Commentary on Exodus 7:8-15:21

Last updated: June 3, 2013

Hyperbole

I will place this quotation before the notes because it applies to the entire passage, in fact to all of Exodus. The plague narrative appears to the modern reader to include contradictions and moral atrocities. But this is mainly the result of the modern man taking everything in a strictly literal fashion.

One of the outstanding features of the Exodus story, beginning already in chap. 5, is hyperbole. We find frequent assertions of totality: “not one remained,” “not one was smitten,” “not a hoof,” “not a house,” “man and animal.” Fretheim counts over fifty appearances of kol ‘all.’ These exaggerations both delight and offend our overfastidious sensibilities and are frequently noted by commentators. Do the Hebrews gather stubble “in all the land of Egypt,” from border to border (5:12)? Does Aaron extend his rod “over all Egypt’s waters,” up and down the length of the Nile (7:19; 8:1)? If there is no water in all Egypt, what do the magicians convert to blood (7:22)? If all the dirt turns to lice (8:13), on what do the magicians attempt to operate (8:14)? Is the land really “devestated” by the swarms of tiny arob (8:20; cf. Ps 78:45)? How can all the cattle die from murrain (9:6) if some are later killed by hail (9:19-21), if Moses demands from Pharaoh sacrificed animals (10:25), if the firstborn cattle die during the paschal night (11:5; 12:12, 29) and if the horses drown in the Sea (chaps. 14-15)? Does Yahweh send all his afflictions against Egypt (9:14), or are some held in reserve? How can every servant of Pharaoh, throughout all Egypt, receive warning of the plague of hail in a single day (9:18-20)? Can every household of Egypt contain a dead, firstborn male (12:30)?

Listing these is trivializing, but important given the history of biblical scholarship. Only a pedant would carp at such “contradictions”, or, worse yet, use them in isolation as source-critical criteria. We must not hold the Bible to anachronistic standards of journalistic accuracy. (Propp 347)

Notes (ESV and NET translation)

7:8 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’”

God tells Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh will literally ask them to “Give yourselves a wonder.” “We might rather have expected ‘give me a wonder’ (so Syr; cf. LXX). It is as if Pharaoh says, ‘I’m not interested in your tricks, but perform one if you must’. Fretheim catches the irony: Pharaoh, who first suggests a wonder, will get many more than he bargained for.”1

7:10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent.

The Hebrew word translated “serpent” (tannin) is the same word used to denote the sea creatures in the creation account in Genesis 1:21. The exact creature envisioned by the author is not clear, but it may be a crocodile (cf. Ezekiel 29:3-7; 32:2-10) or a cobra (symbol of the Egyptian monarchy).2 In some biblical passages, the creature represents the cosmological forces of chaos (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9).

7:11 Then Pharaoh also summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the magicians of Egypt by their secret arts did the same thing.

The Hebrew word mekassepim (sorcerers) is not common in the Hebrew Bible. The sorcerers are dream interpreters in Dan. 2:2 and condemned in Deut. 1:13. The Hebrew word hartummim (magicians) is derived from the Egyptian title meaning “chief lector priest” (Sarna 37) and means “chief ritualist” (Dozeman 212). Such a person was a learned scribe whose skills included magic, divination, and dream interpretation.

Magic is central to Egyptian religion and culture. Its purpose, according to J. F. Borghouts, is to avert danger and to protect. The power of magic is rooted in its antquity. Heka, the personification of magic, states: “I am he whom the Sole Lord made before two things came into being on earth. . . . I am charged with the protection of what the Sole Lord has ordained.” Magic sustained the order of creation by warding off elements of chaos. And, writes Borghouts: “Because magic was regarded as a defensive weapon, its use was tantamount to an act of war. . . . A magician would be called a ‘warrior.'” There were levels of magicians and degrees of magical power in Egypt. Local magicians could devise simple spells. But the “chief ritualists,” the magicians confronting Aaron, were the “true professional theologians.” They were connected with the “House of Life,” the repository of all sacred and secret traditions that sustained Egyptian society. (Dozeman 212-213)

The Hebrew stem l-w-t means “to enwrap” and so the noun (lahatim) refers to “secret arts” or “trickery”. “The term itself suggests that the wonder belonged to the magicians’ conventional repertoire of tricks” (Sarna 37).

Stuart (194) suggests that the Egyptian magicians performed a substitution trick using boxes or curtains. According to Sarna, a similar, impressive magic trick is known today (Sarna 37):

In fact, to this day Egyptian snake charmers practice the deception of turning a rod into a serpent. They are able to induce catatonic rigidity in the native cobra by exerting strong pressure on a nerve just below its head. In this state, the snake assumes a rodlike appearance and can even be handled by onlookers. The jolt it receives when thrown to the ground restores its mobility.

Attempts on my part to find examples of this on the internet have come up empty. If you have links to further information, especially a video, please comment below.

[T]he reader may wonder any of the following: “What sort of miracle is it that can be duplicated by all the magicians (“each one,” v. 12) in a group of pagans? Are we to assume that they too had supernatural powers? Or did God give Moses and Aaron nothing more than a simple magic trick (i.e., not a miracle at all) that other magicians could also perform? Was Satan perhaps helping the magicians; was that the source of their ability to replicate a miracle? Did God actually think that a low-quality “miracle” that was so easily replicated would convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go?

