Journey to Freedom – Plague #5: A Plague on Your Livestock (Exo. 9:1-7)
A Plague on Your Livestock
It was in 1985 that English farmers first noticed they had a problem. Some of their cattle were sick, and as they weakened physically, they also deteriorated mentally. It was a strange disease. Infected cattle behaved erratically, becoming either fearful or aggressive. They seemed to be going mad, which is how the disease got the name mad cow disease, more properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The last stages of mad cow disease were frightening. Cattle staggered around the farm until finally they stumbled to the ground and died. But the disease became even more frightening in 1995 when doctors discovered that it had to spread to humans. Individuals who had eaten contaminated beef lost their minds. Their brain tissue was gradually eaten away until it came to resemble a sponge.
Since there was no treatment and no cure, mad cow disease started a panic across Europe, becoming one of the most terrifying plagues of postmodern times. It naturally reminds us of one of the biblical plagues. In the days of Moses, God struck Pharaoh with ten mighty blows. The fifth was a plague on Egypt’s livestock. Much like mad cow disease, it was an infectious disease that spread from one cow to the next. It not only infected cattle, however, but also horses, donkeys, camels, sheep, and goats. The plague was a deadly contagion—epidemic in its onset and lethal in its outcome. The Hebrew original uses the same word that it often uses to describe Pharaoh’s heart: kabed or “heavy.” In other words, the plague was as hard as Pharaoh’s hard, hard heart. It was a terrible pestilence that swept across Egypt like wildfire, infecting the beasts of burden on every farm until they fell down dead.
THE FIFTH PLAGUE:
As we have seen before, most of the time, God warned Pharaoh of the plague that God was about to send: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and speak to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Exod. 9:1).
If I have counted correctly, this is the eighth appearance of Moses in front of Pharaoh. Notice that Moses identifies God as “Lord” - Jehovah, the unique name for the true God - and “God of the Hebrews.” God wanted to make sure Pharaoh was going to identify Jehovah with the Hebrew people whom Pharaoh had enslaved. God is identified as the “God the Hebrews” half a dozen times, all in Exodus: 3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3.
Once again, God’s command to Pharaoh has not changed since the first appearance four chapters ago: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” The word “serve” is used as a synonym here for “worship.” It is used 31 times in Exodus. God wants, God demands, God deserves service. We have noted before that God considered Israel His people. He had entered into a covenant with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and God demanded Pharaoh to release them so they could be what God wanted them to be, and do what God wanted them to do.
God had a plan for Israel, which He told Abraham back in Genesis 12:1-3. God had to bring the Savior into the world, through the family of Abraham. And Israel did not need to be surrounded by idols and pagan worship, otherwise, they would become polytheists and would not believe in the one true God nor in His only unique Son. So it was imperative for the salvation of the world for Pharaoh to let Israel go!
God warned Pharaoh: “For if you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them, behold, the hand of the Lord will come with a very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.” In Hebrew, the last words of verse three are actually: “a very heavy plague. Pharaoh was continuing to refuse and he was continuing to “hold” or “seize them” in his grip.
God has struck the heart of their economy; He has struck their goddess of fertility; He has struck their ground. He has made a complete nuisance of the smallest things in Egypt. Now, God strikes their livestock - what they depended on for food, for drink, for clothing, for labor, for transportation - notice how comprehensive this plague is: livestock, horses, donkeys, camels, herds, and flocks. Cattle, goats, sheep - everything. Not only this, but the Egyptians worshipped many of these animals as images of their gods!
This plague is described as the “hand of the Lord” (ver. 3) while the plague in 8:19 was identified as the “finger of God.”
As we have pointed out before, this is a legitimate plague. While the disease may have very well been a real disease which had impacted Egypt before - just like the frogs, lice, and gnats were all normal - it was still a miraculous sign because it was completely under God’s control. Notice in verse 5 that the Lord will set a definite time when the plague would come, and it came when God said it would!
Also, as we have pointed out before, in the last plague, God makes a miraculous distinction between the land of Egypt and the land of Israel. Read verse 4: ““But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing will die of all that belongs to the sons of Israel.”’” Then we see in verse 6 that God did exactly what He said He would do: “So the Lord did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the sons of Israel, not one died.”
Israel was God’s people. Israel was the nation through whom God had chosen to bring Jesus into the world. Egypt was not. God needed Israel free; Pharaoh did not need Israel as slaves. Pharaoh would release Israel; he just didn’t know it yet!
Here, let me point out something that might seem to be a contradiction. First, verse 6 is very clear and to emphasize the point, the Hebrew language repeats itself in different words. Notice: “all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the sons of Israel, not one died.” In Hebrew, the last phrase reads: “there did not die one.” That is a matter of emphasis.
But, in March, we’ll study Plague #7 and we’ll see in 9:19 that there were still livestock alive in Egypt and God warns Pharaoh to bring the livestock in from the field or they would die in the plague of hail.
This solution to this appears to be - notice again in our text, 9:3 - that the livestock here killed were livestock that were outside, in the field. Then the seventh plague would have killed, potentially, livestock that were kept inside during the fifth plague but let outside by the time the 7th plague hit.
DESTROYING THE EMBLEMS OF PHARAOH’S PAGANISM:
Ancient Egyptian literature often referred to the “strong hand of Pharaoh,” especially in military contexts. The hand of Pharaoh is nothing - a paper tiger - compared to the hand of Jehovah God! Or even the “finger” of Jehovah God!
I have pointed out before Numbers 33:4: “The Lord had also executed judgments on their gods.” That’s what Moses had said in Exodus 12:12: “against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord.”
