I was listening to a popular speaker talk about sexual abuse in evangelical circles. He said to us something like, “I could give you numerous statistics and even stories about survivors, but that would not move the needle. You won’t respond until you see the impact in your own life.”
His words were hurtful to my friend, a survivor. Because it communicated that survivors aren’t enough to stir up action in their defense. The sad thing, though, is that his words aren’t entirely untrue. After all, it usually takes something catastrophic in our own life before we are attuned to the suffering of another.
For Pharaoh to loosen his grip upon his Hebrew slaves, it took 10 plagues. What were these plagues, and what role did they play in the faith of the Israelites?
What Were the 10 Plagues?
You can read the story of the 10 plagues in Exodus 7-12. It’s an interesting story where the plagues increase in intensity. The first few plagues the magicians are able to imitate, but eventually, everyone is silenced, and Egypt is devastated.
Here are the 10 plagues in order:
- The plague of blood (the Nile turns to blood)
- The plague of frogs
- The plague of gnats
- The plague of flies
- The plague upon livestock
- The plague of boils
- The plague of hail
- The plague of locusts
- The plague of darkness
- The plague upon the firstborn (the death of the firstborn)
These plagues serve as both a warning and judgment. They are also the means by which God rescues the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
You’ve maybe heard the old song, “Go Down Moses,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. It’s a song about liberation — but it misses one key point of the narrative. The Israelites are freed so that they can worship God.
This means that part of what God is doing with these plagues is meant for the Israelites to know God. Yes, it is so that Pharaoh will know the power of God. It is for their release, but part of these plagues is a testimony of the greatness of God over and against the powerful Egyptians.
This has led some to believe that the plagues are really a battle between God and the pagan gods of Egypt. Is that true?
A Testimony Against the Gods?
A few years ago, I did an in-depth study on idolatry in the Old Testament. What I found was that God employs a two-fold strategy when battling idols.
He exposes the emptiness of idols and then displays His fullness, often at the idols' expense. It’s not surprising, then, to see that God would engage directly with the gods of Egypt.
Imagine that you are an Israelite who has been under Egyptian slavery for many years. Their way of life has infiltrated into your own. Their gods would have likely been feared by the Hebrew people. The powerful Egyptians and their powerful gods would have struck fear in the Israelites.
They were, frankly, being abused by the Egyptians. Abuse always distorts reality. This means that the Hebrew people, after enduring years of personal and systemic abuse, would need a mighty display of power to walk in the rescue which God was providing.
It takes a great act of faith to step onto the parted waters. It’s not only the fear of the unknown waters surrounding you as you walk through the deluge — it’s also the fear of your abuser chasing you. Is this new way of life, this new God, really more powerful than my abuser?
I am not entirely convinced that there are specific gods being targeted with each plague. But it’s certainly interesting and definitely plausible. Consider this:
The first plague targets Apis, the god of the Nile. The second plague targets Heqet, the frog goddess. The third plague targets Set, the god of the desert. The fourth plague targets Uatchit, the fly god.
The fifth plague targets Hathor depicted as cattle. The sixth plague targets Isis (and others), who were over health and disease. The seventh plague targets Nut, Osiris, and Set (sky, crops, and storm gods).
The eighth plague targets Nut, Osiris, and Set once again. The ninth plague targets Re, the sun god. The tenth plague targets Isis, the protector of children.
Personally, I think this might be a little too neat for the actual narrative. And there is nothing in Scripture that seems pointed at specific gods. It would be strange, in my opinion, for God to specifically target Baal worship but then not mention Osiris, Re, Isis, or others by name.
But even still, that is part of what God is doing in these plagues. He is showing that the things which the Egyptians trust are powerless before His might.
He does this not only to bring about Egyptian repentance but also to strengthen the faith and resolve of the Hebrews. They need to know that God is more powerful than their captor.
What Did They Communicate to God’s People?
The plagues certainly communicated to Pharoah, and the text makes this explicit that the reason for this is “so that you might know.” YHWH is making Himself known throughout all of Egypt. But what specific lessons do we learn from the plagues?
I see a few specific lessons this narrative communicates [I am indebted to J.A. Motyer for these points]. First, it communicates to the Hebrews and to Pharoah the same lesson that Moses had to learn at the burning bush; namely, that God is the I Am.
This means that He is the source of life. The plague upon the Nile strikes at the very heart of Egyptian life and culture. God is self-existent.
Secondly, the Exodus narrative makes it a point to have the magicians mimic the signs that God was doing. And they can keep up the game for a couple of plagues.
But eventually, they must confess “this is the finger of God.” This shows that YHWH alone is the I Am. He alone is the self-existing creator. There are no rivals.
By the first few plagues, Pharoah should have known that he had met his match. Motyer says it well:
“We see, therefore, that Pharoah was faced both with a rising severity of divine action and a mounting body of evidence of the absolute power and incomparable nature of the Lord” (Motyer, The Message of Exodus).
Thirdly, we see in many key points in the narrative a separation between the Israelites and the Egyptians. One place this is prominent is in the plague of flies. In 8:31, YHWH makes the point that this is a testimony that “I am in this land.”
God shows his power not only in the ability to bring this plague of flies but also in the ability to discriminate in their destruction. He can also protect His people. God is a refuge.
Lastly, we learn from this story that God is all-powerful. He is able to turn the heart of kings. This is what he says about Pharaoh — that he would be an instrument by which God would display His power. Yes, he is more powerful than their captor.
How Does This Apply to Us Today?
There are a few lessons for us to learn in the story of the 10 plagues. At various points, we might fill the role of Pharoah, and at other times we are the Hebrews needing deliverance.
In both instances, it is helpful for us to remember that God is both powerful and merciful. We should not be so arrogant that it takes devastation to bring about our repentance.
There is also a message in this for us to trust in the God who is rescuing us. There are times when God is on the “water into blood” stage of our rescuing, and we would prefer he be on a later stage, where we are walking across a parted sea with our enemies in the rear-view mirror. But we do well to trust in God and in God’s timing. He has shown Himself faithful time and time again.
For further reading:
What Were the 10 Plagues that God Inflicted on Egypt and Is COVID-19 Similar?
What Is the Significance of the Plague of Locusts?
Why Did Moses Remove His Shoes in Front of the Burning Bush?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/KONSTANTIN AKIMOV