Moses in Egypt: Miracles, Plagues, and a Hardened Heart

'The Angel of Death and the First Passover.

‘The Angel of Death and the First Passover.’ Because this family have identified themselves as Hebrew by sacrificing a lamb and smearing the doorposts with its blood, their firstborn will be spared the death inflicted on other firstborns. In the background, the Lord’s angel flies with his weapon.

For the first part of this story, see The Early Days of Moses.

To recap a bit, Yahweh (or his angel) appeared in a burning bush and told Moses his mission from God was to go back to Egypt, free the Hebrew slaves, and lead them to the promised land, Canaan, which was already occupied by numerous tribes.

Moses was not interested in fulfilling this mission; he explained that he wasn’t eloquent enough, and that no one would ever believe Yahweh had appeared to him. The god told him that Moses’s brother Aaron was a good speaker and would help out, and that Yahweh himself would put the right words in Moses’s mouth. He also provided Moses with a rod that turned into a serpent and a couple of extra miracles to use if needed—an appearing/disappearing leprosy and the ability to turn river water into blood.

So Moses, along with Aaron, went to Egypt and organized the Hebrew slaves, and then went before the Pharaoh to demand the slaves’ release.

Moses_and_Aaron_before_Pharaoh-An_Allegory_of_the_Dinteville_Family',_oil_on_wood,_mid_16th_century

Moses made his rod turn into a snake, but the Pharaoh was not impressed. He called his own wise men/sorcerer/magicians, and they also threw down rods that became serpents, although Moses’s snake ate the others.

Exodus 7:12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

In the Young Literal Translation, the rods do not become serpents; they become monsters.

Exodus 7:10 And Moses goeth in — Aaron also — unto Pharaoh, and they do so as Jehovah hath commanded; and Aaron casteth his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it becometh a monster.
11 And Pharaoh also calleth for wise men, and for sorcerers; and the scribes of Egypt, they also, with their flashings, do so,
12 and they cast down each his rod, and they become monsters, and the rod of Aaron swalloweth their rods….

The_Rods_of_Moses_and_the_Magicians_Turned_into_Serpents

But Pharaoh did not relent. In fact, he made life even worse for the Hebrew slaves, who blamed Moses and Aaron. So Moses tried another trick, holding the rod above the river, which turned the water to blood, so that the fish died, and the river stank, and nobody could drink the water. But the Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do the same trick, so the Pharaoh refused to give an inch.

Exodus 7:20 And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.
21 And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
22 And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said.
23 And Pharaoh turned and went into his house, neither did he set his heart to this also.
24 And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river.

Next Yahweh told Moses to tell Pharaoh that if he didn’t let his people go, there would be frogs:

Exodus 8:1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.
2 And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs:
3 and the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneadingtroughs:
4 and the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.

Pharoah didn’t blink at the threat, so Yahweh told Moses to tell Aaron to hold the rod “over the waters of Egypt,” and, sure enough, frogs infested the land. The Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to conjure up some frogs, too, but Pharaoh was desperate to get rid of the ones Moses and Yahweh had brought, so he told Moses that if he’d get rid of the frogs, the Hebrews would be given their freedom. So Moses went and talked to Yahweh (it’s never clear how he talks to Yahweh, except for the times he goes up into the mount and talks face to face), who obligingly killed all the frogs. The people heaped them into huge stinking piles. But, once the frogs were dead, Pharaoh went back on his promise.

Bad move, since Yahweh upped the game with a massive infestation of lice (sometimes translated as “gnats”).

Exodus 8:16 And the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
17 And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.

The magicians tried to make more lice, but they couldn’t. They told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God,” but Pharaoh wouldn’t listen. So then Yahweh told Moses to tell Pharaoh that flies were going to be next — except there would be no flies in the Hebrew’s area of residence, the land of Goshen. (Does this mean Goshen got the earlier frogs and lice?) “Flies” is sometimes translated as beetles, insects, dog-flies, or even wild animals. But Pharaoh wouldn’t buckle, so:

Exodus 8:24 And the Lord did so; and there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants’ houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.

Now under serious duress, Pharaoh said, Okay, I’ll let you all go away to worship your god — although I won’t let you go quite so far away as you ask — just get rid of the flies. So Moses told Yahweh the deal, and Yahweh got rid of every single fly. But Pharaoh again went back on his word.

Next came a plague of pestilence upon the Egyptians’ cattle; the plague did not touch Hebrew cattle.

