In our previous text, the LORD began His great confrontation with Pharaoh by sending Moses and Aaron into the king’s palace to perform a sign of the judgments that would follow. By using a serpent, God revealed that the symbol of power and sovereignty that Pharaoh displayed upon his crown belonged exclusively to the LORD. As we also noted, the swallowing up of the two magicians’ snakes by that of Moses and Aaron was a foreshadowing of how Pharaoh himself would be swallowed up by the mighty hand of the LORD. Yet before that day came, God had much more glory that He would still display against the hard-hearted king of Egypt, especially through the ten plagues that the LORD would pour out upon Egypt. In our present text, we will see the glory of God being worked through the first three plagues, in which the LORD turns the Nile and the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and his people.
THE NILE IS TURNED TO BLOOD // VERSES 14-25
The first plague against Egypt begins with God noting Pharaoh’s hard heart and refusal to let the Israelites go; therefore, the LORD intends to pour forth His signs and wonders until the king of Egypt yields to the Most High. Indeed, we see exactly what is required of Pharaoh in verse 16: “And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.’ But so far, you have not obeyed.”
Because Pharaoh would not humble himself by obey the LORD, God would humble the defiant king. Indeed, He would do more than humble him. He would, through the plagues, systematically dismantle his entire worldview and, in the end, drown him in a sea of his own hubris. That divine assault began by striking the lifeblood of Egypt: the Nile.
It is nearly impossible to overstate just how dependent the Egyptians were upon the Nile. Douglas Stuart explains:
The primary source of all life in Egypt is the Nile, and the vast majority of the population has always lived near it, making Egypt the most densely populated country in the modern world and almost certainly also in the ancient world, if one excludes the vast barren regions from the density calculation. Comparatively little water is available in Egypt aside from the deep aquifers (not penetrable in ancient times) except through the Nile, its branches and canals, or shore wells that tap its seepage. Since at all times ancient Egypt, including Egypt of Moses’ day, was pantheistic, it is hardly surprising that at all times the Nile was worshiped as a great god.
The specific gods most often linked to the Nile were Osiris, Nu, and Hapi. Hapi, in particular, was a goddess of fertility that was said to bring the Nile’s annual flooding, which irrigated the land, keeping it fertile for crops. The turning of the Nile into blood was, therefore, a twofold strike against Pharaoh and Egypt. It first targeted their livelihood, then it aimed at their belief system. Ryken notes:
In this way God demonstrated his power over the gods of Egypt and also punished the Egyptians for their idolatry. With one single blow he gave them a water and food shortage, a transportation shutdown, a financial disaster, and a spiritual crisis. He did it all by turning the river into blood, making the object of their worship a thing of horror. God’s attack on the Nile was a direct attack on the Egyptians and their gods. It proved that Osiris and Hapi did not have the power to meet their needs. Later, when the Israelites finally marched their way out of Egypt and Moses tried to summarize what God had done in Egypt, he proclaimed that “On their gods also the LORD executed judgments” (Numbers 33:4; cf. Exodus 12:12).
In recent years, some scholars have made various suggestions about the plagues, including many attempts to link them to extreme but otherwise natural phenomena. Many certainly still believe that God orchestrated these apocalyptic events, yet they are determined to make these signs and wonders more palatable to human reason. From this perspective, some argue that the Nile did not turn into actual blood but was turned red like blood. Theories like an overgrowth of a toxic red algae are proposed. However, such explanations often overlook details of the text that state that even the water in their vessels of wood and stone turned to blood, which indicates a clear supernatural work. Furthermore, those who attempt to link the plagues as each being caused by the previous ones are forced to grapple with explaining how the Nile became deadly to its fish for one week and then produced a blanket of frogs the next. Indeed, since Exodus calls these signs and wonders more often than it calls them plagues, it is best to accept these judgments as they are presented, as being blatantly supernatural works of God for the purpose of displaying His glory among the Israelites and the Egyptians.
Once Aaron held his staff over the Nile and struck it, as God commanded, all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. But even with his glorious river literally running with blood, Pharaoh would not obey the LORD.
Contributing to the hardness of his heart was his pleasure in the magicians who were again able to duplicate turning water into blood. He no doubt saw this as a sign that his gods were able to do what the LORD was able to do; therefore, giving the slightest bit of evidence that the LORD was no greater than his own gods. Yet in his desperation to find reason to not believe, he missed the glaring reality that this duplication only made matters worse. They were only able to take some of the precious, clean water (presumably from the underground as verse 24 suggests) and turn it into more blood. I once spoke with someone in college who was such an atheist that he might have been better called an antitheist. Over the course of discussing morality, he stated that he believed that society as a whole determines what is moral, so if we call came to believe that murder and cannibalism were not wrong, then they would cease to be wrong. His doubt was similar to that of Pharaoh. Both were so determined not to believe that they completely missed how much worse they were making things for themselves.
Indeed, it would have been much more helpful to Pharaoh if his magicians could have transformed some of the blood back into water. Of course, whether their secret arts were illusions or actual demonic magic, they were powerless to reverse what the LORD had done. Elsewhere in Scripture, however, we see that God was more than capable of working similar yet beneficial signs. In Exodus 17, the Israelites would grumble for water in the wilderness, and we read in verses 5-6:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Of course, Jesus did a similar miracle when He turned water into wine. Too often we think of that miracle as only being an initial taste of Jesus’ divine power; however, whenever we observe it alongside this first plague of Egypt, we can see it as a display that Jesus is a greater Moses. Due to its deep red color, wine is often used as symbol for blood, but while blood proclaims death, wine is used for celebrations. So it is that under the law of Moses, we are each condemned as lawbreakers before God, yet under the grace of Christ, He has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
AND THE LAND STANK // VERSES 1-15
The second plague is also related to the Nile. After a full week of digging makeshift wells to find water, the river presumably returned to normal, and Moses and Aaron went back to Pharaoh with the same demand: Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. This command will continue throughout the plagues and serves to display the immutability of God. He does not change His mind. What He has spoken, He will do. What He has commanded, He will require. Although Pharaoh will look for every possible way to wiggle out of simple and direct obedience, God’s purpose will remain unmoved.
Since Pharaoh still did not yield, a plague of frogs was brought up from the Nile. They would crawl out of the water and into the Egyptian households, even into the palace of Pharaoh himself. While this may seem like a strange act of judgment, James M. Boice helps to explain its significance:
If we are to understand the full significance of this plague, we must recognize that a goddess of Egypt was involved in the judgment—the goddess Hekt [also Heqet], who was always pictured with the head and often the head and body of a frog. Since Hekt was embodied in the frog, the frog was sacred in Egypt. It could not be killed, and consequently there was nothing the Egyptians could do about this horrible and ironic proliferation of the goddess. They were forced to loathe the symbols of their depraved worship. But they could not kill them. And when the frogs died, their decaying bodies must have turned the towns and countryside into a stinking horror.
God was giving the Egyptians potent display of their gods glory or lack thereof. He forced them to feel the vanity of their idols up close and personally. The incessant, monotonous croaking rattled in their ears as pointlessly as the prayers and chants that they made to their gods. The wet, amphibious skin crawled over them day and night, even as they kneaded their bread and while they tried to sleep. Pharaoh saw the Israelites as a swarm upon Egypt, but God was now showing the king what a true swarm looked like.
But even more than being a grating nuisance, this was a pointed judgment. Ryken notes that Heqet was the goddess that was typically invoked to help women give birth. Thus, he comments:
Given that background, it seems significant that God’s first two plagues struck blows against the gods of Egypt’s river and the goddess of Egypt’s midwives. It was a matter of strict justice: God was punishing the Egyptians for their sins. The very river that Pharaoh used as an instrument of genocide was turned to blood, and the first goddess to be humiliated was the one who governed labor and delivery. There was a connection between Pharaoh’s crime and God’s punishment.
