Journey to Freedom – Plague #6: I Can’t Stand the Itch!
Can’t Stand that Itch!
King Solomon had observed that no matter how often a fool is crushed by the consequences of his foolish mistakes, somehow his folly always manages to survive. Hence the proverb: “Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, Yet his foolishness will not depart from him” (Prov. 27:22).
With each new plague, God was grinding Pharaoh between the mortar of his justice and the pestle of his wrath. Yet no matter how finely Egypt was ground, Pharaoh’s folly remained.
First God turned the river into blood; but Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses. Then came all the frogs, and Pharaoh asked for prayer; but as soon as he got some relief, he hardened his heart once again. Next, insects swarmed all over Egypt. The magicians said it was the finger of God, but Pharaoh refused to listen. The fourth plague was flies, and Pharaoh finally decided to let God’s people go; but as soon as the flies were gone, he changed his mind. Then all the livestock died, and yet Pharaoh’s heart still refused to yield. Five plagues, and he was as big a fool as ever.
BOILS! - 9:8-11:
What was it going to take? Well, perhaps Pharaoh would relent if God afflicted his body. Physical suffering has a way of getting someone’s attention in a way that nothing else can. So God sent a sixth plague, the plague of boils: “Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take for yourselves handfuls of soot from a kiln, and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over all the land of Egypt, and will become boils breaking out with sores on man and beast through all the land of Egypt.” So they took soot from a kiln, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses threw it toward the sky, and it became boils breaking out with sores on man and beast. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians.”
The word translated “boils” (shechin) occurs a dozen times in the Old Testament and is used for a variety of infectious skin ailments. In Leviticus 13 it seems to refer to leprosy. That might also work for Exodus 9, especially since nothing is ever said about the disease going away; leprosy is incurable. Others have suggested that the Egyptians had smallpox.
A common suggestion is skin anthrax. What is certain is that the Egyptians contracted a skin disease that was extremely unpleasant, if not actually life-threatening. The Bible describes inflamed areas of skin, festering boils that broke out into blistering sores. The same ailment is described in Deuteronomy 28, where God warns the Israelites what would happen to them if they failed to keep God’s law: “The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed… The Lord will strike you on the knees and legs with sore boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (vv. 27, 35). Let it be noted, family, that God does not tolerate disobedience!
Now, things are starting to get personal. The first five plagues had been a real bother. The Egyptians had seen rivers of blood and had lost herds of livestock. Pharaoh himself had seen frogs jump in and out of his bed and had tried to shoo flies away from his royal person. But nothing drove them all crazy like this plague. The Egyptians were covered with painful, open sores from head to toe. This showed that the God of Israel had power over their bodies, and it should have warned them that their very lives were in danger.
Like the other plagues, the boils were a genuine miracle. No merely natural explanation is sufficient to account for all the details in this passage. The plague was miraculous in its onset. It came unannounced—a disaster without warning. The plague was miraculous in its method. Moses and Aaron scooped black soot from a furnace, and when they tossed it into the air, the soot was transformed into “fine dust over all the land of Egypt” (Exod. 9:9). What happened next was equally miraculous: The dust caused boils to break out, but only on the Egyptians. Verse 11 specifies that the boils were “on all the Egyptians.” As we have seen, God used the plagues to discriminate between his people and Pharaoh’s people. Egypt was plagued, while Israel was protected. In this respect, as in all others, the outbreak of boils was a miraculous demonstration of God’s infinite power over creation.
Like the first five blows that God struck against the Egyptians, the sixth plague had three results: first, Pharaoh’s gods were humbled; second, Pharaoh’s magicians were humiliated; and third, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
The Egyptians—who were well-known for their interest in medicine—looked to their religion for healing. Many worshiped Amon Re, the creator-god whom one ancient text describes as “he who dissolves evils and dispels ailments; a physician who heals.” Others worshiped Thoth, who was the god of the healing arts. Still others worshiped Imhotep as the god of medicine, although he became more popular after the exodus. But the most common deity for dealing with disease was Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess.
The plague of boils was an attack on all the gods and goddesses that the Egyptians trusted for healing: Number 33:4. When the Egyptians were covered with painful, oozing sores, they discovered that their gods could not heal.
Before dismissing the Egyptians for their folly, it is important to recognize that we are tempted to worship the same deities. This is an age of remarkable progress in medicine—the age of lasers and CAT scans, of antibiotics and anesthesia. During the twentieth century many diseases were virtually eradicated, diseases like polio and small pox. In the next hundred years scientists may well discover cures for killers like AIDS, cancer, BSE (mad cow disease), and the Ebola virus. Genetic research will develop new forms of treatment for hereditary diseases, including medicines that manipulate human DNA.
As a result of our advanced knowledge of the body and its various ailments, it is tempting to make medicine an object of faith. Most patients go to the hospital believing they will be cured. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Doctors and nurses sometimes make mistakes. They don’t always make the right diagnosis or prescribe the right treatment. Besides, there is still no cure for death. So medicine has its limits. Despite all our skill at healing, we are not sovereign over the human body. This means that medical expertise must never become our source of ultimate confidence for physical well-being. Medicine makes a wonderful tool but a poor deity. Whenever we get a prescription filled or go in for surgery or start chemotherapy, we should remember that all healing comes from God and that Christ alone is Lord of the body. In Exodus 15:26, God told Israel, “I, the Lord, am your healer.” It is in that context that Jesus Christ presents Himself as the “Great Physician.” He is Jehovah God in the flesh and Matthew tells us that Jesus took all our sickness and all our diseases upon Himself (Matt. 8:17).
