What is the point of these first nine plagues? God clearly knew all along that it would be through the tenth plague and the Passover lamb that he would deliver his people, so why all the bother and suffering that these other plagues brought? It might well seem to be a rather depressing section to study and we might wish we could just skip to chapters 11 and 12. The opening verses of chapter 7 make it is clear that Pharaoh’s stubbornness didn’t take God by surprise, rather this was God’s sovereign plan, and we are told that these plagues are both “acts of judgment” (7:4) and acts of revelation (“signs” v.4, so that “the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD” v.5). We saw in the last study that through all these events of the Exodus God is revealing who he is as the LORD, and that purpose of revelation is underlined a number of times in this section – see 7:17, 8:10, 9:14, 10:1-2. The key question to ask therefore is What is God revealing about himself through these plagues? A few things, it seems –
There is no one like the LORD (8:10, 9:14), no one is his equal. In Egyptian religion snakes played a significant role and gods might take the form of snakes, so in the introductory sign, where Moses’ staff becomes a snake which then gobbles up all the magicians’ staffs-turned-snakes, the sign points to the supremacy of the LORD over all other gods. In that and the first two plagues we see the magicians able to mimic some of what Moses is able to do, which suggests they were exercising real spiritual power, and yet the LORD is clearly shown to have greater power. With lots of the plagues links can be made to particular Egyptian gods (eg the god associated with the Nile, or who were portrayed with a frog’s head, or taking the form of a cow or bull etc), such that it is as though the LORD is going head to head with a series of Egyptian gods and each time comes out on top.
Pharaoh desperately tries to exert his authority, and when making concessions he keeps trying to insist on obedience on his own terms, but God is clearly shown to be sovereign over Pharaoh, and indeed over all creation. Everything happens “just as the LORD had said” (7:13, 22; 8:15, 19 etc).
The plagues themselves are “mighty acts of judgment” because of his hard heart in refusing to let the Israelites go, as too is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. God declared in 7:3 that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but it is clear that Pharaoh is no innocent puppet, but free and morally responsible – in the first 5 and the 7th plagues, Pharaoh’s hardens his own heart. When God hardens his heart it is in judgment, giving Pharaoh over to his sin and the consequences of his sin. At times Pharaoh acknowledges his sin (9:27; 10:16), but his repentance is shown to be shallow and temporary, and every show of obedience is on his own terms, for he refuses to humble himself before God (10:3).
The hardening of Pharaoh’s also serves to make clear that the Israelites are not freed by the kindness and mercy of Pharaoh, but only by the power and grace of God. His grace is seen too in his readiness to curtail each plague, and in his patience in offering Pharaoh opportunity after opportunity to repent, and in the clear discrimination he makes, sparing his own people from the 4th plague onwards.
There is of course value in working slowly through these chapters, but in one study that would be impractical and the aim must be to get a broad sweep and see the main themes. There won’t be time to read around all 4 chapters either. I think my suggestion would be to do as most Bible study commentaries suggest: to split into smaller groups, each looking at a smaller chunk. Since the plagues fall naturally into three groups of three – 7:14-8:19; 8:20- 9:12; 9:13-10:29 – one might split into three groups, each given one section. You could have a big chart ready on the floor with columns such as:
That would be a way of getting an overview of the four chapters and would show some of the progression. But more than seeing what is there, you need to help people think about why it is there.
The two key questions seem to be:
You might also look at Pharaoh and what we might learn from him – how he hardens his own heart, leading to God’s hardening of it, his attempt at insisting on obedience on his own terms, his repentance what was not repentance.
And you could look at the Israelites and what they should have learnt through all this.
You could also think about how this bit of the model of redemption points forward to the redemption achieved at the cross.
Since the whole book is driving towards proper worship of God, you could ask as a summary question how this section leads us to worship.