Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Plagues Turn Serious: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part III

The Plagues Turn Serious: Moses and the Gods of Egypt Part III

In the first two blogs, I discussed some of the basic tenets of animism in order that we might understand the ten plagues as Moses, Pharaoh, and the peoples they led would have understood them.  At its core, animism is a religion of power—and the ten plagues, along with the resultant exodus from Egypt, are the most powerful example of, and most referred to, power encounter in the entire Old Testament. That Moses should devote so much narrative to them is indicative of their importance.

We pick up the story again in Exodus 8:22-23, the description of the fourth plague.  Here, Moses records a significant change in the way God sent the plagues.  From this point on, the children of Israel would not be affected.  Since the first three plagues impacted everybody, one could make the case that these were general natural disasters that, in the minds of the Egyptians, could have been caused by other deities.  Sparing the Israelites, however, would send a clear message to the Egyptian people that something of a different order was happening, and that God was identifying himself as the God of Israel, giving the Egyptians a crystal clear understanding of who was calling the shots—a message even the hard hearted Pharaoh was able to grasp.

The god of the flies was most likely Beelzebub. One writer contends that these flies were actually scarab beetles rather than flies, but this view does not appear to be common (  V24 records an interesting statement that the land “was corrupted” the flies.  The flies fed off animal dung, which may have been the source of defilement, although they would not likely have known then that dung was unsanitary.  This being said, however, the meaning of this phrase remains a bit unclear, at least to me.

Again, the impact of the plague was not serious.  Apparently no one died or even became sick, although flies feeding from the manure piles would have carried terrible germs.  But, no doubt noting the absence of flies among the Hebrews, Pharaoh noticed that this plague was somehow different and, in verse 25, for the first time, he began to negotiate--offering the children of Israel some time off for sacrificing to the Lord—but he wanted them to stay in Egypt where he could control them.  In other words, he wanted to appease the Lord to get him to lay off the plagues and leave Egypt alone.

Why Pharaoh began to negotiate here is admittedly speculative, but there may have been something going on that would not be obvious to Western readers.  Animistic religions are based on getting, controlling, and maintaining supernatural power.  In the Egyptian worldview, Pharaoh, as a descendent of the sun-god, was believed to be very powerful.  In early 1998, Debbie and I made a ministry trip to Indonesia.  One day, as I was teaching on the plagues to a group of villagers living in a remote area near the equator in the Indonesian rain forest, one older man observed that perhaps Pharaoh was negotiating because he sensed that his power was waning, and he wanted to maintain it at all costs.  Therefore, appeasing the God of the Hebrews was called for in order to maintain the supernatural status quo.  I believe the villager was right.  Pharaoh was correct that his power was indeed waning as the God of the Hebrews was making his point that he, not Pharaoh, was the one who controlled the universe.

When Pharaoh offered to let the Israelites go and sacrifice within the land of Egypt, Moses, being very polite, in an indirect manner, told Pharaoh “no deal.” Notice, too, that when Moses said that they would go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, he never promised that they would return.  Moses did not lie or deceive Pharaoh in any way.  He simply felt no obligation to tell him the whole plan.  Although he did not say that they were planning to leave permanently, Pharaoh, who initially agreed to let them go, well understood what was happening and, once again, hardened his heart once the flies were gone and did not keep his promise.

While the first four plagues presented just inconveniences to the Egyptians, the fifth (Exodus 9:1-7) began to have a major economic impact. In verse 3, Moses warned Pharaoh that the consequence of further arrogance would be severe and stated that, once again, the cattle belonging to the children of Israel would not be affected. 

Some of the gods of Egypt were more popular than others.  The gods represented by the animals mentioned here appear to have been of some importance.    
One writer noted:
The fifth plague was against the domestic animals of Egypt, and thus Apis, the bull god, and the cow-headed Hathor, goddess of the deserts. These were so widespread that even the children of Israel had become tainted by their worship, which led to the fiasco of the golden calf in the image of Apis . 7
The plague was a "murrain," a contagious disease among the cattle, and even the sacred bulls in the temple died (
The economic impact must have been catastrophic and livelihoods of many Egyptians wiped out…literally overnight.  Even the sacred bulls were killed, so the Egyptians could not sacrifice to these gods to appeal for help.  If they thought that their own gods were doing this to them, they had nothing with witch to appease them.  No outcry from the people was yet recorded, but they must have been getting restless by now.  Surprising, Pharaoh himself is not moved by the impact of this plague, although he did sent someone to check on the herds of the Israelites to see if God had kept Moses’ promise that they would not be affected.

Again, there is clear evidence that the God of the Hebrews is the Lord of the universe.  He was more than willing to disturb the natural order in order to display his power and, in this case, his wrath against Pharaoh and the other gods of Egypt.  Like a piece of wood in a vise grip, God was increasing the pressure he was putting on the Egyptian worldview—both challenging the Egyptians convictions about his sovereignty and establishing the reality of his power and love to the children of Israel.  So far, the impact on bodies of the Egyptians people had been minimal.  This would soon change.  God was upping the ante.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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