Since my post divisions on here has been the same as those of our church going through Exodus, today we’re covering the plagues in their entirety (7:14-11:10). I’ll be making some general overview comments rather than a blow by blow exposition. For an interesting take offering a blow by blow, I found Fretheim’s analysis in his volume in the Interpretation series interesting.
For a general overview of the plagues’ structure, here is Douglas Stuart:
The plagues built in intensity. The early plagues (blood, frogs, biting insects) were relatively brief in duration, did not cause death, and affected mainly people’s patience and convenience—though certainly severely. The Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the first two plagues (though presumably on a very small scale only; see comments on 7:14–25; 8:1–15), but they could not duplicate the third, evidence that the “quality,” not just the quantity, of the plagues was becoming more intense. None of the first three plagues produced a lasting willingness on the part of Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Plagues four, five, and six (swarming insects, animal disease, and skins sores) were much more harmful. The fifth killed off many livestock, and the sixth brought serious disease upon humans. Even so, these plagues were not enough to result in Pharaoh’s relenting from his resistance to Israelite demands for freedom. The seventh, eighth, and ninth plagues (hail, locusts, and darkness) were even more severe since the seventh plague resulted in the destruction of both animals and certain crops, the locusts ruined what crops remained, and the darkness plague was so frightening and debilitating during its three-day duration that Pharaoh was actually willing—at first—to allow all Israelites to depart if only they would leave their animals behind as surety of their eventual return (10:24). 1
Another way of looking at the plagues is to realize that Egyptian deities were believed to permeate the natural world. A breakdown in the natural is therefore not just disastrous, but demonstrates a lack of sovereignty on the part of the Egyptian gods. Consider the following list of plagues. In parenthesis I have listed a relevant Egyptian deity:
- Nile to blood (Hapi, Nile goddess)
- Frogs (Heqt, fertility goddess, head of frog)
- Mosquitos/Lice (Geb, earth god)
- Flies/Gnats (Kephri is the god of creation/rebirth)
- Animal death (Ptah is associated with cattle/bulls, as are Amon and Hathor)
- Human sores (Serapis and Imhotep are goddess of healing, shown to be impotent)
- Hail/Thunderstorms (Nut is the sky goddess and Isis is the crop/fertility goddess)
- Locust (Seth is the god of storms and disorder)
- Darkness (Ra is the sun god who can be blotted out)
Now, some of these might be a stretch, but there seems to be at least some connection. It is certainly part of the story, given how tightly wedded Egyptian deities were to natural phenomena. Indeed, for Egyptians and other ancient Near East people, there really isn’t a distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.” Everything is more or less supernatural, which is to say everything is a manifestation of the gods at work. To have a breakdown in nature, to the extent of basically being a “de-creation,” suggests that the gods of Egypt are not really in control after all.
Again, I think Stuart is instructive here:
The first nine plagues were special, divinely produced manifestations of God’s sovereignty over Egypt—its king, its people, its environment, and its gods—accomplished by imitations on a huge and destructive scale of phenomena thought by the Egyptians to be the province of their gods. God turned things believed to be the specialty of “the gods of Egypt” against the Egyptians, and showed himself in control of all events and powers they would have attributed to the objects of their faith. The tenth plague, on the other hand, was in no way a magnified imitation of a natural phenomenon but stood apart from the first nine as a decisive imposition of the death penalty on the nation that tried to enslave and mortally oppress God’s special people, his “firstborn son.” 2
With this in mind, I think the lesson of the plagues is that God will not tolerate the oppression of his people. He may pass over sins for a time, but eventually, those who set themselves up in the place of God and oppress his people will be judged. And the judgment will be severe. While the book of Exodus started with the Nile running red with the blood of Hebrew boys being drowned, the plagues open with God supernaturally turning the Nile completely into blood. Later, after the plagues secure the departure of Israel, the Red Sea will run red with the blood of drowned Egyptian soldiers. What Pharaoh took from God’s people comes later out of his own army.
When it comes to actually drawing applications from the plague cycle, Enns is helpful:
The key to applying the plagues is found in struggling with the theology of the plagues and how the significance of that theology is given fuller expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The answers are not straightforward and obvious. It takes study, contemplation, and patience. We must look again and again at what this theme has to tell us about the nature of God and how we, in Christ, are to respond to that God.
On one level, we apply this theme by simply saying, ‘Wow!’ We should not feel short-changed if our understanding of a passage does not translate directly into some overt, specific behavior. The point of the plagues for today is not so much in what we do with it, but in having our hearts and minds opened to what God has done and thereby understanding him better. Who else but the supreme judge of the universe can make the heavens and the earth do his bidding. 3
Enns then suggests that the application is primarily doxological. We see God demonstrating that he is mighty to save in the plagues against Egypt. We see his justice and his love. We see his commitment to his covenant promises finally culminate in taking Israel out of Egypt by force. And ultimately, next week specifically, we see a picture of the gospel in the Old Testament which will eventually be fulfilled in the New.