What’s all the Buzz? Exodus 8:16-32

Buzzfeed is a news media company that puts out some of the latest news stories. When you create a BUZZ about something, it means that you’ve got exciting news about a product, or a person, or rumors of something that’s happening.  The next plagues that are about to descend upon Egypt, are also going to create a BUZZ…and it’s exciting all right, but also pretty devastating. 

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats through all the land of Egypt.’” They did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt. Exodus 8:16-17

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Aaron is using his staff once again.  The staff is a symbol of power and magic in Egypt, and Moses and Aaron have staffs that are representing the power of Yahweh!  In Genesis, there is chaos, and then land is created—separate from the water. God creates creatures that will inhabit the water, and then creatures that will inhabit the land.  And from the dust of creation, God creates human beings.  The first plague in Egypt hits the water, then it moves to creatures that come from the water—the fish die, and the frogs come forth; and now the earth and the dust of the earth is going to turn into bugs that come from the dust on the ground. 

Seb is married to Nut, the mother of the gods. In the Egyptian account of creation, the first act of creation was to separate the earth from the waters, and set the sun between the earth and sky, and then make the gods, human beings, and animals.[1] In Egyptian religion, the god Geb, or Seb, was considered god of the surface of the earth.  From the surface of the earth trees, plants, herbs and grain sprung up.  And, as god of the earth, just beneath the surface of the earth, he had authority over the tombs where the dead were laid.  Geb is also one of the gods who watch the weighing of the heart ceremony of the dead in the Judgment Hall of Osiris.[2] 

Sometimes Seb, or Geb, is drawn with a serpent head.[3]  The hieroglyph for the name Geb was a goose, so sometimes he had a goose on his head when he was depicted.  Geb was also believed to be the father of four important Egyptian deities: Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. The pharaohs believed themselves to be descendants of Geb. In fact, the throne of the pharaoh was referred to as “The Throne of Geb.”[4] 

The magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast. Exodus 8:18

This is the first time that the magicians cannot duplicate the phenomenon.  They tried, but they could not. How many times did they try? Were they trying half-heartedly?  Or was there another reason?   Biblical scholars have debated on what these pests are, and it’s been translated this as maggots or mosquitoes[5], which would breed in all the stagnant pools of water left from the flooding,[6] or just a ‘swarm’ of flying insects.[7] Some scholars also believe that this is lice, which is noted in the King James Version and American Standard Version of the text.   

Hundreds of years before Moses and Aaron lived, an Egyptian text listed a remedy for the relief of lice—some potion made with date flour was drunk warm and spit on the lice.[8]  The word seems to indicate something that digs into the skin.  And it’s coming from the dust of the earth, which may be an afront against the earth god, Geb, or Seb.  This pestilence also goes against Egypt’s priests and religious leaders.  Priests were always trying to keep themselves clean and pure, and in Egypt, they would even remove their eyebrows and eyelashes, and shave their bodies.  You may remember that word for magician also has the idea of ‘chief lector priest’, and anything that carries diseases would go against the purity rituals of a priest.[9]  They can’t or WON’T duplicate this plague, perhaps because of cleanliness, or even from humiliation. “BUZZ off, Pharaoh!”

Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.  Exodus 8:19

Whenever a Deity’s finger is pointed at someone, it’s a metaphor for a calamity that is supernatural.[10]  And once again, it’s all about the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God that is going to deliver the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of Egypt. 

In this moment, Yahweh shows himself to be supreme above all other gods.  He is more impressive than all of them.  Pharaoh may be considered a god among other gods in their pantheon, but this is the first time that there is an acknowledgment and recognition of the God of Aaron and Moses.  Another power is at work in the empire.[11]

Now the LORD said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he comes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.  “For if you do not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians will be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they dwell. Exodus 8:20-21

The writing is very intentional here.  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. The word for the flies could mean ‘mixture’.[12]   Some rabbis have interpreted this word to mean wild animals, or beasts that prowl, and have connected it to snakes or scorpions, or even lions or bears.[13]  The picture of the fourth plague in the Golden Haggadah shows Pharaoh being attacked by a lion, a wolf, a bear, a wildcat, and even an angry red squirrel.[14]  Just like the last plague, this ‘mixture’ could mean: “Various kinds of annoying biting and non-biting insects in huge swarms.”[15]  And many translations read, ‘swarms of flies.’

The Golden Haggadah, 14th century, Spain, British Library, Fourth plague-lice, “arov” (wild beasts)

If any of you have ever been to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan during the early summer months, you know what biting insects look like.  Mosquitos, black flies (which are gnat-like), deer flies, horse flies, ticks, and midges are pesky and persistent!  The U.S. National Park Service has warnings and notes for people who dare to venture in the area during this time.  Loose fitting pants and socks are a must, as Stable Flies focus on legs and ankles. 

