Exodus 8: 1-15: The Second Sign
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. 3 The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. 4 The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.'” 5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.'” 6 So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. 7 But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought frogs up on the land of Egypt.
8 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, “Pray to the LORD to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.” 9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “Kindly tell me when I am to pray for you and for your officials and for your people, that the frogs may be removed from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “As you say! So that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God, 11 the frogs shall leave you and your houses and your officials and your people; they shall be left only in the Nile.” 12 Then Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh; and Moses cried out to the LORD concerning the frogs that he had brought upon Pharaoh. 13 And the LORD did as Moses requested: the frogs died in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14 And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.
The first sign which appeared in the previous chapter struck at the bleeding heart of Egypt and here in the second sign or warning, the plague of frogs takes the fertility of the land and now that fertility overwhelms the ability of the Pharaoh, his wise men and the magicians to control. These seems a strange sign and an odd display of power and yet the next three signs use things that on their own are weak and insignificant to bring the mightiest power of that time to the point of begging for Moses and Aaron to intercede for them. Frogs called up from the waters of Egypt will lead even Pharaoh to for a time acknowledge the LORD’s power in the land.
Frogs seems an odd choice and yet there is perhaps something to be seen in this choice. Frogs and the death of the first born in chapter eleven are the only signs where the language of plague is used (even though we are used to calling them the ten plagues). Perhaps the connection goes back to fertility. In Ancient Egypt, the goddess Heqet, which is depicted as having a frogs head is one of the goddesses of fertility and seems to be the most ancient of these (since most of the other fertility images seem to be imported from other regions at later times). The association between Heqet, birth and fertility probably goes back to the frogs that would be common with the flooding of the Nile during the germination of the grain. Even midwives were known as servant of Heqet. The prolific presence of frogs at the controlled cultivation of the croplands probably sent a strong signal of fertility and life. Yet, here frogs instead of remaining in the places near the waters of Egypt move beyond their boundaries and cover the land and interfere with the life in the household, in the field and throughout the empire.
That which normally is received as a sign of blessing becomes a plague and fertility threatens to overwhelm that life which is already present. The magicians are able to replicate this sign, to demonstrate that they too can call up additional frogs-or perhaps that their powers to can be a plague. Regardless of their ability to add to the plague of frogs they cannot stem the amphibious infestation. Here Pharaoh for the first time acknowledge the impact of the LORD’s action in Egypt and ask Moses and Aaron to pray (or plead) to the LORD on behalf of Pharaoh. Moses’ prayers do lead to the elimination of the frogs and where once fertility threatened the households of Egypt now they are left with stinking piles of dead frogs.
Exodus 8: 16-19: The Third Sign
16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt.'” 17 And they did so; Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and gnats came on humans and animals alike; all the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not. There were gnats on both humans and animals. 19 And the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.
The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to be able to control and manipulate the land and the water to bring forth a regularly fertile land. Their control of the elements of creation has often led people to believe that they are now masters of their own destiny and, as in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, how they will make a name for themselves. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) loves to use irony and satire and like the Tower of Babel, which God has to come down and see (since even in their desire to reach up to the heavens is apparently isn’t visible from there) and confuses their language and thwarts their desire to make a name for themselves. Here it is in some type of small biting insect (can be translated as gnats, or lice or some other type of biting insect). Yet, here in the smallest of insects the magicians secret arts fail them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is worth quoting at length here:
The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. By their “secret arts” the magicians believed that they could control these forces. Magic is the equivalent in an era of myth to technology in an age of science. A civilization that believes it can manipulate the gods, believes likewise that is can exercise coercion over human beings. In such a culture the concept of freedom is unknown. (Sacks, 2010, p. 54)
The irony was that the Egyptian civilization which could harness the power of the Nile river and could build monuments to its leaders which stand even millennia later was shown powerless by a biting swarm of bugs. The magicians and wise men can realize their limits and acknowledge this is ‘the finger of God!’ Yet, in Pharaoh we have a leader whose heart (or will) is set, who knows the truth (even when all the facts contradict that perceived truth).
Chapter eight of Exodus is full of signs that are not lethal but inconvenient. The ecological disaster at this point while perhaps distasteful is not endangering the life or welfare of the people. Pharaoh’s entrenched resistance (whatever its source) allows the conflict between the LORD of Israel and the gods of Egypt to continue. Now for the first time the secret arts of the magicians has failed to replicate the finger of God. In the structure of the signs the third sign closes the first set but there is some wisdom to the way the chapter division occurs in our bibles. The frogs, gnats and flies all are ways in which the smallest and most inconsequential things manage to bring the might of Egypt to its knees.
Exodus 8: 20-31: The Fourth Sign
20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 21 For if you will not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies; so also the land where they live. 22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people live, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD am in this land. 23 Thus I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign shall appear tomorrow.'” 24 The LORD did so, and great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh and into his officials’ houses; in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of the flies.
25 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so; for the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive to the Egyptians. If we offer in the sight of the Egyptians sacrifices that are offensive to them, will they not stone us? 27 We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he commands us.” 28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. Pray for me.” 29 Then Moses said, “As soon as I leave you, I will pray to the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart tomorrow from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”
30 So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 31 And the LORD did as Moses asked: he removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and would not let the people go.
The structure of the signs would indicate this is a new set. As mentioned previously the first sign of each set occurs in the morning as Pharaoh is outside, the second occurs after Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside and the third comes without a warning. With each set of signs the intensity of the damage increases as the pressure increases on the Egyptians to let the people of Israel go. Another distinction between the first three signs and the remaining signs is that now there is a distinction between the people of Israel and the Egyptians. The remaining signs will now not afflict the land where the Hebrews dwell, almost as if an invisible barrier is erected to keep out the flies and later afflictions.
After the frogs, had come upon the land the Pharaoh asks for Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession on behalf of him and his people offering to let the people go and worship but once there is a respite Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he forbids the people leaving to go and sacrifice. In a similar way, Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron and offers to let the Israelites worship and sacrifice within the land but now cultural differences get in the way. We don’t know exactly what these cultural differences are that the Egyptians would have stoned the people of Israel for. Perhaps it had to do with the animals the Jewish people would sacrifice (mainly sheep and goats which the Egyptians found distasteful, for example in Genesis Joseph warns his brothers not to say they were shepherds for the Egyptians found shepherds abhorrent (see Genesis 46: 34)). Regardless cultural and religious differences would ultimately make cohabitation impossible for the Jewish people in Egypt. As a religious and cultural minority, they felt unsafe within the broader Egyptian culture.
The ancient world was a pluralistic one where multiple religions did encounter one another and sometimes those cultures would live together peacefully. The people of Israel found a home in Egypt for several generations and were welcomed, yet the Exodus relates a time where they were a persecuted and oppressed group. Their present is now that of slaves and their future will be one of being refugees in search of a new home. The economic system of Egypt was built upon forced labor. Change frequently occurs only when the situation becomes so odious it can no longer be maintained. The people of Israel will be reluctant to leave Egypt behind and will long for it when things become challenging in the journey to the promised land. The people and leaders of Egypt are reluctant to let the people go because it means changing the way in which their society functions. In some respects, it is not surprising that Pharaoh continues here to harden his heart and defend the status quo and that only the continued pressure of these strange acts of God makes him even consider the possibility of temporarily granting the people a time to worship. Frogs, swarms of small biting bugs and flies continue to make life in Egypt unpleasant and continue to show
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