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Yahweh’s Battle With Pharaoh - The Ten Plagues (Exodus 7:14 to Exodus 12:51 )
In the first seven chapters we have seen how God raised up Moses to deliver His people, and how when he approached Pharaoh with a simple request that they might go into the wilderness and worship Him because He had revealed Himself in a theophany there, Pharaoh had reacted savagely and had increased Israel’s burdens.
Then Yahweh had promised to Moses that He would reveal His name in mighty action and deliver them, but had initially provided Pharaoh with a further opportunity to consider by three signs which Pharaoh had rejected. Now He would begin in earnest.
The first nine plagues that follow were the intensification of natural occurrences that struck Egypt from time to time. Yet they came in such a way and with such effect and were so intense that they could not be described as ‘natural’, for they came when called on, ceased when Yahweh commanded, and affected only what Yahweh wanted affecting. They were thus supernaturally controlled natural phenomenon.
Because these plagues were common to natural occurrences that took place in Egypt they were connected with the gods of Egypt, for the Egyptians had gods which were connected with every part of life. Thus the very plagues meant that Yahweh was, in Egyptian eyes, in conflict with the gods of Egypt. However, it is important to recognise that the writer only mentions the gods of Egypt once (Exodus 12:12), and there only in relation to the slaying of the firstborn because at least one of the firstborn who would die would be connected with a god (Pharaoh). Thus he is drawing attention to Yahweh’s dealings with Pharaoh and the Egyptians rather than with their gods. This indicates that while the gods may have had the Egyptians as their servants, they did not have any control of the land or of nature. The writer is clearly monotheistic. To him the gods of Egypt are an irrelevance.
The Overall Pattern of the Narrative.
The first nine plagues can be divided into three sets of three as follows;
· The first three - water turned to blood (Exodus 7:14-25), plague of frogs (Exodus 8:1-15), plague of ticks and similar insects (Exodus 8:16-19).
· The second three - plague of swarms of flying insects (Exodus 8:20-32), cattle disease (Exodus 9:1-7), boils (Exodus 9:8-12).
· The third three - great hail (Exodus 9:13-35), plague of locusts (Exodus 10:1-20), thick darkness (Exodus 10:21-27).
As we have seen in Part 1 the previous section of Exodus has been mainly based on a series of chiastic and similar patterns which demonstrate the unity of the narrative. Here the overall pattern changes to a more complicated one in view of the combined subject matter, but the underlying pattern is the same nevertheless.
For we should note that there is a definite pattern in these series of threes. The first and second of each of the judgments in each series is announced to the Pharaoh before it takes place, while in each case the third is unannounced. The first incident of each series of three is to take place early in the morning, and in the first and second of these ‘first incidents of three’ the place where Moses meets Pharaoh is by the Nile, in the third it is before Pharaoh. The second judgment in each series is announced in the king's palace. The third judgment in each series comes without the Pharaoh or the Egyptians being warned. As these judgments from God continue, their severity increases until the last three bring the Egyptian people to a place where life itself becomes almost impossible, and their economy is almost totally destroyed. The huge hailstones kept them in their homes and wrecked their environment, the locusts ate up what the hail had left and made life unbearable, and the thick darkness kept them in solitude even from each other. They must have wondered what was coming next.
Furthermore in the first two judgments the magicians pit themselves against Moses as they imitate the judgments of blood and frogs, but in the third judgment of the first series, that of ticks, they are forced to yield and acknowledge, "This is the finger of God" (Exodus 8:19) and from then on they withdraw from the contest. In the sixth they cannot even stand before Moses, presumably because of the effect of the boils which they could do nothing about.
It is noteworthy in this regard that while blood and frogs can easily be manipulated by conjurors, ticks are a different proposition, for they cannot be so easily controlled.
In the second series an important distinction is drawn between the Israelites and the Egyptians, for from then on only the Egyptians are affected, and not the whole land of Egypt as previously. Several times the specific protection of Israel is mentioned.
As the intensity of the plagues increases, so does the intensity of the Pharaoh's desire to secure the intervention of Moses and Aaron for deliverance from the plague (consider Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:25; Exodus 8:28; Exodus 9:27-28; Exodus 10:16-17; Exodus 10:24), and Moses becomes more outspoken.
In the first series of three judgments the staff of Aaron is used, in the second series of three no staff is mentioned and in the third series either the hand or staff of Moses is prominent. Note also that in two cases in the second series neither Moses nor Aaron do anything. Thus an instrument is used seven times. These overall patterns clearly demonstrate the unity of the narrative.
Another division can be made in that the first four plagues are personal in effect producing annoyance and distress while the next four inflict serious damage on property and person, the ninth is the extreme of the first four and the tenth the extreme of the second four. This further confirms the impression of unity.
The same is true of the wording and ideas used throughout. We have noted above the three sets of three plagues, and that in the first plague of each set Moses goes to Pharaoh in the early morning, either to the river or ‘before Pharaoh’, while in the second in each set Moses goes to the palace, and in the third plague in each set the plague occurs without warning. Now we should note the intricate pattern of phrases and ideas which are regularly repeated.
We should, for example, note that God says ‘let my people go’ seven times, the divinely perfect number (although only six times before specific plagues - Exodus 5:1; Exodus 7:16; Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20; Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13; Exodus 10:3). This is significant in the light of what follows below.
