In my teens, a friend of mine offered a natural explanation for the ten plagues. It went something like this. There was a plague in the Nile River, so the frogs went on land and the frogs died, and huge swarms of flies ate them and so forth. Of course that would never account for sustained darkness over Egypt. I was astounded by the uncalculated casual response since there were ten plagues of vast proportions that occurred in quick succession.
At the end of last year, people were waving goodbye and good riddance to the previous twelve months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if there were ten plagues of varied types and of giant and precise dimensions, that would be unprecedented, other than prior to the Exodus. That would be a year that would not be forgotten easily. Moreover these plagues were predicted, time specific and affected the Egyptians, not the Israelites.
When considering world events, we must recognise what is happening by reading the Bible to make sense of the world around us, rather than reading our experiences into the Bible. We can consider the extent of God’s sovereignty in that He was able to bring something good out of the situation to the praise of His glory so that both Egypt and Israel would know that He is the Lord.
The Ten Plagues and the Egyptian gods
It is useful to know how each plague related to the Egyptian gods showing that the Lord was more powerful than their vast array of deities.
Water turning into blood showed that the Lord was more powerful than Osiris for whom the River was supposed to be sacred for. It was an offence to kill frogs since there was a temple in Memphis, dedicated to the frog goddess Heka. The plague of lice related to the earth God “Geb” and the dust of the land became lice. The swarm of flies may have been Khepara the beetle God and the scarab is seen on many ancient Egyptian artefacts to this day. The Egyptians worshipped Apis the black bull so a plague on livestock would demonstrate the powerlessness of their gods.
The sixth plague, boils, would show that the priests who had to be spotless were also directly affected and unable to reverse the affects. The plague of hail showed the Lord’s control over the supposed sky-goddess. Locusts in swarms were a judgement against the insect gods. The plague of darkness would blot out Ra the sun god and chief Egyptian deity whom they worshipped. Finally the death of the firstborn would attack their dynasty since the firstborn belonged to the gods of Egypt.[i]
The First Plague-Water into Blood
The River Nile was vital to the economy and the Egyptian livelihood. The plague went beyond the Nile, reaching to rivers, canals, and pools of water. The Egyptians, generally speaking were a clean people yet the fish died and stank, and they grew weary of drinking that water. They were forced to dig for water and maybe that would have caused them to think of how they were oppressing the Israelites.
What was happening spiritually? Worshipping the Lord must be our priority hence the Lord wanted the Israelites to go to the wilderness to worship the Lord their God first and foremost. We are to worship the Lord in all circumstances. The Egyptians refused and Pharaoh would try to bargain with God, merely to avoid judgement and we must be careful to not do the same. Conformity is not the same as true, heartfelt obedience, and uniformity is not the same as unity.
The Egyptians saw the world differently than the United Kingdom in postmodernity and it was supposed that there were many gods who you manipulated, bargained, or petitioned either knowingly or unwittingly. This is reflected in Pharaoh’s tactics, responses to subsequent plagues and stubbornness toward the God of the Hebrews. It takes an inner change to think differently, to repent and to worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth. The Egyptians were able to replicate a few plagues though what use was that other than for making a public demonstration? Importantly, they were incapable of reversing the effects. They may have used sleight of hand or demonic powers or possibly a combination of the two.
The Second Plague-Frogs
Frogs suddenly became ubiquitous in the Egyptian quarters though not in Goshen where the Israelites resided. They may have been tempted to trample upon them though they were considered deities to be respected. When the first plague occurred, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened though on this occasion, he requested for the frogs to be removed. Was there a change of heart? No, Pharaoh simply wanted the plague to cease. Asking for help was like someone who will blaspheme the name of the Lord and then cry out when there is a crisis, yet ignore Him otherwise. Some want to escape the judgement of God’s wrath though they are not grateful, neither penitent, nor obedient to Him.
Is not Moses’ response fascinating in his dealings with Pharaoh? “Accept the honour of saying when I shall intercede for you (Exodus 8:9). Sometimes with dictators, egomaniacs, and others, you can achieve your objectives by making a suggestion and then crediting them with the outcome afterwards. That way you survive in your role, keep your employment, and use their ego to persuade them. But there is much more here since this will only serve to illustrate the further sovereignty of the Lord. Pharaoh was given the choice of designating when the plague should stop and if it did not occur tomorrow, he could try to question the extent and power of the Lord. He was able to save face, though it was all too apparent that he was contesting a losing battle.
The Third Plague-Lice
The lice would agitate the Egyptians and their livestock and would be a constant reminder of their predicament. The sorcerers recognised this plague as an act of God, though on the other hand, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Did the magicians suddenly believe and follow the Hebrew God or were they just impressed by His abilities? Simon the magician wanted to buy the Holy Spirit in Acts 8 since he was more concerned with power, status and making a name for himself rather than God’s glory.
Some people claim that if only they saw a miracle they would believe. Maybe some would believe though some certainly would not. Yeshua (Jesus) was accused of driving out demons by Beelzebub, though the real issue was the heart. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the human heart is desperately wicked and Ezekiel 36:26 that we need a new heart. Only God can give us a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone since the human condition of the heart is such that it is blind and stubborn, and is our own worst enemy. Psychologists might inform us that we are born neutral and today more likely try to convince us that we are basically good, though the Bible is unequivocable that our hearts are actually the problem (Genesis 6:5; 8:21).
The Fourth Plague-Flies
Pharaoh tried to strike a deal with God by apparently offering the Israelites the opportunity to worship ‘in this place’ when God’s command was that they journey into the wilderness to worship Him. Do we ever pray, “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you Lord”, as if we can reach a mutual agreement as supposed equals? Or “to the measure that you give me, I’ll give back to you” as if we can decide the terms and conditions? Is it any surprise then that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not let them go?
