What if it is not the frogs but the water that is significant?
When considering the plagues in the book of Exodus that precede Israel’s departure from Egypt, various explanations have been suggested for the order of and the reason for specific plagues. Why frogs, why hail? Do the boils have anything to do with the gnats and flies? Following and building upon lectures given by Rikk Watts at Regent College, I suggest that the best explanation is that the God of Israel is revealing Himself as the Creator God.
Some have attempted to map the plagues onto the Egyptian deities and this suggestion seems to me to be one of the more plausible interpretations. However, these same scholars note that such associations do not fit as neatly as they might like. Still, there is certainly something here with respect to the God of Israel going to war with the Egyptian gods (or any pagan pantheon for that matter). That is, the God of Israel is demonstrating His sovereignty over the realms and activities commonly associated with the pagan deities. That God is showing His sovereignty over creation explains why there is overlap with some specific Egyptian deities but need not entail identifying a specific deity with each plague. Yet, I suspect one could find overlap but imperfect analogies between many polytheistic deities both ancient and modern precisely because of the relation between the gods and natural realms and functions.
Others have suggested a naturalistic explanation in the sequence of events. The contamination of the Nile forces the frogs to evacuate the death the frogs results in swarms of gnats and flies which then spread illness and then cause the sun to go dark — wait a minute? Again, at first what seems like a nice neat explanation of a pattern breaks down. Moreover, this approach seems to go against the grain of the text which suggests that the plagues are seen and portrayed as being outside the normal Egyptian and Israelite experience. That is, if they are the natural order of events, then how are they displays of power by a deity.
In other biblical texts, there is a definite association of the Exodus with God’s role as Creator. See Psalm 77, for instance. Indeed, at times, the two events seem almost indistinguishable in Israelite imagination. So, if we have God’s creation activity in mind as we read Exodus does it help us see a consistent pattern in the Exodus plagues. I think it does.
One of the problems of the common interpretations is that the focus is on what the plagues are but more is going on here and other elements in the plague events may be more significant than we have realized. So, let’s shift our focus slightly from the what of the plague (frogs, hail, etc.) to origins, effects, functions, and realms.
1. A River of Blood
The Nile was surely the life blood of Egypt. So, to strike the Nile was to strike at the heart of Egypt. Yet, this mighty deed which is usually presented as the first plague is also the last of the three signs that God gave Moses. The first two were the the staff turning into a snake and Moses’s leprous hand. So, it functions as a transition as well. Pharaoh hardens his heart. The priests are unimpressed. It is time for a change of tactic.
God of the Realms:
I suggest that we shift focus to the source of the plagues rather then the plagues themselves.
2. From the Waters—Frogs:
God calls living things out of the Nile which God had just made uninhabitable. While the frog may have some symbolic value. I suggest it is more important that God creates life out of the water.
3. From the Dust of the Earth — Gnats:
Again, it is possible that the creature here has some symbolic value as well but it seems no one can identify the creature. It may be a general term for biting insects like fleas and chiggers. However, I would suggest that what is more significant is that God creates life from the dust of the earth.
4. “From the Air” — the Swarm:
Here the creature is not even identified. In Hebrew, it is says simply, that God will send “the swarm”. Translations that add “of flies” are filling in a detail that isn’t there in the Hebrew. Yet, here there is a happy linguistic accident that I think makes “swarm of flies” an apt translation. After all, flies fly. Again, I think it is the realm that is important here. Living things from the water, living things from the earth, and, now, living things from the sky.
Now, what is frustrating is that here the text does not say “from the sky” and so as with other approaches it is not as neat as I would like. 🙂
However, I did notice that for the first time Moses is told go to Pharaoh “in the morning.” So what? Well, the word for swarm has the same consonants as “evening” in Hebrew. So, there seems to be a wordplay similar to a pun here. Go to Pharaoh in the morning and tell him I will send the “evening”/the swarm.
The Israelites are separated out from this plague. Just as God divided out the realms in the beginning, so God divides out His people now. In the ANE, separating realms is a creative act. God is creating a people for Himself.
Moving Up the Ladder and the Undoing of Creation
I would suggest here that we shift focus for a moment from what the plagues are to upon what and whom they fall and the order in which this occurs. We see an ascending order here through what was created on the sixth day in Genesis 1. As John Walton has argued in his Lost World of Genesis 1, in the ancient world and in Scripture creation involved separating and assigning function. God is in the process of separating out Israel. The LORD is creating a people and giving them a particular role and function in the world. However, the temptation of Israel will always be to slip back into the patterns of Egypt and the nations.
Livestock (Beasts of the Earth)
5. Plague on Egyptian Cattle: the livestock
6. Plague on Egyptian People including magicians
Human beings and livestock but more importantly “the sky is falling”
7. Hail: the sky is falling — all Egyptians and livestock who did not heed the word of the LORD and seek shelter are affected as are some of the green plants. Here, I suggests we see signs of a reversal of the waters above and the waters below coming back together as they did in the Flood narrative.
Plants and Green Things that are Good for Food
8. Wind brings the locusts who eat the remaining grass that covers the land so that you cannot see it and they will eat all green things. The vegetation
I suggest here that the mention of wind here is a deliberate echo of the wind that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1. The locusts bring darkness and make the land less habitable through the destruction of the plant life.
With the allusion to the Genesis 1 with the wind that hovered over the face of the deep, the locust bring darkness, the palpable darkness that follows brings us back to the moment before God says let their be light. God guides the people with a pillar of fire. Which precedes the final act of judgment and separation in the passover. Of course, this is followed by the separating of waters and dry land appearing in the parting of the sea.
Darkness (reverse of Let there be Light)
9. The papable darkness
Who is a Son of God? or Image of God?
10. Death of Firstborn — the Passover — the death of Pharaoh’s son is the death of “the image of god” (Gen 1:26) or a “son of god” (Gen 6) but God announces that Israel is His firstborn son.
In this reading, it may even be that the people of God are the light of the world or is that YHWH’s role as He leads them forth in a pillar of fire. He will feed them in the desert. He will provide for Israel in the Wilderness just as He had provided for the man and woman in the Garden.
While this scheme also needs some work and is not as tidy as I would like, I think this approach which has YHWH revealing Himself to Israel, Egypt, and the surrounding nations fits more neatly with the biblical narrative than schemes which seek to map the plagues onto Egyptian or other mythologies. I do not deny that this narrative and historically God Himself is in conversation with other ANE myths but this narrative is first and foremost the myth of Israel’s founding by YHWH and only secondarily about Egyptian, Babylonian, or Canaanite deities.