The third plague is unique; it arrives without warning. There is no audience before Pharaoh, as there was with the first two plagues. This is the first plague without any sort of introduction, it simply happens. Details like this often go unnoticed by the casual reader, but if you had been present at the time of the plagues you would have noticed that there was no warning prior to the this plague. In addition, an ancient reader of this narrative would also have been more attuned to some of these details than the average reader is today. The structure of the text is not haphazard. It reflects a pattern. The plagues are divided into three groups of three, with the tenth plague standing alone as an exclamation point; the tenth plague is a grand finale to all the other acts of judgment.
Each series of three plagues has the same pattern. Blood, frogs, and gnats make up the first series of three plagues. The first two plagues in this first series have a warning, but the third plague takes place without a warning. This same pattern is repeated in the second series; flies, livestock, and boils. Again in this second series of plagues the first two come with a warning while the third (boils) comes without a warning. In the third series of plagues, this same pattern is repeated again; hail and locusts come with a warning and the third plague, darkness, comes with no warning. Then after the three series of plagues are completed, the tenth plague comes with a warning, preserving the same pattern that God has already established.
This pattern, at the very least, reveals purposefulness on the part of God. The plagues take place by design. They serve a didactic and theological purpose, not just a historiographic one. The author of Exodus is not interested in novel details alone; he is a theologian. The three series of three plagues hit Pharaoh like waves of judgment. The last plague in each series is a final, quick blow in response to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. “But 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.” In response to Pharaoh’s action Jehovah hits him with another blow; this blow comes without warning. The third plague in all three series of plagues takes place in the same way; they come in response Pharaoh’s unyielding heart.
This is consistent with the statement in James chapter 4 “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” As Pharaoh responds in arrogance, God opposes him with an unannounced blow.
The Finger of God
The third plague in the first series of plagues is the first plague that Pharaoh’s magicians are unable to reproduce. This is an important detail, but before we reflect upon its significance, we need to examine the details leading up to this point. In the NIV translation of the Bible, the third plague is described as a plague of gnats. In the NKJ version of the Bible the insects are described as lice. The identity of the insect has been the subject of debate because the Hebrew text is ambiguous. Most certainly the insects were some type of nagging pesky insect like gnats, lice, mosquitoes, or maggots. The significance of these creatures may have more to do with where they came from than what they were.
The first plague involved water and the second plague comes from the water, this is the first plague to come from the earth. Aaron is directed to strike “the dust of the earth and the dust will become gnats.” Why the dust of the earth?
This is a common expression that was used for the sake of making an emphasis. For example, when God promises that Abraham will have an immense number of descendants he says they will be as “the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16). That same promise is made to Jacob in Genesis 28:14. The point is that the gnats will be innumerable. All of Egypt will be covered with lice, maggots, gnats or mosquitoes. “Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become lice.”
The Hebrew terms for man and beast are frequently used in connection with all humanity and all the animal kingdom together. The scale of the third plague was so vast that no creature of the ground was left unscathed. The final clause makes this point “that all the dust of Egypt turned to lice,” this statement highlights the severity of the plague.
But now there is another important difference between the first two plagues and the third plague. This time when the magicians try to replicate Aaron’s action, but they were not able. They were powerless in their attempt to nullify the plague or to imitate it. “And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘it is the finger of God.’” The magicians had to admit to Pharaoh that they were being confronted with a power greater than their magic. Their powers had been exhausted, and they were defeated. Although the magicians appear again in the story, there is no record, that they ever tried again to reproduce another plague. It appears that they withdraw from the scene of the battle in defeat.
Although the magicians acknowledge defeat they do not credit their defeat to the finger of Jehovah but to “the finger of Elohim” (in the plural). Elohim can be used as a very general term for any deity or deities, the word is in the plural, meaning many gods. The magicians are not acknowledging that Jehovah is the source of this great power, but rather the gods in the plural. Even though the magicians admitted defeat, they did not repent and turn to Jehovah in faith.
The magicians are convinced that they are engaged in a spiritual battle, a battle that they are losing; yet there is no record that they acknowledged that the one true God was the source of the plagues.
Yet, there remains a contrast between the unbelief of the magicians and the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God (the gods).’” But Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had said.” The magicians admit to Pharaoh that they have been defeated by a superior power, yet Pharaoh is unwilling to acknowledge the obvious. The fact that Pharaoh continues to harden his heart is consistent with the word of the Lord. Jehovah has already spoken regarding Pharaoh’s heart. We see in Pharaoh how the hard facts of reality, the truth, do not change his heart. This is still true today, there are those who resist the truth of the gospel, and no amount of evidence alone will ever convince them that the God of the Bible is the one true living God.
Creation and Salvation
God could have used a variety of other means to judge Pharaoh and bring him to his knees. He could have used a foreign army as he did with Israel and Judah. But this was not the method of His choosing. Instead, God chose to fight with weapons that no one else but the sovereign Lord had at his disposal. Only the one true God has the powers of creation at His command. Nine of the ten plagues against Egypt involve creation. They are, as we have seen, the unleashing of God’s creative forces against the enemies of God’s people. The attack against Egypt through the use of creation removes any doubt regarding the question who is the one true God that rules over creation, and who will prevail against the seed of the serpent.
