The Ten Plagues
In the seventh year of the reign of Amenhotep II, Pharaoh of all Egypt, there occurred a succession of unparalleled disasters that humbled the pride of Egypt to the dust and left the nation stunned and sorrowing. The empire had attained a pinnacle of power and glory that had not been known before. The land was adorned with palaces and temples, monuments and works of architecture, the admiration of all nations. However, with a mighty hand and stretched out arm the Almighty, the Eternal, delivered the children of Israel from bondage so that as a dedicated people they might serve Him without restraint or hindrance in a land of their own.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt stand as one of the spectacular events of Old Testament history. The extent to which the fearful calamities described in Exodus were freaks of Nature or miraculous interventions of God has been a subject of debate for centuries but there is no denying the reality of the happenings. The fame of them spread to the nations round about. Israel never forgot them. They formed the subject of triumphal song and poetry for generations after the events. Two of the Psalms of David, Psalms 78 and 105, memorialise the Ten Plagues as examples of the irresistible judgments of God. The Philistines, four centuries afterwards, when faced with the spectacle of the Ark of God brought into battle against them, told each other that here were the gods which smote the Egyptians with Plagues that long time ago (1 Sam.4.8). Such was the impression left upon the minds of men by those unprecedented disasters, the cumulative effect of which finally persuaded Pharaoh to let Israel go.
The difference between these plagues being natural events or their being direct acts of God is not so marked when it is realised that "miracles" can only be such in the eyes of those who do not understand the processes involved. The dictionary definition of "miracle" is a wonder or marvel or supernatural event. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a supernatural event unless the term is used in the sense of that which is not of this terrestrial world. All the processes of Nature are controlled in the last place by God and the fact that men may not understand the whole of those processes does not make them any the less natural. The ancients credited any happening they did not understand to the intervention of God, but many such are well understood today and no longer require direct supernormal Divine intervention to account for them. The word 'miracle' in the Old Testament means merely a sign or a wonder; in the New Testament it is used to translate two words, one of which means a sign and the other, an act of power. It is only necessary therefore to accept the fact that the Most High, in His administration of the affairs of His creation, orders and exerts natural forces to accomplish His special designs at any particular moment in time.
The plagues on Egypt may very well have been manifestations on an unusual scale of phenomena already known to the Egyptians; the supernormal aspect lay in the timing of the events, whereby they came at the moment necessary to effect a desired result, and this timing constituted a direct intervention. The fact that any remarkable incident recorded in the Scripture as caused or directed by God for a definite purpose can often be shown as a relatively natural phenomenon does not detract in the slightest from its 'miraculous' nature. It is a sign, a wonder, occurring at a particular moment, to bring about some desired result in connection with the Divine Plan.
It is probable that Moses came away from his second interview with Pharaoh with this impression on his mind. God would now exert His mighty power to deliver Israel; Moses was sure of that. He would do it by the powers of Nature let loose in much more than their usual intensity, until Pharaoh would give the people their freedom. Moses was sure of that too. He did not know, as yet, just how the great event was to be brought about. He did know that in times gone past God had sent His judgment upon the earth by a flood of waters and again by a holocaust of fire, and he was ready now for whatever might betide.
So there came a morning when Pharaoh with his court went down to the brink of the river and found Moses and Aaron waiting for him. The prophets sternly reminded the monarch of his refusal to acknowledge the Lord and release His people and told Him that in consequence the waters of the river were to be turned into blood. Aaron stretched his staff over the water, and "all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood, and the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river." (7. 21‑22).
If the plagues were in fact amplifications of natural customary happenings, the sequence of events can best be understood if it is considered that this first act of Moses took place in the June before the Exodus. At this time of year the Nile is normally in full flood, and in ancient times inundated the land, to the satisfaction of the population, who depended upon this annual inundation for the growth of their crops. In recognition of this vital part played by the river in the country's welfare an annual ceremony, the "festival of the Nile" in which Pharaoh took a leading part, was conducted at the riverside on 12th June, and worship was offered to the Nile-god. It might well be that the statement in 7.15 "Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; wait for him by the river's brink..." is a reference to this festival, and if so this fixes the time of the first plague as June.
It is only necessary to understand the narrative to imply that the waters took on a blood-red colour, not that the whole mighty river and its streams and canals were literally transformed into actual blood. This conclusion is evidenced by v.24 which states that the Egyptians "dug round about the Nile for water to drink; for they could not drink the water of the Nile." Whatever it was that made the water objectionable was filtered out as it percolated through the soil along the river's margin so that the people, digging, found drinkable water. Had it been literal blood it would of course still have been blood even after passing through the soil. It is said by observers of Egyptian natural phenomena, with minor variations of detail, that the Nile has a greenish tint before the annual inundation. As the waters rise, it becomes clear, and then for about three weeks or so it takes on a reddish tinge due to the presence of vast quantities of minute plant life of a red colour, originating from the tropical regions from which the river comes. In extreme cases these masses of algae cause the river to take on a deep blood-red colour and on such occasions the water has an offensive smell. If this is a fact then the first plague was simply a most extreme case of a happening which was familiar to the Egyptians. The rapidity with which it occurred at the raising of Aaron's rod, and perhaps the unusually widespread extent of the red water, "upon their streams" (rivers) "upon their rivers" (canals) "and upon their ponds" (cisterns) "and upon all their pools" (reservoirs) marked the occurrence as a visitation from God. Perhaps because the affliction was recognised as no more than an extreme and very inconvenient case of a common occurrence it does not seem to have worried Pharaoh a great deal; he probably reasoned that it would soon pass anyway. In the meantime the magicians were called in to see what they could do to help matters.
