The pestilence on the livestock of the Egyptians has been argued to have been Anthrax, but there is no real basis for drawing this conclusion. Without identifying the cause of the pestilence it is sufficient to realize the devastating effect the loss of the Egyptians livestock would have been.
Again Moses had warned Pharaoh that this plague was coming with a specific time for its occurrence. And as before this was yet another blow against the Egyptian religious system. All animal life was sacred to the gods of Egypt, and the Apis bull was considered to be divine.
The Apis Bull
In Egyptian mythology, Apis or Hapis (alternatively spelled Hapi-ankh), is a bull-deity that was worshipped in the Memphis region. According to Manetho, his worship was instituted by Kaiechos of the Second Dynasty. Hape (Apis) is named on very early monuments, but little is known of the divine animal before the New Kingdom. Ceremonial burials of bulls indicate that ritual sacrifice was part of the worship of the early cow deities and a bull might represent a king who became a deity after death. He was entitled “the renewal of the life” of the Memphite god Ptah: but after death he became Osorapis, i.e. the Osiris Apis, just as dead humans were assimilated to Osiris, the king of the underworld. This Osorapis was identified with the Hellenistic Serapis, and may well be identical with him. Greek writers make the Apis an incarnation of Osiris, ignoring the connection with Ptah.
This particular god, the Apis Bull, was shown to be impotent in the face of Yahweh, and all other gods were unable to protect that which belonged to them. Again the God of Israel was victorious.
For the second time a distinction was made between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. “And all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the sons of Israel, not one died.” There is a difference in that Pharaoh himself checked out the report and saw for himself that God had the power to make this kind of distinction.
These first five plagues had struck at the heart of the Egyptian religion. Because of the extreme discomfort of these plagues they were also a physical blow as well. This time the plague struck at the property of the Egyptians and was a costly matter for them. Hitting one in the bank book always gets that one’s attention. Still Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go.
The sixth plague comes without warning. Moses preformed a typical symbolic act of a prophet. Old Testament prophets carried out actions that were symbolic and that were believed in some way to actually affect historical events. (Isaiah 20:2-4 Jeremiah 19:10-11 Ezekiel 4:1-3) Moses threw the soot towards the sky and it blew over the land. Following this the people began to break out in boils or skin blisters.
There are two effects the boils would have had. First would be the great discomfort that they would cause. There is a little of the authors humor in his description of the Egyptian magicians discomfort because of the boils. They had earlier been forced to give up their contest with the God of the Israelites and now they were even unable to protect their own bodies. There is a deeper meaning to this plague.
In the ancient Near East Leprosy was the most dreaded disease. The effects of leprosy were horrible and literally caused the flesh to decay and drop of the body. There was no treatment or cure for leprosy. The only way to prevent the spread of leprosy was the isolation of the one who had been infected. A leper could not enter into a place of worship, visit a market, or be in touch with other people. Leprosy in its early stages is hard to diagnose. Because of this anyone with a skin disorder had to be isolated until it became clear whether or not they had leprosy.
When the people of Egypt broke out with these boils they would have been quarantined. The activities of major portions of the population would have been severely disrupted effecting the government, economy, and religion of the Egyptian people. They had an abundance of gods but the plague of the boils would have brought the observances at the shrines to a limp if not a halt. Once again the God of the Israelites was sovereign, putting the entire system of Egypt to flight.
With all this pressure from God Pharaoh still refused the demands of Moses and would not let the Israelites go. Although it had been earlier said that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21), this is the first time that “The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pressure from God will either cause a man to turn to repentance or to become more firmly set in his willful way. It had the later result on Pharaoh.
Then there came a massive hailstorm. There were great sounds of thunder and lightning. “Fire flashing,” was obviously referring to lightning.
There are some significant details recorded about this plague and its meaning. The time of the year is indicated in verses 31-32: “Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they ripen late.”
This would date the storm in mid-January, the time when these agricultural details were true in Egypt. This also explains why following such a devastating storm, there was herbage available for the locust to devour in the next plague. It was the early crops that the storm destroyed.
The purpose of this plague is clearly stated: “So that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.” We must remember that Pharaoh was to learn about God through experiencing Him, and did he ever!
Although God could have destroyed Pharaoh He had allowed him to live. “For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth.”But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. “Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.” Pharaoh probably did not feel that he had experienced God’s mercy, but he had. The providence of God had been aimed at showing Pharaoh that God was merciful in His use of power.
In spite of God’s power and mercy, Pharaoh had not learned anything. He was still exalting himself. The height of sin is self exaltation.
God warned Pharaoh before this plague to protect his servants and his livestock. This too was a new dimension to the plagues. Never had any protection been offered to the Egyptians during a plague. In response to this warning some of the people heeded God and some did not. At least some of the Egyptians were beginning to take God seriously.
The Hebrews again were exempted from the storm. Hailstorms were not unusual in Egypt but storms of this ferocity were unusual. Further it came when Moses said it would and where he said it would.
When the storm came Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh said “I have sinned this time; the LORD is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.” Pharaoh again requested that Moses would pray for him and his deliverance, but only from the storm. There was no sign of repentance in Pharaoh’s request, only an admission of guilt. Still this was a major step for Pharaoh who had only recently asked, “Who is the Lord?” (Exodus 5:2)
Moses recognized Pharaoh for what he was but still gave him the chance to prove otherwise. Nothing had changed and Pharaoh returned to his old stubbornness. This plague was also aimed at the gods of Egypt. Their gods were supposed to protect the crops and ensure a plentiful harvest. Once again, the God of the Israelites had shown Himself more powerful that the gods of Egypt.
Isaiah 20:2-4, Jeremiah 19:10-11, Ezekiel 4:1-3