Initially the ancient Israelites in Egypt enjoyed favour because of all Joseph had accomplished as Pharaoh’s vizier. But as the years passed that relationship changed and the Egyptians began to view the Israelites as a threat.
When another Pharaoh came to power the Israelites were enslaved, and the Egyptians began killing Hebrew male babies to prevent the Israelites from outnumbering them. God then raised up Moses to deliver them and in Exodus 12:12 He declared, “against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment.”
God was intending to teach a lesson to both the Egyptians and the Israelites, who had drifted from the beliefs of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and become immersed in the corrupt Egyptian culture and religion.
The Egyptians worshipped many gods and goddesses represented in the form of animals. Bulls, cows, rams, cats, crocodiles, cobras, frogs and even various insects and birds were considered sacred. Each of the plagues God sent was a direct challenge to one or more of these Egyptian gods.
The god Khnum, with the head of a ram, was viewed as the guardian of the Nile, while Hapi was credited with the annual Nile flood that brought tons of fresh topsoil to fertilize the land. The gods Sodpet and Satet were also linked to the Nile floods, as was one of Egypt’s trinity of greatest gods, Osiris, god of the underworld. The Nile river was believed to be his bloodstream. When the Nile turned into a giant stinking cesspool with tons of dead and rotting fish lining the shores these supposed gods were shown to be powerless.
Frogs were viewed as sacred in Egypt because they lived in two worlds—in water and on land. Anyone stepping on a frog, even accidentally, could be punished by death. They were seen as a manifestation of Heqet, goddess of birth and wife of the creator of the world, who was depicted with the head of a frog. The gods Nun, Kek and Heh were also depicted with a frog’s head.
This plague was probably directed at Geb, the god of the earth and bounty. The land brought forth itching, biting lice and Geb was powerless to prevent it, along with Har-pa-khered who was believed to ward off dangerous creatures and Imhotep, the god of medicinal healing. There was no relief from this plague and Pharaoh, who was considered a god, was also afflicted with the lice, as well as the Egyptian priests who could no longer enter the temples to worship their idols, as they were considered unclean.
“‘... The houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of flies...And in that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there, in order that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land. I will make a difference between My people and your people…”
The Israelites suffered the previous plagues alongside the Egyptians, but this was the first plague in which God made a distinction between His people and the Egyptians.
The phrase “of flies” was added by translators. The original Hebrew simply uses the word “swarms” in reference to buzzing, flying insects. A most likely scenario is the “swarms” were scarab beetles, a species of dung beetle. The god Kheper had the head of a dung beetle, and was believed to push the sun across the sky. He was associated with the dung beetle because they rolled manure into spherical balls and pushed them around.
Enormous economic disaster resulted because of the diseased livestock which affected Egyptian food, transportation, military capability and economic goods. Several Egyptian gods were represented by bulls, including the creation god Ptah and the sun gods Atum and Re. Sky and creation goddesses Nut and Neith were also depicted as a celestial cow giving birth to the universe and the mother goddess Hathor had cow-like features and was viewed as the symbolic mother of Pharaoh.
The Egyptians worshipped several healing deities and on occasion even sacrificed human beings to them. The victims were burned on an altar, and their ashes were cast into the air, where the wind would blow the ashes over the people which was regarded as a blessing.
Moses took ashes and threw them into the air which turned into painful boils. This plague was an affront to the Egyptian gods of healing, such as Imhotep, Thoth and Nefertem. Isis, another figure in the Egyptian trinity and wife of Osiris, was supposedly able to bring Osiris back to life, but she was powerless to protect the Egyptians from the painful boils. The Egyptian magicians also suffered from these boils and could barely stand.
The most prominent deity discredited by this plague was Nut, the sky goddess, often depicted as arching over the earth with her body painted with stars. The Egyptians had already lost fish from their diet when the Nile turned to blood and then their livestock had been killed. Now the animals still in the field were destroyed by hail. The flax that’s mentioned was the Egyptians’ major source of fibre for linen clothing.
The hail had wiped out the crops and most plants, but the little that had survived was now devoured by locusts. Where was the jackal-headed guardian of the fields, Anubis, or the chief agricultural god Osiris? The devastated fields battered by hail and burned by fire, now stripped bare by locusts, further testified of the impotence of the Egyptian gods.
“...there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days...But all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”
The sun god variously known as Re, Ra, Atum or Aten had become identified with the supreme god Amon. Amon-Ra was thus considered the greatest of the gods of Egypt. He was viewed as the giver of life with his energizing rays, but during the three days of darkness God showed the Egyptians this imaginary God was also powerless.
The tenth plague destroyed the Egyptian firstborn, both human and animal. Pharaoh apparently wasn’t a firstborn, since he didn’t die in the plague, but his son perished.
Several Egyptian gods and goddesses of protection were discredited by the death of Egypt’s firstborn and Renenutet, the god who appeared as a vulture and was the special protector of the pharaoh, could not protect the pharaoh’s son.
With this plague, the Egyptian Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go. God had overthrown his sovereignty and the false gods were judged and proven powerless and worthless.
One more major god remained to be judged and proven to be no god at all. Pharaoh pursued the Israelites, cornering them at the Red sea, where God brought judgment on the last of Egypt’s major gods -- that was none other than Pharaoh himself who drowned.
God takes sin very seriously and although He is very patient, giving us time to repent, His patience has limits. Many people “turn to God” in a time of calamity, but when things get better they turn away and their hearts are hardened again. We have to break away from the ‘Egypt’ that represents this world and resist the temptation to relapse, by identifying the idols consuming our time and energy and separating us from God.
Beyond Today magazine