The 10 Signs (Exodus 3-12)

I grew up calling them plagues.

Some of them are gross.

Water to blood?! The author tells us it stunk, not to mention you can’t drink it. And what about frogs hanging out in your house and in your bed at night? The flies! Millions of them climbing on your food and laying baby maggots everywhere. Gnats, dead animals and boils are all nasty.

Some of these plagues were devastating.  Crops and plants were ruined. Livestock, or to them the stock market, wiped out. And the death – the stench of death from the bloody waters, dead animals everywhere and finally the death of the firstborn.

If you are like me, you have always seen these plagues as judgment on evil Pharaoh and God’s way of forcing him to let His people go. This was an important part of what was going on, but I want to peel back the layers to see something deeper.

It goes back to Moses’ excuses when he was called to deliver God’s people from oppression and bondage. Moses says, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what should I tell them?” (3:13) Wait. What?! The Israelites want to know about this God? I thought they knew Him? Moses was asking for an identity. The name “God” is a generic title given to all the gods – including those in Egypt. It is a catagory, not a name or description of this God. Remember, Israel has been in the pagan land of the Egyptians for over 400 years. This was important and not just for them, but for us.

The answer seems almost like a riddle in our ears – “I AM WHO I AM.” (היה – 3:14) It is the name Yahweh (יהוה) in which most translators use LORD (all caps). I think this is unfortunate because we have been given the personal name of our creator. It can be paraphrased “I am who is with you.” Wow! Just sit with that a moment. What would that mean to a people who has been oppressed? What does that mean to us when we are going through difficult times. But, I thought this was about the 10 plagues?

We are getting there.

Moses continues, “What if they won’t believe me?” (4:1)

God gave Moses signs:

  • His staff turns into a snake (4:2-5)
  • His hand became diseased (4:6-7)
  • The Nile river will turn to blood (4:8-9)

Did you catch who these signs were for? Israel (4:5)! These were supposed to build their trust in the God who is with you. Yes, they were for Egypt as well, but maybe not for the reasons you have assumed or been taught through the years.

Exodus 7:5, “The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD [יהוה – Yahweh] when I stretch out My hand against Egypt, and bring out the Israelites from among them.” 

As we move through the plagues we discover that is exactly what is happening (8:19; 9:20, 27; 10:7), including Egyptian officials who were testifying before Pharaoh! But we also learn Israel is coming to know their God.

Exodus 10:1-2, “…do these miraculous signs of Mine among them, and so that you may tell your son and grandson how severely I dealt with the Egyptians and performed miraculous signs among them, and you will know that I am the LORD [יהוה].”(emphasis mine)

We refer to them as “plagues” but they were signs to demonstrate the God of Israel is the supreme being of the universe. Read the narratives, Yahweh was not out to destroy Egypt. Death and destruction is what we tend to think about with “plagues” (i.e., the black plague). Don’t forget Genesis 12:3. Israel is established to save and bless the nations, not destroy them one by one. This God had every right to wipe out Pharaoh and Egyptians. Besides worshiping pagan gods, they had forgotten how the LORD saved and blessed their country through Joseph and his family (Gen. 45). They had turned God’s people into slaves, aborted their male children and thrown their male babies into the Nile (1:8-22). Even after all of these human atrocities, Yahweh wants to save them, not annihilate them from the face of the earth. God wants them to know He is Yahweh – “I am who is with you.”

Sometime today read Isaiah 19:16-25 and don’t skip a single verse.

The Egyptians saw Pharaoh as the presence of god on earth. The 10 signs demonstrated this was not the case. Pharaoh and his best magicians were powerless before the God of Israel. This is the Creator who brought the world into existence and reigns. “Pharaoh was, in effect, taking credit for something in which he had no part, and the signs that Moses performed demonstrated that unmasking to both the Egyptians and the Israelites.” (Sailhamer).

The last “plague” is the harshest – the death of the firstborn. The firstborn of Pharaoh was seen as a second incarnate god. His death would have meant much more than a country losing a prince. Yahweh is greater than the most powerful nations of the earth. This was a battle between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt (12:12). And did you notice what happened when Israel makes their mass exodus from Egypt? Many non-Israelites went with them (12:38). These would have been those who had abandoned their pagan gods to follow Israel’s God.

Ironically, it is through this death plague we discover life, salvation and redemption from sin and death – the Passover (12:1-51). We will learn many more important Passover moments as we continue reading through the first testament. But it is especially important when we reach the Gospels of Jesus. At one point the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign.

The Messiah said you will be given your sign when the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (Matt. 12:38-42). He is referring to His death and resurrection. It marks the day of salvation – not just for Israel but for Egypt, America and all the nations of the earth. The Messiah became the Passover Lamb (Jn. 18:28; I Cor. 5:7-8; I Pet. 1:19-20). He became the firstborn to die for the world so they wouldn’t have to die. The Apostle Paul would later write to a bunch of former pagans:

I Corinthians 15:54-57, Death has been swallowed up/ in victory./ Death, where is your victory?/ Death, where is your sting?/ Now the sting of death is sin,/ and the power of sin is the law./ But thanks be to God, who gives us/ the victory/ through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Let us not turn the 10 signs or plagues into horrible judgements by an unloving, non-compassionate God who bullies other nations. Being a just God, He had to deliver His children who had been crying out from the oppression and death of the Egyptians. They carried the Seed that would ultimately give birth to the Messiah. Here is our sign!

*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible

*Blog resource: The Pentateuch As Narrative by John H. Sailhamer

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