After his first appearance before Pharaoh ended with disastrous results for both Moses and Israel, the scene and power begin to change as God starts to work. Whereas Pharaoh showed his authority over Israel in the incident with the bricks, God now shows His sovereignty over Pharaoh and all of Egypt with the plagues. In these chapters the reader witnesses the astounding and frightening power of God, the growth of a leader as he begins to believe God more and fear man less, and the horrifying implications of God giving a man over to his pride. Along the way the story also shows what false repentance looks like and how its practice leads to self-deceit and destruction.
God reassured Moses in Chapter 6 that Pharaoh’s harsh response to Moses’ entreaty would allow Him to demonstrate His power at Pharaoh’s expense. He now fulfills that promise in nine clear and mighty ways.
Introduction to the Plagues (7:1-13)
God again tells Moses that Pharaoh and Egypt are right where He wants them and that He’s going to demonstrate His power and make it clear in no uncertain terms that He is God. He also says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” This is both frightening and hard to understand. Is Pharaoh an unwilling participant in God’s plans and is he simply a tool for God’s glory? To some extent the answer seems to be ‘yes’ (God will say that He raised up Pharaoh/kept him alive for this purpose – 9:16, Rom 9:17), as God uses him to bring glory to Himself. But perhaps another way of reading this is that God gives him over to his pride and arrogance. Pharaoh is so caught up in his sin that God removes His mercy from him – He gives him over to what Pharaoh desires most (see Rom 1:18-32). By giving him over, God removes his ability to repent. He can’t come to God and his heart is hardened (to an irrational degree in light of the suffering he and his people endure). Pharaoh thus serves as a frightening example of what it means to fall under the wrath of God when God’s mercy is no longer available.
God’s first sign to Pharaoh is Aaron’s staff. In front of Pharaoh, Aaron throws his staff on the ground and it becomes a snake (same miracle God demonstrated to Moses at the burning bush that made him run away (4:3) – he presumably is ready for it this time). Pharaoh isn’t impressed because he calls in the Egyptian magicians and they’re able to do the same thing (we have no idea how this works or through what power they’re able to replicate the miracle or even if it’s an actual miracle or perhaps just a trick). However, once all the snakes are on the ground, Aaron’s staff-snake swallows up the other staff-snakes (presumably leaving all the magicians without their staffs). This ending to the scene – which would presumably sober the Egyptians who witnessed it and perhaps fill them with foreboding – has no effect on Pharaoh because his heart is hardened.
Plague 1 – Nile becomes Blood (7:14-25)
For the first plague, Moses and Aaron meet Pharaoh as he goes out to the Nile (either to worship the Nile god or to bathe) and tell him that Yahweh – the God Pharaoh dismissively said he didn’t know in 5:2 – says to “Let My people go.” When Pharaoh refuses, Aaron takes the staff that became a snake and raises it over the Nile and the river turns to blood.
It’s important to understand the scope of this plague. Notice in verse 19 that God refers to their rivers, their streams, their pools and their reservoirs. The implication is that the water of the Israelites isn’t affected. That said, since the Egyptians are able to dig around the Nile and get fresh water (24), it apparently only affects surface water. Also, the word for blood in Hebrew could refer to the color of the water rather than its literal composition (which would explain why this plague apparently isn’t deadly). The water becomes polluted – enough to kill all the fish – but perhaps isn’t actually blood.
The Egyptian magicians are again able to replicate the miracle (where did they get the water they turned into blood? Perhaps water drawn before the plague remains clear so they replicate the miracle on a small scale using a container), but notably can’t reverse it (and by replicating it they actually make things worse). Even so, Pharaoh uses their actions to justify in his own mind that he doesn’t need to listen to a God who’s not more powerful than his own magicians. He enters into his house with no concern even for this (23).
Verse 25 isn’t entirely clear, but it seems to mean the plague lasts for seven days and then goes away. This could be a pattern for the remaining plagues. Perhaps one week is the approximate time between each occurrence.
Plague 2 – Frogs (8:1-15)
When Pharaoh again refuses to let the people go, God smites the land with frogs that swarm from the Nile. The frogs cover the land and go into houses, bedrooms, beds, ovens, kneading bowls and even on the people themselves (so many frogs that they actually jump on people). Unlike the first plague, which may have affected Pharaoh only indirectly (since presumably his servants had to find clean water for him), the frogs go after Pharaoh too (vs 4). [Side note – imagine the noise caused by this number of frogs and the filth from the frogs’ waste and the fact that there is no escape from this – the stress of this plague has to be off the charts. Also, since one of the Egyptian gods is symbolized by a frog – Heket – there also could be a superstitious element to this plague for the Egyptians.]
