Signs, Wonders, and Plagues
Within this study we will be looking at the signs, wonders, and plagues associated with the Exodus. The recounting of the signs and plagues accounts for much of the Exodus narrative and merit close attention. Before we do so, however, it is important to reflect upon the place played by signs, wonders, and plagues more generally within sacred history.
The miraculous isn’t a constant feature of sacred history, but flares up on particular occasions. The principal scriptural concentrations of miraculous events occur in the context of the creation, the Exodus and the years in the wilderness, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and the ministry of Christ and the early Church. Apart from those events, miraculous events are fairly thin on the ground. There are smaller concentrations of them – in the book of Daniel, for instance – but for most periods of history such events were rare, isolated occurrences, often with few witnesses.
This point is important because it alerts us to the general purpose of signs, wonders, and miracles. They are associated with the foundation or creation of a new world or covenant order and the de-creation of old ones. Once the new world or covenant order has been established, miracles become much less common and the order operates primarily through God’s ordinary instituted means. Once the Church and its worship have been established, for instance, we shouldn’t be surprised if things become quiet on the miracle front.
This isn’t an indication that something has gone wrong: if the means of word, sacrament, and body of Christ are firmly in place then God will typically work through those, rather than by dramatic miracle. The efficacy of God’s work should not be presumed to be directly related to how powerful the means that he employs appear to our sight. God took away the sin of the world in a dead body hanging on a wooden cross: he can form a new humanity using words, water, bread, and wine.
The prominence given to the signs, miraculous plagues, and deliverances of the Exodus narrative is an indication that the Exodus is a de-creation and new creation event. YHWH is dismantling the world of Egypt and creating a new nation out of Israel.
The signs, miracles, and plagues are also given in the context of a great showdown between powers. Exodus 5-15 is a huge battle of the gods, climaxing in the crushing of the dragon’s head at the Red Sea. YHWH is taking on Pharaoh and the gods of the Egyptians and steadily bringing them to their knees. The plagues are great blows in this conflict, with the drowning of Pharaoh and his men in the Red Sea the final and decisive strike.
Finally, the Exodus narrative is full of ‘signs’ and the great plagues have a sign dimension to them. A sign cannot be reduced to a mere flexing of the divine muscle to prove God’s supernatural strength to mankind. A sign is a meaningful action that manifests truth in a situation. Such miraculous signs of God should not only provoke fear and awe: they also should yield understanding.
The Three Signs Given to Moses
As Moses is commissioned by YHWH in Exodus 3-4, he asks what he should do if the children of Israel do not believe his words (4:1) and that YHWH had appeared to him. We should remind ourselves that Moses would probably not have been regarded with favour by most of the Israelites. Like the dreamer Joseph, to many he was a man who had gotten above his station, seeking to exercise rule over and to represent his brethren when he really wasn’t one of them at all. While they had been suffering hardship in Egypt, he had either been living as a member of the royal household or living far away in Midian. The words of the Hebrew in 2:14 probably represent the sentiment of many of the other children of Israel. Consequently, it is not at all surprising that Moses should ask what to do in the case that his message wasn’t received.
The signs that follow were signs to Moses that YHWH was equipping him for the task to come but, far more importantly, they were signs to be used with the elders of the children of Israel, to prove that YHWH has indeed sent Moses. These are the signs that Moses performs in 4:28.
There were three separate signs, each with a distinct meaning. For the first sign, YHWH asked Moses what the item in his hand was, to which Moses replied that it was a rod. He was instructed to cast it on the ground, where it became a serpent and Moses fled from it. YHWH then told him to pick up the serpent by its tail. When he did so, it transformed back into a rod in his hand.
As we shall later see, the Egyptian sorcerers can achieve a similar effect to this, seemingly transforming their rods into serpents. However, they do not show the ability to transform them back (though stories were told of certain great sorcerers who did). Taking the serpent by the tail was an act that required considerable courage. By performing such an action, Moses would manifest his faith in YHWH’s power to the elders of Israel.
