The Fifth Blow: Disease
9:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Release my people that they may serve me! 9:2 For if you refuse to release them and continue holding them, 9:3 then the hand of the LORD will surely bring a very terrible plague on your livestock in the field, on the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. 9:4 But the Lord will distinguish between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and nothing will die of all that the Israelites have.” ’ ”
More than one writer makes a connection between this plague and the panic caused by ‘mad cow disease’ in Europe in the years following 1985.
Here begins the account of the 5th plague. For the first time, life (but not human life) is destroyed.
Your livestock – includes both work animals and sources of food. Whereas the first plagues had been nuisances, the Egyptians are now suffering economically.
Once again, there are allusions here to Egypt’s panoply of gods and goddesses, many of whom were depicted as bulls and cows.
Ryken comments: ‘Pharaoh was such a proud man that in order to humble him, God had to humiliate his gods one by one. With the plague on livestock, God humiliated Apis, Hathor, and the rest of Egypt’s sacred cows. Apis was a masculine god: He represented sexual prowess. Hathor was a feminine god: She represented glamor. Although we do not bow down before golden cows, we sometimes worship the very same gods and goddesses. We are tempted to gratify sexual desire outside the marriage covenant or to glamorize our outward appearance for the sake of our inward esteem. But this is utter folly. The idols of sex and beauty cannot save. They do not free us; they only bind us. The attractions they offer are temporary, and in the end those who lust after them will gain nothing but lonely, empty disappointment.’
Such a distinction had been made for the first time with the previous plague (the flies).
9:5 The LORD set an appointed time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this in the land.” 9:6 And the LORD did this on the next day; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the Israelites’ livestock not one died. 9:7 Pharaoh sent representatives to investigate, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of Israel had died. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not release the people.
All the livestock of the Egyptians died – This is the first plague to involve death – albeit the death of animals, not humans. But ‘the curtain has already begun to go down on Egypt’s comedy of errors’ (Enns).
Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted) identifies this passage as one of his ‘all-time favourite’ contradictions:
The fifth plague was a pestilence that killed “all of the livestock of the Egyptians” (Exodus 9:5). How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields (Exodus 9:21–22)? What livestock?
Enns agrees that language is indeed very definite (‘all…not one’). However, he thinks that hyperbole is probably being used here.
Another proposed solution seeks to distinguish between animals ‘in the field’ (v3) which was affected, and those in the stable (which were not).
Not one animal belonging to the Israelites died – As with the plague flies, the Israelites experienced a miracle of protection.
Pharaoh sent men to investigate – This, according to Enns, ‘betrays a diminishing self-confidence’. Enns adds that there is a delicious word-play in the original: Pharaoh uses a form of the same word that Moses used in demanding that the people be allowed to go (v1). ‘But instead of “sending” the Israelites on their way, he “sends” people to investigate whether Moses’ threat comes through…The writer describes his stubbornness with irony and even a hint of mockery.’
Ryken draws out an application: ‘It is not uncommon for skeptics to investigate God, as Pharaoh did. Skeptics thrive on their skepticism; so they need someone or something to be skeptical about. God seems like an easy target because he makes such absolute claims of power and authority. So the skeptic learns at least enough theology to criticize God and his Word. But even after studying God, the average skeptic refuses to come to God in faith. This was true of Pharaoh. He had more than enough facts to trust in God and obey his will. Not only had he witnessed miraculous signs and wonders, but he had also been warned of the consequences of refusing to respond in faith. He had also witnessed the miracle in Goshen, which provided further confirmation of God’s power. Yet still he would not believe.’
There are, as Ryken says, legitimate questions for enquirers to ask: ‘Can the Bible be trusted? What about the incarnation—was Jesus divine, or was he merely human? What about the crucifixion? When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified—as the historical records prove that he was—did he suffer the full price for sin? And what about the resurrection? Did Jesus rise from the dead on the third day, or was it all a hoax?’ But if a questioner is only interested in asking questions, but not evaluating the answers, in doubting, but not believing, in the rough-and-tumble of intellectual debate, but not in humble submission to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then his heart, like that of Pharaoh, is likely to become harder and harder.
