Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The fifth plague consisted of a severe Murrain, which carried off the cattle (מקנה, the living property) of the Egyptians, that were in the field. To show how Pharaoh was accumulating guilt by his obstinate resistance, in the announcement of this plague the expression, "If thou refuse to let them go" (cf. Exo 8:2), is followed by the words, "and wilt hold them (the Israelites) still" (עוד still further, even after Jehovah has so emphatically declared His will).
"The hand of Jehovah will be (הויה, which only occurs here, as the participle of היה, generally takes its form from הוה, Neh 6:6; Ecc 2:22) against thy cattle...as a very severe plague (דּבר that which sweeps away, a plague), i.e., will smite them with a severe plague. A distinction was again made between the Israelites and the Egyptians. "Of all (the cattle) belonging to the children of Israel, not one (דּבּר Exo 9:4, = אחד Exo 9:6) shall die." A definite time was also fixed for the coming of the plague, as in the case of the previous one (Exo 8:23), in order that, whereas murrains occasionally occur in Egypt, Pharaoh might discern in his one the judgment of Jehovah.
In the words "all the cattle of the Egyptians died," all is not to be taken in an absolute sense, but according to popular usage, as denoting such a quantity, that what remained was nothing in comparison; and, according to Exo 9:3, it must be entirely restricted to the cattle in the field. For, according to Exo 9:9 and Exo 9:19, much of the cattle of the Egyptians still remained even after this murrain, though it extended to all kinds of cattle, horses, asses, camels, oxen, and sheep, and differed in this respect from natural murrains.
But Pharaoh's heart still continued hardened, though he convinced himself by direct inquiry that the cattle of the Israelites had been spared.
The sixth plague smote man and beast with Boils Breaking Forth in Blisters. - שׁחין (a common disease in Egypt, Deu 28:27) from the unusual word שׁחן (incaluit) signifies inflammation, then an abscess or boil (Lev 13:18.; Kg2 20:7). אבעבּעת, from בּוּע, to spring up, swell up, signifies blisters, φλυκτίδες (lxx), pustulae. The natural substratum of this plague is discovered by most commentators in the so-called Nile-blisters, which come out in innumerable little pimples upon the scarlet-coloured skin, and change in a short space of time into small, round, and thickly-crowded blisters. This is called by the Egyptians Hamm el Nil, or the heat of the inundation. According to Dr. Bilharz, it is a rash, which occurs in summer, chiefly towards the close at the time of the overflowing of the Nile, and produces a burning and pricking sensation upon the skin; or, in Seetzen's words, "it consists of small, red, and slightly rounded elevations in the skin, which give strong twitches and slight stinging sensations, resembling those of scarlet fever". The cause of this eruption, which occurs only in men and not in animals, has not been determined; some attributing it to the water, and others to the heat. Leyrer, in Herzog's Cyclopaedia, speaks of the "Anthrax which stood in a causal relation to the fifth plague; a black, burning abscess, which frequently occurs after a murrain, especially the cattle distemper, and which might be called to mind by the name ἄνθραξ, coal, and the symbolical sprinkling of the soot of the furnace." In any case, the manner in which this plague was produced was significant, though it cannot be explained with positive certainty, especially as we are unable to decide exactly what was the natural disease which lay at the foundation of the plague. At the command of God, Moses and Aaron took "handfuls of soot, and sprinkled it towards the heaven, so that it became dust over all the land of Egypt," i.e., flew like dust over the land, and became boils on man and beast. הכּבשׁן פּיח: soot or ashes of the smelting-furnace or lime-kiln. כּבשׁן is not an oven or cooking stove, but, as Kimchi supposes, a smelting-furnace or lime-kiln; not so called, however, a metallis domandis, but from כּבשׁ in its primary signification to press together, hence (a) to soften, or melt, (b) to tread down. Burder's view seems inadmissible; namely, that this symbolical act of Moses had some relation to the expiatory rites of the ancient Egyptians, in which the ashes of sacrifices, particularly human sacrifices, were scattered about. For it rests upon the supposition that Moses took the ashes from a fire appropriated to the burning of sacrifices - a supposition to which neither כּבשׁן nor פּיח is appropriate. For the former does not signify a fire-place, still less one set apart for the burning of sacrifices, and the ashes taken from the sacrifices for purifying purposes were called אפר, and not פּיח (Num 19:10). Moreover, such an interpretation as this, namely, that the ashes set apart for purifying purposes produced impurity in the hands of Moses, as a symbolical representation of the thought, that "the religious purification promised in the sacrificial worship of Egypt was really a defilement," does not answer at all to the effect produced. The ashes scattered in the air by Moses did not produce defilement, but boils or blisters; and we have no ground for supposing that they were regarded by the Egyptians as a religious defilement. And, lastly, there was not one of the plagues in which the object was to pronounce condemnation upon the Egyptian worship or sacrifices; since Pharaoh did not wish to force the Egyptian idolatry upon the Israelites, but simply to prevent them from leaving the country.
