What’s fascinating about God’s emancipation of the Israelites is the way He went about it. God could have sent Moses to Pharaoh with the message “Let my people go,” performed one astounding miracle, and the Israelites would have been freed to go to the Promised Land. But He didn’t. Instead, God choose to do it through 10 plagues. Why? Because the bondage that the Israelites experienced in Egypt went beyond physical servitude; they were in spiritual slavery, too. Therefore, the Israelites needed to escape not just Egypt, but its idolatry as well.
For this reason, God did not immediately say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Instead, God’s first command was to allow the Israelites to make a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifice (Exodus 3:18). Why did the Israelites need to offer sacrifices in the desert and not in Egypt? Because they were going to repudiate the gods of Egypt by sacrificing the very animals the Egyptians worshipped. Had the Israelites sacrificed these animals in a city, they would have been stoned (Exodus 8:22). Therefore, the first step in the exodus was to free the Israelites of idolatry.
Knowing that Pharaoh would refuse this command, God offered these sacrifices Himself symbolically through the 10 plagues, with each of the plagues corresponding to an Egyptian god. For example, the first plague turned the water into blood. This plague appears to be aimed at the Egyptian god of the Nile, Hapi. The plague of frogs corresponds to the goddess Haket, who was depicted as a frog.
The third and fourth plagues of gnats and flies are a little more difficult to identify. They may have been aimed at Uatchit, a god depicted as an lchneuman fly, or one of several other deities. The fifth plague, the death of livestock, corresponds to Apis, the bull god, and Hathor, a cow-headed goddess of the deserts. The plague of boils and sores showed the powerlessness of Shekhmet, goddess of healing, or perhaps Thoth, a god associated with science and medicine. Hail aimed at the sky god, Nut.
The eighth plague was the invasion of locusts. This was a judgment on Senahem, a locust-headed god. The ninth plague was three days of darkness; the Egyptians had several gods of sun and light, such as Re, Aten and Atum. The final plague, the death of the first-born sons, would show the powerlessness of Osiris, the god of life and patron of Pharaoh.
The 10 plagues of Egypt, therefore, were not simply a show of force, a game of “Can you top this?” Rather, they were judgments upon the idolatry of the Egyptians (Numbers 33:4) in which God manifested to all that these false gods are nothing compared to the true and living God.
One would think that after seeing what God had done to these false gods that the Israelites would never shrink back to their former way of life, but such was not the case. There’s a saying, “You can take a boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country of out the boy.” The same is true for the Israelites. Later in Exodus, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf that they made in the form of the Egyptian fertility god Apis, saying, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Even though the Israelites were freed from physical bondage, they still were in spiritual bondage.
The rest of the Old Testament chronicles their spiritual emancipation, culminating in the arrival of a new Moses, who institutes a new Passover, and opens the way to our true promise land in heaven, Jesus the Messiah.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.