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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 (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 (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 (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 (8:8; 8:25;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 Second Plague - The Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15 ).
This can be analysed as follows:
a Yahweh tells Moses to say, ‘let my people go and serve me’ or there will be a plague of frogs (Exodus 8:1-2).
b Full description of the plague of frogs that will come (Exodus 8:3-4).
c Aaron to be commanded to stretch out his staff over the waters of Egypt to cause the frogs to come up (Exodus 8:5).
d Aaron does so and the plague of frogs come out and spread over Egypt (Exodus 8:6).
e The magicians imitate the plague and bring up frogs on the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:7)
e Pharaoh entreats that the frogs might be taken away and he will let the people go (Exodus 8:8).
d Moses says that the plague will be dealt with whenever Pharaoh wants, and Pharaoh says tomorrow (Exodus 8:9).
c Moses promises that the disappearance of the frogs will happen and that frogs will be in their usual place only (Exodus 8:10-11).
b At Moses’ intercession the frogs die out and are gathered in heaps (Exodus 8:12-14).
a Pharaoh saw that there was respite and hardened his heart and did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said (Exodus 8:15).
Note the parallels. In ‘a’ Moses is to say, ‘let my people go’, in the parallel Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen to them. In ‘b’ a description is given of the coming of the frogs, in the parallel the frogs die out and are gathered into heaps. In ‘c’ Aaron is commanded to stretch out his staff and the frogs come, in the parallel Moses promises that the frogs will go. In ‘d’ Aaron is obedient and the frogs come, and in the parallel Moses says that he will remove the frogs whenever Pharaoh wishes. It will be noted that all these are the actions of the terrible two. In ‘d’ we have Egypt’s reaction. The magicians manage to turn some water deep red, and Pharaoh entreats that the frogs might be taken away and he will then let the people go.
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh, Let my people go that they may serve me, and if you refuse to let them go, behold I will smite all your borders with frogs. And the Nile will swarm with frogs which will go up into your house, and into your bedroom, and on your bed, and into the house of your servants, and on your people, and into your ovens, and into your kneadingtroughs. And the frogs will come up both on you, and on your people, and on all your servants.’ ”
The next approach was in Pharaoh’s palace. (Moses ‘goes in’ to him). The request was still to be able to worship Yahweh in the wilderness. The threat that follows is a plague of frogs. The Nile and its offshoots and the pools around were no longer habitable, even for frogs. And the microcosms, and dead and decaying fish added to the problem. So the frogs would seek other refuges, as Yahweh well knew. They had proliferated beyond the norm and now at Yahweh’s word they would invade the land of Egypt, getting everywhere, into bedrooms, beds, ovens, kitchens and domestic appliances. Even Pharaoh in his palace would not be able to hide from these.
The Egyptians, who had a particular regard for cleanliness, would be horrified. Even their food was being contaminated.
“Go in to Pharaoh.” Moses now had ready access, and probably privileged access, to Pharaoh as a prophet, or more than a prophet. This may have had to do with his princely status but was more likely simply due to the fact that Pharaoh recognised his status as ‘a god’ under Yahweh, and knew that he could not afford not to see him. He viewed Moses with a superstitious awe that gave Moses extreme authority and conflicted with his own view of himself as a god.
“Your servants -- your people.” The distinction is constantly made between the king’s high officials (his servants) and his people.
“Ovens.” Probably portable earthenware stoves.
“Kneading troughs.” Containers where the dough was kneaded, probably shallow wooden bowls (see Exodus 12:34).
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the canals, and over the pools and cause frogs to come up on the land of Egypt.” And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.’
The assumption is now that Pharaoh has again refused to listen. So the word goes out that the next stage is to follow. Aaron stretches out his hand containing the staff of God as Yahweh had commanded, and the frogs pour out of the waters to infest the land. There is nowhere in Egypt where the waters of the Nile do not reach, for where the Nile with its offshoots does not go there is no life. So the frogs were everywhere.
“Stretch out your hand with your staff.” Aaron is again to act on behalf of Yahweh and Moses. This is the second time that he stretches out his staff.
‘And the magicians did the same with their enchantments and brought up frogs on the land of Egypt.’
It was not difficult for the magicians to imitate this (although they did not really do so. They did not produce a multitude of frogs throughout Egypt). In a land saturated with frogs, it was easy for clever conjurers to give the impression that they too could produce frogs at will. But as with the crimson Nile the plague had already taken place, and thus their efforts were simply marginal. What they could do was lessen the idea that it was all miraculous and beyond the gods of Egypt. What they could not do, however, was restore the Nile and remove the frogs.
The plague of frogs would bring to every Egyptian’s mind Heqit, the goddess of fruitfulness, whose symbol was a frog. Here she was clearly powerless to do anything, or was even perhaps on Moses’ side!
‘The Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Entreat Yahweh that he take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go that they may sacrifice to Yahweh.”
Pharaoh was more moved by this plague. The frogs were in his palace, in his state rooms, and in his bed. He was personally affected and wanted to be rid of the things for they were seemingly everywhere. The more the servants disposed of them the more there were. He promised that now he would let the people go into the wilderness to sacrifice to Yahweh if only the frogs were removed. He had asked, “Who is Yahweh?” and had said “I do not know Yahweh” (Exodus 5:2). Now he ‘entreats Yahweh’. He both knows who He is and knows Him by experience. He ‘knows His name’.
Pharaoh’s behaviour was unforgivable in the light of the times. Moses was the mediator, the go-between. In men’s eyes he would be held liable by Yahweh if things went wrong because Pharaoh broke his word. If any of Pharaoh’s officials had behaved towards him like he was making Moses behave (making an agreement that was not fulfilled) they would have been dismissed, if not worse.
‘And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this glory over me, at what time shall I entreat for you and for your servants, and for your people, that the frogs be destroyed from you and your houses and remain in the Nile only?” And he said, “Let it happen for tomorrow.” And he said, “It shall be according to your word that you may know that there is none like Yahweh our God. And the frogs will depart from you and from your houses, and from your servants and from your people. They will remain in the Nile only.” ’
Moses accepts Pharaoh’s word and tells him that he may choose the time when the frogs cease to be a nuisance. Then they will go. (We are not told whether he spoke through Aaron, his ‘mouth’. But he probably did).
“You may have this glory over me.” A triumphant statement. Pharaoh the god has had to admit that Moses is more glorious and powerful than he, but Moses now makes him a concession. He can be given a little ‘glory’, a little independence, in choosing the time of the departure of the frogs. He can have his wounded pride consoled.
“That you may know that there is none like Yahweh our God.” With Pharaoh choosing the timing there could be no suggestion of trickery. It revealed that Yahweh had total control over the frogs whenever He wished and could remove them at any time.
“The frogs will depart.” Moses knows that it will happen but not how it will happen. In the eventuality it was mainly through them dying (Exodus 8:13-14).
“From your houses.” All Pharaoh’s palaces were affected. He had had nowhere to hide.
‘And Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh, and Moses cried out to Yahweh concerning the frogs which he had brought on Pharaoh, and Yahweh did according to the word of Moses, and the frogs died out of the houses, out of the courts and out of the fields. And they gathered them together in heaps and the land gave off a stench.’
Moses cried to Yahweh and the frogs died out. Moses ‘cried out’. The expression is strong. It was one thing to know that the frogs would go, another to have selected a particular time. And Yahweh honoured his prayer.
The narrative is practical. The frogs do not hop back into the Nile. It is probable that, unknown to anyone but Yahweh, the frogs were diseased. Their contact with the microcosms in the Nile and the dead and rotting fish had probably infected them. They may well, among other things, have had anthrax. Thus their death would be sudden. But again the main miracle lies in quantity and timing, and the latter fitting in to Pharaoh’s request.
“And they gathered them together into heaps and the land gave off a stench.” The Egyptians hated the stench, but little did they realise that these heaps were a time bomb waiting to go off.
‘But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite he hardened his heart (‘made his heart heavy’) and did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said.’
Pharaoh’s word proved not to be reliable. Once he thought the menace was gone, and realised they were somehow managing to cope with the problems of the red Nile (although many of his subjects may have disagreed with him) he changed his mind. But the listener is assured that this was all in the plan, it was ‘just as Yahweh had said’. Little did Pharaoh realise that another menace was already building up and would come without warning.