Four considerations provide the resolution to these questions. First, Moses and Aaron were not magicians. What God did through them was genuine – turning a piece of wood into an animal. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were magicians, and the simplest reading of the text is one that assumes they imitated by magical deception what Aaron had done by divine power. For a Pharaoh eager not to be persuaded to believe in a foreigner’s God, their ability to produce snakes from staffs (perhaps using boxes and curtains, in the usual manner of magicians doing substitution tricks) would be enough to allow him to follow his predilections and doubt Moses and Aaron – and thus disregard their God. Second, the text states that the magicians accomplished their imitation “by their secret arts” (“trickery,” v. 11) rather than by any sort of supernatural means or with the help of Satan or any other similar nonworldly mechanism. Third, the end of v. 12 states that Aaron’s staff swallowed theirs, a performance they could not and apparently did not even try to duplicate. They were at that point trumped because a substitution trick is nothing compared to causing one snake to eat a group of other snakes. Clearly, the power of the God of Moses and Aaron was vastly superior to their ability. Fourth, it was God’s purpose to start small. This preplague miraculous portent was intentionally a simple, small-scale miracle to test the will of Pharaoh and to show Moses and Aaron what they were up against. It was one thing to use these sorts of miracles to convince the Israelites (4:31); it was very much another to use them to convince Pharaoh, Egypt’s king, as predicted (3:19; 4:21), was not going to be so easy to impress, and that fact was clearly part of the divine plan. Impressed though the Egyptian magicians themselves may actually have been once Aaron’s rod ate theirs, Pharaoh, his mind made stubborn by God, now had an excuse for resisting, even if a lame one; he could for the time being content himself with the comforting belief that what Aaron had done was just a magic trick.4

7:12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

That Aaron’s staff swallowed up the staffs of the magicians provides a glimpse of the end of the confrontation between God and Pharaoh.

7:13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

The present narrative is a sophisticated and symmetric literary structure with a pattern of three groups each comprising three plagues. The climactic tenth plague possesses a character all its own. The first two afflictions in each triad are forewarned; the last always strikes suddenly, unannounced. Furthermore, in the case of the first, fourth, and seventh plagues Pharaoh is informed in the morning and Moses is told to “station” himself before the king, whereas in the second of each series Moses is told to “come in before Pharaoh,” that is, to confront him in the palace. Finally, in the first triad of plagues it is always Aaron who is the effective agent; in the third, it is always Moses.

The controlling purpose behind this literary architecture is to emphasize the idea that the nine plagues are not random vicissitudes of nature; although they are natural disasters, they are the deliberate and purposeful acts of divine will – their intent being retributive, coercive, and educative. As God’s judgments on Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelites, they are meant to crush Pharaoh’s resistance to their liberation. They are to demonstrate to Egypt the impotence of its gods and, by contrast, the incomparability of YHVH, God of Israel, as the one supreme sovereign God of Creation, who uses the phenomena of the natural order for His own purposes.

In addition to this dominant motif of the plagues narrative, a secondary theme is also discernible: Israel as well as the Egyptians must “know” YHVH. This is made explicit in 10:2. The early Exodus narratives are very clear about the lack of people’s faith in its relationship with God. In this regard, the mysterious silence of the Israelites throughout the course of the plagues may well be significant. True, the people is said to be shielded from the effects of the catastrophes, but only in the course of five of them; nothing is said about this in connection with the others. It is only after the culminating miracle at the sea that “the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses” (14:31).5

7:14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent.

Since Pharaoh’s daughter bathed in the Nile in 2:5 it is possible that Pharaoh himself also bathed in the Nile. If this is the case, then the ensuing plague would prevent Pharaoh from doing what he was on his way to do.

7:16 And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness. But so far, you have not obeyed.” 17 Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood.

In Hebrew “blood” is both a color and a substance. Therefore, it is not clear whether the waters were turned into actual blood or turned the color of blood. Verse 18 indicates that the key point is that the waters were polluted to such an extent that they were deadly to fish and undrinkable to humans.6

7:18 The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” 19 And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

7:20 Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood.

In ancient Egyptian religion the Nile River is personified as the god Hapi. The yearly flooding of the Nile is associated with the god Osiris, the divine father of the pharaoh. The transformation of the Nile into blood is an attack against the Egyptian gods and renders the land of Egypt ritually impure.7 “Also by commencing the series of plagues with the striking of the Nile waters, the text suggests an underlying notion of retribution, measure for measure, for Pharaoh’s iniquitous decree that all newborn males be cast into the river.”8

7:21 And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

Presumably the magicians got water that they could turn into blood by digging along the Nile (v 24).

7:23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile.

7:25 Seven full days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile.

This remark may imply that a comparable period of time elapsed between each of the plagues. If that is the case, the plagues occurred over a number of weeks or months.9

8:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.

The demand of Yahweh (“Let my people go, so they may worship me”) will be repeated verbatim again in 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3. It is the standard expression of God’s demand to Pharaoh through Moses, and a slight but significant variation on the previous wordings (5:1, “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert,”) and 7:16, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert.” At this point, the bargaining-style reference to holding a festival/worship in the wilderness ceases, and the demand is thus more nearly explicitly one of full, permanent release. The Hb. verb translated “worship” by the NIV (bd) could as easily be translated “serve,” reminding Pharaoh that the God of the people he had forced to serve him as slaves was demanding their release to serve freely and permanently a new master, himself.10

8:2 But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs. 3 The Nile shall swarm with frogs that shall come up into your house and into your bedroom and on your bed and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. 4 The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your servants.”’” 5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the canals and over the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt!’” 6 So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.

According to Leviticus 11, frogs are unclean animals. The notice that frogs entered houses and kitchens and that the land stank further suggests the defilement of the land. The Egyptian goddess Heket was portrayed with a frog’s head and assisted the god Khnum in the birth of humans. That the frogs are a plague instead of a blessing may be a statement against the goddess.11 The plague may also “have been taken as retribution for the decree ordering the midwives to kill the newborn males at birth.”12

8:7 But the magicians did the same by their secret arts and made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.

8:8 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the LORD to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”

This request acknowledges the power of God and suggests that Pharaoh is beginning to know the LORD.

8:9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “Be pleased to command me when I am to plead for you and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God. 11 The frogs shall go away from you and your houses and your servants and your people. They shall be left only in the Nile.”

