In Hebrew, knowing is incomplete when it is only head knowledge. To really know something or someone requires an experience. We all feel this tension in life about knowing regardless of our cultural background. To know that someone views you positively from past evidence is a very different kind of “knowing” than those occasions where we “really know” their friendship or romantic love because they show us. When a friend or significant other has not done something heartwarming for us in a while, our “knowledge” of their love has dimmed a bit. But in moments when we experience the joy of their caring, we know more deeply.
The way people know us differs depending on their relationship to us. Perhaps one person knows us as “spouse” or “beloved.” Others know us as “best friend,” “dear friend,” “friend,” or “acquaintance.” Still others know us as son, daughter, mother, father, sister, brother, colleague, schoolmate, boss, employee, or a hundred other kinds ways of being related to them. Often the way we know someone affects how we think of them.
The patriarchs knew God as shepherd and provider, as Shaddai. As detailed in the commentary below, Shaddai means “God of by breast.” He was to them the God of the hills, who nurtured and gave them what they needed for life. He promised them blessing and numerous offspring. In the religious terms of the ancient world, he was close to being a fertility god to them. And Genesis is filled with fertility and abundance language (“be fruitful and multiply,” “I will make your offspring numerous,” “I will bless you”).
The Exodus generation will know him in a different capacity. They are about to see things that few generations of humanity will ever see: signs and wonders comparable to those that will be again at the end of the age. They will see Adonai bare his holy arm and smite the oppressors. Plagues will devastate the most powerful nation on earth and prove that kingdoms come and go, while the Creator outlasts them all. The waters of chaos will rise up as a wall on either side of them as they walk through on dry land. The pillar of fire will be manifested to them. Smoke and fire will cover the mountain where they will soon hear the Teaching (also known as Torah). The desert will provide water and bread for them, the bread of heaven.
The will know God as the patriarchs never did. They will know him as Y-H-V-H, “he will be.” God will show them by his actions who he is. They will know him by the experience of his rescuing might. No generation before or since has known him as they will know him.
But, based on the larger message of the Hebrew Bible, we know that we will know him someday in the same way.
By my Name they did not know me (2-3), I will fulfill the promises in your generation (4-8), the Israelites cannot believe in their oppressed state (9), the Lord further instructs Moses and Aaron (10-13).
This second call story of Moses (the first one was 3:1-22) raises many interesting questions. How did it originally happen that more than one story about Moses’ call existed? What purpose did the final editor of Torah see in including this second call story here? What is the significance and meaning of El Shaddai (often poorly rendered as “God Almighty”)? Does vs. 3 literally mean the patriarchs were unaware of the four-letter Name of God or does it mean something else? Doesn’t vs. 12 sound as if Moses has not yet been rebuffed by Pharaoh?
That this second call story originally existed independently is fairly easy to see. It repeats many of the features of the first one (3:1-22) in that God gives some explanation of his Name, says he has heard Israel’s outcry, will bring them to the Land, will take them as his people, and has Moses object because he has some problem concerning his confidence in speech (compare 6:12 with 4:1-17). Thus far, many of the signs that Exodus is a combination of accounts from multiple sources have been explained by the theorized J and E accounts (a southern and northern set of stories).
Now in this passage we come to a passage widely believed to be from the traditions of the priests of Jerusalem (the P source). Stories about Moses existed in multiple forms among different strands within Israel and they have been combined after the exile by a skillful editor (someone like Ezra the scribe). See Richard Elliott Friedman’s very readable explanation of the sources of the Torah (Who Wrote the Bible?) for more.
Although this second call story repeats many features of the first one, it is shorter, and it can for the most part be understood by the reader as a repetition and confirmation of the first one. Just as God spoke more than once to the patriarchs about the covenant (Gen 12, 15, 17, etc.), so here the final editor of Torah uses an independent call story to narrate something very true to life: God reassuring a discouraged Moses after the initial failure of the mission to Pharaoh. A tension remains, though, between the first and second story, so that the final version does not read smoothly. Not only are elements repeated, but vs. 12 gives the impression Moses has just spoken to the Israelites for the first time and has not yet spoken to Pharaoh.
