9.4. The Fourth Plague: Swarms of Insects (8:16-28)

The setup:

(16) And the Lord said to Moses, “Early in the morning present yourself to Pharaoh, as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go that they may worship Me.

(17) For if you do not let My people go, I will let loose swarms of insects against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses; the houses of the Egyptians, and the very ground they stand on, shall be filled with swarms of insects.

(18) But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I the Lord am in the midst of the land.

(19) And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass.’ ”

The actual plague:

(20) And the Lord did so. Heavy swarms of insects invaded Pharaoh’s palace and the houses of his courtiers; throughout the country of Egypt the land was ruined because of the swarms of insects.

Pharaoh’s reaction:

(21) Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land.”

(22) But Moses replied, “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God is untouchable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us!

(23) So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He may command us.”

(24) Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me.”

(25) And Moses said, “When I leave your presence, I will plead with the Lord that the swarms of insects depart tomorrow from Pharaoh and his courtiers and his people; but let not Pharaoh again act deceitfully, not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.”

(26) So Moses left Pharaoh’s presence and pleaded with the Lord.

(27) And the Lord did as Moses asked: He removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his courtiers, and from his people; not one remained.

(28) But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.

(16-18) And the Lord said to Moses … “I will let loose swarms of insects against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses … swarms of insects … But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell”: The fourth through the sixth plagues comprise the second group of the ten, whose objective is to set Israel apart from Egypt. All along the Jews have been accustomed to seeing themselves as an integral part of Egyptian life, and it is difficult now for them to realize that they are not just one more subgroup within the Egyptian people, a caste of political untouchables, but a completely separate nation. The objective of these plagues was to create a sense of societal distinction among the Jews, and for the Egyptians too to acknowledge that.

(19) And I will make a distinction between My people and your people: Since the Jews are now scattered over all of Egypt, and not only in the land of Goshen, distinction will occur throughout the country.

(20) And the Lord did so. Heavy swarms of insects invaded Pharaoh’s palace and the houses of his courtiers; throughout the country of Egypt the land was ruined because of the swarms of insects: This plague was significantly more difficult to bear than the previous ones.

(21) Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land”: Pharaoh has now begun to relent, and is gradually acquiescing to an ever greater share of the demands.

(22) But Moses replied, “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God is untouchable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us!”: The conflict between Moses and Pharaoh gives the outward appearance of a debate over religious rituals and sacrifices, not about liberating the Jews. But these topics are inextricably linked. Moses therefore says during the second series of plagues that all Jews will participate in the sacrifice – not only the men, but the women and children too – and they must also take all their livestock and property with them. Religious service is for the Jews not a magical ritual, for which a small group of priests would be sufficient, but a nationwide event that requires total participation, because its purpose is to educate the entire nation.

(23) So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He may command us: Only by distancing themselves from Egypt and feeling completely free can the Jews fully receive and accept the Divine word.

(24) Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me”: Pharaoh is gradually becoming more amenable to making concessions. He is also increasingly aware of his own involvement in the service of the Almighty.

(25) And Moses said, “When I leave your presence, I will plead with the Lord”: Moses is loath even to pray in Pharaoh’s presence.

That the swarms of insects depart tomorrow from Pharaoh: Once again Moses demonstrates the accuracy of the prophecy by scheduling it for the morrow.

But let not Pharaoh again act deceitfully, not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord: Moses now expresses himself more pointedly, which forces Pharaoh and all concerned to view the events differently.

(28) But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go: Because Pharaoh has now hardened his own heart, there is no need for the Almighty to intervene further. This demonstrates that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is happening by his own doing – God is only assisting him to that end.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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