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The Ten Plagues in Egypt
Moses and Aaron assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel (Exodus 4:30), Aaron proclaimed the message of God to the enslaved Israelites and Moses attested to its truth by the signs and wonders God enabled him to perform. The people bowed low and worshipped (vs.31) and we can believe that hope would have risen in every breast after so many years of slavery and failure. The reticent Moses must have felt considerable elation and revival of the old feelings of success and conquest under his God-called ministry in life and felt ready to confront Pharaoh himself. But how quickly things can change!
When they came face to face with this most powerful of the world's leaders, Moses and Aaron declared to him in the simplest terms the will of God: "Let my people go." The specific request they presented to Pharaoh was not for complete emancipation, but for permission to go into the wilderness to observe a religious festival. To the Pharaoh, this was pure foolishness. Such an action would mean at least a week's delay in the building program and might set a troublesome example for other slaves. Not only would he refuse this request, but he would inflict even greater burdens upon the slaves, to discourage anyone else who might be entertaining such ideas.
The specific task in which the Israelites were engaged was brick-making. The bricks they made were not simply mud blocks, but contained straw to give them strength. The Egyptians had always provided the necessary straw, but now, as punishment for the bold request of Moses and Aaron, the Israelites were to be required to gather their own straw yet were still expected to produce the same number of bricks as before. Naturally, this increased burden did little to enhance Moses' position of leadership among his people. The people were openly disgusted with Moses and he was in dismay at God's apparent failure to make good on his promises. In Exodus 5:21 we find the people accusing him of having made them a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. From the high plateau of exaltation, Moses fell into pits of depression and accused God (Exodus 5:231), saying:
"Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he has done harm to this people; and Thou hast not delivered Thy people at all."
But the Lord revealed to Moses that this was all part of his plan. Following this expression of doubt by Moses, God spoke to him again (Exodus 6:2) and confirmed His existence: "I am the Lord". He had chosen Pharaoh as an instrument to magnify his own power and majesty. He was allowing Pharaoh to assert his own authority to the fullest extent, in order to dramatize the complete superiority of His power. Nothing, not even the king of Egypt, could withstand the arm of the Lord. In chapter six, the sovereignty of God shines like a beacon. The doubts of Moses were dispelled; He was assured that God was going to do this because He would be faithful to the covenant He had established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We note a series of "I will" assurances from God and Moses heeded these and again spoke to the people, but they still did not listen (vs. 9) "on account of their despondency and cruel bondage."
Thus reassured, Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh a second time. As a sign that they had been sent by God, Aaron "cast down his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent" (Exodus 7:10). The Egyptian magicians, the custodians of the power of the Egyptian demon-gods, were able to duplicate the feat by occultic power and also caused their rods to become serpents. The superior power God demonstrated through his servants is shown immediately in that Aaron's serpent devoured those of the court magicians, but Pharaoh was still not impressed. But this was far from the greatest of the "signs and wonders" Moses and Aaron would perform. It was, in fact, only a preliminary to the classic contest between God and Pharaoh which we commonly refer to as The Ten Plagues.
The dramatic contest between Jehovah and the "gods" of Egypt is recorded in chapters 7 through 11. Ten plagues were sent on Pharaoh's kingdom and with each plague the Pharaoh moved closer to granting the request of the Israelites, but, at the last minute, went back upon his word and refused to allow them to leave as God, at first, hardened his heart. Everything builds toward the dramatic climax when Pharaoh is revealed as absolutely powerless before the God of Israel. The battle lines are clearly drawn. On one side stand God and his representatives, Moses and Aaron; on the other stand Pharaoh and his magicians. When Moses and Aaron initiate the first two plagues, the turning of water to blood and the plague of frogs, the magicians are able to duplicate them through their "secret arts." However, with the remaining plagues - gnats, flies, the disease of the cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn - the magicians are unable to perform similar wonders:
Plague number 1 (Exodus 7:20): the Nile was turned to blood.
Plague number 2 (Exodus 8:7): frogs infested the land.
Plague number 3 (Exodus 8:17): gnats covered the land.
When the magicians were unable to imitate this third miracle of the gnats they conceded (Exodus 8:191) to Pharaoh: "This is the finger of God." But we read: "Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said."
We are reminded here of the words of our Lord, when the doubters accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons (Luke 11:18-201):
"And if Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 "And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Consequently they shall be your judges. 20 "But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
We see the depth of the insult hurled at Jesus, for these men were effectively comparing His miracles with the counterfeit achieved by such occultists as the Egyptian practitioners of the black arts. Hard hearts will forever doubt the power of God at work and so Pharaoh and his people had to endure the remaining plagues:
Plague number 4 (Exodus 8:24): swarms of insects (flies)
Plague number 5 (Exodus 9:5): pestilence (disease) destroying the cattle.
