Day 34 (Feb. 3): Plagues of water to blood, frogs, gnats, livestock, boils, hail

Welcome to BibleBum where we are exploring the entire Bible in one year to better learn how to follow God’s instructions and discover the purpose for our lives.  The BibleBum blog uses The One Year Chronological Bible, the New Living Translation version.  At the end of each day’s reading, Rob, a cultural history aficionado and seminary graduate, answers questions from Leigh An, the blogger host, about the daily scripture.  To start from the beginning, click on “Index” and select Day 1.

Exodus 7:14-9:35

Questions & Observations

Q. (Exodus 7:15): Is there any significance in why God chose a staff to demonstrate his power?

A. The staff would have been a powerful symbol of God’s power.  Shepherds such as Moses would have been given a staff in a ceremony when he entered the vocation: this staff was his life.  Not only was it used for obvious things like bringing back sheep and support when a shepherd walked, but it was probably used to fight animals and kill snakes.  Shepherds, still to this day, mark their staffs with various indentations and words, to form something like a personal journal.  So the staff represented the vocation.  God had then ordered Moses to change his vocation, but to keep the symbol of it, and apply it to his new purposes.  This is not the last time in the OT that a staff will play a central role as a conduit of God’s power.

Q. (8:18): Any particular reason why Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t duplicate this plague?

A. I don’t know if there is something specific about the plague of gnats (some other versions render this lice or mosquitos, it is hard to tell the exact word the writer meant).  But there is an important shift in the narrative.  For the first two plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to “match” the plague (by whatever means they did so as we discussed yesterday), and so Pharaoh could consider himself and his gods to have “not been beaten” by the Hebrew’s God, since his men could do it too.  But after this plague, he loses that excuse, and is forced to take personal responsibility for his actions for not letting the people go.  I think the magicians failure is all about God escalating the pressure on the king.

Q. I saw a TV documentary that showed how the plagues can be backed up scientifically.  So, is it OK to say that scientifically the plagues could have happened or do we just say that it was an act of God.  God did create science.

A. I’ve heard this as well.  One thing I read mentioned that all of the events that take place (even the darkness) are part of the normal cycle of life in Egypt.  Just as a couple of examples, silt that flowed up the Nile from Ethiopia can turn the river a shade of red- and cause a growth of a red algae that can kill fish and make the water undrinkable.  If this happened, then animals such as frogs (the second plague) would have left the water and relocated to other areas.  The insects (3 and 4) would not have been eaten by the frogs, and could have reached high levels of growth without the predation.  The flies could have spread bacteria and diseases to the livestock and boils to the people (5 and 6).  You get the idea.  Even the more powerful plagues were part of the ecosystem of Egypt: thunder and hailstorms, locusts, and giant sandstorms (called khamsin) that could stir up so much dust, they could block the sun.

Two other things are worth mentioning here: the clear implication of the text is that God is bringing these events about, even if He is using naturally occurring phenomenon to do so.  While it can be interesting to speculate about the “natural” origins of these plagues, to do so is ultimately to miss the point: God is demonstrating His power in Egypt in order to free His people.

The other side of the coin that frequently goes unmentioned in discussions such as this one is the association between natural parts of the Egyptian ecosystem and the gods that they worshipped.  Several of the plagues target particular Egyptian deities, and the events that take place would have been a way of the Hebrew God proving His superiority over these false Egyptian gods.  One goddess, Hapi, was the goddess of the Nile, who was revered as giving life to Egypt.  The water to blood plague would have been seen as a clear defeat of this goddess.  Other gods and goddesses were seen as animals, including frogs (plague 2) and livestock (cows, goats, etc., that died in plague 5).  One of the most powerful gods in Egypt was Ra, the god of the sun. The darkness of the second to last plague (i.e. the blocking of the sun) would have been a clear insult to his power.  So while there are natural phenomena that would have been a part of this story, there is certainly religious significance to the story as well, as the God of the Hebrews showed His power over the natural world and the deities of Egyptian worship.

Q. Just a study note.  Is there any difference between Israelites, Hebrew and Jews?

A. In the language of the Bible, no.  These terms can be used interchangeably.  While the origin of the word Hebrew is the least clear of the three (it’s the oldest), the others are fairly straightforward.  The word Hebrew appears to be from Genesis 10:21 and 25, where a son of Shem (Noah’s son) is named Eber.  (Incidentally, the name Semite comes from being descended from Noah’s son Shem).  Abraham is called a Hebrew in Gen 14.

Jacob is renamed Israel (wrestles with God) in his story from Genesis, and therefore people from his line would be called Israelites.

The word Jew comes from a more specific and later subset of the Israelites: the descendants of the tribe of Judah (and Benjamin).  These two tribes, along with Levites, are the Israelites who survive in the Southern Kingdom after most of the other tribes are wiped out in the story recorded in 1 and 2 Kings.  That’s why Jew is the most recent of the three terms.

Hope that helps!