Exodus 23: Breaking their pillars in pieces

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Unfortunately, our adventure into the ordinances continues. I’m really hoping we get back into stories soon, although I have to admit that these posts are quite a bit easier to write.

  • No bearing false witness. Nor shall you ally yourself with a “wicked man, to be a malicious witness” (Exod. 23:1).
  • “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exod. 23:2). How awful that a prohibition against creating art merits highlighting in the ten commandments, but this, this absolutely essential lesson, is buried in the third chapter of ordinances.
  • If you happen to encounter an enemy’s cattle going astray, you must return it to them. Another excellent lesson.
  • Do not make a false charge in the justice system, and don’t kill the innocent and righteous.
  • Don’t accept bribes.
  • The prohibition against mistreating foreigners is repeated.

The Cultic Calendar

  • Fields should be sowed for six years, then laid fallow for the seventh year.

exodus-23While I can understand the necessity of giving fields a rest, laying a field fallow every seven years seems very impractical. Rather, it seems that it would make more sense to rotate the types of crops so that the field is continually in use without ever depleting it. This system was in widespread use in Medieval Europe. Shouldn’t God be able to figure it out?

It seems that the field is laid fallow “that the poor of your people may eat” (Exod. 23:11). It seems that stuff is left out in the fields for the poor to come and collect? What the poor leave, the wild beasts may eat. I really don’t understand this rule, although it’s apparently a Sabbath writ large.

  • Keep the Sabbath by not working on every seventh day. It emphasises once again that the entire household must be given a rest, including the slaves and cattle.
  • Don’t mention the names of other gods, “nor let such be heard out of your mouth” (Exod. 23:13).
  • Special feasts are held three times a year, and all Hebrew males must make a pilgrimage to a central altar: 1) The feast of the unleavened bread. None should come without a sacrifice. 2) The harvest feast, held when the wheat is harvested in June. 3) The feast of ingathering, held at the end of the Hebrew year, in autumn, when other crops are harvested.
  • When sacrificing an animal, the blood from the sacrifice should not be served with leavened bread, and the fat should be finished before morning. As we found out in Exodus 12, leavening is a fermentation process. So both of these rules have to do with preventing any kind of corruption from mingling with the holy sacrifice.
  • Much like the sacrifice of first-born children and cattle, Hebrews must also offer their first crops.
  • “You shall not oil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23:19). According to my study bible, this is “a protest against a Canaanite method of preparing a sacrifice.”

Behold, I send an angel before you

We’re finally done with the ordinances!

So God sends an angel who is also himself down to guard the Hebrews on their way. If they show proper submission to this angel, then God “will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exod. 23:22). We had a couple really good ordinances there, but it looks like we’re back in violent mode now.

God warns the Hebrews that this angel will lead them through the territories of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and the Jebusites, and God “will blot them out” (Exod. 23:23). The Hebrews will “utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24).

Further, God “will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against who you shall come” (Exod. 23:27). And so forth goes the language of warmongering, violence, and hate.

But at least God won’t kill these people all at once. No, this would leave the land too empty so that it becomes desolate and populated by wild beasts. Instead, he’ll drive them out little by little until the Hebrews have a chance to breed enough to fill the land.

Just in case it wasn’t quite hateful enough already, God also forbids making any covenants with non-Hebrews (Exod. 23:32).

According to David Plotz, this kind of hatred enshrined in scripture has far-reaching consequences: “There are too many reasons to count why Arabs and Jews distrust each other, some good, some bad. I am beginning to see some of the biblical roots for the Jewish suspicion.”

Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments

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God gives Moses ten thou-shalt-nots:

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). This language suggests that other gods exist, but that God claims exclusive worship from the Hebrews. Taken alone, it’s a rather weak argument, but taken with all the other passages we’ve been covering over the last few chapters and it seems rather clear that the ancient Hebrews were Henotheists.
  2. The next is a prohibition against graven images, or any likeness of anything found in heaven or on earth. The fact that this is an actual commandment makes it doubly hilarious when certain groups insist on having carvings of stone tablets inscribed with the commandments displayed in courthouses. An interesting point brought up by Collins on page 41 of his Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is that this commandment suggests that we are the idols. Just as other groups were making figures in their gods’ images, we were created in the image of our god.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain. In Genesis 2, I talked about the power of names. There, the power was in choosing names, while here it’s in speaking it. In many ancient cultures, knowing someone or something’s “secret name” gives you the ability to control them or cast spells on them. Here, God is talking about his secret name, YHWH. So the prohibition is about using God’s name when reciting a spell or curse to control God and make him do your bidding. Think of the phrase “God dammit!” or “God damn it!”
  4. Keep the Sabbath. This applies to individuals, as well as to their servants, cattle, and even any foreigners staying in their cities. This is actually a very progressive rule and the only commandment that isn’t either concerned with cultic segregation or with obvious behaviours that are were already prohibited in every culture.
  5. The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    Honour your parents.

