Va'era: The Pharaoh and 'Me'
(The Seventh Plague)
Exodus 8 – 9
Of all the angles that we could take this week, and of all the various avenues of study that lie before us in ‘Va’era’, I found the idea of Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people of Israel go to be the most fascinating.
That might sound silly, but I think there are times when reading these stories that we trivialize certain aspects as we simplify the narrative in our minds. In regards to this story, Pharaoh is the baddy, and baddies will do what baddies do. So in the minds of many, of course Pharaoh is going to refuse to let Israel be free. Regardless, he was not a character just playing his part and doing what ‘baddies’ do, he was a real man in charge of the lives of millions of people, in charge of a literal, physical, flesh and blood reality that was quite literally obliterated piece by piece before his eyes.
Over and over again, Pharaoh was beaten, clearly, and absolutely beaten, and yet time and time again he refused to let Israel go.
1. The plagues systematically destroyed Egypt before his very eyes. The lives of millions were affected
2. His own magicians said to him – after the gnats;
Exodus 8:19 (The Scriptures)
19 The magicians then said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of Elohim!” But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as יהוה had said.
3. After the boils, his own magicians couldn’t even stand before Moses;
Exodus 9:11 (The Scriptures)
11 And the magicians were unable to stand before Mosheh because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Mitsrites.
Afterwards, the magicians are not seen again, thus his own magicians – the religious leaders of Egypt – were defeated.
4. His own servants, after the magicians cease to be part of the story, say;
Exodus 10:7 (The Scriptures)
7 And Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “Till when would this one be a snare to us? Let the men go, so that they serve יהוה their Elohim. Do you not yet know that Mitsrayim is destroyed?”
5. Even Moses said to Pharaoh – after the hail and fire
Exodus 9:30 (The Scriptures)
30 “But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear before יהוה Elohim.”
Not only is it incredible that Pharaoh continued to fight YHWH but that 7 plagues in he did not fear Him, that even after Moses’ next warning to him, that he did not yet acknowledge his defeat – that the land was destroyed.
So if I could ask Pharaoh one question. I would ask him;
Why did you fight when you were clearly defeated?
War of the Gods
(Couldn’t help myself with the lame title)
The answer I imagine would be quite layered, but it is in essence, quite simple.
You see the struggle between God and Egypt was not entirely about the release of Israel, it was that, but it was also about the destruction and humiliation of the gods of Egypt.
I know this is basic but let’s explore;
1. Egypt was a polytheistic country with a large number of gods for various different things. The plagues of YHWH in Exodus correspond to the gods of the Egypt, demonstrating their worthlessness and subjugation to YHWH
We see this in the book of Numbers which states;
Numbers 33:4 (The Scriptures)
4 and the Mitsrites were burying all their first-born, whom יהוה had smitten among them. Also on their mighty ones יהוה had executed judgments.
‘The plagues struck directly against the god’s of Egypt. The Egyptian’s believed that their pantheon controlled the forces of nature. Turning the Nile into blood discredited Khnum, creator of water and life, Ha’pi, the Nile god, and Osiris, whose bloodstream flowed as the Nile. The plague of frogs mocked Heqit, the goddess of fruitfulness and childbirth who was symbolized by the frog totem…Hathor and Apis (both cow gods) suffered from the pestilence on livestock. The hail storms tore open the heavens of Nut, and they shamed Seth, who manifested himself in wind and storms. The hail and locusts destroyed the crops of Min who protected vegetation and crops, and they struck against Isis, the goddess of life responsible for grinding of cereal crops and spinning flax. The plague of darkness blotted out Egyptian deities associated with the sun: Amon-Re, Aten, Atum and Horus. Even the dreaded Anubis lost credit when the Lord determined upon whom he would deal out death in the plague of the firstborn. The plague of the firstborn struck directly at Osiris, the patron deity of Pharaoh and judge of the dead.’
- Depths of Torah – Torah Club, First Fruits of Zion
Whilst it was explicitly stated in Numbers 33 above; we see the Bible mention the gods of Egypt in some other interesting ways in the text. One such example of this is in Exodus 8:6 which states;
Exodus 8:6 (The Scriptures)
6 So Aharon stretched out his hand over the waters of Mitsrayim, and the frogs came up, and covered the land of Mitsrayim.
But rather than plural ‘frogs’ what the text really says is this;
‘and the frog came up, and covered the land’
And as Rabbi Akiva exclaims in the midrash ‘it was only one frog!’ – meaning, that the pagan deity i.e. Heqt in this case, the frog, came forth out of the Nile. Yes it became plural frogs in the text, and in the p’shat, the literal/physical sense this is referring to multitudes of frogs, but the Torah is also showing us the spiritual realm for a moment whereby Heqt was brought forth from the Nile and judged.