The [ESV] renders [8:9] as simply a polite expression, ‘Be pleased to command me . . .’. But this does not do justice to the Hebrew or fit the context of the section. Rather, Moses responds to Pharaoh: ‘I’ll give you the advantage. Set the amount of time needed for removing these frogs.’ When Pharaoh gives him only one day, then Moses replies: ‘Just as you say – in order that you may recognize the authority of Yahweh.” Moses accepts the handicap, giving Pharaoh the advantage, to show him how much power is at his disposal. It is a classic example of ‘one-up-manship’. Some commentators find a note of irony in the final comment that, even though the frogs were removed, they left their smell in the land – a bonus for which Pharaoh had not negotiated.13

8:12 So Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh, and Moses cried to the LORD about the frogs, as he had agreed with Pharaoh. 13 And the LORD did according to the word of Moses. The frogs died out in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14 And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

8:16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’”

The Hebrew word translated “gnats” (kinnam) may also refer to lice, sand fleas, or mosquitoes.14

8:17 And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

8:20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 21 Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand.

The translation of “flies” for the Hebrew arob is provisional, but some form of biting insect is probably intended.15

8:22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. 23 Thus I will put a division between my people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall happen.”’” 24 And the LORD did so. There came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and into his servants’ houses. Throughout all the land of Egypt the land was ruined by the swarms of flies.

The ruin here described was not topological but rather referred to the quality of life. People couldn’t eat without ingesting flies; they couldn’t sleep without flies covering their bodies; they couldn’t work for having to swat flies and/or because they couldn’t see well through the swarms; their skin was welted with fly bites.16

8:25 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the LORD our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? 27 We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he tells us.” 28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.” 29 Then Moses said, “Behold, I am going out from you and I will plead with the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow. Only let not Pharaoh cheat again by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”

Pharaoh now offered to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and Moses apparently accepted his offer as a genuine capitulation to Yahweh’s demands. True, Pharaoh placed restrictions on his offer (“I will let you go [only] to offer sacrifices . . . you must not go very far”), and Moses remained suspicious and wary, as indicated by his words in rejoinder (“Only be sure that Pharaoh does not act deceitfully again by not letting the people go”). Nevertheless, this interchange raises a question: Did Moses really think he had won, and if so, wasn’t he mistaken? The most likely answer would seem to be: He did not know for sure whether or not he (or more precisely, Yahweh) had won, but he regarded it as a real possibility – that is, that now the exodus could get underway. The main reason for this is to be found, once again, in the implications of the bargaining style. The style allows many unspoken transactions to be subsumed under that which is actually stated. Moses could well have understood Pharaoh’s spoken restrictions as mere face-saving devices for allowing the exodus to take place without having to say, “Okay, you win. I give up. You can have your exodus.” It is important to bear in mind that Moses had never been told how many plagues there would be and could well have wondered if this fourth plague, having several similarities to the first, might indicate by its somewhat resumptive nature that the pattern was starting again, so that means we’ve come full circle and this part of the sequence was coming to a conclusion. He also did not have to assume that the predicted death of the Egyptian firstborn (4:23) was no longer a valid expectation. That event could still happen, after the plague of swarming insects abated and during or after the time the Israelites left Egypt. In other words, there was nothing in what Moses had so far been led to expect that would automatically cause him to think he was as yet far from the time of the exodus and that many more plagues would be needed before he could begin to lead the Israelites into the wilderness. Moses was operating on faith as regards God’s timing throughout the entire sequence of plagues.17

8:30 So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 31 And the LORD did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.

9:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 2 For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, 3 behold, the hand of the LORD will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks.

The presence of this animal [the camel] here and in the patriarchal narratives is a problem because the camel does not figure in Egyptian texts and art until the Persian period. It is conspicuously absent from the published Mari texts from Mesopotamia, which are replete with information about pastoral nomadic groups and their way of life. Thousands of commercial and administrative texts from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1950-1530 B.C.E.) maintain complete silence on the existence of this animal. All available evidence points to the conclusion that the effective domestication of the camel as a widely used beast of burden did not take place before the twelfth century B.C.E., which is long after the patriarchal and Exodus periods.

The key word in this formulation is “effective,” for evidence of another kind does exist. Certain bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian lexical texts from Mesopotamia equate a domesticated animal called “donkey-of-the-sea-land” with a dromedary, thus proving a knowledge of the animal in southern Mesopotamia in Old Babylonian times (ca. 2000-1700 B.C.E.). Moreover, the scribes knew to differentiate between the dromedary and the Bactrian camel, and a Sumerian text from that period mentions the drinking of camel’s milk. A braided cord made from camel hair (ca. 2000 B.C.E.) has been found in Egypt; a tiny bronze figurine of a camel from before 2100 B.C.E. turned up at Byblos; a frieze of a procession of typically Egyptian animals, including a camel, decorates a pot (1500-1400 B.C.E.) uncovered in Greece; a steatite seal from Minoan Crete (1800-1400 B.C.E.) features that animal; and a ration list from the North Syrian town of Alalakh from the 18th century B.C.E. in Old Babylonian includes fodder for the camel.

In light of all this, mention of the camel in Exodus and Genesis can be taken at face value. First domesticated in southern Arabia in the third millennium B.C.E., its presence spread very slowly and long remained a rarity. A wealthy man might acquire a few as a prestige symbol. Only much later did it become a beast of burden.18

9:4 But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die.”’” 5 And the LORD set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.” 6 And the next day the LORD did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died.

The NIV translation “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” would seem to suggest that no Egyptian livestock survived the plague, especially when this statement is followed by the (correctly translated) statement “but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.” Yet when one reads on to the account of the seventh plague, it is clear that there were plenty of Egyptian livestock still alive, since they are mentioned as being in danger of being killed by the next plague, that of ferocious hail (9:19-21). Moreover, Egyptian livestock are described as alive at the advent of the account of the final plague, that of the death of the firstborn (12:29). This apparent contradiction is not due to inconsistency among the plague accounts, multiple contradictory sources for them, or any similar cause. It is due simply to the fact that the Hebrew word kol, usually translated “all,” can mean “all sorts of” or “from all over” or “all over the place.” In this verse the better translation of the full expression would be “all sorts of Egyptian livestock died” or “Egyptian livestock died all over the place.”19

9:7 And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.