We too should take note of how God brings His judgment upon idolatry and sin. He very often brings sin back upon the sinner’s head, in many ways giving them the sin that they chose.
Once more, we are told that the magicians did the same by their secret arts and made frogs come up on the land of Egypt. This time, however, Pharaoh seemed to have enough sense to see the pointlessness of adding more frogs to the plague. So, he called Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the LORD to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”
Interestingly, Moses’ answer was very kind and respectful to the unworthy monarch: Be pleased to command me when I am to plead for you and for your servants and for you people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile. I believe that, by asking Pharaoh to command him, Moses was showing that he was a man under authority. He was a servant of the LORD, yet he would also listen to Pharaoh if the king would also submit himself to the LORD. In other words, Moses is displaying the humility that Pharaoh revolted against.
Furthermore, I think that Pharaoh was allowed to choose the time of this plagues end for two reasons. First, it was to show precisely that this was not a natural phenomenon on steroids; this was, as the magicians will soon admit, the finger of God. Second, it was to show that Pharaoh himself could bring all these judgments to an end at any moment by simply obeying the command of the LORD. God will not change His mind or purpose, but He placed the ball in Pharaoh’s court. The continued judgment was the result of Pharaoh’s stubborn heart.
We should also note that Pharaoh’s plea for prayer by Moses and Aaron was by no means repentance. One indication of this is that Pharaoh does not request that God forgive his sin but only that the frogs be removed. Many are still like Pharaoh. They only pray or ask others to pray for them whenever they afflicted and in pain, and like Pharaoh, the moment they feel respite they forget God completely. Ryken notes that:
What all of this shows is how much a person can learn about God without ever coming to him for salvation. Pharaoh knew that God was both Creator and Judge. He recognized the power of God’s name and believed that he could answer prayer. But he did not know God for himself; he had to ask Moses and Aaron to do the praying for him.
Nevertheless, the LORD answered the prayer of Moses, and all of the frogs died, leaving Egypt to bask in the stench of death. Again, we should notice the irony here. The frog goddess that was supposed to help Egyptian women bring life into the world had now filled the Egyptians’ nostrils with death.
THIS IS THE FINGER OF GOD // VERSES 16-19
After Pharaoh goes back on his declaration that he would let the Israelites go (notice who speaks “lying words” now?), the LORD unleashes the third plague without any warning to Pharaoh. Attention is now off of the Nile and onto the actual land of Egypt: Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt. Given the brief description of this plague and the ambiguity of the Hebrew word of the insect here, we cannot say for certain that these were gnats. Perhaps they were, but mosquitoes, lice, and fleas were possible as well. However, regardless of what was the insect of this plague, the point is that just as the Nile had gone from sustaining Egyptian life to bringing forth death so too did the very dust of the ground now plague the Egyptians. Perhaps there is also a theological point here of escalating curses. After Adam’s sin, the ground was cursed with making food production more difficult. Cain was then told that the ground would not yield for him at all. Now the ground has become an active pestilence upon the Egyptians.
The primarily point to note within this short plague is found in verses 18-19:
The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
Is it not ironic that the magicians were proved incompetent by such a small plague? The LORD used tiny insects to prove the limits of their power. If their works were only an illusion, then gnats would have been far too small for them to capture and control in order to make a convincing trick. If their works were actual magic, we can almost envision them thumbing desperately through their every incantation they have, knowing that there was no ritual or spell for summoning something as insignificant as gnats. Either way, the LORD chose to humiliate them by first going too small for them before He also works wonders too grand for them to imitate.
This is an important point for understanding true omnipotence and sovereignty: they are not only seen in things grand and enormous but also in things small and seemingly insignificant. When Hebrews says that Christ upholds all things by the word of His power, that means that He keeps the earth revolving around the sun, while also keeping every electron revolving around their protons and neutrons in every atom. God’s omnipotence certainly means that there is nothing too great for Him, but it also means that there is nothing too small for Him either. Of course, satanic counterfeits always long for greater and greater power. Kings are rarely satisfied with the size of their kingdom; they always want to expand in order to display their greatness and the extent of their power. The LORD, however, has no extent to His power. Indeed, all power ultimately comes from Him! Perhaps this is precisely why God so delights in using the weak to shame the strong and the small to overthrow the great. Surely, He delighted in using nothing more than gnats to expose the powerlessness of the magicians’ so-called secret arts!
