The LORD Will Bring a Terrible Plague
on Your Livestock in the Field

9: 1-7

    DIG: Why do you think Pharaoh is so stubborn? What will Egypt lose as their livestock (lifestyle and livelihood) dies? How could this plague have been averted? What does that say about human nature? God’s mercy?

    REFLECT: How are you like Pharaoh? What would make you bend or break? How could you sustain the loss of your livelihood, food, transportation, or status?

    Once again the gods of Egypt were rebuked and ridiculed because they worshiped various animals. A large number of bulls and cows were considered sacred in Egypt. In the central area of the Delta, four provinces chose various types of bulls and cows as emblems. Apis, the bull god of fertility, was considered the sacred animal of the god Ptah. There was only one sacred Apis bull at any one time. But as soon as it died, another was chosen to take its place. The sacred bull was supposed to have been recognized by twenty-eight distinctive marks that identified him as deity and indicated that he was the object of worship. Thus, the second largest temple that Egypt ever built was located in Memphis and was dedicated to the worship of the black bull Apis.

    The importance of the Apis bull is perhaps best illustrated by one of the more spectacular archaeological discoveries near Memphis in a place that was known for its worship of both Ptah and the sacred Apis bull. On November 13, 1856, an underground stairway was found, leading to a 1,120 foot tunnel that contained sixty-four large burial chambers. Near the center of each burial room was a huge red or black granite sarcophagus approximately twelve feet long and nine feet high, each weighing about sixty tons. In each of these, a sacred, embalmed Apis bull had been buried. The Apis bull was later called Serapis. This underground mausoleum, known as the Serapeum, can still be seen by visitors to Egypt even today.

    Another deity whose worship would have been affected by the impact of this plague was Hathor, the goddess of love, beauty and joy, represented by the cow. The worship of this deity was popular in both Upper and Lower Egypt. This goddess was often depicted as a cow suckling the king, giving him divine nourishment. In Upper Egypt Hathor appeared as a woman with the head of a cow.147 Isis, Nut and Bat were three goddesses who were often depicted with the horns and ears of a cow. Because of this, and because the Egyptians believed that Pharaoh was a living god, the cow came to symbolize the mother of Pharaoh.

    Other bull cults included Mnevis, a sacred bull worshiped at Heliopolis and associated with the god Ra, and Buchis, the sacred bull of the Hermonthis. In addition, bulls were understood to be the embodiments of the great Egyptian gods Ptah and Ra. These would have been other deities associated with the effects of the plague. Lastly, there was also the ram-god Khnum. Numerous important female deities were pictured as livestock animals; Isis, queen of the gods, bears cow’s horns on her head, and Hathor was given a bovine head for her task of protecting the king.

    Therefore, an attack on the bull, the Apis bull, and the cows of Egypt would have been especially devastating to the religious cult of the Egyptians. God was leveling His judgments against the awful institution of idolatry that had a hold on the Egyptians as well as the Israelites. We shall see later that Israel also was dabbling in idolatry (32:1-6).148

    Then ADONAI said to Moses His servant: Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “This is what ADONAI, the God of the Hebrews says, ‘Let My people go, so that they may worship Me’” (9:1). The warning was repeated. Pharaoh was commanded to let the Israelites leave or face serious consequences. Also, the title the God of the Hebrews was once again used (7:16).

    If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, then the hand of God will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field – on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats (9:2-3). The Hebrew word for plague is deber, which has the idea of pestilence. While the term is often used of pestilence in general (Exodus 5:3, Leviticus 26:25, Second Samuel 24:13-15), it is used here in a special sense of a plague on cattle (Psalm 78:48). Also, it was the livestock in the field that were to be affected, not those animals in barns or other shelters.

    When the finger of God (8:19) failed to make an impression on Amenhotep II, God turned to His hand. Connected with the deliverance of the Israelites (3:19, 6:1, 9:2, and 13:3), the hand of God is a common term in Exodus, and is normally associated with some mighty act of judgment. This was the first plague in which the term was used, and it was the first plague that directly caused death. As such, it served as an indication of worse things to come, a pattern of death that ended in the tenth plague and the failed crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Egyptian army, both of which include the death of more animals.149 There would be more failures of the false gods of Egypt to come.

    The thing that is common to both the fifth and sixth plagues was the fact that in each of them the animals of the Egyptians were attacked. Thus, we see again the Divine hand in the arrangement and order of these different plagues.150

    This would have had great economic consequences for the land of Egypt. Donkeys were depended upon for heavy labor in agriculture. Camels and horses were used mainly for transportation. Cattle not only provided milk, but were also central to the worship there. In addition, Pharaoh owned a great number of livestock (Genesis 47:6 and 17), so the economic losses from this plague would have affected him personally.

    But ADONAI will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die (9:4). The first proof that God was the source of this plague is the fact that He spared the livestock of the Hebrews. The second proof was that God set a time for the plague to begin. He said: Tomorrow ADONAI will do this in the land (9:5). God fixed a time for the start of the plague so that the Egyptians should not argue that it was merely a local outbreak.

    And the next day ADONAI followed through on what He had said. All the livestock in the field of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died (9:6). But if all the livestock died, how can they be mentioned later (9:19)? The writer probably does not expect the reader to take this all literally. We must conclude this is nothing more than hyperbole and simply means most. In addition, the precise nature of the fifth plague itself is not specified, and is not important. The narrative is clearly focused on what effect it had on Egypt’s livestock.

    In an act that showed diminished self-confidence, Pharaoh sent men to investigate what had happened in Goshen, and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet in spite of that, his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go (9:7). There is a wonderful play on words here. The verb sent is in the form of slb. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites go (slb). But instead of sending the Israelites on their way, he sends his men to investigate. He intends to keep the Israelites under his thumb. Pharaoh still would not give in. The Holy Spirit describes his stubbornness with irony and even a sense of mockery.151

    It may be appropriate at this point to consider how humanity normally views or understands so-called natural disasters. When calamities of nature strike, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or diseases of cattle, people almost always see no reason or source behind the disaster. They regard it as merely a matter of chance – disorder breaking in on the normal order of nature. “Mother Nature” is fickle and cannot be trusted. In other words, there is no purpose or meaning to natural calamities.

    However, the Bible teaches something different. At the very heart and foundation of Scripture, is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. What this means is that God is the Master of all, and His will is the cause of all things. Specifically, it is ADONAI who is on the throne of the universe, maintaining the creation, directing it and working all things according to His own will and purpose. The Biblical picture is that everything that happens in heaven and on earth occurs because of God’s decree. Pharaoh and the Egyptians attempted to explain away the plagues as not originating with the LORD. They looked for other explanations.152


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