In the ancient Egyptian religion, the Pharaoh is the son of Ra. Regarding this particular god and others in Egypt, we read the following in the Book of Exodus.

Exodus 12:12 (NASB)
12 For 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. (emphasis added)

What is the meaning of the last part of this verse? Is the principal conflict in Exodus then between deities, who are represented by the men, Moses and Pharaoh?


2 Answers 2


Exodus 12:12b (and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord) seems incongruous, both as the only reference anywhere in this narrative to the gods of Egypt and as breaking the flow of narrative. Reading Exodus 12:12a then 12:13, we can see a unity of text and a logical sequence in the narrative:

Exodus 12:12a,13 (KJV): For 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 the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Rainer Albertz (Open-Mindedness in the Bible and Beyond, page 5, note 11) sees verse 12:12b as a theocratic supplement to the original text, from a Priestly Pentateuchal Redactor.

The original writer, generally understood to be the Yahwist, was unconcerned with the Egyptian gods, who took no part in attempting to thwart the will of Yahweh (the Lord). For him, there was no conflict occurring between the Egyptian gods and God. The Priestly Redactor, writing centuries later, was concerned with emphasising the absolute supremacy of Yahweh, even to the point of seemingly acknowledging the existence of the Egyptian gods.

  • This is a helpful direction, though the only coded text I have shows all of 12:1-20 as 'P', not 'J'. While I agree that none of these writers had historical cause to cast Egyptian religion as a threat to Yahwism, doesn't the monolatrous admission of v.12b argue against Albertz claim that it's an even later amendation? Can you cite a good source for understanding the theological motivations of the priestly redactor in this regard? Thanks!
    – Schuh
    Feb 15, 2016 at 21:16

Yes, it can. God certainly fights his battles vicariously through His people. The theme of Yahweh's opposition to other pagan gods reappears throughout Exodus and the OT.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. [Exodus 20:3]

If this is taken as one of Moses' primary themes, as its prominence in the Ten Commandments would suggest, such words of judgment are not incongruous in the least. And this is by far the only such judgement in the Pentateuch:

And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh... Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods...” [Exodus 18:10,11]

For the Egyptians buried all their firstborn, which the Lord had smitten among them: upon their gods also the Lord executed judgments. [Numbers 33:4]

God fought this battle directly in the Exodus. But then He commanded His people to continue the fight against idols on His behalf:

Thou shalt not bow down to their gods ... but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images. [Exodus 23:24]

The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. [Dt 7:25]

You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. [Dt 12:2]

The epic battles of the Jews in the conquest of Canaan continued this ongoing conflict. The challenge between David and Goliath typifies it:

And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ... Then David said to the Philistine, ... "I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand ... that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel." [1Samuel 17:44-46]

And of course, there was Elijah's challenge to the priests of Baal, and God's spectacular defeat of these priests on Mount Carmel:

“How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” ... call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” [1 Kings 18:21,24]

Ones interpretation of Exodus (or any other passage) is not limited to a hypothetical "original" text proposed by textual critics. The final text as it has arrived to us, especially when taken in its broader context, has so much to offer to the interpreter.

  • 1
    There's no doubt about the long rivalry between Yahweh and the many gods of Canaan, as you've demonstrated. But aside from Nu.33:4b, can you find additional evidence framing the Exodus story (not the Book of Exodus) as a rivalry between Yahweh and Egyptian deities specifically?
    – Schuh
    Feb 16, 2016 at 0:51
  • Inasmuch as Pharaoh was considered an Egyptian "deity", every challenge to Pharaoh was a challenge to their gods. The most obvious sign given to directly humiliate the Egyptian god Ra (the sun god), was a three-day period of total darkness, that is, the ninth plague. The writer of Exodus doesn't mention any of the gods of Egypt nor Pharaoh by name, which itself is a fact that seems designed to dismiss them all from memory, not unlike the obvious avoidance in naming the sun or moon in Genesis 1, which are only called "the greater light" and "the lesser light", while God did name sky and man.
    – C. Kelly
    Feb 17, 2016 at 5:04

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