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The life and legacy of Moses: God deals with us as gently as he can—or as harshly as he must

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 7-10

A group of missionaries was forced to travel through a dangerous part of their region, an area where bandits had been active for weeks. When they camped for the night, some slept while others prayed, then they took turns. The next day they arrived safely at the missionary compound.

A few months later, the leader of the local band of bandits was apprehended and brought to trial. One of the missionaries asked him if he had been active in the area where their group had camped. The criminal said that he and his band had seen the group, and planned to rob them of their belongings and kill them. However, 21 men in armor had stood guard around their camp all night, so that the bandits could not attack.

The next year, that missionary returned to the States on furlough, and told his home church of their group’s divine deliverance. A lady stood and asked the exact date when this miracle had occurred. She then told the missionary that she had become burdened that night for their ministry, and called a prayer meeting at the church. 20 people joined her for prayer.

It has been said that coincidence is when God prefers to remain anonymous. But there are times when he cannot stay behind the scenes if he is to protect and prosper his children. On occasion he must reveal his miraculous power in a way which is seen by all.

In this study, we’ll watch God show his power to the mightiest nation on earth. As we study the first nine plagues, we will marvel at the Creator’s miraculous ability to intervene in the affairs and circumstances of his creation.

Here’s the question we might ponder throughout the study:

Are we Pharaoh or Moses?

Are you walking in obedience to God’s will or disobedience to his word?

Are you in position to receive his benevolent grace, or to experience his disciplinary power?

God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. The choice is ours.

What did God do?

First we’ll explore the plagues and their circumstances, so that we might have in mind the actual events as they occurred. Then we’ll ask why the Lord brought these judgments against Pharaoh and his people, and what such events say to our lives and churches.

Water into blood

The first plague turned water into “blood.” Some interpreters suggest that this occurrence was natural in origin and circumstance. We know that red sediment typically washes down from Ethiopia in the annual flooding of the Nile, occurring annually in late summer and early fall. A type of algae known as flagellates comes from the Sudan swamps into the Egyptian rivers as well. And a particular type of red plankton is sometimes seen off the Egyptian coast, and could float into the Nile and other rivers.

The text indicates that the Egyptians “dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river” (Exodus 7:24). If they were using Nile water filtered by the sands along the shore, we can know that the river was not changed into actual blood, since blood cannot be filtered out of water. And we note that the Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the plague, at least in appearance (v. 22). And so some believe that the “blood” was the writer’s description of the water’s appearance more than its chemical composition.

On the other hand, the first plague affected not just the Nile but streams and canals, ponds and reservoirs, and even wooden buckets and stone jars (v. 19). The latter had likely been filled before the plague occurred, so that a naturalistic explanation for their transformation seems unlikely.

If the first plague turned the water into the appearance of blood, the miracle was that this transformation occurred at the word of Moses through Aaron. It seems more likely to me that the miracle was an actual turning of the water throughout the nation into blood, and that the people “dug along the Nile” to seek water sources other than the river itself. Either way, the first plague was clear proof that God is sovereign over nature.

To the Egyptians, this power was especially significant. One of their two most important deities was Hopi, the god of the Nile. The vessels containing water were probably used for the worship of this god. For the Hebrew God to control the waters of the nation meant that he controlled the god of those waters. The Lord who turned water into wine (John 2) could turn it into blood as well. He is clearly the Lord of the universe.

Frogs

The second plague brought frogs from the Nile into the nation (Exodus 8:1-4). They covered Pharaoh’s palace and the homes of his people. We know that frogs usually arrived en masse in Egypt during the month of September, and that they also fled the Nile when it became contaminated. And so it is not unusual that a large number of frogs would flee the waters as they were contaminated by the first plague.

The miracle of this event was that the frogs came in direct response to the word of God through Moses and Aaron, and that they died in direct response to Moses’ prayer (vs. 12-13). To the Egyptians, this plague would be significant spiritually as well. They identified frogs and toads with the god Hapi and also the goddess Heqt, the deity who helped women in childbirth. The frog was thus a symbol of fertility. The second plague showed the Egyptians that the Hebrew God could touch not only their water, but also their homes and families as well.

Gnats

The third plague used insects called kinnim in the Hebrew (the word occurs only in connection with this plague). These could have been lice, mosquitoes, or ticks. They perhaps bred in fields which were flooded annually by the Nile. This was the first plague which the Egyptian magicians could not appear to repeat (Exodus 8:18).

The gnats further demonstrated the power of the Hebrew God over the Egyptians. He proved that he could control their water, their homes, and now their physical health and condition. There was no place or person safe from his intervention.

Flies

As the waters of the Nile receded, flies typically bred. These could have been a mixture of several different kinds of insects, and could have come to feed on the decaying frogs of the second plague. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament done in Egypt, thus with local knowledge of these events) translates the “flies” as kyomuia, the “dog-fly” or gadfly.

These particular insects have a very painful bite. They can also carry anthrax, which would affect the cattle in the fifth plague. Their bite could also have infected the Egyptians with skin anthrax, causing the sixth plague.

Livestock

Egyptian cattle were sent to pasture in the open country from January to April, when grass for feeding was plentiful. They were kept in barns or stalls the other months of the year. The fifth plague came against those livestock which were in the open field and thus susceptible to disease.

The plague could have involved bacillus anthracis, hoof and mouth disease, perhaps contracted from the dead frogs of the second plague. Or it could have resulted from the flies of the fourth plague.

Egyptians worshiped the bull-gods Apis and Mnevis, the cow-god Hathor, and the ram-god Khnum. With the fifth plague, the Hebrew God proved his power over these pagan deities. And he showed that he controlled the Egyptian food supply, and thus their future and security. There was no place in the nation free of his power.

Boils

The sixth plague brought “boils” on the Egyptians. The word is better translated “inflamed areas,” and could refer to the Nile scab still common when the river rises. This could have been a skin rash from the heat as well.

Either way, the Egyptians saw that the Hebrews were not affected. Clearly their God would protect his people and persecute their oppressors.

Hail

The next plague likely occurred in January or February, as it ruined the flax and barley in the fields (v. 31). The miracle was not that hailstones would fall on Egypt, but that they would come with the size and ferocity the nation experienced. And that they would fall as a direct result of Moses’ rod and command (Exodus 9:23). The Hebrew God is clearly Lord of the heavens and the earth.

Locusts

One of the most feared occurrences in the ancient agrarian world was a plague of locusts. A large group could cover 500 miles, and completely hide the sun. They are known to strip a field of its grain in a single day. Such plagues were typical symbols of divine judgment and wrath (cf. Amos 7:1-3; Joel 1:1-7; Revelation 9:1-11).

Darkness

The first of Egypt’s two most important deities was defeated by the first plague, as God took control of the Nile and the waters of the land. The second deity was the sun-god Ra. With the ninth plague, the God of the Hebrews showed his power over this pagan idol as well. The darkness which fell over the land may have originated with a hamsin (literally “the fifty”), a severe wind which blows for 50 days in the spring and often brings sandstorms from the desert.

In this case, the darkness was so severe that the entire nation was without light for three days. But again the Lord protected his people, showing his power and providential care for his children.

Summary

By these nine plagues the Hebrew God showed Pharaoh, his advisors and magicians, and his people that he is the one true Lord. And he showed his own people the providential protection and power which encouraged their faith in him. When the plagues began, Pharaoh and his gods were the acknowledged rulers of the nation. When the ninth ended, there was no question that the God of the Jews was the great and true Lord.

None of these judgments and plagues would have been necessary if Pharaoh had done as the Lord instructed through Moses. God does indeed deal with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. But Pharaoh’s heart was “hard.” Let’s learn why.

Why did God do it?

The plagues against Egypt occurred as a direct consequence of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart.” Why was he so unwilling to obey the word and will of God?

Exodus describes the cause of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” in three ways. First, it attributes this condition to the initiative of God: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:3-4; emphasis mine). Note that “Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country” (Exodus 11:10; emphasis mine).

As a second explanation, the text also states, “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said” (Exodus 7:13, emphasis mine). And the book also states, “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said” (Exodus 8:15; emphasis mine); “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go” (Exodus 8:32).

Note Pharaoh’s repetitive changes of heart and mind. For instance, after the plague of hail (Exodus 9:27), Pharaoh admitted that he had sinned and asked Moses to pray for the hail to stop; then “he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” (v. 34). After the plague of locusts, Pharaoh admitted his sin (Exodus 10:16-17), then “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go” (v. 20).

And after the Passover, “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!'” (Exodus 12:31). And he asked, “And also bless me” (v. 32). But later, “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!’ So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him” (Exodus 14:5-6). Did God change Pharaoh’s heart each time?

The ultimate result of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” was the death of the firstborn son of the nation, and the destruction of the Egyptian army as well: “The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived” (Exodus 14:28). Did the Lord cause Pharaoh to make sinful choices which led to the death of thousands of innocent soldiers and sons? Or were these deaths the tragic consequence of Pharaoh’s own decisions?

Interpretive options

One approach is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart without his consent or complicity. If this is true, it is explained by the fact that Pharaoh’s spiritual condition led to the Exodus and the Passover, and contributed to the creation of the Jewish nation.

By implication, this approach makes God responsible for the death of every first-born male in Egypt as a means to this Passover. If God was responsible for Pharaoh’s heart-hardening after his own repentance following the plagues of hail and locusts, then he is responsible for the Passover deaths which resulted.

A second approach is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but with Pharaoh’s own complicity and cooperation. In other words, Pharaoh’s own pride and ego was used further by God for his larger purposes.

As an example of this kind of spiritual occurrence, remember Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. Perhaps he wanted the money offered by the authorities, was angry with Jesus’ refusal to overthrow the Romans, or sought to force him into such military action. Yet Judas’ decision was not entirely his own: “Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus” (Luke 22:3-4).

Satan used Judas’s own sin, and furthered it for his own purposes. Perhaps God did the same with Pharaoh’s prideful heart. If this is true, then the Passover was the result of Pharaoh’s decision as well as God’s, or perhaps instead of God’s.

A third view is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, without any direct action by the Lord. According to this approach, Jewish theology at the time of the Exodus viewed all that happens as the direct and sovereign work of God, and thus attributed Pharaoh’s spiritual condition to the Lord.

As an example of this kind of theological interpretation, remember David’s decision to take a census of Israel: “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and of Judah'” (2 Samuel 24:1). God then judged the nation with a plague which killed 70,000 of the people (v. 15). This is difficult to understand if God “incited” David to take the census.

Further, God was “grieved because of the calamity” when the death angel reached Jerusalem, and made him stop (v. 16). Note David’s reaction: “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. what have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (v. 17). He thought the sin was his own, not God’s.

When 1 Chronicles was written (perhaps by Ezra) some 400 years after 1 and 2 Samuel, the census was explained differently: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). With the same results, and David’s even more explicit personal responsibility: “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong . . .” (v. 17).

Perhaps the earlier interpretation attributed to God an action which was actually inspired by Satan, though it was permitted by the Lord. The 2 Samuel account is of course correct, as the census was made under the sovereign permission of the Lord. He is still the God of the universe, and permits all that he does not cause. This approach perhaps explains why the Exodus writer attributed Pharaoh’s hardened heart to God and to Pharaoh as well.

The second approach seems the simplest and therefore the best to me. The text records both sides of the sovereignty/free will debate: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he hardened his own heart. The fact that we cannot easily reconcile these two positions does not make them wrong. Human logic should not be the final factor in determining biblical truth.

Throughout the biblical worldview we find paradox—God is three and yet one, Jesus was fully God and fully man, the Scriptures were divinely inspired but humanly authored. So it is with freedom and God’s sovereignty: he knows and determines the future, yet we have freedom to choose. God chose for Pharaoh’s heart to reject his will so he could bring about the Exodus, yet Pharaoh chose to reject God’s will of his own volition as well. While such an interpretive position will appear contradictory to some, it seems to me the clearest statement of the Exodus narrative.

However we understand Pharaoh’s spiritual heart condition, we can understand easily its consequences and lessons. Through the first nine plagues the Hebrew God proved that he is sovereign over men and their pagan idols. The most powerful man on earth is no match for the Lord of the universe.

We learn also that this God rules nations as well as men. The plagues pit Moses and Aaron against the greatest military power the world had ever seen. And the servants of God were proven victorious.

Conclusion

Let’s close where we began, with the fact that each of us is Moses or Pharaoh. You may face today a person or circumstance which opposes God’s will and word. Or you may yourself stand in such opposition to his providence and plan. If you are dealing with a Pharaoh, know that the same God who defeated the Egyptian power and people stands on your side. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He can still do all that he has ever done. Imitate Moses: give your problem or pain to him in faith. And you will see his hand at work to accomplish all that his will directs.

Conversely, you may be a Pharaoh to someone else. Examine your heart this week. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything which is wrong with God. Write it down, specifically and honestly. Confess all such sin to the Father, and claim his forgiveness and grace (1 John 1:9). Throw away the paper, and walk in the will of God.

It has been said that in every heart there is a crown and a cross. If you are on the cross, Jesus wears the crown. If you wear the crown, Jesus is on the cross. Which is true of your heart today?