The final words recorded by the magicians in Exodus is their acknowledgement of God’s power. They have effectively bowed out of this battle of the gods, for we will only find them mentioned again in during the sixth plague as not even being able to stand before Moses and Aaron because the boils. Of course, they very notably do not use God’s name. They do not say, “This is the finger of Yahweh.” In fact, they may have actually been saying, “This is the finger of the gods.” The point is that we should make no claims of belief on the magicians’ behalf. This acknowledgement only shows that they understand this conflict to be beyond them. It took three plagues for them to realize that a cosmic war was being waged around them, and they were beginning to see just how useless their secret arts truly were.
Yet even though his magicians had begun to accept their own limitations, Pharaoh also would not listen to them. Even as he had begun to see the might of Yahweh, this was still the God of his slaves. How could he ever submit to (let alone obey!) a deity that would take a nation of slaves to be His people! The God of slaves was demanding obedience from the most powerful man in the world. The very idea was laughable.
Of course, Paul remarks that the cross of Christ is a similar stumbling block to the pride of unbelievers:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.1 Corinthians 1:22–24
Despite secular scholars attempts to link Jesus to other dying and resurrecting gods from throughout the ancient world, Christianity alone hinges all of its belief upon the humiliation and subsequent triumph of its god. In other words, just as Yahweh is distinguishing Himself from and standing judgment over the gods of Egypt, Jesus (being Yahweh incarnate) is unlike any other deity, and Paul notes that the crucifixion of Christ was the great disarming and shaming of all other so-called gods (Colossians 2:15). He did this by canceling the debt of sinners before the Father, so that by the atonement of His sacrifice our communion has been opened once again to the true and living God, which necessarily makes a mockery of all false deities and their demands of worship. The cross exposes them as the fraudulent gods that they are.
Yet if the cross of Christ brings sinners grace, forgiveness, and restored communion with the Holy One, why does Paul call it a stumbling block? We only need to reverse that question to receive the answer. The cross of Christ is a stumbling block precisely because it freely brings grace, forgiveness, and restored communion with God. The sacrifice of Christ is charity given from the Most High, and we hate charity.
Don’t get me wrong. Many love to be charitable because there is a certain sense of empowerment that comes from being the helper. Yet we scoff at the notion of receiving charity ourselves, for that requires admitting our own helplessness. Some may push back against this claim by citing our modern welfare states as examples of multitudes of people gladly receiving charity, yet even here many have been indoctrinated to believe that such governmental aid is their fundamental right. Thus, they are not receiving in a spirit of humility but of entitlement (note: I certainly realize that I am painting with broad strokes here, but the exceptions still prove the rule).
As Bonhoeffer said, the grace of Christ is certainly free, but it is not cheap. “It is costly because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” The free grace and charity of Christ is costly because it cost Jesus His life and costs us ours as well. It requires the humility to receive it, to see the helpless of our sinful condition, that we are utterly beyond repair. Yet if we look upon our need of a Savior directly and cry out for rescue in His name as child calls for its father, He will save us.
All who reject the salvation of Christ are in the position of Pharaoh. The king’s humble obedience could have ceased the plagues at any point, yet he refused to submit. Like the Egyptian king, we do not need to stand under condemnation and coming judgment of our sin; we can call upon the name of Yahweh and be saved. We can lay ourselves at the feet of Christ and confess with Thomas, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)! But doing so requires the humility of facing our own sin, shame, and corruption.
Oh brothers and sisters, let us lay aside the weight of pride “which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
 Douglas Stuart, Exodus, 131.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 196-197.
 Cited in Ryken, Exodus, 204.
 Ryken, Exodus, 205.
 Ryken, Exodus, 207.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 45.