We should also note that there is a central core around which each plague is described, although the details vary. This central core is:
· A description in detail of what will happen (Plague one - Exodus 7:17-18; plague two - Exodus 8:2-4; plague three - no separate description; plague four - Exodus 8:21; plague five - Exodus 9:3-4; plague six - Exodus 9:9; plague seven - Exodus 9:15; plague eight - Exodus 10:4-6; plague nine - no separate description).
· The call to Moses either to instruct Aaron (three times - Exodus 7:19; Exodus 8:5; Exodus 8:16) or to act himself (three times - Exodus 9:22; Exodus 10:12; Exodus 10:21) or for them both to act (once - Exodus 9:8).
· The action taken (Exodus 7:20; Exodus 8:6; Exodus 8:17; no action; no action; Exodus 9:10; Exodus 9:23; Exodus 10:13; Exodus 10:22).
· And an inevitable description of the consequences, which parallels the previous description where given (Exodus 7:21; Exodus 8:6; Exodus 8:17; Exodus 8:24; Exodus 9:6-7; Exodus 9:10-11; Exodus 9:23-26; Exodus 10:13-15; Exodus 10:22-23).
It may be argued that this core was largely inevitable, and to a certain extent that is true, but we should note that while there are nine plagues, there are only seven separate prior descriptions, and as previously noted seven calls to act followed by that action, but the sevens are not in each case for the same plagues. Thus the narrative is carefully built around sevens. This can be exemplified further.
For example, Pharaoh’s initial response to their approach is mentioned three times, in that Pharaoh reacts against the people (Exodus 5:5-6); calls for his magicians (Exodus 7:11); and makes a compromise offer and then drives Moses and Aaron from his presence (Exodus 10:11). It indicates his complete action but denies to him the number seven. That is retained for Yahweh and His actions as we shall see, or for Pharaoh’s negativity overall caused by Yahweh.
One significant feature is that Pharaoh’s final response grows in intensity.
1). Yahweh hardened his heart so that he did not listen to them as Yahweh had said (Exodus 7:13) (Yahweh hardening him, and that he would not let the people go had been forecast in Exodus 4:21). This was prior to the plagues.
2). His heart was hardened and he did not listen to them as Yahweh had said, and he turned and went into his house, ‘nor did he set his heart to this also’ (Exodus 7:22-23).
3). He entreated Yahweh to take away the plague and said that he would let the people go to worship Yahweh (Exodus 8:8), and later hardened his heart and did not listen to them as Yahweh had said (Exodus 8:15).
4). Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen to them as Yahweh had said (Exodus 8:19).
5). He told Moses and Aaron that they may sacrifice in the land (Exodus 8:25), and then, on Moses’ refusing his offer, said that they may sacrifice in the wilderness but not go far away (Exodus 8:28) which Moses accepts, but later Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go (Exodus 8:32).
6). He sent to find out what had happened and then his heart was hardened and he would not let the people go (Exodus 9:7).
7). Yahweh hardened his heart and he did not listen to them as Yahweh had spoken to Moses (Exodus 9:12).
8). Pharaoh admitted that he had sinned, asked them to entreat for him, and said ‘I will let you go and you will stay no longer’ (Exodus 9:27-28). Then he sinned yet more and hardened his heart, he and his servants (Exodus 9:34), and his heart was hardened nor would he let the children of Israel go as Yahweh had spoken to Moses (Exodus 9:35).
9). Pharaoh admitted that he had sinned, and asked them to entreat Yahweh for him (Exodus 10:17), but later Yahweh hardened his heart so that he would not let the children of Israel go (Exodus 10:20).
10). Pharaoh said that they might go apart from their cattle (Exodus 10:24), and on Moses refusing ‘Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not let them go’ (Exodus 10:27), and he commanded that they leave his presence and not return on pain of death (Exodus 10:28).
11). In the summary ‘Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land’ (Exodus 11:10).
We note from the above that ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you’ occurs twice (Exodus 7:4; Exodus 11:9), ‘did not listen to them as Yahweh had said’ occurs four times (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:15; Exodus 19:0); and ‘did not listen to them as Yahweh had spoken to Moses’ occurs once (Exodus 9:12), thus his not being willing to listen occurs seven times in all (the phrase ‘as Yahweh had spoken to Moses’ occurs twice (Exodus 9:12; Exodus 9:35), but not as connected with not listening).
In contrast he entreats that Yahweh will show mercy four times (Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:28; Exodus 9:27; Exodus 10:17), and parleys with Moses three times (Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:25; Exodus 10:24), making seven in all. Yahweh hardened his heart five times (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 9:12; Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27; Exodus 11:10), which with Exodus 4:21 and Exodus 10:1 makes seven times. (Yahweh also hardened his heart in Exodus 14:8, but that was over the matter of pursuing the fleeing people. See also Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:17. He said that He would do it in Exodus 7:3).
His heart was hardened (by himself?) four times (Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:19; Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:35), and he hardened his own heart three times (Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:34), again making seven times. It is said that he would not let the people go five times (Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:35; Exodus 10:20; Exodus 11:10). With Exodus 4:21; Exodus 7:14 that makes not letting the people go seven times. Yahweh told Pharaoh to let His people go seven times (Exodus 5:1; Exodus 7:16; Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20; Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13; Exodus 10:3). Thus the writer would clearly seem to have been deliberately aiming at sevenfold repetition, and this sevenfoldness is spread throughout the narrative in different ways, stressing the total unity of the passage. One or two sevens might be seen as accidental but not so many.
