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J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson VI

The Contest with Pharaoh

Read Exodus VI. 1-12.
VII. 14-25.

§ 1. How God Encouraged Moses

R ECAPITULATE. Last chapter closed with failure, disappointment, humiliation of Moses. Is that always bad for a man? Had it happened before to Moses? Yes. Flight to Midian. Was that bad for him? So here—more of God's discipline and training. But very hard? He had taught the people to trust him, said he was their deliverer—that Pharaoh would have to submit. And now he stood before them convicted of failure. Pharaoh had conquered him and ordered him to the brick-fields himself, as a man would a dog to his kennel. And he had only made things worse for the poor slaves. Oh, it was a sore disappointment.

And Moses in his agony of soul could not see what we can now see, that it was necessary for his great life-task to trample down self altogether, all self-esteem, all pride in his miracles, all delight in popular enthusiasm for him, everything that a popular leader loves most.

One thing Moses did know, that it was well to rush off to God to tell Him and to plead with Him. Did he get any encouragement? See all that glorious crowding of promises (vv.  6, 7, 8), all the "I wills."  Do you wonder how God appeared to him? Perhaps in a vision, perhaps as in Midian. I wonder if Moses associated the thought of God's presence only with the solitudes of Midian and the silence of the great mountains. If so he soon finds that God is as close to him in the crowded city and among Egyptian temples—that God is close around men always, and any special miraculous manifestations are just the unveiling for a moment of the Presence which is always there.

From this forward he rises from faith to faith, growing more convinced that he has at his back the Almighty God who hates oppression and demands justice and mercy and fair play for the poor slaves who have none to help them. So he cares no more about the sneers of Pharaoh. He is ready for the contest with him, though diffident about himself.

§ 2. The Contest Begins

Very soon the contest begins (ch.  vii. 15-25). Try to make a picture in your minds. Pharaoh with his proud array of guards and priests and courtiers "goes forth unto the water," down through the streets of Tanis and the long avenue of sphinxes to the River Gate, probably to perform the sacred rites to the mysterious Nile which Egypt worshipped as a god. Little wonder. Remember what the Nile was to Egypt. The whole wealth, the very existence of Egypt depended on it. And to the simple people it seemed so mysterious—every winter running low and clear in its channel—every spring at a certain date strangely, mysteriously, like a living thing rising with its wealth of water to enrich the land. Little wonder they loved and delighted in it and paid divine honours to it. Here is the mystic hymn to it from a manuscript of about Moses' time:—

"Hail to thee, O Nile!

Coming in peace, giving life to the land.

Overflowing the gardens created by RA.

Coming from Heaven, watering the land.

Giver of corn, lover of good.

Hail to thee, O Nile!"

Perhaps this was chanted that day in that Nile procession as Pharaoh "went forth to the water." But before any rites of worship could begin there was an unexpected interruption. What? Yes, Moses and Aaron, whom he had ordered out of his presence as dogs to their kennel, are standing before him again. Are they timid or cringing? As a king to a king, Moses addressed him. "The Lord sent me to thee . . . and thou hast not hearkened. Now thus saith the Lord, In this shalt thou know that I am the Lord. Behold, I will smite the waters in the River, and they shall be turned into blood, and the fish shall die, and the River shall stink, and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink," etc.

You may guess what this would mean to Egypt, and you can guess, too, what the contemptuous answer of Pharaoh would be. Then what happens? Yes. The river is struck in the presence of the dumbfounded king and his train of priests and courtiers, and straightway the sacred water, pure and life-giving, became a horrible mass of blood and rottenness, and the fish that were in the river died, and the river stank, and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. The horror of it can be but faintly conceived except in a land with a blazing sun overhead, festering and corrupting. But there was a worse horror. What? That it should fall on the Sacred River. The River was no god after all! This Lord who was ordering kindness and fair play to the slaves was actually the Lord and Master of that River on which the very life of Egypt depended. At a word He could turn its waters into blood and slay its fish. That was a tremendous lesson for Egypt and Israel. The God who through Moses spoke to their conscience was the God that ruled over nature. The God of Right was the God of Might.