Exodus 9:1 Then the Lord said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him, Thus saith the Lord God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me.
2 For if thou refuse to let them go, and wilt hold them still,
3 behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain [epidemic, infectious disease].
4 And the Lord shall sever between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt: and there shall nothing die of all that is the children’s of Israel.
5 And the Lord appointed a set time, saying, Tomorrow the Lord shall do this thing in the land.
6 And the Lord did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one.
7 And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead.

But Pharaoh still refused to relent. After all, by some accounts [including Exodus], Egypt held 600,000 male Hebrew slaves, plus their wives, children, and herds. [historicity] So Yahweh told Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of ashes from a furnace, and told Moses to sprinkle it towards the heavens with the Pharaoh watching.

Exodus 9:10 And they took ashes of the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses sprinkled it up toward heaven; and it became a boil breaking forth with blains [sores] upon man, and upon beast.
11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boil was upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians.

So the Egyptian sorcerers could not match Moses’ trick. But Pharaoh still would not relent. So Yahweh told Moses to tell Pharaoh that he would send a plague of “very grievous hail.” The hail turned out to be fiery, and every unsheltered man, beast, herb, and tree was destroyed — except in the Hebrew area, the land of Goshen, where there was no hail.

Exodus 9:18 Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now.
19 Send therefore now, and gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field; for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.
20 He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses:
21 and he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field.
22 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch forth thine hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, upon man, and upon beast, and upon every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt.
23 And Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt.
24 So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.
25 And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.
26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.

Moses went a short distance out of the city from Pharaoh, and spread abroad his hands unto the Lord, for he did not desire to pray to God within, where there were many idols and images. At once the hail remained suspended in the air. Part of it dropped down while Joshua was engaged in battle with the Amorites, and the rest God will send down in his fury against Gog. —Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, Book 2.

The Seventh Plague.

“The Seventh Plague.” Thunder was followed by hail mingled with fire, which destroyed everything that was outside, throughout Egypt — except for the Hebrews’ area, the land of Goshen, which was spared. The hail was described as very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.”

Pharaoh said to Moses, You’re right; your god is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. I’ll let the Hebrews go. So Moses relayed this to Yahweh, who stopped the grievous hail.

But once more, Pharaoh went back on his word. If this seems unintelligent, note that Yahweh claimed to be hardening the Pharaoh’s heart on purpose so that Yahweh would get a chance to show how mighty he was (and how lame the Egyptian gods were by comparison). Remember, before his interactions with Moses, Yahweh had been absent from the Hebrews’ lives for [over 400 years]. He was using these terrifying, impressive spectacles to remind them that he is their god, and better than the Egyptian gods.

Exodus 10:1 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him:
2 and that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord.

So next comes a plague of locusts:

Exodus 10:12 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail hath left.
13 And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.
14 And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.
15 For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.

At this point Pharaoh was begging for forgiveness, so Moses asked Yahweh to take away the locusts:

Exodus 10:19 And the Lord turned a mighty strong west wind, which took away the locusts, and cast them into the Red sea; there remained not one locust in all the coasts of Egypt.
20 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.

Since Pharaoh still wouldn’t relent, a plague of “thick darkness” was inflicted:

Exodus 10:21 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.
22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days:
23 they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

The Ninth Plague, Darkness.

The Ninth Plague, Darkness.

The Egyptians must have wondered if their sun god Ra had been vanquished. Pharaoh said, Right, take yourselves and your children and go; just leave behind your livestock. Moses explained that they needed their flocks and herds, every last hoof, because they had to go make animal sacrifices and burnt offerings to Yahweh.
Yahweh tells Moses there is going to be one more plague, and that this is going to break the Pharaoh’s resolve once and for all. Moses gave Pharaoh the final, chilling warning:

Exodus 11:4 And Moses said, Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt:
5 and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
6 And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.
7 But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that ye may know how that the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.

Yahweh told Moses and Aaron to have each Hebrew household kill and roast a lamb on a certain night, and smear its blood on the doorposts:

Exodus 12:7 And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper doorpost of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.

Yahweh directed that the people be ready to move on out at a moment’s notice:

Exodus 12:11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s passover.

Yahweh ordered that the Israelites were not to go out of their houses until morning.

Exodus 12:22 And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.

29 And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt: for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

Yahweh killed all the firstborn male Egyptians, human and animals. [angel of the lord, the lord, There is no clue in the Bible how it was done.]

"The Death of the Firstborn." “The destroyer” came “in unto [the Egyptians’] houses to smite” their firstborn males. Note the angel lurking in the background.

“The Death of the Firstborn.” “The destroyer” came “in unto [the Egyptians’] houses to smite” their firstborn males. Note the angel lurking in the background.