Taking with this the fact that each narrative forms a definite pattern any suggestion of fragmented sources of any size that can be identified is clearly not permissible. Thus apart from an occasional added comment, and in view of the way that covenants were always recorded in writing, there seems little reason to doubt that Exodus was written under the supervision of Moses or from material received from him as was constantly believed thereafter. Other Old Testament books certainly assert the essential Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (‘the Law’) demonstrating the strong tradition supporting the claim (see 1 Kings 2:3; 1 Kings 8:53; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Kings 18:6; 2 Kings 18:12). More importantly Jesus Christ Himself saw the Pentateuch as the writings of Moses (John 5:46-47), and as without error (Matthew 5:17-18), and indicated Moses’ connection with Deuteronomy (Matthew 19:7-8; Mark 10:3-5). See also Peter (Acts 3:22), Stephen (Acts 7:37-38), Paul (Romans 10:19; 1 Corinthians 9:9), and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:28).
One fact that brings out Pharaoh’s total selfishness and disregard for his people is that he only asks Moses to entreat Yahweh to remove a plague four times, in the case of the frogs, the flying insects, the hail and the locusts. These were the ones that would personally affect him the most. The narrative is totally consistent.
The Plagues In The Light Of Natural Phenomena.
We will now try to see the plagues in the light of natural phenomena, recognising that God used natural phenomena, enhancing it where necessary, to accomplish His purpose. While the land waited totally unaware of the forces that were gathering He knew exactly what was coming and what He would do with it and directed Moses accordingly.
The first nine plagues form a logical and connected sequence if we work on the basis that in that year there was an abnormally high inundation of the Nile occurring in July and August. In Egypt too high an inundation of the Nile could be as bad as too low an inundation, and this was clearly beyond anything known. This would be caused by abnormal weather conditions in lands to the south of Egypt of a kind rarely experienced which may well have also caused the effects not produced directly by the inundation.
The higher the Nile-flood was, the more earth it carried within it, especially of the red earth from the basins of the Blue Nile and Atbara. And the more earth it carried the redder it became. The flood would further bring down with it flood microcosms known as flagellates and associated bacteria. These would heighten the blood-red colour of the water and create conditions in which the fish would die in large numbers (Exodus 7:21). Their decomposition would then foul the water further and cause a stench (Exodus 7:21). The water would be undrinkable and the only hope of obtaining fresh water would be to dig for it (Exodus 7:24). The whole of Egypt would of course be affected. This is the background to the first plague.
The result of these conditions would be that the decomposing fish would be washed along the banks and backwaters of the Nile polluting the haunts of the frogs, who would thus swarm out in huge numbers seeking refuge elsewhere (Exodus 8:3). Their sudden death would suggest internal anthrax which would explain their rapid putrefaction (Exodus 8:13-14). This is the background to the second plague.
The high level of the Nile-flood would provide especially favourable conditions for mosquitoes, which may partly explain either the ‘ken’ (ticks/lice/fleas) (Exodus 8:16) or the ‘arob (swarms) (Exodus 8:21), while the rotting carcasses of the fish and frogs would encourage other forms of insect life to develop, as would excessive deposits of the red earth which may have brought insect eggs with them. Insects would proliferate throughout the land (Exodus 8:16). These might include lice and also the tick, an eight-legged arthropod and blood-sucking parasite and carrier of disease, as well as fleas. This is the background to the third plague.
As well as mosquitoes from the Nile flood, flies would also develop among the rotting fish, the dead frogs and the decaying vegetation, including the carrier-fly, the stomoxys calcitrans (which might well be responsible for the later boils), and become carriers of disease from these sources. The ‘swarms’ may well have included both (Exodus 8:21). This is the background to the fourth plague.
The dying frogs might well have passed on anthrax, and the proliferating insects would pass on other diseases, to the cattle and flocks who were out in the open (Exodus 9:3) and therefore more vulnerable. This is the background to the fifth plague.
The dead cattle would add to the sources of disease carried by these insects, and the insect bites, combined with the bites of the other insects, may well have caused the boils (Exodus 9:9). This would occur around December/January. It may well be the background to the sixth plague.
Thus the first six plagues in a sense follow naturally from one another given the right conditions, but it is their timing, extremeness and Moses’ knowledge of them that prove the hand of God at work.
The excessively heavy hail (Exodus 9:22), with thunder, lightning and rain, may well have resulted from the previously mentioned extreme weather conditions, but it went beyond anything known and was exceptional, resulting in death and destruction, and the ruination of the barley and flax, but not the wheat and spelt which was not yet grown (Exodus 8:31-32). (This indicates a good knowledge of Egyptian agriculture). This would probably be in early February.
The excessively heavy rains in Ethiopia and the Sudan which led to the extraordinarily high Nile would cause the conditions favourable to an unusually large plague of locusts (Exodus 10:4; Exodus 10:13), which would eventually be blown down into Northern Egypt and then along the Nile valley by the east wind (Exodus 10:13).
The thick darkness (Exodus 10:21) that could be felt was probably an unusually heavy khamsin dust storm resulting from the large amounts of red earth which the Nile had deposited which would have dried out as a fine dust, together with the usual sand of the desert. The khamsin wind would stir all this up making the air unusually thick and dark, blotting out the light of the sun. Three days is the known length of a khamsin (Exodus 10:23). This, coming on top of all that had come before, and seeming to affect the sun god himself, would have a devastating effect.
These unusual and freak events demonstrate an extremely good knowledge of Egyptian weather conditions with their particular accompanying problems, which could only have been written in the right order by someone with a good knowledge of the peculiar conditions in Egypt which could produce such catastrophes, confirming the Egyptian provenance of the record and the unity of the account.
