Exodus 10: Ravenous Locusts

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This is the second plague of the third series and involves another extensive narrative. It begins with the Lord telling Moses to “go to Pharaoh.” In previous stories the Lord simply tells Moses the words that he is to say to Pharaoh. This time, however, the Lord lingers longer with Moses and tells him that He has “hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart and the heart of his officials.…” This is the first time that readers hear that the hearts of his officials have also been hardened. Knowing that the Lord has hardened the Egyptians’ hearts is always hard to hear, but there are, essentially, two reasons for Him acting thusly.

The first is that “I may show these signs of mine among them.” From the beginning, this has been a contest between God and Pharaoh with Pharaoh representing the false gods of Egypt. It comes down to the God of the Hebrews versus the plethora of Egyptian gods. But there is also another reason: So that Moses, you “may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them – so that you may know that I am the Lord.” The Egyptians aren’t the only ones who need to be shown the power of the Lord. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites are included in this burgeoning realization. It becomes apparent that future generations also must hear this news. This story has to be told and retold through the ages. This goes way beyond the events of the Exodus itself. People will forever hear this story how God redeemed his people from the oppression of the Egyptians.

Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh with Aaron, again, remaining silent. Moses begins, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?’” As before, “Thus says the Lord” makes it an official message. “Humble yourself” is a new addition. Moses has frequently illustrated his humility in his dealings with the Lord. Pharaoh, however, has not. He did admit in the previous plague that he had “sinned” against the Lord, but this is an admission only. There is no follow up remorse. Pharaoh still believes that he is in control of his people and his land. There is an ironic element to the use of this word because earlier, Pharaoh did everything in his power to “humble” the Israelites—taking away straw, setting taskmasters over them, etc. Now, it is Pharaoh who is the target of humiliation.

Moses repeats that Pharaoh needs to let the “people go, so that they may worship.” If he refuses, “tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country.” Most scholars attribute this plague to the desert locust. It really is awful. Capable of multiplying rapidly, locust can travel on the wind for miles and miles looking for vegetation. They swarm in devastating masses, allowing them to wreak total destruction on whatever is in their path. Estimates suggest .4 square miles (roughly a square kilometer) could contain fifty million insects. In a single night, they are capable of eating 100 thousand tons of plant material.

The consequences of the locusts are spelled out in painstaking detail: “They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the last remnant left you after the hail, and they shall devour every tree of yours that grows in the field.” The hail, while destructive, didn’t wipe out everything. Specific grains were too immature to be affected. Now, these will provide vegetation for the ravenous locusts.

Obviously, the Egyptians have a god for that. As in previous plagues, this one will make another mockery of their gods. No prayer, no lamentation, no sacrifice to their gods will be able to thwart the power of the Hebrew God.

“They shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your officials and of all the Egyptians – something that neither your parents nor your grandparents have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day.” This reminds the reader of previous plagues – the frogs, gnats, flies – that covered the earth and got into everything. The only difference here is that the locusts are also destroying everything in their path.

With that, Moses turns on his heel and goes out from Pharaoh, presumably before Pharaoh has a chance to respond. There is no point in awaiting a comment from Pharaoh since the Lord initially stated He would be hardening Pharaoh’s heart. His officials, however, have a lot to say: “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us?” They seem to understand the destruction that has afflicted their country. They don’t understand why Pharaoh can’t just “let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” It is very likely that in their address to Pharaoh the word “people” refers to the Israelite men. They are also highly dismissive of Moses, referring to him as “this fellow,” even though it is certain that by now they know his name.

Perhaps to their surprise, Moses and Aaron are brought back to Pharaoh, who now tries to negotiate with them. This is the first time he tries to negotiate before the plague has arrived. No motivation is given, but perhaps he is trying to placate the grumblings of his officials. He begins from his perceived position of strength: “Go, worship the Lord your God! But which ones are to go?” It seems like an innocuous question, but it has huge consequences. Moses insists that “we will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, because we have the Lord’s festival to celebrate.”

Pharaoh can see right through that: there is danger in letting them all go. They would have no reason to return. Perhaps he suspects that this has been the goal all along. So he replies, “The Lord indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind. No, never! Your men may go and worship the Lord for that is what you are asking.” It is uncertain whether only men participated in worship services in Egypt, but he intends to hold firm, and if worship is really the goal, then only the men need go. He’s essentially holding their families hostage. Because Moses refuses his offer, he has his men drive out Moses and Aaron from his presence. In calling them and dismissing them, Pharaoh still imagines himself to be in control. He makes these decisions from the standpoint of haughtiness, not humility.

With negotiations stalled, the Lord tells Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt, so that locusts may come upon it and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.”

Moses does just that, and “the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when morning came, the east wind has brought the locusts.” The mentioning of the “east wind” means that they blew in from Arabia. It also foreshadows the exodus when an “east wind” will separate the waters of the Red Sea leading to devastating consequences for Pharaoh’s army (see Ex 14:21).

“The locusts came upon all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again. They covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black….” Some scholars suggest the sky was blackened because of their vast numbers. This would also hint at the plague to follow. But other scholars say it’s more likely they covered the earth so thick that nothing else could be seen. “And they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt.” Many of these phrases echo the words used during the creation stories, indicating that, once again, creation is not only involved, but is also being overturned. Though presumably hyperbolic, scientists have confirmed a locust plague that covered 2000 square miles in the 1800s.

Pharaoh hurriedly called Moses and Aaron back saying, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the Lord your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me.” This is the second time Pharaoh has asked for forgiveness because he “has sinned.” But once again, these words are easy to say. Pharaoh has yet to show any remorse. Nor does he mention anything about allowing the people to leave to go into the wilderness to worship. He seems distraught over the loss of his country, but he’s not yet ready to concede the battle. Moses does not ask for clarification. He already knows that the Lord has hardened Pharaoh’s heart and that conversation is pointless. Time is rushing towards a final confrontation.

Moses leaves Pharaoh and “prays to the Lord. The Lord changed the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not a single locust was in all the country of Egypt.” Since migrating locusts generally do not have time to reproduce, it would be likely that all are truly gone. Mention of the “west wind” is perhaps another foretelling of what is to happen with Pharaoh’s army, which will also be lost in the Red Sea.

True to form, the minute the danger has passed, “the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.” It is notable that this plague both begins and ends with God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” It provides a framework for the story and also highlights the intransience of Pharaoh and his officials. They haven’t grown at all in their understanding of the Lord, nor have they come to terms with how this contest must end.