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

The Stomoxys calcitrans, or stable fly, is a vicious bloodsucking insect that can multiply in large numbers in tropical and subtropical regions.[16] It looks a lot like the common house fly. They may not be deadly, but they can devour a person—in other words, they are insects that can bite![17]  It is a serious pest of livestock and can transmit anthrax and other animal diseases.[18]  (If you’ve read ahead on any of these plagues, you have a hint as to what is coming next.)

Flies in ancient Egypt represented tenacity and courage. Soldiers received pendants with flies on them for their bravery in battles.  A gold chain with three flies was in the tomb of Queen Ahhotep I and is not in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.  Smaller fly pendants are found on mummy beads. Flies made of gold, pottery, glass or precious stones were worn as amulets to protect yourself against flies.[19]

Kenawy, Mohamed & Abdel-Hamid, Yousrya. (2015). Insects in ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt: a review of fauna, their mythological and religious significance and associated diseases. Egyptian Academic Journal of Biological Sciences. A, Entomology. 8. 15-32, 17

Here’s what God says is coming…this is verse 21 and then skipping to the end of 23…“For if you do not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians will be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they dwell…Tomorrow this sign will occur.”’” …Then the LORD did so. And there came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and the houses of his servants and the land was laid waste because of the swarms of flies in all the land of Egypt.  Exodus 8:21, 23b-24

The people of Egypt have no screens on their windows or doors: just openings.  Maybe wealthy Egyptians had cloth to put at the doorways and windows, but even that is pretty unlikely, because of the lack of airflow in a hot climate. Imagine not being able to eat without inhaling an insect, or not being able to sleep without them covering your body.  You can’t work, because you’re constantly swatting, and you have bites everywhere![20]  Flies are tenacious alright.  And these people have been inundated with all kinds of swarming things, which could include gnats, or lice, or mosquitos, and flies.  The land is BUZZING!  But there is definitely something DIFFERENT about this plague than all the previous plagues.  Let’s go back to verse 22.

“But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of flies will be there, in order that you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the land. “I will put a division between My people and your people.  Exodus 8:22-23a

For the first time in the plague stories, there is a distinction made between God and His people.  The Egyptians will be inundated with this mixture of flying creatures.  Pharaoh and his court will not escape.  But the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are spared.  There are many reasons to think that these plagues so far are ‘natural’ occurrences.  The Nile may have had algae in it and looked like blood, which made the fish die, and the frogs come on land, and when the frogs died, the flies came.  But here, the flies only come on the people of Egypt, not on the people of Israel.  Somehow, this is different.  This is GOD’S hand at work to spare his people.  And theologically, it is saying something compelling.  Yahweh has the ability to spare His own people.  Pharaoh doesn’t.[21]  Any notion that Pharaoh had that he is in control is ludicrous.  The BUZZ of his influence and control is wearing off. 

The hand of Yahweh is mightier than all the gods, and the land has been swarming with frogs, flies, and gnats, which are in excessive numbers, and showing up in places that are not assigned to them, according to the created order, or even according to their kinds, in Genesis 1.[22]  God is bringing chaos to the land of Egypt.  But the chaos has one purpose.  To bring out his people.  In verse 22, Yahweh says, “I will set apart the land of Goshen.”   The word for ‘set apart’ and the word for ‘redeem’ has only one letter difference in the Hebrew.[23]  God is setting apart the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as his people, and he is going to redeem them.  He already calls them MY people.  These signs and wonders are as much for the people of Israel as they are for the Egyptians and for Pharaoh.  They are meant to provide evidence and assurance that Yahweh is the God of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God designates a people.  That news is starting to cause a BUZZ.  For the first time, there may be some excitement about what is happening.  The Egyptians get swarmed by the flies, but the people of Israel do not.  God is putting a demarcation line between the people and it’s going to become a more and more marked difference as to whose side God is on, and which god the people decide to trust. 

Does Pharaoh show signs of weakening?  Not quite.  Note: he doesn’t call in his magicians this time, either to duplicate the flies, or try to get rid of them.  They have proved to be incapable of standing up to this God of the Israelites.  So, he tries another tactic. Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.”  Exodus 8:25

On the surface, it might look like Pharaoh is giving in a little.  He says that the people can worship, but it has to be done in Egypt.  God said, let MY people go, but Pharaoh wants to control their worship, and have things happen on HIS turf, and have things carried out in accordance with HIS rules.  Moses doesn’t take the bait.  As the expression goes when someone is shrewd or sharp and can’t be tricked easily: ‘No flies on me’!

