Exodus 9: Thunder, Hail, and Fire

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This is the first plague of the third series and one of the longest narratives. Like plagues 1 and 4 of the first and second series, God says to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh.” Moses is to say to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” The instructions and request are virtually identical to other opening sequences, but this time the Lord continues.

Moses is to say, “For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” This is one of the few times the word “plagues” is used for these events. It is called a plague because for the first time there will be loss of human life. And, they are not “all” in the sense that the conflict is over, but a clear indication that the ante is being upped. It is also the fourth time that the Lord says he wants them to “know” him. He is Lord in all the earth. Some translations read: “I will send all my blows upon your heart.” This could indicate the plagues will touch Pharaoh personally in his heart, or they will be another reason for him to harden his heart. Both scenarios will be true soon enough.

Moses continues speaking for the Lord, “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.” This might be new information for Pharaoh, but it is certainly a poorly kept secret. Anyone who is able to manipulate all aspects of creation with a single word clearly has the power to follow through with total destruction. Essentially, God reveals that He has been holding back—(this is why I have let you live) because I want to “show you my power and to make my name resound through all the earth.” This has always been the goal: to make God’s name known to all. But it also means that Pharaoh has had a role to play in God’s ultimate plan.

Then God chastises Pharaoh for his obstinacy: “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” The irony and basic foolishness of this position is revealed in light of what God has just stated. But, it could also be connected to what follows. Because Pharaoh is still exalting himself, God says “tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now.”

Hail has been known to fall in Egypt, but it is a rarity. It is formed when strong currents of air carry water droplets high into the atmosphere. The longer the current keeps it in the air, the bigger the hail. Eventually, it is too big to be held up, and then it just falls to the ground. The bigger the hail, the faster it falls. Marble sized hail might fall at 20 mph, while baseball-sized hail can exceed speeds of 100 mph. One assumes from this account that the hail was larger rather than smaller. The heavens will open at God’s command, illustrating once again the involvement of all creation. Hail has frequently been seen as an act of God’s judgment.

Another first for this plague event is the offer of protection. Pharaoh is told that everything in the open field should be taken indoors, and that includes people. Any “humans or animals that are in the open field and are not brought under shelter will die when the hail comes down upon them.” Considering that most of the animals have already been killed in previous plagues, the Egyptians should have been taking great care regarding the remaining cattle. Indeed, those Egyptians that “feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place.” It might be an indication that at least some of the Egyptians are beginning to “know” the Israelites’ God and have chosen to act accordingly. Of course, there are also those who turned a deaf ear to the warning and left their slaves and livestock “in the open field.” No percentages are given for either group. Nor is it known whether Pharaoh heeded this advice and brought in his slaves and livestock.

The following day, the Lord instructs Moses: “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that hail may fall on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the plants of the land.” The word for “plants” is the same word used in the creation stories, once again providing a literary connection showing that plants are included in the undoing of creation.

When Moses stretched out his hand, “the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire came down on the earth.” Literally translated, “thunder” reads “the voice of God.” A better reading might be that the Lord sent “mighty thunderings.” Thunder is frequently seen as a symbol of God’s voice. This will be especially true at Sinai. One might poetically assume that God is now speaking directly to the Egyptians through His mighty thunderings.

Along with the thunder, hail rained down on the land “with fire flashing continually in the midst of it.” “Fire” probably refers to lightning flashes. “Such heavy hail had never fallen in all the land of Egypt” since it had been founded as a country. “The hail struck down everything that was in the open field throughout all the land of Egypt, both human and animal; the hail also struck down all the plants of the field, and shattered (stripped/smashed) every tree in the field.” The word “struck” can also mean kill. It is harsh, indicating total destruction. One side note, of course, is that now there will no longer be any available straw for brickmaking leading scholars to suggest that this might be some form of retribution against Pharaoh’s previous orders.

And once again, this can be seen as an attack on a myriad of Egyptian gods. Ra, as the sun god, is totally shut out by the storm. They have goddesses of the sky, gods for the rain, and specifically gods for crops and harvests. The destructive storm is a howling witness to the feebleness and impotency of these many gods.

Of course, the land of Goshen is totally exempt. No hail falls there. Because of its location to the east of the delta, scholars believe different air currents could have protected the entire area. The Israelites, however, are sure to see this as the hand of God protecting them.

It is not clear how long the hailstorm lasts before Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron. He says to them, “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” This is legal language that is akin to pleading guilty. The question remains whether or not this is a genuine confession.

He follows by saying to Moses, “Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go: you need to stay no longer.” Though translated differently the word “send” has been sprinkled throughout this narrative. Here he sends for Moses and hopefully will send the Israelites out for worship. Moses says that once they are out of the city, he “will stretch out his hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s.” How Moses intends to get out of the city safely through this horrible hailstorm is not a concern of the text. Nor does Moses seem totally convinced as he says, “But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.”

The narrator adds a side note: “(Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they are late in coming up.)” Scholars believe this provides a clue regarding the season. Flax and barley are generally harvested in March with wheat and spelt being about a month later. This storm, then, probably took place late January or early February when the plants had flowered but were not yet ready to harvest. Flax is used both for food and clothing. Craftsmen would have spun the flax into fine linen for the priests, providing yet another subtle attack against their religious practices. It was also used to wrap mummies. Barley is an important food source for everyone. Both crops have now been decimated.

So Moses left Pharaoh, “went out of the city, and stretched out his hands to the Lord; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured down on the earth. But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials.” Clearly, Pharaoh’s change of heart was temporary: “He sinned once more.”

So the heart of Pharaoh was “hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” Indeed, his response is no longer a surprise for the Lord has foretold all this to Moses from the beginning. Pharaoh is, apparently, unfazed by the power of the Lord as soon as the danger has passed. It is a decision that will soon touch him in an unforgettable way.