Exodus 8:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1 4. The announcement of the plague to the Pharaoh, from J.
1 15. The second plague. Frogs come up out of the Nile. The narrative consists of J and P only, without any traces of E.
The first nine Plagues
The narrative of the Plagues, like that of the preceding chapters, is composite. The details of the analysis depend partly upon literary criteria, partly upon differences in the representation, which are not isolated, but recurrent, and which moreover accompany the literary differences and support the conclusions based upon them, the differences referred to often also agreeing remarkably with corresponding differences in the parts of the preceding narrative, especially in Exo 3:1 to Exo 7:13, which have already, upon independent grounds, been assigned to P, J, and E, respectively. No one source, however, it should be premised, in the parts of it that have been preserved, gives all the plagues.
The parts belonging to P are most readily distinguished, viz. (after Exo 7:8-13) Exo 7:19-20 a, 21b 22, Exo 8:5-7; Exo 8:15 b 19, Exo 9:8-12, Exo 11:9-10: the rest of the narrative belongs in the main to J, the hand of E being hardly traceable beyond Exo 7:15; Exo 7:17 b, 20 b, Exo 9:22-23 a, 31 32 (perhaps), 35a, Exo 10:12-13 a, 14 a, 15 b, 20, 21 23, 27, Exo 11:1-3.
Putting aside for the present purely literary differences, we have thus a threefold representation of the plagues, corresponding to the three literary sources, P, J, and E, of which the narrative is composed. The differences relate to not less than five or six distinct points, the terms of the command addressed to Moses, the part taken by Aaron, the demand made of the Pharaoh, the use made of the rod, the description of the plague, and the formulae used to express the Pharaoh’s obstinacy. Thus in P Aaron co-operates with Moses, and the command is Say unto Aaron (Exo 7:19, Exo 8:5; Exo 8:16; so before in Exo 7:9: even in Exo 9:8, where Moses alone is to act, both are expressly addressed); there is no interview with the Pharaoh, so that no demand is ever made for Israel’s release; the descriptions are brief; except in Exo 9:10, Aaron is the wonder-worker, bringing about the result by stretching out his rod at Moses’ direction (Exo 7:19, Exo 8:5 f., 16 f.; cf. Exo 7:9); the wonders wrought (‘signs and portents,’ Exo 7:3: P does not speak of them as ‘plagues’) are intended less to break down the Pharaoh’s resistance than to accredit Moses as Jehovah’s representative; they thus take substantially the form of a contest with the native magicians, who are mentioned only in this narrative (Exo 7:11 f., 22, Exo 8:7; Exo 8:18 f., Exo 9:11), and who at first do the same things by their arts, but in the end are completely defeated; the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed by ḥâzaḳ ḥizzçḳ ( was strong, made strong), Exo 7:22, Exo 8:19, Exo 9:12, Exo 11:10 (Son 7:13), and the closing formula is, and he hearkened not unto them, as Jehovah had spoken, Exo 7:22, Exo 8:15 b, 19, Exo 9:12 (Son 7:13). In J, on the contrary, Moses one (without Aaron) is told to go in before the Pharaoh, and he addresses the Pharaoh himself (in agreement with Exo 4:10-16, where Aaron is appointed to be Moses’ spokesman not with Pharaoh, as in P, but with the people), Exo 7:14-16, Exo 8:1; Exo 8:9-10; Exo 8:20; Exo 8:26; Exo 8:29, Exo 9:1; Exo 9:13; Exo 9:29, Exo 10:1; Exo 10:9; Exo 10:25, Exo 11:4-10  ; a formal demand is regularly made, Let my people go, that they may serve me, Exo 7:16, Exo 8:1; Exo 8:20, Exo 9:1; Exo 9:13, Exo 10:3 (comp. before, Exo 4:23); the interview with the Pharaoh is prolonged, and described in some detail; Jehovah Himself brings the plague, after it has been announced by Moses, usually on the morrow, Exo 8:23, Exo 9:5 f., 18, Exo 10:4, without any mention of Aaron or his rod; sometimes the king sends for Moses and Aaron to crave their intercession, Exo 8:8; Exo 8:25, Exo 9:27, Exo 10:16; the plague is removed, as it is brought, without any human intervention; the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is expressed by kâbçd, hikbîd ( was heavy, made heavy), Exo 7:14, Exo 8:15; Exo 8:32, Exo 9:7; Exo 9:34, Exo 10:1; and there is no closing formula: J also, unlike both P and E, represents the Israelites as living apart from the Egyptians, in the land of Goshen, Exo 8:22, Exo 9:26 (so before, Gen 45:10; Gen 46:28 f., &c.). The narrative generally is written (just as it is in Genesis, for instance) in a more picturesque and varied style than that of P; there are frequent descriptive touches, and the dialogue is abundant.