All men have times when they are forced to turn their thoughts towards God, and when they seek God’s help. It is at such times that their destinies are determined. Either they become grateful and continually responsive to Him, or like Pharaoh they choose to forget Him as soon as the problem is behind them. Either they warm towards Him continually or their hearts are hardened. In this way they determine their own judgment and destiny, just as Pharaoh was doing now. Many of the Pharisees would later do it with Jesus. Jesus described it as being in danger of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit at work through Him. Here Pharaoh was doing the same to Yahweh in the light of His clear signs. That is why Yahweh can later harden him.
The Third Plague - The Plague of Insects (Exodus 8:16-19 ).
This can be analysed as follows:
a Aaron was to stretch out his staff and smite the dust so that it became insects (Exodus 8:16).
b Aaron did so and there were insects all over Egypt on both man and beast (Exodus 8:17).
b The magicians sought to imitate it but could not, and they said ‘this is the finger of God’ (Exodus 8:18-19 a).
a And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen to them as Yahweh had said (Exodus 8:19 b).
The basic lessons from the parallels is that in ‘a’ Aaron reveals his obedience and manifests the power of Yahweh and in contrast Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to listen. In ‘b’ the lesson is that the insects all over Egypt, ‘produced’ by Aaron, are declared, even by the magicians, to be the finger of God. They admitted that what Aaron did they could not do. Central to the whole incident is the failure of the magicians to imitate God’s wonders in contrast to the previous ‘successes’. They had to admit that Yahweh was greater than their gods.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and smite the dust of the earth that it may become insects throughout all the land of Egypt’.” And they did so, and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and smote the dust of the earth, and there were insects on both man and beast. All the dust of the earth became insects throughout all the land of Egypt.’
This time there was no warning. We do not know where the eggs came from. They may have come down the Nile with the red earth, or they may have come from the dead frogs, or they may have been latent in the soil, or all three, but known only to Yahweh the land was covered with insect eggs waiting to hatch. And when Aaron stretched out his staff, hatch they did. He ‘smote the dust of the earth’. This would be done in full sight of important Egyptians. It was necessary that they recognised that what followed came from Yahweh.
“All the dust of the earth became insects.” This was how it seemed to the participants. The language is pictorial, not literal. Everywhere they looked insects were there, proliferating among the dust. The whole land seemed alive with them.
“Insect.” The word ‘ken’ may cover a number of types of insects. The rotting carcasses of the fish and frogs, and what they contained, could encourage many forms of insect life to develop, as might excessive deposits of the red earth which may have brought insect eggs with them. Insects proliferated throughout the land. These might include lice and also the tick, an eight-legged arthropod and bloodsucking parasite and carrier of disease, as well as fleas.
‘And the magicians performed with their enchantments to produce insects, but they could not. And there were insects on man and on beast.’
The magicians tried to emulate the production of the tiny insects but the dust just would not change and insects so small were difficult to conjure with. And in the end they gave up. In fact they themselves could not get away from them. They were on man and beast. Not only could they not use their conjuring to produce them, they had no way of avoiding them. They were uncontrollable.
‘Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of a god.” And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (was strong) and he did not listen to them just as Yahweh had said.’
The magicians had to cover up for their inability. They had to confess that this was beyond them and could only be imputed to a divine source. But still Pharaoh was obstinate, ‘just as Yahweh had said’. Not aware of the dangers of disease that could follow he did not think these as bad as the frogs. At least they were not in his bed.
“The finger of a god.” In Egyptian texts we find reference to the "finger of Seth" and "the finger of Thoth". This was thus a typically Egyptian way of expressing the situation. We would say, ‘God must have had a hand in this’. Note the use of ‘God’. They were not thinking of Yahweh specifically, but of the divine.
