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In Exodus 7-12 we find the famous account of God unleashing ten terrible plagues onto Egypt in order to motivate Pharaoh into freeing his Israelite slaves. Because the writer of this story (Moses) is sympathetic to the Jews, it’s easy for us to think only of the Jewish perspective and forget to sympathize with the Egyptians. While all of Israel is miraculously sheltered from experiencing any of the epic plagues where they live in Goshen, the citizens of Egypt watch their nation and loved ones being brutally destroyed in front of them. Doesn’t God love the Egyptians, too? Of course He does, and it is very much for their sake that He drags this frightening experience out for so long.
God is extremely clear throughout this account that He is intentionally preventing Pharaoh from acting like a rational ruler. Any man in his right mind would be terrified out of his wits when he saw God’s power unleashed in ten frightening forms. Releasing a bunch of disgruntled slaves in order to save an entire nation would be well worth it. Over and over again we do see Pharaoh agreeing to let the Israelites go, but every time God intentionally hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he changes his mind. Why all the mind games? Because God wants to drag things out. He’s not content to just do one or two dramatic plagues; He’s dreamed up ten whoppers and He wants a chance to play them all out in front of a captive audience.
The Egyptians are the ones God is really after in this account. They are the ones He is trying to drive towards Himself. “This is how you will know that I am Yahweh,” He says to them over and over through the lips of Moses. We are used to thinking of the ten plagues as God’s way of helping Israel, but He’s really fighting much harder for the Egyptians and He’s using the Jews as props to help drive His main point home. If He hadn’t kept playing with Pharaoh’s mind, the slaves would have been released after the first plague, but when God looks down at His beloved Egyptians, He sees a people who have a whole pantheon of gods that are distracting them from seeking after His truth. Through ten gory plagues, Yahweh is going to prove that He is far more powerful than all of the gods that the Egyptians are putting their faith in. The hope is that when the Egyptians see their gods getting knocked over like bowling pins, many will turn away from those useless idols, and pursue a relationship with this new God of the Jewish slaves.
When the ten plagues are finally over and the slaves are marching out to freedom, we’re told that “many other people who were not Israelites went with them” (Ex. 12:38). It’s fair to assume some of these tagalongs were Egyptians, for even Pharaoh’s magicians who are performing miracles by demonic power are publicly recognizing Yahweh’s superiority by the third plague (Ex. 8:19). Thanks to God, an entire nation becomes educated about His existence in a very short period of time. This is much more efficient than going door to door passing out Gospel tracts. When God sets out to get new converts, He never comes back empty handed.
1. Water into Blood
The first plague God unleashes on an unsuspecting Egypt is turning their water into blood. The Nile River is a massive body of water and it was the lifeline of this agricultural nation. No water meant no irrigation of crops or watering of animals. But forget the crops and animals—what about all the thirsty people?
Bloody water cooking in the sun smells mighty foul. A detail that’s easy to miss in this account is the fact that God not only turned the river into blood, but He also transformed the water in wooden buckets and stone jars—their version of bottled water. We always think of Moses striking the water of the Nile with his walking stick. But that was just step one. God then instructed Aaron to hold out his staff in the general direction of Egypt’s other rivers, canals, ponds and pools. All of the water all throughout the land turned into blood, not just one river. Of course all the fish died and the whole land began to stink.
“Blood was everywhere in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 7:21).
How long did this foul situation last? Seven long and very miserable days.
Hapi was the Egyptian god of the Nile. He was also called “lord of the fishes” and “lord of the river bringing vegetation.” Well, when the water smells like rotting corpses and all the dead fish are floating in it, Hapi’s looking pretty impotent. How shocking it would have been for the Egyptians to see some other Power conquering the god they all depended on to sustain their lives. If Hapi could no longer watch over them, who could? Yahweh was all too eager to answer that question.
2. The Ground is Hopping
After a week of reeking stench, Yahweh changed the blood back into water all throughout Egypt. No doubt the people were a little hesitant to take that first sip, but then their relief would have been enormous. The frightening Power that had beaten up their Nile god had finally gone away—or had He? A plague of frogs was the next horrible event God had planned for the Egyptians: so many frogs that everyone’s personal space was invaded with croaking, hopping, slimy amphibians. “They will come up into your palace, into your bedroom, on your bed, into the houses of your officers, and onto your people. They will come into your ovens and into your baking pans. The frogs will jump all over you, your people, and your officers,” God says to Pharaoh (Ex. 8:3-4).
Beds, baking pans and bodies: suddenly things are getting way too personal. As the Egyptians watch in horror, legions of frogs come hopping and croaking out of every river, canal and pond. The land was covered with them. The people were covered with them. There was no eating or sleeping under these croaking conditions. There was no place to run or hide. This was a loud, slimy, wriggling nightmare and the people were beside themselves with fear.
Heket was the Egyptian goddess of fertility. She had the head of a frog, for the amphibians themselves symbolized life and fertility in the Egyptian mind. Heket’s sudden inability to control her little hoppers would have indicated she was in some sort of dire crisis. We can almost hear Yahweh laughing at the stupidity of Heket as He keeps hauling more frogs out of the water, but there was nothing but fear and panic for the flailing Egyptians. If Heket was in trouble, who would ensure the fertility of their people and their land? Yahweh was quite willing and able to take over the duties of this pathetic goddess.
3. The Dust is Alive
Before all the Egyptians were driven mad by frogs, God killed all of the amphibians and the land began to stink again—this time not from bloody water, but from piles of rotting frog corpses. Where do you bury a zillion frog bodies? We’re not told how the Egyptians handled their complex clean-up problems, but somehow God helped them manage. He wanted them to be ready for the next round of fun.
Gnats were the next item on God’s menu of terror. When Aaron struck his staff onto the ground, all the dust in Egypt changed into gnats. Take a slow stroll through your house and observe all the surfaces of your furniture with your face about two inches away. Unless the cleaning rag is still warm from use, you’ll notice a layer of dust covering absolutely everything, even your walls. Give the top blanket on your bed a good snap and whack your pillow in a shaft of sunlight. You’ll see more dust flying off of both. There is a whole lot of dust in this world. Now imagine what would happen if every single molecule of dust in your house suddenly took flight and began swarming towards the local sources of heat: you, for example.
Have you ever had an outdoor excursion ruined by one pesky fly or mosquito? Try a billion gnats that want to cover you and everyone around you like a cozy buzzing blanket. No amount of swatting in the world is going to deter these flying monsters. Gnats bite. They’re basically tiny flies with attitude. For as long as the gnats swarmed in Egypt, both the people and the animals were utterly miserable. Who wants to say anything and risk having fifty gnats fly into their mouth? Who can find refuge from such tiny winged pests? Where the Egyptians went, the gnats went.
The Egyptians had invented so many gods for themselves that many ended up with similar roles. Thus, each of God’s plagues would have threatened multiple deities at once. In the plague of gnats, Geb—the god of the earth—was clearly having problems since someone was turning his territory into flies. Khepri—the god of creation—was also being outdone by some far more powerful Creator, while Thoth—the god of magic—was being stifled. In the first two plagues, Thoth had obviously assisted Pharaoh’s magicians in duplicating the supernatural events. But during this third plague, something bad must have happened to Thoth because the magicians were suddenly out of tricks. By now every Egyptian had to be wondering what kind of Power could trump so many of their gods at once. According to His messenger Moses, there was a single Deity responsible for all of their problems. Before now, they’d never imagined that a God of such great power could exist. Little did they know, He was just warming up.
4. Something’s Buzzing
Gnats are tiny and we’re never told when God made them go away, but we do know that He upgraded to a bigger form of pest in the fourth plague: flies. We’re told that huge swarms of them filled all the houses, covered the people, and carpeted the ground.
“All over Egypt flies were ruining the land” (Ex. 8:24).
These are loud, destructive pests. Having just survived a nightmare of gnats, the people must resume their frantic swatting. There’s just no way to relax when ugly looking insects are crawling all over you.
Khepri was the fly-headed god of creation and rebirth. With his representatives swarming out of control, the land that Khepri helped to create was now being destroyed. What had happened to their creator-god? The real Creator was showing Khepri’s power to be as fake as the god himself.
5. Someone Call a Vet
After having to deal with heaps of rotting frogs, we’re told that God drives the flies away so that not a single one is left. What a relief, but it’s doubtful anyone in Egypt was relaxing. This foreign God’s M.O. was becoming clear and the people were bracing for His next attack. What horrible insect would descend on them now? Much to their shock, Yahweh suddenly veered off in a new direction. Instead of visible bugs, He attacked their livestock with an invisible disease. Horses, donkeys, camels, cows, goats and sheep suddenly became sick and died before anyone could figure out a way to help them. Now Egypt’s food supply was being threatened, plus they needed their animals for transportation and hauling and working their farms. No doubt by now many were wondering why their Pharaoh was being so stubborn about the Israelite slaves. Clearly they were associated with this God who was bringing so much trouble on them. If the Israelites were to leave, maybe they’d take their terrifying God with them.
