Purpose of the plagues (Exodus 7 – 13)

Open Exodus 7.

Why did God do plagues in Egypt? Doesn’t God just do nice stuff?

A world where people harm and oppress each other calls for more decisive action. Pharaoh forced the Hebrews to construct cities to store his wealth (1:11). They didn’t even belong to Pharaoh. Long before Pharaoh was born, they had entered a covenant with another ruler to be his people (Genesis 17). So now they called on their true sovereign to rescue them (2:23).

Their true sovereign summoned Moses to his wilderness palace, commissioning him as spokesman. As ambassador for heaven’s kingdom, Moses has a confronting message for the earthly ruler: “Release my people!” (5:1).

Pharaoh refuses (5:2). He has a huge army to enforce his power. Reflect for a moment on how military power works: ultimately, human rule relies on the power of death. All his life, Moses has been running from this threat of death (1:16; 2:15).

The big question is how earth can be released from the rule of evil and death. How can good ever overpower evil?

The answer in Exodus is that evil will be overcome not by force but by the revelation of the earth’s ruler. The conflict is not Moses versus Pharaoh, or the Hebrews versus the Egypt’s armies. It is the true ruler (YHWH) versus the pretender (Pharaoh).

God versus Pharaoh — it’s the strangest war ever! Ten battles reveal the truth of YHWH’s regal authority over all aspects of life on earth, and the falseness of Pharaoh’s pretence to power.

How you describe these battles depends which side you’re on:

  • To the Egyptians they’re plagues (8:2; 9:3, 14) — horrors that demonstrate Pharaoh’s impotence.
  • To the Hebrews, they’re mighty acts (6:6; 7:4) — wonders that demonstrate YHWH’s regal authority.

Despite all his pomp and pretence, Pharaoh doesn’t rule nature. He’s not a true god. He’s just a human, falsely claiming power over God’s people. The ten mighty acts of YHWH demonstrate that to both the Hebrews and the Egyptians, bringing Pharaoh to his knees.

The goal is not to destroy Pharaoh (9:15). Progressively, Pharaoh is brought to recognize YHWH’s claim over the Hebrew people: “YHWH is in the right; I and my people are in the wrong” (9:27).

In the end, Pharaoh’s claim to be a powerful ruler is exposed as fraudulent: he cannot protect the heir of each household, not even his own heir.

So what was the point of the ten plagues? They’re wonders, demonstrating who rules the earth:

  • “You will know that I am YHWH” (6:7; 7:17; 8:22; 10:2)
  • “The Egyptians will know that I am YHWH” (7:5; 14:4, 18)

Evil, slavery, death, and oppression are not overcome through the weapons of war, or the political machinations of earthly rulers. The revelation of the world’s true ruler restores the earth.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Purpose of the plagues (Exodus 7 – 13)”

  1. Yes, God is in control as you say Allen.
    Have been studying Romans this year and Romans 13 tells us that:
    Rom 13:1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
    So, Pharaoh was put there by God in the first place, even though he probably didn’t know it…
    And there is always a reason behind it….makes you think…gee, if we just had a better government…mm, but then maybe we wouldn’t need to pray then for our government…and our lives would be wonderful…
    Why is it that we only reach out to God in time of need…


    1. Thanks, Lance
      Yes, Romans 13 is the classic NT statement that governments are God’s servants to limit violence (see post on Genesis 9). Ironically, they also instigate violence for their own purposes (see post on Genesis 10). The weapons that the state carries are not merely ceremonial (“not borne in vain” in Romans 13:4).
      So, yes: the state is God’s agent, but it’s a very poor stand-in for what God originally intended the earth to be (the kingdom of God).
      State soteriology is not our long-term hope.


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