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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 9

Verses 1-35

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 3

FIFTH PLAGUE MURRAIN, Exodus 9:1-7.

3. The hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field This infliction seems to be limited to the cattle which were in the open air . All of the animals here mentioned are represented in the Egyptian monuments except the camel, which, though used in Egypt from the earliest times, yet for some reason never occurs in the hieroglyphic inscriptions, or in the pictured representations of the tombs . Stuart Poole supposes that the camel was unclean in the eyes of the Egyptians, as associated with the hated nomad tribes of the desert and the abominated Shepherd Dynasties. See Genesis 46:34, and note . In the populous cities and cultivated fields of the Nile valley the services of the camel would not be required; but to cross the sands which bounded the valley the “ship of the desert” was indispensable: yet perhaps the Egyptians generally employed the Arabs in this caravan service . The horses of Egypt were celebrated from early times: thence Solomon imported his into Palestine. They were greatly esteemed for chariot service and for war, but asses and cattle were generally employed for draught. The cheap, strong, patient ass was, and is, the peasant’s chief dependence for labour. Sheep were reared chiefly for their wool, mutton being rarely used. Large flocks were kept in the neighbourhood of Memphis, even to the number of two thousand.

Verse 6

6. And all the cattle of Egypt died Here the universal term all is not used in its absolute sense, as meaning each and every one, but it means simply very many . We find that there were other cattle left to be smitten by the boils, (Exodus 9:10,) and still others to be killed by the hail . Exodus 9:25. A like usage is seen in the description of the plague of the locusts, (Exodus 10:12,) which are said to have eaten up all that the hail… left, and yet the hail smote every herb and brake every tree. Exodus 9:25. The Hebrew idiom often thus uses universal terms in a general sense . See Acts 2:5; Colossians 1:23.

There are several instances on record of a similar murrain in Egypt. Lepsius and Poole describe such an infliction which they witnessed in 1842, and a similar one occurred in 1853, resembling the cattle disease which prevailed so extensively throughout America in 1872. But the occurrence of the plague according to definite prediction, and the sparing of the cattle of the Israelites, were the miraculous marks of this visitation.

This was, as yet, the heaviest infliction; for as the Egyptian wealth largely consisted in cattle, their means of support were now in a great degree destroyed. Jehovah shows these idolaters that he holds their supplies of food and clothing in his hands. Yet their crops, and many of their cattle, were yet left.

Verse 7

7. And Pharaoh sent… and the heart of Pharaoh was hardened Here, as in Exodus 7:22, the grammatical construction implies cause and effect . This marked manifestation in behalf of Israel aroused the anger and obstinacy of Pharaoh the more . He does not melt or waver, and on this occasion is not awed even into temporary submission .

Verse 8

SIXTH PLAGUE BOILS, Exodus 9:8-12.

8. Ashes of the furnace Not the oven, but the smelting furnace, or the lime-kiln . Kimchi .

Sprinkle… toward… heaven in the sight of Pharaoh The ashes of the great furnaces, or lime-kilns, where Israel had toiled so long, were solemnly spread out before Jehovah, and his judgment invoked upon the oppressor .

Verse 9

9. And it shall become small dust The ashes shall scatter in a fine powder, the grains of ashes being exceedingly small, and easily blown abroad .

A boil breaking forth Literally, a hot, burning sore, breaking forth into pustules . In previous plagues the water had been made their enemy, the dust of the earth had been changed to vermin, their wealth in the fields had been smitten, and now the strength and pride of their cities are cursed . The temples and treasure cities are cursed in the plague that is scattered from the ashes of the lime-kiln . It is the unrequited toil of Israel’s multitudes upon these vast public works that now burns and fevers man and beast through all Egypt .

Verse 11

11. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils Thus had these supernatural inflictions advanced in severity, till now the idolatrous prophets were all stricken down, and we hear of them no more . After the third plague, or at the end of the first triad of these inflictions, they had been compelled to own a supernatural power, and said, This is the finger of the gods; and now, at the end of the second triad, they retire wholly discomfited . Probably this also, as well as the plague of lice, was one which incapacitated the priests for their service by making them unclean, so that the altars of the idols were deserted.