The Sixth Blow: Boils
9:8 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace, and have Moses throw it into the air while Pharaoh is watching. 9:9 It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt and will cause boils to break out and fester on both people and animals in all the land of Egypt.” 9:10 So they took soot from a furnace and stood before Pharaoh, Moses threw it into the air, and it caused festering boils to break out on both people and animals.
Here begins the account of the 6th plague. This one comes without warning. There is further intensification: for the first time, the judgement falls directly on humans.
Bruckner notes that there has been a mirroring of the creation story in Gen 1, signalling an undoing of God’s good creation as a sign of Pharaoh’s sin, right up to this point: ‘Like the first creation account, the undoing of the creation in Egypt began with water (turned to blood). It continued with life from the water (frogs, out of control). Then, from the dust of the ground came the gnats, followed by flies for good measure. Livestock, also created from the earth (Gen 1:24) were decimated next. Finally, the bodies of God’s created human beings were touched by inflamed and erupting sores.’
Ryken notes that Pharaoh, with his increasing stubbornness in the face of intensifying warnings, is like the fool of Prov 27:22.
To summarise so far: ‘First God turned the river into blood; but Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses. Then came all the frogs, and Pharaoh asked for prayer; but as soon as he got some relief, he hardened his heart once again. Next, insects swarmed all over Egypt. The magicians said it was the p 270 finger of God, but Pharaoh refused to listen. The fourth plague was flies, and Pharaoh finally decided to let God’s people go; but as soon as the flies were gone, he changed his mind. Then all the livestock died, and yet Pharaoh’s heart still refused to yield. Five plagues, and he was as big a fool as ever.’ (Ryken)
“Soot from a furnace” – Following Cassuto, Enns remarks on the poetic justice here: the soot came from the very kilns that would have been used to bake the bricks that the Israelites had to make. Chester agrees: ‘So the source of Israel’s oppression becomes the source of Egypt’s judgment. The punishment fits the crime.’
9:11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians. 9:12 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had predicted to Moses.
The magicians – The fact that would have withstood Moses if they could is an indication that their admission that “this is the finger of God” only meant, “this is the finger of a god.”
Their defeat is becoming more and more clear: they not only cannot replicate the plague, but they are directly affected by it themselves, and so cannot ‘stand before Moses’ as Moses and Aaron ‘stood before Pharaoh’, v10.
‘The defeat of the magicians was clear from the start, when Aaron’s staff-become-serpent swallowed up the serpents they produced (Ex 7:12). They were able to imitate turning water to blood and producing frogs, but they could only add to, and not reverse, these plagues (Ex 7:22; 8:7). When they could not imitate the production of lice, they told Pharaoh the plagues were divine judgments, not magic (Ex 8:18, 19). Finally, the magicians are struck with boils and retreat in discomfort and disgrace (Ex 9:11).’ (New Geneva)
For the first time the text says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, although this was predicted back in Ex 7:3.
The Seventh Blow: Hail
9:13 The LORD said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, stand before Pharaoh, and tell him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: “Release my people so that they may serve me! 9:14 For this time I will send all my plagues on your very self and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 9:15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with plague, and you would have been destroyed from the earth. 9:16 But for this purpose I have caused you to stand: to show you my strength, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth. 9:17 You are still exalting yourself against my people by not releasing them.
‘The seventh plague is ushered in by an expostulation more earnest, resolute, and minatory than attended any of the previous ones. And this is the more necessary because human life is now for the first time at stake.’ (Expositor’s Bible)
The full force of my plagues – Horrible are the previous plagues have been, God has been holding back until now.
So that you may know that there is no-one like me in all the earth – With these words, the story of the plagues breaks out of any local and temporal boundaries and becomes a message to all people, everywhere.