 Aaron, if he appears at all, is only Moses’ silent companion, Exo 8:8; Exo 8:12 (see vv. 9, 10), 25 (see vv. 26, 29), Exo 9:27 (see v. 29), Exo 10:8 (see v. 9). In Exo 10:3 it is doubtful if the plural, ‘and they said,’ is original: notice in v. 6b ‘and he turned.’
Some other, chiefly literary, characteristics of J may also be here noticed: refuseth ( מאן ), esp. followed by to let the people go, Exo 7:14, Exo 8:2, Exo 9:2, Exo 10:3-4 (so before Exo 4:23); the God of the Heb 7:16 ; Heb 9:1 ; Heb 9:13 ; Heb 10:3 (so Exo 3:18; Exo 5:3); Thus saith Jehovah, said regularly to Pharaoh, Exo 7:17, Exo 8:1; Exo 8:20, Exo 9:1; Exo 9:13, Exo 10:3, Exo 11:4 (so Exo 4:22); behold … with the participle (in the Heb.) in the announcement of the plague Exo 7:17, Exo 8:2; Exo 8:21, Exo 9:3; Exo 9:18, Exo 10:4 (so Exo 4:23); border, Exo 8:2, Exo 10:4; Exo 10:14; Exo 10:19; thou, thy people, and thy servants, Exo 8:3, Exodus 4, 9, 11, 21, 29, Exo 9:14 (see the note), cf. Exo 10:6; to intreat, Exo 8:8-9; Exo 8:28-29, Exo 9:28, Exo 10:17; such as hath not been, &c. Exo 9:18 b, 24 b, Exo 11:6 b, cf. Exo 10:6 b, 14 b; to sever, Exo 8:22, Exo 9:4, Exo 11:7; the didactic aim or object of the plague (or circumstance attending it) stated, Exo 7:17 a, Exo 8:10 b, 22 b, Exo 9:14 b, 16 b, 29 c, Exo 10:2 b, Exo 11:7 b.
The narrative of E has been only very partially preserved; so it is not possible to characterize it as fully as those of P or J. Its most distinctive feature is that Moses is the wonder-worker, bringing about the plague by his rod (in agreement with Exo 4:17; Exo 4:20 b, where it is said to have been specially given to him by God), Exo 7:15 b, 17 b, 20 b, Exo 9:23 a, Exo 10:13 a (cf. afterwards, Exo 14:16, Exo 17:5; Exo 17:9); only in the case of the darkness (Exo 10:21 f.) does he use his hand for the purpose. This feature differentiates E from both P (with whom the wonder-working rod is in Aaron’s hand), and J (who mentions no rod, and represents the plague as brought about directly, after Moses’ previous announcement of it, by Jehovah Himself). E uses the same word be or make strong, for ‘harden,’ that P does, but he follows the clause describing the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart by the words, and he did not let the children of Israel (or them) go, Exo 9:35 (contrast J’s phrase, v. 34b), Exo 10:20; Exo 10:27 (cf. Exo 4:21 E). He also pictures the Israelites, not, as J does, as living apart in Goshen, but as having every one an Egyptian ‘neighbour’ (Exo 3:2, Exo 11:2, Exo 12:35 f.), and consequently as settled promiscuously among the Egyptians.
The scheme, or framework, of the plagues, as described by P, J, and E, is thus suggestively exhibited by Bäntsch:
In P we have
And Jehovah said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod …, and there shall be.… And they did so: and Aaron stretched out his rod, and there was.… And the magicians did so ( or could not do so) with their secret arts.… And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened; and he hearkened not unto them, as Jehovah had spoken.
J’s formula is quite different
And Jehovah said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go that they may serve me. And if thou refuse to let them go, behold I will.… And Jehovah did so; and there came ( or and he sent, &c.).… And Pharaoh called for Moses, and said unto him, Entreat for me, that.… And Jehovah did so …, and removed.… But Pharaoh made his heart heavy, and he did not let the people go.
The formula of E is again different
And Jehovah said unto Moses, Stretch forth thy hand (with thy rod) toward …, that there may be.… And Moses stretched forth his hand ( or his rod) toward …, and there was.… But Jehovah made Pharaoh’s heart hard, and he did not let the children of Israel go.
It has long since been remarked by commentators that the plagues stand in close connexion with the actual conditions of Egypt; and were in fact just miraculously intensified forms of the diseases or other natural occurrences to which Egypt is more or less liable (see particulars in the notes on the different plagues). They were of unexampled severity; they came, and in some cases went, at the announcement, or signal, given by one of the Hebrew leaders; one followed another with unprecedented swiftness; in other respects also they are represented as having an evidently miraculous character.
What judgement, however, are we to form with regard to their historical character? The narratives, there are strong reasons for believing, were written long after the time of Moses, and do not do more than acquaint us with the traditions current among the Hebrews at the time when they were written: we consequently have no guarantee that they preserve exact recollections of the actual facts. That there is no basis of fact for the traditions which the narratives incorporate is in the highest degree improbable: we may feel very sure of this, and yet not feel sure that they describe the events exactly as they happened. ‘As the original nucleus of fact,’ writes Dillm. (p. 66 f., ed. 2, p. 77), ‘we may suppose that at the time of Israel’s deliverance Egypt was visited by various adverse natural occurrences, which the Israelites ascribed to the operation of their God, and by which their leaders, Moses and Aaron, sought to prove to the Egyptian court the superiority of their God above the king and gods of Egypt; it must however be admitted that in the Israelitish story ( Sage) these occurrences had for long been invested with a purely miraculous character. And if all had once been lifted up into the sphere of God’s unlimited power, the compiler could feel no scruple in combining the different plagues mentioned in his sources into a series of ten, in such a manner as to depict, in a picture drawn with unfading colours, not only the abundance of resources which God has at His disposal for helping His own people, and humiliating those who resist His will, but also the slow and patient yet sure steps with which He proceeds against His foes, and the growth of evil in men till it becomes at last obstinate and confirmed.’ The real value of the narratives, according to Dillmann, is thus not historical, but moral and religious. And from these points of view their typical and didactic significance cannot be overrated. The traditional story of the contest between Moses and the Pharaoh is applied so as to depict, to use Dillmann’s expression, ‘in unfading colours,’ the impotence of man’s strongest determination when it essays to contend with God, and the fruitlessness of all human efforts to frustrate His purposes.
Dr Sanday, whose historical bias, if he has one, always leads him to conservative conclusions, has expressed himself recently on the subject, in an essay on the Symbolism of the Bible, in words which are well worth quoting: ‘The early chapters of Genesis are not the only portion of the Pentateuchal history to which I think that we may rightly apply the epithet “symbolical.” Indeed I suspect that the greater part of the Pentateuch would be rightly so described in greater or less degree. The narrative of the Pentateuch culminates in two great events, the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law from Mount Sinai. What are we to say of these? Are they historical in the sense in which the Second Book of Samuel is historical? I think we may say that they are not. If we accept as I at least feel constrained to accept at least in broad outline the critical theory now so widely held as to the composition of the Pentateuch, then there is a long interval, an interval of some four centuries or more, between the events and the main portions of the record as we now have it. In such a case we should expect to happen just what we find has happened. There is an element of folk-lore, of oral tradition insufficiently checked by writing. The imagination has been at work.
‘If we compare, for instance, the narrative of the Ten Plagues with the narrative of the Revolt of Absalom, we shall feel the difference. The one is nature itself, with all the flexibility and easy sequence that we associate with nature. The other is constructed upon a scheme which is so symmetrical that we cannot help seeing that it is really artificial. I do not mean artificial in the sense that the writer, with no materials before him, sat down consciously and deliberately to invent them in the form they now have; but I mean that, as the story passed from mouth to mouth, it gradually and almost imperceptibly assumed its present shape’ ( The Life of Christ in recent Research, 1907, p. 18f.).
The ‘Plagues’ are denoted by the following terms:
(1) maggçphâh, properly a severe blow, Exo 9:14 J (see the note).
(2) néga‘, a heavy touch or stroke, Exo 11:1 E (see the note).
(3) négeph (cognate with No. 1), a severe blow, Exo 12:13 P (by implication, of the tenth plague only).
Nos 2 and 3 of these are rendered in LXX. πληγή , and Nos. 1, 2, 3 in the Vulg. plaga: hence the Engl. plague.
They are also spoken of as:
(4) ’ôthôth, signs, LXX. σημεῖα (proofs of God’s power), Exo 8:23 J, Exo 10:1-2 J or the compiler of JE, Exo 7:3 P; probably also in Exo 4:17; Exo 4:28 E. Cf. Num 14:11; Num 14:22 (JE); also σημεῖα in the NT.
In Exo 4:8-9; Exo 4:30 (all J) the same word is used, not of the ‘plagues,’ but of ‘signs’ to be wrought, or, in v. 30, actually wrought, before the Pharaoh, to accredit Moses, as Jehovah’s representative. In Exo 4:17; Exo 4:28, the reference might be similarly, not to the ‘plagues,’ but to the antecedent credentials, to be given by Moses.
(5) môphĕthim, portents, LXX. τέρατα (unusual phaenomena, arresting attention, and calling for explanation: see on Exo 4:21; and cf. Act 2:43, &c.), Exo 7:3, Exo 11:9-10 (all P); also, probably, Exo 4:21 E.
In Exo 7:9 P the same word is used, not of one of the ‘plagues,’ but of the preliminary portent of Aaron’s rod becoming a serpent, wrought before Pharaoh.
(6) niphlâ’ôth, wonders or marvels (extraordinary phaenomena), Exo 3:20 J.
N.B. In EVV., No. 5 is in Ex. confused with No. 6; elsewhere in the OT. it is confused with both No. 4 and No. 6 (cf. on Exo 4:21).
Consult other comments:
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".