Exodus 8:20-9:12 ~ 20101031 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
10/31 Exodus 8:20-9:12 The Discrimination of God (Mighty Acts of God 4-6; flies, livestock, boils)
So far, we've seen God begin to judge Egypt by unleashing the first cycle of his mighty acts. He turned the waters of Egypt to blood and destroyed the Nile, he caused frogs to overrun the land and be piled in heaps; and caused gnats or lice to infest the land. Today we will look at the second cycle of God's might acts of judgment against Egypt.
Structure of the Mighty Acts Narrative
This second cycle of three mighty acts of God following the introductory sign of the staff-turned-serpent. There will be one more cycle of three judgments leading up to the final climactic act of God in the Passover and the death of the firstborn. Like the others, this second cycle begins with a morning outdoor confrontation with Pharaoh, warning him of what is to come, followed by a confrontation in the courts of Pharaoh, again warning him of what is to come, then followed by an unannounced mighty act unleashed on unbelieving Egypt.
God is not dependent on means
This cycle is different from the others, in that there is no rod or staff used. In the first three, it is Aaron's staff that is used to unleash God's mighty acts. In the final cycle of three, it is Moses' staff that is used. But in these three, there is no mention of a staff at all. This is significant, because the staff was a symbol of status and power, and the magicians of Egypt used their staffs to duplicate the signs (at least until Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs). God is demonstrating that his power doesn't come from some magic stick. God is free to use means or no means to accomplish his ends. He can work through an instrument, or he can work independent of any instrument. He can use a shepherd's stick, or simply the spoken word to cause the laws of nature to be altered. God spoke the whole universe into existence by his word; he can choose to violate the normal laws of nature just as easily by his word. In fact, if we understand what Hebrews (1:3) says, that Jesus 'upholds the universe by the word of his power', all that is necessary for creation to run a muck is for him to momentarily withdraw his sovereign power of restraint and all hell will break loose.
Swarms (Mighty Act # 4)
The first thing we are reminded of is God's purpose in the Exodus. Moses is to ambush Pharaoh by the river and proclaim to him 'thus says the LORD: let my people go that they may serve (or worship) me'. The demand of the Lord was clear: Pharaoh must relinquish his claims on the Hebrew slaves so that they are at liberty to worship and serve their rightful Master. This is a battle for allegiance, for worship.
The next thing that should catch our attention in the text here is that the Pharaoh is going out to the water again. Archaeologists have excavated the remains of Egyptian palaces, and they include what appear to be bathing areas. The most likely reason the Pharaoh would go to the banks of the Nile would not be to take a bath, but to worship the gods of the Nile. This is interesting because in the first mighty act, Moses intercepted Pharaoh on the banks of the Nile, and the first mighty act of God was against the Nile, turning it to blood for seven days, causing all the fish to die, causing it to stink and be unusable. God showed his triumph over the life source of Egypt and over her gods, and now Pharaoh is back at the water again, presumably worshiping his defeated gods.
This is the second round of judgments against Egypt. God had warned Pharaoh of the judgment on the Nile, and of the judgment of the frog infestation. Pharaoh begged for relief from the frogs and promised the release of the Israelites. But when Pharaoh did not honor his word, God struck Egypt with the infestation of gnats or lice or biting insects without warning. Now again God sends Moses and Aaron to warn Pharaoh of what is coming. This is really an ultimatum. Release my people. If you refuse, this is what I will do to you. I will send swarms on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses and covering all your territory. The word is not specific – swarms of what? Our translators have added the descriptive 'of flies' to help clarify the situation. This was probably some swarming mixture of biting insects. We deduce that they were biting insects from the inspired commentary we find in the Psalms:
If you've ever been in the north woods of Minnesota on a calm summer evening, you have just a hint of what this might be like. Devoured is a good description. And there was no refuge. There was no place to hide. There was no relief, day or night. They were swarming in your house and in your bedroom. It says in verse 24 'the land was ruined because of the swarms. I can't stand to have a single non-biting fly buzzing around my kitchen. But this was beyond mere annoyance. This was a devastating judgment.
But there is another unique thing about this mighty act. God made a distinction. God discriminated between the Pharaoh's people and his own people. This is the first time in the sequence of God's mighty acts that he explicitly says that he will discriminate.
God's people are not always exempted from suffering. But God does promise to treat his people differently than those who do not follow him.
There is no mention of whether the first three mighty acts of God affected the Egyptians only, or all the people who lived in the land. But here God highlights the distinction he is making to drive home a theological point. God says I will set my people apart 'that you may know that I am YHWH in the midst of the earth'. If there was mass swarming of creatures all over the land, it could be attributed to a freak natural occurrence of some sort, but if there was an artificial ethnic boundary where God's people were exempted from the judgment, that would be inexplicable outside of a direct intervention of the sovereign Lord of creation. Only God could command the flies to swarm only in designated areas and leave other areas alone. Have you ever tried to train a fly not to cross an imaginary line? But this is exactly what happened. YHWH, whom the Pharaoh did not acknowledge, is indeed showing himself to be mighty and powerful, even in the middle of Pharaoh's own playground.
The swarms are so intolerable that the Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and concedes to their request. Actually, he attempts to bargain with them. This is customary in eastern cultures. I say my item is worth $500 and you come into my shop and say you wouldn't pay a penny more than $75. After a bit of haggling, we will end up somewhere in the middle. We will reach a compromise. God has made his demands. The Pharaoh must release his Hebrew slaves so that they can serve YHWH in the wilderness. Pharaoh starts low and makes an offer. “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land”. You are not permitted to leave, but you can sacrifice to your God here.