Just like the first plague, the magicians are able to replicate this miracle too. This suggests an almost comical scene where the magicians come to Pharaoh in the midst of millions of frogs all over the place and demonstrate to him that they can conjure up even more frogs. Just as was true when they turned the water into blood, however, they can’t do the one thing that would actually help the situation – eliminate the frogs.
Pharaoh apparently isn’t impressed by the magicians because he calls for Moses and Aaron and actually humbles himself and says he’ll let the people go to sacrifice to Yahweh. He also for the first time acknowledges God’s power and authority and asks Moses to entreat Yahweh (he names Him specifically) to reverse the plague. It’s a shocking scene based on his actions to this point in the story. Unlike with the water into blood, Pharaoh seems to get it and seems to have a sincere change of heart.
Moses complies with Pharaoh’s request. He tells Pharaoh that he – Pharaoh – gets to choose when the plague will end (notice that Moses refers to you and your servants and your people – yet again this plague seems to only affect the Egyptians). “It’s up to you – when do you want the frogs destroyed?” We might think a desperate Pharaoh would say ‘immediately’, but it could be that he assumes there has to be some ritual to beseeching Yahweh and that it will take time. He therefore asks for it all to end tomorrow. Moses tells him it will be as he requests that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God (10).
Check out Moses! He’s a different man, isn’t he? Compare verse 10 with 6:30. This is not the Moses who complained to God that he couldn’t speak and that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen to him. This is confident, take-no-prisoners Moses. He’s not intimidated by Pharaoh at all. For him to say to Pharaoh, “The honor is yours to tell me: when shall I entreat for you…?” shows that his fear of man is long gone. He’s full of the Spirit of God and Pharaoh is just an obstacle to God’s plans for which Moses is God’s instrument. We are seeing what happens when God works in a willing soul. Moses is becoming the unquestioned leader of Israel and the friend of God.
Moses leaves Pharaoh and cries out to God and God kills all the frogs the next day. There is no frog alive in the land except in its natural habitat. The downside to the sudden death of the frogs, however, is that there are now millions of dead frogs everywhere. The people pile them in heaps and the stench of rotting amphibians permeates everything.
The sudden death of the frogs shows Pharaoh and the people that this was no natural phenomenon. The plague ends all at once and at the time chosen by Pharaoh. There is no doubt as to who was in control of the plague and that Yahweh is all-powerful and a God of His word.
Nevertheless, Pharaoh goes back on his word. Once the frogs are gone and life returns to normal (as normal as possible with heaps of dead frogs everywhere), Pharaoh rescinds his promise and refuses to allow Israel to leave. Notice that verse 15 says he hardens his heart and refuses to listen to Moses and Aaron.
Pharaoh’s actions define false repentance. He hated the effects of his sin – not the sin itself. He hated the frogs, not the pride that brought the frogs. Thus when the frogs die his change of heart dies too. That’s what happens with false repentance. When we hate the effects and guilt of our sin more than the actual sin – when we’re filled with regret over what our actions have wrought but aren’t as concerned about offending our Savior and minimizing the cost of our redemption – we practice a repentance that doesn’t lead to real change. Addressing symptoms instead of the disease just leads to a more aggressive disease. What happens to Pharaoh through the rest of the story will show the long-term effects of false repentance and serve as a warning to all of us.
Plague 3 – Gnats (8:16-19)
This plague occurs with no warning to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron don’t talk to Pharaoh at all, God simply tells them to bring on the plague. Aaron strikes the dust of the earth and it becomes gnats. Billions of gnats. Gnats everywhere – on man and beast. They likely are tiny and perhaps biting and infest everywhere and probably even get into the nose and eyes. Just like with the frogs, there is no escape – the stress on the people has to be overwhelming.
The magicians can’t replicate this plague (and are now done – they won’t try anymore). They tell Pharaoh as much and say that this plague is clearly the finger of God (they don’t use the name Yahweh; they just know this is supernatural). Even so, Pharaoh disregards them and disregards Moses and Aaron because his heart is hardened (note that he isn’t the actor this time). He ignores his people’s misery and his own misery because he’s lost in the pride God’s given him over to. Interestingly, this plague is like the first in that it ends even with no commitment by Pharaoh to let the people go. God simply ends it so He can move on to the next demonstration of His power.
