Friday, April 17, 2009

Exodus Plagues Part 1: Monkey See, Monkey Do

It is show time for one of the most famous episodes of the Old Testament. Now that God has remembered His covenant with the Israelites, He has revealed His overall plan to Moses, and prodded Moses along to confront Pharaoh. Moses and his brother, Aaron, have confronted Pharaoh to request the temporary release of the Israelites to worship God. Pharaoh rejects the request and increases the burden of the Israelite slaves. Now the time has come to redeem the Israelites and judge the Egyptians, and so now the plagues begin. Join me in this study as we look into the details of these mighty acts of judgement.

Exodus Plagues Part 1: Monkey See, Monkey Do
It is time for God to start showing the Egyptians that He is God and the Israelites are His chosen people. God has moved all of the pieces into position, so now the game begins.

In Exodus 7, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and (implicitly) request that he let the Israelites leave Egypt, and (implicitly) Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron to perform a miracle. Like trained monkeys, they oblige. Aaron throws his staff to the ground and it becomes a snake. However, Pharaoh's “wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians” were all able to duplicate this same trick. So in Exodus 7:13, we see that “Pharaoh's heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” The phrase “just as the LORD had said” means that God is actively hardening Pharaoh's heart, interfering with Pharaoh's free will, as we see in His plans in Exodus 4:21-23 and Exodus 7:1-5. However, given that it seems like just about anyone that had a staff and a little knowledge could do this same trick, it wouldn't necessarily take divine intervention to turn Pharaoh's heart against the Israelites.

Something I find rather inconsistent here: This is the second time that Moses and Aaron have asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go worship God. Back in Exodus 5, Pharaoh's reaction to their first inquiry was to reject it and immediately subject the Hebrew slaves to an increased burden on their labor. This paints Pharaoh to be some sort of short-fused ruthless oppressor. Yet in this second request, and all subsequent requests, when you might expect Pharaoh's impatience and anger to grow, we see no retaliation. Perhaps this is because God is using Pharaoh as a puppet. Or, perhaps this is because the storyteller got so wrapped up in the excitement of the plagues that he forgot what kind of character Pharaoh was supposed to be. Speaking of which...

The First Plague - The Plague of Blood (Exodus 7:14-25): God tells Moses that, because Pharaoh's heart is unyielding (due to God's own tampering), he and Aaron will change all of the water in Egypt, including the Nile River, to blood through God's power. If you have any doubts of how thorough this plague was, consult Exodus 7:19:
The LORD said to Moses, "Tell Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs'-and they will turn to blood. Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in the wooden buckets and stone jars." NIV
All of the fish died. The country stank. Blood was everywhere. Yet, we find in Exodus 7:22 that “the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts”. How is that possible? Even if the magicians technically knew how to change water into blood, where did they get the water for the metamorphosis? Anyway, Pharaoh's heart became hard, and he (implicitly) ignored the request and returned to his palace.

The Second Plague - The Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15): Seven days later, moving into Exodus 8, God has Moses and Aaron threaten Pharaoh with a plague of frogs if he doesn't let the Hebrews go to worship Him. Implicitly, Pharaoh rejects the request, and so the frog population explodes. Frogs are crawling and hopping, and presumably pooping, on everything and everybody. In Exodus 8:7, we see that “the [Egyptian] magicians did the same things by their secret arts”. This duplication seems a little more plausible than copying the blood plague, but still it's questionable how anyone would notice any more frogs showing up on the scene.

Pharaoh requests Moses to pray to stop the frog plague and tells Moses that he will let the Hebrews go worship. Moses does so, and all of the frogs, except for in the (possibly still bloody) Nile River, died. Egypt reeked from piles of frog carcasses. Pharaoh hardened his heart and disallowed the Hebrew worship request.

The Third Plague – The Plague of Gnats/Lice (Exodus 8:16-19): (The NIV says gnats. The KJV says lice.) Without any preface of a request for worship, God has Aaron initiate the plague of gnats/lice. All of the dust of Egypt got turned into gnats/lice, and the gnats/lice attacked men and animals. The Egyptian magicians tried to duplicate this plague as well, but they could not, and so they claimed it was God's handiwork.

I think I know why the magicians failed. This plague combined the impossibility of duplication of the blood plague (all of the dust was already turned to gnats/lice) with the imperceptibility of duplication of the frog plague (so many gnats/lice existed that it would be hard to tell if any more were added to the population). Combining impossibility with imperceptibility made success an improbability.

Speaking of duplication, one must wonder what was the purpose of God performing miraculous signs which could be duplicated? Being omniscient, God would have known that the magicians could copy the staff-to-snake, blood, and frogs. Why not go with an only-God-possible miracle from the beginning? It clearly wasn't to keep Pharaoh from having a change of heart, because God was going to keep that from happening.

The Fourth Plague – The Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:20-32): God has Moses and Aaron threaten Pharaoh with a plague of flies if he doesn't let the Hebrews go to worship Him, but this time God will treat the Hebrews differently than the Egyptians, in that the flies will not swarm in Goshen where they live. Implicitly, Pharaoh rejects the request and the plague of flies comes.

At this point, you may be wondering why didn't God spare the Hebrews from the previous three plagues as well. There's not really a good answer for this. My best guess is that God was so excited about punishing the Egyptians that He forgot about His people until He heard them complaining about the plagues. This certainly seems possible when you consider that God had to be reminded by the cries of the Hebrews to initiate this Exodus sequence.

Pharaoh requests Moses to pray to stop the fly plague and tells Moses that he will let the Hebrews go worship. Moses does so, and all of the flies leave. Pharaoh hardened his heart and disallowed the Hebrew worship request.

That's it for Part 1 of this four part series on the Exodus plagues. As you can see, Part 1 covered several story elements which were a bit quirky, and likely speak of the fictional aspect of the account. In Part 2, we'll attempt to answer the question: How many times can you kill a horse?


  1. All of these plagues and suffering just so the Israelites could go worship their God who lived at a volcano.

    Of course later on, during the Babylonian exile, when they couldn't go to Sinai, they freed God from his location and made him omnipresent.

    That brings up the obvious question of why God didn't just have Moses tell the Israelites that he was so mighty that he wasn't bound by distance and that they could worship him even if they were in Egypt?

    A lot of suffering could have been prevented if God would've done that, since it'd be done later on anyway.

    But once again, instead of enlightening the people, he chose violence.

  2. Thanks for your comment J. There is an answer for your question: God had already promised to Abram/Abraham that he would yank his offspring out of Egypt and bring them to the promised land.

    However, I would like to build on your very prudent theme and ask:
    If God wanted to present Himself as Love (per Jesus the NT), why didn't He start off with that persona, instead of portraying Himself as a God of vicious wrath bent on emphasizing His mighty power at the cost of great human suffering like we see here?

    As you poignantly point out; God is choosing this violence instead of trying to elevate man to a higher level of love.

  3. Because he was the god that was created by an oppressed, bitter, vengeful people and he reflects those feelings they had?

  4. Maybe so. They do tell authors that the way to make a good story is to write what you know about...

  5. Till exodus, God had a limited direct interation with few chosen people, and addresses Himself as God of Abraham, God of Isac and God of Jacob. Here in exodus, the children of Israel(Jacob) had grown into a mighty population and they did not know God the same way that their fathers knew.

    God had promised Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. he had promised the three patriachs that He would bring their children into the land of Canan and He will be their God and they will be His people.
    For this to come to pass, Isrelites needed to know their God intimately. for this purpose,
    I belive that more than the Egyptians, the israelites needed those miracles to engrave in them the awesomeness and greatness of the God they served against the pomp and show that egyptians showered on their idols. Israelites who did not really knew God, needed to understand that the God they served was the Almighty God above all else.

    God knows the hearts of man. from knowing the heart of the Pharoah, He knew that pharoah will surely harden his heart. exo 3:19

    So God let Pharoah be himself, his ego would overtake his decisions. if you remember, Pharoah was revered like gods in egypt. the miracles helped display the powerlessness of pharoah.

    Bible gives enough reason for why israelites could not stay in egypt. and why they needed to come to sinai, get the laws and settle down in Canan. i disagree with the volcano theory as bible clearly says that the cloud and fire went before them and later near the red sea, it came behind the israelites between them and egyptian army. israelites moved forward with fire and cloud behind them till they reached the red sea.

    It was God's love that was shown in the sacrifice of Jesus. before that mankind was in darkness of sin. Sin seperates man from God. after the sacrifice of Jesus, its all Love unlimited..

    I stumbled upon this site and may not visit this again. what i stated above is my opinion and i love my God dearly. I could not leave this site without leaving comment even though i am pressed for time. so i have put across few thoughts without making an article out of it. The passion you have for this subject is commendable. i sincerely wish you would change the way you look at things. if you understand the love which jesus showed, you would understand the love of God for you. then you would be really called the wise one.
    if not, you have already named yourself aptly.


  6. Thanks for the comment Sudeep.

    You're right that the Israelites at that time didn't know God very well. This would have been God's chance to make a first impression on them. I find it very revealing that God's chosen first impression is one of violence, destruction, and death, not one of love.

    I think if you examine the text, you will see it clearly that starting with the sixth plague, the plague of boils, God is explicitly the one that is hardening the Pharaoh's heart, not the Pharaoh.

    Given that God is willing to tamper with freewill, I could think of a better first impression: What if God simply changed the hearts of all the Egyptians to one day release the Israelites to go free, sending them with all the food and goods that they need for their journey? That would have been the ultimate showcase of love and omnipotence: changing an oppressor into a friendly, giving liberator overnight.

    What do you think? If you were Love, if you were God, how would you show love to your chosen people? By utterly devastating another group of people? I hope not.

    You are welcome to stop by again Sudeep, but I will understand if you do not.