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); 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 Fifth Plague - The Plague of a Deadly Cattle Sickness (Exodus 9:1-7).
Up to this point the inflictions had mainly been to do with people. Now the wealth of the Egyptians was to be attacked. The attacks were increasing in intensity. That would really hit at their hearts for their very existence was being threatened.
a Yahweh tells Moses to go and command Pharaoh that he let Yahweh’s people go (as he had promised) (Exodus 9:1).
b If he refuses the hand of Yahweh will be on the cattle throughout the land and they will be severely diseased (Exodus 9:2-3).
c Yahweh will make a difference between the cattle of Egypt and the cattle of Israel. None of Israel’s cattle will die (Exodus 9:4).
d Yahweh appoints a set time for His action (Exodus 9:5 a).
d On the morrow Yahweh will do this thing to the land (Exodus 9:5 b).
c And on the morrow He did so. All the cattle of Egypt died (cattle of all types in all parts of Egypt, all who were outside and were smitten) but of Israel not one died (Exodus 9:6).
b And Pharaoh sent and (while all Egypt’s cattle were diseased) not one of the cattle of Israel were dead (Exodus 9:7 a).
a But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not let the children of Israel go (Exodus 9:7 b).
The parallels give a continual contrast between Yahweh’s action on behalf of His people and as against Egypt.
‘Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and tell him, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go that they may serve me, for if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, the hand of Yahweh is on your cattle which are in the field, on the horses, on the asses, on the camels, on the herds and on the flocks. There will be a very grievous disease. And Yahweh will make a difference between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt, and nothing will die of all that belongs to the children of Israel.”
The call came yet again for Pharaoh to let the children of Israel worship Yahweh in the wilderness, for if he refused this time the hand of Yahweh would bring grievous disease on the Egyptian cattle. The fact that the cattle of Israel would not be affected suggests that the disease would come from the swarms of flying insects and not directly from the diseased frogs, for the flying insects too were excluded from the territory of the children of Israel.
“The hand of Yahweh.” Compare Exodus 7:4. The hand represents God working in power and in judgment (see Deuteronomy 2:15; Deuteronomy 7:8; Judges 2:15; 1 Samuel 5:6).
“Horses.” Prior to the coming of the Hyksos horses had been rare in Egypt. They were now more plentiful and their main use was at first military, but they gradually began to be used in farming. Asses were commonplace and used widely.
“Camels”. Domesticated camels were comparatively rare in Egypt even at this time when they were well known elsewhere, but a camel-skull was discovered in the Fayum province dating to before 1400 BC and from the Memphis region comes a figure of a camel with two water jars datable by associated material to 13th Century BC. Thus domestic camels were known. Note the order, horses the most valuable, asses the most plentiful, camels third because rare and little used, and then the herds and flocks.
“A grievous disease.” Probably brought and passed on by the flying insects.
“The cattle of Israel.” Events and the contrast with Egypt were helping to make ‘the children of Israel’ be designated as a distinctive people. At this stage the word ‘Israel’ by itself (excluding ‘the children of’ or ‘the congregation of’ or ‘the elders of’ (Exodus 3:16; Exodus 3:18) which still linked the people directly to Jacob) was only used when addressing Pharaoh, or by Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22; Exodus 5:1-2; Exodus 9:4), until Exodus 14:30-31 when a national identity had been established (but see Exodus 11:7. Yahweh already sees the distinction). Pharaoh does once speak of ‘the children of Israel’, but only once in a situation where he no longer feels contempt for them but recognises them as the favoured of Yahweh (Exodus 12:31).
Exodus 9:5-7 a
‘And Yahweh appointed a set time saying, “Tomorrow Yahweh will do this thing in the land.” And Yahweh did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died. But of the cattle of the children of Israel not one died. And Pharaoh sent and behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead.’
“Yahweh appointed a set time.” This time the choice was not given to Pharaoh (compare Exodus 8:9-10). Yahweh was sovereign over affairs. This, like all the other plagues, was to be seen as under the direct control of Yahweh. It was the first plague in which the property of Egyptians has been directly affected.
