Exodus 10: Total Darkness

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This is the third plague of the third series. During the last plague, the locusts were so thick that the ground was black. Some scholars say that their swarming blackened the sky as well. If true, that only foreshadows the plague that comes now, without warning and quite suddenly.

As it is, the Lord says to Moses one day, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt – darkness that can be felt.” So Moses does exactly as he is told. He stretches out his hand toward the sky, and “total darkness covers all of Egypt for three days.” “Total darkness” is a translation of two Hebrew words meaning “darkness of darkness.” Some translate it as “thick darkness.” It is so dark that “no one could see anyone else or move about for three days.” Now this might seem like a reprieve from the locusts, but it is totally dark – for three days. This is judgment language. And it is, perhaps, one of the scariest things possible, in part, because they don’t know that it will become light again in three days. For all the Egyptians know, it will be dark forever.

Now, scholars who try to explain these plagues on the basis of natural phenomenon have a theory for this one. A blistering wind, they say, probably blew up from the south. It is known as a khamisin, meaning “fifty,” because such a wind does come and go during the fifty days of spring. It is a strong wind that comes up suddenly. It brings heat, and whips up sand and dust that is so severe it can cause darkness. It could easily last for three days. Given the previous destruction of vegetation, there would be nothing left to dissipate the winds, so they could have, conceivably, been very strong, raising enough dust to completely black out the sun. And while that might satisfy some of the questions, the text says nothing about swirling sand or dust. It simply says, “darkness will spread over Egypt – darkness that can be felt.”

Nonetheless, the implications of this for a sun-worshipping culture like the Egyptians cannot be overstated. Not only is this darkness making a mockery of their god, Ra, but it highlights the unstoppable power of the Israelite God. That an Israelite-slave God would be more powerful than their own, would make a huge impact on the Egyptians.

Among the gods they worship is the sun god, Ra; he is the source of all that is good, including light and life. Crops can neither germinate nor grow without the warmth and light of the sun. The absence of light shows Ra to be impotent. The powerlessness of Ra opens the way for satanic forces to work unchecked. The realm of evil is at hand, possibly resulting in death. This would have been especially humiliating for Pharaoh in that they were often identified as the sons of Ra. So, it’s no wonder that people as a whole were completely terrorized by this occurrence. Presumably, the sky is dark as well, devoid of any stars. With no way to measure time, it must have seemed like an eternity.

Being in total darkness also points the reader back to the story of creation. It is no accident that God’s first act of creation was to separate light from the darkness. It introduced order to a dark and formless world. This plague stands as a marker, then, to the undoing of creation, and the Egyptians’ gods are helpless to intervene. Darkness leads to chaos, and that is what they are experiencing now.

One might ask why they didn’t light torches or fires. The obvious answer is that it is so dark people cannot find anything. It says that “no one could move about for three days.” Time has stopped; people are frozen in place. (Yet, later in the story, Pharaoh will summon Moses, and he will appear before him.)

And once again, the Israelites are exempt. The text simply states, “Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.” Scholars point out that Goshen, being off to the side, would not have been subject to the forces of the wind. But Goshen is not specifically mentioned. Some of the Israelites might also have been living among the Egyptians. The text does say, “in the places where they lived.” Imagine a random house here or there having light, while everyone else is struggling with severe darkness. That, too, would make a huge impression upon the Egyptians.

This darkness lasts for three days. Readers cannot help but remember that Moses has repeatedly asked Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to make a three-day journey into the wilderness to worship. After refusing that request time after time, Pharaoh was willing to grant the men leave after the last plague, but their families had to remain behind. At that point, it seemed as though his main concern was to ensure they would return to reunite with their families.

Now, he finally summons Moses and says, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.” Perhaps his thinking is the same as before. The people could go, but they would certainly want to come back for their flocks and herds. Perhaps, but the reality is, that they would need to take some along to provide sacrifices to the Lord. On the other hand, some scholars think Pharaoh really needs the flocks and herds of the Israelites because all of his have been killed. He needs to replenish his animals, and if the Israelites don’t return, he at least can start over.

Moses reminds him, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings, to present to the Lord our God.” Some scholars have interpreted this to mean that Moses is asking Pharaoh to provide the animals for sacrifice. And in so doing, Pharaoh would, then, be a participant in the worship of a foreign God. It is highly unlikely that Pharaoh would have, in any way, agreed to something like that, but it is also even more unlikely in light of the fact that Pharaoh’s flocks have been devastated by the previous plagues. Does he even have any animals to send?

Moses continues, “Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.” All along, Moses has been requesting to go off to worship the Lord. If they have to leave the animals behind, they may as well just not go. He remains resolute to the end.

Whether or not the argument makes sense to Pharaoh is unknown, because “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go.” In short, Pharaoh reneged once more. But he is still grasping for control and threatens Moses: “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” The irony is that the next time they meet, many will have died, but Moses will not be one of them.

For his part, Moses is only too happy to comply and essentially agrees that negotiations have not been successful. He says, “Just as you say. I will never appear before you again.” Now in fact, he will talk with Pharaoh one more time as noted above, but both he and Pharaoh have come to terms with the fact that the time for talking has ended. Now, things will just have to go forward to a devastating end. Disaster awaits!