9:8 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw them in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 It shall become fine dust over all the land of Egypt, and become boils breaking out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.”

The exact medical condition envisioned here is somewhat unclear, but it was some kind of skin disease.20

9:10 So they took soot from the kiln and stood before Pharaoh. And Moses threw it in the air, and it became boils breaking out in sores on man and beast. 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians.

As I noted on 7:11, the magicians were supposed to protect Egypt. That the magicians could not even heal themselves meant that Pharaoh was in a hopeless situation. The magicians are not mentioned again in Exodus for they are impotent in the face of God’s power.21

9:12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

9:13 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. 18 Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.”’” 20 Then whoever feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, 21 but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the LORD left his slaves and his livestock in the field.

9:22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.

9:25 The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. 26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.

9:27 Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.”

The English translation implies that Pharaoh was genuinely sorry and seeking God’s forgiveness, but the Hebrew, at most, means that Pharaoh admitted he has treated the Israelites unjustly. This is why Moses is still skeptical of Pharaoh in verse 30.22

9:29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. 30 But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD God.” 31 (The flax and the barley were struck down, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. 32 But the wheat and the emmer were not struck down, for they are late in coming up.)

The time of the plague is clarified in vv. 31-32 perhaps because the agricultural cycle of the Egyptians is different from the Israelites in Syria-Palestine. The seasons in Egypt are determined by the flooding of the Nile River, not by the rain or the thunderstorm. There are three seasons in Egypt, each lasting approximately four months. The first season is Akhet, the Season of Inundation, when the Nile River overflows. Akhet begins in June/July. The second season is Peroyet, the Season of Coming-Forth, referring either to the fields emerging from flood or perhaps the sprouting of plants. Peroyet begins in October/November. The third season is Shomu, the Season of Deficiency, referring to the lack of water and the time of harvest. Shomu begins in Feb/March. The insertion of the time in vv. 31-32 locates the plague of hail during the season of Shomu preparing the reader for the spring festival of Passover.23

9:33 So Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and stretched out his hands to the LORD, and the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured upon the earth. 34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses.

10:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, 2 and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”

The NIV translation of the second clause of v. 2 (“how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians”) takes the least likely option among the possibilities for translating the verb in question, ll, hithpael + preposition b. The verb in this conjugational form can mean “abuse” or “mistreat” but in the sense of “humiliate” rather than in the sense of “be tough on” or “deal harshly with.” It sometimes connotes “making a fool of” or “making a spectacle of” (the latter being translations that have been proposed for the present text). In light of what is going on in the entire corpus of plague accounts, summarized here, it seems best to render the verb as “humiliated.” What God did to Pharaoh, the Egyptians in general, and to Egypt’s gods was to show them powerless and helpless, to expose their pride as empty arrogance, and to shame them forever in the process – that is, to humiliate them.24

10:3 So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. 4 For if you refuse to let my people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country, 5 and they shall cover the face of the land, so that no one can see the land. And they shall eat what is left to you after the hail, and they shall eat every tree of yours that grows in the field, 6 and they shall fill your houses and the houses of all your servants and of all the Egyptians, as neither your fathers nor your grandfathers have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day.’” Then he turned and went out from Pharaoh.

10:7 Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?”

Note the irony in the fact that the Egyptians, who ensnared the Israelites through slavery, are now ensnared by the God of the Hebrews.

10:8 So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the LORD your God. But which ones are to go?”

At this point the mere warning of the plague causes Pharaoh to begin bargaining with Moses over who will leave to serve God.

10:9 Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the LORD.” 10 But he said to them, “The LORD be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind.

The part of Pharaoh’s response recorded in the first clauses of v. 10 (“the LORD be with you – if I let you go, along with your women and children!”), though not actually ambiguous in the original, has been translated variously by modern versions. For example, “The LORD indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you!” (NRSV); “Very well then; take your dependents with you when you go; and the Lord be with you” (NEB); “The LORD help you if . . .” (NAB). None of these, in our judgment, renders the Hebrew adequately because all are trying – somewhat misleadingly – to help the reader realize that Pharaoh was not actually giving permission for the exodus. In fact, what Pharaoh said was literally: “Let it be so! Yahweh will be with you when I let you and your family members go!” His words, however, were not intended literally but sarcastically, as the critical and negative final statement in the verse (“clearly you are bent on evil”) makes clear. Were Pharaoh speaking modern colloquial English, he might have said something like: “Oh, sure, that’s fine. And it would certainly prove that Yahweh was with you if I actually allowed all your family members to go with you, but, look, it’s obvious you have evil in mind.”25

10:11 No! Go, the men among you, and serve the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.

10:12 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, so that they may come upon the land of Egypt and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.” 13 So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind had brought the locusts.

Hebrew kadim is generally the hot, dry, withering wind known as the khamsin, or sirocco, such as in Genesis 41:6. Here, as in 14:21, it may signify the south wind that blows in from the Sahara, since Egypt was oriented southward to the source and headwaters of the Nile. The kadim is often used in the Bible as the instrument of God without any directional implication.26

10:14 The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again. 15 They covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt. 16 Then Pharaoh hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. 17 Now therefore, forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the LORD your God only to remove this death from me.” 18 So he went out from Pharaoh and pleaded with the LORD. 19 And the LORD turned the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea. Not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt. 20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.

10:21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.”

The absence of light cannot be felt. There is nothing in this passage or elsewhere in the Bible or in ancient Near Eastern literature in general to suggest that anyone thought there was such a thing as a darkness that could be felt. The proper translation, instead, is almost surely “a darkness that will require groping around.” The Hebrew wording in question employs the only attested hiphil of a root (mss) that in the piel conjugation means “feel around with one’s hands,” “grope,” or “feel one’s way” (thus used of the actions of blind persons in Deut 28:29; cf. Job 5:14; 12:25). In the construction used by Moses, the subject is quite obviously not the unexpressed indefinite “one/someone” but the noun “darkness.” If the factitive-resultative piel means “feel around with one’s hands,” “grope,” or “feel one’s way,” there is every likelihood that the causative hiphil would mean to cause these actions, that is, “to cause to feel around with one’s hands,” “to cause to grope,” or “to cause to feel one’s way.” Properly translated, then, into natural English, 10:21 should read, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that darkness will be upon Egypt – a darkness that will require groping around.”27

10:22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days.

