If your picture of God is of some sort of sugar daddy in the sky, the Exodus story might come as something of a shock. God appears in the burning bush and announces “I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it” (Exodus 3:20). He sends word to Pharaoh, announcing judgment if he does not let Israel go and worship. After bringing destruction on Egypt, he finally kills all the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-32). To cap it all he destroys the Egyptian army in the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:27). It makes challenging reading.
But it’s important to see these things in the context of the whole story – to see the reasons for God’s judgments, and the way they resulted in the deliverance of the Israelites from oppression.
First, the Egyptian oppression of Israel was brutal. It’s presented in Exodus as a systemic oppression, initiated by Pharaoh, and carried out by the Egyptians (Exodus 1:12). At its worst it was genocidal – all Hebrew males were to be destroyed at birth (Exodus 1:15-16). How long this situation lasted we do not know, but 80 years later when Moses appears before Pharaoh, the Israelites are still slaves to the Egyptians (Exodus 6:5). The only reason given for this brutality is fear (Exodus 1:12). God’s judgments may seem harsh, but they are measured and considered compared to those of man. Pharaoh orders the destruction of every Hebrew male; after an eighty year window of opportunity, God destroys the firstborn of any who did not accept the way of escape.
Second, God brings the plagues on Egypt in order to make Pharaoh let the people go: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:9). The judgments on Egypt are necessary in order to secure the deliverance of Israel.
Third, God’s judgments come after a period of request and warning. “Let my people go” is the famous refrain of Exodus – time after time, Moses appeals to Pharaoh before and during the plagues – yet Pharaoh will not let them go. The plagues also escalate in seriousness and the first to endanger human life is preceded by a warning: “I will cause very heavy hail to fall … get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them” (Exodus 9:18-19). Consequently, those Egyptians who listened to the warning were spared the judgment (Exodus 9:20).
Fourth, the death of the firstborn comes only after nine other plagues. By this point, the Egyptians have adequate evidence of God’s ability to bring destruction and ample opportunity to free the Israelites. Yet Pharaoh still refuses. Even after the death of the firstborn, “the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people” (Exodus 14:5) and they pursued the Israelites. The result was their destruction in the sea.
Fifth, the judgments on Egypt were not simply a punishment – they were intended as a revelation of God. As a society that worshipped a multitude of imaginary gods to whom natural phenomena were attributed, it was necessary for supernatural events to occur for them to acknowledge the true God. The plagues were so that they would “know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 7:5; 7:17; 8:10; 8:22; 14:4; 14:18).
Finally, the judgment on Egypt was the means by which the Israelite slaves were released. It’s a sad truth of a fallen world that the deliverance of some often requires the destruction of others. Whether it’s Nazi Germany, or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, or Bosnia in the 1990s, release from oppression often comes through decisive action against the perpetrators. When we hear of a school shooting in Peshawar, or of beheadings in ISIS-controlled Iraq, we instinctively call for justice – knowing that this is likely a call for violence. Yet we may feel uncomfortable when it’s God who brings violence. When he allows suffering to continue, we accuse him of indifference; when he intervenes to end suffering, we accuse him of harshness.
Somehow, humanity never manages to fathom the justice of God. Abraham struggles with the destruction of Sodom: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). Why does God act as he does? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? In part, these questions are due to difference in perspective. We may see life as a right, and death only deserved in the most extreme of circumstances; in the biblical worldview, life is a gift, and it is God’s prerogative to grant or use as he wishes.
The challenge of the justice of God is never fully resolved in the Bible. But the perspective of people of faith is this: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of LORD” (Job 1:21).