“By now I could have stretched out my hand…” – The translations generally (RSV, NEB, JB, RV) render this as a conditional statement. However, Durham says that there is no suggestion of conditionality in the text itself. He translates, ‘now I will let loose my power’. If this is so, the attention of the reader is directed forward to the increasingly severe mighty acts that follow. ‘In this seventh mighty act, for the first time Egyptian lives are lost; in the eighth mighty act, the last remnants of life-sustaining food are destroyed; in the ninth mighty act, the very source of light and life in Egypt, the sun-god Kephri-Re-Atum, is overpowered; and in the tenth mighty act, any ordered future that Egypt might have is cut off in the death of the first born.’ (WBC)
‘God’s judgments are tempered by mercy. He withholds total destruction so that the Egyptians might know His power and repent.’ (New Geneva)
v16 – Quoted in Rom 9:17.
“I have raised you up” – Or, ‘I will cause you to stand firm’; or, ‘I have maintained you alive’ (Cole). F.F. Bruce comments on Rom 9:17: ‘The reference may be not merely to God’s raising up Pharaoh to be king, but to his patience in preserving him alive, in spite of his disobedience.’
‘And so we find, many years after all this generation has passed away, that a strangely distorted version of these events is current among the Philistines in Palestine. In the days of Eli, when the ark was brought into the camp, they said, Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote the Egyptians with all manner of plagues in the wilderness (1 Samuel 4:8). And this, along with the impression which Rahab declared that the Exodus and what followed it had made, may help us to understand what a mighty, influence upon the wars of Palestine the scourging of Egypt had, how terror fell upon all the inhabitants of the land, and they melted away.’ (Josh 2:9, 10).
‘Had God brought Israel out of the Egypt in the time of those kings which knew Joseph, most likely they might have had a friendly departure and an easy deliverance, but God reserves this for the reign of that proud Pharaoh, who shall cruelly oppress them, and venture his kingdom, but will satisfy his lust upon them. And why must this be the time, but that God would bring them forth with a stretchedout arm? The magnifying of his power was God’s great design. ‘In very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power, and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth,’ Ex. 9:16.’ (Gurnall)
‘It is a fearful thought, that God may allow us to reach positions of influence and authority, towards which our own selfish ambition has drawn us; and all this not for the purpose of imparting a blessing, but really for the manifesting a judgment, or for the display of His omnipotence. (J. H. Norton)
“My name” – ‘That is, his incontestable sovereignty, his irresistible power, and his inflexible justice.’ (MHC)
The question of the Lord’s power, and name, occurs again in the account of the healing of the lame man outside the Temple (Acts 4:7ff). Cf. also Acts 26:26.
9:18 I am going to cause very severe hail to rain down about this time tomorrow, such hail as has never occurred in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 9:19 So now, send instructions to gather your livestock and all your possessions in the fields to a safe place. Every person or animal caught in the field and not brought into the house—the hail will come down on them, and they will die!” ’ ”
‘For the first time, a mighty act is to bring not just annoyance, not just physical reverse, but death – and so Yahweh gives a warning.’ (WBC)
9:20 Those of Pharaoh’s servants who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their servants and livestock into the houses, 9:21 but those who did not take the word of the LORD seriously left their servants and their cattle in the field.
9:22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Extend your hand toward the sky that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on people and on animals, and on everything that grows in the field in the land of Egypt.” 9:23 When Moses extended his staff toward the sky, the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire fell to the earth; so the LORD caused hail to rain down on the land of Egypt. 9:24 Hail fell and fire mingled with the hail; the hail was so severe that there had not been any like it in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. 9:25 The hail struck everything in the open fields, both people and animals, throughout all the land of Egypt. The hail struck everything that grows in the field, and it broke all the trees of the field to pieces. 9:26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was there no hail.