The Fifth Plague-Livestock
This would seriously have affected their livelihood since their livestock was wiped out in a day. Sometimes we need to remember how dependent ancient societies were on agriculture. They would not forget that event easily and this would be confounded further by the fact that the Israelite animals were unaffected. I do not think there would be many scientists proposing theories concerning how these plagues were the result of natural phenomena. Rather they would be grieved by the calamities and would wish to avoid further judgement.
The Sixth Plague-Boils
Boils would cause enormous discomfort and gave an unsightly appearance. After attacking Job’s family, servants and property, Satan changed his strategy and sought permission to afflict Job with boils. The magician’s boils were so troubling that they could not stand before Moses and Aaron. Their priests would have been unclean for duty and they would be powerless to purify themselves and would not be able to stand before a holy God.
The Seventh Plague-Hail
Heavy hail would be lethal and mixed with fire would cause havoc across the land as trees and crops would be destroyed and lives would be lost, though again not in Goshen where the Israelites resided. God could have cut off Pharaoh from the face of the earth though that was not His intention.
“But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth (Exodus 9:16).”
Neither Pharaoh nor Moses was the central character in this narrative. Pharaoh exalted himself and God was jealous for His name and glory and used Pharaoh to show that.
The Egyptians were given a warning, and some listened and sought shelter inside whilst others did not. What was Pharaoh’s response? “I’ve sinned this time and the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked (Exodus 9:27).” Someone in court may have committed a heinous series of crimes so they plead guilty in an attempt to obtain a reduced sentence. Yet their demeanour is the same and there is not one jot or tittle of regret, remorse, or repentance. When the plague was removed, and the sentence lightened his heart was hardened and he was back to his old ways. That is a great illustration of saying sorry but not really being sorry, akin to lip service or counterfeit repentance.
The 8th Plague-Locusts
The Hebrews would be able to communicate to their children and their children’s children the mighty things that the Lord did in Egypt, so that they might know the Lord. These events are remembered in the Psalms and encouraged the Israelites and they also encourage us today. Sin has a blinding affect and even the Egyptian servants wanted to throw the towel in since they recognised that their country was ruined.
Pharaoh appeared to admit that he had sinned though predictably there was no change. In Catholicism, some go to the confession box regularly as if they were merely getting a virus removed from their laptop. Some will confess that something needs to be done yet their hearts will remain unmoved.
The 9th Plague-Darkness
This would have been eery. We sometimes talk about being in a dark place or describe something or someone as very dark. I remember a caving trip when we turned off the lights and you could not see a thing and it even felt dark. Without light it would be almost impossible to retrace your steps to safety. The Egyptian sun god Ra could neither give them light nor warmth and they would be unable to worship their gods.
At the feast of Tabernacles there were giant menorah in the temple courts lighting the surrounding area and Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life (John 8:12).”This was an incredibly strong Messianic claim. It reminds me of the chorus, “I was once in darkness now my eyes can see, I was lost but Jesus came and found me”.
In heaven there will be no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it since God gives it light and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation 21:23). In the meantime for those who are the disciples of Messiah Yeshua, let us walk in the light and let our light shine before others. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, others should be able to see something of the Lord at work in our lives.
The 10th Plague-Death of the Firstborn
In Egypt, The firstborn would inherit a double portion and be next in line for the throne. This was tragic and only at this point would Pharaoh relent and let the children of Israel go. So many warnings had been given and ignored. How many troubles people face, who refuse to listen to the Lord. But God’s word was being fulfilled and the children of Israel as promised would not leave Egypt empty handed and were sent out with silver and gold.
This event occurred at Pesach (Passover) and the Israelites sacrificed a lamb and painted blood on the doorposts and lintel and were spared. At Pesach, God gave His only unique Son, His firstborn, who was begotten and not created, to save us from the wrath and judgement that we deserved because of our sin. The Lord Jesus is the Passover Lamb who made atonement through His blood to reconcile us to God.
God can use individuals, leaders and nations in a dire situation and turn it round for good. We are commanded to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:2) and we can ask God to fulfil His purposes. God is sovereign and is actively involved in human events both on a large scale and in various aspects of our lives. God is in control over all of His creation and we can ask Him to bring good out of a situation and leave the outcome with Him.
The Lord’s timing and fulfilment is perfect. Israel was in Egypt for 400 years and Judah in Babylon for 70 years as foretold. God’s plans are precise, purposeful, not arbitrary, nor vindictive and certainly not random. At other times, God used Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Cyrus, and Artaxerxes for His purposes and to display His glory. This helps us to shift our perspective to God’s eternal purposes.
The Lord can use plagues, the sword, famine, or pestilence to chastise a nation (c.f. Jeremiah 14 & 24). These measures may seem either strange or extreme in our contemporary societal culture but that is not the case when we consider the corruption of the human heart. In Matthew 24 we read of birth pangs, wars, famines, and earthquakes and these are the beginnings of sorrows. There is much sorrow and pain before the birth yet there is unbridled joy that follows afterwards. The good news is that Messiah Yeshua is coming back though we need to be ready and trusting in Him before He does and must not get caught sleeping.
We must avoid taking on board the worldview of Pharaoh and the ancient Egyptians and be careful not to bargain with God when we pray, nor make a confession from lip service. We must never think of the Lord as if He were a genie, or go to Him when it is merely convenient for us. God is strong to save and rescues people from their sin, judgement and hell and brings them into light, true freedom, and eternal life. But we must turn to Him and trust in Jesus, the lamb of God who is the Saviour of the world.
[i] J. Vernon McGee Thru the Bible Commentary Series The Law Exodus Chapters 1:18 (Thomas Nelson, Nashville; 1991), p48-50