Chapters 8-10 cover plagues 2-9. We’ve already seen the first plague, the Nile turning to blood, and the tenth, final, awful plague gets a much longer treatment because of its ties to Passover.
I’m going to be cheating a bit here. I want to be able to compare the plagues side-by-side and examine themes that run through them all, and I can’t do that if I go strictly chapter-by-chapter. I’ll be comparing the Japanese translation one chapter at a time, but for the content itself I’ll be doing these three chapters in three parts.
First, I just want to outline each of the plagues:
Plague 2: Frogs
- Aaron stretches his hands over the waters.
- Frogs appear and “covered the land of Egypt,” particularly the King’s palace.
- The magicians are able to make frogs appear (How? At this point I have to think the original writers believed in magic).
- Pharaoh asks Moses to pray to God to remove the frogs, promising to let the slaves go sacrifice.
- The frogs die, leaving rotting corpses everywhere.
- Once the plague is passed, Pharaoh changes his mind.
Plague 3: Gnats
- Aaron throws up dust into the air.
- It turns into gnats “throughout the whole land of Egypt.”
- The magicians cannot reproduce the results and insist “This is the finger of God!”
- Pharaoh ignores them.
- No mention of how the plague ends, or if it does.
Plague 4: Flies/Horseflies
- Swarms of flies appear all over Egypt, particularly in the Pharaoh’s house.
- Goshen, where the Israelites live, is spared the plague.
- Pharaoh tries to compromise and get the Israelites to sacrifice in Egypt, but Moses refuses.
- Pharaoh relents, offers to let them go a little ways off, so Moses prays for God to remove the flies.
- Pharaoh changes his mind once the plague is gone.
Plague 5: Disease on Livestock
- All of the livestock in Egypt dies.
- The livestock of the Israelites are spared.
- Pharaoh notices the distinction, but doesn’t care.
Plague 6: Boils
- Aaron and Moses throw soot from a kiln into the air.
- Festering boils appear on all the people and animals (wait, aren’t they all dead?).
- Magicians again beg Pharaoh to take this seriously.
- The LORD hardens Pharaoh’s heart so he ignores them.
Plague 7: Thunder and Hail
- Moses warns Pharaoh ahead of time to have all people and livestock (again, didn’t they all die back in plague #5?) indoors.
- Some of Pharaoh’s officials now fear the Lord and obey Moses’ advice.
- Moses stretches staff towards heaven.
- It hails the heaviest hail to have ever hailed in Egypt. Crops are ruined.
- Goshen and the Israelites are spared.
- Pharaoh begs Moses to remove the plague, promising to let them go.
- Once the plague is past, Pharaoh and his officials change their minds again.
Plague 8: Locusts
- Moses announces the plague ahead of time, and Pharaoh’s officials beg him to let the Israelites go.
- Pharaoh offers to let the Israelites go worship but only the young men; women, children, and the elderly have to stay behind to keep them from leaving permanently. Moses refuses.
- The east wind brings locusts.
- The land is black with locusts, who eat all the plants, even the trees.
- Pharaoh begs Moses to lift the plague, and the west wind drives them into the Sea of Reeds.
- The Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he breaks his promise.
Plague 9: Darkness
- Complete darkness (“people could not see one another”) covers Egypt for three days.
- Israelites are exempt from the plague.
- Pharaoh offers to let the Israelites go worship if they leave their livestock. Moses refuses.
- Pharaoh tells Moses to leave, and that he will kill him if he ever sees him again.
Now, something to note here is that Moses isn’t exactly playing fair. In the movie adaptations, Moses always makes it very clear from the start that he wants his people freed permanently from slavery, with the idea that they’ll go on to Canaan. But in Exodus, all he actually asks for is that they be allowed to go out into the desert to make sacrifices to YHWH before returning back to Egypt. But of course they in fact have no intention of ever coming back to Egypt once they’re gone, so Moses is actually lying through his teeth here.
That’s why Pharaoh might be seen as within his right to hold back their families and livestock as an incentive to keep them from running away. It reminds me of the Tokugawa shoguns who kept the wives and heirs of their vassals in Tokyo when said vassals return to their domains. How can you risk rebellion when all your family would be killed?
And by the end of the plague of darkness, it has to have become obvious to pharaoh that Moses isn’t bargaining in good faith. If he really wants them to go with all of their families and goods, well, pharaoh’s not an idiot, he knows they’re not planning on returning.
So why doesn’t God just have Moses ask for complete freedom up front? Why ask for something less? Perhaps it’s because if they put their true aim up front, pharaoh would bargain them lower? Or just laugh at them? Or kill them immediately?
Another last little thing (because this is getting long and I’m tired) is that there seem to be some “magical” elements to how Aaron and Moses perform miracles. They spread their hands over water to bring plagues from the water and to the sky to bring plagues from the sky. They toss dust to make gnats and soot to make boils. I don’t think there’s as strong a distinction between magic and miracles at this stage of the Bible’s development.
The Japanese (chapter 8): haiagaru “to crawl up” (v 1), kikan suru “to pray” (v 4), shirizogu “to recede, to draw back” (v 7), shigai “carcass” (v 10), buyo “gnat” (v 12), abu “horsefly” (v 18).Two points to note (beyond the verse differences). The Japanese doesn’t translate the fourth plague not as flies (hae) but as horseflies (abu), a much nastier, bitier kind of fly – though children here have assured me that abu aren’t abunai (dangerous) – bamdum-ching. The other point is that our old friend itoumono, “hateful thing” or “abomination,” makes another appearance in the Japanese, for describing how Egyptians view Israelite sacrifices.