The Plagues of Exodus as a Battle Between Yahweh and the Gods

The famous biblical plagues afflicting Egypt and the Pharaoh, which follow from Moses and Aaron confronting the Pharaoh instructing him to let Yahweh’s people go free (Exo. 5:1), exhibits a battle between the all-mighty Yahweh and the several deities of Egypt.

According to the biblical narrative, Pharaoh will not let Yahweh’s people go free from their conditions of slavery and allow them to worship their god in the desert. Pharaoh refuses because he does not recognize Yahweh, the god of Moses and Aaron (5:2). Over the next several chapters, which culminate in the Red Sea incident, Pharaoh will get to know this powerful god of Moses and Aaron dramatically. One means that Pharaoh comes to recognize Yahweh is through the plagues he sends upon Egypt; through these plagues, the “Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen” (14:18). Old Testament scholar Peter Enns highlights how the plagues are not just displays of God’s power in the abstract but are,

“… declarations of war against the power structure of Egypt, founded upon the myriad of Egyptian gods. The plagues bear witness to Egypt and Israel that Israel’s God is not just mightier than Pharaoh but mightier than the gods that Pharaoh and his people serve. The plagues and the final blow at the Red Sea were an argument to all that Yahweh alone is worthy of worship, not the gods of mighty Egypt. In fact, some of the plagues are thought to reflect elements of the Egyptian pantheon” [1].

Enns identifies at least six plagues in Exodus chapters seven to twelve that illustrate Yahweh’s power over the Egyptian gods and sacrosanct objects: the first plague in which Yahweh turns the Nile into blood demonstrates his power over an object that was personified and worshiped (the Egyptian people, Exodus 7:17–18 tells us, could not even drink the Nile’s water after Yahweh was done with it); Yahweh has power over the goddess Heqet (depicted in Egyptian art with the head of a frog), for Yahweh is capable of plaguing the whole country with frogs (8:1–4); in the fifth plague (9:1–3), Yahweh sends a terrible pestilence upon Egypt’s livestock (9:1-3), leading to their death, which demonstrates his power over Hathor, the mother and sky goddess, who was depicted as a cow; in the hailstorm of the seventh plague (9:13–24), Yahweh has supremacy over Egyptian gods associated with storms (e.g. Seth) and, in the ninth plague, he is superior to the sun god Re/Ra, of whom Pharaoh was considered his son or Earthly representative, by blocking out the sun make it dark during the day across the whole of Egypt (10:21–23); in the tenth and final plague, Yahweh kills all the firstborns across Egypt (11:4-6), illustrating his supremacy over the god of the dead, Osiris. According to Enns, Yahweh “meets these powerful Egyptian gods on their own turf, and— if I may put it this way—beats them up” [2].

That Yahweh successfully brought his people out of Egypt is an undertaking he will remind them of later. Yahweh will remind the people of what he did for them: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (20:2). Moreover, Yahweh’s delivering the people from Egypt gives him the right to command they worship him in the way he outlines. This is seen in the first commandment where Yahweh instructs his people to have “no other gods before me” (20:3). This is an informative command behind which there are several reasons. As seen, Yahweh is superior to the other gods and is therefore uniquely worthy of the people’s worship. After all, it is Yahweh who defeated the gods of Egypt and brought the people out of slavery. The people must also not worship other gods because it will make Yahweh jealous of them: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (20:4-5). These idols are, in Yahweh’s view, real rivals that can cause him to be jealous. According to Enns,

“[T]he Israelites of the exodus were living in the infancy of their national existence amid a polytheistic world. They were taking their first baby steps toward a knowledge of God that later generations came to understand and we perhaps take for granted. At this point in the history of redemption, however, the gods of the surrounding nations are treated as real. God shows his absolute supremacy over them by declaring not that “they don’t exist” but that “they cannot stand up against me—look at what I did in Egypt. Did the gods of Egypt help you? No. I did it. And when you enter Canaan and you are met with a whole new list of gods, remember: I brought you out of Egypt. What I did to their gods I will do to any other gods who get between you and me. Do not worship them” [3].

References

  1. Enns, Peter. 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Ada: Baker Academic. p. 159.
  2. Enns, Peter. 2005. Ibid. p. 160.
  3. Enns, Peter. 2005. Ibid. p. 162.

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