The blotting out of the light of the sun for three days would have carried a powerful symbolic message for the Egyptians, for the sun was their supreme god, and its worship was pervasive in the official palace ritual. The sun’s diurnal rising was conceived to be a triumph over the demon Apophis, the embodiment of darkness, who struggled daily to vanquish him. The plague of darkness, therefore, would have had a devastating psychological impact. The impotence of the Egyptians’ supreme god is exposed, thus foreboding imminent doom.28

10:23 They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. 24 Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the LORD; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” 25 But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God. 26 Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the LORD our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the LORD until we arrive there.” 27 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. 28 Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” 29 Moses said, “As you say! I will not see your face again.”

11:1 The LORD said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely. 2 Speak now in the hearing of the people, that they ask, every man of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, for silver and gold jewelry.” 3 And the LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.

[T]here are strong reasons for reading the divine instruction to the Israelites as an act of war. Yahweh predicted the military defeat of the Egyptians in introducing the motif of Egyptian favor toward the Israelites in 3:21-22: “I will strike the Egyptians,” states Yahweh, “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed.” Similar imagery of conflict is also suggested in 11:2-3 by the peculiar form of the motif of Israel’s favored status with the Egyptians. It does not occur in the expected form: “Israel found (masa) favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.” Instead, it states: “Yahweh gave (natan) the Israelites favor in the eyes of the Egyptians” (see also 3:21). The traditional form implies that the favored status of a person arises from his or her character. Noah (Gen 6:8) and Moses (Exod 33:12) find favor in the eyes of Yahweh because of their character. But in 11:2-3 Yahweh, not the Israelites, influences the perspective of the Egyptians. Coats writes: “The formula . . . shows that the basis for the Israelites’ favor in the eyes of the Egyptians does not lie in the object . . . (i.e., the people), but in the initiation of the subject (i.e., God).” The emphasis is not on the relationship between the Israelites and the Egyptians, but on the power of God to bring about reversal in the event of liberation. The request for possessions from the Egyptians is an act of plunder, signifying military defeat. As a result, 12:36 describes the Egyptian people as “despoiled.” The use of the word in 2 Chr 20:25 provides a parallel, where the taking of booty from a defeated enemy is also described as despoiling. “The point of the tradition,” writes Childs, “focuses on God’s plan for the Israelites to leave Egypt as victors from a battle.”29

11:4 So Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, 5 and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle.

Cattle were included because “they were objects of Egyptian veneration. The Egyptians might have ascribed their misfortune to the work of their own animal-shaped gods instead of to YHVH.”30

11:6 There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.

Just as the Israelites cried out to God in 3:7, 9 so now the Egyptians will cry out after they realize that their loved ones died during the night.

11:7 But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. 8 And all these your servants shall come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, you and all the people who follow you.’ And after that I will go out.” And he went out from Pharaoh in hot anger.

The very people who had once bowed down to Pharaoh would now bow down to Moses – not to acknowledge him as their sovereign as they did with Pharaoh but to plead with him to leave Egypt and take the Israelites with him. This prediction represents yet another humiliation of Pharaoh. Moses here stated that all Egyptians would disagree with the king’s policy, a disagreement that had, of course, been progressively increasing at any rate. Now Moses announced that the time would come when in spite of Pharaoh’s official position of resistance to the exodus, everyone else, as embodied in those who were supposedly most loyal to him (his own court officials), would want the exodus to happen and would beg for it “on their knees,” as we might say metaphorically in modern English. When Moses said “all these officials of yours will come to me,” he is referring to the idea of the officials’ coming down off the royal platform where they usually stood next to the king. Moses’ words paint an image of the royal officials abandoning their Pharaoh, an envisioned action consistent with the words that they will say requesting that the exodus commence (“Go, you and all the people’). That is when Moses would leave Egypt – when the king’s policies had been proved worthless by their abandonment even at the hands of people supposedly the closest and most loyal to him.31

11:9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”

11:10 Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.

12:1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.

By starting the year in the month that the exodus occurred in, all future dates in the Jewish calendar implicitly commemorate the exodus. The exact calendrical system employed by the ancient Israelites is not fully known. Exodus 13:4 indicates that Passover was celebrated in early spring. Rabbinic Judaism celebrates Passover at sunset on the fifteenth of Nisan, which falls between March 25 and April 21 in the Gregorian calendar.32

12:3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.

The lamb is chosen four days before it is eaten to avoid last-minute arrangements and haphazard celebrations.33

12:4 And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.

The Passover animal may be either a goat kid or a lamb, but it must be young (“year-old”), male, and perfect (“without defect”). A year-old goat kid or lamb is a virtually full-grown animal. Since lambing and goat kidding took place in the spring in ancient times (before modern artificial breeding allowed for other lambing/kidding schedules) and the Passover took place in the spring, there is every reason to take literally the language indicating that the animal to be eaten would be a year old, not merely within its first year of life. In animal husbandry of meat stock all but a few breeding males are culled and eaten, but virtually all of the females are kept for breeding [and] milking. It therefore makes sense that the Passover animal would be a male. That it should be of perfect quality is, however, an element specially designed for inculcating spiritual values into the observance. Lame, spotted, off-colored animals are just as tasty as perfect ones. The meat of an animal with a split ear or a blind eye is not affected by the defect. Thus the reason for demanding perfection rested not in the quality of the meal but in the symbolic purpose: the animal served as a reminder of the eventual deliverance that a perfect God perfectly provided for his people as part of the process of making them holy like himself. Proper relating to God requires perfection.34

A defective gift is an insult to the recipient; hence, the harmony between the devotee and his God would be impaired by such a donation. The physical perfection of the sacrificial animal is therefore repeatedly demanded in the sacrificial regulations.35

12:7 “Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts.