The sad thing about this episode is that those who professed to be experts in religion were as much in the dark as those whom they sought to lead. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. The magician priests could have admitted the greatness of God openly and called on Pharaoh to repent. How it might have changed history. But instead they nodded their heads wisely and declared that what was happening was a religious mystery. The world is full of people who claim to be religious experts, and who nod their heads wisely and assure each other how wise they are. But unless they respond to the revealed word of God their wisdom is nothing. Like these magician priests they simply utter platitudes forgotten by the next generation. Furthermore, like these magician priests they may gain a great reputation in the world and be lauded to the skies, but it will all prove useless and empty unless they come to and respond to the word of God.
The Fourth Plague - The Plague of Swarms of Flying Insects (Exodus 8:20-32 ).
The first series of three plagues being behind them we now come to the second series of three. While the first three have been general and have affected all, the second three are more targeted. In these three plagues the Israelites are spared and the plagues are rather centred on the Egyptians. And as with the first three the first confrontation is on the banks of the Nile.
Egypt suffers from mosquitoes all the year round but they are at their worst during and just after the Nile flood when the fields are still flooded. Their eggs and larvae develop in the standing water. The extra flooding would provide even better conditions for proliferation. As well as mosquitoes, flies would also proliferate 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. They would have been an equal nuisance and an equal threat.
The Egyptians were used to both mosquitoes and flies, which were a constant and dreadful nuisance. But they had never seen anything like the situation that now developed.
a Moses was to meet Pharaoh by the Nile, and must declare that he must allow Yahweh’s people to go and serve Him by worship and offerings (compareExodus 7:15; Exodus 7:15). (Exodus 8:20).
b If he does not there will be swarms of flying insects throughout the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:21).
c But in Goshen were His people are there will be no flying insects, this is so that he will know the great power of Yahweh (Pharaoh could do nothing about the insects, but Yahweh was in complete control) (Exodus 8:22).
d The result will be that He sets a deliverance between the Egyptians and His own people (Exodus 8:23 a).
e The sign will come on the morrow (of the overwhelming power of the Lord Yahweh) (Exodus 8:23 b).
f And Yahweh did so. He brought flying insects throughout the whole land. The land was corrupted as a result of the flying insects (Exodus 8:24).
g Pharaoh call Moses and Aaron and tells them that they may go and sacrifice, but only in the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:25).
g Moses points out that they cannot because their sacrifices are of such a nature that they will cause disquiet among the Egyptians (Exodus 8:26).
f He insists that they must go a short journey into the wilderness and sacrifice there to Yahweh their God as He shall command (they could not sacrifice to Him in a corrupted land). Then Pharaoh says that he will allow them to go into the wilderness, only they must not go far away (Exodus 8:27-28 a).
e He then asks Moses to entreat with Yahweh on his behalf (another sign emphasising the power of Yahweh. It is the inferior who entreats with the superior) (Exodus 8:28 b).
d Moses says he will entreat Yahweh, so that the flying insects may go, (thus they all may also experience Yahweh’s deliverance), but warns Pharaoh against practising deceit by not letting the people go (Exodus 8:29).
c Moses went out from Pharaoh’s presence and entreated Yahweh (Exodus 8:30).
b Yahweh does according to the word of Moses and removes the swarms of flying insects so that there ‘remained not one’ (Exodus 8:31).
a And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time as well, and would not let the people go (Exodus 8:32).
