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Exodus, the Plagues, and the Cosmic Battle

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February 9, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Exodus, the Plagues, and the Cosmic Battle

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Craig Robinson - #4298

February 11th 2010

Dr Enns, I did the analysis last year. I forget exactly what I looked at, but I believe it was just nouns, verbs and adjectives. Obviously the prepositions, suffixes, prefixes, etc. would be in both narratives almost by definition.

In terms of the second part, I hope to write a paper eventually. It takes a lot more to flush out the idea. But I would say that your point actually supports my point imo. The fact that other gods are mentioned frequently throughout the OT but not here seems very intentional by the writer. He doesn’t want them to be mentioned. So when scholars start naming Egyptian gods in their interpretation of the passage, I immediately think that they are bringing in their own views and not trying to discover the viewpoint of the writer who left out the names on purpose. The commentators and writer don’t seem to be on the same page.

Pete Enns - #4299

February 11th 2010

Well, maybe we should wait for the fuller version of your thoughts, Craig. But, just so we are clear, the absence of naming the gods does not mean the writer is trying to say that they do not exist, especially since he says they do in 12:12. There i another reason not to name them, analogous, as i said, to not naming the Pharaoh and not naming the divine council in Gen 1:26. Other gods exist but it is a one-man show.

Craig Robinson - #4300

February 11th 2010

Just to clarify. Yes, Egypt had a plethora of gods. But they are not real gods. I believe the author is not trying to show that YHWH is superior to the gods of Egypt, but rather that YHWH is the only God, and that he is THE God in Egypt who gives them the good gifts of creation - “in order that they may know that I, the Lord, am in the midst of the land” (Ex 8:22b).

So in a sense, we agree that it is a one-man or rightly one-God show. So then why do commentators bring in the names of all these other gods? The writer didn’t.

I am not sure what you mean by not naming Pharaoh since he appears throughout. Do you mean not giving his actually personal name? If that is what you mean, then obviously you are correct in that sense. But I am not sure it is analogous since “gods” is very general and only mentioned once, while Pharaoh can only refer to one specific person and he is mentioned throughout and is a distinct identifiable individual within the narrative.

Pete Enns - #4302

February 11th 2010

But Craig, surely the Israelite thought they were real gods.

Jordan - #4305

February 11th 2010


For me being basically your average Joe Christian, I thought it was very valuable to have commentary on why the specific plagues might have been chosen. I’ve heard people (Christians and non-Christians) ask things like “why was God so random with the plagues? they don’t make any sense”. Even if you are right (seems plausible to me) and the names of the Egyptian gods were intentionally left out in order to magnify the idea that there is only one true God, the Egyptians and Israelites would have obviously known what was going on whereas we don’t have the benefit of living in that culture today.

Craig Robinson - #4307

February 11th 2010

Dr Enns, the generation that was there may have believed they were real gods, but I don’t know if the future generations who actually heard or read the Law thought they were or even cared. Nonetheless, I am not sure it matters. In my way of thinking that would even highlight all the more the missing names. If the writer wanted to name them he could have. He didn’t. Therefore, I don’t think we should either. Also, as I mentioned elsewhere, I am a Sailhamer student and follow his thinking fairly closely, so we are probably at an impasse. I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion though, and appreciate you taking the time to interact.

Jordan, I definitely don’t think the plagues are random. There is a lot of structure to the text that isn’t obvious at first sight. On one level, most commentators will point out that within the first nine plagues, there is a 3 x 3 pattern. Three cycles of three plagues which parallel each other. I believe there are also other layers of structure in the text.

Brandon - #4963

February 20th 2010

There is a documentary called Exodus Decoded that explains the natural ways in which the plauges could of happened.

Daniel Rosenthal - #27800

September 2nd 2010

One of the biggest problems with “Intellegent Design” is that there is no consistant
ID model—every ID advocate has a different idea of what ID means. Some are young
earth creationists, some are old earth creationists, and some believe in a form of theistic
evolution in which the Designer is constantly tweeking the evolutionary process to produce
a certain desired result (e.g. Michael Behe).  The latter might be called “Evolutionary
Creationism”.  How can we teach something which includes such a wide specrum of belief?
At least Young Earth Creationism is consistant in what it teaches—even if what it teaches has
been totally discredited.

Cole Hammond - #43681

December 14th 2010

The best book on the Exodus was recently authored by Dr. Joel Klenck and is entitled, “The Exodus from Egypt: Archaeological Data and Expectations. Here he lists all the depositional factors that would affect the archaeological evidence and quotes Egyptian archaeologists who state that the ancient Egyptian royal court would avoid any mention the Exodus and would try their best to conceal the event.

Ten archaeological phenomena could not be concealed, which would indicate the approximate time of the disaster.

Klenck presents a well argued case, using multiple lines of archaeological, chronological, philological, and bioanthropological evidence that the Exodus occurred between 1440 to 1491 B.C. most likely during the reign of Thutmose II.

Included in his book are some very sickening photos of pustules (boils) covering the back of the pharaoh and an inscription by the subsequent pharaoh, Hatshepsut, saying she had to clean up Egypt after the wanderers had destroyed it—while the latter did not listen to Re and Re did not defend Egypt because the deity was under divine authority.  These factors are in addition to many other lines of evidence.

A very compelling book.

Jon Garvey - #43704

December 14th 2010

This is an old thread, but raises interesting points. Drawing attention to the trouncing of the Egyptian pantheon is a valuable exercise that helps explain the text. I’m less sure that the Exodus writer would have seen this as part of the “new creation” theme that certainly underpins the story: there’s a difference between defeating chaos in the form of Rahab to bring order and shaming an entire structured pantheon and then leaving it to its devices.

Then again, the text is silent on the “actual” existence of the gods, so I’m not sure how important it is to ask if the Israelites believed in other gods. Many missionary stories tell of the triumph of Christian prayer over, say, pagan curses, leading to conversions - which does not imply the missionaries believed the gods possessed real divinity.

It’s been pointed out that the Egyptian gods are not named. Whatever else it means, the writer could assume his readers would be familiar with Egyptian religion. That would seem to imply an early post-Exodus source, since in monarchy times the Canaanite gods were familiar, and in Exilic times the Babylonian - but why would later Jews be any more aware of Egyptian theology than the average churchgoer is of Hunduism? (...)

Jon Garvey - #43705

December 14th 2010

(...) or Hinduism, for that matter!

Jon Garvey - #43707

December 14th 2010

Conversely, we’d mostly accept that the final form of the Pentateuch is relatively late - surely after the time when Jeremiah (or the Deuteronomist if we’re keen to play second guesses on authorship) and other prophets were clearly teaching the non-existence of false gods. And The Torah as we have it starts with an affirmation of Yahweh as the God whose temple, and domain, is the whole world.

So the final compliler of the book we actually have seems likely to have been fundamentally (and probably militantly) monotheistic, rather than henotheistic. Yet throughout Exodus, notably in the account of the plagues, he makes no attempt to clarify the ambiguity about the gods’ actual existence. One suspects he saw that the point of the story is the defeat of the gods the Egyptians believed in, rather than the defeat of gods that actually existed and ruled there.

If he saw it that way, it seems unreasonable to insist on the evidence of the exodus story that earlier Israelites must have viewed things differently.

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