Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Plagues Begin: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part II

The Plagues Begin: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part II
By Dr. Dave Johnson

In the first blog, we explored Moses’ experience with God on Mt. Horeb.  Here, we will begin to delve into the Ten Plagues, all of which were intended to be power encounters with the various gods of Egypt.  The key verse for this series is Exodus 12:13 where God told Moses “…and against all the gods of Egypt will I execute judgment: I am the LORD.” While this verse specifically deals with Pharaoh himself, who was believed to be the descendent of the sun-god, it broadly applies, as we shall see, to all of the plagues. But in order to understand the mindset of the participants, a brief explanation of their worldview must first be given.

The ancient Egyptians, like most of the world today, were animists. They believed that the supernatural pervaded all of life and that gods, goddesses, ancestors, and spirits abounded and had the power to bless or curse the living. Sacrifices were offered and rituals were performed to appease or manipulate them to do man’s bidding.  Amulets and charms were among the paraphernalia used for this purpose.  All of life was seen through the lens of the supernatural, especially as it related to cause and effect.  For example, when someone was sick, diviners were consulted to determine the cause of the sickness.  If the cause was supernatural, a supernatural cure had to be sought.  The same held true for things like natural disasters and many other aspects in life.  It is impossible to overstate the impact of the supernatural on the worldview of an animist.  Dealing with all of these issues called for gaining, harnessing, and relying on supernatural power. The most allegiance and attention was given to the god or spirit that displayed the most power.          

Exodus 5:2 is critical to our understanding here.  Pharaoh claims not to know the God of the Hebrews.  Why should he pay any attention to weak deity who was unable to prevent his people from being enslaved?  What Pharaoh did not understand, at least at first, was that the God of the Hebrews was challenging Pharaoh to a power contest of the first magnitude.  In short, he was picking a fight. It would prove to be a ten round bout, the stakes getting higher with each round, and the outcome was already predetermined.

When Moses first presented God’s demand to let his people go, Pharaoh responded by refusing and becoming more oppressive, not less. He did not realize that God was setting him up for a fall, and even the children of Israel thought Pharaoh held the upper hand (Exodus 5-6).  Exodus 7:1-13 reveals the warm-up in the match between God and Pharaoh.  That Pharaoh’s magicians could replicate what God did with Aaron’s rod seems to have surprised noone, but when Aaron’s snake swallowed up those of the magicians, the final outcome of the match is foreshadowed to the glory of God.

Before proceeding further, the issue of the power of pagan witchcraft must be mentioned.  Although dealing with it in any complete manner is well beyond the scope of this article, it is obvious from this story that pagan witchcraft practitioners have power and the question is, from where does the power ultimately come?  The obvious answer is Satan but from where, then, does Satan draw his power?  If Satan has power independent from God then we cannot say that God is all-powerful.  Therefore, we must conclude that their power comes indirectly from God.  The question must then be raised as to whether God is responsible for evil and for deceiving people.  I believe that the answer is no because the Bible says Satan chose to use God’s power to rebel against God.  People, then, have the power to choose which they will follow and are morally responsible for those choices.  These answers are admitting overly simple but will have to suffice here.  Now, back to our story.    

Round one of the contest took place beside the Nile river.  It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Nile in the life of the people.  They regarded the Nile as the source of life and since the ancient Egyptians saw all of life through a supernatural paradigm, they believed that the god Hapi, controlled the waters of the Nile.

As a water god, Hapi was a deity of fertility - he provided water, food and the yearly inundation of the Nile. . . .During the inundation flood, the Egyptians would throw offerings, amulets and other sacrifices into the Nile at certain places, sacred to Hapi. Hapi was thought to come with the inundation (the 'Arrival of Hapi') with a retinue of crocodile gods and frog goddesses, and the sacrifices were given in the hopes that the flood would not be too high, nor too low. If the inundation was too high, many homes would be destroyed (the Egyptians built their homes and even palaces out of mud brick, which was easily washed away in a large flood). On the other hand, if the flood was too low, there would not be enough water for the fields and cattle - Egypt would be in drought. During inundation, statues of Hapi were carried about through the towns and villages so that the people could honor and pray to him - it was a solemn occasion., accessed March 1, 2011

When God turned the water in the Nile (and every other body of water in Egypt) into blood, he was demonstrating his power over Hapi (Exodus 7:14-24).  Why God allowed the magicians to do the same is open to conjecture, but my opinion is that God was baiting Pharaoh to walk deeper into the trap he was setting for him.  While the people were likely shocked at what happened, they simply dug around the banks of the river and found potable water, meaning that they were merely inconvenienced.  For his part, however, Pharaoh took the bait and hardened his heart.  The first round, by God’s design, was a draw.

