A Showdown with False Gods
Walking home from my Junior High School one day (many years ago), my friend and I startled a mama quail and her brood of baby chicks who were crossing the street. The mama quickly hopped from the gutter to the curb and scampered into the woods beyond the curb. Her babies, unable to jump from the gutter to the curb scampered around in a panic, not knowing what they could do to re-join their mother. My friend and I found some rocks and pieces of wood, and we constructed a stairway which the baby birds used to reach the top of the curb and scurry into the woods after their mother.
If my childhood friend and I did that for a brood of young quail, how much more should we expect an All-Loving God to provide deliverance to a nation of people who were stuck in misery in Egypt?
Israel’s misery in Egypt was two-part. The Israelites suffered from physical slavery, forced to build Pharaoh’s projects, and they suffered spiritual bondage to the false gods of Egypt. God sent Moses to Egypt to free the Israelites from both physical slavery and spiritual bondage. The way God accomplished Israel’s deliverance from both forms of bondage was through a showdown with the gods of Egypt.
The showdown begins early in Exodus 7 when Aaron’s staff is thrown to the ground and becomes a serpent. Thermuthis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, harvest and fate, was symbolized as a serpent. When Aaron’s staff was thrown to the ground and became a serpent, it was as if God was saying to Pharaoh and to the Egyptian sorcerers, “I challenge your goddess to a duel.” The Egyptian sorcerers accept the challenge. Their staffs also become serpents. But Aaron’s serpent swallows the serpents of the Egyptian priests. Egypt’s goddess of fate was swallowed up by the God of Israel.
The Egyptians worshiped Khnum as the giver of the Nile and as the creator of humankind. During the late summer of each year, as the river would swell with the runoff of storms in the higher ground, Pharaoh would go down to the river each morning to take daily readings of the river to chart the greatness of the river. Plutarch commented, “Nothing is in greater honor among the Egyptians than the river Nile.” But when Aaron’s staff struck the river its water turned to blood. Fish died; the water stunk. People had to dig holes in the ground to come up with drinkable water. Scholars note that late summer rains in Ethiopia have, at other times, washed large quantities of fine, red earth down the river, along with microcosms known as flagellates, reddening the river, killing the fish, and making the water undrinkable. But does a natural explanation of the plague diminish its significance? Whatever explanation you give to it, the revered god of the Nile was not able to protect the Egyptians or to provide safe water for them.
With the water of the Nile turning bad, frogs cover the land. The primordial goddess Heket was represented by a frog. As people find frogs in their beds, their ovens, their kneading bowls, and so forth, the message God seems to be making to the people of Egypt is that their country is overrun with its gods and goddess who turn out to be nothing but nuisances to them as well as a horrid stench.
After that, Aaron strikes the dust of the earth with his staff and gnats or lice fill the country. Such a proliferation of gnats would be a great irritation and could actually be deadly. In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard reports that 20,000 head of domestic livestock died from a host of black flies that swarmed the banks of the Danube River in 1923. Striking the dust of the earth was a showdown with Seth, the Egyptian god of the earth, of the desert, of storms, and of chaos. At this, even Pharaoh’s magicians recognize that their gods are no match for the God of the Israelites.
Next, God sends swarms of insects throughout the land of Egypt, except for the land of Goshen where the Israelites live. Khepri, worshiped by the Egyptians as the primordial god and as the god of the rising sun, was symbolized as a beetle. Again, the message that seems to be getting through to the Egyptians is that their proliferation of gods is out of control and destructive to the country and to the people.
After that, the Egyptians’ livestock suffer severe pestilence, but the livestock of the Hebrews are unharmed. The Egyptians worshiped Apis and Hathor, the sacred bull and the sacred cow, but they are powerless to protect the Egyptian cattle. It is only the God of the Israelites who protects his people’s cattle.
Then Moses takes handfuls of soot from a kiln and throws them in the air in the sight of Pharaoh, with the warning that it will bring boils on the people of Egypt. As the Israelites were forced to make bricks in kilns, now the ashes of those kilns brings punishment to those who had inflicted cruel labor upon the Hebrews.
In a showdown with Shu, the god of the atmosphere, God sends lightening and hail upon the land.
Because of Pharaoh’s continued hardheartedness, God sends a great infestation of locusts. Locusts are actually harmless grasshoppers who have been overly irritated until they transform into swarming, destructive locusts. Annie Dillard describes them as “grasshoppers gone berserk.” She writes, “If you take ordinary grasshoppers…and rear them…under crowded conditions, they go into the migratory phase. That is, they turn into locusts. They literally and physically change from Jekyll to Hyde before your eyes…. They are restless, excitable, voracious.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 208-209) To teach a lesson about the deadly danger of hardheartedness, God used gentle grasshoppers turned into destructive locusts.
In a showdown with Ra, the national god of Egypt, the god of sun, earth, and sky, God brought darkness upon the whole land, showing that the God of the Israelites has authority even over the sun.
Finally, in a showdown with Ptah, whom the Egyptians honored as the god of life, the God of the Israelites struck down the firstborn son throughout the land—except in homes where the blood of the Passover Lamb was placed upon the top and the sides of the door, revealing that it was the God of Moses who alone had power to protect the lives of his people.