Many Egyptian gods were associated with cattle. Hathor, the goddess of love and protection, had her head adorned with a pair of cow horns. Clearly Hathor wasn’t in a position to protect anyone with all the cattle dropping over. Bulls were sometimes considered the embodiment of gods, like the mighty sun god, Ra. If any of their gods were running around as bulls when the fifth plague struck, the Egyptians could only hope they quickly morphed into a different form before it was too late. Clearly none of them would stand a chance against the God of the slaves.
6. Ashes Bring Disease
We don’t know how long the plague on livestock lasted, but we’re told that all the farm animals in Egypt died—except for the ones owned by Israelites in their land of Goshen. Somehow the Egyptians managed to secure more animals, for we’re told that animals as well as people are affected by the next plague, which is a nasty case of boils. When Moses throws a handful of furnace ashes into the air, God causes it to spread like dust throughout the land and act as a sort of virus, infecting everyone with very painful skin sores. The sores were so painful that Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t even stand in Moses’ presence. As usual, no exceptions are made for the royal staff. Inside and outside of the palace, misery and fear abound.
Isis was the goddess of medicine and peace. Sekhmet was a lion-headed god who was supposed to control plagues. Where were these gods when the Egyptians desperately needed them? Obviously they were being thrashed by the mysterious Yahweh. At this point, how many Egyptians were saying prayers in secret, trying to communicate with and appease this angry Deity? We aren’t told, but no doubt God saw the spiritual activity in Egypt taking on new forms during these epic plagues.
7. It’s Raining Rocks
The worst hailstorm in Egypt’s history is the seventh terror that God unleashes on the already crippled land. This time He graciously gives enough of a warning for people to find shelter for themselves and their animals. Those who don’t are bludgeoned to death by falling rocks of ice. We’re told that bolts of lightning struck down to the earth as the hail fell, intensifying the people’s terror. The hailstones were large enough to break trees apart, as well as destroy the growing crops. God times His storm to hit right when the flax and barley crops had ripened, creating a food shortage in an already strained economy. How Egypt survived the plagues is a miracle in itself. Without God’s help, she would have been quickly wiped off the map. Yet while He tore her apart, God also kept her intact for the sake of the people He was trying to reach.
Nut was the sky goddess. Clearly Nut’s home was being ravaged by an outside Invader. Shu was the god of the air. Tefnut was the goddess of water and moisture. Seth was the god of chaos and thunder. The reputation of all these gods was torn apart by Yahweh’s mighty storm.
8. The Land Turns Black
With the hailstorm of the century behind them, Egyptians survey their war-torn land and battered crops with a sense of defeat. Why won’t the Pharaoh just give Moses what he wants? Pharaoh himself was supposed to be a god, and gods were supposed to be smart, but Pharaoh was acting like an idiot to keep resisting a God of such power. With their livestock dead and two harvests destroyed, what was left? Well, there was still the wheat crop to hope for. It was in bad shape, but maybe some of it would finish growing. Uh-oh, what is that buzzing sound in the distance?
It’s Round 8 and God’s revving up for another record setting event.
“There will be more locusts than your fathers or ancestors have ever seen—more than there have been since people began living in Egypt” (Ex. 10:9).
A strong wind from the east starts to blow for an entire day and night, bringing with it hordes of ugly locusts.
“…they covered the whole land so that it was black. They ate everything that was left after the hail—every plant in the field and all the fruit on the trees. Nothing green was left on any tree or plant anywhere in Egypt” (Ex. 10:15)
Imagine the carpet in your house buzzing and crawling and crunching under your feet. While you go hungry, locusts devour every iota of food you can see. By now every Egyptian needed some post-traumatic counseling—that is if the traumas would just stop coming. How long would you hold out if your life and country was being ripped apart at the rate theirs was? Suppose that your mother died from the boils, and your father got caught in the hailstorm. Suppose you were bankrupt with no source of income and your kids were starving in front of you. Your gods are too busy losing some war in the supernatural realm to pay any attention to you, and by now you’re starting to wonder if any of them really exist.
Senehem was the god who was supposed to protect people from the ravage of pests. Thanks for nothing, Senehem. He’s proven to be utterly useless since the plague of frogs began, and that’s old news by now. Can an Egyptian convert to the religion of the slaves? Was Yahweh accepting new members into His club of favored ones? Things sure are going great in the land of Goshen. How could the Egyptians get a piece of that protection?
9. Who Turned Off the Sun?
At last a wind from the west blows the horrible locusts away. But before the people can breathe a sigh of relief, they hear that the Pharaoh has once again refused to give Moses what he wants. Get ready for another plague. This time it’s three days of darkness—darkness so thick that it can be felt. No one can see their hands in front of their faces, let alone where the furniture in the house is located. Banging into walls, tripping over objects, stubbing toes, and grabbing at nothing is how they have to spend three long days. How can you cook any food when you can’t see? It doesn’t matter, because there is no food to cook. The locusts ate it all.
Ra was the god of the sun. Obviously someone found a way to extinguish him. Horus was the sky god–the sun and moon were his two eyes. Apparently Someone has blinded Horus. Egypt’s pantheon of gods now looks like a pathetic club of wimps and losers. The God of the slaves certainly hasn’t been very nice to His people by letting the Egyptians abuse them for so long, but now He’s back on the job and clearly looking for revenge. How can one dare to defy a God who has demonstrated such complete control over all the natural elements and who can create and destroy animal life whenever He pleases? The Egyptians are blown away by this awesome Deity.
10. The Final Plague
No one can understand why Pharaoh is being so stubborn. After the God of the slaves finally releases the sun so that it can shine once again over Egypt (instead of just shining on Goshen), the Pharaoh still refuses to release the slaves. Instead, he promises to kill Moses if the prophet dares to set foot in the palace again. Doesn’t he realize that Moses’ God might take offense?
Indeed He does, and disturbing rumors start to spread throughout the land that at midnight every firstborn son will be killed, along with the firstborn among farm animals. It’s too horrible to believe. Parents keep their children close to them as darkness falls and the hours crawl by. Why won’t Pharaoh just give Moses what he wants?
The slaves are acting very strange in Goshen. They’re spreading blood over their doorposts. Why on earth would they be doing that? And why are they getting all packed and ready to leave in the middle of the night?
Midnight rolls around. Panicked screams cut through the air, sending chills down everyone’s spine. First just one, then another and another. What’s wrong? What’s happening? Parents grip their sons tightly. “Don’t worry, son, I’ll keep you safe. Just stay close to me and nothing bad will happen to you. Son? Son?!” The boy is a corpse and so is his father, who was the eldest of three brothers. God takes the life of every firstborn son in Egypt, regardless of his age.
“There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (Ex. 11:6).
While Egypt is filled with wailing, we’re told that not even a dog barked in Goshen. Did God throw this comment in to mock the jackal-headed god of Anubis? Certainly He showed the deified pharaoh to be just another helpless pawn when He took the life of Pharaoh’s son and heir. Once again the sun god Ra—viewed as the creator of all things—was stripped of power. And Min, the god of reproduction, had much of his work destroyed in front of him.
“I will punish all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh.” (Ex. 11:12)
How much would your family tree change if all the firstborn sons were to die? Would that include your father, grandfather, uncle or brother? What about your cousins? All of Egypt could have been wiped out by this plague if there had been too many families with just one son. Widows left with no income and children to raise in a ravaged land wouldn’t have lasted long. But Egypt isn’t destroyed by this plague. In fact, Pharaoh still has a mighty army available to pursue the Israelites in Chapter 14. Of course they all end up drowning in the Red Sea, yet still the nation continues.
The fact that there are still Egyptians in the world today proves that God was preparing Egypt for her trial several generations in advance by creating many families with multiple boys so that there would still be plenty of males left to sustain the nation after that dark night. A group of five brothers would only lose one to the plague, whereas five only children would be completely wiped out. Even when He seems to be lashing out in uncontrolled rage, God is always being careful, calculating, and precise. Every move He makes is well thought out. He sees all the ramifications of His actions ahead of time and carefully chooses strategies that will be for our spiritual best.
God wants us to thrive with Him in Heaven for eternity, not die in foolish rebellion. Through His ten fearsome plagues, He grabbed the attention of both Israel and Egypt, as well every other nation who heard about them. The Israelites learned that their God had not forgotten them after all, the Egyptians learned that their theology had some major flaws, and everyone gained a new level of respect for the all-powerful and incomparable I AM.
Then God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. When you go to the people of Israel, tell them, ‘I AM sent me to you.’” (Ex. 3:14)
After the last plague strikes in the middle of the night, a grieving Pharaoh tells the Israelites to get out.
