By Olen Holderby
We are, obviously, discussing the ten plagues that God brought upon Egypt. These are recorded in Exodus 7-12. When one studies the Bible record, along with some his- tory of biblical Egypt, the plagues will be seen to contain more than one purpose — to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. At least two more purposes must be added to this one: (1) God would make sure the Egyptians knew who he was, and (2) God would, also, convince the Hebrews of his reality and position. In view of this, we of- fer a longer introduction than we otherwise might. Harry Rimmer’s book, Dead Men Tell Tales, furnishes some excellent material on the background to the plagues.
Hatshephut was the daughter of Pharaoh who drew Moses out of the waters of the Nile. The king of Egypt, Tuthmosis I, died and Tuthmosis II came to the throne. He was a weak monarch. Hatshephut married him, and he dies soon thereafter; but, she continues to reign as queen. Hatshephut had been pushing Moses toward power and prominence. To make her position more secure, she mar- ries her young half-brother, the rightful heir, Tuthmosis III. When he was 21 he forced Hatshephut to abdicate, and she soon disappears. This king, Tuthmosis III, ruled about 53 years altogether (1501-1447 B.C.); and, this would make him the Pharaoh of the oppression.
The elevation of Moses by Hatshephut would anger Tuthmosis III, and he, no doubt, would consider Moses a competitor. This could account for the hasty departure of Moses from Egypt when he killed the Egyptian.
The first basic idea which I wish to lay before you is this: All Old Testament events point toward or contribute to the bringing of Christ into the world. If this is so, the ten plagues must fit into God’s plan for that great future event. But, how?
Let us first consider the case of Abraham; he first enters the biblical picture in the chronology of Genesis, chapter 11. In chapter 12, God makes four promises to Abraham, repeating the land promise in Genesis 15:5-21. In verses 13 and 14 of this chapter God said, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterwands they shall come out with great possessions.” This appears to be the first reference in the Bible to the Egyptian bondage. The reader may wish to compare these two verses with Exodus 3:18-22.
Now, let us return to Egypt for a few more thoughts. The “Land of the Nile” thought their Pharaoh had “inherent wisdom” and was descended from the gods. They appear to have been more religious than any other race of men, and were one of the most polytheistic nations ever known. It has been suggested that they had some 2200 gods and goddesses. What was the first of the commandments given at Sinai? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Harry Rimmer refers to a time when they almost became monotheistic, in their worship of the sun (Amon-Re was the usual designation). Each of these gods had a particular theophany, or way to appear to the Egyptians. Usually this was in a form of some animal or creature depicted in art and statue as part man and part animal. This will later prove to be very problematic for both Egyptians and Israelites.
In contrast with the Egyptian gods, the Israelites accepted the idea of one true God. We cannot know exactly how well informed they may have been, since we know of no general law to them at this point. God directly spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Genesis 46:1-4, God speaks with Jacob about going down into Egypt. Much time passes and the next person that God singles out with whom to speak appears to be Moses. So Jacob and his descendants, 70 of them in all, go down into Egypt (Gen. 46:27). Here, in Egypt, the Hebrews could observe the worship of the Egyptians with their many gods, sacrifices, and formalities. This, undoubtedly, contributes to some of their disobedience to Jehovah God at a later date.
With this information before us, we are ready to approach the plagues. In Exodus 3, is recorded God’s conversation with Moses. He sends him back into Egypt, with his brother, Aaron, as his spokesman. Concerning the plagues God said, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt” (Exod. 7:5). Here we see the second purpose in God’s plan behind the plagues. Each of the ten plagues will be seen to be a direct blow at some Egyptian god or goddess; and, sometimes more than one is involved. The stage is set for a real conflict — ten great battles. The “war of the gods” is about to begin.
In the introductory scene, we see 80 year old Moses standing before the younger king to request permission for a three-day’s journey to sacrifice to God (Exod. 3:18). The reasoning behind this three-days journey may be seen by reading Exodus 8:26; sacrificing animals that were sacred to the Egyptians could only cause difficulties for the Israelites. In Exodus 5:1-3, we have the first appearance of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh; they were pointedly refused permission to make the three-day’s journey.