"The Firstborn of the Egyptians Are Slain." The Lord’s Angel is usually pictured as doing the work. “Natural” theories as to how the firstborn could have been singled out generally center around the fact that the firstborn received special privileges in the family, such as eating before the younger siblings, and therefore might have received a lethal dose of a food-borne toxin that had perhaps developed during the days of darkness.

“The Firstborn of the Egyptians Are Slain.” The Lord’s Angel is usually pictured as doing the work. “Natural” theories as to how the firstborn could have been singled out generally center around the fact that the firstborn received special privileges in the family, such as eating before the younger siblings, and therefore might have received a lethal dose of a food-borne toxin that had perhaps developed during the days of darkness.

Finally, the Pharaoh said, Get out, right now! The undertone was, “…before I change my mind and slaughter you all.” So the Hebrews gathered up their belongings, and, following Yahweh’s orders, they also “borrowed” silver and gold jewelry, and clothes from the Egyptians.

Exodus 12:31 And he [Pharaoh] called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, Rise up, and get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as ye have said.
32 Also take your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also.
33 And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men.
34 And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneadingtroughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.
35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment:
36 and the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required: and they spoiled the Egyptians.

This collection of silver, gold, jewels, and raiment would be needed to build the Ark of the Covenant and its Tabernacle.

Next: The Hebrews See Yahweh; Moses Gets Covenants; Also, Circumcision Happens

Notes:

Body Lice. This plague reportedly was responsible for many deaths of people and animals, their corpses covered with lice, or gnats, depending on the translation.

Flies. This plague might even have happened naturally, without Yahweh’s intervention, due to all the dead bodies from the previous plague. But, while it’s not clear whether the Hebrew slaves experienced the plagues of frogs and lice, they were specifically exempted from suffering the plague of flies.

Only Non-Hebrew Cattle Afflicted. Cattle were important not only as food but as sacrificial animals. They could not be sacrificed if they were imperfect. Yahweh took every opportunity to show his superiority to the Egyptian gods, and to induce the Hebrews to fear him as their God.

Boils on People and Animals. Some suggest that the plagues of lice, flies, and pestilence were natural results of the deaths of so many frogs. It’s not clear, though, how the Hebrews could have been spared. Also, Yahweh performed his [tricks] at specifically stated times, so as to prove they were his doing. What scenario seems more likely than these “natural” explanations? Yahweh was inflicting chemical and/or biological warfare.

Boil: an inflamed pus-filled swelling on the skin.

The Plague of Fiery Hail. A rain of fire, often containing “blood,” is a fairly common motif in ancient stories. According to the Aztec Codex Chimalpopoca, during the third sun (world age), the people were destroyed by a rain of fire sent by Quetzalcoatl. [popul-vuh “it was ruin and destruction…etc.” and Manuscript Quiche quote: “there descended from the sky a rain of bitumin, etc.”] [and Siberia/Vogul quote, “God sent a sea of fire upon the earth, etc.” and East Indies aboriginals quote “water of fire” etc. and Midrash Tanhuma, Midrash Psikta Raboti, Midrash Wa-Yosha quotes re naptha and hot stones pouring down upon Egypt (petroleum, common in Middle East, bubbles to ground). [hail actually translates as rocks] and in Homer’s Iliad, where Zeus twice caused a rain of blood, on one occasion to warn of slaughter in a battle.] [“since the foundation thereof even until now.” – ancient [nuclear] war]

Revelation 8:7 The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

Napalm is a generic name used to describe various flammable liquids used in warfare, often forms of jellied gasoline. [naptha]

Enough Locusts to Cover “the Face of the Whole Earth.” Suggestions for a natural explanation include locust swarms forming because of a lack of predators, or in order to focus on what few plants remained after previous plagues.

Thick Darkness. Throughout the Old Testament, the words “thick darkness” are associated with Yahweh’s appearance. For instance:

Psalms 18:9 And He inclineth the heavens, and cometh down, And thick darkness is under His feet. (Young’s Literal Translation)

Deuteronomy 4:11 And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.

I Kings 8:12 and 2 Chronicles 6:1 Then said Solomon, The LORD hath said that he would dwell in the thick darkness.

Suggestions for natural explanations include solar eclipse, sandstorm, volcanic ash, or swarms of locusts blocking out the sun.

Gird: encircle (a person or part of the body) with a belt or band; secure (a garment or sword) on the body with a belt or band.

Loin: the part of the body on both sides of the spine between the lowest (false) ribs and the hipbones.

Gird Up One’s Loins: prepare and strengthen oneself for what is to come.

See How to Gird Up Your Loins: an Illustrated Guide.

Read the next part of the Moses story: The Hebrews See Yahweh; Moses Gets Covenants; Also, Circumcision Happens

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