The FISHERS Magazine (Issue 198)
The Book of Exodus records the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt; yet it is much more about God entering into a covenant relationship with His chosen people. As such, God had to reveal Himself to Israel, not just so that they could know more about God, but so that they would know Him personally as their covenant God.
The ten plagues were not merely the means by which God wrested Israel from the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters. Through them, God revealed who He is and what He is like.
YAHWEH IS GOD, NOT THE EGYPTIAN DEITIES
Egypt had a whole pantheon of gods which they worshipped through an elaborate system of religion. Israel’s enculturalisation over time saw them embracing these Egyptian gods. Ezekiel 20:7-9 describes a jealous Yahweh telling Israel to discard the idols of Egypt, but they rebelled stubbornly against Him. Hence, God forcefully demonstrated to Israel the utter impotence of the Egyptian gods, and the fundamental difference between God and them.
The ten plagues were not random calamities inflicted upon the Egyptians; rather, they were carefully crafted to demonstrate Yahweh’s might over the Egyptian deities (Num 33:4b, “The LORD had also executed judgments on their gods.”).
1. The Nile. The Nile was the lifeline of Egypt, which revered Hapi as the spirit of the Nile and its dynamic essence. The Nile bred many of Egypt’s religious beliefs, and a number of deities were associated with the river. Khnum was the preserver of the varied sources of the Nile, Neith was the goddess who watched over the lates, the largest fish in the Nile, while Hathor did the same for the chromise, another fish in the river. The turning of water into blood showed up Khnum’s powerlessness, while the resulting death of the fish proved Neith’s and Hathor’s impotence. Furthermore, the annual inundation of the Nile represented the resurrection of Osiris, the god of the underworld. The blood waters would have been interpreted by the Egyptians as a failure of Osiris to return to life.
2. Frogs. The frog was the symbol of Heket, the goddess of fertility and childbirth. Annually, as the Nile’s inundation receded, it blanketed the land with rich alluvial deposits, making it fertile. The recession also left behind pools of water where frogs would teem. Thus, the frogs were a welcome sign to farmers that their fields were again ready for cultivation. The frog was so revered that capital punishment awaited anyone who killed a frog. This plague turned the frog from a symbol of fertility to an object of disgust. It was difficult for anyone not to kill a frog, and its ubiquitous presence would have defiled all the other Egyptian temples erected for other deities. Heket would have ceased to be a venerated deity.
3. Gnats. The plague of gnats was not targeted at any one Egyptian god, but against all of them. Egyptian priests had to be without any physical blemish (they shaved all their hair, were circumcised, bathed frequently, and wore white linen). These supposed “pure ones” performed daily rituals of worship to their gods. But bites and infestation rendered the entire priesthood unclean; their prayers to the respective gods would have gone unheeded because of their impurity. In this way, Yahweh shut down all practice of religion in Egypt.
4. Flies. The Ichneumon fly has the habit of depositing its eggs on other living things by embedding them into their skins; the larvae then feeds on that animal as it grows. This fly is regarded as a symbol of the god Uatchit, and is thus revered by the Egyptians. However, the effect of this plague was so oppressive and grievous (Exod 8:24, “the land was laid waste because of the swarms”) that the Egyptians would have turned against the god of the flies.
5. Cattle. This plague killed off all forms of livestock - horses, camels, and sheep. Besides crippling the economy, the plague also spoke eloquently against several Egyptian gods. Mnevis was a sacred bull associated with Amun-Re, the sun-god. Hathor, the goddess of beauty, joy and love, took the form of a heifer. But the most prominent Egyptian deity defeated by this plague was Apis, a bull representing Ptah. At any time, there was only one sacred Apis bull. Upon its death, it would be mummified and replaced by another Apis bull, supposedly identified by 28 distinctive features that marked it out as a god. The bull was kept near Ptah’s temple, fed delicacies, and given as many heifers as it wished. At this plague, the reigning Apis bull died, together with all potential replacements. And Ptah had no answer.
6. Boils. The goddess Sekhmet was believed to have the power to start and stop epidemics. The Egyptians were so fearful of rapidly spreading diseases that they had a priesthood, the Sunu, dedicated to her. Right before Pharaoh, Sekhmet was proven impotent, as the soot Moses cast skyward fell as dust and caused painful boils to break out on all Egyptians (Exod 9:8-10). This time, even Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to appear before him because of their debilitation (Exod 9:11). This plague was also targeted at Serapis, a god of healing, and at Imhotep, the god of medicine. They were unable to deliver Egypt from the God of Israel.
7. Hail. This violence raining upon the land of Egypt from the sky assaulted the realms of Nut, Isis and Seth. Nut was the sky goddess, who could do nothing to hold back such destruction coming from above. Isis and Seth were responsible for abundant agricultural produce, who were also jointly unable to restrain the hand of the LORD.
8. Locusts. Little is known today about the Egyptian locust god. Its name is not preserved to us. Nevertheless, it is known that locusts were much-feared in Egypt, and peasants habitually supplicated their locust god.
