The Living God Vs. The Gods Of Egypt

“And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)

“For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.” (Exodus 12:12)

The majestic imagery of the events in the Book of Exodus make for quite the engrossing story as well as larger-than-life cinematic moments. Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary movie director, made not one but two films about “The Ten Commandments” (1923 and 1956). I remember watching the newer Charlton Heston version as a kid and seeing those fantastic images of the ten plagues being carried out against a stubborn Pharaoh (portrayed wonderfully by Yul Brynner). I never really gave it much thought when I was young but, as I grew older, I must admit that the particular plagues that God chose to enact against the people of Egypt did seem rather strange and arbitrary. I mean, frogs? Flies? Locusts? A bloody river? Why did God use these particular things in order to plague the land of Egypt?

We have a few clues in the Bible about why God used these instruments in order to express His wrath on Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. First of all, we see in Moses’ initial encounter with Pharaoh that Pharaoh defiantly asserts, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go?” (Ex. 5:2). And secondly, we see the Lord declare in Exodus 12:12 that He is “executing judgment against all the gods of Egypt.” It seems that the biggest obstacle to Pharaoh releasing the Israelites was, A.) He did not submit to God’s authority and claimed to not even know Him and, B.) He was trusting in false gods and submitting to the authority of idols. Pharaoh did not feel compelled to obey the command of God because he did not recognize the living God as having sovereignty over him. He did recognize the gods of Egypt as having authority, but not the Living God. Therefore, the “contest with Pharaoh” that would follow through the plagues that God poured out on Egypt were ultimately a “Clash of the Gods“, so to speak. Each and every individual plague would be a frontal attack against a particular Egyptian deity, asserting that God Almighty was the One who had authority over that area of life, as He does over every area of life. Worshipping a pantheon of gods, the Egyptians assigned a specific deity to rule over every aspect of their lives from the mundane to the extraordinary. Let us look at each of the plagues and their significance to the pagan idolators of Egypt:

The Nile Turns To Blood

For all intents and purposes, the River Nile is Egypt. All of the major settlements in ancient Egypt grew up either next to the Nile or one of its tributaries. The importance and significance of this life-giving waterway to the ancient Egyptians simply cannot be overstated. Consequently, they had assigned many deities to the governing of it. Hapi, the bull-headed god, was the god of the Nile itself. Isis, the wife of the god Osiris, was also revered as having authority over the River. Khnum, a god with the head of a ram, was viewed as a special guardian of the Nile’s waters. There were countless other lesser gods who were revered in connection with the sacred waters of the Nile. The turning of the Nile from water into blood must have called into question the power of all of these deities to protect the sacred stream of Egypt. Not only was the Nile the primary source of water for the land, it was also the source of irrigation for the crops that were grown there. The annual overflowing of its banks brought necessary saturation and fertilization to the farms of an otherwise arid land.

In addition to the lack of drinking water and the threat to the irrigation of their crops, the fish within the River died (Ex. 7:21). Imagine, two primary food sources as well as the primary water source being simultaneously affected. The impact of this must have been devastating to the Egyptians. For a people who enacted precise religious rituals in order to appease the gods who ruled over the Nile, its turning to blood had to call into question Who really had the power of life and death in His hand.

Frogs

Heqet was the Egyptian goddess of birth and fertility. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a frog. Because of this, frogs were seen as possessing divine, life-giving powers and it was absolutely forbidden to kill them. Frogs were a common sight along the Nile’s banks when the river receded each year, but we are told in connection with this plague that they came forth “abundantly” and invaded the homes of the people (Ex. 8:3). Ironically, the frogs infested the bedrooms and beds of the Egyptians; the very places where the blessings of Heqet were sought. It is somewhat amusing to picture the people of Egypt attempting to gingerly step over these millions of frogs as they walked about, afraid to crush any of these sacred animals beneath their feet. I wonder how long their patience endured before the constant croaking and the overwhelming blanketing of these slimy little amphibians over every square inch of their homes became too much to bear and they wanted to curse the little fellows rather than worship them?

Lice/Gnats

It is not certain exactly what type of insects these were, but it seems that they were some type of stinging or biting bugs. Aaron smote the dust of the earth with his rod and the dust became these insects (Ex. 8:17). In the mind of Egyptians, this would have been a definite affront against Geb, the god of the earth. Interestingly, Geb was often portrayed with the head of a snake — Aaron’s former demonstration of his rod becoming a snake must have also brought Geb’s image into the mind of the Egyptians (Ex. 7:10). The symbolism of Moses’ and Aaron’s power over the snake would have spoken a great deal.

Flies

Khepri was a god related to creation and rebirth and was depicted as a man with the head of a fly. Additionally, the Ichneumon fly was considered a direct manifestation of the god Uatchit.

Plague On The Livestock

As in the plague on the Nile River, the sickness of the Egyptian cattle would have been seen as a threat to their food supply. Cattle were also viewed as sacred animals and the deities Hapi and Hathor (goddess of love) were normally depicted as having the head of cattle.

Boils

Sekhmet was a goddess with power over sickness and disease; Sunu was a god of pestilence; and Isis was the great goddess of health, medicine, and healing. Yet none of these seemed to have any power to stop this terrible plague of skin sores upon the people of Egypt. Since cleanliness and ceremonially cleansing were an integral part of religious life in Egypt, the priests were rendered ineligible for service due to their boils. If no previous plague had brought the entire Egyptian religious practices to a halt, then this certainly would have.

Hail And Fire

Nut, the goddess of the sky and Set, the god of storms would have been the object of this plague. Only the flax and barley were destroyed by the flames and hailstorms which would have primarily affected the textile and beer-brewing industries. It was only the luxury items affected here, not the main food crops. Yet Pharaoh did not repent and the locusts would come next to destroy all that the hail had left (Ex. 10:12).

Locusts

Osiris was the ruling god over the crops of the land of Egypt. The plague of locusts brought the utter destruction of all remaining plant life. Along with Nut and Set, already mentioned, gods such as Shu (god of the wind and atmosphere) would have been proven powerless in the face of the Living God of Heaven.

Darkness

This second-to-last plague would have affected the dominion of one of the highest gods in the entire Egyptian pantheon: Ra, god of the Sun. Along with Osiris, Ra was considered the greatest of all the Egyptian deities. The fact that the Sun over which he supposedly ruled failed to shine for three days would have seriously called into question the abilities of even this great god of Egypt.

Death Of the Firstborn

This final plague affected the two mightiest gods in the entire Kingdom: Pharoah himself and his son. Pharoah was viewed as a “living god”, as was his son. God demonstrated in the taking of the son of Pharaoh that He held power and authority even over Pharaoh . The King of Egypt was powerless to prevent this from happening and this last plague on the land proved beyond any doubt that Pharaoh was not a god at all. By this point, Pharaoh definitely knew Who the Lord was and why he should listen to Him. The Living God had shown that He alone is God and that He alone holds power over Heaven and Earth, kings and kingdoms, life and death. Pharaoh scoffed each time that Moses declared what God was about to do to the people of Egypt, yet every single thing that Moses told him came to pass exactly as he said it would. The “gods” that Pharaoh was trusting in, the “gods” that the people of the land were counting on to protect them were but vain and powerless idols compared to the Almighty God of the Universe.