Round two (Exodus 8:1-15), involved God’s judgment over Heket (also Heget or Heqet), the Egyptian goddess of the frogs. Because frogs are amphibian and must live near water, they abounded around the Nile, especially at floodtide.  Since the Nile was held to be the source of life, the Heket was seen to be the goddess of fertility, an important role in ancient Egypt, since, like many of their neighbors, the Egyptians would have abhorred barrenness.  Amulets and charms were worn to ensure safe delivery of babies. 

In both of the first two plagues, God is revealing his power against the Nile and the fruit of the Nile, frogs.  Since this river was believed by the Egyptians to be the very source of life and fertility, God is exposing the very heart of their worldview and challenging their very beliefs about who really holds the power of life and death.  That Pharaoh asked Moses to entreat God to remove the frogs (Exodus 8:8-12) is perfectly consistent with an animist’s worldview that the one who caused the calamity can also cure it, and does not in any way imply that he acknowledged God’s sovereignty over the earth or his superior nature.

Pharaoh’s witchdoctors also replicated this miracle.  Again, we are not told why, but I believe God allowed them to do it in order for Pharaoh to walk deeper into the trap of his own delusion. Again, Pharaoh bought the lie that Yahweh was a weak tribal deity and hardened his heart.  At the conclusion of round two the power match was still a draw, but the Lord of the Hebrews was just warming up.

In round three (Exodus 8:16-19), God executed judgment against Geb, the Egyptian god of earth, vegetation, and the underworld and may have, in the view of the Egyptians, been instrumental in creating the world.  He was also regarded as the father of Osiris and father-in-law of Isis, other Egyptians gods who are better known.

Since sowing and reaping crops were critical to maintaining life, appeasing the god of the earth and imploring him to give an abundant harvest was important to the people.  Again, God is attacking the heart of their worldview, raising again the question of who really causes the universe to function.  This must be balanced, however, with the thought that pestilence was not uncommon in the ancient Near East and like the first two plagues, the plague of lice was not life threatening, so the people were not yet seriously challenged and may have been rethinking their presuppositions about life too deeply yet.

In this round, however, a clear change in the trajectory of the confrontation takes place.  In vv. 18-19, God turned off the power of the Egyptian magicians, and they could not replicate this curse.  To their credit, they admitted that they were checkmated and retired from the scene, admitting that the God of the Hebrews was stronger than they were.  Pharaoh, however, continued his arrogant defiance and would not be cowed into submission, at least not yet. The power encounter was no longer a draw.

In looking at the first three judgments, some thoughts can be drawn.  First, God was beginning to keep his promise to Moses that he would set his people free. He was beginning to move, although there was no evidence yet as to when and how their deliverance would be accomplished, nor did it anyone, including Moses, yet know how thorough God’s judgment against the gods of Egypt would be.

Second, all of these judgments begin to call into question the Egyptians view of who ran the universe.  They also served to underscore to the Hebrews, who also were affected by these three plagues, that it was their God, not the deities of the Egyptians, who was in charge.  God was beginning to reaffirm to his people that their faith in him was well founded.

Third, none of these judgments affected the people in any permanent manner.  At most, they were a temporary nuisance that resulted in some inconvenience but, as yet there was no permanent damage. The Egyptian people do not seem to have paid much attention to what was going on, and Pharaoh remained unbowed.  Only the witchdoctors had noticed that the God of the Hebrews was stronger than they.  They alone appeared to have any inkling of the tsunami that was coming.  In round four, where my next blog begins, God ratchets up the pressure, separates the Israelites from the Egyptians, and begins to get Pharaoh’s and the people’s attention. 

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson