By Ron Cantrell
Courtesy of Bridges for Peace
There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any man or animal.
Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Exodus 11:6,7)
To really understand Passover, we must understand the events in Egypt leading up to the Exodus of the Hebrew Israelites. The texture of Egyptian social and religious life has much to do with what followed later in the wilderness.
Whether we actually lived in Egypt and personally escaped slavery, or whether we are Jewish or Christian, the remembrance of this important event in the chronology of God’s chosen people is meaningful. We sense the value of God’s deliverance more powerfully when we count ourselves to have escaped the slavery of sin as if we too were in bondage in Egypt.
As this moment of history unfolds, the Israelites have been cut off from their Hebrew forefathers by the passing of some 430 years. All those who knew firsthand what brought the Israelites to Egypt were now dead. We find them dwelling in a land far from their ancestral home, working in the lowly position of servant-class. This servanthood was probably not slavery as we think of it today. The technology of Egypt was not mastered and maintained by a downtrodden slave class. Many of the Hebrews were craftsmen of the highest quality, although in servant-class status. The quality of their craftsmanship was later displayed when the Hebrews Bezalel and Oholiab, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, oversaw the crafting of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
Unlike the sojourn to Babylon, the Hebrews were not in Egypt as punishment for their wrongdoing. But, if the Israelites were to exit Egypt, how would Egypt operate with the decimation of their working class? These thoughts must have plagued Pharaoh. At the end of this 430 year period, the children of Israel are ripe for deliverance and God is ready to bring them out of Egypt with His mighty hand. In this, He purposes to show Egypt that He reigns supreme over the multiple gods of the Egyptian religion. The plagues listed in the book of Exodus stand as an audio-visual renunciation of these gods. Some of the most important follow.
Egypt’s gods judged
There is a three-fold purpose in God’s deliverance plan. First, to bring His people out with His mighty deeds; second, to show Egypt the one true God; and lastly, to forge a nation from the mass of dependent humanity that the chosen people had become.
The plagues leading up to the release of the Hebrews came in waves, three plagues at a time. Each group progressed in severity until the final blow. Plague number ten was the most severe of all the plagues, with the Angel of Death smiting the firstborn sons of Egypt. The ensuing drama changed the face of Egypt forever.
Moses was instructed to approach Pharaoh on three successive occasions, as he went in the morning to the waters of the Nile River. Most likely, Pharaoh was accompanied by those who would daily check the level of the Nile in order to set the times of the festivals of the river-god. Some of these plagues were direct proclamations against the multiple gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Others were aimed at how those gods were worshiped.
The first plague was against the Nile river itself, deified by the Egyptians as the god Hopi, The overflow of the river on a yearly basis, brought life to the Nile River Valley.
Plague number two was aimed at the deified form of a frog known as Heqt. The goddess Heqt was known to aid women in childbirth. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes a commentary in the Jerusalem Post on the weekly Torah portion (a weekly synagogue reading which systematically works its way through the first five books of Moses in a one year period). Many years ago he wrote about the plague of frogs and the quality of this commentary has never left me. It bears repeating.
Riskin says the eighth chapter of the book of Exodus records, in Hebrew, that only “one frog” came up on the land (Exodus 8:6). This echoes the mass psychosis of anti-Semitism in a strange way. One frog comes up and begins to croak loudly. That call goes forth throughout the land, rousing a reaction in other frogs, who then cannot help themselves but that they must also join the bellowing. The riotous frog-call then becomes a platform to which others can successfully attach themselves with total justification.
Death to livestock
The plague against livestock was one of greater degree than what we have yet seen. An understanding of the importance of livestock in the Egyptian religion is vital.
Edwin M. Yamauchi, in his masterful work, Persia and the Bible, gives details on livestock in Egypt. The Egyptians worshiped many animals, but few took such place as the Apis bull. The Egyptian bull-god, Hapi, was regarded as the incarnation of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis. It was held that Ptah inseminated Apis’ mother, Isis, with celestial fire. The Apis bull had to exhibit certain characteristics to be considered a representation of the deity.
According to the historian, Herodotus (3:28), the marks of the calf called Apis are these: he is black; he has on his forehead a three-cornered white spot; the likeness of an eagle on his back; his tail hairs are double; and there is a knot under the tongue.
The Apis was selected by carefully observed signs, and taken to a special temple where he was pampered all his life. The installation of the Apis was with great ceremony and celebration. In light of this knowledge, the conduct of the Israelites in the wilderness, upon the casting of their golden calf, becomes clearer. They were mimicking conduct that they had become accustomed to in the civil administration of their temporary Egyptian homeland.
The Apis was observed during certain times of the year in a special courtyard in the temple area. His movements were interpreted as oracular signs on a national level. Egypt’s future well-being was read in the movements of the Apis.
In 1941, near the temple of Ptah at Memphis, a number of objects associated with the Apis were discovered. These included four alabaster altars, a limestone manger, stands possibly used for an awning to shade the animal, and a large offering table (12 feet or 3.7 meters by 6 feet or 1.85 meters) used for washing and mummifying the bull upon its death. The bulls were carefully embalmed and entombed in gigantic sarcophagi (crypts) carved from monolithic blocks of granite, measuring 10 feet high (3 meters), 13 feet long (4 meters), and weighing 60 to 70 tons. Many of these were uncovered in 1851, some 20 miles (12 kilometers) southwest of Cairo at Saqqara. They were found in underground galleries 1,000 feet (307 meters) long. Beside these were numerous bronze statuettes of the bull. It could be that Israelite craftsmen had a hand in creating these liknesses.
The death of the Apis was akin to the death of a Pharaoh. The Apis was considered a god. National mourning struck on the level of hysteria. It has been confirmed archaeologically that the worship of the Apis went back to the First Dynasty, and no doubt had its roots in prehistoric times.
Numbered among the other livestock worshiped by the Egyptians was Mnevis, another bull-god; the cow-god, Hathor; and the ram-god, Khnum.
The sun-god Ra
The plague of darkness, so dark it could be felt, was an obvious insult to the sun-god, Ra. Winged-disc of gold with arms descending in benevolent giving – symbol of all that was good in a sun-drenched land. This darkness may have been a dust storm riding the tail winds of the strong wind that blew the locusts into Egypt. Wind storms of frightening proportions are caused by a well known phenomena called a “hamsin.” This is a hot violent desert wind that carries tons of dust across the open desert in great billowing clouds almost gray-green in color. Dust fills your mouth, eyes, water pots, and food. There is no way to keep it out. Even today, with modern windows closed and sealed you can still taste the dust of a hamsin. The land of Goshen may have lain far enough north to miss the plague that struck the rest of Egypt.
Somewhat like a stage production, darkness falls in order to spotlight the final act. Pharaoh was coming to the end of his patience and God was coming to the end of His order of attacks against the gods of Egypt. Egypt would now change forever and never regain its glory.
The angel of death
By strict instruction from the mouth of God, each Israelite family, on the tenth day of the month, was to take a year-old male lamb into their home. For four days they lived with the lamb, separated from all other animals. On the fourteenth day of the month at twilight they slaughtered it. Then they placed the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the door of the dwelling where they were to eat the roasted lamb. They were to eat their meal prepared to rush off.
On that night, God judged the gods of Egypt. All the protection that those gods were supposed to provide was undone. The most important item to any family of that day and age, a firstborn male, would be taken from them. Even the firstborn animals were slain, to show the ineffectual power of Egypt’s man-made gods.
It is noteworthy that after this plague, but before the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, a rite was instituted among the Israelites that was observed throughout the Israelites’ history and is still observed to this day. The custom is called, Pideon HaBen, meaning the redemption of the firstborn son. In the book of Exodus, it stands as an oral injunction to Moses, but later becomes law in Leviticus. Until the destruction of the Temple this law was carried out. Now it is a ceremonial rite in the synagogue.
In Exodus 13, after the Israelites flee Egypt, God tells Moses to consecrate to Him the firstborn male of both man and animal. In obedience to this law, Yeshua (Jesus), Mary’s firstborn son, was taken by Joseph and Mary to be consecrated at the Temple. Simeon, a faithful servant of the Temple, had awaited patiently God’s promise of salvation. By the unction of the Spirit of the Lord, Simeon proclaimed Yeshua to be the Messiah. A matter should be established by the mouth of at least two witnesses. Therefore, Luke records that the prophetess Anna added to Simeon’s proclamation, assuring that He was the fulfillment of all who were looking forward to the redemption of God’s people.
The last plague, the Angel of Death, stands as a symbolic foreshadowing of God’s future redemption, not only of the Jewish people, but of all the world. The other plagues were attacks against Egyptian gods, but this plague was an attack into the dark territory of Satan himself. The Angel of Death was not an Egyptian god. The belief in local gods was common not only in Egypt but in all surrounding nations. God’s offensive attack here, therefore, struck below the surface of religion, a false front to the more universal reality of God’s enemy and his dark plans.
Let my people go!
“Let My people go that they may worship Me.” This command was given to Pharoah 9 times in the book of Exodus. God explains His two-fold purpose in this command. Let My people go is followed by, “. . . that they may worship Me.” God sought to teach the Israelites not only to be a nation but to renew their worship thereby testifying to the world the character of the God of Israel.
