Journey to Freedom: Plague #2 (Exodus 8:1-15)
Why the Frogs Croaked
When I was in kindergarten, living in Montgomery, AL, I caught a frog. I played with it in my Little Peoples airplane. I kept it in a shoebox. I was going to take it to Bible class and show my Bible class teacher - but it used the bathroom in my shoebox and I was disgusted with it and let it go.
Frogs are not my favorite animal. When we are at the zoo, I happily pass by the displays of frogs - even if they are the poison dart frog variety. I could not imagine having frogs all over my house. I had a friend - my 4-H advisor in junior high school - who was in college at the University of Georgia and his roommate had a snake. One morning he woke up with the snake curled on the pillow beside his head. I’m not a fan of that…
Seven days passed after the Lord struck the Nile (Exod. 7:25). Seven long days—ideally to allow the message sink into the hearts of Egyptians and Israelites alike that Jehovah God was the only true, all-powerful God.
Then Moses went back to Pharaoh with the exact same message as before: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me’” (Exod. 8:1).
Ribbit! Croak! Peep! - 8:2-4:
God warned Pharaoh. The Lord said, “If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials” (Exod. 8:2–4). God uses the word “plague” (nagap), a term the Old Testament uses for striking a blow.
Pharaoh refused, although his response is not recorded. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron, “Stretch out your hand with your staff over the streams and canals and ponds, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.”’ So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land” (vv. 5, 6).
Moses used the same word that God used on the fifth day of creation: “Let the water teem with living creatures” (Gen. 1:20). This is exactly what happened in Egypt. They came from the Nile and from all its streams, canals, and wetlands. The frogs also went everywhere, swarming all over the Nile Delta. They hopped into people’s living quarters—into every nook and cranny of their kitchens and bedrooms. They even went into their hot, dry ovens, which is about the last place one would expect to find a frog. At night their noisy croaking bothered everyone from the king down to the lowliest Egyptian slave. As the Scripture says, the frogs “covered the land” (v. 6).
In the words of the psalmist, “He [God] sent … frogs that devastated them” (78:45).
Frogs are not particularly dangerous, but they can be a nuisance. Some of the frogs ended up in the “ovens and kneading troughs” (Exod. 8:3). We picture an Egyptian mother pulling out her mixing bowls and then screaming as she discovers a frog in the dough. The kids probably loved it—at least at first. The frogs even hopped into Pharaoh’s royal chambers. The psalmist probably chuckled when he wrote, “Their land teemed with frogs, which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers” (105:30). We imagine Pharaoh lying down for a nap and then leaping to his feet because something was croaking under his pillow. Some of the frogs had the audacity to jump on his royal person, for Moses said to Pharaoh, “The frogs will go up on you” (Exod. 8:4). This plague hit Pharaoh right where he lived. God did not allow the hard-hearted king to retreat into the privacy of his own palace but brought the frogs right into his bedroom.
God had a serious theological purpose for sending what seems to be such a silly plague. The goddess Hekt [also Heqet], was always pictured with the head and often the head and body of a frog. Since Hekt was embodied in the frog, the frog was sacred in Egypt. It could not be killed, and consequently there was nothing the Egyptians could do about this horrible and ironic proliferation of the goddess. They were forced to loathe the symbols of their depraved worship. But they could not kill them. And when the frogs died, their decaying bodies must have turned the towns and countryside into a stinking horror.
In the Egyptian pantheon, the frog-goddess Heqet was the spouse of the creator-god Khnum. The Egyptians believed that Khnum fashioned human bodies on his potter’s wheel, and then Heqet breathed into them the breath of life. She was the agent of life-giving power and also the symbol of fertility.
The Egyptians relied on Heqet for two things in particular. One was to control the frog population by protecting crocodiles, the frog’s natural predators. Obviously, when Egypt was overrun (or overhopped!) with frogs, Heqet was humiliated. This plague proved that she was powerless to resist the mighty strength of the Lord.
Heqet’s other responsibility was to assist women in childbirth. Since she was the spirit who breathed life into the body, women turned to her for help when they were in the pains of labor. This suggests that there may be a connection between the second plague and Pharaoh’s sin against the Hebrew midwives. Remember that the book of Exodus began with attempted infanticide. In his effort to exterminate the Israelites, Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill Israel’s baby boys (Exod. 1:15, 16). When his evil plan failed, he ordered the infants to be thrown into the Nile (Exod. 1:22). Given that background, it seems significant that God’s first two plagues struck blows against the gods of Egypt’s river and the goddess of Egypt’s midwives. It was a matter of strict justice: God was punishing the Egyptians for their sins. There was a connection between Pharaoh’s crime and God’s punishment.
