Flies, Cattle, Boils | Exodus 8:20-9:12

Last week we began to study the ten great plagues that the LORD brought upon the land of Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let God’s people go. We continue here with the second set of three plagues, and there is indeed textual evidence for viewing the first nine plagues as three sets of three all leading up to the tenth and final wonder that God would work. Each set follows a similar pattern. Plagues one, four, and seven all have Moses and Aaron going out to meet Pharaoh in the morning. Plagues two, five, and eight all see the prophets going into Pharaoh’s palace. Finally, plagues three, six, and nine are each brought forth with no warning given to the king of Egypt.

There also appears to be themes that connect each set of three plagues. The first three focus upon the Nile and the dust of Egypt being turned from instruments of sustenance to instruments of pestilence, and they also end with Pharaoh’s magicians bowing out of the conflict. The second three seem to be directed at the people and households of Egypt and particularly emphasize the distinction that God made between the Egyptians and the Israelites. The third set of three are each plagues that come from the heavens, while also showing that even Pharaoh’s servants were beginning to protest against him.


The fourth plague begins with Moses and Aaron again going before Pharaoh in the morning as he went out to the Nile. God’s demand is the same: Let my people go, that they may serve me. Of course, the Egyptian king was not yet going to obey the LORD, so a plague of flies was both threatened and enacted.

As with the gnats, the exact insect that God brought upon Egypt is unclear. Perhaps they were the very household flies that we still swat at today. They also could have been some sort of biting fly. Some think that a swarm of scarab beetles is being described. Again, we simply do not know which insect the LORD used here. Both some type of fly and scarabs would have been significant to the Egyptians. If this was a swarm of flies, then perhaps this was the desecration of Uatchit or even of Beelzebub, who was also worshiped by some Egyptians.[1] If this was a swarm of scarabs, then a sacred emblem of Egypt was being cast in full upon them, similar to the plague of frogs. Indeed, we should remember that the text before us is God’s inspired Word, not the historical event itself. Therefore, even if the LORD only brought one kind of insect upon the Egyptians, perhaps the insect is purposely ambiguous as a way of displaying that God could have used either.

A new element is now added to the plague equation.

But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. Thus I will put a division between my people and your people.

While it seems likely that God also shielded His people from the effects of the first three plagues, the distinction was explicitly pointed out to Pharaoh in this fourth plague. While there is much to say about this division between the Israelites and the Egyptians, it is a theme that runs throughout these three plagues, so we will discuss it more fully toward the end.

Here is another one of God’s ironic reversals. In chapter 1, Pharaoh and the Egyptians set themselves apart from the Israelites that were “swarming” their land by enslaving them and then murdering their infant sons. Here the LORD is only widening the distinction that the Egyptians had already made, and He is showing them what an actual swarm looks like.

In response to the ruining of Egypt with flies, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron to say, Go, sacrifice to your God within the land. Here we see a progression in the language of Pharaoh. In response to the second plague, he said that he would let the people go if Moses and Aaron would plead with the LORD to take away the frogs. Now we find his immediate command for Moses and Aaron to take the Israelites to make their sacrifices to the LORD. How wonderful! Or is it?

Notice the compromise that Pharaoh is demanding. He permitted them to sacrifice so long as they remained in Egypt, yet that was not Yahweh’s demand. The LORD demanded that His people be given leave to go a three-day’s journey into the wilderness to worship Him. Especially given the reality that this would not be Pharaoh’s final attempt at reaching a compromise, we should take time to consider the dangers therein. You see, it would have been all too easy for the fearful Moses to justify going along with this compromise. After all, Pharaoh was going to let them worship the LORD. That was what truly mattered, right?

As time goes on, I come to an ever-greater appreciation of the regulative principle of worship, which argues that the church’s gathered worship should be regulated by what Scripture commands us to do. Those commands would be to pray, to sing, to preach the Word, and to observe the ordinances. While there is certainly a great amount of freedom in how each congregation can practice those elements of worship, virtually everything else is being excluded from the Lord’s Day gathering. I continue to see the benefit of that regulation because within our age of self, it is all too easy for us to turn worshiping God into work of self-actualization.

In other words, we like to individualize worship just as much as we individualize everything else. We see this at play whenever someone claims that doing [insert any given hobby] is more worshipful to them than going to church. We also see it in the lives of Christians who can never settle into a particular congregation because they cannot find their Goldilocks church that is neither too hot nor too cold but just right. The sorrowful reality is that they may have already found membership within the church of Laodicea.

Of course, this mentality is by no means limited to corporate worship because we all are capable of turning to various things for spiritual nourishment instead of reading and meditating upon God’s Word. Scripture is clear, however, that God does not simply demand worship; He also demands to be worshiped in a correct manner, in obedience to His commands. We see this in the First and Second Commandments. The First Commandment demands that we worship God alone, but the Second Commandment (and even the Third and Fourth as well) dictates how God is to be worshiped. The form matters. Indeed, the LORD told His people through the prophet Isaiah that He hated their sacrifices and festivals because of their wicked hearts (see Isaiah 1). They happily worshiped God yet still held onto their sin. They accepted a variation of Pharaoh’s compromise, thinking that they could worship the LORD without ever leaving their own personal Egypts.

