Exodus 9: Festering Boils

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Brushing off the impact of the previous five plagues, Pharaoh continues his obstinate ways. Hence, this is the sixth plague and the third event of the second series. Like plague number three, there is no warning about what’s to come. And like the third plague of the first series, this one also involves dust.

So it is that one day the Lord says to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh.” Once again, Aaron is mentioned, but he is not a factor in the action. He will not be mentioned in the next series at all. Likewise, Pharaoh’s magicians make one final appearance, paving the way for all extraneous parties to fall away. The final conflicts have been heading towards a showdown between the Lord and Pharaoh.

So, the Lord tells Moses to “take soot from the kiln.” This has opened the way for a variety of interpretations. Some scholars have argued the irony in the matter. The soot could have been a by-product of baking bricks. It would be the ultimate comeuppance. Pharaoh has gone out of his way to impose unrealistic brick-making quotas upon the Israelites. Those kilns would have been used day and night. In this case, the by-product from all that baking will be used to punish the Egyptians.

It’s an interesting argument, and one in which Pharaoh gets his due. But the reality is that other scholars have pointed out that the Egyptians really did use straw in their bricks. Moreover, they let them dry in the sun. These scholars point out that the fuel required to maintain the kilns, if they had been used for drying bricks, would have exceeded all the vegetation in the area. It would have been an untenable situation. Indeed, excavations of the Delta area dating back to the Middle Kingdom/time of the Exodus reveal that mud bricks with straw were commonly used during that time. The remnants of these bricks are quite distinctive in that they have tiny holes where the organic materials have decayed.

This is not to say, however, that the Egyptians have no need for kilns. The kiln, itself, was invented in Mesopotamia in roughly 6000 BCE. So it was well known by this time (roughly estimated between 1500-1300 BCE). Kilns were used for turning clay into pottery, vases, tiles, coffins, and even toys. The list could go on. So even though the argument for irony is seductive, it probably has little/no basis in this scenario.

The Lord tells Moses, “Let Moses throw [the soot] in the air in the sight of Pharaoh.” Pharaoh is given no opportunity to speak or to halt the process. Presumably, he is a silent witness to Moses’ actions.

The soot can only be thought of as dust so fine that when it is thrown into the air, it catches the wind and travels far and wide. Still, one must allow for some measure of hyperbole since Moses can only throw a finite amount of soot into the air and probably from kilns that are nearby. This would not include all the kilns that exist throughout the country. Nonetheless, the message is that this is another divine action. This dust from a kiln multiplies infinitely into the air and causes “fine dust all over the land of Egypt.”

This dust will settle on humans and animals alike, causing “festering boils.” Notice the conflagration of both human and animal kingdoms. Both will be affected. One might reasonably ask how animals could be involved, since all the cattle died during the previous plague. Scholars do not have a definitive answer, but point out that the previous plague affected mostly livestock. Certainly, the Egyptians have animals that aren’t livestock. Nor do they know how much time has passed since the last plague. Perhaps, they have been able to replenish some of their lost livestock.

Nonetheless, scholars say this is, again, upping the ante. Unlike the frogs that were smelly and the flies and gnats that were annoying, these boils cause severe skin conditions. For the first time, the Egyptians are confronted with real life concerns.

Scholars, of course, wonder about the nature of these boils. The text merely states they are “festering.” Because the underlying cause is black soot, anthrax is, again, put forth as an option. However, the people are not dying from these boils; they are “afflicted” with them. If not anthrax, what might they have been?

Scholars have pointed out that they cannot be a natural cause from all the rotted flesh of the dead cattle because that would defeat the premise of having a divine causation. Nor is it likely that this is an outbreak of Nile pox, a common disease that caused unbearable itching. The Egyptians might have been used to that, and would have shrugged it off as more of the same.

Other scholars have suggested an outbreak of leprosy, based on the verb parah, which means “break out.” In that sense, this would have been foreshadowed as one of the three signs for Moses (see 4:6-7) since “break out” is used with boils. When Moses performed that sign for the Israelites, they believed. If there is that connection, perhaps it should serve the same purpose for the Egyptians. This plague serves, then, as a warning, but also as an opportunity for the Egyptians. It is time for them to believe as well. Their mortality is on the line. Admittedly, though, the details are slim, and in the absence of additional facts, calling it leprosy might be pretty speculative. Whatever the name of the disease, it develops into open sores, blistering with pustules. One literary connection with the kiln might be the fiery, burning nature of the boils.

The text states, “The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.” The obvious reason is that the boils affected their feet and, literally, caused them to be unable to stand. Yet, their mere presence suggests they are still trying to replicate the plagues with their dark arts. In this case, they cannot even show up. Perhaps, their problem is sore feet, but it is more likely that this is another attack against the religious practices of the Egyptians. Any skin disease would cause major ritual impurities. Cleanliness is integral to the worship of their many gods and goddesses. Uncleanness precludes standing before the gods or being able to participate in any of the ritual ceremonies. Presumably, these boils have affected the priests as well. And once again, the country has been thrown into chaos.

It does not specifically state that the Israelites and their animals are exempt, but the assumption is that this is the case. Pharaoh and all his officials and people and animals are affected.

Lastly, it states, “But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord has spoken to Moses.” That the Lord would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” is an appalling statement, but it cannot be taken out of its contextual setting. On two separate occasions, the Lord has foretold that this would happen (See 4:21; 7.3). On two previous occasions, Pharaoh hardened his own heart (see 8:15, 23). Now, the time has arrived: “The Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart.”

Scholars try to temper this difficult saying by recalling that Pharaoh has already hardened his heart; he has twice promised to Moses that he would let the people go if the plague were removed. The plagues were removed only to have him change his mind. The thinking is that the Lord is simply moving Pharaoh along a pathway that he has already chosen. And, perhaps that is an adequate explanation for many.

But the truth is that from the beginning, this has been a contest between the Lord and Pharaoh. Who has power, and who is in control? Pharaoh is used to having things his own way and to having the power at hand to enforce whatever decision he makes. The Lord has a way of showing him the errors of such thinking. In this instance, the Lord is exercising control. Pharaoh might be thinking that he still has options; he might be exploring disaster plans or recovery strategies. None of that enters into the text. The bottom line is that, right now, he is no longer in charge of his thinking. The Lord is controlling everything, and that includes Pharaoh. Not that there is any reason to think Pharaoh might be on the verge of a change of heart. But the truth is that he cannot, even if it were to cross his mind. The Lord is in charge. The Lord has the power.

To make the point even clearer going forward, the Lord will harden Pharaoh’s heart at will. One should not, however, think that this hardening is permanent or irreversible because the next plague will have Pharaoh hardening his own heart once again. After that, the hardening will have a divine cause. That, of course, means more plagues are on the horizon.