At the same time that the God of Israel was humbling the gods of Egypt, he was humiliating Pharaoh’s magicians. This had been going on for some time. Although the magicians had used their secret arts to imitate the plagues of blood and frogs, they were unable to replicate the plague of bugs. The fourth and fifth plagues say nothing at all about the magicians. Presumably they were present, however—not to compete with God but simply to witness his power. Yet this plague was different. Not only were they powerless to prevent it and impotent to imitate it, but they themselves were afflicted by it.
To understand how completely God humiliated Pharaoh’s magicians, it helps to know that by throwing ashes into the air, Moses was doing something that Egyptian priests often did. It was customary for Pharaoh’s priests to take sacrificial ashes and cast them into the air as a sign of blessing. But God took that ritual act and turned it into a curse. This was a matter of justice, because the soot may well have come from a furnace for making bricks, like the bricks the Israelites baked for Pharaoh. If so, God was exacting strict justice, repaying the Egyptians for their sins.
Another thing that made this plague humiliating was that infectious disease prevented the magicians from carrying out their religious duties. The Egyptians valued purity; so a priest covered with open sores would have been unable to perform his customary rituals. By thus denying their access to their deities, God made a mockery of Pharaoh’s magicians. Their defeat was so complete, their humiliation so absolute, that the book of Exodus never mentions them again.
One more thing about the magicians needs to be mentioned. The Bible says that in contrast to Moses, who “stood before Pharaoh” (Exod. 9:10), they “could not stand before Moses” (v. 11). They just couldn’t stand it; they had to go somewhere else and scratch! Pharaoh’s evil magicians were unable to stand in the presence of God’s holy prophet. Similarly, the Bible teaches that “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (Ps. 1:5a).
This was true for Pharaoh’s magicians, and it will be equally true for every sinner who refuses to trust in and submit to Jesus Christ for salvation. Unless we are covered with his blood by faith, we will never be able to stand before God.
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened - 9:12:
Sadly, the plague of boils ended the same way all the other plagues ended—with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Here, for the first time, the Bible explicitly says that God was the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. After each of the first five plagues, the Scripture says “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Exod. 7:22), or he “hardened his heart” (Exod. 8:15), or “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (Exod. 9:7). However, this time it says that his heart was hard because God made it hard: “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses” (Exod. 9:12).
When God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he was simply confirming the decision that Pharaoh had already made. God promised to harden it for him. The Lord had told Moses, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exod. 4:21b).
God used Pharaoh’s hard heart, his seared conscience, to demonstrate his justice and to demonstrate his power, as we will discover when we get to the seventh plague (Exod. 9:16). He did it also to display his mercy. As God said to Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments” (Exod. 7:3, 4).
HOW WE SHOULD VIEW ILLNESSES:
What should Pharaoh have done? When he found himself covered with painful sores from head to toe, rather than hardening his heart, what would have been the right way for him to respond? One way to answer that question is to see what godly people have done in similar circumstances. The Bible contains many examples of men and women who dealt with serious illness not by hardening their hearts but by turning back to God.
The first to come to mind is Job, who had symptoms almost identical to Pharaoh’s. Job was a righteous man who suffered many wrongs at the hands of Satan. He lost his livestock, his servants, and his children; yet he continued to praise God. This made Satan so angry that he “went out from the presence of the Lord and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). This was excruciating. The Bible says that “he took a potsherd to scrape himself while he was sitting among the ashes” (v. 8). He was so miserable that his wife recommended suicide, saying, “Curse God and die!” (v. 9). But Job said to his wife, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (v. 10). The answer, of course, is “No!” Job understood that God is sovereign over sickness as well as over health. When we endure physical suffering, rather than hardening our hearts, we should accept God’s will. Pharaoh should have done what Job did: Instead of hardening his heart, he should have surrendered to God’s sovereignty in his suffering.
Or Pharaoh could have followed the example of David. Like Pharaoh, David was a king; and like Pharaoh, he suffered for his sins. He said to God: “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my folly” (Psa. 38:3-5).
Some physical problems—lung cancer, for example, or syphilis—are the natural result of self-inflicted or sinful choices. Other problems are caused by the sins of others, as is the case when someone is injured by a drunk driver. Then there are ailments that come for some other reason entirely. Job is the perfect example: He did not suffer because he was a sinner, but because he was righteous. Yet there are also times when sickness is an act of God’s justice. Certainly this was true for the Egyptians.
Ordinarily it is impossible to know why God allows a particular disease to inflict a particular person. However, every illness is an opportunity to renew our dependence on God.
Now that God has given us his gospel, turning to him means turning to his Son, Jesus Christ. Although this is not something Pharaoh could have done, it is something we can do. There is a wonderful example in the Gospel of Mark, which tells of a woman who was so sick that she had been bleeding for twelve years. Her situation was desperate: “She had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse” (5:26). In her desperation she reached out to Jesus and held on for dear life. “For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction” (vv. 28, 29). Then Jesus turned and explained that it was her faith that had made her well. He said, “And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction” (v. 34).
One day this promise will come true for every child of God in a literal way. It does not always come true in this life, but it will and must come true in the life to come, when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). The hope of Heaven reminds us, whenever we have physical problems, not to harden our hearts like foolish Pharaoh but to turn back to God.
Take home message: When we have physical problems, let’s make sure we put our ultimate confidence in the sovereignty and power of God. He is our Healer.