The Egyptian religion was not only polytheistic, but also demonic. You see, the Bible says that behind the polytheistic gods stand demons, former angels who went on to rebel against God and who fell with Satan. You certainly see this in primitive areas of the world. Missionaries who are operating on the front lines of the advance of the gospel against paganism often describe the oppressive spirit that is present in some of the heathen temples where they clearly identify demonic powers. When the apostle Paul was writing to the Ephesians he talked about this very thing, saying that our struggles are not against earthly powers, but against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). Even today, although we don’t always identify the forces that we struggle against as demonic, nevertheless, these demonic forces are active in our world.
Moses and his brother Aaron had come to Pharaoh before, and they had failed—at least, they seemed to have failed when Pharaoh not only refused to let the people go, but he even imposed these great burdens upon them. The Israelites were employed in the task of making mud bricks, and in the past they had been given straw for the bricks which made them cohere. Now, however, Pharaoh decided he was no longer going to give them the straw, but made the Israelites gather it themselves, while still requiring them to produce the same quantity of bricks as before. So life became even harder for the people, and certainly they turned against Moses.
Now God said to Moses and his brother that they were to go back and demand again that Pharaoh let the people go. This time they gave Pharaoh a sign. We’re told in Exodus 7 that they did the same sign that God had given to Moses when he was on Horeb on the other side of the Arabian Desert. When they appeared before Pharaoh, Moses had a staff in his hand, a shepherd’s crook, and he was to throw that on the ground. But when he did this and it became a snake, Pharaoh wasn’t very impressed. He probably had seen tricks like that done by his magicians. So he called over his magicians and they did the same thing, but with one very important difference: the snake that had come from the staff of Moses ate up the other snakes. You think that would give anybody pause! But it didn’t give Pharaoh much pause, and he still refused to let the people go. Exodus 7:13 says something that’s going to be repeated again and again in this struggle. It says, “Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” Now at this point the plagues begin.
There are about 80 major gods and goddesses in Egypt, a lot of minor ones clustered around the others. But these 80 major ones are themselves clustered around the three main forces in Egyptian life. The first was the Nile. The ancient historian Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile,” and it’s true. If it weren’t for the Nile there would be no land of Egypt. It would just be desert, which is what you have on either side stretching out across North Africa on one side and across the Gulf of Suez to the Arabian Desert on the other.
The second was the land. The land is very fertile, and the reason for that is that the Nile used to overflow its banks every year, resulting in the depositing of all the wonderful soil that’s carried down from central Africa. This made Egypt among the most fertile lands of the ancient world.
The third great force in Egypt was the sun, which, of course, combined with the land and the water to produce marvelous crops. Now these plagues that came are directed against those three forces because the gods and goddesses of Egypt were grouped around them. The first two plagues were against the Nile, and therefore against the gods and goddesses of the Nile and everything associated with the Nile. There were four plagues directed against the gods and goddesses of the land. And, finally, there were also four plagues directed against the sky and everything associated with the sky. Even the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, is against the sky because Pharaoh was considered the earthly incarnation of the sun god Ra, the most powerful force in the sky. And the firstborn of Pharaoh, who died in that plague, was the next incarnation of Ra.
Now the first one is against the Nile. God sent Moses and Aaron to meet Pharaoh as he was down at the Nile, probably engaged in an act of Nile worship. They confronted him, and with Aaron raising his staff in the presence of Pharaoh, he struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed to blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt. Egypt is strung out along the banks of the Nile for hundreds of miles, and the habitable area is only 10 or 15 miles wide, except in places where it is wider, such as the Nile Delta. The very life of Egypt depends on the Nile. Now suddenly the Nile that was the source of life for this ancient land becomes a source of death. Everything in the Nile begins to die.
The question raised at once was, “Where is the god of the Nile?” Osiris, one of the great gods of Egypt, was first of all the god of the Nile. Where was his power? The Egyptians actually said that the Nile was his bloodstream. And yet he was powerless. Khnum was another of the great Nile gods. He was the guardian of the Nile sources, the one that made sure the Nile kept flowing. Hapi was the spirit of the Nile in Upper Egypt. You also had all the gods and goddesses associated with the fish that were in the Nile, a great source of protein for the people. Where were all these gods? They were revealed to be nothing. You would think that would make an impression upon Pharaoh, but it didn’t. What we read is that Pharaoh’s heart became hard, and he wouldn’t let the people go (Ex. 7:22).