In the days of modern medical care it is easy to forget how dangerous it is to give birth—dangerous not only for the baby, but also for the mother. For most of human history, in most parts of the world, childbirth has been a potentially life-threatening experience. When an Egyptian woman went into labor, fearing both for her own life and for the life of her newborn child, her only comfort was to cry out to Heqet for the breath of life.
Many single women long to share their love with a child. Some married women are unable to have children. Others lose children through miscarriage. Then there are all the anxieties that come with actually conceiving, bearing, and delivering a child. Surely the most difficult thing of all is to give birth, only to lose the child. These sufferings all find their ultimate cause in humanity’s fall into sin. God said to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (Gen. 3:16a). This curse refers not only to the physical act of childbirth, but to all the losses and frustrations that are associated with it.
In times of discouragement it is tempting to turn to Heqet. Some couples make a sacrifice to the goddess of fertility by getting an abortion. It may be possible / legal one day that some couples will use the knowledge of the human genome to produce designer children whose genetic material is altered to prevent certain diseases or even to guarantee certain attributes or abilities. Others make the quest for a child an idolatrous obsession. Couples should not place their supreme confidence in some course of treatment or in some adoption agency, but in God himself, for he alone is the giver of life. The birth of a child is not a human project but a divine gift from a sovereign Lord.
Only the true and living God is able to bring healing to the deepest hurts in a woman’s heart. Some of the most courageous women I know have lost children before, during, or shortly after childbirth. In the bitter pain of their suffering, there were times when they were tempted to turn away from God. But in the end they were drawn closer to God as they experienced his mercy for their sorrow.
It can take a long time to accept the will of God, and usually it takes even longer to understand it. Sometimes a woman never fully comprehends why everything surrounding childbirth brings such suffering. But the only way to experience true healing for life’s deepest hurts is to place them in the hands of God. Those who worship Heqet will never experience the comfort God gives to everyone who trusts in him.
Standing in the Need of Prayer
By the time frogs started showing up under his bedcovers, even Pharaoh was starting to have his doubts about Heqet’s power. Once again he called for his magicians. Once again they were able to repeat God’s miracle, this time by conjuring up some more frogs: “But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt” (Exod. 8:7). Rather than subtracting from the invasion, his magicians could only add to it, so that, again, even Satan’s power was turned to God’s glory.
He ordered Moses and Aaron to return to the palace so he could share a prayer request. “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord’” (v. 8).
This is a remarkable request—remarkable because it shows how much Pharaoh had learned about the ways of God. For starters, he had learned God’s name. The first time he encountered Moses, he said “Who is the Lord …?… I do not know the Lord” (Exod. 5:2). Pharaoh’s speech to Moses and Aaron begins and ends with the special name of the Lord.
Pharaoh had also learned something about God’s power. The reason he summoned Moses and Aaron was because he knew that this plague was a divine miracle. He knew that God had sent the frogs and that only God could take them away. By asking for their removal, he was admitting that the Lord God of Israel had power over all creation. Pharaoh even seems to have understood that the way to gain access to that power was through prayer. The word he used for prayer (atar) is the word for supplication, for making a humble entreaty.
He ended his speech by making the first of several concessions: “I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord” (Exod. 8:8b). This turned out to be a lie, of course. People will promise God anything when they are in trouble, but the promise is soon forgotten. Nevertheless, Pharaoh’s promise clearly shows that he understood what God demanded of him. At some level he knew that God’s people were made for God’s glory and that he needed to let the Israelites go and make sacrifices to their God.
Rather than asking God to take away his sins, he asked God to take away the frogs. Pharaoh wanted relief from the punishment for his sin without being willing to repent of the sin itself.
Prayer is one of the best tests of a person’s true spiritual condition. A life of prayer depends on a personal, saving relationship with God. Because he is omniscient and omnipresent, God knows and hears every prayer that has ever been uttered. But the only prayers that have a claim on his fatherly heart are the ones that are offered to him through His Son.
The Power of Prayer
What was curious in this case was his decision to put the prayer off until the following day. This is what happened:
Moses said to Pharaoh, “I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.”
“Tomorrow,” Pharaoh said.
Moses replied, “It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the Lord our God. The frogs will leave you and your houses, your officials and your people; they will remain only in the Nile.” (Exod. 8:9–11)
What was Pharaoh thinking? Most Egyptians would have asked for the plague to stop right away. But Pharaoh said, “Just give me one more night with these frogs, Moses.” Maybe he was fond of amphibians. Perhaps he still hoped they would hop away on their own, so he could avoid needing God’s help. Or perhaps—and this seems more likely—he thought that even God would need at least twenty-four hours to get rid of so many frogs.