Once we understand that some strangeness of 6:2-13 is due to the way Torah was put together, we are ready to proceed with its meaning. The patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai, but what does that name mean? The translation “Almighty” is a misnomer, based on a suggested parallel from Akkadian (shadu, mountain) and from the Greek translation (the LXX, a.k.a. Septuagint). But the Hebrew shad means breast ((Isa 60:16; 66:11; Job 24:9; and ten more times in the plural form). The -ai ending (rhymes with pie) is either an archaic form meaning “my” or is a special form reserved for speaking to the deity.
As for the strange idea of referring to him as “God, my breast,” the practice of the Canaanites prior to Israel’s new ways of worship was to worship on the hills, which are abundant in the Land. Hills resemble breasts and the gods could be thought of as sources of provision like mother’s milk to a baby. It seems an old understanding of God, one which was beyond gender since only female breasts give milk, is as the God of the hills to whom the people look for daily provision.
Thus, God is explaining to Moses, the patriarchs knew him as the God they experienced on the hills of the Land who cared for their every need. How should we interpret this? Does he mean they primarily knew or experienced God as the nurturing Shaddai or that they only knew of him by the name Shaddai (as in, completely unaware of the four-letter name of God, Y-H-V-H)?
It is quite possible that the patriarchs never heard of Y-H-V-H (most English translations render the name LORD, while Jewish custom is to replace Y-H-V-H with Adonai when reading aloud). It makes no difference that when we read Genesis, the patriarchs refer to God as Y-H-V-H. By the time the stories were written, readers knew the name and the text of Genesis is updated for readers in its own time.
Some commentators will argue (Umberto Cassuto, Brevard Childs) that Exodus 6 is not denying the patriarch’s knew the name. Rather, God means they did not experience what Israel is about to experience: a deliverance that is a radical fulfillment of the covenant promises. God’s name means something like “I will be what I will be.” The patriarchs knew him as shepherd and provider. The Exodus generation will know him as the one who keeps his promises, who shows them what God will be.
When you start to realize that most of the numbers in the Bible are made up, your first reaction might be, “I knew it! It’s all fiction and myth!” But consider this: maybe their ideas about storytelling were very different from ours. And it could be that something we might call “augmented reality” was every bit as real to them as “just-the-facts” is to us.
You might not notice that the genealogy in Exodus 6 is yet another example of suspiciously round numbers in the Bible. That’s because it tends not to occur to modern readers to do sums and other arithmetic with the numbers to see what the author is doing. Umberto Cassuto adds up the ages of the clan heads listed in the genealogy: Levi (137), Kohath (133), Amram (137), and Aaron who was at the time 83. The sum? 490. That’s seventy times seven.
It’s right in there with other biblical numbers like seventy Israelites in Egypt or the 480 years from the Exodus until Solomon’s temple and so on. Readers of the New Testament see it in Matthew’s genealogy counting the generations back from Jesus to Abraham in three sets of fourteen (and clearly skipping generations to make the numbers work).
What is all this augmented reality? For starters, they had no idea how old their ancestors were. In Genesis, the lifespan of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all numerology (see my Genesis commentary for more). They did not keep track of “history” per se but passed down “story.” They were not concerned with lining things up with reigns of specific Pharaohs or being able to keep an absolute chronology or even a relative chronology.
But they would present lifespans and other numbers in the storytelling anyway, despite the fact that they did not know any actual numbers. It was their way of saying history is more than it appears to be. History is meaningful and the past defines the present and the future. Looking at history is about wisdom, discerning patterns, anticipating what will yet come. It was about making sense of what the authors and their readers, the storytellers and their hearers, experienced in life.
The genealogy in Exodus 6 is about the importance of the priests and the temple worship in Judah. Aaron is the first high priest. His ancestry mattered to them and the idea that God sent him at the right time, to found a tradition central to Judah’s relationship with God, was of vital importance to them. They describe his origins in exalted terms as a way of noting his importance. The storyteller might as well be saying to his audience, “The existence of the priests is a crucial matter for us!” The audience would evaluate this message and either agree or disagree.
Genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (14-16), the Levitical families (17-25), Aaron and Moses (26-28).
The final editor of the Torah (perhaps Ezra the scribe) placed this genealogy here, after the main action of the story, to place Aaron and Moses in the larger context of the tribal history of Israel. The genealogy delineates Reuben and Simeon only because their tribes are elder to Levi. It omits tribes further down than Levi because the purpose of this genealogical information is only to locate Moses and Aaron on the spectrum.
The number of years mentioned perfectly illustrates the problems with taking the numbers in Exodus “literally.” Cassuto discusses the various numbers of years in depth and always gives good attention to the wonderful numerologies in Genesis and Exodus (where patterns of sevens and other preferred numbers are common). The problem here can be simply stated by adding up the years: Levi’s years are 137, Kohath’s are 133, Amram’s are 137, and Aaron was 83 (7:7). These add up to 490. But there would (obviously) be overlap between the lives of Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Aaron, so we cannot say that 490 years have elapsed. We can, however, notice that this is a perfect 7 X 70.
Further, in Genesis 15 we were told two things about the length of time the Israelites would be in Egypt: 400 years and (oddly) that they would come back to the land in the fourth generation (impossible to reconcile). Note that the genealogy in Exodus 6 makes Aaron the fourth generation. Also, we get the number 430 in 12:40 as the number of years Israel was in Egypt. How do we take all these various numbers “literally”?
Cassuto argues they were never intended that way and that tracking periods of time accurately was not an intention of the Torah at all. The numbers are all significant numerologically. He demonstrates throughout Torah the use of the sexagesimal system (numbers based on sixties). The 430 years of 12:40 is six periods of sixty years (each period of sixty years is called a sus in Babylonian accounts) plus seventy. The 490 years total in the Exodus 6 genealogy is also a symbolic number, one sus more than 430.
As for the names in the Levitical genealogy, the writer mentions only the families that will be important in the later story of Israel. Moses’ and Aaron’s mother, Jochebed (Yokheved) is the first person mentioned in the Bible with God’s name embedded. This is a curious fact, since she was named during the exile in Egypt, at a time when we have no knowledge of Israel’s worship of God. It’s fascinating to know that a mother named her daughter with the deity in mind.
Jochebed is also her husband Amram’s aunt. Later, the laws of Torah will forbid such a marriage (Lev 18:12). As was the case in the lives of the patriarchs, so we see here, evidence that commandments now known from Torah were not known or followed beforehand.
Aaron’s mother, wife, and daughter-in-law are mentioned because they help form the background the priestly genealogy in Israel. Aaron’s line is doubly Levite, since his father and mother were grandchildren of Levi. The people named in the Levite branch of the genealogy will all be named in other parts of the Torah (Rashbam, Cassuto). The genealogy must have come from a book of records and was inserted by the final editor of Torah (so Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed) in order to establish the names of the Levite branch of Israel who would be named in other parts of Torah. The importance of the priesthood and genealogies in Israel’s later history can be seen in the prominent place this genealogy takes in the story.
EXODUS 6:29 – 7:7
God is not merely concerned that Israel would know him. In the signs and wonders of the Exodus he also says, “Egypt will know that I am Adonai” (7:5).
If the meaning of God’s name is “he will be,” as in “he will be what he will be,” which is to say, “you will see who he is by what he does,” then verse 5 means God wishes to show this to other nations besides Israel.
This is consistently the message of the Torah. God blesses Abraham and through Abraham blesses all the families of the earth. The particularity of God’s relationship with Israel is no more or less important than God’s intention to make himself known though Israel to the whole earth.
