Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Moses' last difficulty (Exo 6:12, repeated in Exo 6:30) was removed by God with the words: "See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet" (Exo 7:1). According to Exo 4:16, Moses was to be a god to Aaron; and in harmony with that, Aaron is here called the prophet of Moses, as being the person who would announce to Pharaoh the revelations of Moses. At the same time Moses was also made a god to Pharaoh; i.e., he was promised divine authority and power over Pharaoh, so that henceforth there was no more necessity for him to be afraid of the king of Egypt, but the latter, notwithstanding all resistance, would eventually bow before him. Moses was a god to Aaron as the revealer of the divine will, and to Pharaoh as the executor of that will. - In Exo 7:2-5 God repeats in a still more emphatic form His assurance, that notwithstanding the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, He would bring His people Israel out of Egypt. ושׁלּח (Exo 7:2) does not mean ut dimittat or mittat (Vulg. Ros.; "that he send," Eng. ver.); but ו is vav consec. perf., "and so he will send." On Exo 7:3 cf. Exo 4:21.
את־ידי ונתתּי: "I will lay My hand on Egypt," i.e., smite Egypt, "and bring out My armies, My people, the children of Israel." צבאות (armies) is used of Israel, with reference to its leaving Egypt equipped (Exo 13:18) and organized as an army according to the tribes (cf. Exo 6:26 and Exo 12:51 with Num 1 and 2), to contend for the cause of the Lord, and fight the battles of Jehovah. In this respect the Israelites were called the hosts of Jehovah. The calling of Moses and Aaron was now concluded. Exo 7:6 and Exo 7:7 pave the way for the account of their performance of the duties consequent upon their call.
The negotiations of Moses and Aaron as messengers of Jehovah with the king of Egypt, concerning the departure of Israel from his land, commenced with a sign, by which the messengers of God attested their divine mission in the presence of Pharaoh (Exo 7:8-13), and concluded with the announcement of the last blow that God would inflict upon the hardened king (Exo 11:1-10). The centre of these negotiations, or rather the main point of this lengthened section, which is closely connected throughout, and formally rounded off by Exo 11:9-10 into an inward unity, is found in the nine plagues which the messengers of Jehovah brought upon Pharaoh and his kingdom at the command of Jehovah, to bend the defiant spirit of the king, and induce him to let Israel go out of the land and serve their God. If we carefully examine the account of these nine penal miracles, we shall find that they are arranged in three groups of three plagues each. For the first and second, the fourth and fifth, and the seventh and eighth were announced beforehand by Moses to the king (Exo 7:15; Exo 8:1, Exo 8:20; Exo 9:1, Exo 9:13; Exo 10:1), whilst the third, sixth, and ninth were sent without any such announcement (Exo 8:16; Exo 9:8; Exo 10:21). Again, the first, fourth, and seventh were announced to Pharaoh in the morning, and the first and fourth by the side of the Nile (Exo 7:15; Exo 8:20), both of them being connected with the overflowing of the river; whilst the place of announcement is not mentioned in the case of the seventh (the hail, Exo 9:13), because hail, as coming from heaven, was not connected with any particular locality. This grouping is not a merely external arrangement, adopted by the writer for the sake of greater distinctness, but is founded in the facts themselves, and the effect which God intended the plagues to produce, as we may gather from these circumstances - that the Egyptian magicians, who had imitated the first plagues, were put to shame with their arts by the third, and were compelled to see in it the finger of God (Exo 8:19), - that they were smitten themselves by the sixth, and were unable to stand before Moses (Exo 9:11), - and that after the ninth, Pharaoh broke off all further negotiation with Moses and Aaron (Exo 10:28-29). The last plague, commonly known as the tenth, which Moses also announced to the king before his departure (Exo 11:4.), differed from the nine former ones both in purpose and form. It was the first beginning of the judgment that was coming upon the hardened king, and was inflicted directly by God Himself, for Jehovah "went out through the midst of Egypt, and smote the first-born of the Egyptians both of man and beast" (Exo 11:4; Exo 12:29); whereas seven of the previous plagues were brought by Moses and Aaron, and of the two that are not expressly said to have been brought by them, one, that of the dog-flies, was simply sent by Jehovah (Exo 8:21, Exo 8:24), and the other, the murrain of beasts, simply came from His hand (Exo 9:3, Exo 9:6). The last blow (נגע Exo 11:1), which brought about the release of Israel, was also distinguished from the nine plagues, as the direct judgment of God, by the fact that it was not effected through the medium of any natural occurrence, as was the case with all the others, which were based upon the natural phenomena of Egypt, and became signs and wonders through their vast excess above the natural measure of such natural occurrences and their supernatural accumulation, blow after blow following one another in less than a year, and also through the peculiar circumstances under which they were brought about. In this respect also the triple division is unmistakeable. The first three plagues covered the whole land, and fell upon the Israelites as well as the Egyptians; with the fourth the separation commenced between Egyptians and Israelites, so that only the Egyptians suffered from the last six, the Israelites in Goshen being entirely exempted. The last three, again, were distinguished from the others by the fact, that they were far more dreadful than any of the previous ones, and bore visible marks of being the forerunners of the judgment which would inevitably fall upon Pharaoh, if he continued his opposition to the will of the Almighty God.
In this graduated series of plagues, the judgment of hardening was inflicted upon Pharaoh in the manner explained above. In the first three plagues God showed him, that He, the God of Israel, was Jehovah (Exo 7:17), i.e., that He ruled as Lord and King over the occurrences and powers of nature, which the Egyptians for the most part honoured as divine; and before His power the magicians of Egypt with their secret arts were put to shame. These three wonders made no impression upon the king. The plague of frogs, indeed, became so troublesome to him, that he begged Moses and Aaron to intercede with their God to deliver him from them, and promised to let the people go (Exo 8:8). But as soon as they were taken away, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to the messengers of God. Of the three following plagues, the first (i.e., the fourth in the entire series), viz., the plague of swarming creatures or dog-flies, with which the distinction between the Egyptians and Israelites commenced, proving to Pharaoh that the God of Israel was Jehovah in the midst of the land (Exo 8:22), made such an impression upon the hardened king, that he promised to allow the Israelites to sacrifice to their God, first of all in the land, and when Moses refused this condition, even outside the land, if they would not go far away, and Moses and Aaron would pray to God for him, that this plague might be taken away by God from him and from his people (Exo 8:25.). But this concession was only forced out of him by suffering; so that as soon as the plague ceased he withdrew it again, and his hard heart was not changed by the two following plagues. Hence still heavier plagues were sent, and he had to learn from the last three that there was no god in the whole earth like Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews (Heb 9:14). The terrible character of these last plagues so affected the proud heart of Pharaoh, that twice he acknowledged he had sinned (Exo 9:27; Exo 10:16), and gave a promise that he would let the Israelites go, restricting his promise first of all to the men, and then including their families also (Exo 10:11, Exo 10:24). But when this plague was withdrawn, he resumed his old sinful defiance once more (Exo 9:34-35; Exo 10:20), and finally was altogether hardened, and so enraged at Moses persisting in his demand that they should take their flocks as well, that he drove away the messengers of Jehovah and broke off all further negotiations, with the threat that he would kill them if ever they came into his presence again (Exo 10:28-29).
Attestation of the Divine Mission of Moses and Aaron. - By Jehovah's directions Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and proved by a miracle (מופת Exo 4:21) that they were the messengers of the God of the Hebrews. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. Aaron's staff as no other than the wondrous staff of Moses (Exo 4:2-4). This is perfectly obvious from a comparison of Exo 7:15 and Exo 7:17 with Exo 7:19 and Exo 7:20. If Moses was directed, according to Exo 7:15., to go before Pharaoh with his rod which had been turned into a serpent, and to announce to him that he would smite the water of the Nile with the staff in his hand and turn it into blood, and then, according to Exo 7:19., this miracle was carried out by Aaron taking his staff and stretching out his hand over the waters of Egypt, the staff which Aaron held over the water cannot have been any other than the staff of Moses which had been turned into a serpent. Consequently we must also understand by the staff of Aaron, which was thrown down before Pharaoh and became a serpent, the same wondrous staff of Moses, and attribute the expression "thy (i.e., Aaron's) staff" to the brevity of the account, i.e., to the fact that the writer restricted himself to the leading facts, and passed over such subordinate incidents as that Moses gave his staff to Aaron for him to work the miracle. For the same reason he has not even mentioned that Moses spoke to Pharaoh by Aaron, or what he said, although in Exo 7:13 he states that Pharaoh did not hearken unto them, i.e., to their message or their words. The serpent, into which the staff was changed, is not called נחשׁ here, as in Exo 7:15 and Exo 4:3, but תּנּיּן (lxx δράκων, dragon), a general term for snake-like animals. This difference does not show that there were two distinct records, but may be explained on the ground that the miracle performed before Pharaoh had a different signification from that which attested the divine mission of Moses in the presence of his people. The miraculous sign mentioned here is distinctly related to the art of snake-charming, which was carried to such an extent by the Psylli in ancient Egypt (cf. Bochart, and Hengstenberg, Egypt and Moses, pp. 98ff. transl.). It is probable that the Israelites in Egypt gave the name תּנּיּן (Eng. ver. dragon), which occurs in Deu 32:33 and Psa 91:13 as a parallel to פּתן (Eng. ver. asp), to the snake with which the Egyptian charmers generally performed their tricks, the Hayeh of the Arabs. What the magi and conjurers of Egypt boasted that they could perform by their secret or magical arts, Moses was to effect in reality in Pharaoh's presence, and thus manifest himself to the king as Elohim (Exo 7:1), i.e., as endowed with divine authority and power. All that is related of the Psylli of modern times is, that they understand the art of turning snakes into sticks, or of compelling them to become rigid and apparently dead (for examples see Hengstenberg); but who can tell what the ancient Psylli may have been able to effect, or may have pretended to effect, at a time when the demoniacal power of heathenism existed in its unbroken force? The magicians summoned by Pharaoh also turned their sticks into snakes (Exo 7:12); a fact which naturally excites the suspicion that the sticks themselves were only rigid snakes, though, with our very limited acquaintance with the dark domain of heathen conjuring, the possibility of their working "lying wonders after the working of Satan," i.e., supernatural things (Th2 2:9), cannot be absolutely denied. The words, "They also, the chartummim of Egypt, did in like manner with their enchantments," are undoubtedly based upon the assumption, that the conjurers of Egypt not only pretended to possess the art of turning snakes into sticks, but of turning sticks into snakes as well, so that in the persons of the conjurers Pharaoh summoned the might of the gods of Egypt to oppose the might of Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews. For these magicians, whom the Apostle Paul calls Jannes and Jambres, according to the Jewish tradition (Ti2 3:8), were not common jugglers, but חכמים "wise men," men educated in human and divine wisdom, and חרטתּים, ἱερογραμματεῖς, belonging to the priestly caste (Gen 41:8); so that the power of their gods was manifested in their secret arts (להטים from להט to conceal, to act secretly, like לטים in Exo 7:22 from לוּט), and in the defeat of their enchantments by Moses the gods of Egypt were overcome by Jehovah (Exo 12:12). The supremacy of Jehovah over the demoniacal powers of Egypt manifested itself in the very first miraculous sign, in the fact that Aaron's staff swallowed those of the magicians; though this miracle made no impression upon Pharaoh (Exo 7:13).