I have pointed out before that many of Egypt’s gods and goddess were symbolized by cattle. The bull was the symbol of fertility. The chief bull which was worshipped was Apis. In the Egyptian city of Memphis, Egyptian priests kept a bull which they considered to be the incarnation of the god Apis. They buried him with an elaborate ritual when he died.
Isis was the queen of the gods and she was generally depicted with the horns of a cow. The goddess Hathor was pictured with the head of a cow, usually with the sun between the horns. She was also a goddess of fertility. Often times Hathor is pictured nursing Pharaoh, providing his nourishment. Again, we understand why Aaron made a golden calf in Exodus 32. That’s what he was use to, what he had grown up with! But doing things because “everyone else is doing it” is rarely a good idea!
Picture these cattle growing sick, staggering, and falling down dead. Over a period of days, maybe weeks, or months. Again, we do not know how long God caused these plagues to drag on. People who thought the cattle were symbols of their gods are now having to bury their gods. Cows, along with any other created being, is not worthy to be worshipped.
Lessons TO LEARN FROM THE Plague:
First, we learn what it means to be delivered. The whole purpose of the plagues was to get Pharaoh to let Israel go free. With the fourth plague, God starts making a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites. In other words, God is delivering the Israelites from the plagues He is bringing on Egypt, just as we mentioned last week that God was going to protect His Christians from the impact of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Of course from our perspective, the whole Bible is about the deliverance of man from sin. The theme of the Bible in one sentence is: The salvation of man through Jesus Christ to the glory of God. So, the theme of the Exodus in one sentence is: The salvation of Israel through the plagues to the glory of God. Jesus came, Paul writes in Romans 8:21, so we could “be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Beginning in May, our Wednesday night Bible class is going to study Paul’s letter of Galatians and the letter of Galatians has as its theme, “Freedom:” “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Now, the yoke of slavery Paul is talking about is the Law of Moses. But, the freedom we have in Christ is not freedom to create our own version of Christianity!
Listen to Paul: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).
Or Peter: “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16).
Secondly, the exodus plagues help us grasp what is the purpose of life. Why are we here? Why did God call Israel out of Egypt? So they would serve and worship the one true God, 9:1. The reason why we exist is the love of God. He wanted someone on whom He could shower His glory and we glorify Him in return. Paul writes: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Paul also wrote in Ephesians 2:10, that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Jesus summarized those “good works” by saying we are to love God supremely and serve our fellow man sacrificially (Matt. 22:37-39). That’s to the glory of God.
Third, we learn how silly and pointless and purposeless it is to serve other gods besides the true God. God destroyed Pharaoh’s gods systematically, one by one.
You and I sometimes worship the same gods as the Egyptians; we just don’t call them by the same name. But anytime we decide to put our own values or preferences or desires above the word of God, we are in effect, turning our own values into gods. But serving the gods of man will not bring hope and satisfaction for the soul's needs, nor salvation.
Fourth, we see how strong faith is and how strong it can be. God made a distinction between Israel and Egypt, in the last plague and in this one. Imagine how the Israelites had to trust, as they started seeing the Egyptians’ cows fall dead, that God would protect them from that same “mad cow disease.” The ultimate dividing line today between those who are saved and those who are lost is our response to Jesus Christ. It’s just that simple. Do we trust His word and obey His commandments? Or do we trust ourselves and live by our own wisdom? The resurrection of Christ is the ultimate encouragement for us to trust Him and do what He says to do.
The fifth lesson is the consequence that happens when we refuse to obey. The longer we refuse to obey, the harder our hearts become and the less likely it is that we will obey. Pharaoh had the option at this point to humble his heart and submit his decisions to God’s decisions. Notice back in verse 2 that God said, “If you refuse…” That shows that Pharaoh had the free will to make the right choice. But Paul warns us in 1 Timothy 4:2 that it is possible for us to deceive ourselves, or to allow ourselves to be deceived, to such a point that our conscience becomes seared and we are no longer interested in truth. The Hebrew writer warns that at that point, it becomes impossible for us to be renewed for repentance (6:6). Eventually, just like Pharaoh, if we are in that state, we will suffer horrible consequences.
An Understanding Heart:
Notice one final thing from our text, verse 7: “Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.” Yes, we need to keep our hearts humble to God and His word and His commands and seek with all our hearts to understand His will and to obey His will.
In this example, Pharaoh had had a front-row-seat to God’s plagues. Now, he sends to verify the fact that not one cattle among the Israelites was dead. Not one! His willingness to submit to God has waned back and forth. God had told Pharaoh to “send” and Pharaoh did “send,” but he sent to verify what God had done. And he learned the truth and still hardened his heart!
People - maybe you and me - study the word of God all the time. But when we allow our preconceived ideas to influence how we read the Bible rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to teach and instruct us through the Bible, then we are not very different from Pharaoh. If knowledge of the Bible does not change our thinking and our behavior, nothing will!
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus has Lazarus tell the rich man, who was suffering in terrible ways in hades, that if his brothers, who were still alive, did not listen to the Law of Moses and the prophets obey their message, his brothers would not be persuaded to change their minds if someone were to rise from the dead (16:31).
By this point in the account, Pharaoh had more than enough knowledge to submit to Jehovah God and obey His will. God has destroyed and proven impotent at least five Egyptian gods. Pharaoh’s religion was false. But Pharaoh would not yield his stubborn heart to the God epitomized by love.
Take home message: We need to have a heart that understands the will of God and submits to that will if we are to be saved.