“All the cattle of Egypt.” All, that is, that were ‘in the field’ (Exodus 9:3), in other words those being kept outside and more vulnerable to the swarms of flying insects. However here the word ‘all’ is probably a general word meaning ‘every kind of’ cattle ‘all over Egypt’ signifying the great majority (notice that it does not say ‘not one was left alive’ - compare verse 7a of the Israelite cattle). We can compare the use of ‘all’ in such verses as Genesis 41:57; Genesis 47:14-15; 2 Samuel 11:18; 1 Kings 4:34. See also Genesis 6:21; Genesis 24:1; Genesis 29:22; Genesis 31:6; Genesis 45:13; Exodus 18:1; Exodus 18:8; Exodus 18:14; Exodus 33:19; Numbers 14:2; Deuteronomy 2:32; 1 Samuel 8:20; 1 Samuel 25:1; 1 Samuel 30:16; 2 Samuel 5:17; 2 Kings 19:11 and often.
Bulls and cows were sacred to the Egyptians, and on death were often embalmed. Great cemeteries of embalmed cattle have been discovered there. These multiplicities of deaths would therefore cause a huge embalming problem. Furthermore the god Apis was in the form of a bull and Hathor the goddess of love was often represented in the form of a cow. Yet they could do nothing about this disease. Thus this plague hit at the very heart of Egyptian religion.
“And Pharaoh sent --”. He was not unmoved and he checked to see whether what Moses had said was true, and found that it was.
“The Israelites.” This is the first use of the term in English versions. Yitsrael is here the shortened form of ‘children of Israel’ and therefore means Israelites, although it could equally be translated ‘Israel’. Note that it is used in regard to the intentions of Pharaoh who knows the people as ‘Israel’ (Exodus 4:22; Exodus 5:2). It thus reflects what his command would be.
Exodus 9:7 b
‘But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn (heavy) and he did not let the people go.’
The whole thing had become a matter of pride and Pharaoh was very proud. Here he was, one among the gods of Egypt, destined (in his own eyes) to rule the underworld, subservient to no one, being told what to do by the God of the Hebrews, and he did not like it. And he had been used to always having his own way. This was an unusual situation for him. Once things had settled down his obstinacy resurfaced.
We are reminded by this plague that all that we have comes from God, and belongs to God. In the end these cattle were His own for He had created them. We should therefore learn to give thanks daily for all that we possess, for all we have is as a result of His graciousness. And in the end it is He Who determines whether we retain it or lose it.
The Sixth Plague - The Plague of Boils (Exodus 9:8-12).
Like the third plague in the first series this plague follows immediately after the previous one in the second series without warning.
a Yahweh directs Moses and Aaron to sprinkle towards heaven ashes from a furnace. The ashes will become small dust and produce blisters and sores on both man and beast (Exodus 9:9).
b And Moses and Aaron do as they are commanded with the result that it became the cause of sores and blisters on both man and beast (Exodus 9:10).
b Even the magicians were affected. They could not remain their to provide their support to Pharaoh and stand before Moses because of the boils. Like all of Egypt they were affected by them (Exodus 9:11).
a And Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them as Yahweh had spoken to Moses (Exodus 9:12).
In this terse description of the sixth plague the stark facts are briefly laid out. In ‘a’, on the one hand is Yahweh, powerful and effective, on the other in the parallel is Pharaoh, obstinate and truculent, for just as Yahweh’s will is being done with regard to the dust, so is it being done in the life of Pharaoh. Furthermore there is in ‘b’ the contrast between Moses and Aaron and the magicians of Egypt, Moses and Aaron triumphant in obedience, the magicians of Egypt having to go away and hide.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses and to Aaron, “Take for yourselves handfuls of ashes of the furnace and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh, and it will become small dust over all the land of Egypt and will be a sore breaking out with blisters on man and on beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” And they took ashes of the furnace and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses sprinkled it up towards heaven and it became a sore breaking out in blisters on man and on beast.’
Ashes from a furnace are to be taken before Pharaoh and Moses then sprinkles it into the heavens. As elsewhere with the sprinkling of blood (compare Exodus 24:6; Exodus 24:8) this is an application of the significance of what is being sprinkled. The fires of the furnace of Egypt which have been afflicting Yahweh’s people (Deuteronomy 4:20) will now be applied to the Egyptians. The result will be sores and blisters on both men and cattle throughout Egypt.
And Moses and Aaron do as they are commanded and the whole of Egypt is affected by sores and blisters. Unlike the magicians Moses and Aaron do not have to go away and hide.
Diseases of the skin were common in Egypt and the ‘sore of Egypt’ was a byword (Deuteronomy 28:27). But this broke out all over Egypt in a mass epidemic with disfiguring and unpleasant blisters. Goshen is not said to be excluded from this and it may have resulted from the ticks, fleas and other insects in Exodus 8:16. It was seemingly not deadly but very unpleasant. (Although Exodus 9:11 may be seen as suggesting that only the Egyptians were affected).
“Ashes (or soot) of the furnace.” Both words are rare, the former being found only here. In Genesis 19:28 and Exodus 19:18 reference is made to smoke going up from a ‘furnace’, as a sign of judgment and of the awesomeness of God’s presence, and that is probably the idea here. The soot from the side of the kiln in which the furnace would burn was thrown upwards to depict the ash-filled smoke of the furnace as a symbol of judgment from Yahweh, and its effects were seen throughout Egypt.
In Deuteronomy 4:20 Egypt is likened to an iron furnace. The way they treated others would now rebound on them.
Furthermore the furnaces would provide the tools for the slaves and stood as a witness to the building works of the Pharaohs. Thus this was a solemn act that connected the plagues directly with the treatment of God’s people. The very equipment which had been the source of such misery to the Israelites, would now be the source of misery to all Egypt.
“Toward the heaven.” What is to happen is to be seen as from Yahweh.
‘And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the sores, for the sores were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians.’
Clearly the magicians had previously been present when the judgments were in progress so that they might counter them as best they might, even though their efforts had been of little use. Now their absence was cause for comment. As priests as well as magicians the disease would be particularly obnoxious to them. They had a great concern for ritual cleanliness. The practise of many of them was to bathe themselves at least four times a day, and to shave their whole bodies every second day. They wore only linen in their efforts to keep themselves ceremonially pure. But now they would be ceremonially unclean, and thus they could not stand before Moses in the presence of the Pharaoh. They would feel this even more than the boils.
And in contrast with these magician priests, covered in boils, were Moses and Aaron, standing there free from boils, an evidence of their total control over all that was happening. If anything could reveal the powerlessness of these magician priests it was this.
“On all the Egyptians.” Again a generality showing that it was widespread in each district and countrywide. It may or may not have excluded non-Egyptians (‘Egyptians’ may be a general term referring to all who lived there who were not Israelites). Perhaps Egyptians were particularly vulnerable to it.
‘And Yahweh hardened (made strong) the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said to Moses.’
Pharaoh’s resistance continued. He had become almost unmoveable. It may be that he had not been infected by the insects for he lived in semi-exclusion in a great palace and possibly did not tend to walk around on the ground outside, especially at times like these.
The Seventh Plague - The Plague of Great Hail Such as Had Never Been in Egypt (Exodus 9:13-35).
We now come to the third series of plagues which this time come as judgments from the heavens, the great hail and mighty thunderstorm, the huge cloud of locusts, and finally the plague of thick darkness. All are portents from the heavens. All bring darkness of one kind or another. It is a dark time for Egypt.
Pharaoh was now approached again and this time the warning is more severe. Disease has been rife and the cattle have been decimated but he is still unyielding. Now the attack is to be made on what cattle remain, on any man foolish enough to remain in the fields and on the crops of Egypt which had as yet not been largely affected. The food supply of Egypt was thus to be the next target, and death would visit the Egyptians, and other Egyptians would have to stand by helplessly and watch. And the judgment would come from the heavens.
While no mention is made of the Nile this seventh warning is to be given early in the morning. This links this opening plague of the third series with the opening plagues of the first two series and evidences the unity of the narrative (Exodus 7:15; Exodus 8:20).
a Early in the morning Moses is to stand before Pharaoh and tell him that Yahweh says, ‘Let my people go that they may serve Me.’ (Exodus 9:13)
b If he does not then his very heart will be affected, and his grand officials and his people so that he will know that there is none like Yahweh on earth, for he intends to send ‘all my plagues’ on them (Exodus 9:14).
c Let him remember that Yahweh could have put out His hand and smitten him and his people with pestilence, and he would have been cut off from the earth (Exodus 9:15).
