Exodus 8:16-32: Gnats, Flies, and Distinction
Exodus 8:16-32 tells us about yet another of the mighty acts of judgment, this time involving gnats and flies. Remember, all of these judgments are part of a power contest between Yahweh and Pharaoh over
So far Aaron’s staff has been turned into a snake that has swallowed the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Nile has been turned into blood, and frogs have been brought up from the Nile to cover the land. So far Pharaoh’s magicians have been able to duplicate (though not reverse) everything that Moses has done. With the judgment of turning the dust/soil of the land into gnats a new development takes place: the magicians cannot perform this one. They try and they fail. The magicians are reduced to the report, “This is the finger of God.” While the magicians recognize the presence of One more powerful than they, Pharaoh does not heed their announcement. His heart is hard.
Next Yahweh sends Moses to Pharaoh with the now standard refrain, “Thus says the LORD, let my people go so that they may worship me!” If Pharaoh does not comply (and he doesn’t), he and all Egypt will be hit with a swarm of flies (and they are). There is a new development in this judgment as well. For the first time Yahweh informs Pharaoh that the flies will swarm only on the Egyptians. In the land of Goshen, where the Israelites live, which is within Egypt, there will be no flies. Yahweh is making a distinction between his people and Pharaoh’s people. The flies will not touch Yahweh’s people. According to 8:22, Yahweh makes this distinction “so that you will know that I, Yahweh, am in this land.”
“So that you will know that I, Yahweh, am in this land.” This is a gripping statement. Realize that even though this is the fourth act of judgment, the Israelites are still in slavery, still having to gather straw and make bricks, still being beaten for failing to meet the daily quota. The text has informed us of no changes in their situation. Moses has been having these conversations with Pharaoh, performing these signs, but still there has been no relief for the people. Their oppression continues.
Furthermore, Pharaoh is still firmly in charge. It is still his signature that is required for a pass out of Egypt. He still determines who can come and who can go. His word still holds sway; his is still the word that matters. Pharaoh is the one making a distinction between his people and the Israelites, a distinction that has seen Hebrew baby boys thrown into the Nile, a distinction that has made slaves out of the Hebrews, a distinction that continues to leave Israel at Pharaoh’s disposal. In short, Pharaoh is still the Pharaoh of the land and the Israelites are still the slaves of Pharaoh.
But now the LORD is going to make a distinction between his people and Pharaoh’s “so that you will know that I, Yahweh, am in this land.” While the address is to Pharaoh, I cannot help but wonder when the Israelites started to believe that Yahweh was indeed in the land of Pharaoh and working their liberation.
Can you feel the inbetweeness of the Israelites? In terms of their daily routines, nothing has changed. Life is still bitter slavery. But they have no doubt been hearing about, if not witnessing, these judgments that have been coming by the word of Moses. And now Yahweh is going to deliver a judgment in which Yahweh makes the distinction between Israel and Pharaoh’s people. Yahweh’s distinguishing act will demonstrate that Yahweh is indeed in the land to liberate His people.
And yet still the people are having to get up and go out every morning to gather straw and make bricks for Pharaoh. Their liberation is still in the distance, and possibly many Israelites cannot yet see it. It’s hard to look up and see what’s coming when Pharaoh keeps beating you down with insults, commands, and whips. But Yahweh is in the land! Pharaoh is still giving orders, but Yahweh is in the land, making a distinction. Pharaoh still rules, the Israelites still feel the harsh reality of Pharaoh’s rule, but Yahweh the Liberator is in the land - not up in heaven enthroned above, not out in the desert at the burning bush, not in the land of Canaan where he sojourned with Abraham, but in the land of Egypt. Yahweh is in Pharaoh’s land! And Yahweh is making a distinction.
What we have here is an “already, not yet” scenario. Yahweh is already in the land working liberation, but the work is not yet complete - there are still six more judgments to come, to be concluded with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (see The Yam Suph: “Red Sea” or “Sea of Reeds”?). The judgments dare Israel to believe that there is going to be a day of exodus even though it has not yet arrived, even though they are yet in bondage, even though there is not a whole lot of change to which they can point. Yahweh is in the land, speaking their liberation with mighty acts of judgment. Can they hear the voice of Yahweh? Do they realize they have a future because of the presence of Yahweh? Or are they still overwhelmed by Pharaoh’s words?
I imagine that many Israelites simply could not conceive of a world not determined by Pharaoh. They could not conceive of being anything except what Pharaoh said they would be. But I also imagine that when Egypt was hit with flies while Goshen remained fly-free some of the Israelites began to recognize that Yahweh was in the land working their freedom. They began to imagine life under a new word, the word of Yahweh and not the word of Pharaoh. They started to see the day of exodus. And when that vision took hold of them, I can see them going out to their slave labor singing songs of thanksgiving and praise to Yahweh - not because they enjoyed where they were, but because on the day when there was no flies they caught a glimpse of the day that was coming, a day when there would be no Pharaoh to satisfy.
Yahweh really was in the land, and the vision of Yahweh’s future transformed their present, so that they could go out with an invading joy. Even though they were not yet free, they could already start rejoicing in their freedom, because Yahweh was in the land making a distinction on their behalf.
We live in this same “already, not yet” tension. Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is the bringer of the Kingdom. The whole New Testament witnesses that Jesus brought the Kingdom, but also that it is not yet here in its fullness. The consummation of the Kingdom will take place when Jesus comes in all of his glory.
We live between the comings of Jesus, experiencing simultaneously the already of the gift of his Spirit and the not yet of our resurrection and complete transformation. While Jesus is Lord, the prince of this world is still giving orders. There is yet much oppression, injustice, and bitter labor. Pharaohs are innumerable. But the good news is that the Kingdom has come, that Yahweh is in the land in the person of Jesus.
By coming in the person of Jesus, Yahweh has sided with all of humanity, seeking to liberate His creation from sin. And within that siding with humanity further distinctions are made to liberate the oppressed and lift up the downtrodden, to bring peace and justice to those torn by strife and wrong. Also, a distinction is being made on behalf of those who follow Jesus - they are marked with the Spirit of Jesus, who serves as a down payment that God has worked/is working our ultimate liberation-salvation-transformation-resurrection. And still more, the Spirit empowers the followers of Jesus to live out the Kingdom life here and now, in the very land of the Pharaohs.
What I find the plagues doing as I go through them is demanding decision. With each judgment the question comes back: Pharaoh or Yahweh? It is not just about who is more powerful, but about whose word I am going to embrace, whose word is going to shape me. Pharaoh’s word cannot be trusted - he says yes but then he says no. But when Yahweh tells Moses something, it is as good as done. Moses knows that you can stand on the word of Yahweh, even before Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s word is oppressive. Yahweh’s word is liberating. Pharaoh’s word nullifies a future. Yahweh’s word creates a future.
Whose word are you listening to? Whose word do you believe? Whose word is shaping your life? Can you see the finger of God in your life? Do you resist, or are you open to what God is doing? The word of the LORD is the word of life. Don’t be squeezed by Pharaoh’s words into this world’s mold for you, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind through the word of the LORD. You will see that you have a future, and it will transform your present. The LORD is in the land. Give heed to his word. The Kingdom in its fullness awaits.
May you live out of the Lord’s distinction on your behalf.