Egypt to Canaan: Omnipotence

Crushing Pharaoh’s Power

Two men made their way through the precincts of Pharaoh’s palace. Although their rugged appearance seemed to ill accord with the splendor of their surroundings, only one of the two moved like a man on unfamiliar ground. The other strode with the accustomed ease of one who had learned to walk on these very tiles and had grown to manhood in these halls. His name and memory had been their entrée to the august presence of the mighty Pharaoh but, it quickly became apparent, had given them no lien on Pharaoh’s goodwill. Scorn chased disdain across his face as he listened to their message: “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness’” (Exo 5:1).[1] This was not the usual sycophantic wheedling to which Pharaoh was accustomed. Such a message, so bald and so blunt, and utterly so unobsequious, had seldom been heard in these august halls. Pharaoh’s response was equally direct. “Who is the Lord,” he asked, every syllable dripping with hubris, “that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (v2). His question would receive such an answer as he never anticipated, or the world would ever forget.

Pharaoh was not the first potentate to defy the power of God, nor would he be the last. But his arrogance and intransigence would put him at the center of one of the greatest object lessons in omnipotence that the world has ever seen. God had raised up Pharaoh “to shew in [him His] power; and that [His] name may be declared throughout all the earth” (Exo 9:16). Pharaoh could choose not to obey God – and he did – but whether by obedience or in disobedience he would stand for all time as a monument to God’s omnipotence.

Throughout the Scriptures, the plagues and the Passover are repeatedly presented as monuments of divine omnipotence, and they still have much to teach us about that important subject. In the crescendoing calamities that befell Egypt, we have not just the arbitrary exhibition of unimaginable power but miracles with a message (as true miracles always are). As the amplitude of the miracles and suffering increased, so too did the message.

The plagues are divided into three groups, and each division is marked by the ever-expanding lesson that Pharaoh was to learn: “In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord” (7:17); “to the end thou mayest know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth” (8:22); “that my name may be declared throughout all the earth” (9:16). A detailed consideration of the plagues will underscore these messages in many ways, but in the scope of this article, we will consider three important lessons about the omnipotence of Israel’s God – and ours.

Divine Omnipotence is Unlimited

To say that divine omnipotence is unlimited is, of course, to indulge in tautology. Omnipotent means all powerful: the infinite scale and scope of what God can do are baked into the word. But knowing what omnipotence means is quite a different thing to grasping what it looks like. As we watch the hammer blows of divine judgement falling upon Egypt, something of the full significance of omnipotence becomes apparent.

As we consider the scope of the plagues, we learn that divine omnipotence cannot be evaded. This is emphasized by the repetition of the word “all,” which occurs 59 times in Exodus 7-12. While God spared Israel from the worst of the plagues, the destruction that fell on the Egyptians was universal. Plague after plague fell on all the water, all the land, all the homes, all the cattle, on every herb and every tree, on all the fruit, and, climactically and awfully, on all the firstborn. God’s power touched every aspect of creation. Commentators have pointed out that there is a correlation between the seven days of creation and the ten plagues of Egypt.[2] In creation, divine omnipotence had worked from chaos to order and from barren dearth to abundant life. Now, in Egypt, the order was being reversed, creation was being unpicked, and Pharaoh was learning that the Lord of the Hebrews is also the God of the universe.

God’s power is unequaled. As the night of the Passover drew near, God promised: “I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (12:12). This promise of judgement on the gods of Egypt has led some commentators to suggest that the plagues were aimed particularly against some of the gods of the Egyptians and served to manifest the supremacy of Jehovah over the Egyptian pantheon.[3] While there is no consensus on this, it remains an interesting possibility and, if true, emphasizes the unique and unequalled power of the living God.

God’s omnipotence could not be emulated. To be sure, Pharaoh’s sorcerers managed to produce a simulacrum of the transformation of Aaron’s rod into a serpent. They were able to imitate the first two plagues. But whatever comfort Pharaoh took from that fact was short-lived in the extreme, for the magicians soon had to confess their impotence and acknowledge that “this is the finger of God” (8:19).

Divine power could not be explained away. It is telling that even the Egyptian sorcerers, who had a strong vested interest in dismissing the miracles and an extensive knowledge of Egyptian geography, never offered a naturalistic explanation for the plagues. Where they feared to tread, modern commentators have rushed in, with all manner of explanations that do great credit to their own ingenuity and imagination but that give very little to the biblical text. Better, in this instance, to listen to the magicians and to the only explanation of the plagues that makes any sort of sense – “this is the finger of God.”

Divine Omnipotence is Exercised on Behalf of His Own

Pharaoh’s amazement at the temerity of Moses and Aaron’s request would have been compounded by the way they spoke about God. Their request – or rather, their demand – was made in the name of “the Lord God of Israel,” the “God of the Hebrews” (5:1-3). In Egyptian society, slaves were non-people, and the clearest register of this was that they did not have gods.[4] What sort of petty deity, Pharaoh must have wondered, would identify himself with an enslaved people like this?

Moses knew something that Pharaoh did not. He knew that the Lord God of Israel had entered into covenant relationship with His people. And, even if he had ever been in danger of forgetting it, God had reminded him of that great fact at the burning bush, just a short time earlier. The plagues on Egypt unmistakably demonstrate divine power. But the demonstration is not random or arbitrary. Rather, as the writer of Psalm 105 appreciated, they are testament to a God whose omnipotence is marshalled on behalf of His people, even though they seem very insignificant in the eyes of the world. As the plagues washed over Egypt, Pharaoh must have been amazed, not just at the power of God but that this power, in all its immensity, was extended for the benefit of a nation of nobodies. May we feel the wonder of knowing that is equally so for us.

Divine Omnipotence Responds to Prayer

There is, however, a more remarkable lesson that Pharaoh learned, and that we should too. On five occasions, he asks Moses to “intreat the Lord” on his behalf. On the first of these occasions, Moses’ response was calculated to ensure that Pharaoh was absolutely sure that the removal of the frogs was an answer to Moses’ prayer (8:8-9). How remarkable it was – and how remarkable it still is – that a God whose omnipotence is unbounded should hear and answer the entreaties of His own.

That power is prayer, which soars on high,
Through Jesus, to the throne,
And moves the hand which moves the world,
To bring salvation down.[5]

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] Ziony Zevit, “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues,” Bible Review 6:3 (1990), 16-23.

[3] John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 104-120. For a critique of Currid’s view, see Duane Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2013), 291-301.

[4] Fred Blumenthal, “The Ten Plagues: Debunking Egyptian Polytheism,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, 40:4 (2012), 255-258.

[5] John A. Wallace, Prayer Moves the Hand That Moves the World.