d Indeed he has been raised up for this very purpose so as to reveal Yahweh’s power, and so that His name might be declared throughout all the earth (Exodus 9:16).
e And yet he still exalts himself against Yahweh’s people and will not let them go (Exodus 9:17).
f On the morrow Yahweh intends to cause hailstorms such as have never been before in Egypt since the world began (Exodus 9:18).
g And he warns him (and his people) that they must bring all their cattle, with themselves, into shelter, for the hailstorm will be such that all out in the open will die (Exodus 9:19).
h Those who feared Yahweh among Pharaoh’s officials brought their beasts and their servants indoors (Exodus 9:20).
h Those who did not regard Yahweh left them in the open field (Exodus 9:21).
g Yahweh tells Moses to stretch forth his hand towards heaven so that there would be hailstorms throughout the land of Egypt on both man and beast out in the open (Exodus 9:22).
f And Moses did so and there was thunder and hail, and lightning striking and running along the ground, hail and fire mingled with hail, very grievous such as had not been in Egypt since they were a nation (Exodus 9:23-24).
e And the hail smote all that was outside in the open throughout the land of Egypt, man and beast, vegetation and trees, only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail (Exodus 9:25-26).
d Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron and admits that he has erred, that Yahweh is righteous and that his people are wicked. He has had enough. Let them entreat Yahweh that there be no more of this thundering and hail and he will let them go and they need remain no longer (Exodus 9:28).
c Moses declares that once he has left the city he will spread out his hands before Yahweh and there will be no more thunder and hail so that Pharaoh will know that the earth is Yahweh’s. Yet he knows that Pharaoh and his officials will not yet fear Yahweh God. And the flax and barley which were growing were smitten but the wheat and spelt which had not yet sprouted were untouched (Exodus 9:31-32).
b And Moses left the city and spread out his hands to Yahweh, and the thunders and hail ceased and the rain ceased pouring down. And when Pharaoh saw this he sinned even more and hardened his heart, he and his officials (Exodus 9:33-34).
a And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, nor would he let the children of Israel go, as Yahweh had spoken by Moses.
Note the contrasts. In ‘a’ Yahweh calls on Pharaoh to let His people go, in the parallel Pharaoh refuses to do so. In ‘b’ if he does not let Yahweh’s people go his ‘heart’ will be affected, and his officials and people, in the parallel Pharaoh hardened his heart and his officials did so also. In ‘c’ Yahweh could smite them with pestilence (which can include pestilence which affects crops and vegetation - see 1 Kings 8:37), and cut them off from the earth, in the parallel He will yet spare them by stopping the thunder and hail, but they still do not fear God, (and are still therefore liable to be cut off) while the barley and flax are smitten, although the wheat and spelt are spared, for He is still deferring final judgment. In ‘d’ Pharaoh has been raised up so as to reveal Yahweh’s power and so that His name might be declared throughout all the earth, while in the parallel Pharaoh is seen as having admitted his error and failure to obey Yahweh along with all his people, and is yielding to His will. In ‘e’ he is still exalting himself against Yahweh’s people while in the parallel Yahweh’s people are spared while Egypt is punished. Yahweh is exalting Himself against Egypt. In ‘f’ Yahweh will send such hailstorms as have not been seen in Egypt since the world began, while in the parallel such hailstorms came, hailstorms such as had not been seen in Egypt since it was a nation. Two superlative ideas are compared. In ‘g’ Yahweh warns that all cattle must be brought into shelter while in the parallel all those not in shelter are to be subjected to the hailstorms. In ‘h’ we have the contrast between the Egyptians who feared Yahweh, heeded His words and kept their cattle in shelter, while in the parallel are those who did not do so.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh and say to him, Thus says Yahweh the God of the Hebrews. Let my people go that they may serve me. For I will this time send my plagues on your heart and on your servants and on your people that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.’
It is probably intended to be significant that Pharaoh no longer goes down to the Nile in the morning (compare Exodus 7:15; Exodus 8:20). He does not want to have any part of the insects and diseases that affect his land. But the forthcoming plagues were to affect him (‘on your heart’) as no previous plague has done.
Note that this is a new phase. Aaron now slips into the background, although still there to assist Moses (Exodus 10:3; Exodus 10:8; Exodus 10:16), and from now on it is out and out confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. The contest is ‘hotting up’.
