2 Fourth Sign - Third Plague: Mosquitoes or Gnats (8:16–19) The term “gnats” in English is properly used technically to describe virtually any two-winged biting insects, including mosquitoes.Therefore, several of the English versions have justifiably employed the broader term gnats in translating the Hb. kinnı̂m.Popular parlance, however, tends to speak of “gnats” as mainly annoying, tiny biting insects including some types of flies and “mosquitoes” as the far more commonly encountered blood-sucking, disease-spreading insect almost universally distributed—and loathed.The brief description in this account does not allow us to be sure which type of “gnat” actually plagued the Egyptians (and it is not out of the question that more than one type was involved).For the best understand, logic suggests using the term “mosquitoes” on the theory that they usually are the most hated and troublesome branch of the gnat family.
3 Fourth Sign - Third Plague: Mosquitoes or Gnats (8:16–19) In some ways this plague is like that of the frogs that preceded it: both involve the miraculous production of a massive superabundance of an animal, with the effect of annoying and disturbing the Egyptians but without serious devastation otherwise.Likewise, this plague was caused by striking something with the staff of God in Aaron’s hand—previously water, this time the ground, so that God’s sovereignty over “land and sea” was clearly evidenced.Again, the magicians set out to duplicate this plague as well.What is notably different about the third plague is the failure of the magicians.What magician has ever done a trick with trained mosquitoes?
4 Fourth Sign - Third Plague: Mosquitoes or Gnats (8:16–19) The magicians may have tried long and hard to duplicate the miracle (v. 18), but capturing enough mosquitoes to make an impressive display when released, keeping them alive and confined until the right time, and being able to release them in such a way that they would promptly and visibly swarm on people and animals in significant numbers would surely have proved too complicated.What happened, then, was that the magicians confessed publicly that this plague (and by implication the others so far) was not a trick but a miracle.The expression “this is the finger of God,” in light of its usage in Exod 31:18 and Deut 9:10, would seem to mean something like “a supernatural act of God” rather than literally referring to God’s hand or figuratively conveying a sense such as “something easy enough for him to do with just a finger.”The magicians were not confessing to their own conversion to true faith; they were simply saying that the plague was divine in origin, not human.
5 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) The fourth plague replicates some features of the first, including the way it begins: with an outdoor morning confrontation with Pharaoh.Moses here also issued a warning to Pharaoh as in the case of the second plague.But a special emphasis in this plague account is not mentioned in any of the earlier ones: the differentiation between what happened to the Egyptians and what happened to the Israelites.As already explained, this differentiation is implicit in the earlier plagues as well, but at this point Moses chose to make it explicit.
6 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) It will appear as a feature in some of the subsequent plague accounts as well (nos. five, seven, nine, ten), but not in all of them—indicating that the cases where the distinction is overtly described are intended to suggest to the reader the general pattern that prevailed in all ten plagues.Another important feature of this fourth plague account is Pharaoh’s partial capitulation to Moses’ demands: in v. 25 Pharaoh expressed willingness to let the Israelites have a special religious holiday as long as they held it within the land of Egypt; and in v. 28 he went so far as to authorize a brief departure from the land into the wilderness—on which he subsequently reneged (v. 32).
7 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) These concessions, however brief and partial, represent the first cracks in the stone of the official Egyptian government resistance, demonstrating that the plagues were beginning to affect the king’s resolve.Moses’ account does not differentiate between the two most likely causes for Pharaoh’s wavering, the growing intensity of the plagues and their overall cumulative effect.Presumably, both causes worked to influence Pharaoh’s decision toward compromise.As plagues kept coming, as their severity kept increasing, and as it became ever more obvious that they were not mere tricks but real, divinely instigated acts of judgment against Egypt, the king began searching for ways to end them without ending Egyptian domination over Israel.
8 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) The wording of this verse is essentially a condensation of the wording of the opening verses of the first plague account (water to blood, 7:14–16).This is appropriate since by now Moses was experienced in the process of confronting Pharaoh, and there would be no advantage to God’s repeating to Moses his instructions in the same degree of detail.Thus the instructions were limited to the time and place of the confrontation and the more broad, less qualified demand, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.”It cannot have been lost on Pharaoh, when he saw Moses waiting for him on the bank of the Nile in fulfillment of this command from God, that he was once again in the place and situation where the plagues had started.The cycle of encounter locations and patterns is presumably intended to have this effect on Pharaoh: to cause him as the pattern begins to repeat itself to think, in effect, “Oh, no! Not again!”