We should note carefully that, in plague five, a distinction was made between the cattle of the Egyptians and the cattle of the Hebrews so that Pharaoh, and the disbelieving world who read this account through human history, would know it was not coincidence. This distinction continued through the remainder of the plagues:
Plague number 6 (Exodus 9:9): boils.
Plague number 7 (Exodus 9:23): thunder, rain, hail and fire covering the earth.
Plague number 8 (Exodus 10:4): locusts.
Plague number 9 (Exodus 10:21): darkness so thick no light can be seen except from the dwellings of the Israelites.
The tenth plague, described in Exodus 11:5, was the invasion of the Death Angel who slew the firstborn of every family in Egypt, including the slave girl behind the millstone and the firstborn of all the cattle. It took this extreme sign from the Lord to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrews, even though his servants had warned him (Exodus 10: 71):
"How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not realize that Egypt is destroyed?"
The tenth plague, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, was the occasion for the establishment of the most sacred of all Israelite religious observances - Passover. God's desire was not merely to release a group of slaves with whom he had enjoyed some association. He sought to create a community which would, because of these mighty acts, worship him as its sovereign Lord. As a means to assure the perpetual memory of their deliverance from slavery, the Lord gave to Moses and Aaron instructions for the Passover celebration (Exodus 12).
In the early evening of the night the Lord was to slay the sons of Egypt, each family killed its lamb and poured the blood into a hollowed out place, or basin, at the threshold of the house. Then, with a leafy hyssop plant, this blood was sprinkled on the door-posts and lintel (the crossbar at the top of the door) of the house, as a symbolic protection against the destroying hand of the Lord. Down through history we see the blood of the lamb applied in the shape of a cross and are reminded of those who have put their trust in the crucified, buried and risen Lamb of God, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
After they completed the sprinkling ceremony, each family retired into its own house to await the dreadful passing over of the Lord. That night they roasted the lamb and ate it at a unique feast. Instead of the leisurely comfort we associate with the special meals enjoyed by Christians, such as Thanksgiving in the U.S.A., the Passover meal was eaten in a hurry. Their robes, which would ordinarily be draped loosely about them, were arranged and tied in readiness for a journey. Each man wore his sandals, although it was customary to go barefoot inside the house. To complete the picture of readiness to go on a journey, they ate with a walking staff in one hand. In later years the Passover was linked with the Feast of Unleavened bread, which began with the Passover meal on the fourteenth day of the month and continued through the evening of the twenty-first day. During this period, no bread could be eaten that contained any leaven. The immediate practical reason for this was the simple fact that in their haste to escape from Egyptians, the Israelites had no time to stop long enough for leavened bread to rise before cooking it. But it also had symbolic value. In both the Old and New Testaments, leaven is a symbol for corruption and sinfulness. The removal of all leaven from the house symbolized the purifying of one's heart in readiness for the confrontation with God. Because of its simple beauty and the deep significance of the act which it remembers, the Passover is still celebrated by the sons of Israel 3,200 years after its institution. It is one of the few religious or natural holidays that have not degenerated into a vulgar display or gross commercialism. It has remained of deep spiritual significance to those who continue to believe in the promises of God to Israel and Moses words to the elders of Israel have reminded Jewish children through history of this fact (Exodus 12:26-271):
And when your children say to you, "What do you mean by this service?" you shall say, "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses."
And the people bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord (v27) and went and did as the Lord had commanded through Moses and Aaron:
At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon and all the first-born of the cattle (Exodus 12:291).
This was too much for even the hard hearted Pharaoh. Egypt needed slaves, but it was clear she could not afford to keep these Israelites. The picture is a dramatic one. Pharaoh had gone to bed several hours earlier, perhaps satisfied that he had finally rid himself of the worst of this irksome Israelite trouble. Then shortly after midnight he was woken with the news that his first born son, the son he had groomed to take his place as ruler of all Egypt, was dead, slain by the God of the Israelites. Soon he learns that every household in Egypt has suffered a similar tragedy. The grieving father, the distraught monarch, the bewildered worshipper of defeated gods sends for Moses and Aaron. In marked contrast to his previous cynical treatment of their requests, he begs them to leave Egypt as quickly as possible, then adds in a pathetic voice, "and bless me also!"
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