It is commonly assumed that the expression in 7.22 "And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments" means that they mimicked Moses by also turning water into blood. How they could do so when all the rivers, streams, canals and reservoirs in Egypt had already been thus treated is not explained. In fact what the magicians really tried to do was to reverse the process and make Moses' act of no effect. The word translated "did so" is"lahatim" which comes from "lahat", to burn or set on fire. The meaning is that the magicians carried out ceremonies and incantations involving the use of lustrous fires and burning incense, in supplication to their gods to have the affliction removed. To use a modern slang phrase that nevertheless accurately expresses the meaning of the original, the magicians 'did their stuff'. It is not stated either that they succeeded or failed, but the fact that v.25 volunteers the information that the river remained in this condition for seven days appears to point to the latter.
It should be noticed here that in the first three plagues the magicians appeared, and in each case it will be seen that they endeavoured to counteract the plague, and failed. At the third attempt they declared that the hand of God was in the thing and withdrew; they are mentioned no more. The first three plagues affected Israel in common with Egypt; after that Israel was immune from the remaining plagues. It seems as though the early plagues partook largely of the nature of natural events which in lesser measure had often afflicted the land previously, but as the series progressed so the supernatural element became more and more marked. The hand of God becoming increasingly manifest until in the final blow, the simultaneous death of the firstborn, there could be no natural explanation whatever.
A month or so passed by before the second plague. As the Nile inundation reaches its maximum the frogs become evident and the people normally take but little notice of them. This time they did. Perhaps because of the unusual conditions the river was choked up with vegetable organisms left over from the first plague. Because of the quantities of dead fish involved as remarked in 7.21, and the abnormal climatic conditions which had brought this condition about originally, the frogs were breeding in enormous and unheard of numbers. The Hebrew word in 8.3 "bring forth (frogs) abundantly" is 'sharats', which means to swarm as though in uncontrolled numbers. This was the immediate visible consequence of Aaron's rod being stretched for the second time over the river. The frogs "came up" and covered the land, entering into the houses and even into the ovens and domestic utensils. Again were the magicians summoned; they "did so" with their enchantments, tried everything in the rules of their art to overcome the plague, but nothing they did had any effect; the waves of little creatures came steadily on.
This time Pharaoh did take notice. "Entreat the Lord, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go" (8.8). Moses wanted to establish beyond all dispute that the removal of the frogs would be due to God and not just in the natural course of things and so he bade Pharaoh name his own time for the act to be performed. 'Tomorrow' said Pharaoh. Moses prayed to the Lord and on the morrow the frogs died out everywhere except in their natural habitat, the river. "And they gathered them together upon heaps; and the land stank". The coming of the frogs may well have been an extension of the customary natural process; the manner of their going was assuredly an act of Divine intervention. But Pharaoh changed his mind and would not let the people go.
October had dawned before the third plague struck. The account does not tell of further interviews with Pharaoh, but it is probable that the onset of each plague was preceded by a formal demand to Pharaoh, a demand that was brusquely refused. Perhaps six or eight weeks had passed since the frogs had been cleared from the land; now the well known form of Aaron was seen extending his rod, not this time over the river, but over the fields, with a swift, decisive movement, striking downward to the earth. And from that earth there began to arise clouds of minute insects ‑ lice in the AV ‑ insects which multiplied and filled the air to such an extent that it seemed as if the very dust of the earth was itself being transformed into those masses of tiny flying creatures. So the plague of the lice upon the Egyptians was very great.
The account says that it was the dust of the earth which produced the lice; "all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt" (8.17). It is said that as the rising Nile waters, toward the end of the inundation, begin to flood over the agricultural lands, millions of insect pupa ‑ flies and midges of all kinds ‑ that have been deposited in the soft soil during the dry weather, come forth into life and take to the air. It is almost as if the dust is bringing forth. The plague of lice might well therefore be another well-known happening distinguished only by the enormous scale on which it occurred on this occasion. Never before, the Egyptians might have thought, had the country known so tremendous a visitation of flying insects.
"And the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not; so there were lice upon man and upon beast. Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God." (8. 18-19). Once more the familiar ceremonies and rituals were performed but to no better avail than before. The A.V. reads as though they tried to emulate Aaron and themselves "bring forth" lice, but this is the exact opposite of the real meaning. "Bring forth" here is hatsa, which means to send away, to cause an exit, to bring out or draw forth, and means that the magicians tried to cast the lice out or send them away. They failed, and, says the narrator, "so there were lice upon man and upon beast". Despite all that the magicians could do, the lice remained. Incidentally, notice should be taken of the difference in meaning of "bring forth" in 8. 3 which as noted above is sharats, to swarm, and "bring forth", hatsa, in the verse now under review.The magicians gave up. "This is the finger of God" they told Pharaoh. Three attempts to counteract the power of Aaron had all failed and they had had enough. They took no further part in the proceedings. Nevertheless Pharaoh still refused to let the people go.
(to be continued)