Moses counters with a restatement of the original demand and a logical explanation of why that is necessary. He doesn't come down on his price one bit. His reason is clear. What the Israelites must do would be offensive to the Egyptian culture and would cause riots and civil unrest. This would be the equivalent of killing a pig in a Muslim mosque or slaughtering a cow in a Hindu temple. But why? Was Moses bluffing? Why would it be offensive for the Hebrews to sacrifice when the Egyptians offered their own sacrifices? And why, in our own day of tolerance, is Christianity the only religion that is not tolerated? It is simply this. The Old Testament sacrificial system, as the New Testament good news message, has one aim; to decisively deal with sin. And that's offensive. We don't want to acknowledge sin. We don't want to believe there is such a thing as a violation of the standards of a holy God for which we will be held accountable. We certainly don't want to admit that we have missed the mark and fallen short. Jesus teaches us that this is the job of the Holy Spirit:
In order to be forgiven of our sins, we need to know that we are sinners and confess that to God.
This is what Jesus means when he says:
The only person who carries a cross is a condemned criminal. Bearing a cross was a public display that I am guilty and deserve the death penalty. All the religions of the world seek to be good enough to earn God's favor. Jesus tells us we need to own our guilt and daily come face to face with how bad we really are. I truly deserve hell. That's not a popular message. That is a message that flies in the face of our culture of positive self image and inherent goodness. That's offensive. And that's what Jesus is all about.
This is what Paul refers to as the 'offense of the cross' (Galatians 5:11). This is what Moses is telling the Pharaoh; if we start killing animals because we believe that we are so bad that we deserve the death penalty and our only hope is if someone or something dies in our place, and blood is shed to cover our sin, that raises the issue of guilt with our neighbors. And our neighbors would rather kill us than face their own guilt before a holy God. That is why we need to travel a significant distance into the wilderness; because our God is holy and just and must punish sin. Pharaoh apparently concedes to Moses' point, and counters that he will allow them to go into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH your God, but just don't go too far away. I still want you close enough that I can control what you do and bring you back.
Pharaoh is desperate, and as with the frog infestation, again he begs Moses and Aaron to plead with their God on his behalf. Even unrepentant sinners are driven to seek prayer when things get bad enough. Moses does not counter Pharaoh's offer, probably because he knows it is not genuine. Pharaoh still thinks it is in his power to let the people of Israel go. He will be shown that it is not in his power at all – they are completely in the hands of their YHWH. Moses calls Pharaoh on his lack of integrity, and there is a marked contrast between the words of God and the words of the Pharaoh. God promises and delivers. God speaks and it happens. Even nature itself responds to his command. Pharaoh's words are hollow and powerless, and he repeatedly fails to deliver his promises. Moses calls him a liar and lets him know that he is on to him. You've lied once and proved you can't be trusted. I will pray for you, but don't do it again. Moses prays, God answers and relents, and as expected, Pharaoh refuses to keep his own word.
Death of the Livestock (Mighty Act #5)
This is an escalation of God's mighty acts. This is the first time that God's actions result directly in death, even though it has not yet escalated to the level of human death. After the gnats, the final mighty act in the first cycle, the magicians of Egypt confessed to Pharaoh that this was the finger of God. Now God says 'the hand of the LORD will fall'. You think his finger was bad; wait 'till you see what his hand can do! The mercy of God is amazing, warning, incrementally judging, answering prayer and relenting, warning again, giving an abundance of evidence to believe, giving time to reconsider. God is patient and slow to anger, but he is just. And judgment does fall on the stubborn hardhearted Pharaoh. But first it falls on his livestock. All kinds of livestock all over Egypt will suffer from a severe disease and die, but again a distinction will be made. Not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died. Again, what will happen is told in detail in advance so that it will be evident that Pharaoh is up against the God who controls the future. But even in the face of undeniable evidence, Pharaoh's heart remains hard.
Severe Skin Disease (Mighty Act #6)
This is poetic justice. The Hebrews were forced to make bricks, and now some of the ash from the brick kilns is used to bring judgment on the Egyptians. Moses threw handfuls of soot into the air, and God caused it to spread and settle all over Egypt and become boils breaking out in sores. The word here is emphatic - angry boils, boils which become ulcerous and leave deep, painful scars. This might act crosses lines that have not yet been crossed. Up until now, the effects on people were indirect – severe inconveniences and irritations, loss of property and possessions. This judgment is personal – it attacks personal health and well-being; it creates sores in the flesh of each Egyptian. We are reminded of Job, where God allows Satan to take all that he has but not to stretch out his hand against him personally. When Job responded to this with worship, Satan rejoined 'Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face' (Job 2:4-5)
The magicians of Egypt are mentioned for the last time here in this section. These powerful sorcerers who had duplicated the first of God's mighty acts, cannot even protect themselves from these painful sores. To a lesser degree, they had replicated the staff to serpent, the Nile to blood, and they had worsened the frog infestation, but they admitted their failure to reproduce the gnats. They were up against the finger of God. Now as Moses is standing in the presence of Pharaoh, these magicians, the physicians of Egypt, are so incapacitated by these painful boils that they can't even stand in the presence of Moses. God had decisively demonstrated his superiority over the most powerful men in Egypt, he has outdone them in their secret arts, elicited a confession from them of his awesome power, and left them totally incapacitated and unable even to stand in the presence of his servant.
The knees of the sorcerers had buckled under the sovereign hand of God. Nothing but the sovereign hand of God himself could prevent the Pharaoh's knees from buckling as well under this kind of overwhelming pressure, and that is exactly what we are told is going on – YHWH hardened the Pharaoh's heart so that he would not listen, just as he had promised he would do. But in the end, at the right time, even Pharaoh's knees will buckle and he will admit his sin and God's superiority. He will obey the command of the Lord. In Philippians 2, it says of Jesus: