A Term Paper

Presented to Professor Phillip McMillion

Harding Graduate School of Religion

Memphis, Tennessee


As a Requirement in

Course 500B

Advanced Introduction to the Old Testament



G. K. Pennington

December 1996








The events that preceded the exodus of Israel from Egypt were more than preparation for deliverance of an oppressed people.  It was a clash of cultures along the lines of what was accepted reality from the Egyptian perspective and what would be the norm for the nation of Israel.  The exodus is a part of the “mighty acts of judgment” of Jehovah.  (Exodus 6:6)[1]  What makes this significant are the supernatural events that pitted the myth of Egypt against the God who had charged Moses. 


Pharaoh has a question that he directs to Moses at the request for a festival excursion to honor God.  Pharaoh said; "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go?”  I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go." (Exodus 5:2)  With this question, the stage is set for a cosmic showdown between the God who is the cause of creation and the creatures, with Pharaoh playing lead and his magicians as supporting characters.  Our discussion will center on the tension between Jehovah and the gods that sprang from the cultural background of Egypt.


Pharaoh spent the next days of his life becoming acquainted with The Lord.  It would not be a lesson lost, even through the “hardness of his heart,” because Israel and Egypt would be witness to the confrontation.  (Exodus 7:5; 11:7)  Some of Egypt would get the message even if Pharaoh missed it.  J. Philip Hyatt does not consider the statement of Pharaoh to be even a true question but rather a statement of contempt.[2]  Terence E. Fretheim Says; “Ironically Pharaoh got the question right.”[3]  He reflects on how the next pages of scripture are devoted to answering the question, “Who is Yahweh?”[4]  Fretheim stresses that the narrator’s purpose is not just to record the story but for us, the readers, to know that the question of who is Yahweh, was answered.


Moses had asked a similar question at the anthropomorphic appearance of God in the burning bush; 

“Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?’  Then what shall I tell them?”  (Exodus 3:13)


Israel had lived in Egypt for about four hundred-thirty years.  (Exodus 12:41)  Just as Pharaoh was not aware of the role of Joseph in delivering his nation, there was a danger in Israel’s having forgotten God.  “The subsequent history of the people in the wilderness clearly indicates how much of the contemporary paganism Israel had absorbed . . .”[5]  Israel would not only experience deliverance but in the future would be drawn back through history to revisit the shaping of their nation’s religious heritage.  Through scripture and ritual, these events were relived and the issue of "Who is the LORD, that I [we] should obey him . . .” was answered for other generations.[6]


We can see the relevance of the question for Egypt by observing the history of their culture.  They had a long-standing practice of making sacred the creation.  “All Egyptian culture was of religious origin.”[7]  Herodotus reflecting on the barren nature of Egypt and its having few naturally wild animals said; “The animals that do exist in the country, whether domesticated or otherwise, are all regarded as sacred.”[8]


The understanding of reality and the composition of gods for Egypt is rooted in their view of creation.  H. And H. A. Frankfort commenting on the speculative view of the cosmos from Egypt tell us, “It was said that the primeval waters were inhabited by eight weird creatures, four frogs and four snakes, male and female, who brought forth Atum the sungod and creator.”[9] 


The comment of Pharaoh concerning his not knowing the Lord may have come as “This is a god with whom I am not familiar” or it may be more in the vein of “As one God to another I do not know this god.”  There was a strong tie between the Egyptian king and civil and religious harmony.  “He mediated the power (ka) in order to maintain the static order of the creation (Maat) in its primeval structure.”[10] “The King is a ka,”[11] Is a phrase found in poetical instruction for children about the divinity of Pharaoh.  This term is defined as Pharaoh being the “vital force” perhaps even life source or source of protection for the people.[12]  Bernard L. Ramm sees a point of irony in the setting as Pharaoh turns down the first request of Moses; “Why should a king who considered himself among the gods have respected the God of people that were slaves?”[13]


That there were several accounts of the plague incident circulated seems to be indicated by the two lists of plagues in the Psalms.  From Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36, We have two separate lists of seven plagues in each.  Nahum M. Sarna sees the possibility that the “ . . . ten and seven were used symbolically, each signifying the idea of totality.”[14]


The study of this section of scripture is more strenuous because of the source critics’ efforts to link purpose and source.  Hyatt’s breakout of the plagues and their respective sources are as follows:

 1. Blood




 2. Frogs




 3. Gnats




 4. Flies




 5. Cattle Plague




 6. Boils




 7. Hail




 8. Locust




 9. Darkness




10. Death of the firstborn





From this premise, he argues, the “ten plagues were not a part of the early traditions.”[16]  He sees the custom developing over time with the ten-count event coming from the final redaction of Exodus.[17]  He and Randall C. Bailey defend a P source scenario that puts the emphasis of P on making Egypt aware of the fallacy of their religious culture through the “Show of YHWH’s power.”[18]  The casting of the supposed P source plagues in this way lends itself to a contrast of the power of YAWAH theme as opposed to a liberation of Israel theme.  Bailey’s lament at the end of his work is, “As often happens, liberation wins out.”[19] 


A weakness of this process is failing to see that in a teaching narrative it is possible for an author to weave concurrent themes together to accomplish more than one purpose.  Thus, while the liberation of Israel theology seems to get a louder hearing, the power of Jehovah over Pharaoh and the creature gods of Egypt still comes through clearly.  The oppressive situation needed correction.  The solution involved a struggle between Jehovah and the earthly representative of the evil process.  That set the bounds for the conflict. 


 “The struggle with Pharaoh was not arbitrary; its purpose was both revelatory and redemptive.”[20] The redemptive nature of the struggle is in the deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh’s servitude.  These events have a messianic redemptive theme in them because of the nation’s role in the “eternal purpose” of God.


The immediate purpose is the revelatory nature of what happens in the whole account of Moses and his return to Pharaoh’s court.  From the point of rods turned into serpents, Pharaoh and his magicians are in a defensive role.  Dennis J. McCarthy argues that the ten plagues start with the event of the serpents.[21]  He contends that the death of the firstborn is of such a different character in “vocabulary,” and “basic elements of the typical plague story” that it should not be included in the plague narrative.  He thinks it is better to associated it with the event at the “Sea of Reeds.”[22]  This does not overtly change the nature of our discussion but it might accent the value of the serpent incident if included as one of the ten plagues.  For our purpose, we clearly see that the serpent of Aaron was the master of the contest.  It is the first loss of face for Pharaoh and his workers of magic.


With the introduction of the plagues, the stakes of the contest are raised.  The serpent incident seemed to be confined to the royal court but all of Egypt was consumed in the plague epidemic.[23]  The normal natural order was upset; this would raise questions about Pharaoh as the keeper of order.  Many, if not all, of the out-of-control elements and creations were deities of the land.  “. . .Yahweh selected ten plagues that directly related to the gods of Egypt.”[24]  While the lesser deities are targeted, the primary deity to divest was Pharaoh.  “These plagues served also to frustrate the false ideas of worship of the Egyptians.”[25]


Some have argued for naturally occurring processes[26] as an explanation for the plagues but the narrative speaks to their unnatural severity.  Pharaoh’s request that they be withdrawn on occasion indicates he had reason to believe there was a connection between the actions of Aaron and Moses and the calamities of his nation.


The Nile is the source of life giving water for Egypt and at that time served as a religious provider.  Frankfort writes of the annual flood records of the Nile and how sacrifices were made with a contractual claim expected in return for the gifts.[27]  Though there are conditions that occur naturally that seem close to this, “The natural severity of the plague constituted the wonder in this first plague.”[28]  The naturally occurring phenomena do not affect water in containers not associated with the river.


The movement from one plague to another seems to have been in a somewhat steady progression.  “Seven days passed after the LORD struck the Nile.”  (Exodus 7:25)  The plague of the frogs is a particularly despicable event with Pharaoh seeking its removal rather quickly.  The frog had a place in the Egyptian creation myth and was “associated with divinity.”[29]  An appropriate thing occurs as the frogs rot in the Egyptian heat.  They were considered representatives of the “frog goddess Heqt.”[30]  Their odor probably would have caused most people to think of death and not a god from whom life emanates.  With each event, there was an effort to turn the gods of Egypt against all the senses and sensibilities of the people.


With the third plague the magicians of Pharaoh are out of the contest and unable to meet the competition.  They conclude to Pharaoh "This is the finger of God.”  (Exodus 8:19)  The magicians of Pharaoh’s court split with some of them recognizing the “hand of God.”  Tension mounted because of the acts they could not reproduce and the consistent accurate follow-through of Godly prophecies.  (Exodus 9:20)  With the fourth plague there is a distinction made between the people of God and those of Egypt so that it is clear who is the object of this out-of-control phenomenon.  (Exodus 8:23) 


The fifth plague involved the cattle of the land.  Hester says this is a direct attack on one of the Egyptian gods.  He says it; “. . . would expose the weakness of their worship of the sacred bull since this bull was expected to protect and save the cattle of the land.”[31]  The Lord gives the distinction or preservation for his people to their cattle.  (Exodus 9:4)


We observe an underlying increase in intensity in the progression of the plagues, from seemingly minor inconveniences, smelly water and dead fish to squirming frogs everywhere with their stench.  The lice and flies are a direct attack on the bodies of people but with an emphasis on Egypt hurting more than Israel.  The plague involving the cattle had a religious consequence but also for agriculture-based community it would have been devastating.  Kile contends that with the event of the hail about nine months of pestilence had occurred.[32]  The progression of intensity continues with the introduction of the hail, which was to be the worst storm in the nation's history.  (Exodus 9:18)  Here the text also gives a glimpse of the restraint that God has exhibited to this point and His purpose.  Having stated that He could have “wiped you off the earth.


. . . I have raised you up . . ., that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:15-16)  This progression of the intensity of the conflict will continue through the tenth plague and on to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the sea.


Fretheim says that the darkness was a “pre-creation state of affairs. That is why it is the most serious plague save one.”[33]  It is the turning out of Ra the sungod and it precedes the final plague.  This is a triumph over the greatest of the gods in Egypt.  “. . ., as the symbol of cosmic order, his divinity exceeded that of the other gods of the pantheon.”[34]  A three-day absence of the sungod would have had a major impact on the people of Egypt.  The forces of darkness appeared to have won and Pharaoh was seemingly powerless to bring about an end to the disorder. 


The magicians reproduced some of the plagues and others have been given seemingly natural explanations.  It is the tenth plague that breaks the stalemate in the story.  Here and in a final blow at the sea Egypt, Israel and especially Pharaoh himself saw the acts of God demonstrate Pharaoh’s inability to control the material world.[35]  This event shows Pharaoh’s inability to protect even his own family.  It is a strike not only at the reigning god and king but also at the future Pharaoh.  James K. Hoffmeier says; “The tenth plague generally is considered to belong to a different realm than the nine.”[36]  He is reflecting on Sarna’s thought,

“The tenth and final visitation upon the Pharaoh and his people is the one plague for which no rational explanation can be given.  It belongs entirely to the category of the supernatural:”[37] 


There is however an explanation from the scripture that with the death of the firstborn, “ . . . I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.” (Exodus 12:12) 


The real issue through the conflict is, “who is the source of all that exists in the world?”  To what deity should a nation or a person commit?  Who would set the moral standards for a nation and a people?  With each event, Pharaoh reacts to get the plague stopped but breaks the agreement.  This is a breach of integrity for a king and especially for one who a deity.  His view of himself and of the order of creation allowed for this conduct.  Fretheim concludes that; “The most basic perspective within which the plagues are to be understood is a theology of creation.”[38]  From our theology of creation, there is a natural transition to our ordering of society.  The culture of Egypt had followed the course to elevating the creation to deity and worshipping it.  The greatest example of that was in the role played by Pharaoh.  Egypt had abused a people through whom God in the past had used as an agent of their preservation. 


With systematic progression, God reveals himself to Pharaoh, Egypt, and Israel.  He does this by showing his mastery over the created world and in the process his superiority to the gods of the land.  Though hardened to the end, this Pharaoh had come face to face with the reality of the real God.  For at least a generation, the people of Egypt would recall how a God who controlled the creation had come to their land.  Israel also was aware of the contest that had resulted in their deliverance.  Rehearsing these events later could instill again the answer to the question, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him . . .?”