“I will send my plagues.” God has in mind that there are a number of plagues yet to come. From this point of view we are to see these last plagues as together, for God and Moses know that Pharaoh will not listen and that the plagues are therefore inevitable (see Exodus 9:30).
“On your heart.” This might refer to the heart of Pharaoh as affected by what he saw around him and what was happening to his people (as the parallel might suggest with its mentioning of the hardening of his heart), or it may have in mind that Egypt was Pharaoh’s ‘heart’. What is said refers first to the fact that the devastation wrought will hit Egypt as nothing before has done. It has been his heart, his innermost being, which has firmly resisted Yahweh and been hardened. Now it is to be severely attacked. It will be deeply affected (compare Psalms 107:12) by what is to come. First Egypt’s very food supply and means of mummification (the flax) will be destroyed, and in a sense these are Pharaoh’s heart. But his heart will be even more deeply affected when the locusts and the thick darkness blot out the sun, and the sun god Re is seen to be helpless, for he was closely connected with Re. But finally he will be most deeply affected of all when ‘the firstborn of Pharaoh in the land of Egypt’ dies. Then and only then will his heart yield.
“On your servants and on your people.” The difference between the high officials and bureaucrats and the common people continues to be emphasised.
“That you may know that there is none like me.” Once Yahweh has finished what He is doing, His uniqueness will stand out unreservedly. The gods of Egypt will have been proved to be powerless against Yahweh. Note how Moses refuses even to give them credence.
“For now I could have put out my hand and smitten you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth, but, indeed, this is the reason I have made you to stand in order to show you my power and so that my name may be declared through all the earth. Do you as yet exalt yourself against my people so that you will not let them go? Behold tomorrow, about this time, I will cause it to rain a very severe hail such as has not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now.”
Yahweh points out that He is being merciful. Had He wished He could have destroyed both Pharaoh and his people totally with pestilence and disease. The word can also include pestilence on crops and vegetation (1 Kings 8:37). He had the power of life and death. But the reason He has not done so is in order to demonstrate His power so that the whole world may know of it. And now because Pharaoh still exalts himself He is about to send a great hail unlike anything seen before in Egypt since its very beginning which will destroy all men and beasts in the open field and all crops and vegetation.
“So that my name might be declared.” And this is so that His name, that is His very self, might be made manifest to the nations. The knowing and declaring of His name is a theme of the first part of Exodus (3:13-16; 5:2; 6:3, 7; 7:5, 17; 8:10; 9:14; 10:2). By what happened in Egypt He would get great glory. Even Pharaoh’s repentance (Exodus 9:27), brief though it was, would bring great glory to his name, and his final repentance (and his turning back from it) even greater glory.
“Tomorrow, about this time.” This is to make Pharaoh realise that it comes at Yahweh’s behest and under His control, and also to give an opportunity to anyone who will listen to protect what remains of the livestock.
“Now therefore send your instructions, hurriedly bring in your cattle and all that you have in the field, for on every man and beast who will be found in the field and will not be brought home, the hail will come down on them and they shall die.”
The words were being spoken before Pharaoh’s high officials. Both he and they could hear if they wished. And they had due warning. If they did not want their cattle and servants to die they must bring them to shelter. Now all were being faced up to the question as to whether they would believe the word of Yahweh.
‘He who heard the word of Yahweh among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he who did not take any notice of the word of Yahweh left his servants and his cattle in the field.’
Yahweh was now seeking to sow dissension among the high officials in Egypt and making them take sides. Some took notice of His words and sheltered their servants and cattle, others ignored Him and did not do so, and it was to their cost. This was His prophetic and powerful word, the ‘dabar Yahweh’. Some of those who heard it recognised that the very speaking of the divine ‘word’ would be effective in bringing it about and brought everything in to shelter. They recognised that word and action went together.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand towards heaven that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and on beast and on all vegetation throughout the land of Egypt.” And Moses stretched out his staff towards heaven, and Yahweh sent thunder and hail, and lightning (fire) ran down to the earth. And Yahweh rained hail on the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and lightning mingled with hail, very severe, such as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.”