The ashes or soot of the smelting-furnace or lime-kiln bore, no doubt, the same relation to the plague arising therefrom, as the water of the Nile and the dust of the ground to the three plagues which proceeded from them. As Pharaoh and his people owed their prosperity, wealth, and abundance of earthly goods to the fertilizing waters of the Nile and the fruitful soil, so it was from the lime-kilns, so to speak, that those splendid cities and pyramids proceeded, by which the early Pharaohs endeavoured to immortalize the power and glory of their reigns. And whilst in the first three plagues the natural sources of the land were changed by Jehovah, through His servants Moses and Aaron, into sources of evil, the sixth plague proved to the proud king that Jehovah also possessed the power to bring ruin upon him from the workshops of those splendid edifices, for the erection of which he had made use of the strength of the Israelites, and oppressed them so grievously with burdensome toil as to cause Egypt to become like a furnace for smelting iron (Deu 4:20), and that He could make the soot or ashes of the lime-kiln, the residuum of that fiery heat and emblem of the furnace in which Israel groaned, into a seed which, when carried through the air at His command, would produce burning boils on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt. These boils were the first plague which attacked and endangered the lives of men; and in this respect it was the first foreboding of the death which Pharaoh would bring upon himself by his continued resistance. The priests were so far from being able to shelter the king from this plague by their secret arts, that they were attacked by them themselves, were unable to stand before Moses, and were obliged to give up all further resistance. But Pharaoh did not take this plague to heart, and was given up to the divine sentence of hardening.
As the plagues had thus far entirely failed to bend the unyielding heart of Pharaoh under the will of the Almighty God, the terrors of that judgment, which would infallibly come upon him, were set before him in three more plagues, which were far more terrible than any that had preceded them. That these were to be preparatory to the last decisive blow, is proved by the great solemnity with which they were announced to the hardened king (Exo 9:13-16). This time Jehovah was about to "send all His strokes at the heart of Pharaoh, and against his servants and his people" (Exo 9:14). אל־לבּך does not signify "against thy person," for לב is not used for נפשׁ, and even the latter is not a periphrasis for "person;" but the strokes were to go to the king's heart, "It announces that they will be plagues that will not only strike the head and arms, but penetrate the very heart, and inflict a mortal wound" (Calvin). From the plural "strokes," it is evident that this threat referred not only to the seventh plague, viz., the hail, but to all the other plagues, through which Jehovah was about to make known to the king that "there was none like Him in all the earth,;" i.e., that not one of the gods whom the heathen worshipped was like Him, the only true God. For, in order to show this, Jehovah had not smitten Pharaoh and his people at once with pestilence and cut them off from the earth, but had set him up to make him see, i.e., discern or feel His power, and to glorify His name in all the earth (Exo 9:15, Exo 9:16). In Exo 9:15 וגו שׁלחתּי (I have stretched out, etc.) is to be taken as the conditional clause: "If I had now stretched out My hand and smitten thee...thou wouldest have been cut off." העמדתּיך forms the antithesis to תּכּהד, and means to cause to stand or continue, as in Kg1 15:4; Ch2 9:8 (διετηρήθης lxx). Causing to stand presupposes setting up. In this first sense the Apostle Paul has rendered it ἐξήγειρα in Rom 9:17, in accordance with the purport of his argument, because "God thereby appeared still more decidedly as absolutely determining all that was done by Pharaoh" (Philippi on Rom 9:17). The reason why God had not destroyed Pharaoh at once was twofold: (1) that Pharaoh himself might experience (הראת to cause to see, i.e., to experience) the might of Jehovah, by which he was compelled more than once to give glory to Jehovah (Exo 9:27; Exo 10:16-17; Exo 12:31); and (2) that the name of Jehovah might be declared throughout all the earth. As both the rebellion of the natural man against the word and will of God, and the hostility of the world-power to the Lord and His people, were concentrated in Pharaoh, so there were manifested in the judgments suspended over him the patience and grace of the living God, quite as much as His holiness, justice, and omnipotence, as a warning to impenitent sinners, and a support to the faith of the godly, in a manner that should by typical for all times and circumstances of the kingdom of God in conflict with the ungodly world. The report of this glorious manifestation of Jehovah spread at once among all the surrounding nations (cf. Exo 15:14.), and travelled not only to the Arabians, but to the Greeks and Romans also, and eventually with the Gospel of Christ to all the nations of the earth (vid., Tholuck on Rom 9:17).
The seventh plague. - To break down Pharaoh's opposition, Jehovah determined to send such a Hail as had not been heard of since the founding of Egypt, accompanied by thunder and masses of fire, and to destroy every man and beast that should be in the field. מסתּולל עודך: "thou still dammest thyself up against My people." הסתּולל: to set one's self as a dam, i.e., to oppose; from סלל, to heap up earth as a dam or rampart. "To-morrow about this time," to give Pharaoh time for reflection. Instead of "from the day that Egypt was founded until now," we find in Exo 9:24 "since it became a nation," since its existence as a kingdom or nation.
