Friday, April 29, 2011

The Plagues Continue: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part IV

The Plagues Continue: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part IV
By Dr. Dave Johnson

This is the fourth in a series of blogs regarding God’s confrontation with the gods of Egypt.  While the primary purpose was to execute God’s wrath against those that were not gods, what happened in the supernatural was reflected in the natural in order that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people might understand what was happening.  The first four plagues were a nuisance and inconvenience to the Egyptian people, but they suffered no permanent damage.  The fifth plague, however, brought economic havoc when God slaughtered their cattle.

The sixth plague, recorded in Exodus 9:8-21, is the first plague to directly affect the people themselves.  The International Bible Encyclopedia identifies the types of boils that broke out on the people and draws a probably connection to the previous plague:
This plague in the order of its coming, immediately after the murrain [plague on the cattle], and in the description given of it and in the significant warning of the "pestilence" yet to come (Ex 9:15), appears most likely to have been pestis minor, the milder form of bubonic plague. Virulent rinder-pest among cattle in the East is regarded as the precursor of plague among men and is believed to be of the same nature. It may well be, as has been thought by some, that the great aversion of the ancient Egyptians to the contamination of the soil by decaying animals was from the danger thereby of starting an epidemic of plague among men (Dr. Merrins, Biblical Sacra, 1908, 422-23). ( of Egypt, accessed 9 April 2011).

This was significant since not only could the magicians not replicate this plague but they were unable to heal even themselves (IBID).  Even Pharaoh himself was likely afflicted.  But why did the Lord tell Moses to throw soot (or ashes) in the air to begin the plague?  One commentator noted that the use of soot to cause boils overrode the Egyptians perception of nature, as soot was actually used to cure boils. If this is the case, then this is another way that God challenged the Egyptians worldview.  Thoth, the Egyptian god of medicine, was unable to affect a cure (, accessed 12 April 2011).

In Exodus 9:12 there is a subtle but real shift in the story.  In each of the first five plagues, the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart or, to use the passive voice, that his heart became hardened.  Here, for the first time, the text records that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  How could Pharaoh harden his own heart and God also harden his heart?  Is this a contradiction? I will leave the broader discussion on predestination and the Calvinist/Armenian debate to others, but I can state conclusively that there is no contradiction.  I believe that Pharaoh, as a free moral agent had both the ability and responsibility for choosing between good and evil, made the choice to rebel against God’s power and authority. God, then, simply gave him over to the wickedness and deceitfulness of his own heart.  This line of thinking is consistent with Paul’s own teaching about moral choices and God’s judgment in Romans 1:20-25.  Essentially, God caused Pharaoh to live with the moral consequences of the choices he had made.

Then, in Exodus 9:13-21, God proceeds to give Moses a message for Pharaoh. The message contains fourth elements.  One, Pharaoh must let the people go.  This statement would make no sense if Pharaoh did not have the moral capacity to make the choice of liberating the people or not.  Second, in verse 14, God warned Pharaoh that things were going to get worse.  Third, In verses 15-21, God informs Pharaoh that, much to Pharaoh’s surprise and chagrin, he is not a descendent of the sun-god, Re, and he is not the master of the universe. He was a mere mortal that the God of the slaves, who, as it turns out, is the maker and ruler of all things, raised up to suit his purposes!  How ironic and incomprehensible this was to Pharaoh!  That the God of oppressed was greater than the mighty Pharaoh was an outrageous insult to Egypt.  God literally turned the worldview of the Egyptians upside down!

