The book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible is one of my favorites. This book is known in Hebrew as “Shemot,” since the titles for books come from the first significant word or phrase found in the book. As one reads the Exodus narratives there are many things that the average reader can’t see since translations sometimes barricade us from language, cultural and artistic insights. As English readers we are removed by millenia from the time that these texts were written. I hope that the following insights will make your reading of these texts more enjoyable and meaningful. In this edition I am focusing on the section of Exodus dealing with the plagues brought against Egypt. Keep in mind that most likely these plagues did not happen all at once but were spread out over at least several months.
First, the plagues are stylistically ordered and arranged which the average reader would not apprehend at a surface reading. The sages of Israel, from the 12th through the 15th century, laid the plagues side by side and noticed patterns emerged. There are a total of 10 plagues, but the first nine are grouped in sets of three. In the first of each triad (plagues 1, 4 and 7), Moses is told to speak with Pharoah “in the morning” and to “station yourself” while the other plagues are absent these commands. In plagues 2, 5 and 8 (the second plague in each triad), Moses is commanded to “go to Pharoah,” while this is not commanded for the other plagues. In my opinion, this highly stylistic ordering of the plagues is designed to send the message that while all may look chaotic from the outside, in fact G-d has all things firmly in His control.
In Exodus 8:19 we find the magicians of Eygpt using a Semitic idiom that won’t mean much to English speakers. The idiom found in 8:19 is the “finger of G-d.” This idiom is a Hebraic way of saying the “Spirit of G-d.” Yes, the Holy Spirit was involved in the administration of the plagues. This Semitic idiom shows up in the Gospels of the Apostolic Scripture as well. In Matthew 12:28 and the parallel text of Luke 11:20, we see both the idiom and its literal meaning revealed. This same “finger of G-d” would also be the author of the 10 commandments (see Exodus 31:18).
Next, the text of Exodus says that Pharoah “hardened” his heart and the YHVH also “hardened” his heart. What most translations don’t reveal is that two different Hebrew words are used to describe what is happening to Pharoah’s heart. In both cases I believe the translations have misconstrued the meaning of both Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for what Pharoah does to his heart is “kavod,” which carries the idea of “heavy/heaviness.” The second word used of what YHVH does to Pharoah is “chazak,” and means “to strengthen/make strong.” Now here’s where a little cultural background info helps us understand why Pharaoh “heavying” his heart is so relevant. In Egyptian literature, we are informed that when Pharoah dies, his heart is weighed on a scale with a feather on the other scale. If Pharoah’s heart is equal or lighter than the feather, he will be resurrected in the afterlife but if his heart is heavier than the feather he is doomed to no afterlife. By informing us that Pharoah’s heart keeps getting heavier and heavier, we know that Pharoah is not going to have a place in the world to come.
In Biblical Hebraic thinking, the number 7 is a significant number. Anytime you have a list, take a long look at number 7, as there is usually something significant with that number. In the case of number 7 in the plagues, there is some unique things to take note. The 7th plague is the most lengthy of all the descriptions of the plagues, and with this plague we are informed that “all the plagues” are summed up in this plague. Interestingly, this plague has both hail and fire mixed together and coming at the same time. Perhaps the fire that falls is lightening as both Psalm 105:28-36 and Psalm 78:44-51 take us this direction. Note that both of the previous Psalms narrow the telling of the plagues down to — you guessed it — seven.
Although the plagues were designed to teach Pharoah a lesson, the Hebrew text hints at something more. In both Exodus 12:12 and Numbers 33:4, we are informed that YHVH was using the plagues as a polemic against the “gods” of Egypt. The Egyptians had numerous “gods,” and these “elohim” were spirit beings in rebellion against YHVH. While the battle might seem to be only against the Egyptians, the bigger battle was being fought in a realm unseen.
Finally, we should ask, “Why the need for 10 plagues?” What is significant about the number 10? Why couldn’t YHVH brought Egypt to her knees with just a handful of plagues? I suggest that the plagues were YHVH’s demonstration of de-creation. In the Genesis narrative, 10 times YHVH spoke and the elements of this world came into existence. Now, YHVH moves again 10 times and shows that He has control over all of creation. In creation, water is the first element with mankind created last. In the plagues, water is turned to blood first and then all firstborn males are destroyed (unless covered by the blood).
The Exodus narratives are rich with meaning and intrigue, and I encourage you to spend time in these texts as they have much to offer us. Much of what we need to see lurks below the surface, so find ways to go deeper and you’ll be rewarded for the effort.
Brent Emery can be reached at email@example.com.