But Moses said, “It is not right to do so, for we will sacrifice to the LORD our God what is an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice what is an abomination to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not then stone us? “We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as He commands us.”   Exodus 8:26-27

Moses brings a voice of reason to the conversation.  He knows that Egyptians made sacrifices to their gods, but they detested shepherds and the raising of sheep and goats.[24] It makes sense to go a tiny bit away from the Egyptians in order to sacrifice these animals.  And besides, Yahweh had asked for the people to go to a different location to perform a NATIONAL act of worship.  A three-day-journey—is an idiom for ‘an official, formal, or foreign visit’, and it can carry the overtone of ‘far from here’, or ‘far away.’[25]  Pharaoh understood that because he says: “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away.” (vs28)  

And then he has the gall to say to Moses: Make supplication for me.” Then Moses said, “Behold, I am going out from you, and I shall make supplication to the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people tomorrow; only do not let Pharaoh deal deceitfully again in not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”  Exodus 8:28-29

Pharaoh asks Moses to pray for him again. The first time Moses gave him the honor of picking a time for the frogs to be gone.  This time, Moses says, ‘Okay, I’ll pray, but don’t be a jerk and renege like last time.’

So Moses went out from Pharaoh and made supplication to the LORD. The LORD did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go.  Exodus 8:30-32

Moses prays to God again.  In the last episode with the frogs, Moses cried out to God. It was a cry as if for his own friend, or his people, or his family.  But that word is not found in this text.  I struggled last week with the picture of Moses praying so intensely for his enemy.  It’s the right thing to do.  And it’s what God asks us to do.  But it’s not easy.  And whether or not Moses cries out in this situation with the same fervor, he is still praying for his enemy.  Because Pharaoh asked him to.  And that says a lot.  But once the trouble is gone, Pharaoh goes right back to being his stubborn self.  And he will not let the people go.  This is the first time that it becomes very apparent that God’s people have got to get out of Egypt in order to worship in the way that God wants! 

The finger of God is at work in this story.  God defeats the demons and God designates a people.  There are two kingdoms being delineated here: The kingdom of Pharaoh along with all the gods of Egypt, and God’s kingdom, which he is establishing through the descendants of Abraham.  In Luke’s gospel, chapter 11, Jesus has been performing many signs and wonders—kind of like God does through Moses in Egypt? The crowds are all ABUZZ with excitement about what is happening. Jesus’ opponents, on the other hand, don’t believe that he is actually a messenger from God.  After one case, where a demon is cast out and a mute man begins to speak, some people accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul.  You may find it interesting that the name Beelzebul means, ‘Lord of the flies’.[26]  Hmm.  A possible connection here?  I think so.

Jesus then says to them: “And if by Beelzebul (the Lord of the flies) I cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? So they will be your judges. “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you…He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters.  Luke 11:19-20, 23.

The finger of God is connected to the hand of Jesus.  The God of Exodus is alive and well.[27]  Through Jesus, God breaks through into creation to reclaim humanity from Satan’s grip.[28]  In Jesus, God defeats the demons and God designates a people.  God was at work in ancient Egypt, using signs and wonders to display his power.  Jesus displayed the finger of God at work, using signs and wonders to show that the kingdom of heaven was arriving.  The magicians in Egypt acknowledge the finger of God, but they do not bend the knee or worship Yahweh.  They were trying to be cleansed and pure by their actions, but their hearts were turned towards other gods.   God is still defeating demons, and he is still designating a people that will come out from the practices of this world in order to worship him.  Our worship can’t be done in the way that we want.   Pharaoh wanted to keep the people close to him and have them do their worship practices alongside the other Egyptians.  But that was not what God had commanded.  And the same finger of God that brought the plague of flies on the Egyptians, is the finger that wrote upon the tablets of stone that were given to Moses:[29] the commandments that were to be standards to live by, summed up by Jesus as: Love God, and love your neighbor.  The holiness of God demands that we worship him correctly, too.  Not by shaving our heads or taking ritual baths, but by having pure hearts, that are fully devoted to him. Let’s pray for that.

PRAYER:  Creator God, we acknowledge you this morning as the one true creator of this world. You made day and night, the seas and plants, the sun and moon, the swarms of living creatures, and humankind in your image.  You reigned on earth as King, until humans chose to rule themselves and brought chaos and discord to this good earth, your good systems, and to relationships.  This morning we thank you for calling out a people to follow you.  You called Abraham and his descendants and showed your power with signs and wonders.  You led your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.  You are the King of glory—the Lord Almighty.  You sent your Son to be King of kings.   We celebrate his victory in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  We confess that we have not always bent our knees to his rule.  We confess that our hands are not clean, our hearts are not pure.  Once again, we hear your call to come out and assemble as your people.  We thank you for raising up men and women to live and die in faith, and for the faithful witness of apostles, and prophets like Moses, and that through them you display your strength, you defeat the demons, and you designate a people who will worship you.   Keep us faithful, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, may we grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to the praise of your holy name, and for the glory of your eternal kingdom.  Amen. 

