It is often stated by atheists that the plagues of Egypt are evidence that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is evil, especially the 10th plague, the death of the firstborn males. Does this surface observation about this Old Testament story prove that God is a moral monster, or is there another meaning behind this story?
To fully understand the 10th plague, we must look at it in the context of the other nine. The central purpose of all 10 plagues was to prove to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt “that there is none like [God] in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14) and to show God’s omnipotence over the false gods of the Egyptians:
- Turning the Nile Water into blood, to show power over Hapi, god of the Nile (Exodus 7:14-25).
- The Plague of Frogs to show power over Heket, frog-headed goddess of childbirth (Exodus 7:25-8:11).
- The Plague of Gnats was for Geb, god of the Egyptian desert (Exodus 8:12-15).
- The Plagues of Flies for Khepri, Egyptian god who looked like an insect (Exodus 8:20-32).
- The Death of Livestock for Hathor, cow-headed goddess and Apis, the bull god (Exodus 9:1-7).
- The Plague of Boils for Sekhmet, a goddess who could supposedly control disease (Exodus 9:8-12).
- The Plague of Hail for Nut, the sky goddess (Exodus 9:13-35).
- The Plague of Locusts for Osiris, god of agriculture (Exodus 10:1-20).
- The Plague of Darkness for the sun god, Ra (Exodus 10:21-29).
- The Death of the firstborns was to show superiority over Min, god of reproduction, Isis, the protector of children, and Pharaoh, the god-man (Exodus 11:1-12:36).
As the Ten Commandments tell us in the very first commandment, we are to have no other gods besides the One True God. Granted, this was a direct commandment to Israel, however, as Paul points out in Romans 1 everything there is to be known about God is plainly seen through the Natural realm. So much so that Paul says there is no excuse for not knowing God exists and that He alone is worthy of glory. Thus, making it part of the Natural Law, something that everyone understands and realizes.
The plagues were also necessary because Pharaoh continued to ignore God and His sovereignty and would not let Israel go. If you read through the entire event of the ten plagues, it is clear these plagues could have been stopped at any time if Pharaoh would have only recognized God’s sovereignty and his right to His people. Instead, Pharaoh agreed to let the people go, and then immediately renege every time a plague was ended. God tried everything else first, human death was the last resort. God was NOT looking to kill all those people, but Pharaoh forced His hand.
(Side note: The slaying of the innocent lamb in the story of the Passover is also according to the direct command of God. It has always been the plan of God that the innocent die for the guilty. In the garden of Eden, God killed an animal to cover the sin of Adam and Eve. For the passover, the innocent lamb died in the place of the firstborn in the homes of the obedient ones, just as Jesus died in our place so that we could be saved. God continued this foreshadowing in the Law through the sacrificial system. When John the baptizer sees Jesus coming to him he refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” He is the lamb that was slain from the very foundation of the world. This has always been the plan.)
The nation of Egypt, quite frankly, deserved this judgement for a few reasons. As I mentioned, they disobeyed the fundamental Law of God by serving and worshipping other gods. They also deserved it because of their treatment of Israel, and more specifically by the drowning of the Israelite male children (Exodus 1:22). It affected all alike whether they had personally taken part in the cruelties against the Israelites or not. Much like all of us, as Americans, are affected by the judgement of God according to our National disobedience because of the injustice of abortion. Thou shalt not kill is not a suggestion, it is a command. And because America has “legalized” and justified the killing of innocent babies the consequences of those actions are put upon us all (i.e. the economic disaster, natural disasters, etc…). All of the plagues upon Egypt were national chastisement as a result of their disobedience to God. “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
Keep in mind, death will ultimately happen to everyone. It is no respecter of persons. In the broad context it is a judgement of sin. By definition, God’s sovereignty gives him the authority to deal with life and death however He pleases. In the specific context of the 10th plague it is no different. And no, that is not circular logic. It is straightforward logic. If God is omnipotent and omniscient it must stand to reason that He is sovereign and He can do whatever He sees fit. I’ll take it further, if God is not sovereign, He is not God. Again, that is not circular, it is fundamental and quite basic. Also, death is a direct result of sin. Even though we were not present in the Garden of Eden we still suffer the judgement as a result of that original sin. Same thing with Israel, when the nation of Israel was disobedient the faithful remnant was judged right along with those leading in the disobedience.
The real story here is that one must take God seriously; an omnipotent God cannot make empty threats, for that would make him appear to be weak. Pharaoh forced God to fulfill his threat against the firstborns. Had Pharaoh backed down and allowed the Israelites go, God would have called off the plague. We know this because God did this with Nineveh. Nineveh repented, and God called off His plan (Jonah 3:1-10). If Pharaoh had done the same thing, Egypt would have been spared.