Exodus 9: 1-7 Pestilence and Hard Hearts
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, 3 the hand of the LORD will strike with a deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. 4 But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites.'” 5 The LORD set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.” 6 And on the next day the LORD did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died. 7 Pharaoh inquired and found that not one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.
While the signs in the chapters seven and eight provided an inconvenience for the Egyptian people, in chapter nine the intensity of discomfort is increased as the pressure exerted by the LORD on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt to let the people go intensifies. Now the food supply and personal health of the people is impacted. Even when the waters of the Nile turned to blood there was a way to dig for drinkable water. Here pestilence and disease and what we would still today call ‘acts of God’ threaten the livelihood of the people in their continued resistance to the LORD.
Like the preceding sign, the LORD differentiates between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The livestock of the Israelites are unaffected by this pestilence while the Egyptian livestock and flocks perish. Yet, the entire food supply is not wiped out, the grain is still in the fields and there is still a path for life to continue. As when the frogs, a sign of abundance and fertility, threatened to overwhelm life and then polluted the land with their dead bodies and smell, now the beasts of labor and the meat producing animals die in the fields- sources of commerce and feasting now lay in waste needing to be disposed of.
Throughout this chapter, we will encounter the rhetorical use of ‘all.’ If truly all the livestock are lost here at the beginning of chapter nine, then the opportunity to bring in ‘slaves and livestock’ to a secure place at the end of the chapter make little rhetorical sense. Yet, the manner of telling the signs does draw a harsh connection between the protection offered to the Israelites and the impact of the pestilence on the Egyptians.
Much later, at the end of the Judean kingdom, prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel will use pestilence along with famine and the sword as the complete list of manners in which the people of Judea will be reduced. When Israel or Judea begins to act like Egypt and their kings begin to act like Pharaoh they too will see God’s judgment attempt to call them to repentance. Yet here, as later in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the pre-exilic prophets we see God continuing to restrain the final cost in human life. Yet, at the end of the time before the exile, as here, the hearts of the leaders were hardened and they would not listen to the prophets speaking God’s word to them. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah saw that only God was going to change the hearts of the people of their time. As Ezekiel could say, “I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 11.19, see also Jeremiah 31:33)
Exodus 9: 8-12 Sores and the Failure of the Magicians
8 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 It shall become fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.” 10 So they took soot from the kiln, and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals. 11 The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians. 12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
For the first time the signs begin to impact the health of the people of Egypt and the leaders. This will be the first time where the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will be attributed to the LORD and perhaps it is the first time that Pharaoh himself will feel the direct impact of the signs. Before this point the magicians have acknowledged that the signs (with the gnats/lice) are the finger of God but here the boils have left them unable to even stand before Moses. As Rabbi Sacks can point out, “Remember that Job lost everything he had, but did not start cursing his fate until his body was covered with sores: Job 2.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 71)
Both its place within the groups of plagues (third in a series of three) and its initial form sets this plague up in parallel with the gnats/lice that come from the dust. As mentioned above the magicians in both cases are powerless to replicate (the swarm) or even stand before Moses (here). Both are thrown into the air and it is the air that carries the dust and ash towards the Egyptian people. Yet, suggestively, the ash might come from the kilns used to make the bricks the Israelites have been forced to make. Now the fiery furnaces which were used to build up the Egyptian empire on the backs of the Hebrew slaves may have their own role to play in the humbling of Pharaoh the bringing down the might of Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites. (Myers, 2005, p. 85)
Here is the point in the signs and wonders where both the magicians and Aaron exit the drama and narrative focuses on Moses and the LORD and Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Moses has moved beyond the point where he needs a spokesman or a prophet. Even here Moses and Aaron pull out ash from the kiln but only Moses throws it in the air. The intermediaries are no longer needed as the drama enters its critical juncture. Perhaps the drama has gone too far to change course at this point, or perhaps there is still a chance for Pharaoh to repent, as he does briefly below, but as we enter the final contest between the LORD and the gods of Egypt we are entering a moment of life or death significance. To continue in the ways of oppression and slavery will lead to fatal consequences.
Exodus 9: 13-35 An Act of God
13 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people, and will not let them go. 18 Tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Send, therefore, and have your livestock and everything that you have in the open field brought to a secure place; every human or animal that is in the open field and is not brought under shelter will die when the hail comes down upon them.'” 20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place. 21 Those who did not regard the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the open field.
22 The LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that hail may fall on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the plants of the field in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire came down on the earth. And the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; 24 there was hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it, such heavy hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the open field throughout all the land of Egypt, both human and animal; the hail also struck down all the plants of the field, and shattered every tree in the field. 26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.
27 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Pray to the LORD! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” 29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. 30 But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD God.” 31 (Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. 32 But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they are late in coming up.) 33 So Moses left Pharaoh, went out of the city, and stretched out his hands to the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured down on the earth. 34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials. 35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses.
Last Sunday night a ferocious storm rolled through north Texas, where I live, dropping two inch hailstones on my house (and in some locations hailstones the size of baseballs). In a modern home with both wood and shingles providing insulation for the roof the noise of the storm was intense. When I walked around my property in daylight the next day the yard looked like it had been aerated because of all the divots the hailstones made in the ground. My car looked like someone had taken a ball-peen hammer to the roof and hood. Fortunately, no glass was broken on the house but the force of the storm was incredible. I lived for five years in Oklahoma and have seen the aftermath of tornadoes, though the worst damage I personally experienced was a time when a tornado stripped some of the shingles off the roof and knocked down my fence (neighbors two miles away were not so lucky.) I have been in Houston when a tropical storm rolled in flooding areas and knocking out power. We frequently refer to these natural disasters as acts of God and the power of a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake or any other natural disaster can make us realize the minute power we may have to resist the elements at these critical moments. I can only imagine a storm like this in the ancient world where most living conditions are much less robust than modern homes.
This begins the final set of signs and for the first-time things turn deadly to humans who do not heed the warning that is given. Moses becomes the early warning system to Pharaoh and his officials that an ‘act of God’ is indeed coming and how the people should react. The people and the livestock (which remains after the rhetorical ‘all’ in the pestilence above) are to be brought into a secure place. This, like the frogs and the death of the first born, is one of those places where the word plague is used. Here, unlike the previous signs there will be loss of life for those who do not listen as well as the loss of crops. After the preceding signs, there are some who listen and act and yet some remain who are obstinate and refuse to heed the warning that Moses brings. The thunder and lightning, hail and fire bring disaster upon the land and upon the crops. Yet, even here there is every restriction made to avoid the loss of human life. The flax and barley harvest are decimated in the storm but the wheat and the spelt still have the potential to allow life to continue. One of the other dynamics in the story of the people of Israel in Egypt is the gathering in of excess grain to prepare for the famine. As Scripture recollects the story of the Hebrew people there is the memory that since the time of Joseph the Egyptians began laying up grain for a time of famine, and this practice allowed for the ascendance of Pharaoh’s increased power. Now here the decimation of the grain in the fields brings Pharaoh for the first time to repentance.
Here for the first-time Pharaoh seems ready to let the people go in the midst of the hailstorm. The language that, “I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” For the first-time Pharaoh acknowledges that he has done something wrong and that now the “people may go.” Pharaoh will harden his heart again once the storm relents, but here is the first time where Pharaoh is humbled to this point and the possibility of a lasting freedom is voiced. Repentance here only brought a temporary change of behavior. Like an addict who returns to his chosen addiction Pharaoh’s heart hardens and the status quo remains in place. The pain of the signs and wonders of the LORD is still apparently not sufficient to allow Pharaoh to let the slaves go free and to abandon the economic system which is built upon their backs.