9. Darkness. In the penultimate plague, Amun-Re, the sun god, foremost amongst Egyptian deities, was blotted out in thick darkness (Exod 10:21). Amun-Re was Egypt’s national god. To defeat Amun-Re was to strike at the heart of Egyptian religion and to triumph over the entire pantheon. Sundry lesser sun deities were also shamed. Atum was god of the setting sun. Khepre was a form of Amun-Re, often depicted as a beetle. Horus, the son of Amun-Re, was often symbolised by a winged sun disc. The prestige of these gods (as well as associated gods of the moon and sky) was dealt a fatal blow by this plague of deep darkness.
10. Firstborn. Finally, Pharaoh himself was personally humbled. He was supposed to be Amun-Re’s physical son and vicar on earth. Upon his death, the Pharaoh was deemed to return to his father in the heavens. The Pharaoh’s firstborn, who should have in time reigned as god, was slain. Having dealt with the Egyptian gods, Yahweh now dealt with the man who was thought to be divine.
By this time, it must have been abundantly clear to the Israelites that the Egyptian deities they venerated were not gods at all, not by any stretch of the imagination.
YAHWEH IS SOVEREIGN OVER PHARAOH
Before even the first plague hit Egypt, it was clear to Israel that God had raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt. What was not immediately apparent was that God had likewise raised up Pharaoh for this same hour. God had specially chosen this Pharaoh as king “who did not know Joseph” (1:8), and allowed him to remain, with the express purpose that God might demonstrate His power and proclaim His Name throughout all the earth (9:16). God revealed that He was sovereign even over the leader of Israel’s enemies - and that sovereignty extended to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
The theological dilemmas that plague modern Christians over this issue posed no problems for the Israelites. No one questioned God’s right to harden Pharaoh’s heart, nor did anyone query the rightness of His actions. The fact was received, alongside all the other marvellous works of God, in awe and wonder at the omnipotence of Yahweh.
The text repeatedly tells of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The first instance is in Exodus 4:21, where God says, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” This was during Moses’ call and commission, God saw it necessary to tell Moses this so that he would not be surprised at the fierce opposition he would face from Pharaoh. But God also explained His purpose, “so that he (Pharaoh) will not let the people go.” The rest of the verses speak either of Yahweh hardening Pharaoh’s heart (7:3-5; 9:12; 10:20, 27), or of Pharaoh’s heart becoming hard (7:13-14, 22; 8:19; 9:7), or of Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15, 32). All three descriptions are used in three consecutive verses (9:34-10:1), demonstrating that they are merely different perspectives on the same action.
Several truths are evidenced by Pharaoh’s hardening. First, Israel learnt that God’s Word will come to pass, none of what He said was empty. Pharaoh’s hard heart should not have surprised Israel, it was “just as the LORD had said through Moses” (9:35). Repeatedly, the Bible attests to this fact, so that no one could be mistaken (7:13, 22; 8:15, 19; 9:12). Second, Israel understood the display of God’s might as a response to Pharaoh’s hardness of heart that it was ultimately for His own glory, not their deliverance. God made that purpose clear several times: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst” (7:5), and speaking to Pharaoh, God said, “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” (9:16). God’s sovereignty was the ultimate cause, the display of His glory was the ultimately goal.
YAHWEH DISTINGUISHES THOSE WHO ARE HIS
The Israelites were not enamoured with modern notions of egalitarianism which insist that God must treat everyone equally. Yahweh is a fair and righteous God; He Himself is the standard of justice. He is also at liberty to dispense mercy to whom He wills, since it is His mercy to discharge. And the plagues against Egypt would have made abundantly clear that Yahweh is in the habit of distinguishing those who belong to Him.
God claimed Israel as His own prior to the plagues, in language pregnant with affection. He asserted to Pharaoh that “Israel is My son, My firstborn,” and because Pharaoh would not release Israel, God told him, “Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn” (4:22-23). This is a statement of a Father enraged at the ill-treatment of His beloved, who will act decisively to reveal who exactly is favoured amongst the nations of the world.
It is not known how the first few plagues affected the Israelites, but from the fourth plague of flies onwards, Yahweh took care to inflict only the Egyptians and leave His people unmolested. The flies came upon the Egyptians and not the Israelites (8:22, 24). Death came upon the Egyptian livestock, but not a single one of the livestock of Israel died (9:6). When hail fell over all of Egypt, the land of Goshen, where the Israelites dwelt, was spared (9:26). Similarly, when impenetrable darkness covered the land of Egypt, “all the sons of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exod 10:23). In plagues where Israelites were not explicitly described as spared, the Egyptians were specifically portrayed as struck (instance the boils, 9:11).
Egypt and Israel alike would have been awe-struck by the intensity of the plagues, their irreplaceability, and their timing - on cue from Moses. They stamped God’s greatness over the Egyptian deities and His power over nature. But with glaring evidence of afflicted Egyptians standing alongside unscathed Israelites, the truth must have been clear to all. God has clearly distinguished His people from their cruel taskmasters (8:23). And nowhere was this clearer than in the final plague, in which all the firstborn of Egypt died – from the greatest to the least, from man to animal - so that loud wailing was heard throughout Egypt, while not even a dog barked among the children of Israel (11:6-7). This happened because God wanted all to “understand how the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (11:7).
Throughout history, in many ways, God has proven Himself the true and living God, sovereign over the affairs of nations, peoples, communities and individuals. As He has always done, so He will do on that last day - He will clearly distinguish those who belong to Him from those who will suffer the eternal judgment of God.
Do you belong to Him?