The fourth component of God’s message to Pharaoh was the threat of the seventh plague, recorded in Exodus 9:22-29.  In his mercy, God gave Pharaoh and the Egyptians an opportunity to get the remaining livestock, which had been seriously depleted in the fifth plague, into shelter so as not to be killed by the hail.  Incredibly, some still did not believe and left both servants and livestock in the field.
One Jewish commentator described the scene well:
The biblical text refers to this plague has “all my plagues,” thus equating it to all the others combined. There are differing rabbinical explanations trying to clarify the reason for this. One commentator, the Ohr Hachayim explains that up until this plague the Egyptian magicians believed that Moses and Aaron were magicians who were able to bring forth the plagues utilizing either black magic or demon work. The reason that they were able to create what others couldn’t was due to their superior abilities and advanced knowledge. The plague of Barad convinced both Pharaoh and the magicians that it was God’s hand since the phenomenon could not be achieved by mortal magicians. Since it was the same God who came to him previously, Pharaoh had to accept that all the plagues were God created.

Why hail?
This plague was the most awesome and most devastating to hit Egypt. It also displayed God's power and superiority to any deity worshipped by the Egyptians, one of which was the god of the sky, "Nut." The power of God was magnified given that the hail consisted of fire and ice, a surreal happening, as fire and ice, which normally do no [sic] coexist, worked hand in hand to wreak havoc. (, accessed 14 April 2011)
The broadness of destruction caused by this plague is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate.  People were killed and massive numbers of livestock, as well as crops and vegetation throughout the land of Egypt were destroyed.  Nut, the Egyptian god of the sky, was powerless to stop it.  By far, this was the worse of the plagues to this point.  No one had ever seen anything like this.  Again, nothing in Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was harmed, sending a clear message that the plague was sent by the God of the Hebrews.  Even Pharaoh was unnerved by the hail and called Moses in for another meeting, promising to let the people go. 
The way in which Moses replied to Pharaoh in verse 29 underscores the point God was making to Pharaoh that God, not Nut or any other Egyptian deity, controlled the weather, and he concluded his point with an exclamation point by stopping the hail and lightening at the precise moment that Moses lifted his hands.  There is no reasonable way that Pharaoh could have misunderstood the lesson intended and, therefore, no excuse for his continued arrogance and hardness of heart.  His rebellion was intentional.      
The eighth plague, that of the locusts, followed the hail and the tale is told in Exodus 10:1-20.  Verse two is a reminder that the lessons God intended to teach were not only for the Egyptians but also for the Israelites—specifically the generations that would follow.  The goal was that God’s name might be exalted in all the earth.  In verses 4-6, Moses and Aaron presented God’s ultimatum to Pharaoh.  Pharaoh’s immediate response is not recorded but apparently he was not open to the idea.

Verse seven records a kind of conversation that would not have been common in Pharaoh’s court.  Disagreeing with Pharaoh could have cost them their lives.  That his servants would argue with him suggests that the situation had become desperate.  That they accused him of being out of touch with how the plagues were impacting the people only accentuates how bad the situation must have been.  At this point, Pharaoh became duly alarmed and, again, tried to negotiate without losing control of the Israelites.  His offer to allow the men to go fell short of God’s demand, and the plague came.

A number of Egyptian gods, going by various names, appear to have been the target of this plague.  None were strong enough to withstand the wrath of the one true God.  The result was an unmitigated economic disaster as the locusts, who may not have been known in Egypt, swept in and destroyed the crops that had not been affected by other plagues. 

There are two lessons that reverberate throughout the story of the plagues.  On the one hand, the Hebrews were getting the message of God’s ability to deliver them from slavery.  No one else had been able to save them.  Their God, indeed, was mighty and willing to save them even though they were not worthy.  On the other side of the coin, God’s attitude towards sin should be abundantly clear. It has not changed in the three and a half millennia since that time.  If God would judge Pharaoh and the Egyptian nation, he will surely judge us.  Because of Pharaoh’s arrogance, the entire population now had no food until the end of the next crop growing cycle.  And the worst was yet to come.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

1 comment:

  1. I have been enjoying the plagues for a while now but am looking forward to going back into the archives and reading from the beginning. I think they are quite informative, beyond what I have been able to dig out for myself. Thanks Dave, keep up the great work!