“Hear, O Israel,” begins the Shema (Deut 6:4). The creed of the Torah is first a word to Israel. “Adonai our God,” the Shema continues. There is a close relation between Israel and God. The relationship is expressed with the possessive pronoun “our.” Some aspects of God’s covenant are exclusively between himself and Israel. “Adonai is one,” the Shema declares. He cannot be divided. Thus all creatures belong to the one and only God. The creed of the Torah contains within it both the particular love of God for Israel and the universal love of God for all human beings (credit to Mark Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism, for this insight).
In the Exodus story, we will see that some in Egypt who are not part of Israel will follow them out of the land (12:38). The prophets look forward to the day when Egypt knows God (Isa 19:24). God’s signs and wonders in delivering Israel are part of Israel’s love story. But they are also signs to everyone else about who God is and what he will do.
The Lord reissues the command to speak (29), Moses reiterates his inadequacy (6:30), the Lord will make Moses as God to Pharaoh (7:1-2), Pharaoh will not listen because of his hard heart (3), the Lord will send marvels to set Israel free (4-6), Moses at 80 and Aaron at 83 (7).
After 6:13, the story was on pause for a genealogy. At that point in the story the Israelites had just disbelieved Moses and Aaron. They were too beaten down from their forced labor (6:9). Now the story resumes, but with a bit of recap, since it repeats the same information as 6:10-13 and 3:7-4:17 (God sends Moses to speak to Pharaoh, Moses objects that he is not an adequate spokesman for God). Exodus continues to show signs of being a composite account, put together from multiple sources.
Now in this version of Moses’ complaint about speech, God explains more clearly how Moses and Aaron will function. In 4:14-17, God had said Aaron would be Moses’ spokesman (which passage Friedman interprets as coming from the E source, from the northern kingdom). Now in 7:1-2, this double spokesperson role is described as if Moses is God and Aaron is his prophet (which Friedman assigns to the P or priestly source, from Judah). Those who speak for God through direct revelation speak as if they are God, just as messengers of the time spoke in the authority of the kings who sent them.
Exodus 7:3 is part of a much-discussed theme concerning Pharaoh’s heart being hard and to what degree God caused this attitude to be in Pharaoh versus Pharaoh himself making a free choice. The first thing we should note is that the authors of Exodus have no intention of debating the philosophical idea of determinism versus free will (does God cause us to do what we do or do we make free choices). The hard heart of Pharaoh is a story device used in two of the three original sources (E and P, not J) of the combined Exodus account. Its purpose is to observe how unusual it is that Pharaoh resisted letting the Israelites go for so long, to the hurt of his own nation and people.
Several times the text states that God did the hardening: “I will strengthen his heart” (4:21), “I will harden his heart” (7:3), “for I have made heavy his heart” (10:1). Several times we are told Pharaoh hardened his own heart. And other times there is a passive rendering “Pharaoh’s heart was heavy.” The concern some readers have is with the statements attributing the hardening of Pharaoh to God.
Cassuto seems to have the best explanation. He says we have to understand “the way ancient Hebrew expresses itself.” Events in the human realm are at times attributed to God (“Adonai shut her womb,” “God brought the opportunity into his hand,” etc.). Events have multiple causes, but none of our actions transcend God as the ultimate cause of existence. If a world existed where God did not allow it to happen, Pharaoh would not be able to have a hard heart. So in a way of speaking, God is one of the causes of Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Cassuto says in the mind of the authors, there really is no difference in the two statements “his heart was hard” and “God caused his heart to be hard.”
More important to the text than philosophical issues about free will, is the revelation of God that comes in the Exodus. God will show signs and wonders. God will deliver his his “hosts” (a reference to Israel’s growing number of people) and will use supernatural judgments to do it. Why? So that the Egyptians “will know that I am Y-H-V-H.” Just as Israel will know God by his Name (3:14; 6:3), so Egypt will know he is the one who causes existence and who shows his character by his deeds in keeping with his name (6:29; 7:5). The meaning of this revelation is that he is the saving God, who redeems and brings covenant blessing to those who hold him in awe.
EXODUS 7:8 – 8:6 (8:10 in Chr Bibles)
The battle in this section of the Torah is a war of worldviews. One the one side we see Moses and Aaron, who are being directed by a deity, the one and only deity whose control extends to every element of nature. On the other hand we see the sorcerers and wisemen of Egypt, who believe that a force, “magic,” can manipulate nature and even affect the gods.
In the mind of the Egyptians the cosmos is a hierarchy: animal world, human sphere, the realms of nature, the divine realm, and magic as a mysterious force at the top. The biblical authors believe that the divine realm is the highest, with nothing above it.
What difference does it make, choosing between these worldviews? The Torah’s answer is that the difference is crucial. The faith centered on magic and the gods and goddesses is a chaotic world, ultimately meaningless. Mindless forces and capricious deities govern existence. The faith centered on “Adonai our God” shows us a meaningful world. A loving creator and the principles of righteousness and wisdom govern existence.
According to the logic of the Exodus story, this present world can seem meaningless, as if the rules are arbitrary, and selfish power is supreme. The magicians of Egypt are able to imitate miracles. Truth is hidden. Lies are believable. It requires faith to believe in the power of the creator and the forces of love and redemption.
If it was difficult for people in the Exodus events, how much more so for us. Signs and wonders are ordinarily absent. But the apparent randomness of existence is all around us. It will take faith and wisdom to see the deeper meaning behind all things.
Turning a staff into a serpent (8-13), 1st Wonder: making the Nile red as blood (14-25), 2nd Wonder: frogs (7:26 – 8:6).
Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) points out that Exodus does not refer to the first nine disasters God brings on Egypt as “plagues.” The word is used once of the intense hail storm, and she argues it is because this storm took human life that the word plague is used. The killing of the firstborn, the tenth disaster, is called a plague several times. Rather than “plague,” Exodus and other Hebrew Bible texts (Deut 4:34; Psa 78:43-51; 105:26-27; Jer 32:20-21) refer to them as “signs” and “wonders.”
Christian Bibles divide the chapter after 7:25, when the 2nd wonder begins, resulting in different verse numbering in ch. 8. Cassuto notes that the staff-to-serpent sign was probably something Pharaoh would have required of Moses and Aaron since they claimed to be prophets. Kings might demand that any prophet seeking audience prove their worth with a miraculous sign. The sign is done with Aaron’s rod, not the “rod of God” (see 4:17). It is quite possible that here the staff turns into a crocodile (native to the Nile where the scene takes place) as the Hebrew word tannin (תַנִּין) is ambiguous (crocodile or serpent both fit its meaning). Earlier in 4:3 it turned into a nahash ( נָחָשׁ), clearly a snake.
Pharaoh has his sorcerers perform the same trick to show that Egyptian gods are as powerful as Hebrew gods. Aaron’s serpent swallows (something hard to imagine literally) those of the Egyptians. The Egyptians use spells. Aaron simply waits on God.
The Nile was the symbol of Egypt’s strength and wealth, the source of abundant food through irrigation. The first wonder challenges Egypt’s superiority by defiling the Nile. Cassuto argues that this is not an actual turning to blood, but a natural miracle of red algae or similar phenomenon. This is not an attempt to deny divine power, but to suggest that God’s miracles generally work with nature, not against it.
The reference in vs. 19 to wood and stone may refer to the fact that Egyptians washed their idols (wood and stone) with Nile water. The Egyptian magicians are also able to turn water (in vessels? in the direction Moses had not pointed?) red as blood, so Pharaoh feels his superiority is maintained.
In the second wonder, Cassuto explains that in the receding of the Nile waters, frogs are often abundant. Egyptians regarded them as fertility symbols. Hechet was a goddess with a frog head who breathed life into bodies her god-husband made on a potter’s wheel. God causes a super-abundance of frogs to the point of causing stink and defilement in Egypt. Pharaoh is willing, at first to relent. In the next section, however, he will renege on his word once he sees the disaster has passed.
EXODUS 8:7-18 (11-22 in Chr Bibles)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses the difference between thinking based on concepts versus that based on situations. “Conceptual thinking is an act of reasoning; situational thinking involves an inner experience” (God in Search of Man, ch. 1). The conceptual thinker is able to be detached. The concern of his or her thought is not so pressing. “The attitude of the situational thinker is one of concern,” says Heschel, “the beginning of situational thinking is not doubt, detachment, but amazement, awe, involvement.”
What Rabbi Heschel is pressing upon us is something he calls “radical self-understanding.” This inner revelation is not going to happen to us as long as we begin from the illusion of detachment. Pharaoh is fooled by this very delusion. When the crisis affecting his land presses upon him, he begins to react in amazement and awe. Truth is knocking and he begins to answer the door, only to shut it again.
“When Pharaoh saw that there was relief” (וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה vayari Par’ōh ki hayetah harevachah) “he made his heart hard” (וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת־לִבּוֹ vehachbeid et-libbō). He returned to the fantasy of power and being removed from it all. He was, after all, Pharaoh, shielded by military advisors and wisemen and courtiers from the concerns of mere mortals. This power of the Hebrew God was not able to defeat him.
Heschel gives us one of the most powerful lines of religious thought ever penned when he says, Radical self-understanding “comes to light in moments when one’s soul is shaken with unmitigated concern about the meaning of all meaning, about one’s ultimate commitment which is integrated with one’s very existence; in moments when all foregone conclusions, all life-stifling trivialities are suspended.”
Pharaoh is caught between trivialities (wealth, power, honor) and “the meaning of all meaning” (God is ultimate). Trouble and pressure begin to awaken in him wonder, awe. But fantasy returns and his thinking returns to a conceptual fallacy. We are being told in this story that we need the pressure, to be in the situation, and that perhaps the difficulty of life has a reason. If we see it rightly and live as those who are involved and concerned, we will be more likely to perceive wisdom.
Moses prays and the infestation of frogs is relieved (7-10), Pharaoh will not relent (11), 3rd wonder: Gnats (?) (12-15), 4th wonder: Flies (?) (16-18).
In keeping with the message about the difference between magic and faith, we see that Moses must pray to ask God to end the infestation of frogs. God is the one who acts. The wonders that were seen before the Exodus were not manipulation by human arts, but divine acts. The human agents of these wonders were not magicians but prophets.
Pharaoh did not keep is word. Once he saw relief he forgot the pressing need to submit to this God of the Hebrews. When in the crisis, he began to see truly. With the crisis removed, he was able to believe again falsely in the supremacy of political and military might as the greatest force in this world. Blinded by the allure of power, he imagined himself to be able to defeat this God of the Hebrews. Pharaoh’s broken word contrasts with the tradition in the Bible of showing God keeping his word, time and again.
In the third wonder, we can only guess that these were gnats or mosquitoes as we do not know the meaning of the word kinnim (כִנִּם). The Egyptian magicians fail this time and call it the “finger of God,” an expression used only twice more and for the writing on the tablets of the commandments (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10). In other words, they say this is really a divine act beyond the power of men. Yet Pharaoh’s heart is hard again. The story emphasizes that no matter what happens, even in variations such as we see in wonders two and three, Pharaoh will not listen.
The fourth wonder is similarly difficult to define, but the traditional explanation of “mixtures” (of animals) is unlikely. The guess that this is another swarming fly is more likely, so that wonders three and four are similar (gnats, flies). The fourth wonder is the first in which the place where Israel lives, Goshen, is spared. This time the magicians do not even attempt to match the miracle.
Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) helpfully explains how the wonders come in three triads. In each set of three signs, Pharaoh is first warned in the morning as he is traveling to the Nile, the second is a confrontation in the palace, and the third comes with no warning. The first triad concerns threats from the water (blood, frogs, gnats), the second harms people and livestock (flies, pestilence, boils), the third triad is airborne (hail, locusts, darkness).
