“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.”1 — Exodus 12:12
At face value, the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt chronicled a great war between Jehovah (in league with Moses and Aaron) and Pharaoh, king of Egypt. At stake in this war was true religion, meaning the true worship of the God of the Hebrews. In the burning bush, Jehovah had commissioned Moses to confront Pharaoh, saying,
“…you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exo 3: 18–19).
The Lord reiterates his original purpose later in chapter 6, saying, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land” (Exo 6:1). Later, Jehovah tells Moses to approach Pharaoh and declare that any resistance on his part will prove futile:
But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go” (Exo 9: 16-17).
As the nine plagues proceed (Exo 7:14-10:29), one notices that Jehovah does indeed focus on Pharaoh. Jehovah sent plagues to harden Pharaoh’s heart, punish him for disobeying his commands to let his people go, and strike him and his people for cruelty to the Hebrews. But there is more to this story than first meets the eye.
Remember that in recent preaching that various Egyptian gods and goddesses of water, land, and sky associated with each plague were introduced. The addition of extra-Biblical material was done with caution since the Egyptian deities mentioned do not appear in the Bible. Before the tenth (and final) plague, it becomes evident that Jehovah’s intent is not merely to execute judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptian nation but “on all the gods of Egypt” 2 (Exo 12:12). Lest one interpret “gods” as merely meaning “human authorities”, the book of Numbers, also written by Moses, reads, “On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the LORD executed judgments” (Num 33: 3-4). Commenting on this text, James M. Boyce observes that the struggle had been between God and the gods of Egypt:
“Demonic forces that had been aligned with Satan undoubtedly backed the polytheism of Egypt. Therefore, this was God’s intense battle against the demons and Satan, their leader. In the end, the people were set free, the idols and gods of Egypt were revealed to be absolutely nothing, and Jehovah, the God of Israel, was proven to be the one and only God.”
In the Ten Plagues, God is judging a panoply of false gods and Pharaoh, for Pharaoh and Egypt were in league with Satan and demons.4 God’s war, therefore, was executed along two flanks or spheres. The first sphere was the visible sphere involving Moses and Aaron versus Pharaoh and his wise men. This first sphere involved material consequences: the Nile became polluted, fish died, frogs croaked, and livestock was pelted by hail. The second sphere was the invisible or spiritual sphere. In the spiritual sphere, Jehovah also triumphed: 1) He withdrew his restraining grace from Pharaoh, leaving him to harden his heart, 2) The powers and principalities in spiritual places that held Egyptian souls captive in darkness were judged by him to be no gods at all.5 In hindsight, a hint had been provided to the reader of the Exodus narrative that this was to be the case; Jehovah alone is eternal self-existence, as expressed in his name, “I AM.” Jehovah is GOD in water, land, and sky. He will have no rivals.6 But Jehovah’s purpose to judge all of the Egyptian “gods” is not evident in the account of the plagues until he commanded Moses to make preparations for the Passover. This judgment would occur on the night of the final plague (Exo 12:12). The result was that Jehovah’s supremacy over all gods was firmly established:
“This plague was in an eminent sense, a judgment upon the gods of Egypt, Ex. 12:12, Num. 33:4. The sacred animals, kept in the temples with the greatest care, and lamented when they died, with the wildest demonstrations of grief, belonged mainly, no doubt, perhaps exclusively to the rank of the first-born. It may be imagined what a panic would be created, when to the private grief of every household, was added the sudden and simultaneous death of all the religiously venerated animals in all the temples, and thousands more that were deemed sacred besides. The first-born of the monarch, also regarded as an incarnation of the deity, was not exempt. These were put on a precise level with ordinary men, and ordinary animals; all were indiscriminately involved in the same catastrophe.”
Jehovah’s killing of the first-born males of man and beast in Egypt was the stroke that undid Pharaoh. The Hebrews would have suffered the very punishment, but by God’s grace, they believed Moses and came under the blood of the Passover lamb. The distinction between Jehovah’s people and Egypt was now absolute — and this distinction was not material, racial, or ethnic, but spiritual:
“…in Num. 33:4 also the judgment upon the gods is connected with the burial of the first-born, without special reference to anything besides. From this it seems to follow pretty certainly, that the judgments upon the gods of Egypt consisted in the slaying of the first-born of man and beast. But the slaying of the firstborn was a judgment upon the gods, not only because the impotence and worthlessness of the fancied gods were displayed in the consternation produced by this stroke, but still more directly in the fact, that in the slaying of the king’s son and many of the first-born animals, the gods of Egypt, which were worshipped both in their kings and also in certain sacred animals, such as the bull Apis and the goat Nendes, were actually smitten themselves.”
Having been brought up in Pharaoh’s household, Moses would have knowledge of the multitude of Egyptian deities, magicians, priests, and priestesses. And after the encounter with Jehovah in the burning bush, Moses had believed in Jehovah and his plans for the Hebrews. Therefore Moses would have discerned Jehovah’s battle tactics in both spheres during each successive plague. Moses would have seen the dreadful irony of the judgments unfolding before him: both Pharaoh and the people of Egypt were being given over to be destroyed by the very gods they believed would bring them happiness, security, and life.
Such is the macabre end of all false religion.9 Idols and false gods promise their worshippers much, but in the end, they and their worshippers are destroyed. Jehovah testifies in his Word, and Ancient Egypt witnessed in water, land, and sky that there can be no truce between Jehovah God and a lie.
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
Pastor Lou Veiga