The plague stories begin in chapter 7, but let’s start with chapter 5.
Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh, and told him that the Lord, the God of Israel, comments Pharaoh to let the people do, so they may celebrate a festival to God in the wilderness.
Pharaoh declared that he did not know this Lord and would not comply. In fact, as long as Moses and Aaron wanted to take them away from their work, Pharaoh gave them more work! The people would have to gather straw for bricks, and they were beaten when they could not complete their daily assignment.
The Israelite supervisors blamed Moses and Aaron for this situation, and in turn the brothers complained to God that God had done nothing.
God told Moses that God would respond to Pharaoh by a mighty hand. God had been known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty—El Shaddai—and now known to Moses by God’s holy Name, God had heard the suffering of the people and would save them.
Moses reminded God that the Israelites had not listened to him, and Pharaoh would not listen to him because of his (Moses’) poor speech. God nevertheless ordered Moses and Aaron to return to Pharaoh.
The narrative pauses for a moment as the text gives the genealogies of Reuben, then of Simeon, and then of Levi. The text gives the generations of Levi’s three sons, including Levi’s great-grandsons Aaron and Moses. Without giving Moses’ sons, the texts names Aaron’s four sons, and the fact that Phinehas was the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar.
Returning to the story, the Lord told Moses “I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” The Lord would multiply signs and wonders in Egypt so that the Egyptians would know the Lord is God. As an aside, the narrative notes that Aaron is 83 and Moses is 80.
First the brothers go to Pharaoh, and when Pharaoh refuged to free the Israelites, Aaron threw down his staff (as instructed) and it became a snake. The Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same thing---but Aaron’s staff-snake swallowed those snakes. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
The plagues—the signs and wonders—begin at this point (7:14).
God tells Moses that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, so Moses must go to him when he is by the river in the morning. Moses must place the same staff into the water and announce to Pharaoh that by this, he shall know God is the Lord. Moses and Aaron did so, and as God had said, the Nile turned to blood and stank, and all the fish died.
The Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same thing, and Pharaoh remained hard-hearted. Egyptians dug for water so they could have water to drink. Seven days went by.
God told Moses that a plague of frogs would be next. Aaron stretched his hand out, and frogs came up all over Egypt. But again, the magicians were able to do the same thing. Pharoah promised to let the people go, and also the frogs all died, leaving a stink across the land. But Pharaoh became hard-hearted again.
Next, Aaron stretched out his hand, struck the earth with his staff, and gnats became the third plague. This time, the magicians would not replicate the sign. The magicians warned Pharaoh, but still he would not listen.
The fourth plague was flies. Moses warned Pharaoh that the land of Goshen, where the Israelites live, would not be affected. Pharaoh told Moses that the people could go into the wilderness for three days and offer sacrifices to God. Pharaoh also asked Moses to pray for him.
Of course, Pharaoh reneged, once the flies were gone. The fifth plague followed: a pestilence that would killed the Egyptian livestock but which would spare the Israelites’. This happened, but still the Pharaoh changed his mind.
The sixth plague was boils. Standing before Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron took soot from the kilt and threw it in the air, as God had instructed. Egyptians and animals alike were infected, but still Pharaoh stood his ground.
The seventh plague was hail. God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that God would send further plagues so that God would show his power to Pharaoh and make his (God’s) name famous. Pharaoh would know there is no God like God. God would send hail the next day, and anyone who don’t want himself or his slaves and livestock harmed must find shelter. The Egyptians who, by now, feared God did so.
The next day, Moses stretched out his staff, and hail, thunder and fire fell upon Egypt—except for the land of Goshen, where the Israelites stayed. Although the wheat was late that year and was not damaged, the Egyptian flax and barley were destroyed.
Pharaoh seems to have a complete change of heart and begged Moses to make the plague stopped. Moses did so—but Pharaoh reneged on his promise.
The eighth plague was locusts. The same pattern: Moses and Aaron brought God’s warning to Pharaoh. Pharaoh allowed the Israelite men to go worship God, but not the rest of the Israelites.
Subsequently, the land became black with locusts, which attacked every tree and plant In Egypt. Pharaoh expressed repentance and begged for a respite. God then sent a west wind which drove to locusts into the Red Sea. But Pharaoh changed again
The ninth plague was darkness for three days, so that the Egyptians couldn’t see anything or one another—although the Israelites still had light. Pharaoh promises Moses to let the people go—but they must leave their herds and flocks behind. Moses responded that the Israelites needed their animals.
Again, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He told Moses, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”
Finally, God told Moses of one more plague: the death of the first-born.
The story pauses as God gives Moses and Aaron commands about the Passover. We can see differences among Passover instructions in the two parts of Exodus 12, and also in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. The Jewish celebration of Passover includes components of these scriptures for the traditional service. (2) What is crucial for the Passover is the commemoration of God’s liberation of the people from Egyptian slavery. Moses instructs the elders of Israel to take the blood of the Passover lamb, dip a bunch of hyssop into the basement, and touch the two doorposts and lintel with the blood. The destroyer would pass over the houses of the Israelites but will strike the Egyptian households.
This section of the Exodus story concludes:
Of course, there is more drama to come---and, in fact, even more important aspects of the overall story, the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Covenant, are about to unfold.
1.As you read these chapters, what “pops out” for you? Do you have a gut reaction to certain aspects? If you were already familiar with the story, did anything surprise you this time?
2.In several stories across the Bible, disease is attributed directly to God. Today, we know about the nature of diseases and their spread. Does it bother you to say, “We can no longer believe that God causes illness, but this is how the Bible authors understood illness.”