The Plagues: Judgment on the Gods
Text: Ex. 7:14:-25
…And Moses and Aaron did so, just as the Lord commanded. So he lifted up the rod and struck the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants. And all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. The fish that were in the river died, the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink the water of the river. So there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
This morning we come to the most famous part of the Exodus story—the plagues. These are what we love to hear as kids, and what make for great picture bibles, tv, and movie renditions.
This morning we will introduce the plagues as a whole and look at the first plague in particular. What I would like to show you is that the plagues of Egypt are meant to send a very clear message. They are a systematic destruction of Egypt, but they are more than that. Through the plagues of Egypt, Yahweh, the God of Israel—the true God— carries out judgment on the false gods of Egypt. Through this judgment, He shows his power and sovereignty. He shows this over Pharaoh, Egypt, and all their idols. And this is something that He still does to people today.
The God of the Bible is the true God, and all rival gods are cheap imposters who will be cast down.
The 10 Plagues
There are 10 plagues. They are the turning of the waters of Egypt to blood, the plague of frogs, the plague of gnats, the plague of flies, the sickness of the livestock, boils on the people, hail, locust, the sun turned to darkness, and the death of the firstborn.
These plagues are laid out in a particular order. Moses warns Pharaoh before sending the first two plagues, but he sends the third plague without a warning, immediately after the second. This same pattern occurs again with plagues 4-6 and then 7-9. Two plagues get a warning, but then the third in the sequence comes without a warning. The final plague gets an extended warning, including the Passover feast and the ritual of the blood over the doorposts.
There also seems to be a pattern of doubling in the plagues. The first two plagues both have to do with the water. The next two are similar kinds of bugs. The next have to do with sickness. Then the next wipe out the crops and agriculture. The final two attack the sun in the sky and the son, the child. These words didn’t match in Hebrew like they do in English, but the Egyptians did believe that Pharaoh was an incarnation of the sun, and so when his firstborn is killed, that is functionally equivalent to killing the sun itself.
It’s also important to notice that the sequence of the plagues took a substantial amount of time. We aren’t told exactly how long, The first plague lasts for 7 days (Ex. 7:25). Other plagues last for varying amounts of time. The darkness only covers the land for 3 days (Ex. 10:22). We aren’t told how long most of the plagues last, but since some of them involve sickness or insects doing damage to crops, we can presume they took at least a few days. We are also not told how many days passed in between the plagues. A good guess for the minimum duration is about 3 months, but some commentators have speculated that the sequence lasted for about a year. This helps us to get a better idea of how the plagues afflicted Egypt. They lasted for a good amount of time and brought about total devastation, including the complete destruction of a year’s harvest. This was a state of emergency, a national crisis. By the end of it, Egypt was decimated.
The Waters Turned to Blood
The first plague is the turning of the waters to blood. Exodus 7:15 tells us that Moses met Pharaoh in the morning on the banks of the Nile River. Pharaoh probably went to the riverbanks every morning for a sort of religious ceremony. This time Moses will meet him there. The text says, “he lifted up the rod and struck the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants. And all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood” (Ex. 7:20).
Now at this time in history, the Egyptians worshiped the Nile River. It was their major source of life, as it provided the water that kept them alive. Its flooding also served to fertilize the land, making it one of the most fertile regions in the whole Mediterranean world. It was one of the most important gods of Egypt. And what does Moses do to it? He strikes it with his staff, and it immediately turns to blood.
This makes the water from the river undrinkable. It kills all the fish. But this plague spreads beyond simply the water physically connected to the Nile at this time. Miraculously, this plague ends up affecting all of the water in the whole country. In verse 19, God explains it this way:
Stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their streams, over their rivers, over their ponds, and over all their pools of water, that they may become blood. And there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in buckets of wood and pitchers of stone.
So there was almost no drinkable water in Egypt during this time. The streams, tne ponds, and even the water in the buckets and pitchers were all turned to blood!
It’s interesting to note that Pharaoh’s magicians can duplicate this miracle. Vs. 22 says they did likewise. But think for a minute. How was that at all helpful? The Egyptians don’t need more bloody water! They need someone who can change it back.