EXODUS 8:19 – 9:16 (8:23 – 9:16 in Chr Bibles)
We could readily agree with the statement God makes about himself: אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ win kamōni bechōl-ha’aretz, “There is none like me in all the world.”
This pronouncement comes in the story of God confronting a man sold out to the myth of power. Pharaoh believes his kingdom and his gods are superior. The people of Egypt have put their trust for security in the wealth and might of Pharaoh and the pantheon of deities known to them. There certainly are powerful concepts in ancient Egyptian religion, ideas that attract people even to this day.
But the truth is more glorious. On the one hand, we have in Egyptian religion a belief in a divine realm where superior beings have powers over nature. The annual flooding of the Nile for irrigation makes the land wealthy and creates abundance. But even in the illusion of security there is a terrible truth. The gods do not love the people. Religion for Egypt is filled with ways to beg, grovel, coerce, and even trick the gods with a goal to secure a pleasant outcome. Neither are the gods all-powerful.
God who is showing himself in the signs falling on Egypt is something else entirely. The cosmos is his creature. Egypt’s power and its gods do not even register as a threat to him. “I could have stretched forth my hand,” God says, “and you would have been effaced from the earth.”
True power is larger than we think. Nothing in our experience could prepare us to encounter it. We are staring up into the abyss filled with distant but enormous stars across an expanse whose vastness is beyond comprehension, and not even then are we perceiving the enormity of God.
“There is none like me in all this world.” Our response to such a word can only be what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “wonder” and “radical amazement.” We can perceive something like the boundless glory of God by seeking out experiences with nature, with love, with truth. We can in moments of insight see like flashes of lightning mere glimpses of the transcendent. Our soul is enlarged. Our hope is sustained.
The Lord makes a distinction in the 4th wonder (19-20), Pharaoh agrees to let Israel worship and changes his mind a second time (21-28), the 5th wonder: Pestilence (9:1-7), the 6th wonder: Boils (8-12), the 7th wonder begins: Hail (13-16).
Vs. 19 is literally, “I will make a deliverance between you and my people,” using the rare word פְדֻת (pedut). Context suggests it means “distinction.” God will punish Egypt for Pharaoh’s refusal to listen but spare the region where the Israelites dwell.
The wonders have been escalating. Pharaoh for the second time agrees to let Israel go, but after the wonder is removed, he again does not keep his word. Pharaoh’s offer this time is to let Israel have their festival to Adonai within the land, instead of leaving to celebrate in the desert. Moses argues that this will not work since Israel’s worship involves a תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם tō’avat mitzrayim, “an abominable thing to Egypt.” This is likely referring to the same “abomination” mentioned in Genesis 46:34, “every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”
Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) refers to texts from a later period, such as a note in Herodotus, which suggest that Egyptians did not sacrifice sheep and goats. Could it be that as Israel found it repugnant to offer pigs, Egypt felt in some comparable manner about sheep and goats? It is possible that Egypt’s reason for avoiding the sacrifice of sheep was different, not because sheep were an abomination, but because they were regarded as sacred. The Palestinian Targum (Jewish commentaries written in Aramaic) suggests this was the reason (but the Targums are even later than Herodotus). This can only be a guess, since the references to sheep and goats with relation to Egypt are from a later period.
The tradition in passing down the story of the Exodus shows an anachronism when Moses says, “will they not stone us?” Stoning was the Israelite method of execution in a case of a capital crime. But Egypt is not a land full of stones like Israel (Meyers). We should expect a story passed down orally to contain these kinds of inaccuracies.
In the 5th wonder, Moses uses a play on words. The reader knows that God’s personal name is based on the verb “to be” and means something like “he will be.” Moses uses a rare form of the verb (הוֹיָה hōyah, a feminine participle) to say, “The hand of יְהוָה (the divine name) הוֹיָה (will be) against your cattle.”
