Now, let’s look at the manner in which God is said to have brought the Hebrews out from slavery in Egypt.1 YHWH told a man called Moses to go to Pharaoh, and ask permission for the Hebrews to make a three day journey into the wilderness, to make a sacrifice to YHWH. He gave Moses the ability to perform a miracle in front of Pharaoh, but since Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate it, Pharaoh turned down the request.
And so, God inflicted a series of plagues upon Egypt, starting with the Nile river turning into blood, and ending with the death of all the Egyptian firstborn. After each plague, Pharaoh could have granted Moses’ request, and spared the people and land of Egypt from devastation, but his heart grew increasingly stubborn.
The account says that YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and it was probably the plagues themselves that made Pharaoh more stubborn.2 To the Egyptians, Pharaoh was a living god, and so the plagues were a challenge to his divinity, as well as to the gods of Egypt. Furthermore, the Hebrew slaves were no doubt of great economic value to Egypt, so Pharaoh wasn’t willing to risk losing them.
As a result, it took ten plagues before Pharaoh finally relented, and probably only because it cost him the life of his own firstborn and heir. If nothing else, this is an interesting lesson in human stubbornness. More evidence doesn’t always lead to increased acceptance of a truth. If vested interests or powerful emotions are at stake, or if our minds are already made up on a certain point, it can result in increased resistance to a truth. In other words, even extraordinary evidence doesn’t automatically mean acceptance of that evidence.
Despite having the power to remove the Hebrews from Egypt at any time, YHWH told Moses to ask for permission from Pharaoh, and gave Pharaoh multiple opportunities to change his mind. Even when Pharaoh finally allowed the Hebrews to go, he changed his mind again shortly after, and began to chase after them!
Now, was all of this drama necessary? Couldn’t God have removed the Hebrews without harming Egypt? Of course, but I would suggest this was a time when it was necessary for YHWH to wear his “God” hat, and to demonstrate his actual power and authority as a living God.
First of all, the God of the Hebrews would have been known as a God of the bold promises made to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but what are promises if they can’t be fulfilled? They are just words. The Hebrews had become slaves in Egypt, and Pharaoh wasn’t willing to let them go even for a three day break. Thus, a display of force was all that Pharaoh would have respected.
Second, God explained to Pharaoh the reason for the plagues: “For this reason I have raised you up – in order to show you my power, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth.” 3
While God’s name is certainly quite well known by now, I think the idea of the name has a deeper meaning than a word such as YHWH, Jehovah, Yahweh, or however we choose to represent the divine name in our own language.
In English we have the expression, “making a name for ourselves.” We already have a name we are usually born with; but when we make a name for ourselves, we build a reputation. Our name takes on deeper meanings and associations for the people who know it. I think this is really what God was talking about here. Before, the forefathers of Israel probably had titles for God, but those titles perhaps didn’t fully reflect what he would become. This is why God chose the Hebrew letters I have represented in this letter as YHWH, and that others choose to represent as Jehovah or Yahweh. However, the name only has real meaning when we also consider the larger reputation and history, to see how YHWH has “made a name for himself.”
For example, I will briefly comment here on the other god who tried to rescue the Hebrews. His name was Bob. Bob chose an entirely peaceful route, but Pharaoh simply ignored him. For some strange reason, skeptics and atheists don’t seem to remotely care about the existence of Bob.
The point is, if YHWH had simply used peaceful methods, the Hebrews might never have left Egypt, and atheists would have never heard about YHWH in the first place, just as they have not heard about Bob, the god who couldn’t get the Hebrews out of the front door.
The third reason for all the drama is that the plagues would have had a lasting impact on Egypt and also on the Hebrews. God even commanded the Hebrews to commemorate the event in the Passover, celebrated by Jews throughout the ages, which is a line of evidence to suggest the exodus from Egypt really happened.
Fourth, by plaguing the land and people of Egypt, this would have provided extra incentive for Pharaoh to relent. If YHWH had dealt only with Pharaoh and his household, the plagues could have been covered up or explained away. Instead, they were such a convincing demonstration of YHWH’s power, even a great crowd of Egyptians left alongside the Hebrews.
Fifth, these events would have become known throughout the whole region, along with the promises originally made by YHWH to the forefathers of Israel concerning the Promised Land. YHWH’s action against Egypt put the region on notice. In a time when people were much more nomadic, and obstacles to entering another land didn’t exist in the way they do today, it would be much easier for people to simply move.
Now, I have highlighted the ten plagues, because it is an example of one of the ways God uses his power – to defend his people. However, it was used in a limited way that gave Pharaoh ample opportunity to avoid the more devastating plagues. This was an example of where it was necessary for YHWH to wear his “God” hat, and use limited force.
1 The account is found in Exodus chapters 3 to 14. 2 Exodus 7:3. 3 Exodus 9:16.
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