The Case of the Serpents Before Pharaoh
God said to Moses, “When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent” (Exod. 7:9). Now, Moses was educated in the learning of the Egyptians and Pharaoh knew this. Perhaps Pharaoh wanted to see just how Moses would operate after his being gone for 40 years. The Egyptian magicians did in “like manner with their enchantments,” throwing down serpents, but “Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.” This swallowing up proves the Egyptian gods to be powerless in the face of Israel’s one God and gives some hint as to what is ahead. After all the plagues have passed and the Israelites are in the wilderness, Moses said, “. . . upon their gods also the Lord executed judgments” (Num. 33:4). So, let us turn our attention to those ten great battles.
The First Plague — Turning the Water to Blood (Exod. 7:19-25)
This would be a blow at many Egyptian gods; the sacred Nile was the “bloodstream” of Egypt. Osiris (judge of the dead), was considered the source of the resurrection and everlasting life. He was the greatest of all the gods of the underworld. Osiris, along with the Nile god, Hapi, and the god of the annual inundation, Satet, were disgraced. Jehovah was greater than the Nile. There were some 30 other gods involved with the Nile River in some way. All fell before the Hebrew God.
Verse 22 says, “The magicians did so with their enchantments.” One is made to wonder why these magicians didn’t reverse the act of Moses. This would surely prove their power. The Egyptians are forced to dig for water to drink, and the condition stayed thus for seven days. They must have been wondering, “Where are our gods?”
We are told that this plague was called forth “in the sight of Pharaoh.” I challenge the reader with this question: Why was Pharaoh coming down to the river? If it was not to pay homage to that sacred stream, then for what did he come? He must have been made to wonder the where abouts of his gods. The first “battle” is over and the victory is clearly Jehovah’s.
The Second Plague — The Frogs (Exod. 8:1-14)
This second battle is to be after Pharaoh is plainly warned of the consequences of his refusal. The magicians apparently duplicated this feat also. Heqt was the frog goddess; and the frog was her theophany. The frog, among other things, was the symbol of fertility, insuring a fertile year for farm and family. Can one imagine this slimy creature crawling all over everything? What the Egyptians had reverenced, was now becoming disgusting. They could not live normal lives this way, and where is their frog goddess? She could give them no relief. The second battle is Jehovah’s.
Verse 8 is quite an admission for Pharaoh, “Intreat the Lord that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people.” His gods could not do the job. This compels him to make a promise to let the Israelites go, if he is given relief. He gets that relief, but changes his mind when respite comes. Another Egyptian deity hits the dirt. I can hardly imagine any Egyptian ever again worshiping Heqt.
The Third Plague — The Lice (Exod. 8:16-19)
I know of no particular god or goddess involved here; but it is obvious that it would involve any that cared for life and comfort. This plague seems, at least to this writer, to be a kind of follow-through on the previous two plagues. It certainly is a transitional plague; for the first time the Egyptian magicians fail and admit “this is the finger of God.”
The Egyptians were noted for their cleanliness; their priests were required to be absolutely clean when they approached their sacred altars. The lice would virtually make their worship impossible. How could they be considered clean with lice all over their bodies and clothing?
To add to this disgusting scene, the Egyptians could look across and see the Jews in comfort; while they, themselves, were busy fighting the lice. No doubt, they wondered “Where are our gods?” Alas, they have just been defeated by Jehovah God. In spite of this loss, Pharaoh refuses to permit the Jews to leave.
The Fourth Plague — The Flies (Exod. 8:20-32)
From this point on the Egyptian magicians retire from trying to duplicate Moses’ feats; though they do hang around for a while. There are several creatures included in this word “flies”: the Gadfly, cockroach, and the Egyptian beetle all appear to be included, though there were others. The Ichneumon fly is the one most probably under consideration; at least, swarms of these flies have been known to invade the land of Egypt. Uatchit was their fly-god; but he could bring no relief from the present swarms. Thus, their fly-god is disgraced. To those observing, just about any god would be preferred over their fly-god, even the God of the Hebrews.
