Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Finger of God (Exodus 8)

PRAYER BEFORE STUDYING SCRIPTURE: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and You shall renew the face of the earth.

Chapter 8 deals with the plague of frogs, the plague of gnats and the plague of flies.

The Plague of Frogs

The presence of frogs in Egypt was not unusual. Professor Davis notes that amulets have been discovered bearing pictures of frogs and the frog, because of its association with the rising and falling of the Nile, was considered a sacred animal:

“The common presence of the frog to the Egyptians was not something loathsome or to be abhorred. The frog, to a large degree, represented fruitfulness, blessing and the assurance of a harvest. This concept came about as a result of the flooding of the Nile which continued through mid-September. By the middle of December the Nile had once again returned to its normal channel. The receding water, however, left many pools and ponds over the countryside which were quickly inhabited by frogs whose chorus was often heard on balmy Egyptian evenings. To the farmers this sound was music indeed because it indicated that the gods who controlled the Nile and made the land fertile had completed their work. . . . These associations caused the Egyptians to deify the frog and make the theophany of the goddess Heqt a frog. . . . She was the symbol of resurrection and the emblem of fertility. . . . The frog was one of a number of sacred animals that might not be intentionally killed, and even their involuntary slaughter was often punished with death.” (John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus, page. 107 - 108).

So the problem was not the presence of frogs but their great number. If frogs were everywhere, in houses, in beds, and in food storage areas, and they couldn’t be killed because they were sacred, this would be a very bad problem. Again, Pharaoh calls for the Egyptian magicians and they are able by their “secret arts” to duplicate the miracle. However, realizing that this slave god has real power, Pharaoh now entertains the idea of letting the Hebrews go and worship their God. Pharaoh promises to let the people go and asks Moses and Aaron to pray and ask God to remove the plague of frogs. Moses wants Pharaoh to name the time when the plague will end so that everyone will know that it is the power of the Lord. In answer to Moses’ prayer all the frogs on the land die. With the problem taken care of, Pharaoh now goes back on his word and refuses to let the people go.

As some interesting trivia, the film historian’s commentary on the DVD for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments notes that DeMille filmed the plague of frogs but after watching the dailies thought that it looked too comical and cut it from the film.

The Plague of Gnats

"Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.” And they did so; Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and struck the dust of the earth, and there came gnats on man and beast; all the dust of the earth became gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 8: 16-17).

Professor Davis says of the plague of gnats: “It is not clear against what specific deities this particular plague was directed.” (Davis, p. 111). Davis opines that since the Egyptian priesthood had to keep ritual purity in order to practice their rites, having gnats everywhere would render them ritually impure thereby keeping them from performing religious rituals. Professor Davis also says that the word which is translated into English as “gnats,” may well mean mosquitoes. If they were mosquitoes, this would be a real scourge. Swarms of gnats are a nuisance, swarms of biting mosquitoes covering every man and beast would be a real plague.

Pharaoh again calls the Egyptian priests and for the first time they cannot match the miracle. “The magicians tried by their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. And the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” (Exodus 8: 18-19). But despite the admission of his priests that the Hebrew God has more power than them, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8: 19).

The Plague of Flies

Being Catholic and Progressive and Hip, The Navarre Bible Commentary says that the plague of flies may be a variation and a retelling of the previous plague of gnats rather than a separate plague. Being a Fundamentalist Evangelical, Professor Davis takes the Bible at its word that there was a separate plague of flies following the plague of gnats.

“The blood sucking gadfly or dogfly was something to abhorred and may in part have been responsible for the great deal of blindness in the land.

It might also be noted that the Inchneuman fly, which deposits its eggs on other living things upon which its larvae can feed was regarded as the manifestation of the god Uatchit. Perhaps other insects were likewise revered; if so, this plague takes on new dimensions.”
(Davis, page 114).

Pharaoh is now ready to compromise. He will let the people go so long as they don’t go too far. In other words, Pharaoh is saying to Moses, I’ll let you go perform your rituals but you’re still our slaves and we want you back. Moses responds that they need to get far away from the Egyptians because the Egyptians find the Hebrew sacrifices abominable. Professor Davis says that this probably refers to the sacrifice of animals, such as sheep, which were sacred to the Egyptian gods. (Davis, p. 116-117). Moses says that God has ordered him to take the Israelites three days journey into the desert and he cannot vary the terms of God’s command in order to compromise with Pharaoh. Perhaps the lesson here for us is that we cannot compromise with the world on issues like abortion and the sanctity of traditional marriage where God’s commands and the teachings of the Church are clear and unambiguous. Like Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, we must fear God more than Pharaoh. As Saint Peter told the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).

In any event, Pharaoh promises to let the people go if the plague is lifted. Again Moses keeps his part of the bargain and prays that God will lift the plague, and again Pharaoh goes back on his word with his “hard heart.”

PRAYER AFTER STUDYING SCRIPTURE: O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

COMING SOON: When the Gods Were Silent: Exodus 9 - 10.

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