Exodus 5:22-7:7 is like the pre-bout buildup to a championship prize-fight. Moses has his doubts, but his trainer, God, is right at his side. This trainer massages Moses’ shoulders, squirts water into his mouth, and gets in his face with one pep talk after another. By passage’s end, Moses has his gloves tied, his robe draped, and his shoes tightened. He’s hopping from foot to foot, pumped and ready to rumble. He trots down the aisle up to the ring, he enters between the ropes, and the announcer proclaims his presence to the watching world.
The fight of the century is about to take place: Moses v. Pharaoh. Really, it’s Yahweh v. the Egyptian pantheon. Beginning with Ex 7:8, we’re made privy to every round of this legendary collision, and we don’t even have to rent it on pay-per-view.
Common Approaches to the Plague Narratives
Even the most casual reader of the plague narratives in Exodus can’t avoid a basic interpretive question: Why are these narratives so long? And if we treat Passover as a separate section, we’ve got almost 4 chapters of text to ‘rassle. In the ESV, the 9 plagues on Egypt go on for more than 3,200 words. How should we understand and study such an epic narrative?
Some readers take the children’s story Bible approach: Abridge the thing down to a manageable size and land on only the fundamental truths. God is powerful. Egypt got hit hard. Pharaoh would not relent. There is value in this approach, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of ignoring the details. Every detail is inspired by God and there for a reason!
Other readers take the statistician’s approach: Map out the plagues in a large table or spreadsheet, showing all the fine comparisons and contrasts among the 9 plagues. When is Aaron’s staff used vs. Moses’ staff? When does Pharaoh harden his heart vs. God hardening it? How much is Pharaoh willing to grant the Israelites after each plague? Which plagues can the Egyptian magicians duplicate? There is value in this approach, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of ignoring the big picture. Not every detail has deeply symbolic or spiritual meaning; the story as a whole was intended to have a certain emotional impact. Let’s not lose that impact to a statistical analysis.
How I Approach the Plague Narratives
Without demeaning either of the two approaches mentioned above—both have value and provide complementary insights—I’ve found a third approach to better highlight the author’s main ideas and do justice to why the story is given this much space. That approach is to follow the 3 cycles.
The narrator masterfully employs setting to help his readers receive his message. Observe:
- In plagues 1, 4, and 7, God commands Moses to confront Pharaoh early in the morning (Ex 7:15, 8:20, 9:13).
- In plagues 2, 5, and 8, God commands Moses simply to “Go in to Pharaoh…” (Ex 8:1, 9:1, 10:1).
- In plagues 3, 6, and 9, there is no confrontation with Pharaoh. God commands Moses to perform some symbolic gesture and bring the plague unheralded. And these three plagues all have a reasonably short narrative (Ex 8:16-19, 9:8-12, 10:21-29).
What is the point of these observations? The narrative organizes the plagues into three 3 cycles of 3 plagues each. Plagues 1-3 have 3 different settings. Plagues 4-6 repeat the 3 settings in the same order. Plagues 7-9 repeat the settings once more.
This structure is reinforced by the fact that each cycle has a unique and climactic ending:
- Cycle #1 ends with the Egyptian magicians being unable to replicate the plague and admitting it must be the finger of God (Ex 8:18-19).
- Cycle #2 ends with the Egyptian magicians being unable to stand before Moses (Ex 9:11-12).
- Cycle #3 ends with Moses being driven from Pharaoh’s presence (Ex 10:28-29).
This structure has a simple beauty about it, while also serving an interpretive purpose. With each new “Rise up early in the morning,” we hear a fresh start, a new round in the boxing match. And each cycle/round serves as a discrete unit with a particular point to make.
So over the next 3 Exodus posts, I will address the plague narratives in their three cycles. For each cycle, I will ask, what is the author’s main point in this cycle? This approach enables us to hear all the details and consider how they contribute to the unique main point of each cycle. And this approach also helps us not to drown in the details without collating them into a bigger picture.
But what should we make of the scene with the staffs and serpents in Ex 7:8-13? This episode stands outside the three cycles by introducing them.
This scene introduces the key players: Moses, Aaron, and Yahweh on one side; Pharaoh, his magicians, and their secret arts on the other.
This scene introduces the key conflict: “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle…'” Pharaoh will get his wish, and in a big way. If he won’t release these slaves without proof of the requesting party’s power, he’ll sure get it.
This scene foreshadows the inevitable outcome: “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs” (Ex 7:12). Pharaoh and his champions will not win this fight.
This scene also introduces the theme of the vindication of God’s word: “Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said” (Ex 7:13). Let God be proved true, and every man a liar. God’s glory is at stake in the economic status of his people Israel. His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must be fulfilled. Therefore God’s glory and faithfulness must be vindicated. Game on, Pharaoh. Ding. Ding.
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