Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 8

Verse 1


1. Go unto Pharaoh The going we must think of as being from Goshen to Zoan, Pharaoh’s capital . Zoan we may suppose to be the scene of these interviews between prophet and king .

Verses 1-32

THE TEN PLAGUES, Exodus 7:8 to Exodus 12:30.

Moses and Aaron now stand before Pharaoh as ministers of judgment, and the conflict opens between Jehovah and the gods of Egypt. The first contest between the messengers of Jehovah and the magicians, or enchanters, who are regarded as the servants of the false gods, given in Exodus 7:8-13, is properly the opening scene of the struggle, and is therefore here included in the section with it. Several general observations on the whole subject are most conveniently introduced here for future reference.

(1.) The great and worthy object of these “signs and wonders” is throughout to be carefully held before the mind. There were several secondary purposes met, but the chief aim was, not to inflict retribution upon Egypt, although they did this as judgments, nor to give Israel independence, though they effected this by crushing the oppressor, but to teach the world the nature of God. It was a series of most solemn lessons in the fundamental truths of religion in God’s attributes and government. With perfect distinctness and reiterated emphasis is this declared from the very beginning: “ I am JEHOVAH … Ye shall know… the Egyptians shall know that I am JEHOVAH.” Events were to burn into the national consciousness of Israel, and into the memory of the world, the great truths revealed in the Memorial Name; and the faith of Israel, the sin of Pharaoh, and the might and splendour of Egyptian heathenism, were the divinely chosen instruments to accomplish this work. The rich Nile-land teemed with gods, and was the mother country of the idolatries that, centuries afterward, covered the Mediterranean islands and peninsulas, and filled the classic literature with such manifold forms of beauty. The gods of Greece were born in Egypt, and the Sibyls of Delphos and Cumaea descended from the sorcerers who contended with Moses. In no other land has idolatry ever reared such grand and massive structures as in Egypt. The immense ram-headed Ammun and hawk-headed Ra, the placid monumental Osiris, the colossal Rameses, sitting in granite “with his vast hands resting upon his elephantine knees,” these, and their brother gods of the age of the Pharaohs, have looked down upon the rising and falling Nile through all the centuries of European civilization. In no other land were the manifold forms and productions of nature so deified. In their pantheistic idolatry they offered worship not only to the sun, and moon, and earth, but to bulls, crocodiles, cats, hawks, asps, scorpions, and beetles. They seem to have made to themselves likenesses of almost every thing in “heaven above, in earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth.” The Apis and Mnevis bulls were stalled in magnificent palaces at Memphis and Heliopolis, and were embalmed in massive marble and granite sarcophagi, grander than enclosed the Theban kings. The sepulchres of Egyptian bulls have outlasted the sepulchres of Roman emperors. Nowhere else were kings so deified as here. Pharaoh incarnated in himself the national idolatry, and to crush the king was to crush the gods. The king made his palace a temple, and enthroned himself among the Egyptian deities. He sculptured himself colossal so vast that the Arabs to-day quarry millstones from his cheeks sitting hand in hand and arm in arm with his gods. To-day Rameses sits in the temple of Ipsambul between Ra and Ammun, his tall crown rising between the hawk head of the one and the tiara of the other, looking out from his rock-hewn shrine upon the desert, as he has sat since the Pharaohs. From Cambyses to Napoleon invasion after invasion has swept the Nile valley wave on wave yet here have sat these massive forms, the Nile coming to bathe their feet year by year, as if brothers to the mountains. They mark the graves of Egypt’s vanished gods, while the name of Him who smote these gods to death with Moses’s rod liveth forever.

(2.) But Egypt was the mother-land of philosophies as well as idolatries. Long ages after Moses, Herodotus, Pythagoras, and Plato followed the Hebrew lawgiver to the oldest university in the world. The Egyptian philosophy was inextricably entangled with its religion, and deciphered papyri show that magic and sorcery were esteemed as highly at the court of Pharaoh, as, long after, in the time of Daniel, at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. The dreamy mysticism of Plato and of Philo reveals how hopelessly most precious truths were entangled in priestly juggleries, and how deeply this black art, or illusion, or demonism, left its mark on the ancient world. The heathen idolatry had no more potent allies in the old civilizations than the soothsayers, sorcerers, and magicians, and it was needful that they too should be signally vanquished by the prophet of the true God. Hence Moses in Egypt as, a thousand years later, Daniel in Babylon, and a half thousand years later still, Paul at Salamis and Philippi discomfited the false prophets who aped God’s mighty works with their lying wonders. The sooth-saying and necromancy found in Christian lands to-day belong to the same kingdom of darkness, and can be exorcised only in that “Name which is above every name.” Moses, then, smites for mankind; Israel brings the Sacred Name through the wilderness for the world.

