Only a few hours after Moses and Aaron were told that the Israelites could not have their freedom, the two servants of God returned to the royal court. Flanked by his guards and aides, Pharaoh was just starting out on a short tour outside the city to view the livestock damage.
“Perhaps it would not be best for you to make this tour at this time, “one of the aides told Pharaoh. “A strong wind is coming up, and is whipping dust and sand in from the desert.”
The king was about to make some kind of reply when he saw Moses and Aaron standing on the palace steps only a short distance away. Between them they carried a large leather bag.
“You”! “Moses and Aaron!” Pharaoh called in a vexed tone. “What evil thing have you come to pronounce upon the land now? What do you have in that bag?”
The two Israelites came closer, put the bag down on one of the stone steps, and pulled the leather top folds open so that Pharaoh could see inside.
“Ashes!” the king snorted. “Yes, very fine ashes from one of your brick-drying furnaces where many of our people have slaved for so long,” Aaron explained. “Our God has instructed us to bring them here before you and toss them into the air.”
Without more explanation, Moses and Aaron dipped their hands into the bag and brought out fists full of the fine ashes, scattering them into the rising wind. The millions of tiny ash particles were swiftly whisked away into the sky.
”If this is one of your religious rites,” Pharaoh muttered, shaking his head in mock concern, “then you’re sure to run short of ashes if your people ever get out into the desert!”
“You had better pray that not one particle of those ashes touches your skin,” was Aaron’s only answer. Moses and Aaron took their empty bag and walked away, leaving Pharaoh worriedly wondering what Aaron meant by his last remark.
Almost at once people living in Memphis, Egypt complained of suddenly breaking out in painful boil-like blisters and sores. Then people living in other parts of Egypt quickly were overtaken with the same thing. Within a few hours Egyptians in every part of the land were victims of the painful sores. The only section of Egypt not affected was Goshen (Ex. 9:11).
What caused the boils was a mystery to the Egyptians. But when their king broke out in the bulging sores, he remembered what Aaron had said. Then he knew that the ashes tossed away by the two Israelites had caused the sores on every Egyptian touched by them!
Perhaps one might think that a plague of boils wouldn’t be very serious. But even one boil can be so painful that the victim is unable to move about. During this plague, many of the Egyptians had several or even many boils – depending on how many ash particles touched their bodies. This meant that most of the people were plunged into a terrible state of misery. They were unable to take care of the sick livestock affected by the previous plague or to bury the thousands of dead animals littering the farms and fields.
Even the king’s magicians, those men who had tried to imitate some of God’s miracles, became victims of the sixth plague. What happened to them after that isn’t known. They aren’t mentioned again in the Bible as trying to prove that sorcerers could do the same things that God could do.
As for Pharaoh, he was utterly wretched. There was no one who could do much to help relieve him of his pain. Physicians and servants were busy nursing their own burning sores.
Pharaoh’s pride and dignity were wounded as much as was his skin, and the more he thought about his condition the more indignant he became. He knew that Moses and Aaron were waiting for him to give in and promise that the Israelites could leave Egypt. For at least two days he fumed and groaned. It was a case of his pride, vanity and ambition striving to win out over serious pain.
At last he demanded that a messenger – one who at least didn’t have boils on his feet, come to take a report to Moses and Aaron.
“Tell those Israelites,” Pharaoh shouted, wincing with every jarring syllable, “that I am the king of Egypt! Remind them that mere boils and sores can’t force the king to free the multitudes of slaves necessary for molding this land into the greatest nation ever to exist or that will ever exist.”
Moses and Aaron received the message. As usual, they were disappointed. But the very next day, following instruction from God, they showed up at the royal palace. Because of his condition and his bitter feeling toward the two Israelites, Pharaoh didn’t want to see any more of them. However, he allowed them to come before him because of his great curiosity to learn what they might predict would happen next.
“We are here again to tell you that our God demands that you let our people go,” Aaron spoke out, and Moses nodded in agreement. “Our God has spared your life till now only because He wants you alive to view the more terrible plagues He is about to pour out upon Egypt. If you will not let the Israelites depart at once, a heavy hail will fall upon the land. It will be so terrible that any man or beast caught out in it will die” (Ex. 9:19).
Uncomfortable in his well-cushioned chair because of his painful sores, Pharaoh nervously shifted his weight and impatiently stared down at the two Israelites.
“Hailstorms in this part of Egypt are quite uncommon,” he told them in a wearied tone. “However, I have seen a few in my lifetime. I remember tiny ice particles falling, but they harmed nothing. If a mere hailstorm is your God’s next plague, then I do not fear it. I will not let you Israelites go out of my land.”
Having heard the kings’ answer, Moses and Aaron felt that their warning was completely in vain. But there was a growing number in Pharaoh’s court who had come to respect the power of the God of Israel. They sent word to their friends to warn them what was about to happen. The message spread among the Egyptians, many of whom brought their livestock in from the fields and quartered them in barns, houses or other shelters where the expected hailstorm couldn’t harm them.
Acting later on God’s orders, Moses pointed his shepherd’s rod toward the sky, already darkened over Egypt with an ominous blanket of low clouds. The mere presence of heavy clouds over all of sunny Egypt was most unusual. But now the clouds began to boil and roll as though pierced by mighty shifts of swift wind. Flashes of light shimmered through them. To people below staring upward, it seemed that millions of giant, flickering torches were flaring high in the sky above the weaving layer of heavy vapors.
Then came the lightening booming of thunder from high in the heavens. It was no longer a secret to the Egyptians that something most unusual was happening up beyond that ominous cloak of clouds, and that something frightful was about to take place.
Suddenly fearful, those in the open, in the fields, on the river and on the roads began to be concerned with gaining immediate shelter.
When the first dazzling bolts of chain lightning shot out of the low-dipping clouds, the pain racked Egyptians were gripped with fear. Many of these idol-worshipping people were swiftly losing faith in their little gods, and were becoming more and more fearful of the God of Israel.
From the shelter of his palace, Pharaoh watched the display of power from the God he had kept on defying. The bolts of lightning hissed and cracked with increasing intensity. Whenever their fire reached the ground, it shot along in sizzling tongues in all directions, searing everything it touched.
People were swallowed up in it, emerging in screaming agony, their bodies smoking. Livestock, trees, shrubs, crops, buildings and even the stones of the ground became blackened victims of the singeing electrical fire from the skies.
At the same time, large hailstones plunged out of the clouds. Any person or animal caught without a sturdy shelter was pounded mercilessly by the heavy hunks of ice. But in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, there was no lightning and no hail.
After hours of nerve-shattering watching and waiting, Pharaoh shakily turned from his window to confront the small group of Egyptian officials whose faces were as pale as his. They stared silently at the king, as though blaming him for what was going on. The accusing stares, the constant roar of great hailstones crashing on the roof, the vivid flashes of lightning, the violent hissing of the ground-charring fire, the hideous rumble of thunder and the cries of people in pain – all these were more than a match for Pharaoh’s stubborn desire to hold the Israelites as captives.
“Send for Moses and Aaron!” he shouted. “Give the messenger who goes after them some kind of shield to protect him. But send him at once!”
God must have protected the messenger, and He must have protected Moses and Aaron on their way to the king’s palace. Later, when Pharaoh saw the two Israelites being escorted into his court, he stepped forward to meet them.
“I admit that I have done wrong!” he called out. “I couldn’t believe until now that your God is the one and only God. I realize now that He has brought these terrible plagues upon my land because I and my people are wicked in His sight. We have had enough punishment. Ask your God to stop this awful lightning and hail. I promise to let your people go. They don’t need to stay in Egypt any longer!”
It was difficult to believe these words from one who had so haughtily defied God just a few hours earlier. But it was encouraging to Moses and Aaron that this self-exalted man would admit these things before them and before the few worried-looking Egyptians who were present.
“We shall leave at once,” Aaron told Pharaoh, “and ask God to stop the lightning and hail. When you see the storm letting up, give thanks to God that He has spared you. If you fail to do so, it isn’t very likely that you will keep on having the respect for our God that you seem to have now.”
Moses and Aaron left the palace and fearlessly moved through the downpour of hail and fire to a spot outside the city. There Moses lifted his hands toward the sky and asked God to stop the destructive seventh plague. Gradually the hail ceased to fall. The bolts of lightning became fewer. Soon the skies grew silent, and the heavy blanket of clouds drifted away.
Throughout the land the Egyptians ventured from their shelters to witness the great damage that had resulted from this latest plague. Wounded people and animals were cared for. The dead were prepared for burial. There wasn’t much to be done about the ruined fruit trees and vegetable crops. About the only thing that had come through the plague without extreme damage were the fields sown to wheat and rye, where plants were not yet developed from the soil at that season (v. 32).
Even while the nation was licking its wounds, the king began to regret that he had promised freedom to the Israelites. He had never completely lost his desire to build the city of ancient Babylon. Pharaoh knew that without the tremendous aid of the Israelite labor gangs his ambition was nothing more than a dream.
For hours the king thought matters over. The more his mind dwelled on these things, the stronger he felt that his ambitions were more important than the best interests of millions of people, including Egyptians as well as Israelites.
As last Pharaoh summoned a messenger, and not long afterward Moses received this message:
“As the one of highest rank in the great nation of Egypt, I again reserve the right and privilege of breaking an agreement made at a time of most unusual mental and physical distress. With that distress removed, and my judgment again clear and sound, I herewith cancel my bargain to allow freedom to the Israelites.”
Moses wasn’t very surprised to receive that message. He had learned that Pharaoh couldn’t be trusted. But he was very disappointed, because he had prayed that the seventh plague would truly be the one by which God would break Pharaoh’s stubborn will.
Again God spoke to Moses, telling him that He, God, had purposely caused the Egyptian king to be stubborn.
“I have done this,” God said, “because I wish to show more of my power through further signs and plagues. Then you will tell the things I have done to the generations of Israel to come, and they will have a clearer understanding of my power, and realize that I am the one Creator and Ruler.”
God gave Moses instructions in what to say and do. Moses had learned to obey without excuse or argument. Within a short time he and Aaron were again before Pharaoh in the royal court.
“If you have come to argue with me because I refuse to free your people,” the king said, “then you are wasting your time, I do not intend to change my mind.”
“Our God will not beg you to do anything,” Aaron told Pharaoh. “He is a God of action, and if you refuse to change your mind now, He won’t fail to deal harshly with you by this time tomorrow.”
“Just what can I look forward to?” Pharaoh asked in a bored tone. He tried to appear unconcerned, although he was quite anxious to know what would happen next.
“Millions upon millions of locusts will come upon Egypt! Aaron answered. “There will be so many that the ground will be lost from sight. They will eat up all shrubs and plants that have come through the last plague. They will stream into the Egyptian homes and buildings. It will be the greatest plague of locusts ever to come on the Earth!”
Without waiting for what the king would say or do, Moses and Aaron turned and walked out of the palace. At once there was a loud outcry from Pharaoh’s advisors and officers.
“How much longer must we suffer these awful conditions?” one of the advisors demanded as he stepped quickly before the king.
“My vast farmlands have become worthless!” another complained in a bitter tone. “Don’t you realize, O Pharaoh, that our nation is all but ruined already?” someone asked.
“We can’t afford another plague!” another shouted. “Let the Israelites go worship their God. We would be much better off without them!”
“Silence!” Pharaoh snapped, holding up his arms and gazing haughtily down on the group before him. Every one quieted down and stepped respectfully back to listen to what the king had to say.
“You are too impatient and hasty in your decisions,” Pharaoh frowned. “Let us first find out just which ones of the Israelites are required to go worship their God. Perhaps it wouldn’t include all the men. If so, I might let the women, children and old men go, and keep the youngest and strongest men to stay here and continue working.”
A mutter of approval went up from the men in the court. “Bring the two Israelites back here!” Pharaoh commanded. Two guards left hastily, and within a few minutes escorted Moses and Aaron back before the Egyptian king.
“You left too soon,” Pharaoh told them, “I didn’t tell you that I wouldn’t let the Israelites go. It could depend on how many are to go.”
“All of us must go,” Aaron spoke out. “No one is to be left behind. All our flocks and herds must go, too.”
This answer from Aaron angered Pharaoh. He stood up and glared down on the two Israelites. “Then go!” he shouted, waving his hands toward them. “Leave, and you’ll find yourselves in such trouble out in the desert that you’ll wish you had stayed in Egypt!”
The king signaled to his guards, who stepped swiftly forward, seized Moses and Aaron, and hustled them out of the building.
After the two went out of the city, Moses held his rod up toward the sky, and asked God to bring the locusts upon Egypt. Thereupon an east wind began to blow. It grew steadily stronger, and continued all the rest of the day and into the night with such gale force that the people of Egypt were increasingly alarmed. By dawn of the next day it was still howling across the land, sweeping up huge clouds of dust and sand from the desert areas.
At his palace, Pharaoh tossed restlessly on his bed. The shrieking wind kept him awake with its dismal howl, as though foretelling of a doom to shortly come.
Watch for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.