“And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.” (Exodus 12:12)
The majestic imagery of the events in the Book of Exodus make for quite the engrossing story as well as larger-than-life cinematic moments. Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary movie director, made not one but two films about “The Ten Commandments” (1923 and 1956). I remember watching the newer Charlton Heston version as a kid and seeing those fantastic images of the ten plagues being carried out against a stubborn Pharaoh (portrayed wonderfully by Yul Brynner). I never really gave it much thought when I was young but, as I grew older, I must admit that the particular plagues that God chose to enact against the people of Egypt did seem rather strange and arbitrary. I mean, frogs? Flies? Locusts? A bloody river? Why did God use these particular things in order to plague the land of Egypt?
We have a few clues in the Bible about why God used these instruments in order to express His wrath on Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. First of all, we see in Moses’ initial encounter with Pharaoh that Pharaoh defiantly asserts, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go?” (Ex. 5:2). And secondly, we see the Lord declare in Exodus 12:12 that He is “executing judgment against all the gods of Egypt.” It seems that the biggest obstacle to Pharaoh releasing the Israelites was, A.) He did not submit to God’s authority and claimed to not even know Him and, B.) He was trusting in false gods and submitting to the authority of idols. Pharaoh did not feel compelled to obey the command of God because he did not recognize the living God as having sovereignty over him. He did recognize the gods of Egypt as having authority, but not the Living God. Therefore, the “contest with Pharaoh” that would follow through the plagues that God poured out on Egypt were ultimately a “Clash of the Gods“, so to speak. Each and every individual plague would be a frontal attack against a particular Egyptian deity, asserting that God Almighty was the One who had authority over that area of life, as He does over every area of life. Worshipping a pantheon of gods, the Egyptians assigned a specific deity to rule over every aspect of their lives from the mundane to the extraordinary. Let us look at each of the plagues and their significance to the pagan idolators of Egypt:
The Nile Turns To Blood
For all intents and purposes, the River Nile is Egypt. All of the major settlements in ancient Egypt grew up either next to the Nile or one of its tributaries. The importance and significance of this life-giving waterway to the ancient Egyptians simply cannot be overstated. Consequently, they had assigned many deities to the governing of it. Hapi, the bull-headed god, was the god of the Nile itself. Isis, the wife of the god Osiris, was also revered as having authority over the River. Khnum, a god with the head of a ram, was viewed as a special guardian of the Nile’s waters. There were countless other lesser gods who were revered in connection with the sacred waters of the Nile. The turning of the Nile from water into blood must have called into question the power of all of these deities to protect the sacred stream of Egypt. Not only was the Nile the primary source of water for the land, it was also the source of irrigation for the crops that were grown there. The annual overflowing of its banks brought necessary saturation and fertilization to the farms of an otherwise arid land.
In addition to the lack of drinking water and the threat to the irrigation of their crops, the fish within the River died (Ex. 7:21). Imagine, two primary food sources as well as the primary water source being simultaneously affected. The impact of this must have been devastating to the Egyptians. For a people who enacted precise religious rituals in order to appease the gods who ruled over the Nile, its turning to blood had to call into question Who really had the power of life and death in His hand.
Heqet was the Egyptian goddess of birth and fertility. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a frog. Because of this, frogs were seen as possessing divine, life-giving powers and it was absolutely forbidden to kill them. Frogs were a common sight along the Nile’s banks when the river receded each year, but we are told in connection with this plague that they came forth “abundantly” and invaded the homes of the people (Ex. 8:3). Ironically, the frogs infested the bedrooms and beds of the Egyptians; the very places where the blessings of Heqet were sought. It is somewhat amusing to picture the people of Egypt attempting to gingerly step over these millions of frogs as they walked about, afraid to crush any of these sacred animals beneath their feet. I wonder how long their patience endured before the constant croaking and the overwhelming blanketing of these slimy little amphibians over every square inch of their homes became too much to bear and they wanted to curse the little fellows rather than worship them?