Roasting over a fire required no setup or washup of pots and other utensils, no additional drawing of water, and no waiting time for the water to boil; thus it was the fastest, simplest way to cook meat. Bitter herbs were the easiest to find and harvest and were eaten as a side dish either raw or seared, as opposed to more elaborate ways of preparing, mixing, and cooking vegetables. Bread made without yeast could be rapidly mixed and heated: the usual multihour waiting time for the dough to rise and the loaf to bake was cut to just minutes. Eating raw meat would have been even faster but both distasteful and dangerous to health; boiling the meat would have been both slower and more cumbersome and therefore inconsistent with the emphasis on speed and readiness inherent in the Passover concept. The inclusion of “inner parts” in the roasting does not mean the goat kid or lamb was roasted whole – but merely that it was gutted very simply and then roasted rapidly, as opposed to the usual full butchering and separation of the various organ meats for consumption in various ways and at various times.36

12:10 And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover.

The attire indicates that the participants are anticipating an instant departure. The sentence “It is the LORD’s Passover” means that it is “ordained by Yahweh and holy to him.”37

12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.

God executes judgment on the gods of Egypt by having his way their land and people.38

12:13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

Yahweh is presumably omnipercipient whenever he wishes to be; in the other plagues, he easily distinguished Israel from Egypt. The blood, then, may be far less for Yahweh’s benefit than for Israel’s, who are thereby entitled to participate actively in their own redemption. The paschal command is, as it were, both a test of Israel’s obedience and a demonstration of piety’s reward.39

12:14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.

It is not clear whether “this day” refers to Passover or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but it is presumably both since Passover begins the week-long feast. A “feast” (Hebrew hag) is generally understood to be a pilgrimage feast.40 The Feast of Unleavened Bread was celebrated in years after the Israelites left Egypt.

12:15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.

Yeast (seor, “leaven”) in Bible times referred to the spores of yeast themselves, and, as well, what is now called “starter dough,” that is, fermented dough. It was made in various ways. One was by airing out dough in the sun (to pick up the airborne yeast spores) after dipping it in wine or vinegar and storing it an a closed vessel until it went sour (fermented). Another method was to knead flour and water, add salt, boil the mix into a porridge, and then leave it until it went sour. Because yeast spores can migrate easily, dough can easily become yeasted naturally, thus the need to cleanse the house of yeast so that what was intended to be unleavened bread doesn’t turn out accidentally to be leavened. But why require eating unleavened bread as the special focus of the exodus memorial meal, the Passover? The answer is that unleavened bread was the unique food of the original exodus, the event God wanted his people to be sure not to forget. People everywhere normally eat leavened bread. It tastes better, is more pleasant to eat, is more filling. Leavened bread was the normal choice of the Israelites in Egypt too. But on the night they ran, there was no time for the usual niceties – a fast meal had to be eaten, and hastily made bread had to be consumed. The fact that a lamb or goat kid was roasted for the meat portion of the meal or that bitter herbs were eaten as a side dish was not nearly so special or unusual as the fact that the bread was unleavened, thus essentially forming sheets of cracker. Eating it at the memorial feast intentionally recalled the original departure in haste. Eating it for a solid week tended to fix the idea in one’s consciousness.41

There are thirty-six instances of this formula [“shall be cut off”] in the Torah, all listed in Mishnah Keritot 1:1. This punishment, known as [hik]karet in rabbinic parlance, is peculiar to ritual texts and is largely confined to offenses of a cultic and sexual nature. The Torah gives no definition of karet, and no analogy exists in Near Eastern sources. In most texts the impersonal, passive form of the verb is used, as here, so that not only the type of punishment but also the executive authority is uncertain. In Leviticus 20:1-6 the active first person is used with God as the subject of the verb: “I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people.” This reasonably presupposes that karet is not a penalty enforced by the courts but a punishment left to divine execution. Such is the understanding of the term in rabbinic literature, where it specifically means premature death and, according to some, also childlessness. Certainly the general idea is that one who deliberately excludes himself from the religious community of Israel cannot be a beneficiary of the covenantal blessings and thereby dooms himself and his line to extinction.42

12:16 On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. 18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.

By starting the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the fourteenth day of the first month, Exodus 12:18 seems to contradict Leviticus 23:6 and Numbers 28:17, where the feast begins on the fifteenth.

After long wrestling with this problem, I have come to a tentative conclusion that the contradiction is more apparent than real. By my theory of the dual calendar of Israel, bowing to both moon and sun, any dating would inevitably be ambiguous. The first lunar day of Unleavened Bread, from evening to evening, overlaps solar days fourteen and fifteen of the month, just as the Day of Expiation is dated to both the tenth (lunar) day (Lev 16:29; 23:27) and the evening of the ninth (solar) day (Lev 23:32) of the seventh month. Aramaic scribes in Egypt encountered comparable difficulties when dating documents by both the Egyptian solar and the Babylonian lunar calendars – particularly when they wrote at night.43

12:19 For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. 20 You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”

12:21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.

The Hebrew word translated “basin” (sap) can mean either “bowl” or “threshold.” If “threshold” is meant then the sacrifice occurs at the threshold of the house. The preposition “in” (be-) favors the ESV’s translation.44

12:23 For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. 24 You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. 25 And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26 And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

12:28 Then the people of Israel went and did so; as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.

12:29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as you have said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!”

Did Moses and Aaron appear that Passover night before Pharaoh? This is what would seem to be implied by most of the English translations, represented by the NIV’s “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said.” If he summoned them and spoke to them, it would seem obvious that Moses did indeed appear before him again, in contradiction to at least the apparent meaning of his words in 10:29, “Just as you say, . . . I will never appear before you again.” The contradiction, however, is only apparent, the result of a translation choice. The Hebrew term here translated “summon” is qara le, which does indeed sometimes mean “summon” (call to appear in one’s presence) but often means “proclaim, send word to or inform by messenger.” The most likely scenario is that sometime after the exchange of words culminating in 10:29, Moses and Aaron returned to Goshen to organize the Israelites for the exodus (as much of the foregoing part of chap. 12 describes) and that Pharaoh’s permission was sent to him there during the waning hours of the Passover night by mounted messengers.45

12:33 The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35 The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. 36 And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

Verses 35-36 mean that the Israelites had already followed Moses’ advice by asking the Egyptians for jewelry and clothing (3:21-22; 11:2-3). In other words, they did not make the request at the very moment they were leaving Egypt.46

12:37 And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.

