The plagues of Egypt fall into a series of three cycles of three plagues, followed by the tenth plague which stands on its own. Each cycle begins with a command to “go to Pharaoh in the morning” (Exodus 7:15; 8:20; 9:13). The second plague in each cycle begins with a command to “go in and say to Pharaoh” (Exodus 8:1; 9:1; 10:1). Each cycle closes with a command to simply perform the miracle without speaking to Pharaoh (Exodus 8:16; 9:8; 10:21).
Further, those affected by the plagues differs in each cycle. In the first cycle, all of Egypt without distinction suffers, including Israel. Only at the beginning of the second cycle are the Israelites excluded (Exodus 8:22-23). God further distinguishes between Egypt and Pharaoh at the beginning of the third cycle, since now they are directed primarily at Pharaoh (Exodus 9:14). Egypt still suffers with Pharaoh, to be sure, but the focus has been narrowed to Pharaoh specifically. This is especially fitting, since Pharaoh was regarded as a god-king, or at least a man through whom the false gods of Egypt acted. To strike at Pharaoh specifically was to strike at the very center of Egyptian religion. This concept of his own divinity also goes far to explain the hardening of his heart, a topic which will be covered in more detail later.
This text for the Third Sunday in Lent therefore covers the transition between the third plague at the end of the first cycle and the fourth plague at the beginning of the second. While Israel suffers with Egypt in the first half of the reading, God separates them from Egypt’s punishment. The righteous may suffer for a time under the punishment of the wicked, but God will not allow it to continue forever (Matthew 24:6-7 et al).
The type of bug indicated by the word “gnats” here is not entirely certain. This word is used throughout the Old Testament most often in connection with this plague. It does occur in Isaiah 51:6 where the insects dying are set in parallel to smoke vanishing and a garment wearing out. Gnats or lice seem to be a natural conjecture, since Aaron strikes the dust. The miracle of turning dust into these insects suggests that the bugs were small like dust.
This may also explain why the magicians of Egypt were unable to reproduce the miracle as they had done before. These magicians were the lector-priests in ancient Egyptian religion, priests whose purpose was to read aloud particular texts. They were closely associated with magic even in Egypt, because it was believed that by reading the scrolls in their possession, they could evoke certain effects. Magic as it was understood until relatively recently in history was not an act of the will, a contest between two magicians as to who would prevail. Rather, it is a knowledge of hidden things or secret arts, a way of knowing how the machinery of the world works, so that by using particular things in a particular way at a particular time, a specific effect would result. For the modern mind, this is difficult to accept, because society no longer believes in remote causation, that is, in a relationship of cause and effect which is not immediately apparent. But it is worth noting that we reject a specific idea of what magic is, and this view of magic is not the same as the historical understanding or even necessarily a Biblical one, as may be seen in Genesis 30:25-43.
That being said, the miraculous conversion of dust into “gnats” may be something wholly without precedent, which would explain why the magicians are unable to do it. Or it may be simply a recognition that they are out of their league, much like the witch at En-Dor when she got more than she bargained for (1 Samuel 28:7-14). Either way, the lector-priests show up once more at the end of the second cycle where they are likewise powerless to act (Exodus 9:11). In the contest between the false gods of Egypt and the true living God, it is obvious who is going to win. As the Lord says in anticipation of the tenth and final plague: “On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Exodus 12:12).