There is a calculated escalation to be seen in the plagues. One can see patterns of two and patterns of three.
If you take the plagues in groups of two, you will notice that the first have to do with the Nile. God strikes the river of the land of the Nile, starting with its most obvious feature and that on which it most depends. He turns the water to blood and all the fish die, and then he brings frogs from the river. Horrible as these plagues are, they are only annoyances compared to what follows.
The next two plagues have to do with insects: the lice and flies. First the water, now the multiplied airborne insects, what is next? Epidemics, that’s what. The fifth plague is the disease of the cattle, the sixth is boils, on man and beast. Both have this in common, they are medical epidemics.
What is next? The stupendous hail and the locusts. God is targeting their crops in these. First the water went bad, then insects, next disease was rampant, and now their food supply is drastically depleted. What can be next?
The last two are the awful, sinister darkness during which nothing happens, and then the angel of death’s visitation at midnight, that most targeted of all the plagues. These are sinister, constituting a kind of psychological warfare. God begins gently enough, but with real warning, and escalates through each pair.
The other way to look at the plagues is in triads. Triads are the natural grouping that the pattern in which each plague is announced suggests. Moses is told to meet Pharaoh early in the morning by the river, or early in the morning, implying by the river, in the first, fourth and seventh plagues. The second, fifth, and eight plague are done by going into Pharaoh, presumably in his court. The third, sixth, and most dreadfully the ninth plague come unannounced. The pattern suggests God wants us to group them that way. What do we get if we do?
At the opening of each triad there is an escalation. You can see at the end of the third triad that the magicians warn about the finger of god. The fourth plague is when God first uses his finger to trace a line between Israel and Egypt (with flies, no less). The first triad are annoyances, but the second triad will go beyond it: that is when the epidemics spread. The last triad is introduced with the most narrated plague, and the most spectacular: the hail and fire. It is a warning of worse to come.
I think one of the points of it all is that the tenth plague is going to be correspondingly awful, like having another triad all in one. Another point is that God is doing two things simultaneously: giving Pharaoh a warning that starts relatively easily, though ominously, and gets sterner and sterner; while at the same time he is hardening his heat, by providing the scraps of excuse the perverse heart of Pharaoh searches in order to refuse the reality he is facing. There is something very terrible in knowing that the third plague comes unannounced when suddenly the unexpected darkness comes on Egypt.
God’s terrible plagues accomplish at least 5 things: (1) they relax Egypt’s grip long enough for Israel to go; (2) had God just smitten Egypt wholesale outright, Israel would never have attempted their emigration, since they could have just occupied Egypt—so they also create in Israel an expectation of departure; (3) the plundering of the Egyptians is possible when Egypt envisions further escalations if Israel doesn’t leave; (4) Moses acquires some stature as a leader, growing in his own confidence and in the people’s confidence in him; (5) Egypt has been reduced, and once its military power is destroyed also, it will be in no position to flex its muscle at neighboring states.
God went to war. When finally the irresistible army of Egypt was drowned, the people saw it. They realized the whole thing had been structured and were overawed at the scale on which God works. And the whole thing is a pattern of a greater deliverance which is coming and in which God’s enemies will be overcome with utter, apocalyptic finality.
Exodus 5:2 And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.”
Before the Lord revealed to Moses the name YHWH, nobody had it. No wonder Pharaoh didn’t know the name.
Pharaoh knew plenty of names: there was no lack of them in the Egyptian pantheon. And that was part of his wisdom, that he knew the names, what they stood for, what they did, how they kept the universe running, how they preserved the balance of life in Egypt. Pharaoh was at the center of all the networked festivals by which his land and his people prospered and were dominant. Pharaoh even had magicians who did real magic.
One way Pharaoh would know the Lord would be the Lord’s dealing with the craft of Egypt’s magicians.
First their rods are confiscated. We might think, when they turn their own rods into snakes, Why did God allow that to happen? Doesn’t it make his own sign counterproductive? Why didn’t he stop them from turning their rods into snakes? It was because God wanted to take their rods away. God is putting a reputation on Aaron’s rod (Matthew Henry’s phrase), and he is confiscating the symbols of Egypt.
Then the magicians are able to turn water to blood. Not very helpful at that point; it would have been far better if they could have diminished the amount of blood and countered God’s power, but they could not. They could tack on a sympathetic achievement that only made the whole situation a little bit worse than the calamity it already was. So it shows their limitations, but not altogether.
Next the magicians manage to multiply frogs! This is not helpful either, the problem being an the overabundance of frogs. It would have been interesting if they had been able to annihilate many of them easily. Instead, whether because it did not occur to them to do otherwise or because they were unable to annihilate them, they bring forth a few more, adding to the mess.
It is a picture of the craft and power of Egypt limping along behind the great deeds of the Lord and preening itself ridiculously on its puny and pathetic imitations.
At last God put a stop to it. They were able to get frogs from the Nile, but when it came to making gnats, the magicians had to admit their inability. You would think frogs would be harder! But God drew the line with the gnats, and they saw that the line was draws by the finger of God, and suddenly were unable to remain as scornful of YHWH as formerly.
The last we see of the magicians is when there is an epidemic that disfigures the Egyptians. In this plague, the magicians are unable to even make and appearance, let alone try to create more boils on Pharaoh and his court. They have been outclassed: their rods confiscated, their damage limited, their moment allowed for the sake of hardening Pharaoh’s heart in increments, their power broken and themselves defeated and dishonored.
Pharaoh will never know the Lord savingly, will never see him in a believing way. But he will know that the Lord can humiliate the craft and sorcery of Egypt’s wisest practitioners: they are no match for the Lord. The power and craft of the greatest nation on the planet was no match for the Lord. God was on the way to save his people.
Moses, Moses! The Lord says.
Moses is out in the wilderness, far from human habitation. Living by himself with the foraging flocks. Sleeping under those vast, starry skies which no doubt obtained in those times. Eating stale bread. Did he hunt? Was he armed against predators besides his staff? Did he wander so far into the wilderness because he wanted to be alone? Because he was trained to look out for himself? Because he just got tired of the pointless tedium of Midianite life?
How many days in the wilderness at a time did Moses go?
He finds a bush burning endlessly, and climbs up to see a bit more, and then to his astonishment he is addressed by name.
A.W. Tozer used to preach about having a personal encounter with the Living God, and that is what Moses is having. He is having an encounter with one who knows his name already.
This is not the first time God has repeated someone’s name, nor is it the last. Abraham, Abraham! The messenger of the Lord called at the last moment. It was nearly a cry of alarm. A shout of warning to make sure Abraham’s attention was obtained and his action arrested.
Samuel, Samuel! was called at another moment. The Lord there wanted Samuel’s attention, and the occasion was also a warning. He had a warning for Eli’s house, news that would shock and amaze.
The call also comes with authority. How is Samuel instructed to respond? The reply Samuel learns indicates a receptive and submissive disposition. In Abraham’s case, the original commandment is abrogated. It would require equal or superior authority to do that.
And so I conclude that at the burning bush there was a monitory purpose. Beware of the sanctified ground! Do not approach it casually! Beware of God! Recognize that your everyday approach is inappropriate. And prepare for further instructions.
So Moses took off his sandals, having walked into the third and climactic phase of his life.
There are two further instances of something similar in Scripture. Saul, Saul! That was another arresting moment, interrupting a course of life and followed by instructions. No doubt intended to evoke a parallel to the commissioning of Moses: the commissioning of an extraordinary apostle.
The last instance is not one in which the Lord himself utters the double vocative but is actually the one addressed: Lord, Lord! Insincerely, it turns out. Not all who say to me Lord, Lord!
It is no ordinary thing to have a personal encounter with God. Blessed are those whose name God knows and calls.
For a while, Moses was a shepherd. He worked for his father-in-law, the way his ancestor Jacob had worked for his (though Moses had a far better father-in-law than Jacob did). Jacob never really worked another job: we know he cooked; he was incredibly strong, so presumably he did physically demanding things; but the main thing always was that he was good with flocks and herds, very successful at it, diligent, hardworking if not always shrewd. He lived in exile all his life, at home a wanderer or away from it in settled country, or in Egyptian exile, till he found rest at last in a grave with his ancestors.
Moses, however, was trained in the court of Egypt. The Egyptians, we know, looked down on those who kept herds and flocks: "for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians,” as Joseph explained to his family in Genesis 46:34. When Moses identified with his oppressed people, the Hebrews, and as a result of his rash actions had to flee, he ended up a shepherd like his ancestors had been.
The first part of his life, his first forty years were lived in what were probably the best circumstances anybody could have in that ancient time of the world, materially. But he must also have lived with an inner conflict of identity: the training his mother no doubt gave him never to forget his true origins; the patently Hebrew name; a protegee of Pharaoh's daughter, among the elite of the world's elite; his outer appearance as Egyptian as a Sphinx, and as enigmatically so, since inwardly and from his earliest memories he knew that he belonged to the people Egypt exploited and oppressed.
It must have been a relief, along with disappointment, to find himself away from the growing inner struggle. It burst forth in that murder which marked the end of his Egyptian identity and caused his flight. Then came the forty years during which he kept the flocks of Jethro his father-in-law, having left everything behind. He must have given up on his people, to some extent: we know from the enigmatic story in chapter four that Moses even neglected to circumcise his children. What wildernesses must those forty years have been for one trained in all the wisdom of Egypt?
"I am a sojourner in a foreign land," he remarks on the occasion of celebrating his firstborn. Was it an ironic remark? When had he ever lived in his own country? An exile from his family, an exile from his circumstances, an exile from all the world when God finds him in chapter three. And when would he ever, until he came to that country John Bunyan has called Immanuel's Land, find a home?
Forty years into his new job Moses leads the animals into uninhabited land in search of forage. He lives in Midian, east of Egypt, but he is heading west. And it is only then, that momentous first verse of chapter three tells us, that he came at last to Horeb, the mountain of God.