Question: "What was the meaning and purpose of the ten plagues of Egypt?"
Answer: The Ten Plagues of Egypt—also known as the Ten Plagues, the Plagues of Egypt, or the Biblical Plagues—are described in Exodus 7—12. The plagues were ten disasters sent upon Egypt by God to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves from the bondage and oppression they had endured in Egypt for 400 years. When God sent Moses to deliver the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt, He promised to show His wonders as confirmation of Moses’ authority (Exodus 3:20). This confirmation was to serve at least two purposes: to show the Israelites that the God of their fathers was alive and worthy of their worship and to show the Egyptians that their gods were nothing.
The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for about 400 years and in that time had lost faith in the God of their fathers. They believed He existed and worshiped Him, but they doubted that He could, or would, break the yoke of their bondage. The Egyptians, like many pagan cultures, worshiped a wide variety of nature-gods and attributed to their powers the natural phenomena they saw in the world around them. There was a god of the sun, of the river, of childbirth, of crops, etc. Events like the annual flooding of the Nile, which fertilized their croplands, were evidences of their gods’ powers and good will. When Moses approached Pharaoh, demanding that he let the people go, Pharaoh responded by saying, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Thus began the challenge to show whose God was more powerful.
The first plague, turning the Nile to blood, was a judgment against Apis, the god of the Nile, Isis, goddess of the Nile, and Khnum, guardian of the Nile. The Nile was also believed to be the bloodstream of Osiris, who was reborn each year when the river flooded. The river, which formed the basis of daily life and the national economy, was devastated, as millions of fish died in the river and the water was unusable. Pharaoh was told, “By this you will know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 7:17).
The second plague, bringing frogs from the Nile, was a judgment against Heqet, the frog-headed goddess of birth. Frogs were thought to be sacred and not to be killed. God had the frogs invade every part of the homes of the Egyptians, and when the frogs died, their stinking bodies were heaped up in offensive piles all through the land (Exodus 8:13–14).
The third plague, gnats, was a judgment on Set, the god of the desert. Unlike the previous plagues, the magicians were unable to duplicate this one and declared to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).
The fourth plague, flies, was a judgment on Uatchit, the fly god. In this plague, God clearly distinguished between the Israelites and the Egyptians, as no swarms of flies bothered the areas where the Israelites lived (Exodus 8:21–24).
The fifth plague, the death of livestock, was a judgment on the goddess Hathor and the god Apis, who were both depicted as cattle. As with the previous plague, God protected His people from the plague, while the cattle of the Egyptians died. God was steadily destroying the economy of Egypt, while showing His ability to protect and provide for those who obeyed Him. Pharaoh even sent investigators (Exodus 9:7) to find out if the Israelites were suffering along with the Egyptians, but the result was a hardening of his heart against the Israelites.
The sixth plague, boils, was a judgment against several gods over health and disease (Sekhmet, Sunu, and Isis). This time, the Bible says that the magicians “could not stand before Moses because of the boils.” Clearly, these religious leaders were powerless against the God of Israel.
Before God sent the last three plagues, Pharaoh was given a special message from God. These plagues would be more severe than the others, and they were designed to convince Pharaoh and all the people “that there is none like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). Pharaoh was even told that he was placed in his position by God, so that God could show His power and declare His name through all the earth (verse 16). As an example of His grace, God warned Pharaoh to gather whatever cattle and crops remained from the previous plagues and shelter them from the coming storm. Some of Pharaoh’s servants heeded the warning (verse 20), while others did not. The seventh plague, hail, attacked Nut, the sky goddess; Osiris, the crop fertility god; and Set, the storm god. This hail was unlike any that had been seen before. It was accompanied by a fire which ran along the ground, and everything left out in the open was devastated by the hail and fire. Again, the children of Israel were miraculously protected, and no hail damaged anything in their lands.
Before God brought the next plague, He told Moses that the Israelites would be able to tell their children of the things they had seen God do in Egypt and how it showed them God’s power. The eighth plague, locusts, again focused on Nut, Osiris, and Set. The later crops, wheat and rye, which had survived the hail, were now devoured by the swarms of locusts. There would be no harvest in Egypt that year.
The ninth plague, darkness, was aimed at the sun god, Re, who was symbolized by Pharaoh himself. For three days, the land of Egypt was smothered with an unearthly darkness, but the homes of the Israelites had light.
The tenth and last plague, the death of the firstborn males, was a judgment on Isis, the protector of children. In this plague, God was teaching the Israelites a deep spiritual lesson that pointed to Christ. Unlike the other plagues, which the Israelites survived by virtue of their identity as God’s people, this plague required an act of faith by them. God commanded each family to take an unblemished male lamb and kill it. The blood of the lamb was to be smeared on the top and sides of their doorways, and the lamb was to be roasted and eaten that night. Any family that did not follow God’s instructions would suffer in the last plague. God described how He would send the death angel through the land of Egypt, with orders to slay the firstborn male in every household, whether human or animal. The only protection was the blood of the lamb on the door. When the angel saw the blood, he would pass over that house and leave it untouched (Exodus 12:23). This is where the term Passover comes from. Passover is a memorial of that night in ancient Egypt when God delivered His people from bondage. First Corinthians 5:7 teaches that Jesus became our Passover when He died to deliver us from the bondage of sin. While the Israelites found God’s protection in their homes, every other home in the land of Egypt experienced God’s wrath as their loved ones died. This grievous event caused Pharaoh to finally release the Israelites.
By the time the Israelites left Egypt, they had a clear picture of God’s power, God’s protection, and God’s plan for them. For those who were willing to believe, they had convincing evidence that they served the true and living God. Sadly, many still failed to believe, which led to other trials and lessons by God. The result for the Egyptians and the other ancient people of the region was a dread of the God of Israel. Even after the tenth plague, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and sent his chariots after the Israelites. When God opened a way through the Red Sea for the Israelites, then drowned all of Pharaoh’s armies there, the power of Egypt was crushed, and the fear of God spread through the surrounding nations (Joshua 2:9–11). This was the very purpose that God had declared at the beginning. We can still look back on these events today to confirm our faith in, and our fear of, this true and living God, the Judge of all the earth.