16 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” 17 And they did so. 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 in all the land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 8:16-19 ESV
God was not done. The water of the Nile had been turned to blood and then from this putrid source had come millions, if not billions, of frogs that filled every nook and cranny of Egypt. They were everywhere and in everything. But at Pharaoh’s request, the frogs were miraculously eliminated, dying n the spot and leaving the Egyptians with a huge environmental clean-up operation to conduct.
And it seems that about the time the dead and decaying bodies of the frogs were removed, another divine judgment was waiting in the wings. Once again, God gave His instructions to Moses, who then passed them on to Aaron.
“Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” – Exodus 8:16 ESV
While the blood-filled Nile posed a problem for the Egyptians, it was only seven days in duration. Soon, the fresh water returned and the people were able to slake their thirst. And the epidemic of frogs lasted for a short period of time and then completely dissipated with their mass extinction.
But what happened next was something different altogether. This plague took things to a personal level. Rather than being inconvenienced by contaminated water or the uncomfortable presence of hideous frogs, the Egyptians were going to experience real pain. God was sending a horde of insects to make their lives miserable.
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 in all the land of Egypt. – Exodus 8:17 ESV
The Hebrew word that in English appears as “gnats” is כִּנִּים (kinnim), and it has been translated a variety of different ways, including as “lice, gnats, ticks, flies, fleas, or mosquitoes.” It is unclear exactly what kind of insect is being described, but it seems clear that, whatever they were, they were prolific and painful. Their comparison to dust suggests that they were both small in size and staggering in terms of their number. The New Living Translation states that they “infested the entire land, covering the Egyptians and their animals” (Exodus 8:17 NLT). And would appear that these tiny creatures were more than a nuisance. They were actually painful, delivering either a bite or sting that made the lives of the Egyptians and their livestock miserable.
They were “. . . a species of gnats, so small as to be hardly visible to the eye, but with a sting which, according to Philo and Origin, causes a most painful irritation of the skin. They even creep into the eyes and nose, and after the harvest they rise in great swarms from the inundated rice fields. – C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch
These creatures were invasive and pervasive, and they were indiscriminate in terms of their attack. The rich and poor suffered alike. Pharaoh himself was not immune from their presence and he could do nothing to escape the frustrating nature of their relentless torment.
It seems readily apparent that their vast number was meant as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Israelites’ prolific explosion in during their time in Egypt. The opening chapter of the book established the staggering growth of Israel’s population while they were living in the land of Goshen.
…they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land. – Exodus 1:7 NLT
As with the Israelites, so with the gnats. They filled the land and proved to be a threat to the Egyptians’ way of life. And, as before, Pharaoh’s magicians attempted to replicate this supernatural sign by trying to conjure up even more gnats.
Pharaoh’s magicians tried to do the same thing with their secret arts, but this time they failed. And the gnats covered everyone, people and animals alike. – Exodus 8:8 NLT
The irony in this should not be missed. These men had also been able to turn water into blood and produce their own swarm of frogs. But this time, they were completely incapable of making more gnats. It seems odd that they would even try, but they were desperate to do anything to bring into question the power of Moses and Aaron.
It is almost as if God was letting them know that when it comes divine to judgment, He needed no help. He was fully capable of making more than enough gnats to accomplish His divine purpose. Stimied in their attempt to duplicate Aaron’s sign, they turned to Pharaoh and confessed, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:19 NLT).
They knew they were beaten and by whom. The reason for their choice of the word “finger” has occasioned many theories, none of which is entirely satisfying. At the least their statement highlights that the plague was accomplished by God with majestic ease and effortlessness. Perhaps the reason that they could not do this was that it involved producing life—from the dust of the ground, as in Genesis 2:7. The creative power of God confounded the magic of the Egyptians and brought on them a loathsome plague. – NET Bible Study Notes on Exodus
It was clear to these men that this sign had been the work of an unknown God. They use the generic term, ĕlōhîm, and not the proper name, Jehovah. In doing so, they were not acknowledging the God of Israel, but were simply admitting that a diving being had been behind this devastating judgment. And no matter how hard they tried, they could not reproduce the works of Aaron, a “magician” of this unnamed God.
But their words made no impact on Pharaoh. As he has done so many times before, he hardened his heart against this latest display of God’s power and judgment. He was not going to let these two elderly Jewish men change his mind or alter his plans for the people of Israel. In a sense, Pharaoh was saying, “Bring it on!” He was drawing a line in the sand and declaring his intention to refute any and all overtures from this invisible and overly demanding deity. Come what may, Pharaoh was going to stand his ground against Moses and Aaron’s God.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.