Verse 12

12. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh That is, by sending this manifestation of his anger he made his heart more hard . Punishment always hardens if it does not soften . It is worthy of remark that now, for the first time in the history, it is said that “the Lord hardened,” although this result of his sin had been predicted, Exodus 4:21. Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:13 is no exception; see the note . Here, then, is another marked stage in the history of these judgments . By persistent disobedience Pharaoh has now so blunted his moral sense that it is morally certain that he will not repent; that is, he has reached that state where punishment will only harden. Yet God punishes still. Since he will not honour him by obedience he must do it through punishment.

Verses 13-35

SEVENTH PLAGUE THE HAIL, Exodus 9:13-35.

The third triad of judgments is introduced with unusual formality and solemnity. Pharaoh was now a “vessel of wrath,” fit only for destruction. See note on Exodus 9:12. He had resisted to that degree that repentance was now morally impossible; and he was preserved in life only to reveal God’s supremacy by punishment. It will be noticed that in these last judgments Aaron is not seen: it is Moses who lifts the rod that crushes Egypt to the dust.

Verse 14

14. For I will at this time send all my plagues Only lighter strokes had fallen hitherto, but now more dreadful judgments impend .

Verse 15

15. For now I will stretch out my hand The verb ( שׁלחתי ) is here to be rendered as conditional past, (Ewald, Lehrb . , § 358, a . ; Nordh . , Gram . , § 991, 3, a.,) thus, For now I would have stretched out my hand and smitten. For a similar construction see 1 Samuel 13:13. So the Arabic, Fagius, Adam Clarke, Kalisch, Keil, Knobel, Stier and Theil, Murphy . The verse is closely connected to the following, thus: “For now I would have stretched out my hand and smitten thee… but yet for this have I preserved thee, to show thee my power,” etc .

Verse 16

16. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up Literally, made thee stand, kept thee standing, or preserved thee alive, after thy life was forfeited . So, substantially, the Septuagint, Targ . of Onkelos, and Palestinian, Arabic, and Syriac versions . The Palestinian Targum well paraphrases both verses thus: “Now could I send the plague of my strength by judgment to strike thee and thy people with death, and destroy thee from the earth, but verily I have spared thee alive, not that I may benefit thee, but that my power may be made manifest to thee,” etc.

Verse 18

18. A very grievous hail Hail is rare in Egypt, although it sometimes occurs . Thunderstorms are seldom experienced, and do no damage except washing away the mud walls of the poorer sort of dwellings .

Verse 19

19. Send therefore now, and gather thy cattle This is the only instance in which the Egyptians were advised how to escape the judgment after it had been announced . This plague not only destroyed the crops, trees, and cattle, but, like the last, fell upon the Egyptians themselves . Jehovah now reveals himself to Egypt as the Lord of the elements of the forces of the air as well as of the water and the land .

Verse 27

27. I have sinned this time Now I see and own my sin . For the first time Pharaoh confesses sin, and attests the righteousness of Jehovah, but it is simply a lip acknowledgment . He owns the weight of God’s hand rather than the righteousness of his commandments . Pain can reveal that law is violated, but it cannot convert, cannot make penitent, the heart that chooses to rebel.

Verses 31-32

31, 32. And the flax and the barley was smitten Flax was a most important crop in Egypt, as great quantities of linen were required for clothing and for the bandages of mummies, as well as for exportation . The barley was in the ear and the flax was bolled These verses give us the first decisive indication of the time of the year when these events took place . The barley was in the ear and the flax was in the flower or blossom . In Egypt flax flowers at the end of January, and flax and barley are both ripe at the end of February or the first of March; but wheat and doora do not ripen till April . This plague, then, took place in the last of January or the first of February. From January to April is also the very time when cattle there are in pasture. The author thus shows a minute acquaintance with the agriculture and natural history of Egypt.

The wheat and the rye Rather, wheat and spelt, a grain closely resembling wheat, the common food of the ancient Egyptians, and now well known and much used under the name of doora. All the processes of cultivating and gathering these grains, and the operations of watering the flax, beating the stalks when gathered, and of manufacturing them into twine and cloth, are fully represented in the paintings of the Egyptian tombs. Wilkinson states that the Egyptian linen was remarkably fine in texture, equal in quality to the best now made, and superior to the modern article in the evenness of its threads. Zoan or Tanis was famous for its flax fields. The storm that would destroy barley in the ear, and flax in the blossom, would be too early in the season to cut off the wheat and spelt, which were not yet high enough to be broken by the hail, and consequently escaped destruction.

Verse 33

33. Went out of the city This shows that Pharaoh then resided in a city, probably Zoan . See on Exodus 1:8.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 9". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-9.html. 1874-1909.