Are you likewise compromising? Is their sin that you still cling to, hoping that it is small enough not to negatively impact your worship of the Holy One? More broadly, how do you think of worship in the first place? Is your view of worship rooted in the scriptural commands of God or in your perceived individual needs?

But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the LORD our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he tells us.”

Take note of Moses’ answer to Pharaoh’s proposed compromise. He began by immediately declaring that it would not be right for them to accept the king’s offer, but he then offered two reasons as to why. His first reasoning was more pragmatically rooted, which would be more understandable to Pharaoh. Some of the animals that the Israelite’s would sacrifice were considered sacred by the Egyptians, especially the bulls and calves (as we will shortly see). Thus, making these sacrifices and feasts within Egypt would be a grave insult to the Egyptian people. Interestingly, this is a principle that every missionary has to learn well. While we certainly do not conform to a culture’s idolatrous practices, it is almost never necessarily to blatantly provoke them. For example, when in India, a Christian should not be reverential toward cows as Hindus often are, yet neither would it be wise for a Christian to slaughter a cow in front of a temple.

We can also give a similar practical reasoning to the previous point that we made about individualizing our worship. You see, our society repeatedly screams out that true happiness is found in being yourself and doing whatever you want to do, so it is no surprise that we would apply the same mentality toward worship. However, the Scriptures give us a very different portrait. They call us to curb rather than yield to our desires. They call us to consider what God desires far more than what we desire. And this is practical because in reality we are terrible at judging what is truly best for us. The Israelites never would have chosen slavery in Egypt for themselves, yet God used it and their exodus from slavery to craft the foundational narrative of Israel’s national identity.

Yet after appealing to Pharaoh’s reason, Moses concluded with what ultimately took Pharaoh’s offer the negotiation table: God said to go into the wilderness, and Israel must obey His words. We should very much give thanks that obedience to God’s commands is very often supported with practical reasons, yet the foundation of our obedience must always be our longing to be conformed to our heavenly Father. The spiritual disciplines are a great example of this. The secular world is increasingly discovering the physiological benefits of practices like prayer, meditation, and fasting, and we should rejoice in these discoveries. It is wonderful that prayer decreases the risk and severity of depression, that meditation helps to guard against dementia, and that fasting strengthens a person’s microbiome. However, we should not pray, meditate, and fast purely for those benefits; instead, we should practice those disciplines in obedience to Scripture’s command and in order to delight in our great God.

The account of this plague ends with Pharaoh somewhat yielding to Moses, requesting that Moses again plead with the LORD on his behalf. Moses does so after warning Pharaoh not to go back on his word again, but after God lifts the plague as miraculously as He brought it, the king of Egypt hardened his heart yet again. Although Pharaoh could not see it, Ryken notes the truth that this plague reveals:

The end of this fourth plague proved that Satan is not who he says he is after all. He claims to be Beelzebub, “the lord of the flies,” but the truth is that not even flies are under his lordship. Jesus Christ is Lord of every winged and flying insect, flies included.[2]


The fifth plague sees Moses again going to Pharaoh with the announcement of the next wave of judgment. This time the LORD afflicted the livestock of the Egyptians with some kind of illness that resulted in mass death of the Egyptians’ horses, donkeys, camels, herds, and flocks. Although this is a brief passage, let us make a few comments.

First, this too was a judgment upon the gods of Egypt as well as upon Pharaoh and his people. Ryken writes,

The symbolism of the fifth plague is especially potent because many of Egypt’s gods and goddesses were depicted as livestock… There was Buchis, the sacred bull of Hermonthis and Mnevis, who was worshiped at Heliopolis. Sometimes bulls were considered to embody the gods Ptah and Ra. But the chief bull was Apis. At the temple in Memphis, priests maintained a sacred enclosure where they kept a live bull considered to be the incarnation of Apis. When the venerable bull died he was given an elaborate burial. Archaeologists have discovered funeral niches for hundreds of these bulls near Memphis.

Then there were the goddesses. Isis, the queen of the gods, was generally depicted with cow horns on her head. Similarly, the goddess Hathor was represented with the head of a cow, sometimes with the sun between her two horns. Hathor was a goddess of love and beauty, motherhood and fertility. One of her sacred functions was to protect Pharaoh, and on occasion she was depicted as a cow suckling the king for nourishment. To summarize, like so many modern Hindus, the Egyptians loved their sacred cows. In fact, they seem to have worshiped the entire bovine family! Thus it is not surprising that when the Israelites later decided to rebel against the God of their salvation and return to the gods of Egypt, they made a golden calf (Exodus 32).[3]

Second, God makes His mighty hand known by not only bringing the plague but also specifying to Pharaoh exactly when it would occur. The LORD was intent upon removing any doubt from the Egyptian king that the ruin of Egypt was coming from by His hand.

Third, while there are no words of Pharaoh recorded within these verses, we are told that he sent servants to Goshen, the dwelling place of the Israelites, to find out whether or not the plague had stricken the Hebrews’ livestock. Even though God had already withheld flies from His people, Pharaoh was still a perpetual skeptic. He always needed more proof, more evidence, and even when his servants reported that not a single livestock of the Israelites had died, he still refused to submit to the sovereign lordship of Yahweh.


The sixth plague, like the third, is delivered without any warning being given to Pharaoh, and it too involves dust becoming the pestilence. This time, however, the LORD did not have Aaron strike the dust with the staff; instead, He ordered Moses to grab a handful of dust from a kiln and toss it into the air, which then became boils upon both man and beast. While this physical affliction may have been targeting Thoth, Apis, Serapis, or Imhotep, which were gods that were often associated with healing and medicine, Donald Grey Barnhouse adds another suggestion:

More and more it was being forced upon the leaders that their gods were vanity. To add insult to injury the priests may well have known the particular means used by Moses to launch this plague against them. There were human sacrifices in the Egyptian religion, and it was the custom to take the ashes of these sacrifices and cast them into the air. Borne by the wind they floated over the milling populace who counted it a token of sure blessing to have some of the ashes fall upon them… It is possible that the ashes were from the same source as the Egyptian ashes of blessing, but at the touch of Moses these ashes were ashes of cursing.[4]

Whether Moses used one such kiln or not is not said, I doubt, however, that the Egyptians would have failed to notice the pointed similarity. It seems more likely that the soot came from one of the very kilns that the Israelites used to make bricks for the Egyptians. If so, then God was issuing a very just judgment. The Egyptians had broken and blistered the skin of the Israelites with rods and whips to make their bricks, so perhaps from that very kiln came a plague that broke and blistered the skin of the Egyptians.

As with the gnats and flies, the text does not specify what kind of illness the LORD gave the Egyptians, and many commentators are happy to offer their suggestions. God’s warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 28 gives a bit more description:

The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed… The LORD will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. (vv. 27, 35)  

Whatever this illness was, it was not pleasant. When my daughter asked me what these boils were, I asked if she remembered how my right hand and arm looked for a couple of weeks after I had a run-in with poison oak for the first time. The pain, itch, and swelling made it virtually impossible to focus upon anything else, but while the rash spread all over, my right arm remained the worse by far. She indeed remembered, and I asked her to think of what happened to my hand covering someone’s entire body. Of course, these boils were likely far worse than my poison oak rash, which I am certain made this plague an absolute horror. Indeed, the plague was so severe that the magicians, who many would have turned to for a cure, could not even stand before Moses.

We would do well to remember that the conflict being illustrated by these plagues is far beyond Moses and Pharaoh. This was a showdown between Yahweh and Satan, the serpent of old. Moses and Pharaoh were simply their earthly servants. With this in mind, I wonder if there is a subtle reversal of Job’s afflictions being dealt here.

Recall that Satan first struck Job’s possessions, namely his livestock and children. Yet after God pointed out Job’s continued integrity, Satan answered, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:4-5). God then gave Satan permission to afflict Job “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” which gave him so much pain that he sat in ashes and scraped himself with a piece of broken pottery (2:7-8). Might God now be afflicting Satan’s people in the same way that Satan afflicted God’s servant Job? As with Job, the first five plagues struck at the possessions of the Egyptians, but now God began to strike the people as well.

Indeed, the division between God’s people and Pharaoh’s people is implied within this plague as well, for the boils came upon all the Egyptians but not the Hebrews. Let us return, then, to that theme. The idea of two nations of people being pitted against one another, especially with our modern egalitarian tendencies, is rather off-putting. Add to this the fact that the Creator is giving grace to one people and pouring out judgment upon another, and we begin to feel slightly squeamish. However, the stark reality is that throughout all of history every single person has belonged to one of two categories: God’s people or not God’s peoples. In fact, Jesus said that this great division would be made evident on the last day, when the Son of Man divides the sheep from the goats (see Matthew 25:31-46).

The judgment of God on that day will be far more severe than all the plagues against the Egyptians, which means that every person ought to give the best of their attention to discovering whether they are counted among God’s people or not. Again, the Israelites were no less sinners than the Egyptians; they were spared simply because God chose them to be His people. The wrath of God will soon be poured out once for all, so we should strive to dwell in a land greater than Goshen. That salvation is only possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. His substitutional death has appeased the Father’s rightful judgment against us and brought us back into communion with Him. This is the offer of salvation, of exodus from our heart’s Egypt, that has been given to us. Let us flee from the hard-hearted pride of Pharaoh and cling to our great hope in Jesus Christ.

[1] Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 223.

[2] Ryken, Exodus, 231.

[3] Ryken, Exodus, 236-237.

[4] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Invisible War, 208.


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