§ 3. Judgment on the Gods of Egypt

Enumerate some of the other plagues. Now turn to the verse, ch.  xii. 12, "On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment." Notice especially the plagues chiefly fell on the sacred divinities. The Nile was a god. The cattle on whom the murrain fell were sacred—the sacred ram, the sacred goat, the black bull of Apis that was worshipped in Pharaoh's great temple in Tanis; the plague of darkness would make them think that RA, the sun-god, was fallen from the sky. The plague of flies is supposed to be of beetles, one of the most sacred symbols of Egypt. The frog was worshipped as the sign of fruitfulness, and now it was turned into a horror, so that people could not walk without trampling it into a loathsome mass.

You have to think of all this to realize the awfulness and the horror of God's judgments on Egypt. "Who is Jehovah that we should obey Him. We have our own gods." And this is Moses' tremendous reply in the plagues. The God of Righteousness—the God of conscience, the God who commands you to be fair and just and kind to these slaves—that is Jehovah, and all these poor gods of yours are but His creatures which He uses to bless the world, and which He can turn into a horror and abomination in a moment.

§ 4. Egypt's Knowledge of Religion

Now I want you to see that God's stern teaching by Moses should have been easily understood by the Egyptians. For God's Holy Spirit had not neglected Egypt. I told you before that their sacred books taught them about one God who was supreme above all—who judged men righteously and weighed their souls in great scales of judgment. And though they worshipped the sun and the Nile and the sacred beasts, yet the wise and good amongst them taught that these were only forms or manifestations of the One Supreme God.

Fifteen hundred years before Moses they had a knowledge of God of which the monuments and writings that remain to us bear witness. A great German student of the old inscriptions declares that ancient Egypt had a knowledge of a God of Righteousness, little, if anything, inferior to that of the Hebrews of Moses' day. Here is some of their teaching long before Moses:—

"God is one and alone and none other is with Him.

God is the One who hath made all things.

God is eternal, enduring for ever.

No man is able to seek out His likeness.

God is truth, and liveth by truth.

God is love, through Him alone man liveth.

He breatheth the breath of life into his nostrils."

And again—think of it in Pharaoh's oppression of Israel:—

"God is merciful to them that fear Him.

He heareth those that call upon Him.

He protecteth the weak against the strong.

He heareth the cry of one bound in fetters.

He judgeth between the mighty and the weak."

So you see that God had not neglected Egypt and taught only Israel—that Pharaoh and his Egyptians, in spite of all their degrading idolatry, had at least some glimpse of a great, supreme, all-holy God, Master and Chief of all that they worshipped. So when Moses brought a message of Righteousness and Mercy for the slaves—and when he showed that his God who sent him had power over all the idols of Egypt, they might easily have guessed that the supreme God, who speaks in man's conscience, whom their ancient books of religion told of, was dealing with them. You must remember that, if you would understand this history. In next chapter we shall talk more about these plagues and see how God's sternness and God's love are both exhibited.


VII. 11, etc., The magicians.  It is not easy to form an opinion as to whether these acts were clever jugglery. Notice that the magicians were not at any time taken unawares, and therefore could prepare themselves. Interesting treatises have been written on Egyptian magic. The books of magic formulæ belonged to the king, and no one was allowed to consult them but the council of wise men or magicians, who were called on by Egyptian kings on occasions of difficulty.

Questions for Lesson VI

Try to picture in words Pharaoh going to worship the Nile and meeting Moses.

Was Moses as much afraid this time after he had prayed to God?

Tell his brave demand to the king.

What did he do to the river? What made this such an awful shock to Pharaoh?

Had the Egyptians the excuse of knowing nothing about God and duty?

What do you know of their religion?