The Ten Plagues of Egypt: Lesson 6: The Plague of Gnats

Exodus 8.16-19

16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.”

Unlike the first two plagues, this one was unannounced.

  • In Ex 7.15, Moses was told to “go to Pharaoh” and warn about the Nile River turning to Blood
  • In Ex 8.1, Moses was told to “go to Pharaoh” and warn about the Frogs

Why was no announcement made? Pharaoh lied. In Ex 8.9 he said he would let the people go. When the plague of the frogs ended, and he had relief, he would not let the people go.


Another change is introduced with this plague. The first three plagues were announced by Aaron stretching out his hand with the staff… Blood, frogs and gnats. The idea is that it is now Moses, as the leader of the people, who “must increase while Aaron decreases.”

17 They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats. 18 But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals.

Some notes to highlight in this passage:

  • The two nouns, “man and beast,” when used together, includes every creature. Nothing would be left unscathed
  • The phrase, “dust of the earth,” highlights the idea that they would be innumerable
  • Do you see the two “bookends” in this passage?
    • Ex 8.17 The “gnats came upon men and animals” because Aaron stretched out his staff
    • Ex 8.18 The “gnats were on men and animals” because the magicians “could not.”
    • These bookends highlight the thorough decimation of the powers of Egypt.

19 The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said.

  • The priests mimicked the other signs– staff into snakes, in Nile to blood, frogs from the water. The priests admit this is of divine origin.
  • The magicians make an amazing proclamation — “finger of God.” Synecdoche… a portion is used to denote the totality (of His power)

What were they?

The Hebrew word translated “gnats,” in our Bibles has the “-im” suffix. When a Hebrew word ends with “-im,” it means that the word is a collective. This is a collection of winged, biting insects. Like the Hebrew word, our English word “gnats” is actually a broad term referring to winged, biting and non-biting insects. We have an entire gamut of gnats, mosquitos, sandflies, or lice. One writer thinks it was a stinging type of mosquito.[1]

What happened?

Some like to say that the “dust” is a reference to the enormous number of gnats. That is, the gnats were not produced from dust, they were so numerous, that they appeared as dust. Their opinion is that Moses simply disturbed the gnats. They cite passages like Genesis 13.16 to support their conclusion:

I will make your off spring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your off spring could be counted.

The problem with this view is that the language in Exodus is not metaphorical. It was real.

The passage simply states that gnats were formed out of the dust. Twice the author states that the dust became gnats

16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become (hy:h;) gnats.” 17 They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became (hy:h;) gnats.

In these verses Moses chose to use the He brew word haya (hy:h;) which means “to come into being, or be come.” Moses wrote both Genesis 13.16 and Exodus 8.16–17. If Moses intended Exodus 8.16–17 to be a figure of speech like Genesis 13.16, we would expect this passage to say “the gnats were like the dust of the earth.” Since we find no evidence that Exodus 8.16–17 contains figures of speech, and the language is clear that the dust became (hy:h;) gnats, we are to conclude that this was a miracle, like the rest of the plagues. To conclude that these gnats were not miraculously formed is not biblically (i.e., exegetically) based.

Why the gnats?

This question cannot be definitively answered. To date, we do not have information that proves the Egyptians worshiped a “gnat god.”

Perhaps, instead of targeting a certain Egyptian god, this plague was designed to frustrate the religious system of the day.

Gnats were considered ceremonially unclean by the Egyptian priests. The priests of Egypt took pride in that they were physically pure. They shaved their heads, dressed in beautiful robes, and unlike the Egyptian population at large – washed frequently.[2] Gnats greatly disturbed their ability to keep religiously pure.

In those days, one could not purchase an in sect bomb to rid the area of gnats. In one medical document from the ANE, the most effective sub stance in ridding oneself of gnats was to cover himself with fish spawn. Imagine the defilement that the priests would have experienced, first being covered by gnats, and second, covering themselves with slimy fish eggs. This certainly would frustrate their worship of the gods.

Application:

Pharaoh, a god on earth, surrounded himself with magicians to do great and powerful acts.

Clearly, by bringing the plague of gnats upon Egypt, the impotence of Pharaoh and his magicians was demonstrated. They could not replicate the miracle of God by creating gnats from the dust of the earth. Thus, this plague indelibly impressed on the Egyptian mind that this plague was “the finger of God.”

But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals. The magicians said to Pharaoh,

“This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said. (vv 18–19)

Even when it was obvious to everyone else that there is something greater than man, involved, Pharaoh made his heart even more calloused.

Magic, as good as it was, is severely limited by the true omnipotence of Yahweh.

[1] Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (West minster Press), 156.

[2] John Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Baker), 103.

Next Lesson: Lesson 7: The Plague of Flies

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