Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” Moses replied, “When I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the LORD. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. – Exodus 9:28-29
As the passage above says, God unleashed the powerful forces of nature in the plague of hail to show that he was the true ruler over the earth, not the hundreds of “gods” that the Egyptians worshipped. It was clear that God was in control of other aspects of nature when locusts and diseases destroy the crops and livestock at Moses’ command.
It may be a surprise to some that most of the plagues could be describing natural events that were known to occur in Egypt. The Nile turning to blood may describe the red tide, a type of algae that kills fish when it overgrows, or an excessive reddish silt washed down from the mountains during an abnormally strong annual flood. The frogs might have bred in the stagnant water left behind from the flooding. Even the “darkness that can be felt” seems to be a description of a sandstorm that comes from the hamsim, strong winds that blow in from the desert at certain times of year that blot out the sun by filling the air with dust, which can make it as dark as night.
This observation initially can be disturbing, because it seems to be more spectacular to turn nature on its head. The key is to realize, however, that what showed God’s power is not the unearthliness of the plagues, but God’s sovereignty over their timing and who they afflicted. While they might have been events of nature, they clearly were controlled by God’s will. And, the last plague really has no natural explanation – how every firstborn could be chosen to succumb to an illness all on the same night. God can work inside of nature or outside of it, and he can choose when and how.
When you think about it, God working through nature is really the most appropriate display of his power, because he is the creator and sustainer of all things. We can see this in that the point at which the magicians realized that their gods were defeated was a seemingly mild plague, that of the gnats. (Ex. 8:18-19) Why? Because God is the creator, not Satan. God’s creation of the tiny gnat was too much for Satan to imitate. It was the God of Israel who held the life of every creature in his hands.
The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21
It seems odd that God would tell Moses from the very beginning that it would take many plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Why couldn’t God have freed them with one spectacular display of power? Why couldn’t God have skipped the milder plagues if he knew he’d send the more powerful ones later?
One reason was that the purpose of the plagues wasn’t just to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites, but to declare that God was supreme over the many “gods” that Egypt worshipped (Ex.
12:12). God was communicating this to Pharaoh, and also to his own people who very likely believed in them after four hundred years in that land. Each of the plagues was a defeat of one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped – the Nile god, the Sun god, the Frog god, the animal gods
Another reason could have been mercy. God didn’t simply come in and destroy the oppressor of his people, Pharaoh, before giving him a chance to let them go on his own. God gave him many chances that he rejected, and only after several times did God harden him from further repentance.
Finally, perhaps it was simply that God realized that after four hundred years of not knowing him, his people had to experience his power firsthand many, many times. He knew that they would soon be in the desert facing trials, and would lose faith quickly enough. He knew they would be there for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, and they needed strong memories to sustain them. He also knew that humans often think they’ve learned a lesson when they need to repeat it many times. He was instilling in his people a sense of his power that would sustain them for the millennia ahead.
Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God…who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Deuteronomy 8:11, 14
In the next weeks En-Gedi’s Water from the Rock series will focus on Exodus, specifically God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. Christians generally don’t see this story as especially significant. But for thousands of years, Jewish readers have considered it a defining point their history, when God reached down into world events in an unprecedented way. The story of redemption is also central to the rest of the Scriptures, as the foundation of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. We can see the story’s critical importance just by noticing the many references that are made to it throughout the Bible. Here are just a few:
The people answered [Joshua] and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Josh. 24:16-17
When the sons of Israel cried to the LORD on account of Midian, the LORD sent a prophet who said to them, “Thus says the LORD,… `It was I who brought you up from Egypt and brought you out from the house of slavery.'” Judg. 6:7-8
[David said,] “And what one nation on the earth is like Your people Israel, whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people and to make a name for Himself, and to do a great thing for You and awesome things for Your land, before Your people whom You have redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, from nations and their gods?” 2 Sam. 7:23
Thus says the LORD God of Israel, “I made a covenant with your forefathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…”Jer. 34:13
But I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me. Hos. 13:4
In almost every book of the Old Testament, a reference is made to this great act of deliverance in Israel’s history. Why? Because it showed the power of God and his love for his people. Moreover, it reminded them of their great debt to this God who had done so much for them. God was showing his people that they could trust him now and forever more.