In ‘a’ as usual we have ‘let my people go’ paralleled with Pharaoh hardening his heart. In ‘b’ the warning that there will be flying insects is paralleled with the removal of the flying insects. In ‘c’ for Yahweh’s people in Goshen there were no flying insects, while in the parallel Pharaoh could not get rid of them without the help of Moses. In ‘d’ there is deliverance for Yahweh’s people in contrast with the Egyptians, and through that deliverance and contrast Pharaoh will ‘know Yahweh’ (Exodus 8:22) whereas in the parallel the hope of deliverance for the Egyptians lies with Moses, who in promising it warns against deceit. Pharaoh must know Yahweh. In ‘e’ the sign of Yahweh’s overwhelming power will come on the morrow, while in the parallel Pharaoh the god-king has to entreat Yahweh through Moses, a sign of Yahweh’s overwhelming power. In ‘f’ Yahweh brings the flying insects into Egypt and the land is ‘corrupted’ (the word usually means destroyed but can also indicate moral corruption, compare Exodus 32:7; Genesis 6:11-13; Genesis 6:17; Genesis 38:9; Deuteronomy 4:16; Deuteronomy 4:25; Deuteronomy 9:12; Deuteronomy 31:29; Deuteronomy 32:5; or for being marred - Leviticus 19:27), in the parallel Moses insists that Israel must leave the (corrupted) land in order to sacrifice. In ‘g’ Pharaoh tells Moss that they must sacrifice in the land. In the parallel Moses says that they cannot because of the nature of their sacrifices. When it comes to worshipping Yahweh Egypt is no place for it.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh. Lo, he comes out to the water. And say to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh, let my people go that they may serve me. Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold I will send swarms of flying insects on you and on your servants, and on your people and into your houses, and the houses of the Egyptians will be full of swarms of flying insects and also the ground on which they are. And I will sever in that day the land of Goshen in which my people dwell, that no swarms of flying insects will be there, to the end that you may know that I am Yahweh in the midst of the earth. And I will put a division between my people and your people. By tomorrow will this sign be.” ’
Moses was again to approach Pharaoh early in the morning, as he came to the Nile to venerate it and receive its blessing. This is the second time that Moses has approached him while worshipping at the Nile. It may be that Yahweh deliberately chose such occasions because they weakened Pharaoh’s right to deny the Israelites the same opportunity of worshipping Yahweh. Or it may have been intended to challenge Pharaoh about the power of the Nile god. Negotiations would take place in the very presence of the Nile god, but he would be unable to do anything about it.
The warning was to be given that if God’s people cannot go and ‘serve’ Him as Pharaoh now ‘serves’ the Nile then the next plague will come, a plague of excessive swarms of flying insects, and these will be everywhere. They will be inescapable. Others see these insects as a particularly vicious type of beetle.
The only exception would be the land of Goshen where His people lived. Their lives were still burdened by slavery but they would not suffer this latest plague. If they were mosquitoes this was remarkable as Goshen usually had more than its fair share of mosquitoes, demonstrating again the hand of Yahweh. (The excessive disease carrying swarms are what they would escape. They would still probably have to endure flies and mosquitoes in the normal way). But they could easily have been something even more dreadful.
“Swarms.” The word is only used of this plague (both here and in Psalms 78:45; Psalms 105:31). It comes from a root ‘to mix’ and expresses the idea of dense swarms or possibly incessant motion, and may include a variety of swarming insects.
“I will put a division.” Literally ‘set a deliverance’. One side will be delivered, the other will not.
“That you may know that I am Yahweh in the midst of the earth.” Pharaoh had said earlier that he did not recognise Yahweh (Exodus 5:2). Now he will indeed know Him, whether he wants to or not, for He is there and active.
“By tomorrow will this sign be.” The remarkable distinction will be a clear sign of the power and favour of Yahweh, and it was to come on the morrow.
‘And Yahweh did so. And there came grievous swarms of flying insects into the house of Pharaoh and into his servants houses. And in all the land of Egypt the land was corrupted by reason of the swarms of flying insects.’
It is emphasised here that the house of Pharaoh and his high officials were especially affected. The plagues were now getting nearer to home, and Pharaoh’s helplessness in the face of them was being revealed. But apart from Goshen the whole land was affected. Their people were becoming aware that the mighty Horus (the living Pharaoh was believed to be the god Horus) was helpless against Yahweh.
“Corrupted.” The word commonly means ‘destroyed’, but regularly refers to moral corruption, and sometimes to being marred (compare Exodus 32:7; Genesis 6:11-13; Genesis 6:17; Genesis 38:9; Deuteronomy 4:16; Deuteronomy 4:25; Deuteronomy 9:12; Deuteronomy 31:29; Deuteronomy 32:5; or for being marred - Leviticus 19:27). The point being made is of the devastating effect that they had, so much so that Pharaoh compromises. They did not just destroy the land, they made it distasteful. This particular word would support the suggestion that the insects were a particularly vicious and ravenous form of beetle. Some kinds of beetles were sacred to the Egyptians which would make the situation even more difficult. It would certainly not be a land where Yahweh could be worshipped in purity.