The sign was meaningful. A rod is an instrument of its owner, empowering and serving him in various tasks. In Isaiah 10:5-19, YHWH speaks of Assyria as the rod of his anger. Assyria is wielded by YHWH for his ends: even though it is like a serpent, it becomes a rod in YHWH’s hands. Under Joseph, Israel had wielded the rod of Egypt with incredible effectiveness and power. However, the rod had been thrown from their hands, especially as they had begun to serve the gods of the Egyptians (cf. Joshua 24:14). The greatest element of this sign is that Moses can pick up the serpent and control it again. As the story of Exodus proceeds, the writhing serpent of Pharaoh will be hardened back into a rod, an instrument through whom YHWH manifests his power (cf. 9:16).
The hardening of Pharaoh is a crucial theme and point of the Exodus narrative. It is one of the ends that YHWH wills to achieve. As he becomes hardened, Pharaoh starts to act more and more mechanically, becoming a rigid rod that YHWH employs as he desires.
For the second sign, YHWH instructs Moses to place his hand in his bosom. Removing his hand, he sees that his hand is leprous like snow (in Scripture leprosy is an unknown skin condition, different to what we think of as ‘leprosy’ – perhaps we would be better off speaking of ‘corruption’). He is then instructed to return his hand to his bosom. When he takes it out again, it was restored.
Within the purity system of Leviticus, leprosy/corruption rendered one unclean and separated those who suffered from it from YHWH’s presence. Leprosy is given considerable attention in the book of Leviticus (Leviticus 13-14). It is important that we notice that it is spoken of in terms of ‘plague’. Leprosy is a ‘plague’ of corruption that afflicts persons and houses, having a similar effect to contact with a corpse (Numbers 19).
As a sign of death and uncleanness and associated with separation from the presence of YHWH, Moses’ sign of leprosy was a powerful one. The fact that he put his hand into his bosom is an important aspect of the sign, though. As the hand touches the flesh above his heart it turns leprous, bearing the plague of corruption. This is a sign of Israel’s state. When he returns his hand to his bosom and takes it out again, it is smooth and restored. Once again, the sign lies in the transformation: Israel’s corrupt heart will be exposed, but then healed, while Pharaoh’s heart will become more and more corrupt and hardened.
The story of the plagues that follow is a story of the plague of corruption breaking out in Egypt, of the house of Pharaoh becoming corrupted and being condemned to destruction. Both the Israelites and the Egyptians originally manifest the plague of corruption (as we shall see, both Israel and Egypt probably suffer the first three plagues). However, for the last seven plague ‘days’ a distinction is made between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, as the plague of corruption spreads among the Egyptians while Israel, their households purified with blood sprinkled with hyssop, escape the condemnation of Egypt through the water.
The final sign that Moses was given involved taking water from the Nile and pouring it on the dry land. This sign manifested YHWH’s power over the Nile, one of Egypt’s deities, and the primary source of its life. The Nile gave life and purification (notice that Pharaoh and his family go down to the river, quite probably to wash, on a number of occasions in Exodus – 2:5; 7:15; 8:20): in turning it to blood it became associated with death and defilement. It also summoned the avenger of blood, recalling the Hebrew boys thrown into it eighty years earlier (and possibly also subsequently). As such it was a sign of YHWH’s remembrance of what had happened. It also serves as a foretaste of the first plague.
Conflict with the Magicians
In chapter 7, Moses and Aaron are sent to Pharaoh. Aaron has been appointed as Moses’ prophet, with Moses being as God to him (4:16) and to Pharaoh (7:1). While Moses’ rod was used for the initial signs in chapter 4, we now begin to see a clear distinction being drawn between the rod of Moses and the rod of Aaron. In 7:8-13, Aaron confronts Pharaoh’s magicians. The magicians are Pharaoh’s representatives, while Aaron is Moses’ representative.