When Pharaoh hardened his heart against the first sign, notwithstanding the fact that it displayed the supremacy of the messengers of Jehovah over the might of the Egyptian conjurers and their gods, and refused to let the people of Israel go; Moses and Aaron were empowered by God to force the release of Israel from the obdurate king by a series of penal miracles. These מפתים were not purely supernatural wonders, or altogether unknown to the Egyptians, but were land-plagues with which Egypt was occasionally visited, and were raised into miraculous deeds of the Almighty God, by the fact that they burst upon the land one after another at an unusual time of the year, in unwonted force, and in close succession. These plagues were selected by God as miraculous signs, because He intended to prove thereby to the king and his servants, that He, Jehovah, was the Lord in the land, and ruled over the powers of nature with unrestricted freedom and omnipotence. For this reason God not only caused them to burst suddenly upon the land according to His word, and then as suddenly to disappear according to His omnipotent will, but caused them to be produced by Moses and Aaron and disappear again at their word and prayer, that Pharaoh might learn that these men were appointed by Him as His messengers, and were endowed by Him with divine power for the accomplishment of His will.
The Water of the Nile Turned into Blood. - In the morning, when Pharaoh went to the Nile, Moses took his staff at the command of God; went up to him on the bank of the river, with the demand of Jehovah that he would let His people Israel go; and because hitherto (עד־כּה) he had not obeyed, announced this first plague, which Aaron immediately brought to pass. Both time and place are of significance here. Pharaoh went out in the morning to the Nile (Exo 7:15; Exo 8:20), not merely to take a refreshing walk, or to bathe in the river, or to see how high the water had risen, but without doubt to present his daily worship to the Nile, which was honoured by the Egyptians as their supreme deity (vid., Exo 2:5). At this very moment the will of God with regard to Israel was declared to him; and for his refusal to comply with the will of the Lord as thus revealed to him, the smiting of the Nile with the staff made known to him the fact, that the God of the Hebrews was the true God, and possessed the power to turn the fertilizing water of this object of their highest worship into blood. The changing of the water into blood is to be interpreted in the same sense as in Joe 3:4, where the moon is said to be turned into blood; that is to say, not as a chemical change into real blood, but as a change in the colour, which caused it to assume the appearance of blood (Kg2 3:22). According to the statements of many travellers, the Nile water changes its colour when the water is lowest, assumes first of all a greenish hue and is almost undrinkable, and then, while it is rising, becomes as red as ochre, when it is more wholesome again. The causes of this change have not been sufficiently investigated. The reddening of the water is attributed by many to the red earth, which the river brings down from Sennaar (cf. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses, pp. 104ff. transl.; Laborde, comment. p. 28); but Ehrenberg came to the conclusion, after microscopical examinations, that it was caused by cryptogamic plants and infusoria. This natural phenomenon was here intensified into a miracle, not only by the fact that the change took place immediately in all the branches of the river at Moses' word and through the smiting of the Nile, but even more by a chemical change in the water, which caused the fishes to die, the stream to stink, and, what seems to indicate putrefaction, the water to become undrinkable; whereas, according to the accounts of travellers, which certainly do not quite agree with one another, and are not entirely trustworthy, the Nile water becomes more drinkable as soon as the natural reddening beings. The change in the water extended to "the streams," or different arms of the Nile; "the rivers," or Nile canals; "the ponds," or large standing lakes formed by the Nile; and all "the pools of water," lit., every collection of their waters, i.e., all the other standing lakes and ponds, left by the overflowings of the Nile, with the water of which those who lived at a distance from the river had to content themselves. "So that there was blood in all the land of Egypt, both in the wood and in the stone;" i.e., in the vessels of wood and stone, in which the water taken from the Nile and its branches was kept for daily use. The reference is not merely to the earthen vessels used for filtering and cleansing the water, but to every vessel into which water had been put. The "stone" vessels were the stone reservoirs built up at the corners of the streets and in other places, where fresh water was kept for the poor (cf. Oedmann's verm. Samml. p. 133). The meaning of this supplementary clause is not that even the water which was in these vessels previous to the smiting of the river was turned into blood, in which Kurtz perceives "the most miraculous part of the whole miracle;" for in that case the "wood and stone" would have been mentioned immediately after the "gatherings of the waters;" but simply that there was no more water to put into these vessels that was not changed into blood. The death of the fishes was a sign, that the smiting had taken away from the river its life-sustaining power, and that its red hue was intended to depict before the eyes of the Egyptians all the terrors of death; but we are not to suppose that there was any reference to the innocent blood which the Egyptians had poured into the river through the drowning of the Hebrew boys, or to their own guilty blood which was afterwards to be shed.
This miracle was also imitated by the magicians. The question, where they got any water that was still unchanged, is not answered in the biblical text. Kurtz is of opinion that they took spring water for the purpose; but he has overlooked the fact, that if spring water was still to be had, there would be no necessity for the Egyptians to dig wells for the purpose of finding drinkable water. The supposition that the magicians did not try their arts till the miracle wrought by Aaron had passed away, is hardly reconcilable with the text, which places the return of Pharaoh to his house after the work of the magicians. For it can neither be assumed, that the miracle wrought by the messengers of Jehovah lasted only a few hours, so that Pharaoh was able to wait by the Nile till it was over, since in that case the Egyptians would not have thought it necessary to dig wells; nor can it be regarded as probable, that after the miracle was over, and the plague had ceased, the magicians began to imitate it for the purpose of showing the king that they could do the same, and that it was after this that the king went to his house without paying any need to the miracle. We must therefore follow the analogy of Exo 9:25 as compared with Exo 10:5, and not press the expression, "every collection of water" (Exo 7:19), so as to infer that there was no Nile water at all, not even what had been taken away before the smiting of the river, that was not changed, but rather conclude that the magicians tried their arts upon water that was already drawn, for the purpose of neutralizing the effect of the plague as soon as it had been produced. The fact that the clause, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened," is linked with the previous clause, "the magicians did so, etc.," by a vav consecutive, unquestionably implies that the imitation of the miracle by the magicians contributed to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. The expression, "to this also," in Exo 7:23, points back to the first miraculous sign in Exo 7:10. This plague was keenly felt by the Egyptians; for the Nile contains the only good drinking water, and its excellence is unanimously attested by both ancient and modern writers (Hengstenberg ut sup. pp. 108, 109, transl.). As they could not drink of the water of the river from their loathing at its stench (Exo 7:18), they were obliged to dig round about the river for water to drink (Exo 7:24). From this it is evident that the plague lasted a considerable time; according to Exo 7:25, apparently seven days. At least this is the most natural interpretation of the words, "and seven days were fulfilled after that Jehovah had smitten the river." It is true, there is still the possibility that this verse may be connected with the following one, "when seven days were fulfilled...Jehovah said to Moses." But this is not probable; for the time which intervened between the plagues is not stated anywhere else, nor is the expression, "Jehovah said," with which the plagues are introduced, connected in any other instance with what precedes. The narrative leaves it quite undecided how rapidly the plagues succeeded one another. On the supposition that the changing of the Nile water took place at the time when the river began to rise, and when the reddening generally occurs, many expositors fix upon the month of June or July for the commencement of the plague; in which case all the plagues down to the death of the first-born, which occurred in the night of the 14th Abib, i.e., about the middle of April, would be confined to the space of about nine months. But this conjecture is a very uncertain one, and all that is tolerably sure is, that the seventh plague (the hail) occurred in February (vid., Exo 9:31-32), and there were (not three weeks, but) eight weeks therefore, or about two months, between the seventh and tenth plagues; so that between each of the last three there would be an interval of fourteen or twenty days. And if we suppose that there was a similar interval in the case of all the others, the first plague would take place in September or October-that is to say, after the yearly overflow of the Nile, which lasts from June to September.