Exodus 8: Swarming Flies

By Mary Jane Chaignot

It is unclear what has happened with the biting gnats. It is conceivable that they are still problematic. But things continue to move forward, and the Lord says to Moses, “Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh as he goes to the river and say to him.…” These opening words initiate the beginning of the second triad of plagues. Like the first plague in the first series, this one comes with a warning and occurs as Pharaoh goes to the river.

The connections with the first plague continue as the Lord says, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” There is an interesting play on words here that the English translations do not capture. The words for “send” and “go” are the same. The Lord “sends” Moses to Pharaoh asking to let his people “go.” If he doesn’t let his people “go,” the Lord will “send” flies. All of this points to very purposeful writing.

The Lord continues speaking through Moses, “If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies; even the ground will be covered with them.” The threatening nature of this plague now becomes apparent. Everything will be full of flies.

Again, scholars aren’t sure which insect is referenced, and it could even be a combination of several. When the Septuagint was translated, the scholars used a word meaning “dog-fly.” These were blood-sucking flies that were known to inflict painful bites. They have been described as “hurling themselves like a javelin and fastening themselves upon the body, especially the edges of the eyelids, disfiguring them by the swellings produced by their sting.” The bottom line, however, is that these flies will come from the air, swarming over everything.

This also fits into the continuing saga of the undoing of creation. The frogs came from water; the gnats came from the dust of the earth; now the flies come from the air. Water, earth and air – all aspects of creation are involved in God’s lessons for the Egyptians. It is also worth mentioning that there is no staff mentioned in this plague. It is simply the word of God in its raw and mighty power. Just as in the creation narrative, God speaks, and it is so.

There is also another new development. This time the Lord adds, “But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land.” This is the first time there has been an explicit exemption for the Israelites. Previously, scholars have assumed they have not experienced the hardships of the previous plagues, but from now on they will certainly be unaffected.

This is also another sign for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Imagine a swarm of flies that stop at the border of an area, as though there were an invisible wall keeping them out. This is done so that Pharaoh and his people “will know that the Lord is in this land.” The Lord is not a God that’s afar off; He is present, and this is how they will know. The Lord does not recognize any sovereignty of Egyptian land; He will appear where and when He chooses and will act according to His will. Pharaoh will not only recognize this as a fact, but will also realize his impotence to do anything about it.

The flip side of this is also a factor. There has been no information given about the awareness or response of the Israelites during the initial three plagues. Now, however, they will know that they are exempt. They, too, will come to know that the Lord is in the land because the flies will stop at the edge of their territory.

It should be noted that scholars have not been able to find any definitive mention of Goshen outside biblical texts. According to the biblical stories, the land is located in the eastern delta of the Nile. Its name might derive from a word meaning cultivated, and most assume it was mostly pastureland, since the Israelites had flocks and cattle. From now on, this land and those living on it, will be exempt from any of the plagues.

The Lord continues, “I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign will occur tomorrow.” This is one of the first times that the plague is delayed for a day. It mimics Moses’ decree that the frogs will disappear “tomorrow,” but here, they have a day’s warning before it starts.

True to his word, the next day, “dense swarms of flies poured into Pharaoh’s palace and into the houses of his officials; throughout Egypt the land was ruined by the flies.” The word for “ruined” signifies destruction, spoil, or decay. In its other uses, it means defilement and pollution. In the flood story, the land was ruined; God cleansed it with a flood. Here, the actions of Pharaoh bring ruin (pollution) to his land and his people. The land is defiled through the plague of flies.

Pharaoh doesn’t even attempt to call his officials to the scene. Instead, he summons Moses and Aaron and says, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.” Even though Aaron is still included in the conversation, he plays no effective role in the narrative. Pharaoh seems to be willing to concede, and tells them they can worship within the city limits. Moses, however, says “That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians.” Previously, the Lord has instructed him to ask Pharaoh for leave to go to the wilderness to worship. That isn’t part of the original decree here. Nonetheless, Moses points out that their worship practices would be detestable to the Egyptians.

Scholars have questioned this line of reasoning. If the Israelites do, indeed, live separately in the land of Goshen, there should be no reason why they couldn’t sacrifice there. Presumably, they would be away from the prying eyes of the Egyptians. It also raises the interesting possibility that perhaps the Israelites have not been sacrificing to the Lord while they’ve been residing in Egypt.

Sacrifices are an integral part of worship, and one wonders how they’ve been managing this. The text, of course, is silent on such matters. Nonetheless, Moses is fearful that the Egyptians will “stone them” for their worship practices. The issue seems to be the fact that the Israelites might sacrifice an animal that the Egyptians believe to be sacred. Sacrificing such an animal would be an affront to the Egyptian gods, and it is possible that the Egyptians, wanting to protect their gods, would take matters into their own hands.

The most likely animal to cause problems would be the ram. Rams were considered sacred. Once a year, one was sacrificed to Zeus in an elaborate religious ceremony that the Israelites could not begin to duplicate. In addition to that, it is believed that some gods preferred goats and abhorred sheep; for others, however, it was the opposite. Exactly how these practices were determined for each individual god has not been clarified. Moses, having lived as an Egyptian for 40 years, would have been aware of these nuances. The solution he thinks is to take a “three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, as he commands us.” A three-day journey would be about 60 miles into the wilderness, with scholars estimating travelers could cover roughly 20 miles on a day’s journey. Sixty miles would take them well beyond the borders of the Egyptian army.

Pharaoh really has no choice, but he’s not willing to concede everything. He says, “I will let you go to offer sacrifices to the Lord your God in the wilderness, but you must not go very far.” He wants them to stay close enough that he can watch them and send the army if need be. Then, in an extraordinary moment, he says, “Now pray for me.” These are astonishing words coming from Pharaoh. Not only has he acknowledged “the Lord your God,” but he also entreats Moses to pray for him. He is beginning to acknowledge where the real power lies and that Moses can intercede on his behalf.

Moses agrees to do so. “As soon as I leave you, I will pray to the Lord, and tomorrow the flies will leave Pharaoh and his officials and his people. Only let Pharaoh be sure that he does not act deceitfully again by not letting the people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord.” This is what happened with the frogs. Pharaoh promised, then the frogs all died, and he changed his mind. Moses is trying to avoid another scenario like that.

Moses leaves and “prayed to the Lord, and the Lord did what Moses asked. The flies left Pharaoh and his officials and his people; not a fly remained.” Filled with relief from the flies, Pharaoh’s mood, no doubt, takes a dark turn as he is confronted by the realization that he has no power to restore order to his land. And even more importantly, his people are also aware that the Israelite God is responsible for sending the flies and also for making them go away.

It is no surprise that “this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” Pharaoh reneged on his promise before, and he does so again despite Moses’ warning not to do so. From a practical standpoint, it is unclear why he does this. He has already witnessed the mighty hand of God. Toying with God by breaking promises seems to be very shortsighted. But perhaps Pharaoh is a victim of his own making. He is not ready to concede. And so another plague will be forthcoming.