Going Deeper Questions

–Have you ever gone to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan during the summer?  Have you ever been attacked by stable flies, mosquitos or midges anywhere else? 

Read Exodus 8:16-19

–The word for gnats in this text could also be lice.  By this time Pharaoh’s magicians draw a correct conclusion. What is it? (v18-19)

–In verse 19 the Egyptian magicians are able to see God at work and Pharaoh is not.

What might be keeping Pharaoh from admitting this?  Does this tell you anything about Pharaoh’s resolve, or his belief in the strength of the gods he trusts in? What do you think keeps people today from seeing God’s action in the world?

–Read Exodus 31:18What does the finger of God do in this text?

Read Exodus 8:20-24

–What is different between this plague and the previous plagues? (v22)

–How do you think the people of Israel felt about that?  What effect would it have on their morale? 

–Pharaoh’s houses, courts and fields have been inundated with animals that were invading his space.  How would you rate his frustration at this point?  How do you think Pharaoh’s obstinance is resonating with the people of Egypt right now? 

Read Exodus 8:25-28

–How does this differ from Yahweh’s original command to Pharaoh?  (vs25, and Exodus 5:1-3).  What might Pharaoh’s intent be behind this compromise and counteroffer (vs28)?  How do you think most political leaders would have responded to this offer?  Would you consider Moses’ reason for saying no reasonable?  Why or why not? 

Read Exodus 8:28b-29

–What is Pharaoh’s request? How does Moses respond?  

–How do you feel when someone has gone back on their word?  Is it easy to pray for those kinds of people in your life?  Have you always kept your promises to others? 

Read Exodus 8:30-32

–Pharaoh continues to harden his heart to God, even with multiple signs and wonders.  It’s ongoing reminder to us to keep our hearts soft and open to God’s Word to us.

Read Luke 11:14-23

The name Beelzebul means, “Lord of the Flies.”  Note the connections here in imagery as Jesus performs signs (like Moses performs signs), and the mention of ‘the finger of God’.  Luke is connecting the God of Exodus to the work of Jesus, who has come to rescue humanity from Satan’s grip. 


[1] E. A. Wallis Budge, Gods of the Egyptians, London: Methuen & Co. 1904, 105.

[2] Budge, 94-95. 

[3] Budge, 105.

[4] https://egyptianmuseum.org/deities-geb

[5] Robert Altar, The Five Books of Moses, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 354. 

[6] John Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary-Old Testament; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000, 83.

[7] John I Durham, Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Waco: Word Books, 1987, 107. 

[8] Kostas Y. Mumcuoglu, Joseph Zias, How the Ancients DeLoused themselves, Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1989, Volume: 15, Issue: 6, 66.

[9] Plague Narratives in Exodus 7-11, The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, 22 no 1 Fall 1994, 1-17, 12.

[10] William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, 328. 

[11] Klingbeil, Gerald A, The finger of God in the Old Testament, Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 112 no 3 2000, 409-415, 414.

[12] Gary A. Rendsburg, Beasts or Bugs? Solving the Problem of the Fourth Plague, Bible Review, April, 2003, 19-23, 20.

[13] https://www.livescience.com/58638-science-of-the-10-plagues.html

[14] Gary A. Rendsburg, 20.

[15] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 214.

[16] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991, 42. 

[17] Propp, 328. 

[18] Patra, Gautam & Behera, Parthasarathi & Das, Samares & Saikia, Basanta & Ghosh, Subhamoy & Biswas, Papia & Kumar, Ajit & Alam, Seikh & Kawlni, Lallianpuii & Lalnunpuia, C & Lalchhandama, C & Bachan, Madhurendra & Debbarma, Apurba. (2018). Stomoxys calcitrans and its importance in livestock: a review.

[19] Kenawy, Mohamed & Abdel-Hamid, Yousrya. (2015). Insects in ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt: a review of fauna, their mythological and religious significance and associated diseases. Egyptian Academic Journal of Biological Sciences. A, Entomology. 8. 15-32, 15, 17. 

[20] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 215, 216. 

[21] https://rts.edu/resources/the-third-and-forth-plagues-gnats-and-flies/

[22] Li, Chichang, Genesis 1 and the plagues tradition in Psalm 105, Vetus testamentum, 40 no 3 Jul 1990, 257-263, 260.

[23] John Goldingay, Exodus & Leviticus for everyone, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010, 43.

[24] Genesis 46:34

[25] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 218. 

[26] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994, 209.

[27] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 2004, 138.

[28] Bock, 210. 

[29] Exodus 31:18

2 thoughts on “What’s all the Buzz? Exodus 8:16-32

  1. A very interesting post.
    We lived in Muskoka, Canada, and there were lots of black flies and mosquitos.
    We live by the sea now, where the air seems to be too salty for the little pests. ⚘🤗

    Like

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