by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor
Passover is the most widely celebrated of all Jewish festivals with the vast majority of Jewish people worldwide acknowledging the holiday in one way or another. This year, the festivities begin on Friday evening April 22 and end April 29. For the strictly observant, the routine activities of going to work or school and carrying out business of any kind are restricted, at least on the first two and last two days of the holiday. Others may choose to continue working but attend special synagogue services, eat ritual foods and include special prayers during the eight-day celebration, while the least observant may be content with a seder dinner (Passover ritual meal) at grandma’s house.
Regardless of how the holiday is celebrated, however, the story of Passover is an integral part of Jewish identity. God’s dramatic deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt as told in the Book of Exodus is a theological foundation for both Judaism and Christianity. It was God’s absolute power that made the Exodus possible, and His covenant love and faithfulness were the impetus for His actions. The recitation of the story each year not only acknowledges actual historical events, but is also an act of worship, a celebration of the unfathomable goodness of the Lord. It is, in fact, a love story, and one worthy of retelling.
But the actual narrative, including the parting of the sea, the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies, and the giving of Torah (Gen.–Deut.), reads more like the script for an adventure movie! As a matter of fact, it has been exactly that nearly a dozen times as the incredible story has caught the imaginations of film-makers around the world. Although script writers seldom adhered to the story as God tells it in the Scriptures, some were able to capture the enormity of the event and even its impact on frightened Hebrew slaves tasting freedom for the first time in 400 years. Few, if any, attempted to view these amazing and terrifying events through the eyes of the ordinary Egyptian. The Passover Seder itself encourages participants to pause for just a moment and remember the Egyptians, making sure not to rejoice over the tragedy that has befallen one’s enemies. And what befell the Egyptians was tragedy indeed…
Egyptian Society at the Time of the Exodus
Egyptian society was sophisticated with a complex civil structure and a system of classes that governed life. For the upper classes made up of leaders, the wealthy and a large priesthood, life was good. Archaeology has revealed that they were well-fed, mostly healthy and had a life expectancy of 60 to 80 years. For the working class and the poor, however, life was not so easy. Here, life expectancy was from the mid 20s to mid 30s with an infant mortality rate of an alarming 30%. These were people who worked very hard, and often for little reward. Their lives were difficult and filled with uncertainty. Because of that uncertainty, they were a very superstitious people. They had little control over their own destinies and therefore relied on a complex system of major and minor gods whose favor could be won through sacrifice or purchased from priests.
The vast majority of these working class Egyptians were engaged in agriculture and lived along the Nile River within a strip of land that was enriched every year when the river overflowed its banks and deposited a fresh layer of soil. As the events of our story begin taking place, many Egyptians who lived in outlying areas had no idea what was happening. They were unaware that Moses and Pharaoh were locked in a battle to the death, or that a conflict of the gods had begun.
Conflict of the Gods
The Egyptian pantheon was a complicated one with as many as 2,000 recognized “gods” who were considered to have varying degrees of power. Animal worship was central to this religious system, although technically the animals were not worshipped as gods, but rather as visible representations of unseen deities. Cats and dogs, apes and goats, crocodiles and cows…even the hippopotamus was venerated. Falcons, vultures, mice, the ibis and certain insects all found their way into this company of false gods who were believed to control every aspect of Egyptian life.
Of those 2,000, there were ten who were worshipped as major deities. And it was those ten false gods who were systematically confronted and defeated by the God of the Universe through ten carefully chosen and executed plagues. Repeatedly, Moses spoke on behalf of God Himself, warning Pharaoh of the devastation that was coming through each plague. As chief of all Egyptian deities, Pharaoh had to have recognized that through each of these events, another “god” was discredited. The message couldn’t have been clearer as we find it in Exodus 12:12—“For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.”
Moses grew up in the court of Pharaoh, surrounded by the worship of these false deities. Though he may not have participated in that worship, he would have been intimately familiar with the pantheon. Therefore, he too would have watched in wonder as God Almighty brought Egypt with its pagan religious system to its knees. It is interesting that God’s first miracle as He called Moses to redeem the Israelites was to create a snake from Moses’ staff and then destroy it. The goddess Wadjet, also known as the snake goddess, was known during the Middle Kingdom in Egyptian history as the deity who guarded the king. Through her, Pharaoh’s very life force was nourished. It fell to her to make sure he was protected and received everything he needed to carry out his role as king and god. God’s message to Moses would have been clear: there is only one God; Pharaoh and cohorts would be no match for Him.
Ten Strategically Chosen Plagues Destroy the gods of Egypt:
blood throughout all the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:21).
(4-5) The false god Khepfi obviously had no power over the insects he was supposed to control as swarms of flies covered the land. Apis, the god who protected cattle, which were considered sacred, was unable to save them as they died by the thousands across Egypt (Exod. 8:21–24, 9:3–6).
(6-8) The goddess Sekhmet was proven worthless in the fight against disease as boils covered the Egyptians. Hail pelted the land, destroying men, animals and crops, proving Nut, the goddess who controlled the weather, to be a false deity. Seth, the god of crops, was silent as locusts covered Egypt, destroying what was left of its vegetation (Exod. 9:9–11, 23–25, 10:12–15).
Certainly by now, the Egyptian people were gripped by terror. Their nation was being ravaged, crops destroyed, livestock killed and their gods were either indifferent to their plight or powerless to prevent it.
(9) With the ninth plague, the second most powerful god, Ra the Sun god, who was thought to be indestructible was proven to be a false deity as a darkness so intense it could be felt engulfed the land for three long and horrifying days (Exod. 10:21–23).
(10) Finally, Pharaoh himself, worshipped as the god of gods, faced his own mortality through the death of his son. The first-born was expected to carry on the godhood of his father, stepping into the role of supreme god when his father moved into the “second life.” Through his death, this belief was revealed as a sham. Pharaoh, whose heart had been repeatedly hardened as he witnessed the destruction of god after god in his pantheon, still refused to bow his knee to the true God. Refusing to relinquish his own “godhood” by surrendering to the God of the Hebrews, he made one last attempt to prove his superiority by mustering his armies to capture the fleeing slaves. The death of Pharaoh himself would have been a strong indictment of the falsity of the Egyptian religious system, but it can’t be proved definitively that he died with his armies in the Red Sea. Scripture is clear, however, that the 10th plague took the life of his son, and it was through that death that final destruction befell the Egyptian religious system (Exod. 12:29–30).
The Battle Rages On
Is it any wonder that a multitude from among the Egyptians fled with the Israelites when at last they were able to leave Egypt? They had seen the ultimate power of Moses’ God over all of creation. And they had personally witnessed His remarkable faithfulness to His people. As they watched the destruction of all that they had believed in, they longed to cleave to this new God whose demonstration of strength and love had changed their lives forever.
The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a day when God will again demonstrate His power through His people, revealing His covenant love and faithfulness to the nations. Today, we are witnessing the fulfillment of those promises. Today, just as in the days of Moses and Pharaoh, a battle rages between the God of the Universe and the gods of this age. And today, as then, Israel is at the center of the conflict. God was victorious then, and we can rest assured, He will be again.
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