In all this the gods of Egypt would be prominent to the Egyptians as the people were made aware that the God of the Hebrews was doing this, and that their gods could seemingly do nothing about it. Prominent among these would be Ha‘pi, the Nile god of inundation, Heqit the goddess of fruitfulness, whose symbol was the frog, Hathor the goddess of love, often symbolised by the cow, along with Apis the bull god, Osiris for whom the Nile was his life-blood, now out of control, the goddess Hatmehyt whose symbol was a fish, and of whom models were worn as charms, Nut the sky goddess, Reshpu and Ketesh who were supposed to control all the elements of nature except light, and Re the sun god. All these would be seen to be unable to prevent Yahweh doing His work and thus to have been at least temporarily defeated.
But it should be noted that that is the Egyptian viewpoint. Moses only mentions the gods of Egypt once, and that is probably sarcastically (Exodus 12:12). As far as he is concerned they are nothing. They are irrelevant.
The Eighth Plague - The Plague of Locusts (Exodus 10:1-20 ).
We note in this passage a distinct change of tone. No longer does Yahweh commence with the opening, ‘let My people go’ (compare Exodus 8:1; Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13). Instead He says ‘I have made strong (hardened) his heart and the heart of his officials in order to show my signs among them’. The end was near and He no longer looked for Pharaoh’s honest response. Yet He had also begun in the same way in Exodus 7:14, although there it was because Pharaoh had made strong (‘hardened’) his own heart. While Yahweh will still allow Moses and Aaron to make the call He recognises that the time for treaty is really past. Pharaoh has broken his word too often.
a Yahweh tells Moses that he has hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his officials in order that He might show His signs among them (Exodus 10:1).
b It is in order that Israel might teach its children what God had achieved against Egypt and the signs that He has revealed, that it might be known that He is Yahweh (Exodus 10:2).
c Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh in Yahweh’s name and ask how long he refuses to humble himself before Yahweh and calls on him to let Yahweh’s people go (Exodus 10:3).
d If he will not let them go locusts will be brought in who will cover the whole of the land and destroy all trees and vegetation and fill all their houses in a way that has not happened in living memory. Then Moses turned and went out from Pharaoh (Exodus 10:4-6).
e Pharaoh’s officials plead with him to let the men go to serve Yahweh and ask Pharaoh if he realises how much the land has been subjected to destruction (Exodus 10:6).
f So reluctantly Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron who are brought before him, and he tells them that they may go and serve Yahweh, but asks who will go (Exodus 10:8).
g Moses replies that everyone must go including the cattle (Exodus 10:9).
g Pharaoh declares that he will not let all go, only the men (Exodus 10:10-11 a).
f Angry at their response Pharaoh causes them to be driven from his presence (Exodus 10:11 b).
e Yahweh tells Moses to stretch out his hand over the land of Egypt in order to bring the locusts down on it to eat whatever the hail has left (including the wheat and the spelt) (Exodus 10:12).
d Moses obeys Yahweh and an east wind brings in the locusts. The locusts arrive in huge numbers as never before or afterwards. They cover the face of the ground and eat everything that is left including the trees and vegetation (Exodus 10:13-15).
c Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron in haste and confesses that he has sinned against both Yahweh their God and Moses (thus he will let the people go). He asks forgiveness and that they will entreat that this living death might be moved from them (Exodus 10:16-17).
b Moses goes out from Pharaoh and entreats Yahweh and a west wind takes away the locusts so that none are left (thus making it known that He is Yahweh) (Exodus 10:18-19).
a Yahweh hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the children of Israel go (Exodus 10:20).
In ‘a’ we have Yahweh’s statement that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart and in the parallel the fact that He has hardened his heart. In ‘b’ Israel is to teach its children what God has wrought in Egypt and what signs He has revealed so that they may know that He is Yahweh, in the parallel He mightily removes the vast clouds of locusts in one day, thus revealing what He is to Pharaoh and Egypt. In ‘c’ Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh and ask how long he will refuse to humble himself before Yahweh and demand that he will let God’s people go, in the parallel Pharaoh repents and humbles himself and admits that he has been in the wrong for not letting Israel go. In ‘d’ they declare that if he will not let the people go God will bring down on Egypt great clouds of locusts who will eat the trees and vegetation, in the parallel those locusts are brought down on Egypt and consume all that is left including the trees and vegetation. In ‘e’ Pharaoh’s official draw Pharaoh’s attention to how much Egypt has been devastated because of his intransigence and ask that he let the Israelites go, in the parallel Yahweh orders the completion of that devastation. In ‘f’ Pharaoh reluctantly appears to concede defeat but questions what they are wanting, in the parallel, having found out, he hits back and causes them to be driven them from his presence. In ‘g’ Moses demands that everyone may go including the cattle, and in the parallel Pharaoh declares that not everyone can go, only the men.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have made strong his heart and the heart of his servants that I might show these my signs among them, and that you might tell in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what things I have wrought on (how I have shown up) Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am Yahweh.” ’
The ‘I’ is emphatic. The end is approaching and Yahweh is making things work according to His plan.
The wonders wrought in Egypt had a number of purposes. They were not only intended to convince the Egyptians to finally send the children of Israel away, but also to strengthen the latter’s faith for the future and give an understanding that Yahweh is the One Who is there to act. Note that the specific aim is that these stories might be passed down to future generations, and be recited in their ears, not just as stories but as theological statements. And to someone who was used to recording things in writing (Exodus 17:14; Exodus 24:4-8; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9) such a command must surely have issued in the same result. Moses would put everything important down in writing!
