8 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw them in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. 9 It shall become fine dust over all the land of Egypt, and become boils breaking out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” 10 So they took soot from the kiln and stood before Pharaoh. And Moses threw it in the air, and it became boils breaking out in sores on man and beast. 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians. 12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses. – Exodus 9:8-12 ESV
Following Pharaoh’s latest demonstration of hard-heartedness, Moses and Aaron are given further instructions from God. This time, the judgment that God brings upon the Egyptians will be unannounced and bring with it an increased level of physical pain and suffering. With each successive plague, God was upping the ante and revealing yet another aspect of His power and authority over kings, nations, creation, and all the mythical, man-made gods of humanity.
These assignments would have served as tests for Moses and Aaron, determining the depth of their faith and the level of their faithfulness. It must not have been easy to stand before one of the most powerful men in the world and issue demands from an unseen God. And many of the things God commanded Moses and Aaron to do were outside the pale of human reason and required a great deal of trust. Each new directive from Jehovah took them into unexplored territory and required them to exhibit an increased level of faith in His ability to do the impossible.
In this case, God commanded His two servants to take ash from a kiln and disperse it into the air. And for some reason, it was Moses who was to take the lead in carrying out this latest supernatural sign. When Moses tossed the ash into the air, it would turn into a fine dust that would spread throughout the land of Egypt, “causing festering boils to break out on people and animals throughout the land” (Exodus 9:9 NLT).
It’s likely that this “kiln” or furnace was used in the manufacture of bricks. This would have tied the ashes to the suffering of the Israelites.
…the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in all their demands. – Exodus 1:13-14 NLT
Pharaoh sent this order to the Egyptian slave drivers and the Israelite foremen: “Do not supply any more straw for making bricks. Make the people get it themselves! But still require them to make the same number of bricks as before. Don’t reduce the quota.” – Exodus 5:6-8 NLT
These massive kilns would have been located all over the land of Egypt, wherever there was a state-sanctioned construction site. These furnaces would have contained the ashes of the straw that the Israelites had been forced to scavenge and knead into the clay that they formed into the bricks used to build edifices to Pharaoh’s glory. It is almost as if God was taking the unjust pain and suffering of His people and spreading it among their Egyptian overlords. And no one was spared. The rich and the poor alike would suffer the debilitating effects of this plague as the dust settled on their skin and produced boils (šiḥîn) or inflamed spots on the skin that erupted and became festering sores (‘ăḇaʿbuʿōṯ). There is no way to determine the identity of this skin disease, but it must have been extremely painful and left its suffering unable to perform even the most simple tasks. The text indicates that Pharaoh’s magicians were completely incapacitated and “unable to stand before Moses, because the boils had broken out on them and all the Egyptians” (Exodus 9:11 NLT).
These men had been able to replicate some of the previous signs that Moses and Aaron performed, but not in this case. And it seems highly unlikely that they would have wanted to reproduce this particular sign, even if they could.
As Pharaoh looked on, Moses carried out the command of God, and the king and his royal officials watched the ash turn to dust, miraculously spread over the land, and then settle back down on their own skin. But it appears that Pharaoh was exempted from the effects of this plague. Moses indicates that “the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians” (Exodus 9:11 ESV), but he doesn’t mention Pharaoh. It seems that God was sparing Pharaoh and preparing him for the final plague that was designed to bring judgment right to his doorstep. God had reserved something far more painful and personal for Pharaoh. He even foreshadowed this final plague when He spoke to Moses in Midian.
“When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go. Then you will tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son. I commanded you, “Let my son go, so he can worship me.” But since you have refused, I will now kill your firstborn son!’” – Exodus 4:21-23 NLT
But for now, Pharaoh was forced to stand back and watch the God of Israel demonstrate His sovereign power through a nationwide pandemic that brought intense pain but not death. And like all the other plagues, this one was a direct attack on the gods of the Egyptians. It only makes sense that those suffering from this disease would have called out to their gods for deliverance and healing. They would have sought relief from one of their many deities.
In the Egyptian pantheon of gods, Serapis was a lord of healing and of fertility. Interestingly enough, this god’s cult was celebrated in association with that of the sacred Egyptian bull Apis, which we looked at with the last plague. The priests and priestesses associated with Serapis would have been expected to call upon their god for healing. But, like the magicians, they would have found themselves unable to perform their priestly duties because of the very malady they were hoping to eliminate.
They called out, but no one answered. They begged for relief, but none came. The sores erupted on their skin but no miracle was forthcoming. It was as if their gods had grown silent or apathetic about their plight. But It is simply a demonstration of the truth that the psalmist would later articulate.
Our God is in the heavens,
and he does as he wishes.
Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,
shaped by human hands.
They have mouths but cannot speak,
and eyes but cannot see.
They have ears but cannot hear,
and noses but cannot smell.
They have hands but cannot feel,
and feet but cannot walk,
and throats but cannot make a sound.
And those who make idols are just like them,
as are all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:3-8 NLT
When Separis proved impotent, they must have turned to Imhotep, the god of medicine and the guardian of healing sciences. This particular god had actually been a man who had served as the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty. After his death, he was deified and worshiped by the Egyptians as the god of medicine.
But he too proved helpless before the God of Israel because he was a fraud and a fake. None of their gods were real and, therefore, they had no hope of delivering the people of Egypt from their pain and suffering. These so-called gods were the figments of men’s imaginations, just as Jeremiah the prophet later wrote.
“Their gods are like
helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field!
They cannot speak,
and they need to be carried because they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of such gods,
for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.” – Jeremiah 10:5 NLT
So the ash went up, the dust rained down, the boils broke open, and the people cried out. But no relief was in sight. And Pharaoh remained unmoved by what he saw. At this point, he stood aloof and distant from the pain of his people. He was not having to share in their suffering, so he was unmoved by their plight. Moses indicates that “he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses” (Exodus 9:12 ESV). But this time, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Anywhere along the way, God could have miraculously moved in Pharaoh’s life and softened the hardened condition of his heart. But He continued to allow the king to display the natural evidence of his sinful disposition. Rather than intervene, God allowed Pharaoh’s inherent wickedness to take its normal course. This demonstrates the way that God has always worked with fallen mankind. Paul describes it well in his letter to the Romans.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! – Romans 1:22-25 ESV
Pharaoh stood his ground. But he was up against far greater and more powerful than he could ever imagine. All the plagues should have served as a wake-up call but God exactly what it was going to take to open Pharaoh’s eyes and break the hardened callouses of his heart. But the time for that plague had not yet come.
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.