9 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:21The rather brief account of the third plague (gnats/mosquitoes) in 8:16–19 omitted any reference to a spoken threat as a warning of what would happen if Pharaoh did not comply with God’s demand.The Egyptians were threatened with a huge infestation of swarming insects, so enormous that the insects would be everywhere, indoors and out, and constantly on everyone, including Pharaoh and his officials.The description “and even the ground where they are” literally refers to the ground where the houses were located, as a way of emphasizing that the swarms would be concentrated on inhabited areas and is comparable to saying “to the extent that you won’t even be able to put a foot down without stepping on lots of them.”
10 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:21What the niv translates as “swarms of flies” is ʿārōb, a single word designating insects in swarms.Although it is likely that the insects in swarms were in this case mostly various sorts of flies, it is not certain that they would have been limited to what English speakers normally think of when they hear the word “flies.”A translation such as “various kinds of annoying biting and nonbiting insects in huge swarms,” cumbersome though it would be, might actually give a somewhat clearer sense of the threat to the Egyptians.
11 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:22–23Especially significant in this fourth plague account, and indeed an inherent part of the threat, is the stress on the fact that God would not do to his own people what he would do to the Egyptians, their oppressors.Here God’s distinction between his own and those who do not belong to him is shown by his control of nature: although flies and other swarming insects cannot naturally discriminate by nationality or political boundaries in deciding on whom they will land and whose skin they will bite, nationality/political boundary was exactly the basis for the plaguing or nonplaguing by the swarming insects.Here, then, is brought overtly to the reader’s attention the fact that the plagues, far from being natural phenomena naturally produced, were nature turned on its head: nature ordered by its Creator to act in abnormal ways that were ominously frightening for the Egyptians, wonderfully reassuring for the Israelites, and clearly evidential (in this plague, even to Pharaoh) of a divine mighty act in service of a divine demand.
12 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:24The window screen did not exist in ancient times; windows were simply openings in walls (and ceilings).It would have been possible for some of the wealthier Egyptians to fix cloth at doorways and windows to keep out the insect swarms, but this would have produced an almost intolerable lack of airflow in a perennially hot climate, making life indoors essentially unbearable, so it is unlikely that any Egyptians even considered such a move.Thus the swarms of flies were allowed access to everyone whether indoors or outdoors, and once the plague began, the Egyptians were living (or trying to live) covered with flies.
13 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:24Flies of various sorts were nothing new to the Egyptians.There were plenty of flies in Egypt in Bible times, just as there are in modern times.The devastation here described was not the result of something new but of something well known and usually tolerable as an annoyance becoming multiplied thousands of times over by God’s special action so as to constitute an intolerable pestilence, to the extent that “the land was ruined by the flies.”The ruin here described was not topological but rather referred to the quality of life.People couldn’t eat without ingesting flies; they couldn’t sleep without flies covering their bodies; they couldn’t work for having to swat flies and/or because they couldn’t see well through the swarms; their skin was welted with fly bites.
14 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:25This is the point at which Pharaoh began to weaken.We are not told how many days had gone by, how many complaints and expressions of panic he had received from his advisors and from the Egyptian people in general, and how severely he and his own family had been driven to distraction by the insect swarms, but we are told that he was now so bothered by the flies that he called Moses and Aaron to the palace and offered the Israelites a partial accession to their God’s demands.In one sense this concession goes beyond that of 8:8 by reason of its specificity: Pharaoh was offering a real, clearly defined option to the Israelites in exchange for relief from the flies.Nevertheless, the reader is well advised to bear in mind that Pharaoh knew from the beginning that the Israelites were expecting much more than he was now offering.
15 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:25Now Pharaoh, from his perspective, was bargaining too and offering terms he wanted the Israelites to settle for: an Israelite national holiday to sacrifice to Yahweh within Egypt.From Pharaoh’s point of view as a bargainer, this might gain him the end of the plagues while ceding little to Israel: only a short time off from work.Pharaoh would retain Israel under Egyptian domination and continue to prevent their being able to organize alliances with other peoples or nations in any way that would be threatening to Egypt (cf. 1:10).Pharaoh may have genuinely thought this concession would work; in a bargaining culture, neither side can necessarily be sure at the outset what the minimum or maximum price of the other side really is until the bargaining proceeds further or is completed.
16 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:26–27Moses, of course, would not think of settling for a mere in-country religious holiday.He well knew that God’s promise to Israel was “to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites … to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (3:8, 10).He did not, however, reply to Pharaoh as a modern Westerner might: “No, sorry, we will accept nothing less than permanent emigration from Egypt to Canaan, never again to be under your domination.”