‘Note, God makes the clouds, not only his store-houses whence he drops fatness on his people, but his magazines whence, when he pleases, he can draw out a most formidable train of artillery, with which to destroy his enemies. He himself speaks of the treasures of hail which he hath reserved against the day of battle and war, Job 38:22, 23.’ (MHC)
‘Looking back upon this miracle, we are reminded of the mighty part which atmospheric changes have played in the history of the world. Snowstorms saved Europe from the Turk and from Napoleon: the wind played almost as important a part in our liberation from James, and again in the defeat of the plans of the French Revolution to invade us, as in the destruction of the Armada. And so we read, Hast thou entered the treasuries of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasuries of the hail, which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war? (Job 38:22-3).’ (Expositor’s Bible)
9:27 So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I have sinned this time! The LORD is righteous, and I and my people are guilty. 9:28 Pray to the LORD, for the mighty thunderings and hail are too much! I will release you and you will stay no longer.”
‘No man could have spoken better. He owns himself on the wrong side in his contest with the God of the Hebrews: “I have sinned in standing it out so long.” He owns the equity of God’s proceedings against him: The Lord is righteous, and must be justified when he speaks, though he speak in thunder and lightning. He condemns himself and his land: “I and my people are wicked, and deserve what is brought upon us.” He begs the prayers of Moses: “Entreat the Lord for me, that this direful plague may be removed.” And, lastly, he promises to yield up his prisoners: I will let you go. What could one desire more? And yet his heart was hardened all this while. Note, The terror of the rod often extorts penitent acknowledgments from those who have no penitent affections; under the surprise and smart of affliction, they start up, and say that which is pertinent enough, not because they are deeply affected, but because they know that they should be and that it is meet to be said.’ (MHC)
‘There are no more beautiful words ever spoken on this earth none to which an angel listens more complacently none which wing their way more surely to heaven none which more surely enter into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth than those three so personal, so true, so simple, and so full, I have sinned. They occur nine times in the Bible; and of the nine we may except two. For where they stand in the seventh chapter of Micah they are the language, not of an individual, but of a Church. And the prodigals use of them is, of course, not matter of fact or history; but only part of a parable. There remain, therefore, seven; seven persons of whom it is written that they said, I have sinned. It may surprise some of you to know that, of those seven, four are utterly hollow and worthless; in God’s scales, wanting, unreal, and unprofitable. It is a humbling and teaching fact that in three only of the seven instances in which persons are recorded in the Scriptures to have said, I have sinned, was the confession true, and the repentance valid.’ (J. Vaughan)
9:29 Moses said to him, “When I leave the city I will spread my hands to the LORD, the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth belongs to the LORD. 9:30 But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD God.”
“So you may know that the earth is the Lord’s” – ‘that is, that God has a sovereign dominion over all the creatures, that they all are ruled by him, and therefore that thou oughtest to be so. See what various methods God uses to bring men to their proper senses. Judgments are sent, judgments removed, and all for the same end, to make men know that he Lord reigns.’ (MHC)
“The Lord God” – Yahweh Elohim.
9:31 (Now the flax and the barley were struck by the hail, for the barley had ripened and the flax was in bud. 9:32 But the wheat and the spelt were not struck, for they are later crops.)
Citing Hoffmeier, Humphreys notes that these verses ‘show that the writer had an excellent knowledge of the Egyptian agricultural calendar since paintings from the tomb of Paheri at el-Kab from the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1400 BC) depict the harvesting of barley and the pulling of flax occurring in adjacent fields, thus demonstrating that barley and flax matured together in ancient Egypt…From the description of the flax being in bloom and barley being in ear, but not the wheat and spelt, we can deduce from our knowledge of Egyptian agriculture that the plague of hail occurred in February-March.’ (The Miracles of Egypt, p131)
9:33 So Moses left Pharaoh, went out of the city, and spread out his hands to the LORD, and the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain stopped pouring on the earth. 9:34 When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder ceased, he sinned again: both he and his servants hardened their hearts. 9:35 So Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not release the Israelites, as the LORD had predicted through Moses.
The thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain stopped pouring on the earth – Humphreys cites evidence to suggest that the resulting drenched soil made ideal territory for the locusts to lay their eggs in.
‘Those that are not bettered by judgments and mercies are commonly made worse.’ (MHC)