Exodus 8: Biting Gnats

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The plague of frogs has passed. Scholars don’t know how long it lasted or how much time has passed since the frogs have died. Prior to that plague, the text says that Moses was told to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go off to worship the Lord. If he refused, the Lord would send a plague of frogs. Pharaoh refuses; frogs come upon the land. After frogs are everywhere, Pharaoh summons Moses and says, “Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord.” Moses does pray. The frogs die suddenly, leaving smelly piles of dead frogs—so much so, that the “land reeked with them.”

Once the hardship is over, Pharaoh “hardened his heart” and would not follow through on his promise. He stopped listening to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said. No doubt Pharaoh feels as though he has regained the upper hand, or at least weathered the worst of it. He seems to be totally unconcerned about any retribution for reneging on his promise. The recurring theme of Exodus, however, is that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people “will come to know the Lord.” Pharaoh will soon find that the “mighty hand” of the Lord is just starting.

This is the third plague of the first triad. It is also the one that has the shortest description. It comes with no warning. So it is, that without any notice to Pharaoh or his people, the Lord says to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.” This will be the last time that Aaron is involved in producing a plague.

Some scholars believe these gnats are mosquitos, the annoying bloodsucking insects. If so, they might be more prevalent during the flooding periods of the Nile. On the other hand, the Hebrew word is kinnim, which is translated “gnats” in the LXX and Vulgate. This is favored because gnats are smaller and can also get into people’s ears and up their noses. They have also been known to cause vision problems when they fly into people’s eyes. In other words, they are completely obnoxious. It is even possible that this word could include multiple kinds of biting insects, including fleas, aphids, and lice. That they are biting everything and everyone is the key point.

Even more alarming, however, is that they come from “the dust of the ground,” from the earth. The first plague of frogs came from the water. The next plague will come from the sky. So by having the gnats come up from the earth, the narrator is once again showing the totally of creation – water, earth, sky. The undoing of all aspects of creation will be involved in the lessons for Pharaoh and his people.

It is also critical to point out that when Moses tells Aaron “the dust will become gnats,” he uses the Hebrew word haya, meaning “to come into being, or to become.” Essentially, this means the dust itself becomes the biting insects. It does not say that the insects are “like the dust.” This is a very literal transformation. The gnats are everywhere; the dust is nowhere.

The hot, dry climate of Egypt is a reservoir of dust and sand, which is a different argument for having this happen when it is the driest. The wording may also invoke some references to the Genesis stories. The first would be “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” In this statement dust represents death. People covered in dust (now gnats) might even wish for death. This could be a dire warning for what lies ahead (see Gen 3:19). But just as likely are the promises made to the patriarchs that involve dust: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth,” and “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth” (Gen 13:16; 28:14). By definition, dust is infinite, beyond one’s ability to count. The gnats are innumerable, over everything.

Aaron does as God directs; and when he “stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came upon people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats.” Imagine walking along a path and any dust that might be disturbed is now biting gnats – biting one’s feet, legs, arms, body. There is no getting away from them. Brushing them off simply raises more dust. It does not say that people are dying from gnat bites, but that the suffering is indescribable.

It also affects every man and beast. This includes the temple priests. A temple priest covered in gnat bites would be too contaminated to perform his duties. Members of the priestly office are renowned for keeping themselves ritually pure. They shaved their heads, wore elegant robes, and bathed frequently. During this plague they are essentially clothed with gnats! A medical document from the ancient Near East suggests one way of getting rid of gnats is to cover oneself with fish spawn. Imagine how desperate the priests would have to be to choose a method that involves covering themselves with fish slime.

Additionally, the gnats covered every animal. There would be no “clean” animals to sacrifice. Since the duties of the priests include performing sacrificial/liturgical services to the gods, those duties have been interrupted. A great part of Egyptian theology involves keeping the gods happy. So in a sense, this is another attack on them—not on one particular god, but on all of them. Their entire religious system is at risk!

Although Pharaoh might not have had much direct contact with dust, he is surely not exempt from the scourge. Egyptian reliefs oftentimes show servants with large plumes of feathers intended to keep him cool as well as keeping insects at bay. Those efforts are worthless now. Gnats have seeped into his palace through his servants, his magicians, and every little breeze that previously had brought in some dust.

And for the first time, when the magicians “tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not.” Previously, they have been able to turn a staff into a snake, make water turn to blood, and produce more frogs. Scholars cannot answer how they did this, whether by supernatural means, sorcery, or deceptive skills. But at this point, the magicians have met their match. They cannot replicate turning dust into gnats. It begs the question why they would even want to since it would just make conditions worse. At issue, though, is their ability to perform their secret arts to minimize the notion that this is God’s handiwork. Despite creating additional hardships, they have been able to recreate the other events. But creating gnats out of dust goes beyond their capacities.

They proclaim to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” Not only is this phrase authentically Egyptian, but it recognizes God’s performative power. And it comes from Pharaoh’s own officials! Egyptian phrases have included “the finger of Thoth, the finger of Seth,” as an ode to their gods, highlighting their authority and power. Indeed, scholars have recovered ancient amulets in the form of extended forefingers. The forefinger is also commonly used when casting spells. The only other Old Testament use of “the finger of God” occurs when God inscribes the Ten Commandments upon tablets of stone.

Nonetheless, this marks a forward movement in the eyes of the magicians. It is, no doubt, not an easy concession to make. Not only does such an announcement risk the wrath of Pharaoh, but it also reveals their limitations. Their very positions with Pharaoh are dependent upon their ability to perform great and powerful acts. They have failed. Yet, readers will remember that God’s purpose in instituting the plagues has been so that “Pharaoh and his people will come to know the Lord.” That seems to be happening here. Pharaoh’s magicians have met their match, and they are willing to concede. Going forward, they will not even attempt to replicate any of the future plagues.

For his part, however, “Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said.” Unmoved by the words of his magicians, Pharaoh refuses to listen, just as the Lord has foretold.

Interestingly, there is no mention of the cessation of this plague. It suggests that the gnats remained as part of Egypt’s scourge. Nor is there much attempt to provide a natural cause for this one. If the gnats were disturbed from the dust, it would make sense to say they multiplied because the dead frogs weren’t around to eat them. Or they multiplied extensively upon the rotting frogs. But since the dust becomes the gnats, it’s harder to find a natural explanation. And the next plague awaits.