It is debatable whether the Hebrew text actually refers to 600,000 Israelite men. In military contexts, such as this passage with its mentioning of the “hosts of the LORD” (v 41), the Hebrew word eleph may refer to the men of fighting age in a village or a district. If this is the case, then this verse envisions about 7,200 fighting men and around 28,800-36,000 Israelites in all. This is more reasonable than the over 2 million Israelites implied by the ESV.47

12:38 A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.

The “mixed multitude” refers to people who were not descendants of Abraham but nonetheless accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt.

12:39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

12:40 The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. 41 At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.

The NIV translation of the middle adverbial phrase, “to the very day,” is misleading because it suggests that the Israelites left Egypt 430 years precisely – not a day less or a day more – after they entered it, which is not the meaning of the original at all. Moses’ language draws attention to “that same day,” that is, the day after the night of the Passover, making the point that there was no intervening delay between the Passover (the imposition of the tenth plague) and the first available opportunity to depart, which was the next day from our point of view and the same day (since the day began at sunset for the Israelites) from their point of view.48

12:42 It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.

12:43 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it,

Hebrew ben nekhar is a non-Israelite who resides in the land temporarily, usually for purposes of commerce. He does not profess the religion of Israel and does not identify with the community’s historical experiences. He is therefore exempted from the religious obligations and restrictions imposed on Israelites. It is to be noted that an invocation for foreigners is included in King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Rabbinic interpretation, based on the literal meaning of nekhar, “alienation,” extended the exclusionary rule to a Jew who has apostatized and thereby alienated himself from the community of Israel.49

12:44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired servant may eat of it.

A “temporary resident” [foreigner] (tosab) would be excluded from the Passover because he or she would be someone without faith in Yahweh who was simply visiting or passing through or staying for a few days or weeks to help with some sort of project. A “hired worker” (sakir) would be disqualified because he or she would be someone without faith in Yahweh who was merely doing some work on a household’s property and staying on the property temporarily while doing so. Neither term refers to a permanent employee or permanent resident.50

12:46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

12:50 All the people of Israel did just as the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. 51 And on that very day the LORD brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts.

13:1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

13:3 Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.

13:11 “When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.

However wasteful 13:13 may seem, we may be sure it was almost never applied – which is probably why it follows, rather than precedes, the mandate of redemption. As Dillmann observes, an ass is worth far more than a sheep or goat – at Ugarit, roughly ten times. One would therefore always choose redemption over slaughter. Num 18:15 in fact commands redemption of unclean animals without mentioning the option of profane slaughter.51

Numbers 18:16 makes it clear that a payment of five shekels is to be made to the priest when the firstborn is a month old.

13:14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

13:17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”

The “way of the land of the Philistines” is probably a reference to the trading route along the Mediterranean Sea from the Nile Delta to Megiddo extending on into Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. It was a more direct route into Canaan.52

13:18 But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.

The term “Red Sea” translates the Hebrew yam-sup and follows the LXX erythra thalassa. A competing translation is “Reed Sea.”53

13:19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”

Joseph’s request is recorded in Genesis 50:24-25. The term “bones” (asmot) seems to refer to the entire body by synecdoche. Joseph was embalmed after his death (Genesis 50:26).54

13:20 And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.

14:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. 3 For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.

14:5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” 6 So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, 7 and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. 9 The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

14:10 When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

14:15 The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. 16 Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. 17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

14:19 Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Classical Jewish interpreters suggested that the darkness was facing the Egyptians while the light was facing the Israelites.55

14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.

It may appear incredibly audacious of the Egyptians to rush between danger’s jaws, without considering how and why the Sea has parted (cf. Josephus Ant. 2.342). Perhaps this is the result of Yahweh “strengthening” their hearts (14:17). Given, however, the cloud and the dark (v 20), the Egyptians may be partly blinded. Quite possibly, they do not perceive their peril until sunrise.56

14:24 And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, 25 clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

In 13:21 it appears that the pillar is either a fire or a cloud. Therefore 14:24, which states that the pillar is of both fire and cloud, may indicate that it is in transition between its two aspects as the night turns into day. Exactly what happens to the wheels of the chariots is not clear in Hebrew, but the Egyptians assume that it is the result of God fighting against them.57

14:26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. 29 But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

It is not clear whether the Israelites were on the seashore, the Egyptian corpses were on the seashore, or both.58

14:31 Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

15:1 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. 2 The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3 The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.

In saying that “the LORD [Yahweh] is a warrior, the LORD [Yahweh] is his name,” the song asserts God’s willingness to fight for his people against their foes. Israel was being formed as a small people in a world used to wars of aggression by other small people, by coalitions of peoples large and small, and/or by great, imperialistic superpowers (the prime example of the latter being Egypt, as they all too well knew). Israel at Mount Sinai would be born by covenant into a world whose values would be almost entirely different from and usually opposed to their own. Therefore they would have to fight and fight often. Indeed, they would have to fight their first real battle as an army in a matter of weeks, even before they reached Mount Sinai, against the Amalekites and Rephidim (17:8-16). On their own they could never hope to win against odds that were almost always stacked against them. Therefore it was important that they understood their God to be a warrior, one who would lead them into battle, who would fight for them during battles, and who would ensure their survival as his people. He was to define their battles for them, deciding when and where to go to war (cf. 17:16). They were to have no allies, no dependency on other foreign powers, no confidence in any earthly deliverer but only in the one true God, their God, Yahweh. In a fallen world hostile to his purposes, Yahweh must be a warrior. . . . The statement “the LORD [Yahweh] is his name” clarifies for the singer and audience of the song the identity of this one, supreme and highly exalted God: it is Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs, the creator of the world and all in it, and the sole God of the people of Israel. All other gods were distorted imitations of him fabricated in the minds and sculpting shops of those who worshiped them. “Name” conveys identity, and the song asserts the identity of the one who has delivered Israel as none other than Yahweh.59

15:4 “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.