I commented in a previous post on the Angel of YHWH and the two witnesses. In the story of the Exodus the Angel of YHWH appears to Moses, and the two witnesses, Aaron and Moses, come to the city. Once the witnesses have borne their testimony and struck the nation, the Angel of YHWH comes in the decisive judgment.
Aaron’s sign in chapter 7 is similar to the first sign of Moses. He casts down his rod and it becomes a dragon, monster, or crocodile (the word is different from the word used for the serpent in chapter 4). The Egyptian magicians achieve a similar result by their secret arts (although they don’t seem to do it immediately, as YHWH does through Aaron). Aaron’s rod then swallows them up. Elsewhere in Scripture, Egypt is compared to a monster in its river (Ezekiel 29:3). Through this sign YHWH demonstrates his supremacy over the symbol of Egypt’s power. The fact that Aaron’s rod produces a dragon, while Moses’ only produces a serpent might also serve as a sign of the extension of Moses’ power in Aaron.
The conflict with the magicians is an important theme in the first three plagues. The magicians can replicate the effects of the first and second plagues (7:22; 8:7), rather ironically adding to the affliction of the nation of Egypt. At the third plague, they have to admit that they have been beaten and that it is the finger of God that is at work (8:19). By the fifth plague they are so afflicted that they can no longer stand before Moses (9:11).
The distinction between Moses’ rod and Aaron’s rod is seen in the first plague, where Moses strikes the waters of the Nile with his rod, while Aaron extends the judgment of Moses to one on all of the waters of Egypt (Exodus 7:19). Turning the waters to blood pollutes the source of purification, rendering the country unclean, and turns the source of life to death. The turning of the water to blood also recalls the Hebrew boys that were slain in the Nile waters, as we have already noticed, and the display of their blood calls for vengeance (cf. Genesis 4:10).
The Angel of YHWH is coming against Egypt as the Avenger of Blood. This is one of the important points to take away from the peculiar episode in 4:24-26. Circumcision and the display of blood is necessary when judgment is about to occur. The fact that Moses didn’t circumcise his son wasn’t a problem while he was in Midian, nor was the Israelites non-practice of circumcision while in the wilderness an issue. Circumcision only becomes necessary when the Avenger of Blood is marching on the land. In the bloody waters of the Nile, Egypt’s sin is exhumed and displayed openly for all to see.
Various patterns are suggested for the plagues. Cassuto suggests that they occur in three cycles: A. (1) Blood, (2) Frogs, (3) Gnats; B. (4) Swarms, (5) Pestilence, (6) Boils; C. (7) Hail, (8) Locusts, (9) Darkness. The tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, is the final judgment and distinct from the rest of the cycles (we will be discussing it in a coming post). The first plague in each cycle (1, 4, 7) involves Moses going to Pharaoh in the early morning, usually when he goes out to the river, and warning him of what is to come (7:15; 8:20; 9:13). The second plague in each cycle (2, 5, 8) involves Moses coming before Pharaoh to warn him, presumably during the day. The final plague of each cycle (3, 6, 9) come without any warning to Pharaoh at all. The first cycle of plagues is brought about through Aaron (Aaron is no longer prominent in bringing the plagues once the magicians have been knocked out and only Pharaoh himself remains standing in the ring); the final cycle of plagues is brought about by Moses (as Cornelis Houtman observes).
The corruption that begins in the bloody Nile and then extends to all of the waters gradually spreads to the land in the frogs, the dust of the land then turns to lice, the plague of insects is then given wings in a plague of swarms, rendering the whole land unclean, the land animals then become diseased, then human beings also break out in boils. The plagues rise further as the hail comes from the sky to strike the seasonal crops and the east wind brings locusts to consume what is left. Then the lights of the heavens themselves turn out over Egypt. Finally, in the climactic judgment, the lives of the firstborn are extinguished. The plague of corruption thus spreads throughout the entire house of the nation of Egypt, from roots to rafters.
After the first three plagues, a distinction seems to be made between Israel and Egypt (8:22-23). We are left to speculate whether such a distinction was made in the first three plagues. If it wasn’t, a couple of reasons for this might be suggested. First, Israel was corrupted with uncleanness too. One of the signs to Moses was that this plague of corruption would be arrested and healed in Israel’s case. Second, the first cycle of plagues was primarily a judgment upon the waters and the ground. The second cycle of plagues spread to the flesh of the land. The final cycle of plagues was a judgment borne by the heavens above the land. The Israelites suffered from the plague of corruption of the waters and the ground, because the land that they were living in was to be a condemned house, which was one reason why they had to leave it. However, the corruption did not spread to their livestock, their flesh, their seasonal crops (being under the jurisdiction of the heavens above, its rains, winds, and lights), and the sun and moon above them. The land of Egypt and Goshen within it would no longer be a source of blessing for them, but the rest of the world order would. The plagues would thus serve to create a separation. They first separated Israel from the land and waters of Egypt, which were obviously now bearers of a curse, but then went on to separate the Israelites from the Egyptians as people, by making a distinction between them.
The Battle of the Gods
The story of the plagues is a great battle of the gods (Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33:4). YHWH begins by defeating the sorcerers, the servants of the Egyptian gods, in the first cycle. He humiliates the Egyptian gods by demonstrating his power over them. At each stage the great gods of the Egyptians prove powerless to defend them against the heavy hand of YHWH. They are impotent in the very areas of their supposed strength.
It must be remembered that Exodus is bound up with divine self-revelation. For many centuries afterwards, YHWH would be spoken of primarily as the one who delivered the people from Egypt. This deliverance revealed the identity of YHWH in a dramatic fashion, and would be spoken of in the nations around for many generations to come (e.g. 1 Samuel 4:8). YHWH proved that he was not just the god of a particular territory, but could exert his power in a foreign land. YHWH proved that he was not just the god of a particular element or natural force, but was over all creation. YHWH proved that he was not just the god of one nation, but was the Most High God, and master of all. While YHWH could have made Pharaoh give up the children of Israel immediately, he ensured that Pharaoh was so hardened that his identity could be demonstrated in the judgments upon Egypt beyond all dispute.
Within the book of Exodus the gods of the Egyptians aren’t presented as non-existent, but rather as powerless to resist YHWH. The Egyptian sorcerers exercise genuine power, a power used in the service of the dragon. YHWH’s battle with the dragon of Egypt was a conflict with the grown serpent of Genesis, rebellious demonic powers at work in the world (we also see the rebellious angelic forces in Genesis 6). We will see demonic forces in direct conflict with YHWH in a number of exodus accounts as we proceed in this series. As Jesus sets out on his ministry he resists Satan in the wilderness, then encounters demonic possession throughout Israel, a fairly rare occurrence in the Old Testament. Things climax as Jesus defeats Satan at the cross. Exodus is bound up with themes of exorcism and defeat of the demonic.
The conflict is undertaken largely through YHWH’s servants, Moses and Aaron. To this point in the biblical narrative, most of the serpents we have encountered have been human beings, with hints that they are puppets of shadowy forces – the mighty dragons – lying being them. However, in the story of the Exodus these forces become more apparent as Moses and Aaron are empowered to join the battle against principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places. While angels were sent against Sodom, YHWH sends two men against Egypt and its gods.
Moses and Aaron perform signs and wonders, acts of de-creation and new creation. They are thus empowered of agents of YHWH’s new world-forming activity, bearing a power greater than that of any of the patriarchs who preceded them.
Within the Exodus the plague of corruption spreads throughout the entirety of Egypt’s house, while Israel is delivered from their corruption. Israel’s power over the serpent is once again asserted. The Exodus narrative is a narrative of conflict and of signs. It is a narrative in which the forces of the demonic dragon, false gods, and their minions are crushed (the head of the Egyptian dragon is finally crushed at the Red Sea, cf. Psalm 74:14), and the identity, power, and rule of YHWH and his servants is demonstrated.