Moses the 80-year-old fugitive went to the Pharaoh, the powerful leader of mighty Egypt, and declaimed, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness'” (Exodus 5.1). Pharaoh met this bold demand with the following:
Who is Yahweh, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.
Notice how Pharaoh answers Moses. He doesn’t know Yahweh. Who is Yahweh to tell him me what to do? The rest of the ten plagues answer this one question. You see, Egypt was full of gods. They believed in Ra, Apis, Hathor, Nut, Isis, Osiris, and Heqet, but not Yahweh. Pharaoh can’t imagine that the god of his slaves–the Hebrews–could possibly be more powerful than the revered and ancient deities of Egypt. Consequently, Pharaoh decides to press the issue. Not only will he not them go, but he decides to oppress them even more than before. Since these Israelites have so much time to worry about going off into the wilderness to have a feast, they obviously don’t have enough work. Pharaoh decides to increase their labor; now they will have to forage for their own straw to make bricks without diminishing productivity. That will teach them not to fantasize about introducing new gods to give them time off.
Naturally, the elders of Israel were furious at Moses for making them “stink in the sight of Pharaoh” (Exodus 5.21). Moses feels discouraged and God has to work with him by reiterating the promises. He tells Moses he will liberate them from the Egyptians; he will deliver them from slavery; he will redeem them with great acts; he will take them to be his people; he will be their God; he will bring them to the promised land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 6.6-8). After he convinced Moses of his plan to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he can perform his mighty deeds, Moses marches right back into Pharaoh’s presence.
To start, Moses had Aaron throw down his staff so that it became a serpent. However, the Egyptian sorcerers did the same so Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sent Moses away. Now a third time, God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh in the morning, while he is at the Nile river, and say, “Thus says Yahweh, ‘By this you shall know that I am Yahweh: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood” (Exodus 7.17). After he struck the water, the Nile river, the life source of Egypt, turned into blood. Amazingly, Pharaoh turned and went home and didn’t give the miracle a second thought. The Egyptians began digging along the banks to draw water since for seven days the river ran red with blood.
What Pharaoh did not yet understand is that this was just one of ten plagues through which the God of the Hebrews would answer his question, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey his voice.” Now he begins to learn, that Yahweh is the God who can slit the veins of Osiris, the protector of the Nile, and cause him to bleed. Stay tuned for the rest of Pharaoh’s education…