It is not certain exactly what type of insects these were, but it seems that they were some type of stinging or biting bugs. Aaron smote the dust of the earth with his rod and the dust became these insects (Ex. 8:17). In the mind of Egyptians, this would have been a definite affront against Geb, the god of the earth. Interestingly, Geb was often portrayed with the head of a snake — Aaron’s former demonstration of his rod becoming a snake must have also brought Geb’s image into the mind of the Egyptians (Ex. 7:10). The symbolism of Moses’ and Aaron’s power over the snake would have spoken a great deal.
Khepri was a god related to creation and rebirth and was depicted as a man with the head of a fly. Additionally, the Ichneumon fly was considered a direct manifestation of the god Uatchit.
Plague On The Livestock
As in the plague on the Nile River, the sickness of the Egyptian cattle would have been seen as a threat to their food supply. Cattle were also viewed as sacred animals and the deities Hapi and Hathor (goddess of love) were normally depicted as having the head of cattle.
Sekhmet was a goddess with power over sickness and disease; Sunu was a god of pestilence; and Isis was the great goddess of health, medicine, and healing. Yet none of these seemed to have any power to stop this terrible plague of skin sores upon the people of Egypt. Since cleanliness and ceremonially cleansing were an integral part of religious life in Egypt, the priests were rendered ineligible for service due to their boils. If no previous plague had brought the entire Egyptian religious practices to a halt, then this certainly would have.
Hail And Fire
Nut, the goddess of the sky and Set, the god of storms would have been the object of this plague. Only the flax and barley were destroyed by the flames and hailstorms which would have primarily affected the textile and beer-brewing industries. It was only the luxury items affected here, not the main food crops. Yet Pharaoh did not repent and the locusts would come next to destroy all that the hail had left (Ex. 10:12).
Osiris was the ruling god over the crops of the land of Egypt. The plague of locusts brought the utter destruction of all remaining plant life. Along with Nut and Set, already mentioned, gods such as Shu (god of the wind and atmosphere) would have been proven powerless in the face of the Living God of Heaven.
This second-to-last plague would have affected the dominion of one of the highest gods in the entire Egyptian pantheon: Ra, god of the Sun. Along with Osiris, Ra was considered the greatest of all the Egyptian deities. The fact that the Sun over which he supposedly ruled failed to shine for three days would have seriously called into question the abilities of even this great god of Egypt.
Death Of the Firstborn
This final plague affected the two mightiest gods in the entire Kingdom: Pharoah himself and his son. Pharoah was viewed as a “living god”, as was his son. God demonstrated in the taking of the son of Pharaoh that He held power and authority even over Pharaoh . The King of Egypt was powerless to prevent this from happening and this last plague on the land proved beyond any doubt that Pharaoh was not a god at all. By this point, Pharaoh definitely knew Who the Lord was and why he should listen to Him. The Living God had shown that He alone is God and that He alone holds power over Heaven and Earth, kings and kingdoms, life and death. Pharaoh scoffed each time that Moses declared what God was about to do to the people of Egypt, yet every single thing that Moses told him came to pass exactly as he said it would. The “gods” that Pharaoh was trusting in, the “gods” that the people of the land were counting on to protect them were but vain and powerless idols compared to the Almighty God of the Universe.
One cannot help but see uncanny similarities between the Plagues of Egypt and many of the judgments of God in the Book of Revelation. The day will come when God shall again execute judgment against sinful, rebellious man and the “gods” he worships. Man continues to shake his fist in the face of God and defies His Maker. Man might not draw caricatures with animal heads of his deities nowadays, he might not name each one and assign them specific tasks, but he still believes that he is the master of his own destiny and that the powers of Nature can be tamed by his own efforts. Man still asks, “Who is God that I should obey Him?” and all the while bows his knee to “gods” who are powerless to help him. God will judge all who do so and everything which man has called “god” will be laid low and hewn down by the judgment of the Lord. Someday, every knee will bow down to the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 14:11, Phil. 2:11) and the worship of idols will be no more. There is no one else nor anything else worthy of man’s worship than God Almighty, our Maker and Creator. Let us come to Him now and not wait for our own “gods”, as well as ourselves, to come under His judgment.