This week, we are going to look at the battle by which the Jews were freed from their slavery in Egypt. But I want to begin by saying that there is an enormous gulf between the way a secular historian would look at this and the way the Bible does. Secular historians might look at in a variety of ways, of course. Some would be inclined to see history as the acts of great men, and would say, “Well, this is a case of a marvelous leader, a man of great charismatic ability and faith and integrity and vision. And it was through the force of his personality that the people were brought out.” Somebody who is more inclined to think in terms of mass movements of people through the consolidation of the will of a vast number would say, “Well this is a people movement. Here were a vast number who, in this ancient culture, began to get a taste of what freedom was all about. They wouldn’t rest until they really obtained it.”
That’s very different from what the Bible says. The Bible does not give credit to Moses, although he was a great leader. And it certainly doesn’t speak of a people movement, because the people had lost any ability to dream of freedom. They were beaten down and crushed. But the Bible speaks of it instead as a battle between God, the true God, and the various gods of Egypt.
There are a number of verses that tell us this. Exodus 18:11 contains Jethro’s words to Moses. Jethro, who was his father-in-law, said, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” Jethro understood it as a struggle against the gods. You find the same thing in Isaiah 19:1, “See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him…”
I suppose the greatest text of all is Numbers 33:3-4, which Moses also wrote: “The Israelites set out from Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out boldly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.” Now that text is a very clear statement that the struggle was between God and the gods of Egypt. And because the polytheism of Egypt was backed by the demonic forces that are in line with Satan, this really was a battle of God against the demons, and Satan who was their leader. It was a battle that was fought with great intensity. But in the end the people were set free, and the idols and gods of Egypt were revealed to be absolutely nothing. Jehovah, the God of Israel, was declared to be clearly the one and only God.
We will understand this better if we understand a little bit about Egyptian religion. The point to start with is to recognize that it was a degenerate religion. There’s been a great tendency among anthropologists who study religions to see a religious evolution of the race, generally expressed along these lines. The first tribes in their ignorance were animists. What that means is that they saw gods in every object around them. There was a god of the tree and the god of the stream, and the god of the sky, the god of the rain, and so forth. This animism then developed into what’s called polytheism. This is still at times animistic, but it goes beyond that because sometimes polytheistic gods transcend the mere objects. As this religious evolution continues, polytheism then rises to become monotheism, where one great god stands over all the other gods, or where you have one god alone. This then becomes a kind of ethical humanism, which is probably the kind of religion that most of the scholars have when they trace this upward path, thinking of themselves as being at the top.
Now that’s not the picture the Bible gives. The Bible says that polytheism was actually a declension from an original monotheism. And it’s kind of interesting that a number of scholars today are beginning to say this very thing. There’s a great anthropologist from Germany, Wilhelm Schmidt, who said that all the evidence really points to the belief in one god from whom and from which these early tribes have departed. In other words, people worshiped the gods of nature because the gods of nature were closer to them. They came to fear those gods, and ceased fearing the God who stands behind nature.
However, if you look at Romans 1, you’ll find that the history of the race is that God has revealed Himself clearly in nature so that anyone can know Him. But because we don’t like the God who is there to be seen in nature, we turn our faces from Him. And instead of that God, other things rise up to take the true God’s place. What Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans, although he is not talking about Egypt exactly, certainly describes this ancient Egyptian polytheism. He writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:20-23).
That certainly describes the religion of Egypt. As a matter of fact, the polytheism of Egypt was so deeply entrenched in the common lore and belief of the people that the only attempt in all the long history of Egypt to break away from polytheism and establish monotheism was done by Amenhotep IV, who became known as Akhenaten, during the eighteenth dynasty. That was repudiated immediately after his death, so much so that they even obliterated his name from the monuments that had been carved during his particular reign.