17 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:26–27He continued in bargaining-style mode, with an appropriately gentle response argument that made three reasonable assertions, all of which were ways of saying “that’s not what we will accept” yet in a manner calculated to sound as non-demanding and nonthreatening as possible.These assertions are:(1) Israelite animal sacrifices were abominable to Egyptians. The Egyptians, as typical pantheists, still made animal sacrifices even though they identified many of their gods with them. What they detested was anything related to mountain-dwelling peoples’ habits and preferences, including the raising of sheep and goats (Gen 46:34).
18 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:26–27(2) In light of Egyptian animosity toward Israelites, it made little sense to perform openly, among Egyptians, what was so repugnant to them and merely invited active resentment and attack.This language, too, was part of the bargaining; we have no knowledge that would lead us to conclude that all Egyptians throughout the land would, if they saw an Israelite goat or lamb sacrifice, automatically react by stoning those who made it.(3) God had not called for a minor sort of religious holiday but a formal national act of worship in a different location to identify the Israelites as his people.
19 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:26–27The term “a three-day journey” is not to be taken literally; it is an idiom for “an official, formal, foreign visit.”Moses again used this phrase, just as it was dictated to him in 3:18 and as he had employed it in 5:3, to remind Pharaoh that no mere simple, informal, brief, or local religious observance could substitute for what the God of Israel was demanding of Egypt’s king.“Three-day journey” can also carry the overtone of “far from here” or “very far away” as in Gen 30:36 (“Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob”).Pharaoh obviously understood it this way since his counter-bargaining reply in the next verse asked that the Israelites “not go very far,” in a vain attempt somehow to save face by suggesting that they would actually not make a full, permanent departure from Egypt.
20 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:28–29Pharaoh now offered to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and Moses apparently accepted his offer as a genuine capitulation to Yahweh’s demands.True, Pharaoh placed restrictions on his offer (“I will let you go [only] to offer sacrifices … you must not go very far”), and Moses remained suspicious and wary, as indicated by his words in rejoinder (“Only be sure that Pharaoh does not act deceitfully again by not letting the people go”).Nevertheless, this interchange raises a question: Did Moses really think he had won, and if so, wasn’t he mistaken?The most likely answer would seem to be: He did not know for sure whether or not he (or more precisely, Yahweh) had won, but he regarded it as a real possibility—that is, that now the exodus could get underway.
21 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:28–29The main reason for this is to be found, once again, in the implications of the bargaining style. The style allows many unspoken transactions to be subsumed under that which is actually stated.Moses could well have understood Pharaoh’s spoken restrictions as mere face-saving devices for allowing the exodus to take place without having to say, “Okay, you win. I give up. You can have your exodus.”It is important to bear in mind that Moses had never been told how many plagues there would be and could well have wondered if this fourth plague, having several similarities to the first, might indicate by its somewhat resumptive nature that the pattern was starting again, so that means we’ve come full circle and this part of the sequence was coming to a conclusion.
22 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:28–29He also did not have to assume that the predicted death of the Egyptian firstborn (4:23) was no longer a valid expectation.That event could still happen, after the plague of swarming insects abated and during or after the time the Israelites left; there was nothing in what Moses had so far been led to expect that would automatically cause him to think he was as yet far from the time of the exodus and that many more plagues would be needed before he could begin to lead the Israelites into the wilderness.Moses was operating on faith as regards God’s timing throughout the entire sequence of the plagues.
23 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:28–29Pharaoh’s words, “now pray for me,” in v. 28 suggest that this plague had touched him personally to an extent that the prior three had not.Moses’ promise to pray immediately after departing the palace (“as soon as I leave you,” v. 29) may be another indication of the way people were being “driven crazy” by the swarms of flies: it was the sort of thing one might say if during the encounter with Pharaoh there had been many expressions of desire for relief from what had become intolerable.Moses’ promise of quick rather than gradual relief (“tomorrow the flies will leave”) appears as well to fit with this scenario.
24 Fifth Sign - Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies (8:20–32) 8:30–32These three verses closely parallel 8:12–15, the concluding statements of the plague of frogs account, immediately preceding.Each of the two successive plague accounts (nos. three and four) thus ends:With mention of Moses’ departure from PharaohHis prayerAssurance of Yahweh’s full response (what Moses asked)Complete relief from the plaguePharaoh’s stubborn refusal to honor his promise.By this time it should be obvious to the reader that one of the things that Yahweh accomplished by making Pharaoh’s heart hard (i.e., making him stubborn) was to cause Pharaoh to become someone whose word simply could not be trusted.This is emphasized by Moses’ verbalized concern that Pharaoh must not renege on his agreement to let the Israelites go (8:29), which sets the stage all the more visibly for the reader to notice unreliability in Pharaoh.Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 105–182.