Again God distinguishes between Israel and Egypt on the 5th wonder.
In the 6th, Moses uses soot from a furnace, perhaps a brick-making kiln (Cassuto), to demonstrate what will happen. It should strike the reader as ironic that Moses uses an element of the brick-making industry, the very kind of forced labor Pharaoh has inflicted on Israel, to demonstrate how God will smite Egypt. This infestation will be some kind of disease, similar perhaps to smallpox. The magicians of Egypt are unable to heal the illness.
And something changes with Pharaoh after this sign. The verbs about the hardening of his heart become more insistent that God is doing the hardening. This is likely their way of saying, Pharaoh is now operating beyond reason. He is acting to the clear hurt of his own people and doing so irrationally.
God is declaring something about himself in these wonders. אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ win kamōni bechōl-ha’aretz, “There is none like me in all the world.” Pharaoh thinks he knows power and wields it, and he believes that the gods of Egypt are mighty. The truth is, God is not exerting all his power in these signs, but is holding back. He has a purpose in this generation of Egypt, to show the world that there is one Creator who governs everything that exists, who opposes oppressors, and sets free those who need deliverance.
There are those people who are “other” to us, strange, suspect, alien. We find it difficult to be comfortable around them, not because we know them personally and have reason to distrust or loathe them, but because we do not understand them. Perhaps they belong to a group that has been “the enemy.” Perhaps their beliefs or customs seem abhorrent to us. We simply face a barrier between us that we rarely take the time to cross.
Not so with God. There is no ethnicity, nation, or culture he inherently despises. The simplistic black and white, good and evil, judgments we are prone to pale beside the complexity of God’s understanding of the human soul. There is a spark of light in every human being.
So in Egypt, God warned the Egyptians and saved many lives. Several times in the Exodus story we see examples of Egyptians as friends of Israel. Many feared the word of God. Many gave wealth to the escaping Israelites. Some even undertook the journey with Israel. A day is coming when “Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria,” God says (Isa 19:24), and “blessed be Egypt my people.”
God sends plenty of trouble on the earth and that distress for our very lives is what drives us to seek him. God’s word about a rescue is something we long for and want to know about. Can we be saved from this desolation?
Some Egyptians took seriously the word of deliverance and faith. They were saved along with their families. The message of the Exodus is that a delivering God is real. And in him we place our hope.
The sign of hail announced (17-20), some officials in Egypt fear the word of the Lord (21), hail smites the land (22-26), Pharaoh’s plea and Moses’ insight (27-32), Pharaoh hardens his heart again (33-35).
The seventh sign of God’s power against Egypt begins a third cycle and the descriptions are longer and more detailed. The time of year is February, based on the presence of young flax and barley in vss. 31-32 (Sarna, JPS Commentary). It is the time for maximum devastation of the crops which Egypt is so famous for.
God does something unexpected here. He announces to any in Egypt who will listen an opportunity to save themselves and their livestock. By giving people in Egypt a chance to secure their families and animals (vs. 19), God gives an opportunity for faith and deliverance. Some Egyptians feared the word of God and listened to his warning. A step of faith, any step of faith, brings a person nearer to God. This type of lesson from God is, no doubt, what will later lead a “mixed multitude” to come out with Israel.
The description of the storm, with its lightning and hail, is sufficiently dramatic to induce a sense of awe. וַתִּהֲלַךְ אֵשׁ אָרְצָה vatihalach eish aretzah, “Fire went down earthward.” וַיַּמְטֵר יְהוָה בָּרָד עַל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם vayyamteir Adonai barred ‘al-‘eretz mitzrayim, “Adonai rained down hail upon the earth.” אֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד eish mitlaqachat betōch habarad, “Fire was flashing in the midst of the hail.”
In this miracle of horrific judgment, God spared the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived. All those Egyptians who listened to God’s warning and took cover survived. Pharaoh does his usual pleading for the threat to be removed. This time Moses says, “I know that you and your courtiers do not yet fear Adonai.”