The good advice to be given by Moses to the king, to secure the men and cattle that were in the field, i.e., to put them under shelter, which was followed by the God-fearing Egyptians (Exo 9:21), was a sign of divine mercy, which would still rescue the hardened man and save him from destruction. Even in Pharaoh's case the possibility still existed of submission to the will of God; the hardening was not yet complete. But as he paid no heed to the word of the Lord, the predicted judgment was fulfilled (Exo 9:22-26). "Jehovah gave voices" (קלת); called "voices of God" in Exo 9:28. This term is applied to the thunder (cf. Exo 19:16; Exo 20:18; Psa 29:3-9), as being the mightiest manifestation of the omnipotence of God, which speaks therein to men (Rev 10:3-4), and warns them of the terrors of judgment. These terrors were heightened by masses of fire, which came down from the sky along with the hail that smote man and beast in the field, destroyed the vegetables, and shattered the trees. "And fire ran along upon the ground;" תּהלך is a Kal, though it sounds like Hithpael, and signifies grassari, as in Psa 73:9.
"Fire mingled;" lit., collected together, i.e., formed into balls (cf. Eze 1:4). "The lightning took the form of balls of fire, which came down like burning torches."
The expressions, "every herb," and "every tree," are not to be taken absolutely, just as in Exo 9:6, as we may see from Exo 10:5. Storms are not common in Lower or Middle Egypt, but they occur most frequently between the months of December and April; and hail sometimes accompanies them, though not with great severity. In themselves, therefore, thunder, lightning, and hail were not unheard of. They also came at the time of year when they usually occur, namely, when the cattle were in the field, i.e., between January and April, the only period in which cattle are turned out for pasture (for proofs, see Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses). The supernatural character of this plague was manifested, not only in its being predicted by Moses, and in the exemption of the land of Goshen, but more especially in the terrible fury of the hail-storm, which made a stronger impression upon Pharaoh than all the previous plagues. For he sent for Moses and Aaron, and confessed to them, "I have sinned this time: Jehovah is righteous; I and my people are the sinners" (Exo 9:27.). But the very limitation "this time" showed that his repentance did not go very deep, and that his confession was far more the effect of terror caused by the majesty of God, which was manifested in the fearful thunder and lightning, than a genuine acknowledgment of his guilt. This is apparent also from the words which follow: "Pray to Jehovah for me, and let it be enough (רב satis, as in Gen 45:28) of the being (מהית) of the voices of God and of the hail;" i.e., there has been enough thunder and hail, they may cease now.
Moses promised that his request should be granted, that he might know "that the land belonged to Jehovah," i.e., that Jehovah ruled as Lord over Egypt (cf. Exo 8:18); at the same time he told him that the fear manifested by himself and his servants was no true fear of God. יי מפּני ירא denotes the true fear of God, which includes a voluntary subjection to the divine will. Observe the expression, Jehovah, Elohim: Jehovah, who is Elohim, the Being to be honoured as supreme, the true God.
The account of the loss caused by the hail is introduced very appropriately in Exo 9:31 and Exo 9:32, to show how much had been lost, and how much there was still to lose through continued refusal. "The flax and the barley were smitten, for the barley was ear, and the flax was גּבעל (blossom); i.e., they were neither of them quite ripe, but they were already in ear and blossom, so that they were broken and destroyed by the hail. "The wheat," on the other hand, "and the spelt were not broken down, because they were tender, or late" (אפילת); i.e., they had no ears as yet, and therefore could not be broken by the hail. These accounts are in harmony with the natural history of Egypt. According to Pliny, the barley is reaped in the sixth month after the sowing-time, the wheat in the seventh. The barley is ripe about the end of February or beginning of March; the wheat, at the end of March or beginning of April. The flax is in flower at the end of January. In the neighbourhood of Alexandria, and therefore quite in the north of Egypt, the spelt is ripe at the end of April, and farther south it is probably somewhat earlier; for, according to other accounts, the wheat and spelt ripen at the same time (vid., Hengstenberg, p. 119). Consequently the plague of hail occurred at the end of January, or at the latest in the first half of February; so that there were at least eight weeks between the seventh and tenth plagues. The hail must have smitten the half, therefore, of the most important field-produce, viz., the barley, which was a valuable article of food both for men, especially the poorer classes, and for cattle, and the flax, which was also a very important part of the produce of Egypt; whereas the spelt, of which the Egyptians preferred to make their bread (Herod. 2, 36, 77), and the wheat were still spared.
But even this plague did not lead Pharaoh to alter his mind. As soon as it had ceased on the intercession of Moses, he and his servants continued sinning and hardening their hearts.