Scripture goes on to say regarding the frogs that ‘they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank’. Heqt clearly lost that fight with the Father and in the eyes of Egypt, as they piled up the bodies of dead frogs, it was as if they piled up the bodies of their own deity who was shown to be worthless.
Another fine example whereby the Torah gives us a glimpse into the spiritual realm and where we see one of these gods make an appearance is in Exodus 14:10. This is where Israel is about to enter the Red Sea and this is the moment when they look up and see Egyptian army coming to slaughter them.
Exodus 14:10 (The Scriptures)
10 And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Yisra’ěl lifted their eyes and saw the Mitsrites coming up after them. And they were greatly afraid, so the children of Yisra’ěl cried out to יהוה.
Where it says ‘Egyptians’ or ‘Mitsrites’, again, it is in the singular, they saw ‘singular Egypt’ coming up after them, and the rabbis have long said, and rightly so, that they saw the demonic prince of Egypt bearing down upon them.
2. Regarding Pharaoh in particular – he himself was considered to be a god.
It’s not just that each plague corresponded to a certain set of deities in Egypt; that Pharaoh himself was not necessarily a servant to the Egyptian gods, but that he himself was part of the pantheon as a god himself.
The Egyptian pantheon changed with time but Pharaoh was considered to be ‘god on earth’, the intermediary between the people and the gods and he was considered to be the high priest of every temple in Egypt.
The name Pharaoh means ‘Great House’; and in the ancient world ‘the house’ and temples etc. were understood to be microcosms of creation (like the Temple/Tabernacle). So as head of the house, Pharaoh can be understood as been seen as head of the natural order.
Upon his death Pharaoh was believed to become Osiris who was the god of the dead and the judge of the dead.
In birth, Pharaoh was believed to be the offspring of Ra (or Amon Ra), so the ‘son of god’.
We see Pharaoh’s attempt at deity in the book of Ezekiel when God says;
Ezekiel 29:3 (The Scriptures)
3 … ‘Thus said the Master יהוה, “See, I am against you, O Pharaoh sovereign of Mitsrayim, O great monster who lies in the midst of his rivers, who has said, ‘My River is my own, and I, I have made it for myself.’
Pharaoh therefore believes himself to be god, and he is fighting for his own divinity and for his own assertion, that he is god.
God Vs god
As a quick aside there is an interesting comment made by YHWH in Exodus 7:1 which reads as;
Exodus 7:1 (The Scriptures)
So יהוה said to Mosheh, “See, I have made you an elohim to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother is your prophet.
Whereas it literally says;
‘I have made you God.’
Thus, Moses then, in a sense at least, is YHWH himself entering into Pharaoh’s palace, and through Moses, it is literally YHWH that is the one fighting.
In the Midrash YHWH says to Moses;
‘Go, and in their very presence smite their gods.’
Know Thy Name
This war, or struggle, between YHWH and the Egyptian deities poses another question however.
Why did god judge the Egyptian deities?
Like before, the answer is not just because they were the ‘baddies’, because they were oppressing Israel, but the answer, as explicitly stated by YHWH himself multiple times during this narrative, is so that God’s name would be declared through all the earth.
Exodus 9:16 (The Scriptures)
16 “And for this reason I have raised you up, in order to show you My power, and in order to declare My Name in all the earth.
There are many ways to understand this and why this was about declaring God’s name;
1. God’s Character and Covenant with Israel
As such, God, who is the one who remembers His people, who remembers his promises to our forefathers, who sustains us and wants to be in union with us; had to save Israel not for our own sake, but for the sake of his name.
God had declared that Israel was his people and in keeping with his covenantal duties as our King, he had to defend us and in the eyes of the ancient world, because of that covenant, trampling on God’s people, was paramount to trampling on God himself.
What worth does a god have who allows his own promised people to be enslaved and of who has not the power to save?
Thus, the slavery of Israel was one way the pagan deities disgraced the name of God. This was not a fight that God had picked, but one Pharaoh and his pagan pantheon had long before any plague was wrought in the land of Egypt.
2. Claims of Creation
Another reason why God needed to declare his name so boldly was due to the claim by many of Egyptians deities to their so called ability to create.
See, various gods in Egypt claimed ownership and control over the elements of nature, be it the river Nile, the crops or the weather, the Egyptian pantheon claimed authorship over the realms of nature. This claim is particularly provocative as one of the many things that make YHWH unique is the fact that He is the Creator. Not the gods of Egypt, only YHWH.
Interestingly enough in Genesis 1 it is ‘Elohim’ that begins the creation of the world (Elohim as opposed to YHWH). ‘Elohim’ has the numerical equivalent to the phrase ‘Ha Teva’ which means ‘nature’, so, YHWH is the God of nature, not the Egyptian deities. This is perhaps why so many of the judgments included the use of and mastery over the natural elements. Additionally, as we know a name/title reflects a person’s character or a certain trait of theirs. When it comes to YHWH as ‘Elohim’ – which is connected to the creation of the natural world – it is a reflection of ‘Gevura’ which is a Hebrew term for ‘severity’ or ‘judgement’. Thus, if one wants to claim ownership of the world, of the natural order, YHWH who is the Elohim, the fearsome judge of all things, will surely send judgment.
Thus the judgment of Egypt was not just about us, but it was about YHWH’s supremacy over His creation, and it was about His covenantal commitment that He had towards Israel. It wasn’t about our claims to worship or follow Him, but about the fact that He said that we are His, and none others.
Pharaoh Mocked God
Despite all this, despite been clearly defeated, we find that Pharaoh himself mocked God.
We read after the 7th plague that Pharaoh said to Moses;
Exodus 9:27 (The Scriptures)
27 Pharaoh then sent and called for Mosheh and for Aharon, and said to them, “I have sinned this time. יהוה is righteous, and my people and I are wrong.
In Moses response, he sees Pharaoh’s insincerity and says to him ‘I know that you do not yet fear YHWH Elohim’.
Perhaps it is a little strong to suggest that Pharaoh mocked the Father here. Maybe in the moment Pharaoh did mean those words, maybe he didn’t take them too seriously, but surely he didn’t mock God?
Permit me to analyze the text beloved because Moses says something very peculiar. Besides sensing Pharaoh’s false repentance Moses goes on the refer to YHWH as ‘YHWH Elohim’. God is referred to in many ways, YHWH Elohim is particularly special as this title goes all the way back to Genesis 2 and 3.
You see in Genesis 1, it is Elohim that created the word, then, in Genesis 2 and 3 YHWH is referred to as ‘YHWH Elohim’. As we have stressed, names indicate an attribute of God and part of his character. Before we explained that Elohim is spoken of in reference to God’s judgment. Regarding YHWH, this is a reference to YHWH’s attribute of ‘mercy’.
A rabbinic teaching on this states that God founded the world in judgment and strict righteousness, but that judgment alone could not sustain the world, that it had to be balanced by the attribute of YHWH’s mercy.
Moses is alluding to this, he is not just referring to God as creator, but as God the merciful judge. Moses continues his allusion in verses 31 and 32 which read;
Exodus 9:31–32 (The Scriptures)
31 And the flax and the barley were smitten, for the barley was in the head and the flax was in bud.
32 But the wheat and the spelt were not smitten, for they were late crops.
What is particularly fascinating here is that in our English Bibles that the quotation marks, which indicate when Moses is speaking and when he is not, cease at the end of verse 30, which ends with ‘I know that you do not yet fear before YHWH Elohim.’ But, the reality is that Moses did not stop speaking and he continues on and he says verses 31 to 32.
Which is confusing because what do comments about the barley and crops have to do with Pharaoh’s lack of fear of God?
The answer is in the fact that flax and barley were not used for consumption by the Egyptian people. Flax was for clothing and barley was for animal feed, these Moses says were destroyed whereas the wheat and the spelt were not. This is important because the wheat and the spelt were used for consumption by the Egyptian people. It was one thing for the flax and barley to be destroyed; it meant starvation and death for the wheat and the spelt to be destroyed.
Moses is saying here ‘you do not yet fear’ YHWH Elohim, despite the mercy that he has shown you.
Prior to this, verse 15, YHWH speaks of his mercy also in that;
Exodus 9:15 (The Scriptures)
15 “Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth.
i.e., As I would put it, ‘I could obliterate you.’
So, throughout this whole process YHWH has upheld his name, that He is Creator, King over Israel, and that he is merciful and just, he is ‘YHWH Elohim’.
Proclaiming YHWH’s name therefore, is not just about fire and brimstone, not just about the fear and dread of our Great and Fearsome King, but that despite our absolute refusal to follow him, despite our absolute rebellion against him, that He is merciful, for ‘YHWH is compassionate and showing favour, patient and great in kindness’ (Ps 103:8).
Ironically, this whole time, God has been revealing His mercy, and His great and wonderful name, YHWH, to the Pharaoh.
Despite this, I mentioned before that Pharaoh mocked the Father when he said the words ‘I have sinned this time. YHWH is righteous, and my people and I are wrong’.
Permit me again to analyze these words, in particular, the phrase ‘YHWH is righteous, and my people and I are wrong’. It looks like this in Hebrew;
יהוה הַצַּדִּיק וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי הָרְשָׁעִים׃
You will notice 5 Hebrew words for that phrase.