(3.) The weapons and tactics of this warfare were not such as to inflame the pride of the people of Israel, or to awaken in after generations a thirst for military glory, but such as to turn the tides of their faith and hope wholly away from themselves to their God. Hence the Hebrew national anthems glory in Jehovah rather than in Israel. Not the baptism of a war of national independence, but that of the Red Sea redemption, was their great national remembrance. Enthusiasm for Jehovah thus became the national passion. How appropriate was this in the training of a nation which was to teach the world true religion!

The real character of these plagues, or judgment strokes, will, as a general thing, appear from an attentive study of the Egyptian geography and natural history. They arise, as can usually be seen on the face of the narrative, from natural causes supernaturally intensified and directed. In the first and ninth plagues the natural causation is less distinct. They cannot, however, be explained away as natural events; for, if the record is to be believed at all, they were supernatural (1) in their definiteness, the time of their occurrence and discontinuance being distinctly predicted; (2) in their succession; and (3) in their intensity. They were, in their power and direction, threefold: (1) against the Egyptian faith in the diviners, enchanters, and sorcerers, the prophets of a false religion. (2) Against their faith in their deities, their gods of earth, and water, and air powers of nature; and beasts, and birds, and creeping things. Thus Jehovah’s supremacy over idolatry appeared. But (3) they were also punishments for disobedience to God. There is from the beginning a gradually increasing intensity in these supernatural manifestations till the magicians are utterly discomfited, all the gods of Egypt put to shame, and Pharaoh compelled to yield reluctant obedience. At first the magicians seem to display the same power as Moses, (Exodus 7:11; Exodus 7:22,) then come signs beyond their power . (Exodus 8:18;) soon the prophet of Jehovah so smites them that they cannot appear at all, (Exodus 9:11;) and then they vanish altogether . So the weight of the judgments increases as with increasing light the crime of disobedience rises in magnitude beginning with simple though sore annoyances, as blood, frogs, and flies; then advancing to the destruction of food and cattle smiting first their dwelling-place and surroundings, and then themselves; till the locusts swept the earth and the darkness filled the heaven, and only the death stroke was left to fall . Thus we are taught how the consequence of sin is sin, and judgments unheeded inevitably lead on to sorer judgments, till destruction comes .

(4.) Some commentators have found a special application in each plague to some particular idolatry or idolatrous rite, but this we do not find warranted by facts. Some, following Philo, the learned and devout but fanciful Alexandrian Jew, separate the plagues into two groups of nine and one, and then the nine into three groups of three, between which groups they trace what they deem instructive contrasts and correspondences. Origen, Augustine, and others, have traced parallels between these ten judgments and the ten commandments, the succession of the judgments and of the creative days, etc. Most of these interpretations not to dwell on the extravagant conceits of the Rabbies are amusing rather than instructive, and would be appropriate rather to a sacred romance or drama than to a sober history like this. The wild fables of the Talmud, the monstrosities of the Koran, and the often romantically embellished history of Josephus, present here an instructive contrast to the sacred narrative.

(5.) Thus far the Egyptian monuments give us no distinct mention of the plagues and of the exodus. We have, however, Egyptian records of the sojourn and exodus of Israel, although confused and fragmentary, and written more than a thousand years after the events. Chief and most valuable among these is the narrative of the priest Manetho, who wrote his Egyptian history during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, B.C. 283-247, of which a few fragments remain. Josephus has preserved all that we have of this narrative in his work against Apion. It is, as might be expected, a very different history, being the relation of an Egyptian priest many centuries after the events; yet the points of agreement are very striking.

The Israelites appear in Manetho’s story as a nation of lepers, headed by Osarsiph, a priest of Osiris, who had been educated at Heliopolis, but abandoned his order and the Egyptian religion to take the lead of this people. He taught them to abjure idolatry, gave them laws, a constitution and ceremonial, and when he united his fortunes with theirs he changed his name to Moses. The war is described as a religious war, in which, for the time, the Egyptians were discomfited, and obliged, in compliance with prophetic warnings, to abandon the country for thirteen years, and to flee, with their king Amenophis, into Ethiopia, taking with them the bull Apis and other sacred animals, while this leprous nation, reinforced by shepherds from Jerusalem, fortified themselves in Avaris, (Zoan,) a city of Goshen, robbed the temples, insulted the gods, roasted and ate the sacred animals, and cast contempt in every way upon the Egyptian worship. Amenophis afterwards returned with a great army and chased the shepherds and lepers out of his dominions through a dry desert to Palestine. (From Ewald’s trans., Hist. of Israel, 2: 79.) Here, as Ewald shows, the great outlines of the story of the exodus are to be clearly seen; the Mosaic leadership, the war of religions, the uprising of the hostile religion in Egypt itself, the leprous affliction of the revolting people, so pointedly mentioned in the Pentateuch, the secret superstitious dread inspired by Moses, which seems to have shaken the foundations of the Egyptian religion, the confession of defeat in the struggle, and the transformation of the exodus into an expulsion from Egypt these are unmistakable traces of the same history coming down through Egyptian channels. The later Egyptian writers, Chaeremon and Lysimachus, echo the story of Manetho, mingling with it Hebrew traditions. ( Josephus Against Apion, bks. i, 2.)

(6.) The exotic of Israel from Egypt is a fact now universally admitted, whatever differences may exist in its explanation. Bunsen says, in his Egypt, that “History herself was born on that night when Moses led forth his countrymen from the land of Goshen.” That this event resulted from some heavy calamities which at that time befel the Egyptians, or, in other words, that the narrative of the plagues has a solid historical foundation, is also now maintained with unbroken unanimity by Hebrew and Egyptian scholars, even by those who decline to see in these events anything supernatural. Thus Ewald says, that this history, “on the whole, exhibits the essence of the event as it actually happened.” And Knobel says, that “in the time of Moses circumstances had transpired which made it possible for the Hebrews to go forth of themselves, and impossible for the Egyptians to hinder their undertaking or to force them to return.” In other words, they who refuse to recognise here miraculous influence do recognise miraculous coincidence. Without any war, which, had it happened, must, as Knobel says, have left some trace in the history without any invasion from abroad or insurrection from within to weaken the Egyptian power a nation, unified and vitalized by faith in the one Jehovah, went forth unhindered from the bosom of a strong and prosperous empire. This is the event to be explained. The Mosaic record alone gives an adequate cause.

Verse 2

2. I will smite all thy borders with frogs Several species of frogs are found in Egypt, and they are specially abundant in September, filling the lakes and ponds left by the retiring inundation . In the spawning season the waters are so filled with them that a bowl of water taken up almost anywhere will be found to contain tadpoles, yet there is no other instance of their becoming a plague to the inhabitants, although there are traditions of similar plagues in other countries . But a superhuman influence is here most evident . The frog is an amphibious animal, living in the water or in moist, marshy lands . For these animals, then, to leave the river and river banks, and swarm up into the cities, which were situated in the edge of the dry desert, into the very houses, and into the driest places in the houses, as the beds, kneading-troughs, and ovens, was a miraculous manifestation most striking and alarming. The atmosphere of Egypt is always remarkably dry, rain being very rare except on the seacoast, sothat usually a frog could live but a very short time in an Egyptian street or house. If, now, heavy clouds and rains accompanied this visitation, in order to enable the reptiles to live in the cities, as seems likely, the supernatural character of the infliction would be still more marked.

This was also in several ways a blow at the Egyptian idolatry. The judgment comes, as before, from the deified Nile, and comes in one of their sacred animals. The frog was an emblem of the great god Pthah, the tutelar god of Memphis, and the principal divinity of Lower Egypt, so that their protecting deity now became to the Memphites a loathsome abomination. Lepsius traces this form of idolatry to the most ancient nature worship of the land. Mariette has published a curious vignette from the monuments, representing king Seti offering two vases of wine to a frog enshrined in a small chapel. Brugsch also shows that in the district of Sah the Egyptians worshipped a goddess with a frog’s head, whom they called Heka.

Verse 3

3. Into thine house, and into thy bedchamber The Egyptian house was built around a rectangular court, which was paved, and open to the sky, often containing trees, and generally a tank or fountain . See notes on Matthew, pp . 121 and 326 . The poorer houses had only a basement story, or ground floor, but those of a better class had store rooms, offices, etc . , in the basement, and above these were the parlours and sleeping chambers . There was often an additional story in one part on which was a terrace covered with an awning, or a light roof supported on columns, where the ladies of the family sat at work during the day, and where the master of the house took his, afternoon nap . See annexed cut . The reed-like columns with lotus capitals, and the disregard of perspective in showing the end of the house, are especially noticeable as illustrating Egyptian architecture and drawing.

Into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs The Egyptian oven was a jar of clay, or a jar-like structure built up from the ground, about three feet high, and widening toward the bottom, there being a hole in the side for the extraction of the ashes. It was heated by making a fire within it, and the dough was spread on the inside and on the outside. The accompanying cuts, from a representation in a Theban tomb, illustrate the mode of kneading the dough, which was done both with hands and feet, and of carrying the cakes to the oven, which is now lighted.

Verse 8

8. Entreat the Lord Pharaoh now, for the first time, owns the power of the Hebrews’ God . He has found an answer to his question, “Who is Jehovah?” Jehovah has come into his kitchen and into his bedchamber .

Verse 9

9. Glory over me Rather, Appoint for me when, etc . : (Samaritan, Septuagint, Vulgate, Arabic versions . ) Let Pharaoh set the time when the plague shall cease, and then shall he “know that there is none like Jehovah our God . ”

Verse 13

13. Out of the villages Literally, the courts; probably the open courts within the houses, described above .

Verse 14

14. And they gathered them together upon heaps Literally, Heaps, heaps; vast heaps, or a multitude of heaps .

And the land stank The stench of their great god Pthah went up to heaven, even from his own magnificent temple courts . The putrid corpses were piled upon his altars .

The author of the Book of Wisdom, who was probably an Egyptian Jew, says that God in these plagues “tormented them with their own abominations;” and as “they worshipped serpents void of reason and vile beasts,” he “sent a multitude of unreasonable beasts upon them in vengeance.” Wis 11:15.

Verse 16

THIRD PLAGUE LICE, Exodus 8:16-19.

16. Smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice The Hebrew word here rendered lice occurs only in the account of this miracle, and its meaning has been much disputed, many considering that the insect was a gnat or mosquito; but Josephus and the Rabbies all give the same rendering as our English version . The Septuagint has been erroneously supposed to establish this meaning, but its word, σχνιφες , may mean any small biting or stinging insect, whether winged or wingless . Modern travellers describe the louse as a great pest in Egypt; and Sir Samuel Baker, especially, speaks of the abundance of the vermin in almost Scripture language “It is as though the very dust were turned into lice.”

This plague struck at the Egyptian idolatry less directly, but even more effectually, than either of the preceding. It made all the sacred animals, and the priests themselves, unclean, so as to cut off the worship in the temples. The priests were most scrupulously attentive to cleanliness, being always careful to have their linen garments fresh washed, scouring their drinking cups each day, bathing in cold water twice each day and twice each night, and shaving not only the head and beard, but the “whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing might adhere to them when engaged in the service of their gods.” ( Herod., 2: 37.) Think of these fastidiously cleanly servants swarming with lice, and finding their gods covered with them also! Thus the word of Moses smote every temple and every god in Egypt.

Verse 18

18. But they could not Here the magicians are baffled, and they can imitate these signs no further . In this the gradual advance is to be noted, and also in the fact that the stroke is much more severe . The Egyptians could keep away from the bloody river; the frogs came upon their tables and beds; but the loathsome lice feasted on their bodies.

Verse 19

19. This is the finger of God Rather, of the gods; for they did not mean to own Jehovah, but declared that this was a supernatural infliction from their own gods . This explained their failure to Pharaoh, and so his heart became yet more hardened .

Verse 20


20. Lo, he cometh forth to the water To offer his morning worship on the bank of the river, as in Exodus 7:15. Jehovah’s message confronted him at the altar of his god .

Verse 21

21. Swarms of flies The precise nature of this plague is doubtful . The word used, ערב , occurs only in this place and in the two psalms where this judgment is described, so that we get no aid in interpretation from parallel passages . The rendering of the Septuagint is dog-fly, an insect which in Egypt gives great annoyance to man and beast; and as the authority of that version is very high on Egyptian subjects, this is the most usual interpretation . These insects are described as coming in immense swarms, and settling in black masses on whatever part of the person of the traveller is exposed . Stuart Poole considers it to have been the domestic fly, which is now the most troublesome insect in Egypt . Hengstenberg quotes a traveller as saying: “Men and beasts are cruelly tormented by them . You can form no conception of their fury when they want to settle on any part of your body . You may drive them away, but they settle again immediately, and their obstinacy wearies out the most patient man . ” The distress arising from ophthalmia, now so common in Egypt, is much aggravated by the swarms of flies . Others, as Adam Clarke, Wordsworth, Kurtz, following a Jewish tradition, consider this plague to have been swarms of all kinds of noxious insects, and the author of the Book of Wisdom seems to have supposed that there were beasts also . ( Wis 11:15-16, etc.) Swarming creatures of some kind, probably of various species of insects, so afflicted Pharaoh that he yielded more than ever before, and consented to allow the Israelites to go into the wilderness and sacrifice. Further than this we cannot yet affirm.

