Exodus, the Plagues, and the Cosmic Battle
In my last post, we looked at the “cosmic battle” motif in the Old Testament. This is where Yahweh is involved in some epic struggle at creation with “sea” (or the waters or the sea monsters Rahab or Leviathan). That battle is seen clearly in several Psalms and in Job. It is also reflected in other portions of the Old Testament, like Ezekiel and Genesis 1.
I also mentioned that both Psalm 74 and 77 (to give two examples) use cosmic battle language to describe the exodus. That brings us to today’s post. The Israelites thought of the exodus from Egypt as another cosmic battle—sort of a reenactment. The “back then” creation battle is taking place here and now—against Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.
I don’t want us to get lost in the details, and I don’t want anyone to think that discussing the exodus is off-topic for BioLogos. So let me take a step back and explain why it is important.
At BioLogos we are trying to encourage fruitful conversations between faith and science, and especially those between Christianity and evolution. It is obviously important to spend a lot of time discussing the scientific data. But it is also important to deal with the biblical data.
Because our expectations about the Bible affect how we handle the scientific data. Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism are very different movements, but they share a root theological problem. They expect from the Bible things that the Bible does not deliver, namely something like “scientific” information.
That is why we are spending some time looking what the Bible delivers about creation. We need to hear what the Bible really has to say. Then we can adjust our expectations in light of the biblical evidence.
I have chosen the “cosmic battle” motif in the Bible simply as a way of getting at this larger issue of the biblical view of creation. It is only one angle, not the only angle. In the weeks and months to come we will explore different angles. But for now, we will continue to focus on the cosmic battle in the Old Testament and today we will begin to look at the book of Exodus.
Got it? Good.
The exodus was the formative experience for ancient Israelites—it is what made them a nation. Creation language permeates the exodus story. This is because the biblical writer understood the exodus as another “act of creation,” which even included a “cosmic battle.”
We see the creation theme already in Exodus 1:6. The Israelites arrived in Egypt and were “fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (1:7). That is creation language (Genesis 1:28). We also see God’s people “increasing and multiplying” throughout Genesis (e.g., 8:17; 17:2; 26:4; 28:14). Multiplying is God’s command at creation, and it is what God’s people do—even in Egypt.
This is how the book of Exodus starts and this is why Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites. He wasn’t grumpy or anti-Semitic. He was afraid. He enslaved the Israelites because there were too many of them (Exodus 1:9).
The very beginning of the book lays out for us the conflict of the entire book. Yahweh says “multiply,” and Pharaoh says “no.” And it will help to understand that in Egyptian religion, Pharaoh was an earthly representative of the Egyptian high god—god incarnate, so to speak.
The conflict in Exodus is a divine struggle, between Yahweh and Pharaoh. And the question is: which “god” do the Israelites belong to, Pharaoh or Yahweh? This is why Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. They are there to claim ownership of the Israelites for Yahweh: “Let my people go so that they might worship me in the desert” (7:16) But Pharaoh did not want to let them go. They were his slave force. They were there to serve him.
In Hebrew, the word for worship and serve is the same: `avad. This is another way of describing the conflict in Exodus: whom will Israel `avad? Will they `avad Pharaoh by being enslaved to him or will they `avad Yahweh by worshipping him on Mt. Sinai? By trying to reduce the number of Israelites and then refusing to let them go, Pharaoh is putting himself in direct conflict with Israel’s God.
This is where the plagues come in. They are not a random hissy fit. Rather, they are a sustained attack on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. It is Yahweh saying to Pharaoh, “Fine. If you want to set yourself up as my enemy, let’s do battle. I’ll take you on and all of your gods, too.” And he takes his time about it, over ten plagues and destruction of the Egyptian army in the sea. The plagues are a drawn out “cosmic battle.” This is what indicated in Exodus 12:12. Yahweh is about to kill the firstborn of Egypt in the tenth plague. In doing so, Yahweh says “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” The tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, is a battle scene.
This “battle of the gods” characterizes the entire plague narrative. It begins already in the first plague. The Nile was the source of Egypt’s life and was also divinized by the Egyptians. Turning it to blood is not just yucky and inconvenient. It is the first defeat of the Egyptian pantheon. Another example is the plague of frogs. Frogs come out of the Nile and multiply like rabbits. Why frogs? The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted with the head of a frog. Yahweh controls this goddess and turns her against the Egyptians. The goddess is a puppet on a string. Another example is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. This is a direct affront to the sun god Ra, the high god, and the father of Pharaoh. Yahweh can make it dark and light as he pleases. Ra is another plaything for Yahweh, the true God.
The plagues are not just a random series of weird cosmic and ecological disturbances. They show Israel’s God, the God of slaves, marching into the home turf of the superpower of the day, and, basically, beating up their gods.
This may sound silly to us, but this is how the Israelites understood the supremacy of their God in an ancient polytheistic world. As Psalm 95 puts it “Yahweh is the great God, the great king above all gods” (v. 3). This supremacy is one reason why the Israelites declared Yahweh as worthy of worship. He redeemed them from Egypt by putting Pharaoh and the gods in their place. And this was to be a reminder to them not to follow the Canaanite gods once settled in the land.
The exodus from Egypt is the cosmic battle revisited. If we miss this cosmic battle we will have an impoverished understanding of the theology of Exodus. The biblical depiction of creation is not remotely about contemporary scientific issue. It cannot be “harmonized” with modern cosmology or biology because is telling a different story. The plagues are a window onto a rich, truly biblical theology of creation. We will look at other aspects of this theology in Exodus in my next post.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.