Bailey, Randal C. “And they shall know that I am YHWAH!: The Recasting of the Plague Narratives in Exodus 7-11,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 22 (1994): 1-17.


Childs, Brevard S. Myth and Reality in the Old Testament. Chatham, Great Britain: W. & J. Mackay & Co., 1962.


Dalglish, Edward R. The Great Deliverance. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1977.


“Egyptian Observations: The Divine Attributes of Pharaoh,” Translated by John A. Wilson.  In Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., edited by James B. Prichard Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.


Frankfort, H.  And H. A. and others.  The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957.


Fretheim, Terence E. “Exodus.”  In Interpretation.  ed. James Luther Mays.  Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991.


Herodotus.  HistoryGreat Books of the Western World.  ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Translated by George Rawlston.  Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.


Hester, H. I.  The Heart of Hebrew History.  Liberty, MO: Quality Press, 1962.


Hoffmeier, James K. “Egypt, Plagues In.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  ed. David Noel Freeman, 2:375-378 New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.


The Holy Bible; New International Version.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.


Hyatt, J. Philip.  Exodus.  London, Great Britain: Marshall, Morgan and Scott Publishers, 1971; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.


Kile, M. G. “Plagues of Egypt.”  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2d ed., edited by.  James Orr, 4:2403-2407 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939.


Lurker, Manfred.  The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt.  Translated by Barbara Cummings.  London: Thames and Hudson 1980.


McCarthy, Dennis J. “Plagues and the Sea of Reeds” Journal of Biblical Literature.85 (June 1966): 137-158.


Ramm, Bernard L.  His Way Out.  Glendale, CA: G/L Publications, 1974.


Roderick, Brady P. “God’s Mission to Egypt in the Exodus.”  The Theological Educator 52 (Fall 1995): 21-26.


Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus.  New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1986.


[1]All biblical references in this paper are taken from The New International Version.


[2]J. Philip Hyatt, Exodus  (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott Publishers, 1971; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 90.

[3]Terence E. Fretheim, “Exodus,” in Interpretation, ed. James Luther Mays (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 86.


[5]Edward R. Dalglish, The Great Deliverance (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1977) 21.

[6]Note the following passages: Exodus 6:6; 7:4, Deuteronomy 3:24; 4:9-10, Psalm 78:42-51; 105:28-36.

[7]Manfred Lurker, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt, trans Barbara Cummings (London: Thames and Hudson 1980), 8.

[8]Herodotus, History Book 2, 65.

[9]H. And H. A. Frankfort and others, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 10.

[10]Brevard S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (Chatham, Great Britain: W. & J. Mackay & Co., 1962), 28.

[11]“Egyptian Observations: The Divine Attributes of Pharaoh,” trans. John A. Wilson, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., edited by James B. Prichard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) 431


[13]Bernard L. Ramm, His Way Out (Glendale, CA: G/L Publications, 1974), 46.

[14]Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1986), 74.

[15]Hyatt, 98.

[16]Ibid., 99.


[18]Randal C. Bailey, “And they shall know that I am YHWAH!: The P Recasting of the Plague Narratives in Exodus 7-11,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 22 (1994): 5.

[19]Ibid., 17.

[20]Dalglish, 45.

[21]Dennis J. McCarthy, “Plagues and the Sea of Reeds,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (June 1966): 138

[22]Ibid., 144.

[23]Passages that show this: Exodus 7:19; 8:17; 9:22; 9:24; 10:13-15; 10:22; 12:12; 12:29-30.

[24]Brady P. Roderick, “God’s Mission to Egypt in the Exodus,” The Theological Educator 52 (Fall 1995): 25.

[25]H. I. Hester, The Heart of Hebrew History (Liberty, MO: Quality Press, 1962), 119.

[26]M. G. Kile “Plagues of Egypt,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2d ed., edited by James Orr, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 4:2405.

[27]Frankfort, 15-16.

[28]M. G. Kile, 4:2404.


[30]Sarna, 79.

[31] Hester, 119.

[32]M. G. Kile, 4:2405.

[33]Fretheim, 129.

[34]Sarna, 79.

[35]James K. Hoffmeier “Egypt, Plagues In” in The Anchor Bible ed. David Noel Freeman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:375.


[37]Sarna, 93.

[38] Fretheim, 106.