Verse 22

22. I will sever in that day the land of Goshen Here also is now a marked advance, a more distinctive character in the judgment . The putrid Nile had afflicted Egypt and Israel alike; the frogs and the lice had been found, at least to some extent, in the land of Goshen; but henceforth the Israelitish province was to be protected from the inflictions that were to fall upon heathen Egypt. Here was to be a decisive proof of Jehovah’s supremacy, to the end thou mayest know that I am JEHOVAH. I will put a division (or deliverance) between my people and thy people It is also to be considered, that while at the beginning of these inflictions the Israelites had been considerably scattered from Goshen throughout the land in the great public works, these successive judgments would have greatly hindered, if not by this time have totally suspended, the industrial activities of the nation. By this time there must have been a great national anxiety, and soon there was a general panic. Under these circumstances the Israelites would naturally gather together into their own province, and be no more mingled among the Egyptians. Thus this marked distinction in regard to Goshen would be now, perhaps, for the first time possible.

Verse 25

25. Go ye, sacrifice… in the land Pharaoh now allows them to sacrifice, but insists that it shall be in Egypt .

Verse 26

26. The abomination of the Egyptians The Egyptians would not allow them to worship in the land according to Jehovah’s will . Some, as Hengstenberg, understand the text to mean that the manner of their worship would be abominable to the Egyptians that they would not observe the manifold rigid sacrificial regulations of the Egyptian priests, but the Targum of Onkelos translates, “the animal which the Egyptians worship,” that is, the ox, which as Apis and Mnevis was so specially adored. So the Vulgate renders, “the animals which the Egyptians worship.” This is a characteristic Hebrew phraseology. Idols are often styled “abominations” in the Old Testament. Thus, in 2 Kings 23:13, the god Chemosh is called “the abomination of Moab,” and Ashtoreth “the abomination of the Zidonians.” So the ox is here called “the abomination of the Egyptians,” not as abominated by them, not because it was abominable in their eyes to kill it, but because this worship of the ox was an abomination to Jehovah. This was doubtless bold language for Moses to use to Pharaoh, (styling his god an “abomination,”) but his boldness has greatly increased since he deprecated his stammering tongue, and the same spirit is seen in the pungent rebuke and exhortation of the twenty-ninth verse, “Let not Pharaoh deal deceitfully any more.”

The sacred bull was specially worshipped at Memphis, the great city of Lower Egypt, where he had palatial stalls and temples. In the above engraving the bull is crowned with a circle representing Ra, or the sun, and also wears on his forehead the asp, the symbol of majesty.

Will they not stone us The animal-worship of the Egyptians is frequently dwelt upon by classical writers, so that it became a proverb that in Egypt it was easier to meet a god than a man. The text is well illustrated by the statement of Herodotus, that it was a capital crime in Egypt to kill one of the sacred animals; and Diodorus and Cicero relate that this was the case in their time. ( Herod., 2: 65; Cic., Tusc. Disp., 5:27; Diod., 1: 83.) So modern Hinduism makes it a mortal sin to kill a cow. (Butler’s Land of the Veda, chap. 2.) The Egyptians, however, killed oxen for food, beef and goose being their chief meats. The same animals were not sacred through all Egypt, but each had his special district, and the ox or heifer, one of the animals specially designated for sacrifice in the Mosaic economy, was, as we have seen, particularly worshipped in the district where the Israelites dwelt. Apis was the sacred bull of Memphis, and Mnevis, second only in rank to Apis, and by Plutarch called his sire, was the sacred bull of Heliopolis. (Wilkinson’s Anc. Egypt, chap. iv,) and these were the two leading cities of Lower Egypt. Thus the fear expressed by Moses, “Will they not stone us?” is just what might have been expected in Egypt above all other lands, and in this district above all others of Egypt.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 8". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.