The Plagues are a judgment on Egypt’s gods
Now, let me ask you this. What would the average Egyptian at this time think was going on? He sees Moses denounce Pharaoh in the name of the God of Israel, he sees Moses hit the Nile River, and then the river turns to blood! What would he think happened?
Yes, the natural assumption that Moses had attacked one of their most important gods. He had struck the Nile, and it looks like he killed it! This is exactly the message God wanted to send.
Exodus 12:12 is about the Passover, but listen carefully to what it says, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.” Numbers 33:4 says something similar, “the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had killed among them. Also on their gods the Lord had executed judgments.” Did you catch that? God executed judgment on Egypt’s gods.
This would obviously send a message to Egypt. Repent. Turn from your false gods. Submit to the true God. But this also answered Pharaoh’s cynical statement from chapter 5. “And Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go’” (Ex. 5:2). Who is the LORD? Well, now Pharaoh knows. The plagues separate the true God from the false gods.
This is a theme we see in other parts of the Bible, is it not? Think of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. What was that other than a showdown of the gods? And who prevailed? The God of Israel did. Psalm 95:3 says this, “the LORD is the great God, and the great King above all gods.” Yahweh is truly almighty, the most high God.
This explains why God saved Israel the way that He did. Think about it. He could have just snapped His fingers and zapped them to safety right away. Instead, He chose a kind of process, over time, meant to demonstrate Who He is and What He is capable of. It also demonstrated what the false gods were and what they were not.
As we said before, Pharaoh never really had a chance here. After all, he thought he was a god! Pharaoh was one of the gods being judged. But this way of redeeming Israel did give the rest of the Egyptians a chance to see the truth. They could see that their idols were falling. They could break with them and run to the true God. They could repent!
And this message should have stuck with Israel over the years, even though it did not. They should have never had any reason to doubt Yahweh’s power. They should have been able to count on Him in all times. They should have feared Him.
Jesus as the New Plague Bringer
Let us now move to the New Testament. Does God still work this way? Does He judge false gods? Did Jesus do anything like this?
In one sense, we might say that Jesus inverted things. He didn’t bring plagues as such. He didn’t zap people. In fact, He laid down His life and died. He was our Passover Lamb. In fact, He was God’s Son who died. In one sense, then, we might say that God turns the plagues on Himself. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
That is what the Cross is all about. God demonstrates His power and His judgment, not by smiting those who deserve it, but by smiting Himself, through the judgment carried out on His Son. When you remember your Trinitarian theology, you see that the Cross isn’t just God judging Jesus, but it is God judging God, through the persons of the Father and the Son, both of whom are fully God in the great mystery of the Trinity. The judgment that should have fallen on others—that should have fallen on us!—fell upon God Himself.
But there is also a sense in which Jesus did come in judgment and dethrone the idols. Col. 2:15 says that “He disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” In context that verse is talking about the power of the law, but the multiple “principalities and powers” also refer to spiritual entities, especially Satan and his demons. Jesus has cast Satan out of heaven, and He has truly bond the strong man. He cast out demons and showed that He was mightier than they.
And Jesus also came again in judgment at AD 70. He judged Israel and the temple. As we saw in our end times study, the Book of Revelation is full of Exodus imagery. Jesus poured out plagues on Israel itself. And that shows us that idols can sometimes come from places you don’t expect, from thing that were once good.
When Jesus comes to destroy false gods, He often destroys our false gods. Jesus smashes our idols.
If you trust in your church, Jesus will probably send adversity and affliction to it. If you idolize your family, Jesus will break it up. If you trust in your job, you might end up losing it. If you think you are smart and powerful, you might be struck with insanity. God’s even been known to turn one such person into an absurd beast with eagle wings, who walked on all fours and ate grass like an ox.
So take a look around. Which of your gods are being judged?
And will you take notice?
This part of the Exodus story teaches us about God’s mighty power, but it also teaches us about how God works. When He brings judgment into our lives, He is manifesting Who He is to us. This is also how He bringing about our salvation, through dramatic judgment and the dethroning of idols. We need to open our eyes. We need to see God for Who He is. Don’t trust in idols. They are worthless. They can’t save you.
Trust in God. He is almighty. He is the true God. He has the mighty arm. And He has stretched it out to us in Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.