It Was Gnats, for Crying Out Loud
And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh; lo, he cometh forth to the water, and say unto him….
— Exodus 8:16
The banks of the Nile. Pharaoh raises his hands in benediction to bless the Nile. Moses steps from the rushes.
Pharaoh:Crikey, you scared me. How come you’re always skulking in the bulrushes?
Moses: Old habits are hard to break.
Pharaoh:This plague business is getting old too.
Moses: There’s an easy solution.
Pharaoh:I know. “Let your people go.” The loss of an entire slave class? Do you realize the impact that would have on our economy? Not to mention casting serious doubt on my own divinity.
Moses: Have you considered the economic impact of a plague of locusts?
Pharaoh:Are you threatening me?
Moses: Just offering a little glimpse of the future. We do that, you know. Your father never told you about Joseph?
Pharaoh:The old man? He never talked to me at all. But he was pretty busy.
Moses: I understand.
Pharaoh:Hey! Don’t patronize me, Marble Mouth.
Moses: Can we keep this business-like, please.
Pharaoh:We could have. But then something changed.
Moses: Such as?
Pharaoh:You remember the thing with the Nile turning to blood?
Moses: I warned you. My God is powerful.
Pharaoh:Come on, my court magicians can do that. They do the frog thing too. Light a pan on fire. Put the lid on. Take it off. Voilá! A frog.
Moses: I thought they used a bunny.
Moses: Yeah? Did your magicians throw dust in the air and turn it into lice?
Pharaoh:I thought they were gnats.
Moses: Whatever. Your guys couldn’t do it.
Pharaoh:I know. They told me, “This is the finger of God.”
Moses: You still wouldn’t let us go.
Pharaoh:It was gnats, for crying out loud.
Moses: Then you got flies. Flies are much bigger than lice.
Pharaoh:They’re still little insects. I’m supposed to forego my social position as a deity on account of flies?
Moses: What about the dead cattle?
Pharaoh:That got my attention.
Moses: And the boils. From a handful of soot, everybody gets huge, pus-filled boils, your divine self included and your magicians.
Pharaoh:The boils were impressive.
Moses: And the hail? Some of your people finally got the message. They brought their cattle and servants indoors [Exodus 9:20]. Still, you won’t let us go.
Moses: Of course you can. You’re the Pharaoh. You’re spending a fortune in cleanup costs alone. Your own people are saying you’re either too stupid or too stubborn to know when you’re whipped.
Pharaoh:You don’t understand. I agree with them. You’ve won. I get it. Your God is da bomb. I want to say, “Go. Take your people and skedaddle.”
Pharaoh:So. I can’t do it. I can’t say the words. Something or someone is stopping me.
Moses: Oh, so that’s what He meant.
Moses: Him. He said He was gonna harden your heart.
Pharaoh:But why? What’s the point in that? If this is His doing then He’s the one not letting you go. Talk about meshugene.
Moses: Sometimes I think it’s hard for Him to tell the difference between what is and what He does. Maybe there isn’t any difference. Sometimes He’s a little difficult to fathom.
Pharaoh:A little? If He’s the one who makes me dummy up, where’s my free will? I thought you guys were big on free will.
Moses: We are. But maybe it’s not entirely free.
Moses: You said yourself, the first four or five plagues, you didn’t really care. By the time they got serious, you had already established a pattern of behavior.
Pharaoh:This has been going on less than a year. Isn’t that a little fast for “habit-forming”?
Moses: Maybe you’ve been working on it longer than you think. Like that thing with your father not talking to you. Must have been painful.
Pharaoh:I told you, he was a busy man.
Moses: You’re getting upset.
Pharaoh:Damn right. You people, first Joseph with his dream interpretations; now you with this blame your parents.
Moses: I just think it isn’t easy being Pharaoh. Heart hardening is an occupational hazard. Old habits are hard to break.
Pharaoh:You’re patronizing me again. This is His doing.
Moses: I don’t think He did anything actually. He just knew.
Pharaoh:Oh yeah? Well maybe so and maybe not. Just maybe I have a few surprises up my sleeve. Have a nice day.
Moses rejoins Aaron in the rushes.
Moses: I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the darkness and the first born.
Aaron: Wouldn’t have made any difference.
Pharaoh rejoins his retinue. Cozies up to a large man in military uniform.
Pharaoh: Here’s what we’ll do. A few more plagues and suddenly “I see the light.” I’ll tell Moses and his scraggly band of misfits to get the hell out of Egypt. Let ’em get as far as the Sea of Reeds. Then squash ’em like bugs. Like gnats. Like lice. Like flies.
Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer. He lives in Hollywood with his wife and children.