Plague 4 – Insects/Flies (8:20-32)
With this plague Moses and Aaron meet Pharaoh as he goes to the Nile in the morning – much the same as they did with the first plague of the water into blood. Again, it could be that Pharaoh goes out to bathe but it also could be a time of worship (something we haven’t pointed out is that the plagues aren’t just against the Pharaoh and the people; they are also against the Egyptian gods – the Egyptians have gods that rule over nature, harvest, fertility, the river, and the earth and sky; thus the plagues show the gods to be impotent before Yahweh – see Num 33:4). They give their usual command/request – “Thus says Yahweh, Let My people go that they may serve Me.”
Before Pharaoh disregards them, God gives him a specific warning about what’s in store. He’s going to bring swarms of insects (most likely biting flies – Ps 78:45) all over Egypt. The flies will be everywhere – on Pharaoh, on his servants, on all the Egyptian people, in every house, and even coming out of the ground. However, God will put a dividing line between the Egyptians and the Israelites. In Goshen, where Israel dwells, there won’t be any flies. God will spare His own people so that you may know that I, the Lord, am in the midst of the land. This all will take place tomorrow (meaning there’s time for Pharaoh to change his mind).
And it does. Flies come and permeate everything and – unlike the gnats – damage the land. Imagine what this is like. Flies everywhere, contaminating everything and likely carrying disease. Just as with all the plagues after the first, there’s no escape – there’s nowhere to go to get away from the flies. Something else to note – God doesn’t have Moses or Aaron do anything to bring about this plague. He leaves Pharaoh and the people no doubt as to who sends it. This isn’t a random and nameless finger of God. The flies come from Yahweh, God of Israel.
The flies have their intended effect (mostly). Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron and tells them they can sacrifice to Yahweh but it has to be within Egypt (he decides that since he has no leverage at all it’s the perfect time to negotiate with Moses and Aaron, thus showing how irrational and limitless unbounded pride is). Moses refuses because the sacrifices of the Israelites will be an abomination to the Egyptians (this isn’t explained, but perhaps the animals are sacred to the Egyptians or perhaps the Egyptians would reject sacrifices made to a god they don’t believe resides in Egypt) and the Egyptians will stone the Israelites as a result. Pharaoh then agrees to let them leave the land (as long as they don’t go too far) and tells Moses, “Make supplication for me.”
Moses – again showing his confidence before Pharaoh – tells him he’ll make supplication for him (Moses never lets him forget that it’s Yahweh who controls the plagues) and that the flies will go away tomorrow (he doesn’t equivocate at all – he knows what God can do). He leaves Pharaoh with a warning, however, and tells him he better not change his mind this time. The flies will go away, but do not let Pharaoh deal deceitfully again in not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord. We don’t get to witness Pharaoh’s response, but wouldn’t any rational person by this time believe Moses and be scared to death of what could happen if he goes back on his word?
Once again Moses leaves Pharaoh and makes supplication to the Lord. Notice how the text describes what God does – the Lord did as Moses asked. Moses continues to develop into the friend of God. The plagues thus have a threefold effect: they glorify God before the Egyptians and Israelites; they make it painfully clear to the Egyptians that it’s time for Israel to go; and they deepen Moses’ relationship with God. With each plague and with each appearance before Pharaoh, Moses’ faith and confidence in God grow.
The next day – just as Moses promised – the flies go away. NOT ONE FLY REMAINS. It’s an amazing reversal and is really as miraculous as the plague itself. It leaves no doubt as to who is in control and should humble Pharaoh and the people and make them realize what they’re up against. To any impartial observer, the sudden disappearance of the flies combined with the other plagues that have taken place to this point would make it clear that Yahweh is all-powerful and the Hebrews are His people and to resist Him is profoundly foolish.
Pharaoh, however, is not impartial. His pride and hard heart continue unabated. As soon as the flies go away and life returns to normal, he hardens his heart (note the actor) and refuses to let the people go. He presumably convinces himself that he’s survived and the plagues are over. He stared down the God of Israel. He has nothing to worry about and is still in charge. He won’t let the people go because to do so would be to humiliate himself before Moses and Moses’ God. That he won’t do and doesn’t have to. He’s Pharaoh. The truth is that he’s blind and self-deceived and lost in his pride. He’s also the prototypical habitual sinner – when the effects of sin are gone the sin doesn’t seem that bad. When the pressure of punishment goes away, the memory of that punishment goes away too. Thus he can go on his merry way and assume everything will be OK.
He has six more plagues to go. He has NO IDEA how bad things are about to get.