The book of Exodus describes the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, an event distinguished by a mighty struggle between two unequal opponents. On the one hand was an oppressed nation of slaves and on the other the most powerful nation in the Middle East, if not the world.
The Egyptians forced the captive Israelites to build great cities for Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11). Most of the Egyptian pyramids were built of stone, but brick was the principal building material used in the country. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that "throughout Egyptian history sun-dried brick was the chief building material. Stone was reserved for temples and other monumental constructions" (Vol. 1, p. 546).
Millions of bricks were needed, and the Israelites were forced to supply the demand (Exodus 1:14). Pharaoh became incensed when Moses and Aaron told him God wanted the Israelites to stop work and observe a religious festival in the wilderness, and increased their workload by forcing them to gather straw to mix with the mud when making the bricks: "...Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters…'You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick as before. Let them go and gather straw for themselves'" (Exodus 5:6-7).
In Egypt the mud-straw combination was commonly used to prevent the bricks from cracking or losing shape. When straw is mixed with mud the resulting bricks are three times stronger than those made without straw. Fluids in the straw release humic acid and harden the bricks (Gerald Vardaman, Archaeology and the Living Word, 1966, p. 37). To this day, after thousands of years, mud-brick monuments still stand in Egypt.
The Egyptians were religious, with many of the 39 principal gods depicted with animal bodies or heads. The exodus from Egypt was a confrontation between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods of that land. God made this clear when He told Moses: "For I will pass through the land of Egypt…and… strike all the firstborn…both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord" (Exodus 12:12).
The first plague was aimed at the Nile River and the Nile goddess Hapi and the god Osiris, protector of the Nile. Egypt's food supply depended on the flooding of the Nile, as well as the annual deposits of silt to replenish the fertility of the soil.The first plague made the water undrinkable and the fish, a valuable source of food, perished. Only when Moses and Aaron prayed to the true God were the waters refreshed.
The second plague targeted frogs, worshiped by the Egyptians in the form of Heqt, whose statue bore the head of a frog. This god was symbolic of good crops and blessings in the afterlife. When the Nile reached a certain level, frogs abounded, an omen of bountiful crops and control of the insect population. The second plague produced too many frogs, making it appear that Heqt, god of the frogs, had lost control. Only when the true God intervened did the frogs die and the crisis come to an end.
The third and fourth plagues were plagues of flies, lice and gnats targeting Kheper, the scarab deity, represented by beetles and other insects. "Various types of beetles were venerated in Egypt; among them the dung beetle [which] became the emblem of resurrection and continual existence . . ." (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, p. 258). When a swarm of lice or gnats (or possibly mosquitoes) and horseflies stung the populace, the court magicians asked the insect god to control them, but to no avail. Only when Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to ask the God of Israel to remove the pests did these plagues abate.
The fifth plague affected cattle, which the Egyptians considered to be under the control of Apis, the bull god, and Hathor, the cowlike mother goddess. The bull was considered sacred, and when the bull in a temple died, it was mummified and buried with great pomp. The fifth plague struck at this false worship. "So the Lord did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the children of Israel, not one of them died" (Exodus 9:6).
The sixth plague was a plague of boils, which the Egyptians thought could be cured by resorting to their god of medicine, Imhotep, or Thoth, the god of magic and healing: "And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians and on all the Egyptians" (verse 11). God told Pharaoh that His power to remove this plague would serve not only as a witness to the Egyptians and the Israelites, but to the rest of the world in the biblical account: "...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).
The seventh and eighth plagues struck Egypt's crops. First, a horrible hailstorm hit the harvest, then a swarm of locusts completed the destruction. The crops were supposed to be guarded by Seth, the harvest god, and it was up to Nut, the sky goddess, to prevent weather disasters.
The final two plagues were directed at the two mightiest gods of the Egyptians, Ra the chief god, represented by the sun, and Pharaoh himself. Egyptians believed Ra to be the source of life, bringing light and heat to the earth. The ninth plague brought three days of no sunlight (Exodus 10:22-23). In spite of the Egyptian prayers and supplications Ra, the sun god did nothing.
The final god in dire need of humbling was Pharaoh himself, who supposedly descended from the god Ra. The Egyptian worship of the Pharaohs found expression in the construction of great pyramids as tombs for their rulers. Pharaoh's patron gods were Osiris, the judge of the dead, and Horus, the god of light. Pharaoh was powerless to stop the death of his firstborn son. "And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock" (Exodus 12:29).
With his gods impotent and humiliated, mighty Pharaoh finally relented, and the Exodus of the children of Israel began.
The Good News magazine (Mar-Apr 1997)