Another reason why God may have chosen such means has to do with the nature of the crime that Pharaoh commits against Israel. Pharaoh claims to be a god; he competes directly with Jehovah, as a result Jehovah is making a statement that He is the only one true God over and against Pharaoh and the false gods of Egypt. When the conflict is framed in this way, it is easy to see how the conflict between Pharaoh and God is the result of the twoseed principle of Genesis 3:15. Pharaoh represents the seed of the serpent and Moses represents the seed of the woman. Pharaoh takes on the spirit of anti-God, not unlike the anti-Christ in the New Testament. In Chapter 1, he decrees the destruction of the Hebrews, which is nothing less than a challenge to God’s creation mandate in Genesis 1. Also in Exodus 1, the language of creation was applied to the Hebrews. This sets the stage for a conflict between the Creator God and the anti-God.
In the Scriptures there is a close relationship between creation and salvation. When God saves, His saving work is often described as a second work of creation, a re-creation. This is why the Exodus event is presented in the Bible as a second work of creation. Salvation as an act of re-creation will become even more prominent as we continue in our study of the plagues.
Creation is at God’s command both to deliver His people and to destroy His enemies. The plagues represent a reversal of creation, whereby the natural order of creation is altered and turned against God’s enemies. The Exodus narrative is not alone in linking creation and salvation. One has to look no further than the Genesis flood to see how creation is an instrument of salvation and judgment.
Another example is the sun standing still in Joshua 10:1-15. As a result of the extended daylight Israel was victorious over Adoni-Zedek. The enemies of Israel proclaimed, “Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel” (10:14). This is the same conclusion that the Egyptians arrive at in Exodus 14.
Closely associated with the Exodus is the miraculous provision of manna, quail, and water from a rock. The normal challenges that accompany desert travel, the lack of food and water, are no barriers to the God of creation. Just as He is capable of turning water into blood or dust into lice, He is able to make the skies rain quail, the dew of the earth bring forth bread, and water from a most unlikely source, hard rock. Like the plagues, these examples show that God is suspending the normal operations of His creation to show that He is Lord over all. Creation serves its master, and Jehovah is clearly the master over and against Pharaoh and the false gods of Egypt.
Likewise, Jesus had command over the elements. He walked on water; He commanded the storms to cease; He provided a miraculous supply of fish and bread; He made a fig tree wither by the power of His word. His authority over creation illustrates that He is the God of the Old Testament. He has creation at His disposal. The fact that Jesus is able to do these things is nothing less than a clear indication that the God of the Old Testament is walking among His people. Christ has the entire order of creation at His disposal. According to the apostle Paul “All things were created by Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).
At the time of Jesus’ death we see an inversion of this theme. The Gospel writers tell us that darkness came over the earth, the earth shook, and rocks split (Matthew 27:51). With the death of Christ, creation cried out signaling the salvation of God’s people and the judgment of Jesus Christ. Jesus was judged as an enemy of God, a sin offering, whereby God’s anger was unleashed against Jesus as He died for the sins of God’s people. Jesus suffered the punishment that God formerly inflicted on the enemies of His people, such as Egypt and Babylon. With the death of Christ, God is on the move; He has brought His people out of a bondage greater than Egypt.
Even the resurrection of Christ takes on a new dimension when seen in light of this theme. The bodily resurrection is the ultimate re-creation act. Death and human mortality came through the curse of the Law and sin, but the curse of the Law and sin has been reversed through the resurrection and the emerging of the new creation. Our knees should shake in the face of such power!
The victory of Christ will bring all of history to its final goal, a blessing that transcends Eden. John’s vision in the book of Revelation is filled with allusions to plagues and the undoing of creation. At the end of time all men will know either God’s judgment or His salvation. The seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls all allude to wellknown descriptions of cosmic upheaval. It appears as if the earth is coming apart at the seams. It is no mere coincidence that the final judgment will bear a resemblance to God’s other acts of judgment. In this sense the power that God displays in Exodus is a foretaste of the final judgment. Exodus is a down payment, an earthly depiction of the final judgment.
This is what the apostle Paul is driving at in Romans 8:19, when he describes the eager expectation whereby creation waits for the sons of God to be revealed. All of creation looks forward to the final judgment and the bodily resurrection of the people of God. This will be a glorious event. Even as their was a pattern to the plagues in the book of Exodus, there will be a pattern in the final judgment. Just as Pharaoh hardened his heart in the face of certain defeat, the enemies of Christ will grow hard and arrogant in light of God’s judgment and the coming salvation. Just as judgment is certain, salvation is just as certain for the people of God. In fact we are commanded to look forward to the Day of Lord; we are commanded to live in anticipation of this Day. By living in anticipation of this day we live as aliens on this earth, sojourners, pilgrims heading to a better land. We live with an understanding that we belong to Christ, and that we have been redeemed. As people that belong to Christ we should live holy lives, separate and pure from this world’s way of thinking.
Rev. Mark Stromberg is the pastor of the Belgrade United Reformed Church in Belgrade, Montana.