II. The Deliverer Confronts Pharaoh (Exodus 5:1–11:10)
II. The Deliverer Confronts Pharaoh (5:1–11:10)
5:1-2 The moment of confrontation arrived. Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh and said, This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival for me (5:1). Pharaoh could have avoided a tremendous amount of grief if he had heeded this simple request. Instead he refused to obey the Lord because he didn’t know him (5:2). He didn’t recognize him as a deity among Egypt’s pantheon.
5:3-9 They repeated the request, emphasizing that they were under the Lord’s authority and that he might become angry and punish them if they didn’t obey (5:3). But instead of relenting, Pharaoh accused Moses and Aaron of enabling the people to be idle (5:4-5). So he decided to put the enslaved people in their place and prevent any further unruliness. He commanded the Egyptian overseers and Israelite foremen not to supply the Israelites with straw to make bricks but to let them gather it themselves and still produce the same quantity of bricks (5:6-8). That, he reasoned, would keep the lazy slackers busy and would prevent further whining about worshiping the Lord (5:8-9).
5:10-18 The news was delivered to the Israelites, and they scattered throughout the land . . . to gather stubble for straw (5:10-12). When they failed to make their quota, the Israelite foremen . . . were beaten (5:14). They cried out to Pharaoh about the injustice, but he just laid blame on their desire to sacrifice to the Lord (5:15-18).
5:19-21 Upon leaving Pharaoh’s presence, the Israelite foreman . . . confronted Moses and Aaron (5:19-20). They angrily blamed the brothers for making matters worse and called on God to judge them (5:21). If the Hebrews hadn’t wanted Moses for a deliverer in the past (2:13-14), they certainly didn’t want him now.
5:22-23 Moses fell into despair. The people blamed him, so he shifted the blame to God: Why have you caused trouble for this people? And why did you ever send me? . . . You haven’t rescued your people at all (5:22-23). In other words, he accused God of having made matters worse and having failed to keep his promise. One has to wonder what Moses was expecting when he and Aaron had audience before Pharaoh that first time. Hadn’t God told him that Pharaoh’s heart would be hard, that their freedom would be won only by God’s mighty power, and that it would be a fight to the death?
6:1-5 Nevertheless, the Lord recognized the strain Moses was under and did not rebuke him. Everything that had happened up to now was merely prologue. Things were about to get exciting. Now, God said, you will see what I will do to Pharaoh (6:1). He reminded Moses that he had revealed himself to the patriarchs, though they had not known him by [his] name ‘the Lord’ (6:3). He had established a covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan (6:4). In recent days he had heard the groaning of the people, that is their blood descendants, and remembered his covenant (6:5).
When the Bible says that God “remembers,” it doesn’t mean that he called to mind something that he had previously forgotten. It means that, based on a covenant promise he made, he’s ready to act to fulfill his obligation. In God’s perfect timing, the season of deliverance had come for Israel.
6:6 The Lord was going to rescue Israel from slavery. His outstretched arm refers to his supernatural power that would invade history to such an extent that people would still be talking about what happened in Egypt thousands of years later. If Pharaoh had immediately let the people go, the Israelites might have attributed their deliverance to Pharaoh’s kindheartedness or to Moses’s eloquence. Instead, as the following chapters demonstrate, there could be no doubt in the minds of future generations that it was the Lord who had rescued his people from Egypt with his outstretched arm. He alone would deserve all of the glory because only he could write the story that was about to unfold.
6:7-8 Importantly, God wasn’t setting the Hebrews free so that they could spend their days as their own masters. He was setting them free for a relationship. They would be his people, and he would be their God in the land he had promised (6:7-8). In the future, the people of Israel, too, would know him as the Lord [their] God, who brought [them] out from the forced labor of the Egyptians (6:7; see 20:2).
6:9-13 In spite of what Moses relayed to the people, they refused to listen because of their broken spirit and hard labor (6:9). Moses’s first real attempt to deliver them, after all, had only led to increased labor. So when God told Moses to speak to Pharaoh a second time, Moses was again reluctant (6:10-12). He asked, If the Israelites will not listen . . . how will Pharaoh? (6:12). Again, Moses pointed to his lack of eloquence as if that would somehow lead to the downfall of God’s plan. But God intended to deliver the people through his outstretched arm (6:6), not through Moses’s eloquence. So he gave Moses and Aaron commands (6:13).
6:14-25 The story is interrupted briefly by a listing of the heads of their fathers’ families (6:14). Since the Levites would be responsible for the tabernacle and the descendants of Aaron would be responsible for priestly duties, this genealogy helps establish that Aaron and Moses were descended from Levi, Jacob’s third son (6:16-20). Reuben and Simeon are named first here (6:14-15) because they were Jacob’s first and second sons.
The name Phinehas means “the Negro” or “Nubian,” a dark-skinned people (also see 1 Chr 9:20). Phinehas was the son of Eleazar and his wife, a daughter of Putiel (6:25). This is interesting, because when Phinehas was born, Israel was already established as a separate commonwealth, although it was in transit. Therefore, at least some of the citizens within the commonwealth of Israel were giving birth to children whose names characterized them as Nubian or Negroes. Thus, the children of Israel must have been heterogeneous.
Putiel’s name provides us with a possible understanding of who his people were. The first three letters of Putiel’s name appear to have a lexical/etymological link to Put, one of the sons of Ham. Where the name Put is used in the Old Testament, it usually names African peoples (see also Jer 46:9; Ezek 27:10; 30:5; 38:5). This would certainly explain how Phinehas was born a Nubian in the midst of a Semitic congregation.
6:26 –7:2 The statement that it was this Aaron and Moses whom the Lord told to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (6:26) means that these two had the right family credentials for the work God had assigned them.
7:3-5 Here we see further evidence that because of Pharaoh’s already hard heart, the Lord would harden it further (7:3; see commentary on 4:21). Since Pharaoh would refuse to listen, God would stretch out [his] hand against Egypt in judgment and put [his] hand into Egypt to deliver his people (7:4-5). This is a reminder that all people will experience the hand of God one way or another—either its hardness or its mercy.
7:6-7 Moses and Aaron . . . did just as the Lord commanded them (7:6). There’s no better commendation a person can receive than this. Those who do likewise will hear the Lord Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:23).
Notice that these two brothers began their ministry at age eighty and eighty-three (7:7). For the godly saint devoted to the King’s agenda, the senior years can be the most fruitful.
7:8-13 To persuade Pharaoh of the Lord’s power, the messengers first cast Moses’s staff before the king (7:8-9). When it became a serpent, Pharaoh was not impressed and had his sorcerers do the same by their occult practices (7:9-11). But lest Pharaoh think that his magic and the Lord’s supernatural power were on equal footing, Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs (7:12). Nevertheless, Pharaoh’s heart was hard (7:13). In the core of his being, he was rebellious against the will of God.
7:14-18 Thus, the first of God’s plagues—which were essentially divine curses—began. As the king stood by the bank of the Nile, Moses and Aaron warned him that the Lord would turn the river to blood, and the water would be undrinkable (7:15-18). That which was a source of life for Egypt would become a source of death.
7:19-24 At God’s command, Aaron took Moses’s divinely empowered staff in the sight of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water in the Nile (7:19-20). All the water turned to blood and the Egyptians could not drink it (7:20-21). Once again, Egypt’s magicians . . . did the same thing by their occult practices, probably by some sort of sleight of hand—but clearly on a much smaller scale (7:22). But even if they were able to mimic God’s miracle, they were unable to reverse it. The Egyptians thus had to dig for water, while the Nile ran polluted and stank for a week (7:24). Still, Pharaoh’s heart was stone; he simply walked away from the first clear evidence of God’s hand at work against him (7:23). Pharaoh suffered from the greatest of all sins: pride. He refused to submit to divine authority.
8:1-7 The next time Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh, it was the same message from the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me (8:1). This time the king’s refusal would lead to a plague of frogs all over the land (8:2). With a wave of Moses’s staff, there were frogs in the bed, frogs in the ovens, and frogs in the kneading bowls (8:3-6). They were everywhere. Yet once again, Pharaoh’s magicians imitated this sign (8:7). Ridding the land of them would’ve demonstrated genuine spiritual power, but this they couldn’t do.
8:8-14 This time, Pharaoh said, Appeal to the Lord to remove the frogs. . . . Then I will let the people go (8:8). But notice Moses’s cunning reply: You may have the honor of choosing. When should . . . the frogs be taken away? (8:9). This move would prevent Pharaoh from claiming that their coming and going was a freak act of nature; it was an act of God (8:10-11). When Moses cried out to the Lord for help, he answered. However, the frogs didn’t merely hop away. They died, producing a wretched stench (8:12-14).
8:15 When Pharaoh saw there was relief, he hardened his heart again. This is a warning to us all. When struggles are intense, we tend to cry to God for relief. Yet, as soon as the relief comes, we can easily fall back into business as usual.
Importantly, while the Lord could have wiped this arrogant Pharaoh off the map, he gave him many chances to repent. God’s kindness was intended to lead the king to repentance (see Rom 2:4), but Pharaoh wasn’t interested in God’s good gift.
8:16-19 Plague number three came without warning. God caused the dust of the land to become swarms of gnats throughout . . . Egypt. People and animals were covered with them (8:17). On this occasion, Egypt’s sorcerers were unable to replicate the plague by their magic arts (8:18). For the first time, they realized they were in over their heads and confessed to Pharaoh, This is the finger of God. But not only did Pharaoh fail to listen to Moses and Aaron. Now he would not listen to his own spiritual advisors (8:19).
8:20-23 Soon the Lord announced the fourth plague to Moses: swarms of flies were coming. They would fill the houses of the people of Egypt (8:21). But this time God expressly declared that he would give special treatment to his people in the land of Goshen (8:22). He would make a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians by permitting no flies in the land of his people (8:22-23). By announcing the plague in advance and preventing the flies from swarming in a particular geographical area, God was giving all involved further proof that his power alone was behind the ecological disasters suddenly falling on Egypt.
8:24-27 Pharaoh decided he would try to strike a compromise and offered to let the people go to sacrifice to God within the country of Egypt (8:25). But Moses wouldn’t haggle. If the Israelites remained in Egypt, the Egyptians would stone them because they would detest their sacrifices (8:26). The worship that the true God found acceptable clashed with the religious practices of pagan Egypt.
8:28-32 Pharaoh relented, asking that the Israelites not travel very far and that Moses appeal to the Lord on his behalf (8:28). Moses agreed but warned Pharaoh against acting deceptively (8:29). When Moses prayed, God answered, and every last fly departed, which had to be a welcome relief (8:30-31). Nevertheless, Pharaoh hardened his heart, marching further toward destruction (8:32).
9:1-7 Again God demanded the Egyptian king, Let [his] people go, so that they may worship (9:1). Refusal would bring about a severe plague on the Egyptian livestock in the field (9:3). Yet the Lord would again make a distinction between Israel and Egypt; the livestock of the former would live while that of the latter would die (9:4). To this point, there had been no destruction of property or bodily suffering as a result of Pharaoh’s obstinacy—unless you equate having frogs hopping on your pillow as a painful experience. But all of that leniency was about to change. The death of the livestock would have been a severe blow to the Egyptian economy. Nevertheless, when Pharaoh saw that none of the Israelite livestock was harmed, he remained unmoved (9:7).
9:8-12 Next God directed Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of furnace soot and toss it in the air before Pharaoh. It would become dust over the land and would cause festering boils on both man and beast (9:8-9). With this sixth plague, painful physical suffering visited the Egyptians. Even Pharaoh’s magicians could not stand before Moses because they were covered with boils (9:11). Yet Pharaoh was defiant, unmoved by the misery of his own subjects. Therefore, the Lord removed all restraint and gave the king over to his own destructive habits. God finally “supersized” the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart (see commentary on 4:21).
9:13-14 Before unleashing his seventh curse against Pharaoh and his people, God warned him once more to release the Israelites. If not, he would send all [his] plagues against Egypt, so that the nation would know that there is no one like [the Lord] on the whole earth (9:14). Don’t miss that with each plague, God was giving Pharaoh an opportunity to humble himself and repent even while he was demonstrating his sovereign power over his creation. But though he extended grace, God would increase the pressure until Pharaoh finally confessed that the Lord was God, and that he (Pharaoh) was not.
9:15 Through his intermediaries God said to Pharaoh, By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you . . . and you would have been obliterated. Notice what he does here. It’s as if Egypt’s king is a petulant child who has talked back to his father one too many times, earning this response: “Do you understand whom you’re talking to, young man?” Except, in the biblical case, the situation is incredibly magnified. Parents have limited authority over their children. God has complete, righteous authority over all his creatures. Pharaoh thought he could oppose God and prevent him from accomplishing his will. In reality, the king’s life hung by a thread. He existed only by God’s mercy.
9:16 I have let you live for this purpose, God continued, to show you my power and to make my name known on the whole earth. Christians often quote the gracious promise of Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But there’s a flipside to that reality: All things can work together for the bad of those who hate God and who resist his purposes.
Make no mistake: God is the sovereign King of the universe, and he will accomplish his kingdom purposes. He has given each person the freedom to cooperate with him or to oppose him. Would Pharaoh submit to God, or would he be run over by God’s sovereignty tires? God will be glorified—through us or in spite of us.
If you cooperate with the sovereignty of God, it does not mean you won’t experience hardship and suffering. Rather, it means you can be assured that the good, bad, and ugly of your life will be put into God’s blender, ultimately bringing you to the place where he wants you to be. If, by contrast, you rebel against the all-powerful God, understand that you have not escaped his sovereignty. God will still do exactly what he wants. You, however, will be on the wrong side of his sovereignty and will remove yourself from the covering of his blessing.
9:17-21 Because of Pharaoh’s willfulness, plague number seven was coming. The Lord was about to rain down the worst hail Egypt had ever experienced (9:17-18). Yet once more God tempered judgment with mercy and urged the man to bring all the livestock (that had survived the fifth plague) into the shelters. (Perhaps the Egyptians had traded with the Israelites for their animals or had bartered with other nations to restock.) Every person and animal outside when the hail fell would be killed (9:19). By this time, there were some of Pharaoh’s officials who feared the word of the Lord and brought their livestock in (9:20). But others followed the example of their king (9:21).
9:22-26 A severe hailstorm mixed with lightning fell on the land, killing both people and animals (9:23-25). But God again spared the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were (9:26). This distinction makes it clear that this was not the work of Mother Nature, a fictitious figure often wrongly credited with the marvels of the natural world; it was the work of Father God, the true Creator and sustainer of all.
9:27-30 Pharaoh confessed his guilt and the Lord’s righteousness (9:27). He begged Moses to pray for him and vowed to let Israel go (9:28). On the surface, it appeared that the man was changing. Moses therefore promised to appeal to the Lord, and the hail would stop (9:29). But God had given Moses spiritual insight into Pharaoh’s heart. Before the meeting ended, Moses told him, I know that you still do not fear the Lord God (9:30). Indeed, the king of Egypt was willing to say what was necessary to cause a change in his wretched circumstances. But there had been no spiritual change in his heart.
9:31-35 Even in the midst of all this devastation, God had been merciful to Egypt. The flax and the barley were destroyed, but the wheat and the spelt were preserved because they were not yet in season (9:31-32). God’s judgment was severe, but he had not wiped out the entire food supply. Shockingly, Pharaoh saw this as opportunity to persist in rebellion. When the plague was lifted, Pharaoh hardened his heart and held tight to his slaves (9:34-35).