The Exodus ushered the children of Israel into the wilderness, the crucible, used by God to mold a nation. To turn a mass of dependent people into a nation living independently took 40 years. We have usually blamed the Israelites for grumbling and complaining and turning their backs on God in the wilderness, but God’s patience with them could not be better portrayed than in the story of Balaam, the “rent-a-prophet.”
Numbers chapter 23 recounts Balaam’s “oracles-for-hire” against Israel. The oracles were diametrically opposed to King Balak’s desires. The contents of those proclamations by Balaam reveal God’s heart about His people coming out of the desert. Balaam asks, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” He continues in the second oracle to pronounce that, “He (God) has not looked on Jacob’s offenses or on the wrongs found in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, the shout of a King is among them.” Balaam rises to a pinnacle of prophecy in the fourth oracle about Jacob. “A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel,” he prophesies, “A ruler will come out of Jacob . . .”
It would appear as if God overlooked Israel’s sins in the wilderness. God’s correction of His people was between Him and them, not given to the authority of a Gentile prophet. On the contrary, God looked at the potential of His people, even though their time of testing was not over. He preferred to manifest His mercy before outsiders, and judge sin within the camp.
We have also viewed the wilderness as a symbol of spiritual dryness. Actually, all outside stimuli removed, the wilderness was a place to “see God” very clearly. Pillar of fire by night, and a cloud to lead by day. Realistically, Egypt was the place of spiritual dryness. It was a place where your concentration was robbed by too much to do; too much effort making ends meet; too many decisions to make regarding everyday life. The wilderness provided just the right environment for God to train the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be a nation whose only God was the Lord.
The fact is that the children of Israel had changed while in Egypt. 430 years equals roughly 6 or 7 generations. We have no solid proof that they sacrificed any longer. It seems that they had no close relationship with God. When Moses arrived they asked him who sent him. The time period of the Exodus is somewhere in the XVIII Dynasty of the Egyptian empire. According to most Bible scholars, the date of the exit of the Hebrews is somewhere between 1450 BC to 1200 BC. The only solid record of the event is in the pages of the Bible.
Because there is no extrabiblical account of the Exodus, some scholars have come to the conclusion that it is a myth. The culture of the Egyptians though, bears their fingerprints during the XVIII Dynasty. The first fingerprint is Egypt’s Pharoah Amenhotep who led a movement pressing the Egyptians to adopt the worship of one god. Amenhotep later changed his own name to Akenaten meaning “servant of the one god.” It seems that perhaps the theology of the Hebrews had influenced him.
The second fingerprint involves one of Egypt’s gods that we did not mention in the previous list of gods. Her name is Sakmet. The name Sakmet means “The Powerful One.” Sakmet was a female figure with the head of a lion wearing a large shoulder-length braided wig. The legendary story of Sakmet says that since the Egyptians rebelled against the authority of the sun god Ra, that he would strike a blow at their population and use Sakmet to wade in their blood. The plan is later reneged upon by Ra. The sun god assuages Sakmet’s stirred up anger by giving her blood colored beer which calms her. It seems possible that the Egyptians losing the heir to the throne of Pharoah with the death of the firstborn, and then losing the reigning Pharoah who drowned in the Red Sea chasing the Hebrews, could not come to grips with the truth of what they had witnessed. They may have created the legend of the “anger” of Sakmet to explain away the truth of God’s intervention on behalf of the Hebrews for their future generations.
God had a purpose for Pharaoh’s existence. According to the New Testament book of Romans the usefulness of Egypt’s god king was for the sake of the whole world.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display My power in you and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Romans 9:17)
One final thought provoking point struck me when reading the Hebrew account of the Exodus. An interesting word appears in the Scripture:
Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing stock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” and all the Levites rallied to him. (Exodus 32:25)
“Running wild,” and “out of control” is paruah, and is the same root word as in Proverbs 29:18 translated “perish.”
Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18)
Actually it means to “throw off restraint” or “go backward” as if you were returning to a time that was more comfortable to you. The ironic thing is that it sounds much like the Hebrew word for Pharaoh. It seems you can take the Israelites out of Egypt but it is hard to take Egypt (the “Pharaoh wildness”) out of the Israelites.
In all this, the Scripture is certainly true, God’s name has been proclaimed in all the earth, faithfully, from year to year through the celebration of the Passover by Jewish people. Annually the story is recounted, inseparably linked to the name of the Pharoah of Egypt. The vivid mental pictures in the retelling of the story that it creates in the minds of children is handed down faithfully each year by parents as awed by the account as are the children.
© Bridges for Peace