‘And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron and said, “You go, sacrifice to your God in the land.” ’
So Pharaoh, driven to distraction, offered to let the children of Israel offer sacrifices and serve God in a festival, but only within the land of Egypt, not in the wilderness. He would give them time off for their worship, but they must not leave the country.
‘And Moses said, “It is not satisfactory to do so. For we will sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to Yahweh our God. Look, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes and they not stone us?” ’
But Moses argued that this compromise was not suitable because of the nature of their sacrifices and the way in which they would sacrifice them. Their actions would be seen as an abomination by the Egyptians who saw some of the animals as sacred, and would consider that they were not sacrificing them in the right way. Can Pharaoh not see that thus the Egyptians would be incensed and would riot and attack them for their sacrilege? Stoning was not an official form of punishment in Egypt. The idea is that the Egyptians would riot and use any weapon that lay to hand.
“We will go three days journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to Yahweh our God as He shall command us.”
So Moses insists on a short journey, a ‘three day journey’, into the wilderness where they may sacrifice to Yahweh in accordance with His commands, in a place suitable for worshipping Yahweh.
‘And Pharaoh said, “I will let you go that you may sacrifice to Yahweh your God in the wilderness, only you shall not go very far away. Entreat for me.” ’
Pharaoh now concedes almost all the ground. ‘Not very far’ rather than a ‘three days journey’. The difference in distance is minimal and probably a face saver.
“Entreat for me.” Here was a humiliation indeed. The great Pharaoh was pleading with Moses as a prophet to plead for him with his own God Who was thereby acknowledge as being more powerful than he. It should be noted that he is asking Moses to entreat on the basis of the terms discussed. Thus for Pharaoh to back down would be a breach of treaty and would be seen as a serious offence deserving of severe punishment. (The word is not specifically a treaty word but the context makes it so).
‘And Moses said, “Behold I go out from you, and I will entreat Yahweh that the swarms of flying insects may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people tomorrow. Only let not Pharaoh deal deceitfully any more in not letting the people go to sacrifice to Yahweh.” And Moses went out from Pharaoh and entreated Yahweh, and Yahweh did according to the word of Moses, and he removed the swarms of flying insects from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people. There remained not one.’
Moses accepts the compromise, agrees to entreat for him on the basis of it because he is acknowledging that only Yahweh can deliver is such a case, and warns Pharaoh against failing to fulfil his obligations under the agreement. He will ask Yahweh that the swarms of flying insects might depart, but he knows by now that this Pharaoh is not to be trusted and warns him against proving false to his promise of letting them go and sacrifice to Yahweh. Yahweh is doing what He is about to do because Pharaoh is to some extent acknowledging that he ‘knows Yahweh as the One Who is in the midst of the earth’, the One Who can deliver (Exodus 8:22-23). Let him not then back down from it.
“And Moses went out from Pharaoh and entreated Yahweh.” These words are heavy with significance. Pharaoh was used to men entering his presence in order to entreat with him because they saw him as a power amongst the gods. But Moses departs the other way, for he has a more powerful Being to entreat. He departed from Pharaoh and entreated Yahweh.
He entreated Yahweh to remove the swarms, and it is stressed that Yahweh did so in accordance with the word of Moses. Not one remained. Moses may not be good at the flowery speeches, but his word is powerfully effective in performing wonders. And he is good at the hard bargaining, for although it may well be that the conversation was taking place through intermediaries, (for Aaron was with him), the final decisions lay with him.
“There remained not one.” Probably not intended to be pressed too literally. The point is that they would all appear to have disappeared so that no trace of one could be seen.
‘And Pharaoh hardened his heart (made his heart heavy) this time as well and he did not let the people go.’
Pharaoh clearly now felt that there was not much else Yahweh could now do, for he again changed his mind once the danger was removed. We must presume he thought that treaties with slaves and Habiru under duress did not need to be observed. But his dishonesty and intransigence was building up trouble for the future, not only for himself but for his people. We should remember that our sins always affect the future and always affect others.
The further lesson that we learn from this plague, on top of what we have already pointed out, is God’s care of His own. In all His dealings He distinguishes between those who are His people and respond to Him, and those who do not.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 8". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29