Exodus 7
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
1. a god] Cf. the parallel in J, Exodus 4:16. Moses is to be as it were a god unto Aaron; and Aaron, like a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18, Jeremiah 1:9), to speak the words which his god puts into his mouth.

1, 2. As Moses is unable to speak fluently, Aaron is appointed to be his spokesman with Pharaoh, just as in J (Exodus 4:15 f.) he was appointed to be his spokesman with the people.

Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send the children of Israel out of his land.
2. Thou (emph.) shalt speak] viz. to Aaron: LXX. adds ‘to him.’

shall speak] viz. what thou tellest him. Cf. vv. 9, 19, Exodus 8:4 f., when Aaron at least performs wonders at Moses’ direction: he does not in P ever speak for Moses to Pharaoh.

that he let &c.] Exodus 6:11.

And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.
3. And I (emph.) will harden, &c.] cf. Exodus 4:21 (E). Harden (הקשה), as Psalm 95:8; but used only here of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

my signs and my portents] alluding, probably, partly to ‘portents’ (see on Exodus 4:21) performed as credentials (cf. v. 9), partly to the less severe plagues (cf. Exodus 11:10, in P).

But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.
4. lay my hand] severely, to inflict the great ‘judgements’ (see on Exodus 6:6; and cf. Exodus 12:12), which ultimately effected Israel’s deliverance.

my hosts] See on Exodus 6:26.

And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
5. And the Egyptians shall know, &c.] These great judgement, and Israel’s triumphant exodus, will teach the Egyptians Jehovah’s might, and (cf. Exodus 12:12) His superiority to their own gods. Cf. Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:18; and similarly Ezekiel 25:7; Ezekiel 25:11; Eze Exo 25:17; Ezekiel 28:24, &c. On the expression, see on Exo Exodus 6:7.

And Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded them, so did they.
6. A summary statement that Moses and Aaron carried out these instructions. The verse is anticipatory: the details follow in Exodus 7:8 ff. The type of sentence is one characteristic of P: cf. Genesis 6:22, Exodus 12:28; Exodus 12:50; Exodus 39:32 b, Exodus 40:16, al.: LOT. p. 124 (ed. 6–8, p. 132), No. 11.

And Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh.
7. The ages of the two brothers at the time of their dealings with the Pharaoh. The sentence is again of a form which often recurs in P: see Genesis 12:4 b, Genesis 16:16, Genesis 17:24-25, Genesis 21:5, Genesis 25:26 b (cf. 20), Genesis 41:46, Deuteronomy 34:7 a. The ages themselves (which are only given by P) are, upon general grounds, higher than is probable, especially if 40 years in the wilderness have to be added to them; nor do they agree with the representation of J, according to which (see on Exodus 2:23 a) the Pharaoh of the exodus came to the throne no long time after Moses’ flight into Midian.

And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
8–13 (P). Moses and Aaron are provided by God with a wonder, which, if the Pharaoh asks for a credential of their mission, they may perform before him. Aaron performs it: but the Egyptian magicians imitate it; and the Pharaoh refuses to listen to them. In Exodus 4:1-5 (J) Moses is empowered to perform a similar wonder before the Israelites.

When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
9. shall speak unto you] when you come before him, as directed (Exodus 6:11; Exodus 6:13, Exodus 7:2).

Give (Deuteronomy 6:22, Joel 2:30 Heb.) a portent (v. 3) for you] Or, ‘Give for yourselves a portent’: the pronoun is reflexive, according to very common Heb. idiom, Genesis 6:14 ‘make thee,’ v. 21 ‘take thee,’ Deuteronomy 1:13 ‘give you,’ &c. (Lex. p. 515b).

thy rod] the rod, which in P Aaron regularly bears, v. 19, Exodus 8:5; Exodus 8:16-17.

a serpent] The marg. is added to shew that the word here, and vv. 10, 12, is different from the one below, v. 15, and in Exodus 4:3 (which is the ordinary one for ‘serpent’). Tannin is a large reptile, generally used of a sea-or river-monster (Genesis 1:21, Psalm 74:13), but occasionally also of a land-reptile (Deuteronomy 32:33 EVV. ‘dragon,’ Psalm 91:13 b ‘serpent’). Here the writer will mean either a land-reptile, or possibly a young crocodile.

And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
11. wise men] cf. Genesis 41:8, Isaiah 19:11-12.

magicians] Heb. ḥarṭummim, a word of unknown etymology, but found only in connexion with Egypt (Genesis 41:8; Genesis 41:24, Exodus 7:11; Exodus 7:22; Exodus 8:7; Exodus 8:18-19; Exodus 9:11), and (borrowed from Gen.) in Daniel (Exodus 1:20, Exodus 2:2; Exodus 2:10, &c.). RVm. in Genesis sacred scribes: and probably the word did in fact correspond to the Greek ἱερογραμματεῖς,—the term applied by Numenius to Jannes and Jambres. Magic flourished in ancient Egypt; and many magical formulae are known to us from the inscriptions: see Erman, pp. 289, 308, 353 ff., 373.

with their secret arts (RVm.)] i.e. with their usual mystic words or movements. So v. 22, Exodus 8:7; Exodus 8:18 (not elsewhere in this sense).

The Jerus. Targ., both here and on Exodus 1:15, following a Jewish tradition gives the names of the magicians whom Pharaoh called as Jannes and Jambres (cf. 2 Timothy 3:8): the same two names are also given elsewhere, as Evang. Nicod. 5; Numenius, the Pythagorean philosopher the 2nd cent. a.d., as cited in Eus. Praep. Ev. ix. 8; see also Buxtorf, s.v. יוֹחַנָּא, or Levy, Chald. Wörterb. s.v. יַנִּים; and Schürer, § 32 (ed 3, iii. 292 ff.), with the references.

11, 12. The Egyptian magicians do the same. The art of serpent-charming is indigenous in the East: there are allusions to it in Psalm 58:5, Jeremiah 8:17, Ecclesiastes 10:11; and it is practised in Egypt to the present day. Modern Egyptian serpent-charmers possess an extraordinary power over serpents, drawing them forth, for instance, by noises made with the lips, from their hiding-places, and by pressure applied to the neck throwing them into such a state of hypnotic rigidity that they can be held as rods by the tip of the tail (Lane, Mod. Eg., ch. 20, in ed. 1871, ii. 93 f.; DB. iii. 889a; EB. iv. 4394: see further references in Di.). The serpent commonly used for the purpose is a species of cobra. As Di., however, remarks, we hear elsewhere only of serpents becoming rods, not of rods becoming serpents: the latter, a also the swallowing up of the magicians’ rods by Aaron’s rod, is ‘peculiar to the Hebrew story (Sage).’

For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods.
12. swallowed up their rods] and so gave proof of Aaron’s superiority to the magicians.

And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.
13. was hardened] Heb. was strong. One of the three synonyms used in Ex. to express the idea of hardening of the heart: the three being (1) ḥâzaḳ, ḥizzçḳ, lit. to be and to make strong (i.e. firm, hard, unyielding, cf. Ezekiel 3:7-9 Heb.), used by P (Exodus 7:13; Exodus 7:22, Exodus 8:19, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:8; Exodus 14:17), and E (Exodus 4:21, Exodus 9:35, Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27); (2) kâbçd, hikbîd, lit. to be and to make heavy (i.e. slow to move or be affected, unimpressionable, cf. of the tongue, Exodus 4:10), used by J (Exodus 7:14, Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32, Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:34, Exodus 10:1); and (3) hiḳshâh, which is properly rendered, to harden (cf. the cognate adj. of the neck, Exodus 32:9 al.), only Exodus 7:3 (P). (1) and (2) are always distinguished in RV. of Ex. by a marg. In these passages, Pharaoh’s heart is itself said to be hard in Exodus 7:13-14; Exodus 7:22, Exodus 8:19, Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:35; Pharaoh is said to harden it himself in Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32, Exodus 9:34; and God is said to harden it in Exodus 4:21, Exodus 7:3, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 10:1; Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:8 (cf. 17). See further the detached note below.

and he hearkened not to them, as Jehovah had spoken] P’s closing formula (p. 55), as v. 22, Exodus 8:15 b, 19, Exodus 9:12. Had spoken, see v. 4a.

Both in P (Exodus 7:13) and J (Exodus 6:1), the same point has thus been reached: the Pharaoh will listen to no request to let the people go. Accordingly stronger measures are threatened; and the ten ‘Plagues’ follow.

On the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart

God is spoken of as ‘hardening’ Pharaoh’s heart by E in Exodus 4:21, Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27, by J (or RJE) in Exodus 10:1, and by P in Exodus 7:3, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:8, by P also as hardening the heart of the Egyptians so that they followed Israel into the sea in Exodus 14:17 : in Exodus 4:21 and Exodus 7:3 generally, in view of the whole series of coming plagues, otherwise first after the sixth plague Exodus 9:12). In what sense are these passages to be understood? The Hebrews, with their vivid sense of the sovereignty of God, were in the habit of referring things done by man to the direct operation of God; and it is possible that these are merely examples of the same custom: we may notice that the performance of signs and wonders in Egypt, which in Exodus 10:1 is described as a consequence of Jehovah’s having ‘hardened’ the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants, is in Exodus 11:9 represented as a consequence simply of Pharaoh’s not hearkening himself to Moses and Aaron. In this case, the meaning will be that God ‘hardened’ Pharaoh just in so far as he hardened himself. But even supposing that the passages mean more than this, we must remember that, especially in His dealings with moral agents, God cannot be properly thought of as acting arbitrarily; He only hardens those who begin by hardening themselves: though the reasons for His actions are not always specified, it would be contrary to His moral attributes, and inconsistent with the character of a righteous God, if He were to harden those whose hearts were turned towards Him, and did not wish to harden themselves. The Pharaoh—whatever he was in actual history—is depicted in Exodus as from the first a self-willed, obstinate man who persistently hardens himself against God, and resists all warnings: God thus hardens him only because he has first hardened himself. And even here we must remember that the means by which God hardens a man is not necessarily by any extraordinary intervention on His part; it may be by the ordinary experiences of life, operating through the principles and character of human nature, which are of His appointment: the man who has once begun to harden himself, may thus find in the experiences of life, and even in the approaches made by God or His messengers to him, occasions and excuses for hardening himself yet more (cf. Psalm 18:26 ‘with the crooked thou shewest thyself tortuous’).

The question arises again, in a slightly different form, in connexion with Exodus 9:16, where Jehovah is said to have made Pharaoh continue in life, in order that he might experience His power. Does He, in so doing, act arbitrarily with Pharaoh? The passage is quoted, together with Exodus 33:19 (see the note), in Romans 9:15-18, in order to shew that God has absolute liberty of choice in selecting whom He will, either as examples of His hardening judgement, or as the recipients of His mercy. But although St Paul says (v. 18) ‘He hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth,’ we have no right to interpret this ‘will’ in a sense inconsistent with God’s righteousness, or to suppose that He is actuated in His choice by the motives of a despot, responsible not to a law of righteousness, but only to His own caprice. The apostle is arguing against those who maintained that because God had once chosen the Jewish nation, His hands were, so to say, tied, and, whatever they did, He could not reject them, except by being unrighteous. Against such a contention St Paul quotes two passages of the OT. in which Jehovah asserts His right to shew mercy and judgement to whom He will. But we must not exalt God’s sovereignty at the expense of His justice; and so we must think of God as ‘willing’ to shew mercy and judgement, not arbitrarily, or where either would be unmerited, but according to character and deserts. As Bp Gore says, in the course of an illuminative discussion of the whole question (Ep. to the Romans, ii. 3–13, 31–43), ‘The liberty asserted for God is wholly consistent with His being found, in fact, to have “hardened” those only who have deserved hardening by their own wilfulness. It was for such a moral cause that God hardened the hearts of the Jews, that “seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not hear.” We can feel no doubt that some similar moral cause underlay the hardening of Pharaoh’ (p. 38).

And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh's heart is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go.
14. is stubborn] lit. is heavy, i.e. difficult to move, the word used by J to express the idea of hardening of the heart. See on Exodus 7:13.

refuseth] cf. Exodus 4:23, Exodus 8:2, Exodus 9:2, Exodus 10:3-4.

14–25. The first plague: the water turned into blood. From J, E, and P. In J and E only the water of the Nile is turned to blood (vv. 17, 20), in P all the water in Egypt (vv. 19, 21b). In P, also, as in other cases (p. 55), the wonder is wrought at a signal given by Aaron with his rod (v. 19); and though the distinction is obscured as the text now stands, it is probable, that when J and E were in their original form, it was described in J as wrought, like the other plagues, by Jehovah, without human intervention, and in E at a signal given by Moses (see on vv. 15, 17, 20b; and cf. p. 56).

Chapters Exodus 7:14 to Exodus 11:5The first nine Plagues

The narrative of the Plagues, like that of the preceding chapters, is composite. The details of the analysis depend partly upon literary criteria, partly upon differences in the representation, which are not isolated, but recurrent, and which moreover accompany the literary differences and support the conclusions based upon them,—the differences referred to often also agreeing remarkably with corresponding differences in the parts of the preceding narrative, especially in Exodus 3:1 to Exodus 7:13, which have already, upon independent grounds, been assigned to P, J, and E, respectively. No one source, however, it should be premised, in the parts of it that have been preserved, gives all the plagues.

The parts belonging to P are most readily distinguished, viz. (after Exodus 7:8-13) Exodus 7:19-20 a, 21b–22, Exodus 8:5-7; Exodus 8:15 b–19, Exodus 9:8-12, Exodus 11:9-10 : the rest of the narrative belongs in the main to J, the hand of E being hardly traceable beyond Exodus 7:15; Exodus 7:17 b, 20b, Exodus 9:22-23 a, 31–32 (perhaps), 35a, Exodus 10:12-13 a, 14a, 15b, 20, 21–23, 27, Exodus 11:1-3.

Putting aside for the present purely literary differences, we have thus a threefold representation of the plagues, corresponding to the three literary sources, P, J, and E, of which the narrative is composed. The differences relate to not less than five or six distinct points,—the terms of the command addressed to Moses, the part taken by Aaron, the demand made of the Pharaoh, the use made of the rod, the description of the plague, and the formulae used to express the Pharaoh’s obstinacy. Thus in P Aaron co-operates with Moses, and the command is Say unto Aaron (Exodus 7:19, Exodus 8:5; Exodus 8:16; so before in Exodus 7:9 : even in Exodus 9:8, where Moses alone is to act, both are expressly addressed); there is no interview with the Pharaoh, so that no demand is ever made for Israel’s release; the descriptions are brief; except in Exodus 9:10, Aaron is the wonder-worker, bringing about the result by stretching out his rod at Moses’ direction (Exodus 7:19, Exodus 8:5 f., 16 f.; cf. Exodus 7:9); the wonders wrought (‘signs and portents,’ Exodus 7:3 : P does not speak of them as ‘plagues’) are intended less to break down the Pharaoh’s resistance than to accredit Moses as Jehovah’s representative; they thus take substantially the form of a contest with the native magicians, who are mentioned only in this narrative (Exodus 7:11 f., 22, Exodus 8:7; Exodus 8:18 f., Exodus 9:11), and who at first do the same things by their arts, but in the end are completely defeated; the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed by ḥâzaḳ ḥizzçḳ (was strong, made strong), Exodus 7:22, Exodus 8:19, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 11:10 (Song of Solomon 7:13), and the closing formula is, and he hearkened not unto them, as Jehovah had spoken, Exodus 7:22, Exodus 8:15 b, 19, Exodus 9:12 (Song of Solomon 7:13). In J, on the contrary, Moses one (without Aaron) is told to go in before the Pharaoh, and he addresses the Pharaoh himself (in agreement with Exodus 4:10-16, where Aaron is appointed to be Moses’ spokesman not with Pharaoh, as in P, but with the people), Exodus 7:14-16, Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:9-10; Exodus 8:20; Exodus 8:26; Exodus 8:29, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13; Exodus 9:29, Exodus 10:1; Exodus 10:9; Exodus 10:25, Exodus 11:4-10[116]; a formal demand is regularly made, Let my people go, that they may serve me, Exodus 7:16, Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13, Exodus 10:3 (comp. before, Exodus 4:23); the interview with the Pharaoh is prolonged, and described in some detail; Jehovah Himself brings the plague, after it has been announced by Moses,—usually on the morrow, Exodus 8:23, Exodus 9:5 f., 18, Exodus 10:4,—without any mention of Aaron or his rod; sometimes the king sends for Moses and Aaron to crave their intercession, Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:25, Exodus 9:27, Exodus 10:16; the plague is removed, as it is brought, without any human intervention; the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed by kâbçd, hikbîd (was heavy, made heavy), Exodus 7:14, Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32, Exodus 9:7; Exodus 9:34, Exodus 10:1; and there is no closing formula: J also, unlike both P and E, represents the Israelites as living apart from the Egyptians, in the land of Goshen, Exodus 8:22, Exodus 9:26 (so before, Genesis 45:10; Genesis 46:28 f., &c.). The narrative generally is written (just as it is in Genesis, for instance) in a more picturesque and varied style than that of P; there are frequent descriptive touches, and the dialogue is abundant.

[116] Aaron, if he appears at all, is only Moses’ silent companion, Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:12 (see vv. 9, 10), 25 (see vv. 26, 29), Exodus 9:27 (see v. 29), Exodus 10:8 (see v. 9). In Exodus 10:3 it is doubtful if the plural, ‘and they said,’ is original: notice in v. 6b ‘and he turned.’

Some other, chiefly literary, characteristics of J may also be here noticed: refuseth (מאן), esp. followed by to let the people go, Exodus 7:14, Exodus 8:2, Exodus 9:2, Exodus 10:3-4 (so before Exodus 4:23); the God of the Hebrews 7:16; Hebrews 9:1; Hebrews 9:13; Hebrews 10:3 (so Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3); Thus saith Jehovah, said regularly to Pharaoh, Exodus 7:17, Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13, Exodus 10:3, Exodus 11:4 (so Exodus 4:22); behold … with the participle (in the Heb.) in the announcement of the plague Exodus 7:17, Exodus 8:2; Exodus 8:21, Exodus 9:3; Exodus 9:18, Exodus 10:4 (so Exodus 4:23); border, Exodus 8:2, Exodus 10:4; Exodus 10:14; Exodus 10:19; thou, thy people, and thy servants, Exodus 8:3, Exodus 4, 9, 11, 21, 29, Exodus 9:14 (see the note), cf. Exodus 10:6; to intreat, Exodus 8:8-9; Exodus 8:28-29, Exodus 9:28, Exodus 10:17; such as hath not been, &c. Exodus 9:18 b, 24b, Exodus 11:6 b, cf. Exodus 10:6 b, 14b; to sever, Exodus 8:22, Exodus 9:4, Exodus 11:7; the didactic aim or object of the plague (or circumstance attending it) stated, Exodus 7:17 a, Exodus 8:10 b, 22b, Exodus 9:14 b, 16b, 29c, Exodus 10:2 b, Exodus 11:7 b.

The narrative of E has been only very partially preserved; so it is not possible to characterize it as fully as those of P or J. Its most distinctive feature is that Moses is the wonder-worker, bringing about the plague by his rod (in agreement with Exodus 4:17; Exodus 4:20 b, where it is said to have been specially given to him by God), Exodus 7:15 b, 17b, 20b, Exodus 9:23 a, Exodus 10:13 a (cf. afterwards, Exodus 14:16, Exodus 17:5; Exodus 17:9); only in the case of the darkness (Exodus 10:21 f.) does he use his hand for the purpose. This feature differentiates E from both P (with whom the wonder-working rod is in Aaron’s hand), and J (who mentions no rod, and represents the plague as brought about directly, after Moses’ previous announcement of it, by Jehovah Himself). E uses the same word be or make strong, for ‘harden,’ that P does, but he follows the clause describing the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart by the words, and he did not let the children of Israel (or them) go, Exodus 9:35 (contrast J’s phrase, v. 34b), Exodus 10:20; Exodus 10:27 (cf. Exodus 4:21 E). He also pictures the Israelites, not, as J does, as living apart in Goshen, but as having every one an Egyptian ‘neighbour’ (Exodus 3:2, Exodus 11:2, Exodus 12:35 f.), and consequently as settled promiscuously among the Egyptians.

The scheme, or framework, of the plagues, as described by P, J, and E, is thus suggestively exhibited by Bäntsch:—

In P we have—

And Jehovah said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod …, and there shall be.… And they did so: and Aaron stretched out his rod, and there was.… And the magicians did so (or could not do so) with their secret arts.… And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened; and he hearkened not unto them, as Jehovah had spoken.

J’s formula is quite different—

And Jehovah said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go that they may serve me. And if thou refuse to let them go, behold I will.… And Jehovah did so; and there came (or and he sent, &c.).… And Pharaoh called for Moses, and said unto him, Entreat for me, that.… And Jehovah did so …, and removed.… But Pharaoh made his heart heavy, and he did not let the people go.

The formula of E is again different—

And Jehovah said unto Moses, Stretch forth thy hand (with thy rod) toward …, that there may be.… And Moses stretched forth his hand (or his rod) toward …, and there was.… But Jehovah made Pharaoh’s heart hard, and he did not let the children of Israel go.

It has long since been remarked by commentators that the plagues stand in close connexion with the actual conditions of Egypt; and were in fact just miraculously intensified forms of the diseases or other natural occurrences to which Egypt is more or less liable (see particulars in the notes on the different plagues). They were of unexampled severity; they came, and in some cases went, at the announcement, or signal, given by one of the Hebrew leaders; one followed another with unprecedented swiftness; in other respects also they are represented as having an evidently miraculous character.

What judgement, however, are we to form with regard to their historical character? The narratives, there are strong reasons for believing, were written long after the time of Moses, and do not do more than acquaint us with the traditions current among the Hebrews at the time when they were written: we consequently have no guarantee that they preserve exact recollections of the actual facts. That there is no basis of fact for the traditions which the narratives incorporate is in the highest degree improbable: we may feel very sure of this, and yet not feel sure that they describe the events exactly as they happened. ‘As the original nucleus of fact,’ writes Dillm. (p. 66 f., ed. 2, p. 77), ‘we may suppose that at the time of Israel’s deliverance Egypt was visited by various adverse natural occurrences, which the Israelites ascribed to the operation of their God, and by which their leaders, Moses and Aaron, sought to prove to the Egyptian court the superiority of their God above the king and gods of Egypt; it must however be admitted that in the Israelitish story (Sage) these occurrences had for long been invested with a purely miraculous character. And if all had once been lifted up into the sphere of God’s unlimited power, the compiler could feel no scruple in combining the different plagues mentioned in his sources into a series of ten, in such a manner as to depict, in a picture drawn with unfading colours, not only the abundance of resources which God has at His disposal for helping His own people, and humiliating those who resist His will, but also the slow and patient yet sure steps with which He proceeds against His foes, and the growth of evil in men till it becomes at last obstinate and confirmed.’ The real value of the narratives, according to Dillmann, is thus not historical, but moral and religious. And from these points of view their typical and didactic significance cannot be overrated. The traditional story of the contest between Moses and the Pharaoh is applied so as to depict, to use Dillmann’s expression, ‘in unfading colours,’ the impotence of man’s strongest determination when it essays to contend with God, and the fruitlessness of all human efforts to frustrate His purposes.

Dr Sanday,—whose historical bias, if he has one, always leads him to conservative conclusions,—has expressed himself recently on the subject, in an essay on the Symbolism of the Bible, in words which are well worth quoting:—‘The early chapters of Genesis are not the only portion of the Pentateuchal history to which I think that we may rightly apply the epithet “symbolical.” Indeed I suspect that the greater part of the Pentateuch would be rightly so described in greater or less degree. The narrative of the Pentateuch culminates in two great events, the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law from Mount Sinai. What are we to say of these? Are they historical in the sense in which the Second Book of Samuel is historical? I think we may say that they are not. If we accept—as I at least feel constrained to accept at least in broad outline—the critical theory now so widely held as to the composition of the Pentateuch, then there is a long interval, an interval of some four centuries or more, between the events and the main portions of the record as we now have it. In such a case we should expect to happen just what we find has happened. There is an element of folk-lore, of oral tradition insufficiently checked by writing. The imagination has been at work.

‘If we compare, for instance, the narrative of the Ten Plagues with the narrative of the Revolt of Absalom, we shall feel the difference. The one is nature itself, with all the flexibility and easy sequence that we associate with nature. The other is constructed upon a scheme which is so symmetrical that we cannot help seeing that it is really artificial. I do not mean artificial in the sense that the writer, with no materials before him, sat down consciously and deliberately to invent them in the form they now have; but I mean that, as the story passed from mouth to mouth, it gradually and almost imperceptibly assumed its present shape’ (The Life of Christ in recent Research, 1907, p. 18f.).

The ‘Plagues’ are denoted by the following terms:—

(1) maggçphâh, properly a severe blow, Exodus 9:14 J (see the note).

(2) néga‘, a heavy touch or stroke, Exodus 11:1 E (see the note).

(3) négeph (cognate with No. 1), a severe blow, Exodus 12:13 P (by implication, of the tenth plague only).

Nos 2 and 3 of these are rendered in LXX. πληγή, and Nos. 1, 2, 3 in the Vulg. plaga: hence the Engl. plague.

They are also spoken of as:—

(4) ’ôthôth, signs, LXX. σημεῖα (proofs of God’s power), Exodus 8:23 J, Exodus 10:1-2 J or the compiler of JE, Exodus 7:3 P; probably also in Exodus 4:17; Exodus 4:28 E. Cf. Numbers 14:11; Numbers 14:22 (JE); also σημεῖα in the NT.

In Exodus 4:8-9; Exodus 4:30 (all J) the same word is used, not of the ‘plagues,’ but of ‘signs’ to be wrought,—or, in v. 30, actually wrought,—before the Pharaoh, to accredit Moses, as Jehovah’s representative. In Exodus 4:17; Exodus 4:28, the reference might be similarly, not to the ‘plagues,’ but to the antecedent credentials, to be given by Moses.

(5) môphĕthim, portents, LXX. τέρατα (unusual phaenomena, arresting attention, and calling for explanation: see on Exodus 4:21; and cf. Acts 2:43, &c.), Exodus 7:3, Exodus 11:9-10 (all P); also, probably, Exodus 4:21 E.

In Exodus 7:9 P the same word is used, not of one of the ‘plagues,’ but of the preliminary portent of Aaron’s rod becoming a serpent, wrought before Pharaoh.

(6) niphlâ’ôth, wonders or marvels (extraordinary phaenomena), Exodus 3:20 J.

N.B. In EVV., No. 5 is in Ex. confused with No. 6; elsewhere in the OT. it is confused with both No. 4 and No. 6 (cf. on Exodus 4:21).

Get thee unto Pharaoh in the morning; lo, he goeth out unto the water; and thou shalt stand by the river's brink against he come; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shalt thou take in thine hand.
15. goeth out unto the water] for what reason is not stated. Apparently a standing custom is alluded to (cf. Exodus 8:20; also Exodus 2:5): to bathe1[117] (cf. Exodus 2:5), to pay his devotions to the Nile2[118], to ascertain, if it were the time (June) at which the annual inundation was beginning, how much the river had risen, have all been suggested.

[117] But Diod. Sic. i. 70 is not proof that the Egyptian king bathed every morning in the Nile.

[118] The Nile, the source of Egypt’s fertility, was personified as a deity: in honour of the Nile-god, religious festivals were held, at which the Pharaoh himself sometimes officiated, especially at the time when the annual inundation was expected, and hymns addressed to him are extant (see Maspero, Dawn of Civil., pp. 36–42; cf. Nile in EB., with an illustration of the Nile-god).

the river’s brink] the brink of the Nile. See on Exodus 1:22.

the rod] The rod given to Moses by Jehovah in Exodus 4:17; Exodus 4:20 b. The words, which was turned to a serpent, are regarded, even by Di., as a harmonizing addition of the compiler of JE; for the wonder referred to (Exodus 4:3 J) is not described by E.

And thou shalt say unto him, The LORD God of the Hebrews hath sent me unto thee, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness: and, behold, hitherto thou wouldest not hear.
16. The demand to be made of the Pharaoh. The terms, as elsewhere in J (Exodus 8:1; Exodus 8:20, Exodus 9:1; Exodus 9:13, Exodus 10:3): see p. 56.

Thus saith the LORD, In this thou shalt know that I am the LORD: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.
17. The proof to be given to the Pharaoh that the God of the Hebrews is Jehovah: the waters of the Nile to be smitten and turned into blood (i.e. to assume the appearance of blood).

I will smite] As Di. remarks, the transition from the Divine ‘I’ just before to the ‘I’ of Moses is very abrupt: we expect, ‘I [i.e. Jehovah] will smite the waters that are in the Nile’ (cf. v. 25, ‘after that Jehovah had smitten the Nile’); hence it is probable (Di.) that the words, with the rod that is in mine hand, are introduced by the compiler from the narrative of E (in which, Moses being addressed, thine will have stood originally for mine). It these words are omitted, the ‘I’ in ‘I will smite’ will of course be Jehovah.

the river] the Nile. So vv. 18 (thrice), 20 (twice), 21 (thrice), 24 (twice), 25. See on Exodus 1:22.

And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall lothe to drink of the water of the river.
18. Fish was one of the principal articles of food in ancient Egypt (Erman, p. 239), so that the death of the fish in the Nile would be serious calamity.

loathe] weary themselves (Genesis 19:11 al.) in the vain effort to obtain drinkable water.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.
19–20a. Before describing how the Nile was smitten, the compiler introduces P’s account of the command given to Moses. According to this, not the water of the Nile only, but all the water in Egypt, is to become blood.

19. Say unto Aaron] as regularly in P (p. 55).

thy rod] as v. 9.

their rivers] The Nile, and its arms, running through the Delta.

their streams] lit. their Niles, i.e. their Nile-canals,—such as were constructed for irrigation purposes, to convey the water of the Nile to the fields.

all their ponds of water] Heb. every gathering (Genesis 1:10, Leviticus 11:36) of their water. Probably reservoirs (tanks, cisterns, &c.) are in particular thought of: cf. the fem. in Isaiah 22:11 (‘reservoir’).

20b. and he lifted up] At first sight, in view of v. 19a, the subject seems to be Aaron: Aaron, however, in v. 19, is to stretch out his hand over all the water in Egypt; here the Nile only is smitten, in exact accordance with v. 17. At least therefore in its original context, when the narrative of E was complete, the ‘he’ will have been Moses, who carries the rod in vv. 15b, 17.

And Moses and Aaron did so, as the LORD commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.
And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
21a. How the fish died, and the river stank, in agreement with v. 18 (J).

21b. How there was blood in all the land of Egypt, in agreement with v. 19 (P).

And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the LORD had said.
22. The magicians, however, did the same with their ‘secret arts’; and the Pharaoh remained unmoved. The expressions, as vv. 11b, 13 (P).

And Pharaoh turned and went into his house, neither did he set his heart to this also.
23. turned and went] viz. after his visit to the Nile, v. 15.

set his heartto this] i.e. pay attention to it: a Heb. idiom (like νοῦν προσέχειν, animum attendere); so Exo 2 Samuel 13:20 Heb. al.

The plague is an intensification of a natural phaenomenon of annual occurrence in Egypt. ‘Still, each year, the water of the river becomes like blood at the time of the inundation. When the Nile first begins to rise, towards the end of June, the red marl brought from the mountains of Abyssinia stains it to a dark colour, which glistens like blood in the light of the setting sun’ (Sayce, EHH., p. 168, writing with personal knowledge of the country). Other observers speak similarly1[119]. The natives call it then the ‘Red Nile.’ The reddish colour continues more or less till the waters begin to abate in October. The water, while it is red, is not unwholesome. Shortly, however, before the redness begins, the Nile (called then the ‘Green Nile’) generally for a few days rises slightly, and becomes green (from decaying vegetable matter brought down from the equatorial swamps), and then it is unwholesome2[120].

[119] e.g. Osburn, Monum. Hist. of Egypt (1851), i. 11 f. (when the rays of the rising sun fell upon the Nile, it had the appearance of a ‘river of blood’; and the Arabs came to tell him that it was the ‘Red Nile’).

[120] See further on the annual inundation of the Nile,—which is due to the waters of the Atbara and the ‘Blue Nile’ being swollen by the heavy spring and summer rains in the Abyssinian highlands, and the melting of the mountain snow, and which give the Delta its fertility,—R. Pococke, Descr. of the East (1743), i. 199 f.; Rawlinson, Hist. of Eg. (1881), i. 19–25; Maspero, Dawn of Civil. pp. 22–26; DB. iii. 551, 889; W. M. Müller in EB. Egypt, § 7, and Nile; Bädeker, Egypt6 (1908), p. xlv f.

As Dillm. says, however, though the recollection of an extraordinary intensification of a genuine Egyptian phaenomenon is the foundation of the narrative, it is not the actual reddening of the Nile at the time of the inundation which the narrative describes, not only because there would be nothing surprising in what was an annual occurrence, but also because of the seven days’ limit of time in v. 25, and because the water of the ‘Red Nile’ is wholesome and drinkable: but the natural local phaenomenon is dissociated from its natural conditions, and transformed into something transcending all experience, by the circumstances under which it is produced, and by the consequences attending it,—the water (including in P even that in domestic vessels) becoming undrinkable, and the fish dying.

And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river.
And seven days were fulfilled, after that the LORD had smitten the river.
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