10:1-2 God told Moses that he had further hardened Pharaoh’s heart (see commentary on 4:21) so that he could perform his miraculous signs (10:1). But the Lord wanted Israel to realize that the miracles weren’t merely for the Egyptians—they were also for their sake. Israelites in the generations to come were to tell their children and grandchildren how the Lord had powerfully judged their enemies, so that they might know and revere the Lord (10:2). The same general concept holds true today. Christian parents are to pass on their faith to their children, so that they might know, trust in, and live in light of the grace and power of God (see Eph 6:4).
10:3 God asked Pharaoh through Moses, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Of course, God knew the answer. Pharaoh would eventually humble himself. There was no question about that. But how much destruction and sorrow would he bring on himself and his people before he finally gave in? Make no mistake, Pharaoh. The true King will get his way. The only question is whether a person will submit to his agenda and experience his blessing or resist it and experience misery.
10:4-7 Plague number eight was locusts that would cover the . . . land (10:4-5). What few crops had escaped the hail would be devoured (10:5). At this news, Pharaoh’s advisors had had enough. They urged the king to release the Israelites: How long must this man be a snare to us? . . . Don’t you realize yet that Egypt is devastated? (10:7). Their words are a reminder that even as Pharaoh continued to puff himself up, his nation was crumbling all around him. Sometimes a leader’s arrogance—whether he rules a nation or a home—prevents him from seeing what everyone around him can see. Pharaoh was running Egypt into the ground.
10:8-11 Again Pharaoh attempted a compromise. Though Moses informed him that the entire nation must go to offer sacrifices to the Lord, the king refused and said that only the able-bodied men could go. This was a shrewd move because he knew that these husbands and fathers would certainly not run off and leave their wives and children behind (10:8-11). “If you think I’m going to give you anything more than that,” Pharaoh told Moses in essence, you’re heading for trouble (10:10). But he was blind to the fact that he was a player in a game that he was destined to lose.
10:12-20 So Moses stretched out his staff, and an east wind blew the locusts into town (10:12-13). There had never been anything in Egypt that was an ominous as that cloud of marching, chewing soldiers (10:14). They consumed every plant until nothing green was left (10:15). Things got so bad that once again Pharaoh admitted his sin, asked for forgiveness, and begged that Moses pray to God to remove the locusts (10:16-17). In response, Moses prayed, God blew away the insects, and Pharaoh—as expected—again refused to let Israel go (10:18-20).
10:21-23 Pharaoh was given no warning about the ninth plague. The Lord simply brought darkness on the land of Egypt for three days (10:22). It was so bad, so oppressive and complete, that the Egyptians didn’t move during that time. But, miraculously, the Israelites had light where they lived (10:23).
10:24-29 Pharaoh again made a half-hearted attempt to submit by letting the Israelite families go but demanding that the flocks and herds . . . stay behind (10:24). But Moses would not compromise. He knew partial obedience to God is disobedience. Moses insisted that all the livestock had to go too because the people would not know exactly what was needed until they arrived in the wilderness (10:25-26). Pharaoh was so filled with rage at this that he warned Moses not to appear before him again: for on the day you see my face, you will die (10:28). Moses agreed (10:29).
11:1 God told Moses, I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh . . . . After that, he will let you go from here. Importantly, God could have freed the Israelites with only one plague—or none. But he had planned to use ten from the beginning, to demonstrate conclusively his sovereign authority and power to the whole earth.
11:2-3 Earlier, when God called Moses in the wilderness to be the deliverer of his people, he promised that Israel would “plunder the Egyptians” when they departed (3:22). That promise was about to become a reality. Moses was to tell the Israelites to ask their neighbors for silver and gold items because the Lord gave the people favor (11:2-3). After years of slavery, Israel was receiving its just wages.
11:4-10 The final curse against Pharaoh and Egypt would be a plague on the firstborn. The Lord would go throughout Egypt, and every firstborn male would die—whether human or livestock (11:4-5). The anguish in Egypt would be severe (11:6), but again God would make a distinction so that no harm would befall his people Israel (11:7). As a result, the Egyptians would beg the Israelites to leave.
When Moses had communicated this information to Pharaoh, he left his presence fiercely angry (11:8). An unarmed Hebrew issued an ultimatum to the most powerful ruler in the land and then stormed out of his palace.