Exodus 9: Dying Livestock

By Mary Jane Chaignot

As the second plague of the second series, things are becoming progressively more severe. Following the format, this plague comes with a warning for Pharaoh. This time, however, the Lord speaks to Moses without any additional comments regarding Aaron. Indeed, this is the first plague in which he is not mentioned at all.

The Lord says to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews:…’” “Thus says the Lord,” is the opening message to Pharaoh. “This is what the Lord says.” “This is His message to you now.” Considering this Lord has already inflicted many plagues upon Pharaoh and the land, and hearing that another is about to begin, one can only wonder at Pharaoh’s obstinacy and indifference. By now he has to be considering that these words come with a great deal of authority. Lest there be any confusion, though, Moses adds, “The God of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew God is the one doing all this and generally acts in opposition to the Egyptian gods.

The Lord continues, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me….” The word now is serve. There is no mention of sacrifice. “For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, behold, the hand of the Lord….” At the termination of the last plague, Pharaoh abruptly changed his mind (for the second time) about letting them go. He continues to hold them against their will.

“Behold”: it is a word intended to grab one’s attention. In this case, Pharaoh is to behold “the hand of the Lord.” Previously, the magicians speak of the “finger of God.” They recognize God’s preformative power and taunts to their gods. By all accounts, the “hand of God” is even more powerful. The phrase is generally used to indicate some major act of judgment. In this case, God’s hand will “strike with a deadly pestilence….” It is a warning that the Lord is ready to take the plagues to a whole new level – death. The cause of the animals’ demise is not given; many presume it is some form of anthrax. Though not officially identified until the 1700s, anthrax has around since antiquity and is believed to have originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many scholars believe these passages are the first records of its viability. Its name, bacillus anthracis, comes from the Greek word, anthracites, meaning coal – a reference to the dark ulcers found on the skin of infected individuals.

This pestilence will affect “your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkey, the camel, the herds and the flocks.” The impact of this cannot be overstated. Many of the Egyptian gods are represented by animals. Hathor, the sky-goddess, is usually depicted as a cow. She is one of Egypt’s primary goddesses. Associated with the sky-god, Horus, and the sun-god, Ra, she is the symbolic mother of the pharaohs. Linked with cattle, she symbolizes motherhood and sustenance. Her sustaining milk is connected both to the Milky Way and the sycamore fig with its milky material. She has been depicted nursing pharaohs.

Her son, Apis, is represented by a bull. According to Egyptian mythology, the bull represents the courage and strength of the king, and therefore, Apis is thought to be the manifestation of a king. In areas where bull worship is prominent, certain cattle were sought to represent the god. They had to have very prescribed markings. Such a calf was removed from the herd and taken to the temple, where it lived among a harem of cows and was worshipped as an oracle. His movements were considered prophetic and widely interpreted. His breath had healing qualities, and his mere presence granted extra strength. On certain holidays he was paraded about bedecked with flowers and jewels. His mother was thought to have been divinely impregnated and also given special treatment.

Additionally, however, besides being an attack on Egyptian religiosity and their polytheistic gods, this is another reversal of the creation narratives. God gives man “dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Animals are now removed from the scene causing chaos and disorder. This also shows the interconnectedness between human behavior and the animals. In this case, the animals are the ones to suffer from Pharaoh’s obstinacy.

“Livestock” is a general term meaning cattle of all types, but then several are specifically named. “Horses” are, in all probability, quite rare. They are used for pulling chariots, but not generally available to riders. (Although the Song of Miriam – one of the oldest writings in the Bible – has a verse referring to the horse and its rider being tossed into the sea.) “Donkeys” are known for being beasts of burden. “Camels” might be somewhat anachronistic, though scholars can never be certain. Absent from Egyptian art until later centuries, camels are mentioned by the patriarchs and figure prominently in the Genesis story of Rebekah and Abraham’s servant. The important thing to remember is that all these named animals are “your,” i.e. Pharaoh’s, livestock.

If this were not a big enough indignity, the Lord announces He “will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt.” This is not to suggest that the Israelites also own horses and camels. They probably have cattle, sheep, and goats; but nonetheless, their animals will all remain very healthy. None of the Israelite cattle will be affected in any way. Since the Israelites already live in a segregated area, this is not difficult to determine.

The Lord sets “tomorrow” as the time for doing “this thing in the land.” One might think that this delay would give Pharaoh time to think things over, time to oblige. But he is not asked for any promises; it is simply implied that he will not cooperate. Tomorrow will be the day.

Of course, when tomorrow comes, “all the livestock of the Egyptians died,” but not one of the livestock of the Israelites is affected. The notion that they woke up to dead animals is outside the disease process associated with anthrax. Biblically speaking, this is another example of divine, supernatural power. Yet, scholars that search for a natural explanation have suggested that this probably happened early in the year when the flood waters subsided, exposing the spores. Israelite cattle could have been spared if their pasturelands were on lower ground, but scholarship is still uncertain as to Goshen’s exact location. They also point out that there are future references to animals, so it is unlikely that “all” died. Some point to the notation that only the livestock “in the field” were to be affected. Nonetheless, the number is significant and filled with impact.

Rather than ranting or raving, Pharaoh asks about it and is told of this as fact. Pharaoh cannot believe his own senses. He asks his officials, soldiers, family – whomever he can find. The phrase is “he sent” without an object. Perhaps it is meant to be another play on words. Instead of sending the Israelites off to worship, he sends for his people to confirm the worst-case scenario. Surely, this news is a blow to his presumed strength and everything he believes in. “But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.”