The Egyptians are probably not literally thrown from the surface into the depths. Rather, they move from the seashore into the Sea or perhaps the seabed. It is not even certain the primary meaning of yara here is “cast.” As with rama in v 1, ibn Ezra proffers a translation “shot.” And yara can also refer to laying a foundation, i.e., sinking something into the ground. Arguably, then, v 4 anticipates both v 12, where the earth (i.e., the ocean floor) swallows Egypt, and v 17, where Yahweh founds his habitation.60

15:5 The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. 6 Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. 7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. 8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 9 The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ 10 You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

15:11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?

The foregoing recitation of God’s sovereign control over nature logically culminates in an affirmation of His incomparability. This attribute is voiced through a rhetorical question that allows only an unqualifiedly negative response. The Book of Psalms several times echoes this phraseology. Often the peerlessness of God is asserted categorically.

It needs to be emphasized that the expression of God’s uniqueness in comparative terms, and the mention of other celestial beings, cannot be interpreted literally to imply recognition of the existence of divinities other than the one God. Parallels in Mesopotamian religious poetry show that the poet is simply employing conventional, stereotypical language. Moreover, many biblical texts utter similar statements along with an explicit denial of the reality of deities worshiped by other nations. Thus, the uncompromisingly monotheistic Narrator of Deuteronomy can state that “the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other (4:39) and can refer to God’s “powerful deeds that no god in heaven or on earth can equal” (3:24). The psalmist can declare, “There is none like You among the gods, O LORD,” and can then add, “You alone are God” (Ps. 86:8, 10). A psalmist can state that God “is held in awe by all divine beings. / All the gods of the peoples are mere idols” (Ps. 96:4-5), and can assert that “Our LORD is greater than all gods,” and then deride the gods as being nothing but fetishes of silver and gold (Ps. 135:5, 15-18).61

15:12 You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.

The idea that the earth swallowed the Egyptians may seem strange in this context to modern ears. However, it figuratively refers to the death of the Egyptians and their entrance into the abode of the dead.62

15:13 “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.

The “holy abode” may refer to Mount Sinai, the land of Israel, or the Temple on Mount Zion. Psalm 78:54 favors the first possibility.

15:14 The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. 15 Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. 16 Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased. 17 You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. 18 The LORD will reign forever and ever.”

15:19 For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea.

This verse provides yet another bit of evidence that those who pursued the Israelites were chariot warriors exclusively. It mentions only Pharaoh’s “horses, chariots and horsemen,” no foot soldiers. If there were any foot soldiers in the original contingent that pursued the Israelites as far as the edge of the sea, as some scholars have argued, they did not follow into the sea itself.63

15:20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

To whom Miriam sings is a little unclear. Reading in English, one at first thinks of the women. But both lahem ‘to them’ and the imperative siru ‘sing’ are masculine. To be sure, gender incongruence is common in Hebrew. Nevertheless, Miriam probably leads the women in singing back to Moses and the men. (Philo imagines the sweet harmony of treble and bass [Moses 1.180; 2.256]!) Compare the duet of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5.64

Bibliography

Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 1-18. Yale University Press, 1999.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Propp, Exodus 1-18, 322.

2Ibid.

3Dozeman, Exodus, 213.

4Stuart, Exodus, 194-196.

5Sarna, Exodus, 38.

6Stuart, Exodus, 199-200.

7Dozeman, Exodus, 216.

8Sarna, Exodus, 39.

9Stuart, Exodus, 205.

10Ibid., 205-206.

11Dozeman, Exodus, 220-221.

12Sarna, Exodus, 40.

13Childs, The Book of Exodus, 156.

14Dozeman, Exodus, 224.

15Ibid., 226-227.

16Stuart, Exodus, 216.

17Ibid., 219.

18Sarna, Exodus, 44.

19Stuart, Exodus, 223-224.

20Propp, Exodus 1-18, 332.

21Stuart, Exodus, 229.

22Ibid., 237-238.

23Dozeman, Exodus, 237-238.

24Stuart, Exodus, 244.

25Ibid., 248.

26Sarna, Exodus, 50.

27Stuart, Exodus, 256-257.

28Sarna, Exodus, 51.

29Dozeman, Exodus, 256-257.

30Sarna, Exodus, 52.

31Stuart, Exodus, 267-268.

32Propp, Exodus 1-18, 384-387.

33Stuart, Exodus, 273.

34Ibid., 274-275.

35Sarna, Exodus, 55.

36Stuart, Exodus, 277.

37Propp, Exodus 1-18, 399.

38Ibid., 400.

39Ibid., 401.

40Ibid., 402.

41Stuart, Exodus, 283.

42Sarna, Exodus, 58.

43Propp, Exodus 1-18, 405-406.

44Ibid., 408.

45Stuart, Exodus, 294.

46Propp, Exodus 1-18, 412.

47Stuart, Exodus, 297-303.

48Ibid., 305-306.

49Sarna, Exodus, 63.

50Stuart, Exodus, 308-309.

51Propp, Exodus 1-18, 426.

52Dozeman, Exodus, 306-307.

53Ibid., 307-309.

54Propp, Exodus 1-18, 489.

55Dozeman, Exodus, 317.

56Propp, Exodus 1-18, 499.

57Ibid., 500.

58Ibid., 502.

59Stuart, Exodus, 350.

60Propp, Exodus 1-18, 516-517.

61Sarna, Exodus, 79-80.

62Propp, Exodus 1-18, 529-531.

63Stuart, Exodus, 361-362.

64Propp, Exodus 1-18, 548.

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