“The Israelites did what Moses told them to do and asked their Egyptian neighbors for things made of silver and gold and for clothing” (Ex. 12:33).
Let’s consider this moment from the Egyptian point of view. Their homeland looks like an ugly, war-torn wasteland. Many Egyptians have died from former plagues plus now the survivors will have to bury all the corpses of the firstborn sons. Once again, there are dead animals everywhere for God has struck down the firstborn of all their farm animals—animals they no doubt had trouble getting after the plague on the livestock. So what’s left to like in Egypt? Why stay in such a depressing place? They see the slaves go by and notice a lot of non-Jews are trooping along with them. Why not join ranks and say goodbye to Egypt forever? It’s pretty obvious by now that the God of the slaves is the most powerful God of all.
As He describes His ten terrible plagues to us, God reminds us over and over again what His purposes in causing them was: to bring glory to Himself, to impress the Israelites, and to illuminate the Egyptians about a few spiritual truths. Yahweh is the real God—not the silly idols they’ve been worshiping. God dearly loves His little creatures with Egyptian blood running through their veins and He is doing everything possible to motivate them to come to Him. He’s shredded their confidence in their gods, filled them with awe of Him, and destroyed all of the earthly benefits of staying in Egypt. Under normal circumstances it would be repulsive and embarrassing for an Egyptian to join company with the slaves they had degraded for so long. But God has gone to great lengths to help the Egyptians overcome their pride, reputations, theology and every other block that might discourage them from coming to Him. The ten plagues were about saving Egyptian souls. God wants them to come along with the Israelites as they leave the land. In the last critical hour, He even turns the Egyptians’ minds to forget any negative feelings they once had towards the slaves.
“Yahweh caused the Egyptians to think well of them, and the Egyptians gave the people everything they asked for. So the Israelites took rich gifts from them.” (Ex. 12:36)
Today we live after the cross and getting saved requires admitting you’re a vile sinner deserving of Hell who can only be redeemed by the Blood of Jesus. This is quite a hurdle for the old pride to overcome. But before the cross, things were much easier. One only had to recognize that Yahweh was the greatest God around to get started. Israel was open to receiving any foreigners who wanted to join with her and the Jews would then educate newcomers about Yahweh’s Laws and how to please Him. Idol worshipers were already used to sacrificing their children and cutting their bodies in order to try and please their fictitious deities. After all that misery, Yahweh would have seemed like a much nicer God who was far easier to please, for He only wanted animals to be killed, not children, and He never demanded self-mutilation. As Christians we get so bogged down thinking about the old sacrificial system that we don’t appreciate what a blessed surprise Yahweh would be to non-Jews. Both then and now, the real God seems far too good to be true.
God used the ten plagues to make it ultra-clear to Egyptians that He was far more powerful than all of their deities combined. Then He went to great lengths to cut their emotional and material ties with Egypt by making it a land of poverty, disease and sorrow. Both then and now, God has always made it easy to come to Him. In Exodus 12:38 we’re told:
“Many other people who were not Israelites went with the Jews, as well as a large number of sheep, goats, and cattle.”(Ex. 12:38)
How many of these were Egyptians? God doesn’t tell us, but He wants us to appreciate the lengths He went to to save Egyptian souls from Satan’s strongholds. In a country like America, where we try to separate church from state, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it would be to reject a belief system that permeates every aspect of the society you live in. God knew in advance the exact day He would take the Israelites out of Egypt, thus removing an important source of human witnesses from their midst. This would be like God suddenly pulling every Christian out of a pagan country today—who would be left for the people to talk to about Jesus? Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, some Egyptians would have been secretly wondering about the God the slaves believed in and He didn’t want those precious soul stirrings to be discouraged. So He planned in advance how to jolt the Egyptians out of their spiritual coma and make what would normally be an unthinkable change in theology seem like a wise move.
When God calls us to do something, He always provides means and opportunity. If we are wise, we will cooperate with His program the first time instead of pushing Him off, for the next time, He might make obedience much harder. Egyptians who refused to leave with the Israelites and later thought better of it would have had a much more difficult time breaking free of their culture’s traditions. When we ignore the opportunities God gives us, we become much easier for Satan to take down. God’s timing is critical, and even when He is pushing us to do something insane—in the Egyptians’ case, to pack up and leave for parts unknown with a bunch of ex-slaves—we will find that His plans are always for our spiritual best.