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Exodus 7 Study Notes

7:3-5 God promised to harden Pharaoh’s heart (cp. 4:21), this time using a word that also describes the oppression that Pharaoh inflicted on the Israelites. Pharaoh had made their slavery “difficult” or “hard” (1:14; 6:9; Dt 26:6), and in return, his heart would become “hard.” This way it would be clear that when the Israelites left Egypt it was not because of the persuasiveness of Moses or the wise leadership of Pharaoh. Earlier the Lord had said that as a result of his actions, the Israelites would know him as the Lord their God (Ex 6:7). Now he said that also the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord by the way he would bring the Israelites out of Egypt. This continues and expands the theme of action leading to knowledge of the Lord (see note at 6:6-8). To Pharaoh and the Egyptians the acts God was about to perform would be great acts of judgment; to the Israelites, they would be signs and wonders.

7:6 The formal notice that Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them introduces a refrain with later parallels, especially in the account of the construction of the tabernacle (vv. 10,20; 12:28,50; 38:22; 39:1,32,42-43; 40:16).

7:7 Moses’s life divides into three periods: the first forty years were spent in Egypt, the second forty in Midian, and the final forty leading God’s people through the wilderness. Moses died at age 120 (Dt 34:7), and Aaron died at 123 (Nm 33:39).

7:8-13 Miracle in v. 9 represents the singular form of the same word translated “wonders” in v. 3. But seeing this wonder did Pharaoh no good, since he did not respond with faith and obedience (Heb 3:13-4:6). A staff (sometimes called a scepter) as a symbol of power and authority was recognized across cultures (Ps 110:2; Is 10:5,24; 14:5; Ezk 19:10-14). Both staffs and serpents were prominent in Egyptian art. The kings of Egypt are also pictured wearing crowns that display a menacing cobra as a symbol of protection for the king and danger for his enemies, so that all would respect his commands.

7:9 The term translated serpent here and in vv. 10 and 12 is a different Hebrew word than in 4:3. Since it is sometimes used to refer to large water creatures (Is 27:1; Ezk 29:3; 32:2), its appearance here may emphasize the size and frightening effect of the snakes in the contest.

7:11-12 Pharaoh summoned the wise men and sorcerers, functionaries who were present in other ancient royal courts (Gn 41:8,24; Is 19:11-13; Jr 27:9; Dn 1:20; 2:2,10,27). To have them as part of the retinue at his command was another evidence of Pharaoh’s power. These men used occult practices to demonstrate their power and that of Pharaoh by duplicating what Moses and Aaron did when they simply obeyed the Lord (cp. 1Kg 18:25-39). Israel was unique among ancient Near Eastern cultures in that all forms of occult activity were outlawed because the people of God were to trust him and his provisions for their security (Lv 19:26-31; Dt 18:9-14; 2Kg 21:1-12; Is 8:13-22; 47:9-15). Even if someone could produce a miracle, if the message that person brought led away from loyalty to the Lord, the Israelites must not listen (Dt 13:1-4; Mt 7:21-23; 24:24).

7:13 This verse uses the word for hard associated with strength and firmness (as in 4:21) to describe Pharaoh’s heart. King Josiah exemplifies the opposite condition, when his heart is described as “tender” (or soft) and he listened humbly to the Lord’s words (2Kg 22:19).

7:14-11:10 The ten plagues described in this section are in three groups of three plagues each, plus one last climactic plague—the death of the firstborn. Elsewhere the pattern of three plus a fourth appears in contexts that emphasize thorough observation and completeness of reckoning (Pr 30:15-31; Am 1:3-2:8). Each plague that has an announcement comes with the same command: Let my people go, so that they may worship me (v. 16; 8:1,20; 9:1,13; 10:3). The exception is the tenth plague. There Moses informed Pharaoh that after this last plague, Pharaoh’s own people would come to Moses to beg the Israelites to leave Egypt (11:8).

In each group of plagues, Moses brings the announcement of the first one to Pharaoh when meeting him “in the morning” (7:15; cp. 8:20; 9:13). The second plague of each group is announced in Pharaoh’s palace, when Moses “went in to Pharaoh” (10:3; cp. 8:1; 9:1). After each of the nine plagues comes a notice about the condition of Pharaoh’s heart (7:22-23; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,12,35; 10:20,27).

The orderliness and consistency of the Lord and Moses as the contest progresses contrast with the vacillation in Pharaoh’s personal behavior (expressing regret, offering concessions and taking them back, angry outbursts) and the growing chaos in the realm in which he was thought responsible to maintain order. Throughout, Moses did what the Lord told him to do, while Pharaoh did the opposite, just as God had foretold; the implication is that the Lord is sovereign in human affairs. The plagues involved natural elements and events that were familiar to Egyptians—water, frogs, insects, east and west winds, storms, diseases, darkness—but they were not merely natural. The Lord, to and through Moses and Aaron, foretold the timing, intensity, and extent of the plagues, which set them apart from mere natural disasters. For example, hordes of locusts have come to portions of Egypt intermittently throughout history, but not to the extent reported in Exodus and not in the wake of the series of disasters that struck Egypt then. Likewise, all firstborn humans die, but they do not die all at once and to the exclusion of other humans. The Lord also announced the purpose of the plagues, explaining that they were intended to reveal his identity, to make him known to a wide audience (6:1,7; 7:5,17; 8:10,22; 9:14-16,29; 10:2; 11:7). Note the gradual increase in seriousness and the gradual defeat of the magicians (7:12; 8:18-19; 9:11).

Attempts have been made to identify each of the plagues as an attack on one of the many Egyptian gods. Such equivalence is not required, however, for the events to show the futility of Egyptian beliefs, the powerlessness of Egyptian deities, and the necessity of allegiance to the Lord. The events in Exodus as a whole reveal him to be trustworthy. The contest with Pharaoh displays the Lord’s sovereignty over an array of natural elements necessary for human life and over the inner workings of a man whom Egyptians believed to be a god but who was in fact just an ordinary human king (Ezr 6:22; Pr 21:1).

7:14 The word hard (lit “heavy”) represents a Hebrew figure of speech. In English to have a “heavy heart” typically means to be troubled or sad. But the Hebrew term for “heavy” could describe a mouth and tongue that did not speak well (4:10), eyes that did not see (Gn 48:10), or ears that did not hear (Is 6:10; 59:1; Zch 7:11). In both Egyptian and Hebrew, the heart (like the mind)—as the center of mental, emotional, and volitional activity—was supposed to listen and respond appropriately (1Kg 3:9; Solomon asked to be given “a receptive heart”). Pharaoh was failing to respond as he ought.

Pharaoh’s “heavy” heart registered another problem, because according to Egyptian beliefs, gods would weigh a person’s heart after death to determine his destiny in the afterlife. If it was heavy by comparison with a feather, a symbol for wisdom, then a fierce god stood by to devour the individual. Elsewhere in the OT, iniquity is spoken of as heavy and as making the heart heavy (Gn 18:20; Ps 38:4; Is 1:4; 24:20), and the Lord is the one who weighs hearts, which makes him the ultimate Judge of all, including Pharaoh and other kings (1Sm 2:3; Pr 16:2; 21:2; 24:12; Dn 5:25-28).

The Lord’s assessment of Pharaoh was also important because Pharaoh and his heart were thought to be responsible for maintaining order throughout Egypt. Order was thought to be the essential expression of wisdom (in contrast to the essence of wisdom in Ps 111:10; Pr 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Dn 2:20). During the plagues Pharaoh could not maintain order; he failed by both the Lord’s standards and his own.

7:15-18 Suggestions about why Pharaoh was expected to go out in the morning to the river (8:20) include the possibility of a worship ritual, something about his personal habits, or to measure the river’s depth and reach during its flood stage. It is unclear whether the river became actual blood, or whether it was so polluted that the word “blood” would best describe how it looked. The Hebrew word is related to the word for the color red and is sometimes used to describe something that had the appearance of blood but was not literal blood (Gn 49:11; Dt 32:14; 2Kg 3:22; Jl 2:31). Either way, it caused the fish to die, the water to stink, and people to need something else to drink. Pharaoh had used the Nile to bring death to Israelite babies, but now it would be a source of death rather than life for Egyptians; and Pharaoh could do nothing about it.

7:19-21 The Israelite foremen had complained that Moses had made them reek to Pharaoh (same Hb verb as in v. 18; 5:21), but now there was something that truly stank—the Nile.

7:22 Douglas Stuart explains that “the magicians were able to duplicate on a small scale, by simple trickery, the changing of water into reddish water. Such a duplication (or, more technically, imitation) would have required only the ability to add something that would dye some water red through sleight of hand.” He also notes that the magicians were unable to undo the plague on the Egyptians’ water supply. So the magicians only made matters worse!

7:23-25 The Lord striking the Nile had been symbolized and enacted when Aaron struck it with his staff (v. 20).

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