It is now Moses himself who acts publicly and stretches out his staff towards heaven. Nut the sky god is clearly powerless and Yahweh takes control. He sends down huge hail in a massive hailstorm accompanied by fierce lightning covering large parts of Egypt. Indeed it was so severe that Egypt as a nation had never known its like. It must have been awesome to behold.
‘And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the open countryside, both man and beast, and the hail smote all vegetation and broke every tree in the countryside. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.’
The devastation was clearly dreadful. The hailstones were so large that they killed both men and animals, and the vegetation, and especially the flax and barley which was ripening in the fields, was destroyed. Trees were pulverised and broken. Looking for parallels is clearly difficult for we are told that nothing like it had ever been seen before, but even in our own day huge hailstones have been known which could kill a man. What caused it geographically speaking we can only surmise but the very fact of the previous plagues demonstrates that the weather patterns at the time were unusually severe.
“Only in the land of Goshen --”. Severe though it might be, God was in control of the hail. His people, many of whom would have been required still to work in the fields, were safely delivered.
The storms would not necessarily hit everywhere at the same time. Places further afield from Pharaoh’s palace would be hit later, possibly giving time for the warning that was given to Pharaoh’s officials to reach them.
‘And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned. Yahweh is righteous and I and the people are wicked. Entreat Yahweh, for there have been enough of these voices of God (or ‘mighty thunderings’) and hail, and I will let you go and you shall stay no longer.”
The dreadful devastation and awfulness of the storms fell on Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:14). He was deeply moved and for a short time conscious of sin and wrongdoing. He recognised that he and his people had been in the wrong in their treatment of the children of Israel. (Such flights of conscience sometimes strike the most evil of men). They could have been more reasonable and let them worship their God. But like most men he was unwilling to take all the blame on himself, and so he included his people who had suffered for his vanity.
“Pharaoh sent and called.” Previously it was ‘Pharaoh called.’ Possibly in mind is the advice in Exodus 9:19 to send a message for the cattle to be brought to shelter. He now ‘sends’, but he sends too late and for the wrong reason. Had he ‘believed’ and sent then, and acted in accordance with that belief, many lives would have been saved. But now he has come to a form of belief and sends for Moses and Aaron. His call is not to be seen as peremptory.
“Yahweh is righteous and I and the people are wicked.” He accepts that Yahweh is in the right. All He had asked was the reasonable worship of His people. Thus Pharaoh admits that he was wrong for failing to allow it. But he sees the people of Egypt as incorporated in himself. They had after all agreed with his decision. Thus they must share joint responsibility.
“These voices of God.” In view of the context we cannot exclude this thought. It was not just the mighty thunderings Pharaoh was thinking of (which have not been previously mentioned), but the thunderings which spoke to him and his people as divine voices, as a mighty voice from Yahweh. They, and the devastation that accompanied them, had totally unnerved him.
‘And Moses said to him, “As soon as I am gone from the city I will spread abroad my hands to Yahweh. The thunderings will cease, neither will there be any more hail, in order that you may know that the earth is Yahweh’s. But as for you and you servants, I know that you will not fear Yahweh, God.”
Moses was not deceived. He knew what was really in Pharaoh’s heart. But he will stop the devastation because he knows that there is yet more to come. It is the final confrontation, and now directly between Moses and Pharaoh.
“As soon as I am gone from the city.” Moses and Aaron clearly did not live within the city. They appeared and disappeared to the great fear of the populace. They probably mainly lived among their own people. This may include the thought that while he is in the wicked city (for cities are regularly seen in the Old Testament as centres of wickedness) he will not act. He must be in God’s clean air.
“The thunderings will cease.” To us the hail would have been more frightening, but to Pharaoh the thunderings were the voice of Yahweh and to be feared the most.
“I will spread abroad my hands.” Pharaoh was to know that Moses was in control.
“That you may know that the earth is Yahweh”s.’ Pharaoh needed to learn also that Yahweh was over all. That Moses acted under His authority and power.
“As for you and your servants.” Moses has in mind that the high official were listening. They too needed to make up their minds.
“Yahweh, God. ” He was drawing attention to the fact that the gods of Egypt had been powerless to help them. It is Yahweh Who is ‘God’. (There is no definite article in Hebrew before God but the idea is clearly there that Yahweh is uniquely God).
‘And the flax and the barley were smitten, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not smitten for they had not begun to grow.’
This note demonstrates the writer’s knowledge of Egyptian agriculture. The flax and barley always preceded the wheat and spelt. They were devastated by the storms and the hail. The flax was needed in providing the material for mummification and for the priests’ garments. But this year there would be none. As is brought out in the analysis above this was the part of the partial pestilence which came as a warning of what could be (see Exodus 9:15).
“Spelt”. A wheat-like product. The wheat and the spelt had been spared, but only to await the locusts.
‘And Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh, and spread abroad his hands to Yahweh, and the thunders and hail ceased and the rain was no longer poured on the earth.’
At Moses’ visible plea to Yahweh (Pharaoh no doubt had his spies out) the dreadful storms and hail ceased throughout Egypt. We are now informed that there had been hail, lightning, thunder and dreadful rainstorms. But the hail was the most deadly and the constant thunder the most unnerving.
Perhaps Moses waited until he was out of the city because he suspected that otherwise Pharaoh planned to kill him, for he probably discerned that Pharaoh was in two minds, and in a state of extreme tension. Had he stayed in the city his life might well have been forfeit.
‘And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased he sinned yet more, and hardened (made heavy) his heart, he and his servants. And the heart of Pharaoh was made strong and he did not let the children of Israel go just as Yahweh had spoken by Moses.’
Once more Pharaoh revealed his obstinacy and his contempt of his promises. He had admitted that he was in the wrong (Exodus 9:27), and now he added to his wrong, ‘he sinned yet more’. He broke his treaty with Yahweh. He hardened (made heavy) his heart. And this time the court officials were included. They too hardened their hearts. All were being given the opportunity to recognise and acknowledge Yahweh but with one accord they turned against Him. Their hearts could have been turned towards Him but instead they rejected Him. Pharaoh’s heart has truly been affected (see Exodus 9:14).
There is a constant pattern to the final statements which follow each plague, even though there is a little variation. ‘He did not listen to them as Yahweh had said’ (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:19), ‘he did not let the people go’ (Exodus 8:32; Exodus 9:7), ‘he did not listen to them as Yahweh had spoken to Moses’ (Exodus 9:12), ‘he did not let the children of Israel go as Yahweh had spoken by Moses (Exodus 9:35), ‘he did not let the children of Israel go’ (Exodus 10:20), ‘he would not let them go’ (Exodus 10:27), ‘he would not let the children of Israel go’ (Exodus 11:10). The first four are ‘did not listen to them’, the last four are ‘did not let them go (with variations)’, separated by ‘did not let them go’ (twice) and ‘did not listen to them’. It is thus emphasised that over and over again he did not listen, and that he did not let them go. He had been given every opportunity and had refused.
Compare also the very different pattern of the two different words translated ‘harden’ (meaning ‘made strong’ and ‘heavy’). ‘Pharaoh’s heart was made strong’ (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22), ‘he made heavy his heart’ (Exodus 8:15), ‘Pharaoh’s heart was made strong (Exodus 8:19), ‘Pharaoh made heavy his heart’ (Exodus 8:32), ‘Pharaoh’s heart was heavy’ (Exodus 9:7), ‘Yahweh made strong Pharaoh’s heart’ (Exodus 9:12), ‘he made heavy his heart’ and ‘Pharaoh’s heart was made strong’ (Exodus 9:34-35), ‘Yahweh made strong Pharaoh’s heart’ (Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27; Exodus 11:10). Here the pattern alternates to begin with, reverses and alternates and then solidifies. Made strong (twice), made heavy, made strong, made heavy, was heavy, made strong, made heavy, made strong (four times). It is a totally different pattern, and his heart is made strong to resist Yahweh twice as much as it is made heavy.
Thus the two connected patterns do not fit together. They are two different patterns which are part of the whole weave, revealing unity of authorship.
Note that the ‘making heavy’ of the heart is never directly imputed to Yahweh, while the ‘making strong’ of the heart always is. (‘Made strong Pharaoh’s/his heart’ also occurs in Exodus 7:3; Exodus 10:1 compare Exodus 4:21. ‘Pharaoh’s heart is heavy’ in Exodus 7:14). Yahweh strengthens the hardening, He does not make it happen.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 9". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany