Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me.IX.
THE FIFTH PLAGUE.
(1-3) The nature of the fifth plague is manifest, and admits of no dispute. It was a rinderpest, or murrain upon cattle; which, however, unlike most similar disorders, attacked the greater number of the domesticated animals—horses, asses, camels, oxen, and sheep. Thus it was “very grievous” (Exodus 9:3). Horses were highly prized by the Egyptians, and were a comparatively recent importation, having been unknown before the time of the seventeenth, or “Shepherd” Dynasty. They were at first used only in war; then by rich men, in peace, to draw their chariots. They had now, however, it would seem, come to be employed also in agriculture. (Note the words “in the field.”) Asses were the ordinary beasts of burthen, and abounded in Egypt anciently as indeed they do at the present day. The Egyptian monuments mention cases where a single landowner owned as many as seven or eight hundred of them. Camels are not represented by the Egyptian sculptors, but are mentioned in the inscriptions (Chabas, Etudes sur l’ Antiquité Historique, pp. 400-413), and must have been employed in the trade between Egypt and the Sinaitic peninsula. Both oxen and sheep were numerous, and constituted a great part of the wealth of individuals. The plague fell upon such animals as were “in the field” at the time—i.e., in the open air, and not confined in stables or sheds. It was the Egyptian practice to house a considerable portion of their cattle; but at the probable season of this plague—December or January—the majority would be in the pastures. Thus the Egyptian losses were very heavy, and the king, no doubt, suffered with the rest, for the Egyptian monarchs were large cattle-owners (Genesis 47:6; Genesis 47:17), The Pharaoh was, however, less impressed by this plague than by the fourth, and made no sign of submission.
And the LORD shall sever between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt: and there shall nothing die of all that is the children's of Israel.(4) The Lord shall sever.—Comp. Exodus 8:22. Apparently Israel had been subjected to the first, second, and third plagues, which caused annoyance only, and not loss. Their exemption began with the fourth plague, and then probably continued without intermission, though it is not always mentioned.
And the LORD appointed a set time, saying, To morrow the LORD shall do this thing in the land.(5) The Lord appointed a set time.—As murrain is not uncommon in Egypt, especially in the Delta, and the coming affliction might therefore be ascribed by the Egyptians to natural causes, God took care to mark its miraculous character (1) by appointing a time; (2) by exempting the cattle of Israel; (3) by making the disease fatal to all the cattle of the Egyptians that were left “in the field.”
Tomorrow.—The delay allowed any Egyptians who believed Moses to save their cattle by housing them.
And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.(7) Pharaoh sent.—The Pharaoh evidently did not believe it possible that there should be such a widespread destruction of the Egyptian cattle without the Hebrew cattle suffering at all. He therefore sent persons to inquire and report on the facts. These persons found the announcement of Moses fulfilled to the letter. This was the more surprising, as Goshen consisted mainly of the low flat tract bordering on the Menzaleh marshes.
The heart of Pharaoh was hardened.—Even the exact correspondence of the result with the announcement did not soften the heart of the king. It remained dull and unimpressed—literally, “heavy” kâbêd). Loss of property would not much distress an absolute monarch, who could easily exact the value of what he had lost from his subjects.
(8-10) Here, again, there is little question of what the plague was. Doubts may be entertained as to its exact character, and its proper medical designation, but all agree, and cannot but agree, that it was a visitation of the bodies of men with a severe cutaneous disorder, accompanied by pustules or ulcers. It was not announced beforehand to the Egyptians, nor were they allowed the opportunity of escaping it. Like the third plague, it was altogether of the nature of a judgment; and the judgment was a severe one. Now, for the first time, was acute suffering inflicted on the persons of men; now, for the first time, was it shown how Jehovah could smite with a terrible disease; and if with a disease, why not with death? No doubt those stricken suffered unequally; but with some the affliction may have resembled the final affliction of Job, when he was smitten with “sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (Job 2:7). Its severity is marked by the statement that “the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils” (Exodus 9:11). And it was universal, or quasi-universal (Exodus 9:11). Moreover, it was not confined to men; it was also “upon the beasts”—i.e., upon such of the domesticated animals as had escaped the preceding plague. It does not, however, seem to have been fatal; and it wrought no change upon the Pharaoh, whose heart God is now, for the first time, said to have hardened (Exodus 9:12), as He had declared to Moses (Exodus 4:21; Exodus 7:3).
(8) Ashes of the furnace.—Furnaces in Egypt were either for the melting of metal, the preparing of lime, or the baking of bricks. It was probably from a furnace of this last kind that the ashes were now taken. Much of Goshen had been converted into a brick-field (Exodus 1:14; Exodus 5:7-13); and though most of the bricks made would be simply dried in the sun, a portion would be subjected to artificial heat in brick-kilns. When ashes from one of these kilns were made the germs of a disease that was a sore infliction, their own wrongdoing became to the Egyptians a whip wherewith God scourged them.
And they took ashes of the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses sprinkled it up toward heaven; and it became a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast.(10) Moses sprinkled it up toward heaven.—Presenting it, as it were, to God, in evidence of His people’s wrongs.
A boil breaking forth with blains.—Heb., an inflammation, producing pustules. Diseases of this character are not uncommon in Egypt (comp. Deuteronomy 28:27), but they are not often very severe; nor do they attack indifferently man and beast. The miraculous character of the plague was shown (1) by its being announced beforehand; (2) by its severity (Exodus 9:11); (3) by its universality (Exodus 9:11); and (4) by its extension to animals.
And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boil was upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians.(11) The magicians could not stand before Moses.—It is uncertain whether the magicians were present accidentally, or had come for the express purpose of “withstanding Moses” (2Timothy 3:8). The latter may be suspected, as the plague was made to fall with special violence upon them.
And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.(12) The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.—The judicial punitive hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God Himself now began. As with the heathen in later times, “because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge. God gave them over to a reprobate mind” (Romans 1:28), so now with Pharaoh: because he had twice hardened himself—i.e., resisted an impression made upon him, and crushed his inclination to yield to it (Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32), God hardened him. (See the comment on Exodus 4:21.)
(13-19) The plagues fall into triads, or groups of three. This is the first plague of the third group, and presents to us several new features. (1) It is ushered in with an unusually long and exceeding awful message (Exodus 9:13-19), in which Pharaoh is warned that God is now about to “send all His plagues upon his heart,” and that he has been raised up simply that God may show forth His power in his person. (2) It is the first plague that attacks human life; and this it does upon a large scale: all those exposed to it perish (Exodus 9:19). (3) It is more destructive than any previous plague to property. It not only slays cattle, like the murrain. but destroys plants and trees (Exodus 9:25), and ruins half the harvest (Exodus 9:31). (4) It is accompanied with terrible demonstrations—“mighty thunderings,” huge hailstones, rain, and fire that “runs along upon the ground” (Exodus 9:23). (5) It is made to test the degree of faith to which the Egyptians have attained, by means of a revelation of the way whereby it may be escaped (Exodus 9:20). Though the plagues do not form a regularly ascending series, each transcending the last, yet there is a certain progression observable. The earlier ones cause annoyance rather than injury; those which follow cause loss of property; then God’s hand is laid on men’s persons, so as to hurt, but not to kill; lastly, life itself is attacked. The seventh plague was peculiarly astonishing and alarming to the Egyptians, because hail and thunder, even rain, were rare phenomena in their country; and a thunderstorm accompanied by such features as characterised this one was absolutely unknown. The hailstones must have been of an enormous size and weight to kill men and cattle. The “fire infolding itself amid the hail” must indicate a very unusual form of the electric fluid. It is not surprising that the visitation brought down the pride of Pharaoh more than any preceding one, and made him for the time consent unconditionally to the people’s departure (Exodus 9:28).
For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.(14) I will . . . send all my plagues upon thine heart.—The naturally obdurate heart of Pharaoh, which he had further indurated by his own voluntary action (Exodus 8:15; Exodus 8:32), and which God had begun to harden penally (Exodus 9:12), was now to be softened by a repetition of blow after blow, until it should finally succumb, and yield, and humble itself under the mighty hand of God, and consent to the departure of the whole people, with flocks, and herds, and “little ones.”
For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth.(15) For now I will stretch out my hand.—The words admit of this translation, but the context will not allow it. Translate—And now I might have stretched out mine hand, and smitten both thee and thy people with pestilence; and then thou hadst been cut off from the earth; but, &c.
And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.(16) And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up.—Rather, but truly on this account have I made thee stand—i.e., kept thee alive, not for thy deserts, not even in pity, but only “for to show in thee My power.” Thou hast provoked Me so that long since thou wouldst have been “cut off from the earth,” only that My glory will be the more shown forth by thy continuance in life, and by the further plagues and punishments whereto thou wilt be subjected.
As yet exaltest thou thyself against my people, that thou wilt not let them go?(17) As yet exaltest thou thyself?—Heb., Dost thou still exalt, or oppose, thyself against My people?—i.e., Art thou not tired of the contest? Dost thou still, in thy folly, continue it?
Behold, to morrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now.(18) Such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof.—Rain, and even hail, are not unknown at the present day in Lower Egypt, though they are, comparatively speaking, rare phenomena. Thunderstorms are especially uncommon, and when they occur are for the most part mild and harmless. A thunderstorm which killed a man in Thevenot’s time (Voyages, vol. i., p. 344) was regarded as most extraordinary, and “spread universal consternation.” There is hail from time to time between November and March; but it very seldom does any considerable damage.
Send therefore now, and gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field; for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.(19) Gather thy cattle.—The peculiar circumstances of Egypt, where the whole country was overflowed by the Nile during some months of each year, caused the provision of shelter for cattle to be abnormally great. Every year, at the time of the inundation, all the cattle had to be “gathered” into sheds and cattle-yards in the immediate vicinity of the villages and towns, which were protected from the inundation by high mounds. Thus it would have been easy to house all the cattle that remained to the Egyptians after the murrain, if the warning here given had been attended to generally.
He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses:(20, 21) He that feared . . . —Some impression, we see, had been made by the preceding plagues, and the warning was taken to some extent; but it was otherwise with many. So in Gospel times, “Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not” (Acts 28:24). The result was death, both to the cattle and their keepers (Exodus 9:19). (Comp. Joshua 10:11.)
And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch forth thine hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, upon man, and upon beast, and upon every herb of the field, throughout the land of Egypt.(22) Upon every herb of the field.—The damage that hail can do to crops is well known, and has given rise among ourselves to a special form of insurance. Such a storm as that here described would necessarily have destroyed all vegetation that was more than a few inches high, and must have greatly injured shrubs and fruit-trees. (See Exodus 9:25; Exodus 9:31.)
And Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven: and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground; and the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt.(23) The fire ran along upon the ground.—Heb., fire walked earthwards. Kalisch and Knobel understand by this mere ordinary lightning, but Aben-Ezra, Canon Cook, and others think that the phenomenon was such as our Version well expresses. There is no doubt that the electric fluid occasionally takes a form which has something of permanency, continuing several seconds, or even minutes, either stationary or with a slow motion. Appearances of this kind have been called “fire-balls,” and indicate an excessive electrical disturbance, involving great peril to life and property. If the expression “fire walked earthwards” does not imply anything of this kind, yet the peculiar phrase of Exodus 9:24 would seem to do so.
So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.(24) Fire mingled with the hail.—Heb., a fire infolding itself in the midst of the hail. (Comp. Ezekiel 1:4; and see the comment on Exodus 9:23.)
And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.(25) The hail . . . brake every tree of the field.—What is meant is, not that the hail “brake the mightiest trees to fragments” (Millington, Plagues of Egypt, p. 135), but that it broke off the small boughs and twigs, so damaging the trees and, if they were fruit-trees, destroying the prospect of fruit.
And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, I have sinned this time: the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.(27) Pharaoh sent.—It is evident that the Pharaoh was more impressed by this plague than by any preceding one. This may have been partly because it caused destruction of human life, partly on account of its extraordinary and awful character. It must be borne in mind that the storm was still continuing, and gave no sign of coming to a natural end (Exodus 9:29; Exodus 9:33).
I have sinned this time—i.e., This time I confess that I have sinned in resisting Jehovah; I do not any more maintain that I have acted right.
The Lord is righteous.—Heb., Jehovah is the Just One—a form of speech implying that Jehovah, and He alone, was just.
Wicked.—Heb., the sinners. “I and my people” stand in contrast with God and His people. Previously Pharaoh had denounced the Israelites as idlers and hypocrites (Exodus 5:8; Exodus 5:17); now he admits that it is only he and his people that are to blame. The confession is satisfactory, except in so far as it divides between Pharaoh and the Egyptians the blame which was almost wholly his.
And Moses said unto him, As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread abroad my hands unto the LORD; and the thunder shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that thou mayest know how that the earth is the LORD'S.(29) That thou mayest know how that the earth is the Lord’s.—Comp, Exodus 9:15. It was the general belief of the Egyptians, as of most ancient nations, that each country had its own god or gods. Pharaoh had already admitted Jehovah’s power (Exodus 8:8), and now regarded Him as the God of the Hebrews (Exodus 8:28). God desired to have it generally acknowledged that He was the God of the whole earth.
And the flax and the barley was smitten: for the barley was in the ear, and the flax was bolled.(31) The flax and the barley was smitten.—Flax was grown largely in Egypt, since linen garments were very generally worn by the people, and were the necessary attire of the priests (Herod. ii. 37). Mummies also were swathed in linen bandages (Herod. ii. 86); and soldiers wore linen corselets (Herod. ii. 182, 3:47). Barley was grown as food for horses, as an element in the manufacture of beer, and as a material for an inferior kind of bread. The flax is “bolled”—i.e., forms its seed-vessel—towards the end of January or beginning of February, and the barley comes into ear about the same time. These facts fix the date of this plague, and help to fix the dates both of the earlier and the later ones.
But the wheat and the rie were not smitten: for they were not grown up.(32) The wheat and the rie.—“Rie,” or rye, is a wrong translation. It is a grain which has never been grown in Egypt. The only three kinds of grain cultivated were wheat, barley, and the holcus sorghum, or doora. There is no doubt that this last is intended by the Hebrew cussemeth, which is a word derived from the Egyptian. The wheat is a full month later than the barley in Egypt, and does not come into ear till March. The holcus sorghum may be grown at any time, except during the inundation. If sown with the wheat, it would ripen about the same period.
They were not grown up.—Heb., they were late, or dark. The ear was undeveloped, and lay hid in the low tufts that grew like grass.
And Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh, and spread abroad his hands unto the LORD: and the thunders and hail ceased, and the rain was not poured upon the earth.(33) Moses went out of the city . . . and spread abroad his hands.—Moses did not fear the storm. Though it still raged, he quitted the shelter of the city, and went out into the midst of it, and spread out his hands to God, when lo! at once the rain, and hail, and thunder ceased at his bidding, and soon “there was a great calm.” As Millington observes—“Moses knew that he was safe, though all around might be destroyed; the very hairs of his head were all numbered, not one of them could perish. Standing there under the tempestuous canopy of heaven, bareheaded, in the attitude of prayer, he spread abroad his hands unto the Lord, and the thunder and hail ceased, and the rain was not poured upon the earth” (Plagues of Egypt, p. 135).
And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants.(34) Pharaoh . . . sinned yet more, and hardened his heart.—As Pharaoh had never been so much moved previously, so it now required a greater effort of his will to “harden his heart” than it had ever done before; and thus he now “sinned yet more” than he had as yet sinned. It seems strange that the mercy of God should still have allowed him one other chance (Exodus 10:3-6).