“These my signs among them.” His wonders were ‘signs’. They were intended to convince and give understanding. From them the Egyptians should have come to faith in Yahweh. And for a time some did, for they took their cattle inside to shelter from the hail (Exodus 9:20). But once the worst was over they soon forgot and convinced themselves that maybe their gods had won after all. From them too the children of Israel yet to come were to know the significance of the name of Yahweh, to ‘know that I am Yahweh’.
We probably do not sufficiently appreciate the subservience of a nation that has been enslaved for a long time. They had lost their spirit and had little resistance. When Moses had arrived they had seen the signs that Yahweh had given him and their hearts had been uplifted. But as soon as Pharaoh proved obstinate they had been like sheep and their resistance had collapsed and all they had been able to do was blame Moses. Indeed part of the purpose of the plagues was probably in order to stiffen their confidence in what Yahweh could do, and to teach them to rise above their problems, so that when they found themselves in the wilderness they would have some courage which would come from their confidence in Yahweh. And as we know that constantly failed, so much so that when eventually they arrived at the borders of the land their courage collapsed altogether and they failed to make their entry.
“I have wrought on.” The hithpael of ‘alal means ‘to make sport of, make a fool of, show up’. Here Yahweh’s intent is deadly serious. It is not in order to mock but in order to show up. His intent was to reveal them and their gods for what they are.
Note again that Pharaoh’s high officials are now being included (compare Exodus 9:34), although there were clearly some who had reservations (Exodus 9:20) as the sequel brings out. This suggests that it was now seen to be an emergency situation, and the counsellors were regularly being called in and on almost constant alert. Pharaoh was no longer as confident as he had been.
‘And Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. How long will you refuse to humble yourselves before me? Let my people go that they may serve me.” ’
Note that Yahweh no longer tells them to do this. But they still make the same request, that they may be allowed to worship Yahweh in the wilderness. The diplomatic show has to go on. However, the battle has produced in Pharaoh a total feeling of intransigence. To yield now would be to admit Yahweh’s superiority over himself and the gods of Egypt. And that is indeed what Yahweh now demands. ‘You refuse to humble yourselves before me’. The Egyptians may not learn the lesson but the children of Israel would never forget it. It would be with them in their memories and in their Psalms for ever. They knew now that their God was over all.
Exodus 10:4-6 a
“Or else, if you refuse to let my people go, behold tomorrow I will bring locusts into your border, and they will cover the face (the word is usually rendered ‘eye’) of the earth (or ‘land’) so that one will not be able to see the earth (or ‘land’), and they will eat the residue of what has escaped, what remains to you from the hail, and will eat every tree which grows for you out of the countryside. And your houses will be filled, and the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians as neither your fathers, nor your fathers’ fathers, have seen since the day that they were on the earth up to this day.”
The next promise is the coming of a vast cloud of locusts. Locusts were brought on the wind and were not common in Egypt, but they had had enough experience of them to be afraid (Exodus 10:7). The locust was primarily a destroyer, although it could also be a useful source of protein (Leviticus 11:22), especially among desert tribes. Their coming was regularly seen as God’s judgment (Deuteronomy 28:38; Deuteronomy 28:42; Joel 1:4).
The female lays its eggs just below the surface of the soil where they may stay for many months until moisture allows them to hatch. Once the eggs hatch the locust has the general shape of an adult locust but is without wings which it takes five to six months to acquire. They are wholly vegetarian and in large numbers cause massive devastation, eating everything in the fields and stripping the trees bare. The weather conditions elsewhere, which we know to have been a reality because of the excessive inundation of the Nile, would cause them to breed in vast numbers, awaiting the wind which would carry them into Egypt. And when they came in large numbers they would appear like a vast cloud, darkening the sky, and wherever they settled they would denude the vegetation, and then attack the trees. No vegetation would be safe. All would be denuded or eaten.
“They will cover the face of the earth (or ‘land”).’ The word for face is one mostly translated ‘eye’. The word for earth is ’erets which can mean the earth, or the land. Thus ‘the face of the earth’ may therefore signify the sun (compare also Exodus 10:15 where covering it results in darkening) as the ‘eye of the earth’. There are frequent references in Egyptian literature to ‘the eye of Re’, the sun god. Thus would Re be restricted and hidden from what Yahweh was doing. Their main protection (from the point of view of the Egyptians) would be useless, for he was being blinded by Yahweh. Or the point may be that the earth itself is ‘blinded’ by the multitude of locusts, and thus unable to perform its functions. Alternately we may translate ‘land’ and intend it to mean that the whole face of the land will be covered with them.
“And your houses will be filled.” No one would escape. Pharaoh, his high officials and his people would find their houses filled with them. They would be inundated. They would be in such vast numbers that locusts would be everywhere. Experience would demonstrate that, even when they tried to eat, a locust would be on their food, there to eat it before them. The suggestion may be, although it is not stated, that the children of Israel will not be included, for their houses are not mentioned.
There would be an unusually large number of locusts such that the like had not been known over three generations (but not as unusual as the hail, of which the like of had not been seen since before the nation was founded - Exodus 9:24).
Exodus 10:6 b
“And he turned and went out from Pharaoh.”
