Passover, the Biblical account commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, occurs this year from sundown Friday night April 22 to sundown Saturday, April 23. With Passover in mind, let’s take a few minutes to look at the plagues that came against Egypt and precipitated the deliverance of Israel from slavery. I want to first make some general observations about the plagues and then spend time focusing on the seventh plague in particular.
I heartily endorse the new book “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over,” by Rabbi David Fohrman, which can be purchased at alephbeta.org. Rabbi Fohrman’s book is filled with great insight and discoveries regarding the Exodus narratives.
Let’s take a moment to list some general observations about the plagues:
▪ The plagues we designed to demonstrate that YHVH was the only G-d and that the “gods” of Egypt were nothing compared to Him.
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▪ The plagues most likely occurred over a long period of time. In reading the plagues, it seems like they happened one right after the other, but they actually took a significant period of time.
▪ While G-d eventually hardens Pharoah’s heart, the initial hardening of the heart was done by Pharoah himself. G-d does “strengthen” Pharoah’s resolve but the free will of Pharoah was never violated.
▪ The Holy Spirit was involved in the plagues, although in a covert way to English ears. The idiom “finger of G-d” is used (Exodus 9:18), and this idiom refers to the Spirit of G-d. In Exodus 7:5, the “hand” of G-d is stretched out against Israel, and within the Hebrew Scripture, the “hand” of G-d is used in parallel with the Spirit of G-d.
▪ The plagues were also known as “signs,” “wonders” and “judgments” (see Exodus 7:3,5).
▪ The purpose of the Exodus was so Israel could “worship/serve” G-d as He desired to be worshiped. Freedom was given so that Israel could have time to serve G-d on His terms and without constraint.
▪ The plagues had compassion built into them as G-d warned Egypt of His plans. Had Egypt been obedient and listened to G-d, she could have been spared.
▪ There is a pattern to the plagues that is best seen in a chart demonstrating that the work of G-d through Moshe and Aaron was purposeful and orchestrated.
▪ The resistance and refusal of Pharoah to surrender to the power of YHVH was forecast on at least two occasions.
The preceding comments were focused on the plagues in general, but now let’s take a moment to focus on the seventh plague. There are several reasons why this plague is unique and demands more attention.
First, this plague receives the most ink of all the plagues, and its size alone tells us that we should slow down to take more notice. Within the Hebrew Scripture the number seven is significant and used on numerous occasions. Whenever we encounter a list, the seventh in the list is usually extra important and demands more inspection.
In Exodus 9:14, YHVH says that with the seventh plague He is sending “all My plagues to your heart.” Somehow the seventh plague was a microcosm of all the plagues, which is never said of the other nine. Verse 14 continues by saying that the plagues are designed so that “you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.” The plagues had as their purpose the revelation of G-d to Pharoah (and Egypt) to such an extent that Pharoah would realize that he was not a “god” and would voluntarily surrender evidenced by releasing Israel from slavery. Verse 16 states that YHVH had established Pharoah so that His power and His name could be declared to all the earth. This showdown of the G-d’s was of worldwide import as the Divine Warrior was reclaiming His people.
Another first in the seventh plague is the warning YHVH gives to Pharoah encouraging him to comply with obedience. Had Pharoah or his people listened to G-d they could have seen that YHVH was compassionate and kind — even to those who had continually defied Him. Just when this plague couldn’t get any stranger, the text tells us that hail came down with fire inside it. I’ll admit that I’m not a scientist (by any stretch of the imagination!) but even I know that fire and ice are opposite ends of the temperature spectrum. Either the fire should have melted the ice or the ice should have extinguished the fire, but they shouldn’t be able to coexist inside each other. While all the plague were miracles, this one is incredibly off-the-charts bizarre. Only the G-d of Israel could suspend the properties of fire and ice to the place where they can exist inside each other and not cancel the other out! To show that G-d was not pleased with Egypt, the hail did not fall on the land of Goshen, where Israel lived. G-d protected Israel making sure that the destructive effects of the falling hail and the subsequent fires it caused were not an issue for Israel. Had any Egyptian been willing to obey YHVH then they too would have been spared disaster.
The seventh plague gives us yet another first as for the first time Pharoah confesses that He has sinned. The Hebrew word used here for sin comes from the arena of archery. When a bow is drawn, the arrow is let loose with the intent of hitting the “bull’s-eye.” If the arrow goes astray, we say that it “missed the mark,” or in Biblical Hebrew, it “sinned.” In order to have a sin you must have a target to which you are aiming, or said another way, in order to sin there must be a law/command that has been transgressed. Pharoah had been told repeatedly to release Israel from slavery letting them go free, but in every instance Pharoah refused and “missed the mark.”
One last thought that comes within the context of the seventh plague is the idea of “the fear of the Lord” (see Exodus 9:30). Within Hebrew Scripture, the idea of “fearing G-d” is paralleled with obedience to Torah or the commands of G-d. Psalm 112:1 says, “blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commands.”
At the end of Ecclesiastes, he sums up the books by saying, “fear G-d and keep His commands.”
Brent Emery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.