Pharaoh does not call for the magicians, but calls for Moses and Aaron. He tells them to go “sacrifice to your God in the land.” This is Pharaoh’s first offer at a com- promise. We have already noticed (vv. 26-27) why this would be unacceptable; Moses demands permission to go as originally requested. Pharaoh bends a bit and offers another compromise, “ye shall not go very far away.” This seems to be the first time that Pharaoh offers a compromise with the original request.
Moses warns Pharaoh against being deceitful and the flies are removed. Pharaoh changes his mind again after relief came. But, another victory is chalked up for Jehovah. Are the Egyptians getting these great lessons? Better still, are the Hebrews getting them?
The Fifth Plague — The Animal Murrain (Exod. 9:1-7)
This battle will pit some of the most powerful of Egyptian gods and goddesses against the Hebrew God. Many Egyptian gods will here meet their waterloo; for this blow is at both the Egyptian worship and livelihood: cattle, horses, asses, camels, sheep, and oxen.
Hathor (cow-goddess) was worshiped throughout Egypt and depicted, for the most part, with a human body, but the head of a cow, since the cow was her theophany. She was supposed to be the “mother principle” of deity and to give nourishment to the soul of the dead. But, where is she now? If the mighty Hathor couldn’t protect her followers, what god could?
When Hathor fell so also did the god Apis (sacred bull symbol). He had temples scattered throughout Egypt and was thought to be of great power. But what happens to his followers now? He cannot protect them against Jehovah. Without boring the reader with too much detail, I would like to identify a couple more of the Egyptian deities involved in this battle. Mut, wife of Amon-Ra (king of gods), was associated with the life-giving sun. Mut, goddess of the sky and wife of Geb, produced the egg out of which the sun was hatched.
This is quite an array of Egyptian deities that fell in this battle, receiving the fatal blow with the coming of the murrain. Pharaoh sends to check on the cattle of the Hebrews and not a one had been lost. He still will not permit the people to go. To what god will he turn now? Another battle fought and another battle won by the one true God.
The Sixth Plague — The Boils (Exod. 9:8-12)
This plague can be best understood by noticing the Egyptian belief at the time. They had altars upon which they burned sacrifices and the ashes from these altars were thrown into the air to avert evil. One can easily see here the motive of God in ordering this plague. Instead of averting evil, the ashes thrown into the air brought boils with blains upon both man and beast.
Imhotep was the Egyptian god of medicine and prayers were offered to him for cures and protection from physical illnesses. But he failed the Egyptians here. Little comfort could be found by noticing that the Jews were resting with unblemished skins and in comfort.
We may notice that the magicians were still hanging around at this point, perhaps watching for an opportunity of their own; however, the boils and blains proved too much for them — “They could not stand before Moses.”
This battle was little more than a skirmish, but it struck a fatal blow at their god of medicine; he could not help them one bit. Another victory for the God of heaven! Yet, for all this, Pharaoh would not let the people go.
The Seventh Plague — Hail Mingled With Fire (Exod. 9:13-35)
Now, more of their livelihood is to be taken away, destroyed by hail and burned with fire. Reshpu and Qetesh were gods of storm and battle, controlling all the natural elements except light. Where are these gods now? Some of Pharaoh’s servants believed the warning and brought their cattle in from the fields, while others did not. The wheat and rye were not smitten, because they had not yet grown up.
There was no hail in Goshen, where the Hebrews dwelt. Can’t the Egyptians see that the Hebrew God is more powerful than all the Egyptian gods?
Pharaoh, for the first time admits, “I have sinned” and he promises to let the people go if he has relief. Alas, he changed his mind again and refused to permit them to leave Egypt. God’s plan is proceeding, more Egyptian deities have fallen. Battle number seven is over and won by Jehovah.
The Eighth Plague — The Locusts (Exod. 10:1-20)
With this plague God specifies another purpose for these battles. Speaking to Moses, God refers to his signs which he had wrought in Egypt and says, “. . . that ye may know how that I am the Lord.” The Hebrews needed much the same lesson as did the Egyptians.