(Compare Exodus 7:23). Previously it has simply been ‘went out from Pharaoh’. Now Moses has been emboldened and is aware of his power. He wants Pharaoh to realise that he is in control. ‘He turned’. This time he does not pay Pharaoh the deference that Pharaoh usually demands and his subjects usually give. He openly and irreverently turns on his heel and stalks out. This is not the way Pharaoh is used to being treated. But Pharaoh is afraid of him. He has seen what he can do. So he lets him go. What supreme courage Moses had, for in the end he bore his burden alone, before that mighty array of powerful Egyptian aristocrats and priests. And no one knew more than he did what they had the power to do. Aaron no doubt discreetly followed him.
‘And Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the men go that they may serve Yahweh their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” ’
But the mighty array were more afraid of Moses than he was of them. They advised that Pharaoh give in. This was not direct criticism of Pharaoh. That was something that they would not have dared to attempt. No doubt Pharaoh called a meeting to discuss the situation and to seek advice, and so they gave it. His advisers came up with a compromise solution. Let Pharaoh agree to let the men go to serve Yahweh their God. But there is no doubt that they were uneasy for they asked Pharaoh, safe in his palace, whether he was really aware of the devastations that had struck Egypt. Did he realise what the situation now was? Egypt had been almost destroyed. They had still had the wheat and spelt, but now this plague of locusts could signal the end. Their last and final crops could be devastated.
‘And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, serve Yahweh your God. But who are they who will go?” ’
So Moses and Aaron were recalled in accordance with the counsellors’ advice. They were told that they could go and serve Yahweh, but first he wanted to determine as to who exactly would go.
‘And Moses said, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, we will go with our flocks and our herds, for we must hold a feast to Yahweh.” ’
Moses reply was not unreasonable. It was to be a wholehearted worship of Yahweh and everyone must be involved, both young and old. It would be a time of sacrifices and offerings and a time of feasting and gladness before Yahweh, thus they would also need their flocks and herds with them in order to provide the wherewithal.
In fact the Egyptians used to welcome their children to their feasts so that that aspect of things would not have been seen as unreasonable, except to Pharaoh in his present mood.
‘And he said to them, “May Yahweh so be with you if I let you go with your little ones. Look at what you are proposing (literally ‘look at it’), for your intent is evil (‘evil is before your face’). It shall not be so. Go now, you who are adult men, and serve Yahweh, for that is what you want.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.’
Pharaoh refused to countenance their suggestion and put forward the worked out compromise. The adult men could go to serve Yahweh in the wilderness (compare Exodus 23:17; Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16 - normally this would have been acceptable), but only them. He was now deeply suspicious that they had some evil purpose and he wanted hostages. Perhaps, he thought, there were plans to meet up with some enemy so as to attack Egypt while it was so devastatingly weakened, as the Hyksos had done previously. He probably did not fear that they would leave entirely for he knew that the Egyptian army could easily prevent it.
“May Yahweh so be with you.” An ironical comment. Did they really think that he would let Yahweh go with them like that? If he let them all go he would be giving Yahweh sole charge and renouncing his own authority, an unlikely scenario.
“They were driven out from Pharaoh” s presence.’ Having spoken his last word they were driven from his presence. Pharaoh was not going to allow Moses to humiliate him again by turning round and once more walking out. So they were hustled out by soldiers. But Pharaoh was careful. He was still wary of what Moses could do. Things were definitely tense.
Why then did Pharaoh not have Moses immediately killed or arrested? The answer would seem to lie in superstitious dread. He knew that this being, whatever he was, had done such amazing things that who knew what might happen if he were physically attacked? It was something he dared not risk. And such would be the awe in which Moses was held that it is doubtful if Pharaoh could have found anyone to take on the job. Moses had truly become as a god to Pharaoh.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come on the land of Egypt and eat all the vegetation in the land, even all that the hail has left.” And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and Yahweh brought an east wind on the land all that day and all that night, and when it was morning the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt and rested in all the borders of Egypt. They were in huge numbers (‘very grievous’), before them there was no such a swarm of locusts as they, nor after them will be such, for they covered the face (or ‘eye’) of the whole earth so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the vegetation on the land, and all the fruit of the trees, whatever the hail had left, and there did not remain any green thing, either tree or vegetation through all the land of Egypt.’
Again it was the hand of Moses as he stretched out his staff that was seen to produce the plague. The result was a continual east wind that gradually, unknown at first to the Egyptians who did not know of the threat to the south of them, brought the huge numbers of locusts down to Egypt overnight. Locusts required a wind if they were to travel far. And their numbers were so vast, more than ever known before, that it would need a continual wind, and when they came the whole of Egypt was affected. As they came in like a great cloud in the sky, the sun was hidden, the land was darkened, everything was covered with them and they began to eat all the greenery that remained after the hail.
People who have seen clouds of locust in modern days have described how they look like a huge, black, threatening storm cloud in the distance until at last they come closer and it is apparent that the cloud consists of locusts. And then they arrive and the whole land is covered with them. But this was exceptional even compared with that. There were untold numbers of them.
All the vegetation and trees that remained were devoured and this probably included the now growing wheat and spelt. The economy of Egypt which had been devastated was now being totally ruined. And all because of Pharaoh’s obstinacy.
