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.