of that creation which had gone wrong.
But when God undoes creation, he does so slowly. Indeed, all of these approaches to the plagues reflect a God who is reticent to inflict pain. It is a God of endless love who hesitates to destroy; and a God who, even when punishing, does so with the hope that those affected will examine themselves and learn from their mistakes.