Whatever Pharaoh was thinking, it is not hard to guess what Moses had in mind. By letting Pharaoh decide when the frogs would croak (so to speak), he was showing his absolute confidence in the power of God. Moses gave Pharaoh the advantage of setting the time, which would prove that his power came from God. The next day, at Pharaoh’s request, Moses made intercession for Egypt: “After Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh, Moses cried out to the Lord about the frogs he had brought on Pharaoh. And the Lord did what Moses asked. The frogs died in the houses, in the courtyards and in the fields. They were piled into heaps, and the land reeked of them” (vv. 12–14).
The end of the plague was every bit as much a divine miracle as the plague itself. Some of the frogs hopped back into the Nile, where they belonged. The rest of them died all over Egypt. There were heaps and heaps of them. Their carcasses were stacked into giant piles, where they rotted under the hot African sun. This is the kind of detail that comes from someone who actually witnessed the events. No doubt it made Pharaoh wish he had been more specific about how he wanted the frogs removed! Even after massive cleanup efforts, he still had a public health crisis on his hands. This, too, was an act of divine judgment. The removal of the plague also turned out to be a curse, as God made the Egyptians face the consequences of their sins. Earlier the Hebrews had complained that Moses had made them “a stench to Pharaoh” (Exod. 5:21). Here the Bible uses the very same word to show that Egypt had become a stench before God!
Notice why the frogs croaked. They croaked because God answers prayer. Once he had promised that God would end the plague, Moses devoted himself to prayer. The Bible says that he “cried out to the Lord” (Exod. 8:12; cf. 17:4). His intercession was fervent, almost desperate. The verb “cry out” (tsaʿaq) is used elsewhere in the book of Exodus to describe the way the Hebrews cried out against their slave drivers (Exod. 5:15) and the way they cried out for salvation when they came to the Red Sea (Exod. 14:15). It may seem strange that on this occasion he cried out on behalf of Pharaoh, but Moses was not praying for Pharaoh’s good as much as he was praying for God’s glory. He had put God’s reputation on the line by promising a miracle; so he pleaded for God to show his power by ending the plague.
One of the believer’s great privileges is access to God through prayer, especially in times of disaster and distress. Sometimes we intercede on behalf of others, asking God to have mercy on those who suffer storms, famines, and earthquakes. On other occasions we are forced to plead for our own deliverance. But whenever we cry out, and for whatever reason, God will hear our prayers. Centuries later, when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he asked that if the Israelites ever had to be judged for their sins like the Egyptians, God would hear their cries for mercy. He prayed, “When famine or plague comes to the land … whatever disaster or disease may come, and when a prayer or plea is made by any of your people Israel—each one aware of the afflictions of his own heart, and spreading out his hands toward this temple—then hear from heaven, your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:37–39). This promise is still good. Whatever disaster may come, we may spread out our hands to God in prayer, and he will hear us from Heaven.
A Little Breathing Room
Pharaoh promised that as soon as the frogs were gone, he would let God’s people go. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said” (Exod. 8:15). Moses prayed, God answered, and then Pharaoh broke his promise. It was the first time he went back on his word, but it wouldn’t be the last. Pharaoh was the kind of man who says anything to get out of trouble, but as soon as his troubles are over, he goes right back to his old selfish ways.
This shows what was wrong with Pharaoh’s prayer in the first place. Like a lot of people, he only wanted God to take away the consequences of his sin; he might never had any intention of getting rid of the sin itself.
This is how Pharaoh should have begun his prayer—by asking God to take away his sins, not his frogs! But Pharaoh wasn’t interested in having a relationship with God. He was motivated entirely by self-interest, and once he had a little breathing room, he reneged on his promise to live for God’s glory.
Pharaoh’s poor example shows the danger of making a temporary commitment to God that falls short of obedient faith. One is reminded of Jesus’ parable about two sons whose father asked them to work in the fields (Matt. 21:28–31). One of the sons told his father that he wouldn’t go but ended up doing the job after all. The other son promised to do his chores but never went out to the fields. It was the first son who actually did his father’s will. Pharaoh was like the second son, the one who went back on his promise. Jesus ended his parable with a warning that salvation is only for those who follow through. A false promise of obedience will not lead to eternal life. It is not enough simply to say that we are Christians or that perhaps someday we will get saved. If we want God to save us, we must really and truly come to Jesus Christ.
Once again, John uses the plague of frogs as a metaphor for the judgment God was going to bring on the Roman Empire. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:13, 14). The only people who were safe on that dreadful day were those who belonged to Jesus Christ—not those who needed to borrow a prayer from someone else, but those who Christ themselves.
Take home message: Prayer, alone, does not have the power to remove sin. Prayer does not put us into contact with the blood of Christ. Baptism is when sins are washed away. But Christians need to live by prayer.
Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 225–235.