Why Ten Plagues? (Exodus 7-12).
Why ten plagues? Why not just one or two? The story in Exodus is fascinating and exciting but sometimes it seems a bit long-winded, a bit drawn out. Surely God could have settled the matter more quickly? Wham bam. No faff, no fuss. Job done.
Of course He could have. Check out what God says to Pharaoh part-way through:
“For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But…” (Exodus 9:15)
…but He didn’t. God chose to do it this way. The ten plagues weren’t a surprise, Pharaoh didn’t force God’s hand and push Him further than He wanted to go. No, God knew it would be ten from the start. He planned to do ten all along.
One super-massive plague straight off that annihilated the entire Egyptian nation would have been unnecessary, excessive and unjust. There would have been no chance for repentance, no evidence that Pharaoh had an opportunity to back down and obey but didn’t. After ten plagues Pharaoh had no excuse. The end result was his choice and his responsibility. Ten plagues meant nine chances to repent and listen to God. God gave Pharaoh every chance. God is patient and slow to anger (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15), but when the punishment does come it is always deserved and just.
Ten plagues removed any suspicion of coincidence, they left people in no doubt that God was at work. One huge plague might have been a natural disaster. Two of three could have been explained away as freak chances of nature. A few plagues might have been dismissed, especially as Pharaoh’s magicians were able to replicate the first few. Ten removed any shadow of doubt. That’s not chance, that’s not caused by nature or humanity; that’s the living God at work, and He means business. He not only announced each plague in advance, they also ended exactly when He said they would (8:10), and they were surgically targeted so that they affected only the Egyptians and not the Israelites (8:22-23, 9:6-7). Only God could do that.
God intended His wonders to be ‘multiplied’ (11:9). He wasn’t just venting spleen or lashing out, He was making a statement. This was controlled and purposeful anger, a display of who He was to an unbelieving world. He was demonstrating His power in a way that couldn’t be denied or ignored. With each plague He gradually raised the stakes, inflicting cumulative damage but also inducing a cumulative psychological effect. No one who lived through this ever forgot it, it left an indelible mark. It was meant to.
The ten plagues of Egypt and the Exodus was the dramatic start of Israel’s story. This is when they started out as a nation, it was the defining experience that set them up for their national identity and destiny. There was no damp squib, no quiet sneaking out, but an amazing event of spectacular power, full of signs and wonders, which was unmistakable and unforgettable. God wanted His people to remember this, so they’d know who He was and what He could do (10:1-2). It was to be something they pass on to their children as a lasting lesson (12:26-27). For hundreds and thousands of years afterwards the Israelites looked back on these events as the ultimate expression of God’s power and love for them. Whenever they needed encouragement or a reminder that God would take care of them, whenever they were facing crisis or needing help they looked back on these events (e.g. Psalm 78, Psalm 105-6, Psalm 114, Psalm 135-6). It was seared into their national psyche in a way that a few small plagues wouldn’t have.
The ten plagues served another purpose too. They weren’t random or without significance, each one was a targeted statement. Egypt was full of false gods that had been set up in competition with God and they took many forms. With each plague God showed that another Egyptian god was fake, hollow and powerless. As Christ ‘disarmed the powers and authorities’, as ‘He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’ (Colossians 2:15), so God here was publicly shaming and defeating every idol and false god.
The River Nile was considered divine (the god Hapi), a bringer of life to the land. God showed that it was just a river when he turned it into blood (7:14-24). He wasn’t just showing off, He was making a point. I AM the giver of life, not the Nile.
Heket was an Egyptian god of fertility believed to help protect women during childbirth. She took the form of a frog. So guess what? There was a plague of frogs to show that frogs were at God’s command, an ordinary thing become a nuisance rather than something to be worshipped (8:1-15).
The plague on livestock (9:1-7) took down Apis the bull-god associated with food and provision and the cow-goddess Hathor who occupied an important place in the Egyptian pantheon. They were both shown to be powerless and unable to protect the Egyptians’ cattle and animals. The plague of hail (9:13-35) made a mockery of Baal the storm-god’s claims to be ruler of the skies; neither could the gods of crops protect Egypt’s food supply from God’s wrath.
Probably the most important Egyptian god of all was Ra, god of the sun. Where was he when the sun was covered and the plague of darkness fell (10:21-29)? He was put in his place by the real God. Three days of darkness couldn’t be mistaken as anything other than supernatural. That’s too long for an eclipse. Note how these three days of darkness preceding the redemption of God’s people foreshadows the three days of darkness before Jesus’ resurrection when God’s people were redeemed in an even greater way.
Each plague was a mortal blow to Egypt’s pagan pride. Most of all to Pharaoh himself, who like all Egyptian rulers of the time had pretensions to divinity drilled into him from birth. He was powerless before God, proven to be human and fallible beyond all contestation. His mortality and that of his dynasty was brought home to him in tragic fashion when his firstborn son died (12:29). Only God is immortal.
These are just some reasons why there were ten plagues – maybe you can think of others? These plagues were not random, coincidental, unplanned or unnecessary. They were specific, planned, targeted, tightly controlled and inescapable evidence of God’s power. They were a statement like no other that echoed down the centuries. They reveal something of the nature of God, His just judgement, His awesome power, His proportional restraint, His patience and above all His love and His determination to save His people no matter who or what stood in the way.
To take away:
Do you find yourself explaining away or rationalising events when you should be perceiving the hand of God at work? Let’s pray for discernment to know what’s from God and what’s not.