1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 2 For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, 3 behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. 4 But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die.”’” 5 And the Lord set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.” 6 And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died. 7 And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. – Exodus 9:1-7 ESV
Moses prayed and God removed all the flies from the land. But Pharaoh remained unmoved by the Hebrew God’s gracious and miraculous act. While he had pleaded with Moses to intercede with God on his behalf, the divine deliverance failed to soften his hardened heart.
“…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 did not let the people go. – Exodus 8:21-32 NLT
So, God sent Moses and Aaron back to the palace with instructions to restate their request one more time.
“This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so they can worship me.” – Exodus 9:1 NLT
The same God who had turned the water of the Nile into blood, produced an infestation of frogs and overwhelmed the land with gnats and flies, was still demanding that Pharaoh release the Hebrew people. And God reiterated the one-of-a-kind relationship the Israelites shared with Him. They were His people. They belonged to Yahweh.
This was a battle of sovereignty and ownership. Pharaoh believed the Hebrews belonged to him. He viewed them as little more than squatters and illegal aliens who had been living off the fruitfulness of the land for too long. They didn’t belong in Egypt, but if they were going to stay, they were going to have to pay their way. That’s why he turned them into a source of free labor and demanded that they do something to earn their keep.
But God wanted Pharaoh to know that the Hebrews were not his personal property to do with as he wished. They were the sons and daughters of God and, as such, were obligated to worship Him as their Heavenly Father. But to Pharaoh, this so-called God of Israel was just one more god in a long line of powerful and equally influential deities. And as before, God determined to prove His transcendence and unparalleled uniqueness by launching a direct assault on the gods of the Egyptians. In this case, He took aim at the Egyptian gods whose visible forms resembled those of bulls, cows, and rams. More resistance from Pharaoh would result in additional judgment from God. And, once again, it would become clear that the false gods of Egypt were no match for Yahweh, the all-powerful God of Israel.
God didn’t mince words or leave anything up to Pharaoh’s imagination. He provided Moses with a very clear description of what was going to happen.
“If you continue to hold them and refuse to let them go, the hand of the Lord will strike all your livestock—your horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats—with a deadly plague.” – Exodus 9:2-3 NLT
Every domesticated animal that the Egyptians depended upon for food, milk, transportation, labor, and clothing was going to be wiped out in a nationwide plague. And many of these animals, like bulls, cows, and rams were worshiped by the Egyptians as representations of their various gods.
Apis was a popular deity that was shown in the visage of a bull. Worship of the Apis bull is recorded as early as the First Dynasty (c. 3150 – c. 2890 BCE). It is believed that Apis was one of the first gods of the Egyptians and among the first animals associated with divinity and eternity. Over time, the Egyptians would use the image of the bull to represent other deities. Apis was originally worshiped as the god of fertility but later came to be associated with the god, Ptah. At one point, Apis was claimed to be the son of the god, Hathor, and was believed to be the divine source of all goodness and bounty.
Another one of the Egyptian gods was Amon-Re, whose form resembled that of a ram. This particular god was closely linked to the political well-being of Egypt. And it is interesting to note that there was a time when this god was simply known as Amon, but he was part of a “trinity” of gods that included Ptah and Re. Together, they formed a single god, of which Amon, Ptah, and Re were manifestations.
Another god of the Egyptians was Nut, who was often depicted as a nursing cow. The ancient Egyptians believed Nut to be a celestial god, whose eyes were represented by the sun and moon, and whose role was tied to creation and new birth. She was considered the mother of all creation and the mother of Ra, the sun god. The Egyptians believed that Ra “birthed” each new day by passing through Nut’s body. At the close of each day, Ra would reenter the womb of Nut, only to be born again the next day.
In considering the significance of these three animal/gods in the Egyptian religious taxonomy, it becomes apparent that they were held in high esteem. This made the animals whose visages they shared equally important to the Egyptians. So, when God announced that He was about to strike all the livestock, herds, and flocks of Egypt with a deadly disease, it would have had spiritual as well as physical ramifications. Not only was the livelihood of the Egyptians going to be affected, but an important segment of their religious belief system was going to come under direct attack by the God of Israel.
This time, the plague would be far more than a nuisance. It would be deadly and devastating to the Egyptian economy. We’re talking about the complete elimination of all their horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. And to add salt to the wound, God announces that the livestock, herds, and flocks of the Israelites will be spared. The land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, would be designated a death-free zone.
But the Lord will again make a distinction between the livestock of the Israelites and that of the Egyptians. Not a single one of Israel’s animals will die! – Exodus 9:4 NLT
The God of the Israelites was going to protect His own, including all their animals. The plague would be targeted and discriminating in its impact. Only those animals that belonged to Egyptians would suffer death.
And God announced that the starting time for the plague was already on the divine calendar. The devastation was scheduled to begin the very next day. And like clockwork, as the morning dawned, “all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but the Israelites didn’t lose a single animal” (Esocus 9:6 NLT). But, as before, Pharaoh was unshaken by this blow to his country’s economy and his people’s religious foundation. Surrounded by dead animal carcasses, he sent officials to see if what Moses had said was true. This delegation of royal emissaries made their way to Goshen where they were shocked to see that not a single goat, bull, ram, or camel had succumbed to the effects of the plague. All was well in Goshen.
And yet, true to form, “Pharaoh’s heart remained stubborn, and he still refused to let the people go. – Exodus 9:7 NLT
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.