One cannot help but see uncanny similarities between the Plagues of Egypt and many of the judgments of God in the Book of Revelation. The day will come when God shall again execute judgment against sinful, rebellious man and the “gods” he worships. Man continues to shake his fist in the face of God and defies His Maker. Man might not draw caricatures with animal heads of his deities nowadays, he might not name each one and assign them specific tasks, but he still believes that he is the master of his own destiny and that the powers of Nature can be tamed by his own efforts. Man still asks, “Who is God that I should obey Him?” and all the while bows his knee to “gods” who are powerless to help him. God will judge all who do so and everything which man has called “god” will be laid low and hewn down by the judgment of the Lord. Someday, every knee will bow down to the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 14:11, Phil. 2:11) and the worship of idols will be no more. There is no one else nor anything else worthy of man’s worship than God Almighty, our Maker and Creator. Let us come to Him now and not wait for our own “gods”, as well as ourselves, to come under His judgment.

Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

“And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)

In the last half of the Fourth chapter of Exodus, we read two rather peculiar verses. The first of these is Verse 21 where it is said that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and the second is Verse 24 where it states that God sought to kill Moses. Before we move on into Chapter 5, I would like to take a few moments to consider what exactly is being said in these verses and what it tells us about the nature and personality of God. Next time we are in Exodus, I would like to address Verse 24. For now, let us look at Verse 21:

The Hardening Of Pharaoh’s Heart

That the King of Egypt was stubborn, obstinate, and had a hard heart there is no doubt. But the pertinent question here is who exactly caused Pharaoh to become this way? Whose fault is it that he behaved in the manner that he did? No fewer than 17 times are we told in Exodus that Pharoah’s heart was hardened. Nine of those instances state that the Lord hardened his heart (including the occasion here in Ex. 4:21), three times it is stated that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and five times we are not told who it was that caused it. So, who ultimately bears the responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions and disobedience to the commandment of God to let the people of Israel go?

The first thing we should understand is what exactly is meant when the text says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. We know what a “hard-hearted” person is like, but here we have the actual act of the hardening of a heart.  Does this mean that Pharaoh could be described as “soft” or “tender” hearted before his encounters with Moses (and the Lord)? Two Hebrew root words are used in the verses mentioned to describe the condition of Pharaoh’s heart. The first word carries a meaning of “firming up”, “strengthening”, or “growing stronger.” It is used in other parts of the Bible to describe “repairs” or “mending” of materials (e.g., it is used often in the Book of Nehemiah to describe the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem). The other root word carries the meaning of something becoming “large”, “difficult” or “heavy.”

Both words are used to describe something becoming firmer, stronger, bigger, or heavier. But never does it describe one thing becoming another. For example, in Nehemiah 3:32 we are told of a section of the walls around Jerusalem being repaired (rebuilt) by the goldsmiths and merchants. Before they worked on it, it had been a broken down section of wall; when they were finished, it was a stronger section of repaired wall. Yet it was a wall before they fixed it and it was a wall afterward. So, whatever it was that was in Pharoah’s heart after his encounter with Moses was not something different from what was there before; it was merely a stronger, firmer version of the same thing. When wet concrete is poured into a mold to form a sidewalk, it remains concrete both before and after it hardens. It doesn’t change into something entirely different.

Some have interpreted the idea of what this passage is saying to mean that God changed Pharoah’s personality and nature when He sent Moses to meet him. This is not what we are being told at all. Pharoah was not some innocent, kind, good-natured ruler only to be changed into a wicked tyrant by the hand of God. No, he was wicked before and after his heart hardened. The only thing that changed was his anger and his resolve to do the evil that was already present in his heart.

Another aspect of this matter is to understand that, in Verses such as Ex. 4:21, two separate actions are not being described, but a single act. God is not telling Moses to do the wonders He commanded him to do AND God will harden the heart of Pharaoh (as if to suggest that God would be forced to tamper with Pharoah’s free will in order to cause him to rebel). No, God is telling Moses that the very actions that He will do through the hand of Moses will themselves cause Pharaoh’s heart to harden. It is God’s actions that will cause the heart of Pharaoh to harden, but it is still Pharoah’s choice to respond in this manner. When I tell my kids to clean their rooms and they get angry about it (which happens sometimes!), it could be accurately said that I made them mad; but it is also true that they chose to respond that way rather than responding in obedience.

“For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth…What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:” (Romans 9:17, 22)

That God knew beforehand how Pharaoh would respond is certain. God is all-knowing. Yet in this encounter between a proud and hard-hearted man and a merciful but holy God, we have the mysterious tension between man’s free will and God’s sovereign will. In a perfect God’s dealings with sinful man, neither is ever frustrated or tampered with. God accomplishes His will and man reaps what he sows; freely deciding at every juncture his own course of action. That God knows the end from the beginning should never be interpreted to mean that He in any way affects that outcome by manipulating the free will that He Himself has placed within every man. Just because he knew what was already in the heart of Pharaoh, as He surely knows what is in the heart of every man, doe not mean that He moved the hand of Pharaoh nor tempted him to commit evil (James 1:13). It was God’s actions that caused Pharoah to strengthen his resolve, to stand firm in his obstinance; but it was ultimately the choice of Pharaoh to harden his own heart. He was free at any time to acquiesce and do what was right and just. He chose not to.

A King Which Knew Not Joseph

“Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob.” (Exodus 1:1)

Flipping through the pages of the Old Testament, it is interesting to note how many books begin with the word “now” or “and.” Exodus is among them. Whether translated as “now” or “and”, the Hebrew term is identical. It is actually a single pen-stroke representing a conjunction which denotes a continuation of thought. It ties together something that has already been said with something which follows. Although using such a conjunction as the first word in a new book would seem, at first glance, very unusual, it tells us something very remarkable about the Bible. The Bible is a Book of books, and though each book tells a different part of the overall story, they are each but a continuation of that story; a link joining the events already told with those to come.

As such, Exodus picks up right where Genesis left off. Genesis ended with Joseph being laid to rest in a coffin in Egypt, Exodus opens with the death of Joseph and everyone else in that generation (1:6). Many of the events which God revealed in Genesis are now fulfilled in Exodus. The affliction of the descendants of Abraham that God told him would come in Genesis 15 is precisely the condition wherein we find them in Exodus 1. The promise made to Jacob that his descendants would become a great nation in the land of Egypt (Gen. 46:3) finds fulfillment in Exodus 1:7. The family of Israel, the subject of the final chapters of Genesis, is now the Nation of Israel — the subject of most of the remainder of the Old Testament.

From the chain of events spanning more than four centuries, we are given but a single sentence of explanation concerning how a nation which had been rescued from the brink of starvation by Joseph could so easily come to persecute his descendants. “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  How is it that a man who had been so revered and adored by a people end up having his descendants despised by the same? They knew nothing of him. He had been utterly forgotten. The man who had been second only to Pharaoh himself was now less than a footnote in their history — his name was not even remembered among the Egyptians.

What a lesson to those whose loftiest goal in life is to leave a mark on this world! So many people can think of no greater accomplishment than to have their name remembered and memorialized. Though a few names survive the passage of time, most do not. Even within families, names of those living just three or four generations prior are seldom remembered, much less anything they have accomplished. It is a sad truth that even the noblest of deeds and greatest of achievements rarely outlive the people who witnessed them first-hand.

It is, therefore, all the more ironic that Joseph, a man whose legacy lives on more than three millenia later, was forgotten by a Pharaoh whose proper name is not even given in the Text of Scripture. The king who came from a dynasty known for its opulent monument building — a dynasty of rulers who did all within their power to ensure that the world would never forget them — is himself but a footnote in history. His name is not even mentioned though the children of Jacob are all listed by name. The legacy of the sons of a shepherd has outlived that of an emperor.

We spend so much of our time invested in the pursuits and business of this world. We desperately try to make an impact by pouring ourselves into the affairs of this life. But only what is done for the Lord and in His name will survive into the world to come. God never forgot Joseph because he was faithful to Him. The kings and rulers of this world may not know your name, but if you belong to Christ, then the King of kings does. And that is what ultimately matters.