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Shemot/Exodus 10:22 And Moshe stretched out his hand over the heavens and thick darkness was in all the land of Egypt three days.
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At the beginning of the ninth plague - the plague of darkness -HaShem tells Moshe to "Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched" (Shemot 10:21, NJPS) and our text details what happened next. There was indeed a darkness over the whole land of Egypt, except for the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt; there was no darkness there. We need to take a closer look at two of the phrases in the second half of the verse - "thick darkness" and "three days" to understand why this plague was happening and where that leads us.
Why a plague of darkness at all? What is the significance of darkness? The first thing to note is that this plague, like each of the others that preceded it, is an attack on one or more deities in the Egyptian pantheon. In this case, the target is the god Ra, the sun god, who was thought to be responsible for bringing the sun through the heavens each day and, as the sun is the source of light and heat, so fertility and life, a very significant target. The figure of Pharaoh was also considered to be the son of Ra and privy to his secrets, even dwelling with Ra in the heavens. An attack on Ra therefore not only discredits the god but also Pharaoh himself, since he too is afflicted but can do nothing about it.
Some modern scholars attempt to provide a natural explanation for the plague. Umberto Cassuto is typical, offering the idea that "the reference apparently is to a sand-storm; the sand coming from the wilderness will fill the air, so that it will be possible almost to feel it: a darkness to be felt. The phrase 'thick darkness' indicates the density of the darkness; the entire period of the sand-storm."1 Nahum Sarna takes a similar approach: "This affliction can be explained in terms of the khamsin wind storm. This scorching sirocco wind blows in each spring from Saharan Africa or from Arabia, enveloping the land in thick sand and dust. It may often persist for several days and blacken the sky in its wake." Notice that while the phenomenon is explained in natural terms, these proposals do not deny that the timing and force of nature was not scheduled in a miraculous way; they do not deny the divine hand although they soften the miraculous.
But if the darkness wasn't sand, then what was it? RabbiHirsch offers the slightly mystical idea that it was "the higher degree of darkness in which everything becomes doubtful." The Ramban tells us that "this darkness was not a mere absence of sunlight where the sun set and it was like night, Rather, it was a thick darkness. That is to say, it was a very thick cloud that came down from heaven." He adds that this is why Moshe was told to raise his arm to heaven: to symbolically pull the darkness down over the land of Egypt. These commentators want to be clear that this darkness was not simply the darkness of night. The Sforno says, to the contrary that, "the natural (normal) darkness of night will be removed. For indeed the darkness of night is atmosphere prepared to receive light. It is only dark due to the absence of light. This darkness will be a substance that cannot receive light because of its great density (thickness), not because of the absence of light." Our modern understanding of science makes it easy to scoff at such ideas, but they are pointing to the quality of the "thick darkness" as being completely different from the ordinary every day nighttime.
Peter Enns points to "the connection between this plague and creation. Darkness is a 'chaos' word. It was the first thing G-d brought under control by introducing light in B'resheet 1:3. A reintroduction of darkness brings creation back to its chaotic beginnings, which is a signal to the Egyptians of what awaits them at the sea."2 Walter Brueggemann continues this theme by affirming that "Moshe is commanded by HaShem to create a darkness; HaShem's intention is that the darkness should be 'felt', palpable, intense, ominous and impinging. The same word (, afeyla) is used in Amos 5:21, Zephaniah 1:15 and Joel 2:2 as a marker for the imminent judgement of G-d. With the coming of the darkness, the modest, flimsy ordering or reality by Pharaoh is easily dismissed and set aside. Pharaoh and all his company are exposed to the raw, unnoticing, silent power of chaos, from which there is no refuge or escape." In typical Brueggemann language, he adds: "All safeguards of an ordered world are withdrawn and dysfunctional. The empire is completely at risk."3
No, "this is not an ordinary darkness," Terence Fretheim agrees, using the same intensely physical feeling words: "It is a darkness that is palpable, which can be touched and felt. All human movement could be described with the word 'grope'. It was not a continuing night; the darkness made both day and night sheer blackness. The darkness language, anticipated in the previous plague (10:5,15) should make its function clear for both reader and Pharaoh. The phrase 'thick darkness' is used elsewhere for the devastating effects of G-d's judgement (Isaiah 8:22; Joel 2:2; Zephaniah 1:15). This is perhaps the clearest judgement language yet used ... the darkness of chaos, a pre-creation state of affairs."4 The Egyptians have triggered the invocation of the forces of creation itself, with the frightening prospect of creation reversal going on around them.
According to Thomas Dozeman, "it would be a mistake to interpret the plague of darkness as a reference to the night. 'Darkness' has a more primordial meaning than night ... the opposite of darkness is not day; it is light itself. Light and darkness are primordial qualities of creation in opposition. The creation of these opposites penetrates to the very core of the creator's power. YHVH proclaims, 'I am the L-RD and there is none else, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe -- I the L-RD do all these things' (Isaiah 45:6-7, NJPS). B'resheet 1:2 provides a partial window into the nature of the darkness when it pictures uncreated chaos as 'dark', 'wet' and 'formless'."5 So we can see that 'darkness' and 'night' are different things altogether, that just happen to share some characteristics in the way they are perceived by mankind. Egypt is being exposed to a measure of creation reversal - revealing the chaos that would ensue if G-d were not holding everything together. That is why they are so broken by this plague.
The last two words in the verse, , "three days", also attracts some comment. Nahum Sarna suggests that this is deliberately chosen to correspond "to the three-day journey for worship that Pharaoh had repeatedly refused to grant the Israelites", while Richard Elliott Friedman says that it is a "further indication that no natural occurrence, such as an eclipse, is intended here; no eclipse lasts three days." Reverting to the supposed role of the Egyptian gods in controlling the behaviour of the sun, Dozeman makes the telling point that "the three-day length of the plague underscores the power of YHVH to eliminate sunrise and sunset, to remove yesterday and tomorrow. There is no resurrection, no happy ending to the plague of darkness for the Egyptian people."
Matthew records that as Yeshua died on the cross, "behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:51-53, ESV). This is a degree of creation reversal, which lasted three days until "behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the L-rd descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it" (28:2, ESV). As we look around us today, we see growing the instability of created earth, with volcanoes erupting in parts of the world, tsunami waves triggered by plate tectonics on the ocean floor and climate change affecting millions of people. Chaos is re-appearing as creation is being reversed as the prince of this age - often seen in the Bible as the anti-type of Pharaoh - is reaching his end. God's judgement was poured out in a time of unnatural darkness at the cross as Yeshua made atonement for the sin of the world. We now see growing spiritual darkness - as the prophet foretold, "behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the L-RD will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you" (Isaiah 60:2, ESV) - as G-d prepares to pour out His judgement in the Last Days.
Yeshua warned His disciples that, "The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going" (John 12:35, ESV). As we see the gathering darkness, let us walk in the light of Messiah and share it with others while there is still time. We wait for the L-rd to rise upon us and His glory to be seen upon us - may it be soon and in our days!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), page 129.
2. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 229.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 348-349.
4. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 33.
5. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), page 246-247.
Further Study: Amos 4:12-13; Zephaniah 1:14-16; Revelation 16:10-11
Application: Are you walking in the light and confident in spite of what you see around you, or are you cowed by the growing darkness and worried lest the light should go out? Know that the L-rd will never go out and that His light still shines as brightly as ever, whether people want to see it or not. Reach out and touch the light today so that you too may shine!
Comment - 08:44 6Jan19 Tim: This Drash got me to thinking about the profound changes in the church yet to take place in anticipation of the Lord's return. Isaiah 60 speaks of a new separation between light and dark as you point out. And the ability to perceive that and live in that light is quite a journey. Not something that "comes naturally" obviously - except that it doesn't seem that obvious. There is a considerable journey of prayer and spiritual perception as we read and study the Word yet to become normalised in the Body of Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile.
Comment - 09:04 08Jan19 Caroline May: Terrifying yet full of hope ... the picture in my mind was that we were like little lights along a cliff path edge, showing the "safe" way to go.
Comment - 12:24 08Jan19 Ruth Harvey: Another really useful drash especially in the light of Brexit and our nation. I didn't know about the link with the plagues and Egyptian gods so looked it up. For a while, the Lord has taken me back to the deliverance from Egypt and our prayer group had the word about no foot left in the EU. Looking up the extension verses on darkness is really helpful and very scary when you read the verses in Revelation. There is such a thick darkness over the minds of our politicians with regard to the EU but even as Pharoah set his heart against God, so the EU too will fall. So a big thank you, lots to think about and pray about and the reminder that the Almighty is in charge!
Comment - 10:08 27Jan20 Edward Bishop Sr: I have been following these Drash on a daily basis now for some time. I must admit, this is by far the most revealing passage to date. The knowledge concerning the "darkness" as described here is most revealing and places me in a totally different light. HaShem has been moving me into a much different understanding of my life before Him.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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