“They covered the ‘ayin of the whole earth so that the land was darkened.” ‘ayin usually means ‘eye’. It is therefore probable that this refers to the sun as ‘the eye of Re’. It was that that was hidden by the vast numbers of the locusts, darkening the land. Re had to stand by and do nothing. Or it may refer to the fact that once the locusts had landed the earth became dark because of the colour of their bodies. What a sight that would have been. The whole of the land darkened by one mass of locusts wherever the eye looked
“There remained not any green thing.” The land was totally bare. Such denuding of the land by locusts is terrible to see. One Pharaoh of the XIIth dynasty, Amenemhet, classed a plague of locusts as a calamity similar to a civil war, or to famine resulting from the failure of the Nile, and that was an ordinary one. The god Senehem is pictured in ancient Egypt as a locust, but he has clearly no control here.
‘Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste, and he said, “I have sinned against Yahweh your God and against you. Now therefore, I beg you, forgive my sin only this once and entreat Yahweh your God that he may take away from me this death only.”
The final devastation, made even more apparent by the presence of locusts in the palace and the darkening of the sun, brought Pharaoh temporarily to his senses. Moses and Aaron had asked how long it would be before he humbled himself (Exodus 10:3). Now he did humble himself (compare Exodus 10:3) and admit his guilt before Yahweh and before Moses (Moses has become as a god to Pharaoh - Exodus 7:1). But it was only to be temporary as such conversions often are. No mention is made of the release of the children of Israel to serve Yahweh in the wilderness at this point, but it is assumed in the admission of guilt. For this was the reason for his guilt, that he had not let them go to serve Yahweh.
“Take away from me this death only.” This could refer to the death that would result from the famine which would result from the activity of the locusts, or it may refer to the darkening of the sun seen as the temporary death of Re. Pharaoh, as the living god Horus, and prospective Osiris, was vitally connected with the sun god Re. Re’s death would be his death.
‘And he went out from Pharaoh and entreated Yahweh , and Yahweh turned a very strong sea wind which took up the locusts and drove them into the sea of reeds. There remained not one locust in all the border of Egypt. But Yahweh made strong Pharaoh’s heart and he did not let the children of Israel go.’
“He went out from Pharaoh.” This time Moses did not turn and stalk out, nor was he thrust out. He recognised Pharaoh’s submission. This was no time for putting on a display of anger. He was prepared to be courteous when courtesy was deserved. It is never godly to be rude.
On Moses’ entreaty Yahweh sent a strong sea wind which drove the locusts into the sea of reeds granting complete deliverance. Not one was left in Egypt. But once this had happened Pharaoh again changed his mind. He refused to let them go to worship Yahweh. However, it is again made clear that he was not frustrating Yahweh. His refusal was all in God’s plan. It was Yahweh Who was making his heart so strong.
“Sea wind.” This might be a ‘west wind’ as compared with the previous east wind (Exodus 10:13), for the west was then indicated by the Great Sea which lay to the west. Thus the same word can mean ‘west’ or ‘sea’.
The Ninth Plague - The Plague of Thick Darkness (Exodus 10:21-29 ).
As with the third and sixth plagues this one comes without introduction or warning, like a second hammer blow following a first or like a left followed by a right in boxing.
a Yahweh tells Moses to stretch out his hand towards heaven so that there will be darkness over the whole land of Egypt, a darkness which may be felt (Exodus 10:21).
b Moses did as he was bid and there was thick darkness over Egypt for three days so that they could not leave their homes, nor could they see one another, although the children of Israel had light in their dwellings (Exodus 10:22-23).
c Pharaoh calls Moses and says that they may go with their little ones but must leave their cattle behind (Exodus 10:24).
d Moses replies that he must let them also have their cattle for they will need sacrifices and whole burnt offerings, for their sacrifices to Yahweh (Exodus 10:25).
d ‘Not a hoof’ would be left behind, for they will not know the details of what they require until they have arrived at their destination (Exodus 10:25-26).
c But in the end Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let them go (Exodus 10:27).
b Pharaoh tells him to leave him and ensure that he (Moses) sees his face no more, for in the day that Moses sees his face he will die (Exodus 10:28).
a Moses replies that he has spoken well, ‘You will see my face no more’ (Exodus 10:29).
The contrasts are striking. In ‘a’ total darkness is promised (so that none can see anyone’s face) and in the parallel Moses confirms that Pharaoh will not see his face again. This comparison is confirmed in ‘b’ for there it is specifically stated that one man would not be able to see another in the thick darkness, while in the parallel Pharaoh ironically tells Moses that he will not be allowed to see his face again. In ‘c’ Pharaoh gives reluctant half-permission, and in the parallel he will not let them go. His intransigence is being drawn out. In ‘d’ Israel must have their cattle for purposes of sacrifice, and in the parallel not a hoof will be left behind.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand towards heaven that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness that may be felt (literally ‘that one may feel darkness’).” ’
Pharaoh had seen what Yahweh had done to Re in the previous plague, which had affected him deeply, and now He struck again, this time without warning. The sun was blotted out and the land was in total darkness. This was not ordinary darkness. It was probably caused by an unusually heavy and severe khamsin dust storm resulting from a fierce hot wind from the desert containing within it an immense number of particles of sand, exacerbated by the large amounts of the red earth which had been deposited by the Nile which would have dried out as a fine dust, and would be lying on the ground. Thus the khamsin resulted in it blowing across the land. The khamsin wind would stir all this up making the air unusually thick and dark even for a khamsin, and blotting out the light of the sun. Approximately three days is the known length of a khamsin (Exodus 10:23). This, coming on top of all that had come before, and seeming again to affect the sun god himself would have a devastating effect. Pharaoh was indeed being attacked at his heart (Exodus 9:14). And the land would be brought to a total standstill.