Pharaoh’s servants, for the first time, begin to plead with him to let the Jews go, pointing out that Egypt was virtually destroyed. Pharaoh offers another compromise — the Israelite men could go and worship. Moses says, “No” and the locusts come. Now Pharaoh gets in a hurry and “in haste” sends for Moses and Aaron. And for the second time he admits to sinning, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” His gods could not remove the locusts, so he ask Moses and Aaron, “intreat the Lord your God.”
The Lord removes the locusts, not leaving even one in all the land of Egypt. Still the Jews are not permitted to leave as requested. But, another mighty battle has been won and God’s plans are still proceeding.
The Ninth Plague — The Darkness (Exod. 10:21-29)
Egypt did not have much rain; the sun, moon and stars were seldom obscured. Now Moses is going to call for darkness over this sunny land, darkness so thick that it could be felt. But there would be no darkness in Goshen. They were to have six nights in one. We should remember that light figured in their system of worship.
Recall Osiris and Isis, who controlled the movements of the sun, moon, and stars? They could not remove the darkness so they loose another battle. The most essential thing in all the physical realm is light, and the Egyptians seem to have realized this, ascribing to their gods the job of keeping it thus. Three days of darkness and the Egyptians didn’t venture out.
Noticing some other gods involved here will help us see the importance of this battle. Thoth was the arranger of the celestial system, to offend him was to invite eternal death. Now for Jehovah to engage Thoth in battle must have caused even the Hebrews to tremble. Sekhmet was the goddess of artificial light, but she could do nothing. Horus, a greatly reverenced god, was said to be at his best at noon-day when the sun was the hottest. Three noons had passed; where was Horus?
One more of their deities should be mentioned because he is going to play a big part in the next and tenth plague. Ra, the king of the gods, was at times said to appear in the form of the first-born of a cow, if that first-born was a bull. There were other gods involved here but these will suffice to show how God is dealing with this polytheistic nation of idol worshipers.
Nine great battles have been fought and the stage is set for number ten and last battle of this “War of the gods.”
The Tenth Plague — The Death of the First-Born (Exod. 11:l-12:12)
As the previous plague had come to an end, we hear Pharaoh tell Moses that if he saw his face again that he should die. Moses accepts this verdict and promises, “I will see thy face again no more.”
God told Moses, “Yet will I bring one plague more upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence: when he shall let you go, he will surely thrust you out hence altogether.”
Before looking at this plague, let us get a few facts that are obviously introductory to this plague. In Exodus 11:3, the attitude of the Egyptians toward the Hebrews has changed. The Egyptians would put on their best jewels for worship. Now, since the Hebrews were leaving to worship their God, the Egyptians would be loaning them their best, urging them to take it and use it. Thus, they are going to “spoil the Egyptians.”
In Exodus 12:1ff, the Passover is instituted. God said to Moses, You shall eat it, “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and he shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s Passover . . . against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (vv. 11, 12).
When Moses threatened the life of the first-born in all the land of Egypt, he defied all Egyptian gods at once; all of them were interested in life and death. The first-born of the Egyptians were dedicated to their gods. What a challenge this was!
The Passover has been observed as God directed, and death of the first-born of all Egyptian families, as well as that of their cattle, has come. Pharaoh rose up in the night and hearing all the mourning, he sends a message to Moses and Aaron and commands them to leave as requested (vv. 31-32). “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men”(v. 33). We see here the spoiling of the Egyptians and the enrichment of the Israelites, just as God had said would happen. Another mighty battle has been fought and the victory is obvious.
In Exodus 12:37, we see “six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside the children” leaving Rameses. The Egyptian gods were powerless and the Egyptian religion was defeated. Jehovah proved his supremacy and Israel was free. The Egyptians and Hebrews alike were to get these powerful lessons. But, do they? For how long? Is it any different with us today?
Whatever we might think of the Egyptians in their re- lying upon their false gods, these gods were very real to them. Now, what better evidence could one desire to show the folly of idol worship and the existence of the one true God to whom all men are accountable?