The Ten Plaques and Egypt's Religion
by G. K. Pennington, Memphis, TN
In the Biblical account of the ten plagues, there is a clash of cultures in which Egyptian religion is pitted against the God of the Bible. It is not a story about a harsh, unkind God arbitrarily punishing an undeserving people. It is a vehicle for deliverance and a direct educational challenge to a wrong understanding of origins and deity.
The Biblical story's purpose is identified with the question of Pharaoh; "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go" (Exodus 5:2). The question was not wrong, but Pharaoh's continuing to miss the answer was devastating for Egypt. Moses had asked a similar question at the appearance of God in the burning bush but he was convinced by the evidence ( Exodus 3:13).
Egypt had followed the example of many cultures in making sacred the creation. Their understanding of reality was rooted in their view of creation. Pharaoh's comment concerning his not knowing the Lord may have meant "This is a god with whom I am not familiar" or "As one God to another, I do not know this god."
With the plagues the understood natural order was upset; this would have raised questions about Pharaoh's deity and ability to maintain order. Many of the out-of-control elements were also recognized deities of the land. While the lesser deities are targeted by the plagues, the primary deity to discredit was Pharaoh.
Some have argued for naturally occurring processes as an explanation for the plagues. The Bible however speaks to their unnatural severity. Pharaoh's request that they be withdrawn indicates he believed that there was a connection between the actions of Aaron and Moses and the calamities on his nation.
The movement from one plague to another follows a steady progression. The plague of the frogs was a particularly despicable event with Pharaoh seeking its removal quickly. The frog, according to M. G. Kile in his article "Plagues of Egypt," had a place in the Egyptian creation myth.1 The odor of frogs rotting in the Egyptian heat probably would have caused most people to think of death and not a god from whom life emanates. With each event there is the turning of the gods of Egypt against all the senses and sensibilities of the people.
With the third plague, the gnats, the magicians of Pharaoh are out of the contest and unable to meet the competition. They conclude to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God" ( Exodus 8:19). At the fourth plague, swarms of flies, there is a distinction made between the people of God and those of Egypt. This made it clear who was the object of this out-of-control phenomenon ( Exodus 8:23).
We observe an increasing intensity in the progression of the plagues, from seemingly minor inconveniences, smelly water and dead fish, to squirming, smelly frogs. The lice or gnats and flies are a direct attack on the bodies of people with an emphasis on hurting pagan Egypt more than Israel. The plague involving the cattle had a religious consequence but, for an agriculture based community, it would have been devastating. The progression of intensity continues with the hail, which was to be the worst storm in the nation's history (Exodus 9:18). The text also tells us of the restraint that God had exhibited to this point. Having stated that He could have "wiped you off the earth" ( Exodus 9:15).
The plague of darkness precedes the final plague. This is a triumph over one of the oldest and greatest gods in Egypt. The forces of darkness appeared to have won and Pharaoh was powerless to bring about an end to the disorder.
The tenth plague breaks the stubborn Pharaoh's resistance temporarily. Egypt, Israel, and especially, Pharaoh himself saw the acts of God demonstrate Pharaoh's inability to protect even his own family. It is a strike not only at the reigning god and king but at a potential future Pharaoh. There is an explanation from the scripture that with the death of the firstborn, "I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt" ( Exodus 12:12).
The issue through the conflict is who is the source of all that exists in the world? To what deity should a nation or a person commit? Israel had lived in Egypt for about four hundred thirty years ( Exodus 12:41). Just as Pharaoh was not aware of the role of Joseph in delivering his nation, there was a danger in Israel's having forgotten God.
With systematic progression God reveals himself to Pharaoh, Egypt, and Israel. He does this by showing his mastery over the created world. For at least a generation, the people of Egypt would recall how a God who controlled the creation had come to their land. Israel also was aware of the contest that had resulted in their deliverance. The plagues and similar events in Scripture were more than mechanisms for deliverance. They function to educate and reshape Israel's understanding of Jehovah. This was essential as he formed them into his people. He could have delivered Israel in many ways including just "beaming" them out. However, everyone and especially Israel needed the learning experience. Rehearsing these events later could confirm again the answer to the question, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him. . .?"
1M. G. Kile, "Plagues of Egypt," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2d ed., edited by James Orr, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 4:2405.
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