“Darkness that may be felt.” The sand and dust made it something which men felt as well as experienced. During the storm nothing could be done. The dust forced its way into their houses (they had little protection for their windows). All men could do was shelter as best they may and wait for it to pass.
‘And Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. They did not see one another, nor did any rise from his place for three days. But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.’
Previously Moses had stretched out his staff (Exodus 9:23; Exodus 10:13), now he merely stretched out his hand. It was the hand of Yahweh. He was growing in confidence and trust and no longer needed visible supports. And the result was a khamsin dust storm more severe than anything in living memory, for it covered the whole of Egypt. To be caught in such a severe dust storm in the desert is to be rendered immobile. Those so caught often cannot see beyond their noses, and are helpless except to protect their camels, their noses, their eyes and their bodies from the storm, and wait crouched and immobile until the storm has passed, which usually takes three days. Being in Egypt (which was mainly desert, rendered even more dusty by the red dust that had come down on the Nile) they were able to take shelter in their homes, but the khamsin found its way in and they were unable to see each other, and simply lay without moving until it had passed.
“Thick darkness.” Literally thick with the sand and the dust. It swirled everywhere and there was no escaping it. It could not be kept out. And the land would be totally dark and the people would undoubtedly envisage evil spirits at work causing illness and death.
“For three days”. Khamsins regularly lasted for three or four days. Three is the number of completeness. The Egyptians were trapped wherever the storm had found them and were unable to socialise outside the home or have contact with each other. Life stood still. Time stood still. But Goshen escaped the worst of the storm and the children of Israel were hardly affected. There was light in their houses. The sun still shone on them. They were not in darkness, in either way.
‘And Pharaoh called to Moses and said, “Go yourselves, serve Yahweh, only let your flocks and your herds be kept behind. Let your little ones go with you.”
Pharaoh now made a further concession. He was fighting desperately for his pride. All the people may go to worship Yahweh, but they must leave their flocks and herds behind. He knew that they would be reluctant to lose them and that without them they could not survive for long. They would have to come back. This suggests that by this stage he was suspecting that they were hoping to depart for good.
Or it may be that he feared that they intended to join with some unknown enemy hiding in the wilderness, and thought that if they had left their cattle behind they would think twice about participating in such a venture. For they could then lose all their wealth. This incidentally draws our attention to the fact that in their ‘slavery’ they owned much cattle. Certainly they had to endure arduous forced labour on Pharaoh’s building works, but they had a certain amount of freedom and independence.
That it was Moses’ hope that they would leave permanently is clear. But that does not mean that it was his direct intention. He was simply doing what Yahweh had told him, and that was to go into the wilderness with the whole people of Israel and offer sacrifices. He was leaving in God’s hands what would follow. (For he knew only too well that if they tried to escape, the Egyptian army would be able to force them back. But he simply trusted God to sort the situation out).
‘And Moses said, “You must also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt offerings that we may sacrifice to Yahweh our God. Our cattle also will go with us. Not a hoof will be left behind. For from them we must take what is needed to serve Yahweh our God, and we do not know what we must serve Yahweh with until we arrive there.”
Moses now insisted that Pharaoh’s offer was not good enough. Their cattle and flocks must go with them. There could be no compromise. They would need sacrifices and whole burnt offerings, and until they arrived they would not know what Yahweh would demand. The ‘sacrifices’ would be partly consumed on the altar and partly shared among the worshippers, so that many would be required for the feast. And the ‘whole burnt offerings’ (‘that which goes up’) would be totally burned up.
“You must also give into our hands --.” This may be a demand that Pharaoh also now provide further means of sacrifice. But it was more probably simply a recognition that what they had ‘belonged’ to Pharaoh and he must let them take it with them.
‘But Yahweh made Pharaoh’s heart strong and he would not let them go. And Pharaoh said to him, “Get yourself from me, see to your own safety, do not come before me (see my face) again, for in the day that you come before me (see my face) again you will die.”
Patience was running out on both sides. Pharaoh felt cornered and he did not like it. He had had enough. He would yield no further. Total surrender was too humiliating and unbecoming to a Pharaoh, so he warned Moses that if he ever came to see him again he would have him put to death. ‘See my face no more.’ The statement is intended to be ironic as the analysis above confirms. In the khamsin no one had been able to see anyone else’s face. He wanted it to be known that Yahweh was not the only one who could prevent men seeing the faces of others. As far as he was concerned this was the end of any negotiation. Permission to worship Yahweh in the wilderness was now strictly denied. Let Moses be gone, and let Yahweh do what He will.
‘And Moses said, “You have spoken well. You will see my face no more.”
Moses equally ironically confirms that Pharaoh also will not see his face again. The repetition brings home the illustration. Pharaoh is in his own thick darkness, and there is therefore nothing ahead for him but tragedy. Indeed circumstance will be such that he will soon wish to see Moses’ face.
It should be noted that at this point there is a deliberate insertion of text (although certainly by the original author for it fits in to both literary chiastic constructions). For Moses does not leave after his words in Exodus 10:29. His diatribe continues in Exodus 11:4-8.
In the behaviour of Pharaoh we have a picture of the behaviour of the world in its obstinacy against God. Like Pharaoh man will not yield to God’s approach. He may make a pretence of submission but his heart is hardened and when it comes to the crunch he stands up for his own ‘rights’. He refuses to obey the voice of God. Thus does he bring himself into judgment.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 10". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30