Take every letter of the beginning word and you have ‘yud’, ‘hey’, ‘vav’, ‘vav’, ‘hey’.
As you have probably just realized, like the sages before us, this is awfully close to the name YHWH. It is in fact an acrostic for the name ‘YHWH’, but with one additional ‘vav’.
Fascinatingly enough, the ‘vav’ is the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as 6 is the number of man, we therefore have a man standing in the middle and dividing the name of God. So encoded within this statement, and given the context, we have Pharaoh standing in the middle of and dividing God’s name.
It is no wonder then that the additional vav within the name of YHWH is for the words ‘w ani’ – ‘and me’ – the exact part of the phrase that refers exactly to Pharaoh.
Not only does this speak to Pharaoh’s deception, to his rebellious ways against God, but to his own very religion. Remember Pharaoh thought he was god and here, though a bit deceptively, Pharaoh is placing himself in the place of God.
Pharaoh was also very much part of the religion of ‘w ani’, ‘me’; otherwise known as the worship of ‘self’.
The Pharaoh and ‘Me’
Herein lies another dimension to the whole Exodus narrative.
You see we are not necessarily the Israelites, stricken, enslaved and victimized, but we too can find ourselves in the character of Pharaoh for we to have rebelled against him ceaselessly, engaged in the worship of self, raised in the religion and culture of ‘me’, and time and time again, we have denied God’s name and His great mercy.
Pharaoh is like us in more ways than we could care to admit – even here, with his false repentance. Pharaoh is like an addict here, to whatever you will, to alcohol, to tv, to sport, to sex, to whatever sin it is, Pharaoh is like us in that we all have our sins that we refuse to let go. And we’ve all repented, and we’ve all, at times, been insincere.
Unfortunately when we behave like this, when we place ourselves first, when we are insincere and even deceitful with God (i.e. I won’t do it again), we are embodying, in a sense, Pharaoh, and sin.
The seed of this however goes even beyond Pharaoh, but to the very beginning as alluded to by Moses when he said the title ‘YHWH Elohim’. You see, it was ‘YHWH Elohim’ who said to Adam ‘do not eat of the tree of good and evil’ (Gen 2:16), whereas the serpent, in Genesis 3 stated to Eve, ‘Is it true that Elohim said….’ (Gen 3:1). Dropping ‘YHWH’ from the title given to God because one of Satan’s great desires is to separate His name, as Pharaoh has done here, and one of his greatest missions is to separate us from the mercy of God, from YHWH and that particular attribute of our Master.
It is of the highest importance therefore that we no longer serve two masters – keeping in mind that our second master, the one we serve other than God, can be our very selves.
This is why Pharaoh and the Serpent seek to keep us in Egypt, because it is here that we so passionately serve our own interests over the living and true God.
Egypt is also the place where they can keep us so busy – be it with work or any of our other commitments – that we scarcely have time for our Father over our own selves. We saw this in the slavery imposed on Israel in Exodus, and we see it in our very lives today.
One of Satan’s greatest weapons against us is time, the time we have for work, and sadly the scarce bit of time we have left over for our Father.
A sage Ramhal appropriately stated that one of Satan’s greatest weapons against us is in his ability to deny us the time to even reflect upon our actions.
The Ramhal states that;
‘He (Satan) know that, if [man] were to pay the least attention to their conduct, they would change their ways instantly… Pharaoh’s purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or take counsel against him, but to deprive them of the very opportunity to reflect’.
‘Where there is time to reflect, there is time to hope’ (R. Weinreb), and unfortunately for many of us Satan has taken our very hope from us, the time even, to realize our slavery and the hope that is in God. He has not done so necessarily through overt slavery, but through the lifestyles that are imposed upon us and through our culture whereby we live and serve ‘me’; rather than ‘Him’.
A Question for ‘Me’
We started today asking the question of Pharaoh as to why he would not give up in the face of God’s great power. We have learnt instead that the answer to that question lies within our very own selves, for unfortunately we are too alike to Pharaoh.
I want to draw your attention to another question; one that was asked in Exodus chapter 5.
‘Who is YHWH? That I should obey his voice..?’
For it is everyday that you and I, and our Pharaoh within if you will, that asks this same question. ‘Who is YHWH, that I should obey?’
The plagues therefore are God’s response to us and our own worship of self, that we should know his name. The plagues are God himself tearing you and I down, His way of restoring and correcting Israel.
But do not be like Pharaoh beloved; for though we rebelliously ask this question every day, everyday God presents us with the same option, to choose life, or to choose death; to eat of that tree, or to live in unity with our God.
Unlike Pharaoh, I implore you to surrender the fight and give in to our Merciful Judge, YHWH Elohim.