  6. No murder.
  7. No adultery.
  8. No stealing.
  9. No “false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). This seems to suggest that it isn’t lying that’s wrong, but rather lying against someone. So telling grandma that you love the reindeer sweater she knitted you with the real bells attached wouldn’t actually be a sin because that lie is for someone.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions, including their house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Sorry, ladies.

The second commandment understandably made some Roman Catholics rather nervous, so they sweep it under the carpet by combining it with #1 and expanding #10 into two separate commandments (no coveting your neighbour’s house and no coveting his stuff, either!).

Some Jews will see the first part of the chapter, called the declaration (where God introduces himself as the speaker), as the first commandment. They then also combine #1 and #2 to fix the numbering.

Some have noticed that 10 seems like a rather arbitrary number, and that the ten commandments could really be condensed into just two:



Or, if you’d prefer, just one: “Don’t be a dick.”

Do not fear

So God is yapping away at Moses, and all the while the rest of the Israelites hear only thunder claps and the sound of a trumpet (which was associated with cultic occasions). Having presumably never been caught out in a storm before, they start to get pretty freaked out, so they ask Moses to make sure that God doesn’t address the crowd lest they be killed.

To which Moses replies: “Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin” (Exod. 20:20). Soo… God will keep the people from sinning by scaring the bajeezus out of them, so they shouldn’t be afraid? What’s Moses trying to accomplish here?

Altars of earth

God wants an “altar of earth” built and sacrifices made there in any place where “I cause my name to be remembered” (Exod. 20:24). He does allow for stones to be used in their construction, but they must not be hewn. “For if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Exod. 20:25).

My study bible says that this is in contrast to the fancy pagan altars.

Unfortunately, my study bible is distressingly silent on the next part. “And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it” (Exod. 20:26). So basically, God really doesn’t want your “tool” anywhere near his altar!

But seriously, this probably has something to do with wearing robes, and people’s ability to see up said robes when someone is climbing stairs.

Additional notes

God then re-emphasises that people shouldn’t be making idols. “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me” (Exod. 20:23). I wanted to touch on this because it’s a nice illustration of how utterly alien the Bible is to what most modern day people believe. Today, we have no problem with the idea that God can create people, but this shows a mutual creative power. God seems to believe that people can create other gods by making idols. So the ban on idolatry, really, is so that the creative power flows only in one direction.

I also wanted to mention a titbit that came up while God was giving his commandments. He says to Moses: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:5). Quite contrary to the individualism of “Christian-founded” America, the Bible is all about collective guilt and collective salvation.

Exodus 18: Jethro comes to visit

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Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (who has graduated to being a character worthy of a consistent name, for now), hears that Moses is in the area and stops by for a visit. He also brings Moses’ wife and sons, who were apparently sent out of Egypt ahead of the exodus at some point.

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Now, Moses and the Hebrews are taking 40 years for a journey that should only take them a matter of days. If they’re lost, why doesn’t Jethro give them a hand? And if they aren’t lost, what kind of pace are they setting that would take so long?

A spot of worship

Moses catches Jethro up on the whole “escape from Egypt” thing, and all the miracles and plagues that entailed. Jethro is suitable impressed and declares that God “is greater than all gods” (Exod. 18:11) – an assessment that is problematic for monotheists, but a perfectly reasonable thing for a henotheist to say.

All present agree that God is awesome and decide to make a sacrifice.

Moses delegates

During his visit, Jethro sees that Moses is spending all his time acting as judge to arbiter every little dispute among the Hebrews (no wonder it’s taking them so long to cross the wilderness!). Jethro sees this and suggests that it’s inefficient to have Moses judge all cases. Rather, he suggests that Moses delegate.

Following Jethro’s advice, Moses appoints judges. “Ever great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves” (Exod. 18:22).

And then Jethro goes home. Hopefully, Moses didn’t forget to ask for directions.

Exodus 16: Manna from heaven

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After two and a half months of walking through the wilderness, the Hebrews start griping some more. There’s no food, so they complain that they would have preferred to just die in Egypt with their bellies full.

Gathering Manna by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c.1464-1468

Gathering Manna by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c.1464-1468

God hears the complaints and decides to send them quail in the evenings and manna in the mornings, although everyone seems to forget about the quail after the first couple deliveries.

The rules

The manna isn’t a free meal, there are rules for the Hebrews to follow. Each morning, they are only allowed to collect enough for that day. This is so that God “may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exod. 16:4).

In other words, the Hebrews have to prove to God that they trust him to keep providing from day to day by not putting anything aside or making provisions for the future. Interpreted literally, God is using a classic abuse tactic. Read as a “lesson,” this seems dangerously imprudent.

Honouring the Sabbath

In the middle of this, we get a little insertion reminding the reader to properly honour the Sabbath and giving a bit more information about what that entails.

For five days, the Hebrews are given enough manna to last them that day. On the sixth day, they are given double, so that they can cook it up and leave some for the seventh so that they wouldn’t have to either gather or cook it on the Sabbath.

Interestingly, those who try to gather a bit extra during the first five days find that by the next morning it had “bred worms and become foul” (Exod. 16:20).

Of course, since the naughtiness of the Hebrews is the theme of Exodus, some try to gather manna on the Sabbath only to find that there’s none around.

What is manna?

Although the words “manna” and “bread” are used interchangeably in my version of the Bible, we’re told that the Hebrews themselves don’t recognize it as such.

According to Porter, “the Bible derives the word manna from the question “Man hu?” (Hebrew for “What is it?”), which the Israelites are said to have asked when they first saw [it]. The true origin of the word, like the identity of the substance itself, is not known for certain” (Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 61).

Here are some of the ways that manna is described:

  • “A fine-flake-like thing, fine as hoar frost on the ground” (Exod. 16:14).
  • “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exod. 16:31).
  • “When the sun grew hot, it melted” (Exod. 16:21) – although this may be a continuation on the lesson against storing for the future rather than a description of manna’s properties.

It seems that the Ancient Hebrews may have mistaken a natural phenomenon for a gift from God. Apparently, these descriptions fit rather closely with the excretions of certain kinds of insects:

All scale insects feed by sucking up plant juices, and most feed directly on the phloem sap of long-lived trees and hushes. Phloem sap is typically rich in sugar, and most scale insects ingest far more sugar than they can use: they simply defecate the excess. The sugary excrement, called honeydew, is often consumed by ants. Sometimes it is even consumed by people, particularly in and regions where evaporation of dripping honeydew can leave a solid sugary residue called manna. The manna referred to in the Bible, in Exodus 16:14, seems to have been the dried excrement of Trabutina mannipara, a scale insect that feeds on tamarisk trees.

So yeah, the Hebrews spent forty years eating bug poop.

Exodus 11: Stealing for God

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This is a pretty short chapter in which God just tells Moses about his plan to kill a bunch of children. Nothing actually happens, but there are a few things worth mentioning.

God tells Moses that this final plague will convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave. But before they leave, the Hebrews should ask their neighbours if they can have jewellery of silver and gold. This sounds innocent enough until you recall Exodus 3:22 in which God gives the same instructions, but to make the Egyptians think that it’s a temporary loan. In other words, the Egyptians may agree to lend the Hebrews some nice jewellery so that they can look nice for their quaint little “ethnic” festival. But the Hebrews have no intention of returning. This is just their underhanded way to “plunder the Egyptians” (Exod. 3:22). These are bad neighbours.

Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1872

Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1872

If you believe that Moses wrote Exodus, I find it funny to imagine the kind of man who would write, of himself, that he “was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people” (Exod. 11:3).

As God lists all the kids and babies he’ll get to kill soon (salivating as he does so, I suppose), he says that he will even kill “all the first-born of the cattle” (Exod. 11:5). Would this be the same cattle that already died multiple times in Exodus 9?

God explains that he is doing all this “that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel” (Exod. 11:7). What is the importance of this? Unlike the “God of all men” we heard about in The Ten Commandments, this is a God who is clearly for one ethnic group only, and his concern is for making sure that everyone knows that his people are separate from all others. This is a God who promotes racism (in addition to child-murder).

Of this, David Plotz over at Blogging the Bible has this to say: “Not until this moment did I realize that the seder never pauses to consider the suffering of the Egyptians, or notices that God causes that suffering simply to glorify Himself. Who has an explanation for God’s behavior? Am I misunderstanding something?”

Exodus 10: Lying for God

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God tells Moses once again that he’s purposefully hardening Pharaoh’s heart “that I may show these signs of mine among them” (Exod. 10:1). Like a child who’s just learned a new trick, he’s going to force everyone to watch him perform it whether they want to or not, whether it hurts them or not. This whole narrative really isn’t flattering for the big J. Definitely not something I’d have kept in my Testament…

The Eighth Plague

So Aaron and Moses go in to see Pharaoh again and give him another 24hours or they’ll unleash locusts. Pharaoh’s servants are getting fairly anxious, and they ask him to let the Hebrew men go to worship, for: “do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exod. 10:7).

So Pharaoh sends for Moses and Aaron and asks them who intends to go on the pilgrimage. Moses says that all the Hebrews will be going, as well as all their cattle. Pharaoh isn’t an idiot, and he knows that “you have some evil purpose in mind” (Exod. 10:10) – which is completely true. Moses is asking for a couple days to go worship while fully intending to run away. I can’t help but sympathize with Pharaoh on this one. There’s no question that Moses and God aren’t approaching their request in good faith.

So since it’s typically the men who do the worshipping, Pharaoh gives the Hebrew men permission to go and worship. This is called a compromise, and this would be entirely sufficient if Moses and God weren’t lying about their motives. So at this point, Pharaoh has conceded to the Hebrews all of their reasonable requests.

So Moses calls down the locusts.

There are so many locusts that they eat every plant left over after the hail. They “covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened” (Exod. 10:15). As if the last plagues weren’t bad enough, this one pretty much ensures the starvation of most Egyptians. This is absolutely horrendous! Children will be dying left and right from malnutrition, whole generations will have their lives shortened. This is God doing to Egypt what most of us cringe to see happening in Somalia today.

Pharaoh recants and begs God to “remove this death from me” (Exod. 10:17). So the wind changes, driving the locusts into the Red Sea. But, once again, Pharaoh changes his mind as soon as the plague is gone.

The Ninth Plague

The Plague of Darkness by Gustave Doré, 1865

The Plague of Darkness by Gustave Doré, 1865

The penultimate plague is darkness, which Moses spreads over the land of Egypt by waving his hands in the air. The darkness lasts three days and covers all of Egypt so that even lamps do not emit light. Only in Goshen do people have light in their homes. My study bible says that this may be a reference to “the hot wind, the ‘khamsin,’ which blows in from the desert during the spring (March-May), bringing with it so much dust and sand that the air is darkened and breathing becomes difficult.”

Pharaoh agrees to let all the Hebrews leave, children included, but they must leave their cattle behind as a kind of security deposit. Moses, ever ready with the lying, says that they can’t leave any of their cattle behind because they don’t know what God wants for supper until they get there. Pharaoh, having conceded much, is pretty sure that the Hebrews won’t come back if they leave with all their people and all their stuff, so he refuses to let them go. He ends by telling Moses to get out of his sight and “never see my face again; for in the day you see my face you shall die” (Exod. 10:28).

This is the perfect set up for Moses’ exit, so he struts away, saying: “As you say! I will not see your face again” (Exod. 10:29). I have a feeling that’s foreshadowing…

A final note on the plagues

As we come to the end of the story of the plagues, Kenneth C. Davis gives us something to think about on page 103 of Don’t Know Much About the Bible:

In commenting on the plagues in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary Rendsburg note that each of the plagues is aimed at specific gods in the Egyptian pantheon, ending with the sun god Ra, who is overpowered by darkness. Yahweh was not only demonstrating his power over men and nature but proved that this God is greater than any other gods.

So I did a quick Google search and here’s a page that explains which plague corresponds to which god.

Exodus 9: In which the cattle is much beleaguered

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God/Moses give Pharaoh 24 hours to shape up or they will send a “very severe plague upon your cattle which are in the field, the horses, the asses, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (Exod. 9:3). Predictably, Pharaoh fails to let the people go, so God sends a plague (or murrain, for you KJV enthusiasts) and “all the cattle of the Egyptians died” (Exod. 9:6). Only cattle belonging to the Hebrews were spared.

The Sixth Plague

The Fifth Plague of Egypt by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1800

The Fifth Plague of Egypt by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1800

In the next sequence, God speaks to both Moses and Aaron, but only instructs Moses to perform the magic trick (Exodus 9:8). It’s an interesting deviation from the normal pattern of Moses acting as God’s mouthpiece, being “as God” with Aaron as “prophet”  (Exod. 7:1), so that God speaks exclusively to Moses and Aaron is the one performing on stage.

In any case, Moses takes up handfuls of ash and throws them into the air. These become a “fine dust over all the land of Egypt” (Exod. 9:9) and become boils on all men and beasts. So not only to the Egyptians have nasty skin infections, God also causes them to fail the white glove test.

Now, unlike the last plague where we’re specifically told that the Hebrews are spared, there’s no such note this time. It wouldn’t ordinarily be a big deal and I’d assume that the Hebs are, in fact, spared the boils, but the mention of beasts complicates things. What beasts are we talking about here? All of the Egyptians’ domesticated beasts died in Exodus 9:6. So the only beasts left to be affected by this plague are either wild beasts who happen to have had the misfortune of living in the land the humans call Egypt, or the boils have infected the Hebrews’ cattle. And if the Hebrews’ cattle are infected, it becomes reasonable to conclude that the Hebrews themselves are infected as well.

This is what those in the business call “collateral damage.”

The Seventh Plague

God, who firmly believes that the early bird leads his people to freedom, tells Moses to “rise up early in the morning” (Exod. 9:13) so that he can go see Pharaoh. Apparently, the eleventh and least known plague is the plague of “frequent solicitation” – one that we are still burdened with today.

So Moses is to go to Pharaoh and tell him that God so totally could have killed him and every other Egyptian if he wanted to, but “for this purpose have I let you live, to show you my power, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth” (Exod. 9:16). I think that if God were one of us, he wouldn’t be a particularly pleasant guy to hang out with. Is there no middle ground between “I will make you suffer to show you how powerful I am” and “I will kill every last one of your people”? If he really wants to impress the Egyptians, wouldn’t making all the Hebrews poof into thin air and reappear in Israel do the trick? And hey, no dead frogs all over!

He finishes by telling Pharaoh that he would make a huge hailstorm the next day, so Pharaoh had better “get your cattle and all that you have in the field into safe shelter; for the hail shall come down upon every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home, and they shall die” (Exod. 9:19).

Wait a sec, did God just forget that he already killed all the Egyptians’ cattle? ‘Cause if he’s talking about the carcasses, I don’t think the Egyptians are overly worried about them dying…

Well, Pharaoh is clearly not impressed by this incredibly forgetful god, so he leaves his cattle carcases out in the fields.

Moses gets to be the magician again and he calls forth the hail and thunderstorm. Like in the fifth plague, this one spares the land of Goshen where God’s peeps live. As per the pattern, Pharaoh relents and agrees to let the Hebrews leave if the plague is stopped, so God stops the plague and then Pharaoh changes his mind.

So in this chapter, we saw all of the cattle killed, infected with skin lesions, and then killed again. From this, I can only assume that there was some kind of zombie cow thing going on, but it’s okay because God sent the hail to end the z-moo-bie apocalypse. Yay!

Exodus 8: The Second Through Fourth Plagues

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Seven days after the bloody river fiasco, Moses and Aaron go back to Pharaoh and ask him again to let the Hebrews go. We don’t get Pharaoh’s response (or even a narration of the meeting, but instead just get God commanding all this), but I think we can safely assume a negative response because Aaron unleashes the second plague, frogs.

What’s so bad about frogs, I hear you ask? Well, nothing really. They’re adorable and most of them aren’t poisonous. The problem is that Aaron brings out so many of them that they “come up into your house, and into your bedchamber and on your bed, and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls” (Exod. 8:3). So it’s not that frogs are bad per se, but rather that having tons of frogs in your bed sucks.

But not to worry because the magicians have Pharaoh’s back and are ready for a counter strike! Using their “secret arts,” they too “brought frogs upon the land of Egypt” (Exod. 8:7)!

I suppose it’s technically the thought that counts, but in this case how could anyone tell? How much froggy room was left in Pharaoh’s bed? Wouldn’t a more impressive show of magical power be to make all the frogs disappear?

Well, if Aaron’s trick didn’t sway Pharaoh, the addition of all the magicians’ frogs did. For the first time, Pharaoh acknowledges God as a real entity and asks Moses and Aaron to tell him to get rid of the frogs. In exchange, he’ll totally let the Hebrews go into the wilderness to pray to him.

Moses agrees, promising that “the frogs shall depart from you and your houses” (Exod. 8:11), which turns out to not be exactly the truth. Instead, God just kills all the frogs so that they are gathered “in heaps” and “the land stank” (Exod. 8:14). No matter, stinky lands are good enough for Pharaoh and he hardens his heart back up again.

The Third Plague: Gnats

Many years ago, I went camping in Scotland. We picked out a spot near a lake, but when we got there we found that the entire area was absolutely filled with gnats. At first, we tried to set up the tent and get it all zipped up tight before the gnattish army could infiltrate, but that proved impossible. After a little while, we gave up and got a room in a nearby hotel instead. We then spent most of the night picking little gnat bodies out of our eyes, noses, and ears. It was absolutely awful, so I can see how this second plague could be more than just a slight inconvenience for the Egyptians.

So Aaron causes gnats to cover the whole land of Egypt (my study Bible says that this could actually refer to mosquitoes). The magicians tried to do the same thing, but frankly, with that many gnats already about, who could tell? So Exodus 8:18 says that they could not, but I think that we need to allow for the possibility that they succeeded but that no one really noticed.

In any case, the magicians go to Pharaoh and say: “this is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19). Remember that, kids. When there’s a lot of gnats around, it’s God giving you the finger!

The Fourth Plague: Flies!

Plague of Frogs by G. Freman

Plague of Frogs by G. Freman

As if the gnats weren’t enough, Moses (it appears to be actually Moses this time, not his brother) conjures up a whole lot of flies. But the land of Goshen, where the Hebrews are living, is untouched. “Thus I will put a division between my people and your people” (Exod. 8:23).

Pharaoh relents and agrees to let the Hebrews sacrifice to their god, but only if they stay within Egypt’s borders. But Moses reminds Pharaoh that the religious practices of the Hebrews are “abominable to the Egyptians” and “if we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Exod. 8:26). We saw this before in Genesis 43:32 where the Hebrews and the Egyptians ate separately because the dietary habits of the Hebrews were abomination to the Egyptians. I find it a very interesting perspective on the more modern view of kosher/non-kosher or halal/haram.

So since they can’t stay within sight of the Egyptians while they perform their abominable rituals, Moses asks that the Hebrews be allowed to go three days’ journey into the wilderness. Pharaoh agrees to let them go into the wilderness, but they “shall not go very far away” (Exod. 8:28).

Moses agrees to intercede on Egypt’s behalf with Pharaoh, but offers a little foreshadowing when he warns Pharaoh not to “deal falsely again by not letting the people go” (Exod. 8:29). God makes the flies go away and Pharaoh promptly (and predictably) hardens his heart.

Stick around, we still have  six more plagues to get through!

Exodus 7: Pharaoh’s heart is hardened

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In the last chapter, God was telling Moses to go for a second audience with Pharaoh. This section, as well as Exodus 6, was clearly written by a different author than Exodus 4-5, the two sections having been poorly harmonized. The repeats make it rather easy to tell:

  • Moses’ refusal, claiming not to be a good speaker (Exodus 4:10 vs Exodus 6:12).
  • The recruitment of Aaron (Exodus 4:14 vs Exodus 6:13).
  • The appeal to the Hebrews (Exodus 4:31 vs Exodus 6:9).
  • The meeting with Pharaoh (Exodus 5:1-5 vs Exodus 7:10).

So God spends quite a bit of time building Moses and Aaron up for their (second) meeting with Pharaoh. He repeats the whole “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” so that he gets to show off and “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:3-5). This didn’t really work out so well for God, unless he accidentally forgot to take off his ibis head mask that day…

Meeting the king

Pharaoh, clearly still rather suspicious about the Hebrews’ god claims, asks Moses and Aaron to provide some evidence by performing a miracle. Aaron throws his rod to the ground and it turns into a snake.

Unperturbed, Pharaoh calls in his own magicians and they also turn their staves into snakes. But “Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods” (Exod. 7:12), which sounds really dirty to my immature mind. But even cannibalistic snakes fail to intimidate Pharaoh and he still refuses to let the Hebrews leave.

And, as Javerbaum points out, “neither Aaron, nor Moses, nor Pharaoh, nor any of the sorcerers there, had any idea how gay it was” (The Last Testament, p.73).

The First Plague: Water turns to blood

The River of Blood by Ted Larson

The River of Blood by Ted Larson

For his next trick, God tells Moses and Aaron to ambush Pharaoh in the morning while he’s doing his business (nature unspecified) by the Nile’s bank. Once there, Aaron holds his rod and stretches his hand out “over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water” (Exod. 7:19). This guy has really long reach!

All the water in Egypt (even the water in vessels) is turned to blood. This is a much exaggerated feat from the little parlour trick God taught Moses in Exodus 4:8-9. Not only that, but they seem to have ditched the whole self-inflicted leprosy trick from Exodus 4:6-7.

But the Egyptian magicians keep up with God and do “the same by their secret arts” (Exod. 7:22). This, of course, raises the question of whether the bloody river turned back to water first. If not, the magicians aren’t particularly impressive. (“Behold as I, Blurgharg the Mighty, transform this blood into… blood!”)

Seeing that God isn’t more powerful than a common Egyptian magician, Pharaoh lacks suitable awe and still refuses to let the Hebrews leave.

Exodus 6: Moses gets a pep talk

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At the end of the last chapter, everyone was upset with Moses for being a poop-disturber, and Moses was upset with God for not delivering the Hebrews like he said he would. The chapter break was right in the middle of the exchange, so now we get to pick up with God’s response.

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God sends Aaron to meet Moses in the desert by Marc Chagall, 1966

God says to Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land” (Exod. 6:1). Now, I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I fully accept the possibility that I might be wrong, but doesn’t Pharaoh chase the Israelites to get them back? That’s not exactly the same thing as driving them out.

God, worried that Moses may have forgotten who he was, repeats (again) that he’s  the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then tells Moses that, when he appeared to the patriarchs, it was by the name El Shaddai, and that they didn’t know his new name of YHWH. But is that true?

In Genesis 22:14, when Abraham has just been stopped from murdering his son, he calls the altar Jehovahjireh (rendered as “the Lord will provide” in my RSV). How could this be unless Abraham know the name YHWH?

Back to the story, God tells Moses again that he’s here to free all the Hebrews and that Moses should go to them and tell them, again, that God is totally good for that whole freedom thing he promised. You know, ’cause that worked right well the first time.

So Moses goes again to the Hebrews and tells them all these things and, surprisingly, they aren’t nearly as excited as they were the first time. “Fool me once…” and all that. Or, you know, they just didn’t listen “because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9).

Not to be deterred, God tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moses refuses again, protesting that Pharaoh would never listen to him because of his “uncircumcised lips.” No, I’m not joking. It’s right there in Exodus 6:12. Now, to be fair, this is apparently an expression that would translate to our “sealed lips.” Still, though, the imagery is hilarious. I’m going to start using this whenever I’m feeling tongue-tied. “Oops, sorry, I guess my lips are really uncircumcised tonight!”

Moses’ uncircumcised lips aside, God puts him and Aaron in charge of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt.

And now for something completely different…

Thought that genealogies were a Genesis thing? Sorry to disappoint you!

The sons of Reuben: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi.

The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (the son of a Canaanite woman).

The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Additional note, Levi died at 137.)

  • The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimi.
  • The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. (Additional note, Kohath died at 133.)
  • The sons of Merari: Mahali and Mushi.
  • Kohath’s son Amram married his father’s sister (eeeew), named Jochebed, and they had Aaron and Moses. The incestuous Amram died at 137.
  • The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri.
  • The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Zithri.
  • Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Naashon. Their children are Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
  • The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph.
  • Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and they had Phinehas.

Where applicable, this does all seem to match the genealogy given in Genesis 46. It does bear mentioning, however, that a few of these guys live longer than the 120 years God had supposedly allotted them way back in Genesis 6:3.

Back to the story

Now that we’ve established which Aaron and Moses we’re talking about, we get to hear about Moses’s uncircumcised lips (Exod. 6:30) one last time before the chapter comes to a close.

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