In Exodus chapters 7-12, God punishes the Egyptians with plague after plague. The Nile River’s waters turned into blood. Frogs spread across the land, followed by a lice infestation. The 4th plague of “arov” is translated literally as “mixing.” Traditionally this plague is interpreted as wild beasts in Jewish sources, but others argue that it means insects or flies. Next the animals suffered from disease, people developed boils, violent thunderstorms struck and locusts swarmed the land. Darkness descended upon Egypt and finally the Egyptians’ first-born children died.
In Exodus, these plagues were ostensibly brought by God to pressure the pharaoh into allowing the Israelites to be freed from slavery. Yet God kept hardening the pharaoh’s heart, and he continued to refuse permission for the Israelites to leave.
One purpose of the plagues could be as an affront to the Egyptian gods. Egyptian gods represented natural features, and the plagues struck at the features and their representative gods that were important to the Egyptians. The Nile, frogs, livestock, hail from the sky – each of these would be a challenge to the power of the Egyptian gods.
The penultimate plague, darkness, appears to be a challenge to the god Ra.
Exodus 10 reads, “Then God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt – darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.”
Egyptian gods could rise or fall in importance across Egyptian history. Once elevated in status, Ra remained one of the most important gods in all of Egypt. With the ascension of Egypt’s New Kingdom, Ra was blended with the god Amun from the southern capital of Thebes, to become Amun-Ra.
Ra was depicted in a variety of forms. A common depiction shows Ra with the head of a falcon and the sun disk over his head. An important Egyptian legend was that each day Ra traveled with the sun in a boat across the sky. At night Ra would cross the underworld with the sun and defeat a serpent on his way to bringing the sun back in time for the next day. The plague of darkness would then be an attack on Ra. In the Bible’s story, God would be demonstrating that Ra failed to bring the day’s sun.
Another common depiction of Ra was as a ram or a man with the head of a ram. In Exodus 12 Moses follows God’s command and instructed the Israelite leaders to “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb.” In the sheep family, male sheep are called rams, the females are called ewes, and immature animals lambs. The ceremonial offering is to be an animal that is representative of Ra, Egypt’s premier god.
In the exodus narrative, given that God repeatedly hardened pharaoh’s heart to convince him not to free the Israelites, the plagues upon Egypt may have been as much as about challenging the Egyptian gods as they would be about freeing the Israelites.
The ram-headed god and figure of a ram-headed god with a human body shown in the image above can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. An image of Ra as the falcon headed god with the sun disk overhead, also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, can be seen via the following link: https://www.instagram.com/p/BsbasEAHbHg/
For the Egyptians and their slave holding ways, Willie Nelson sang it best: