The Egyptian civilization was unrivaled in the ancient world. Its artifacts fill our museums and draw countless crowds who come to wonder and to stare. The Egyptians had eaten well of the tree of knowledge. Their brilliant minds were enlightened. We read of Moses that he was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22). His knowledge was coextensive with that of the learned doctors at whose feet he sat. The Egyptians excelled in the arts and sciences. They had the technology and industry to build the pyramids. They were marvelous engineers. They were experts in agriculture, in navigation, in warfare, and in astronomy. They built monuments that became wonders of the world and have withstood the test of time.
To this day we marvel at the pyramids. From a distance they look like mountains, rising sharply against the sky. Everything about them is big. Some 2.5 million blocks of limestone, weighing from two to five tons apiece (an aggregate of some 6 million tons), make up the mass of the Great Pyramid alone. When Moses and the enslaved Hebrews saw them, they were already at least a thousand years old. How did the Egyptians build such things? We still do not know. We only know their brilliant minds were enlightened. Moses was called to wage a one-man war against this brilliant people.
But there was another side to the Egyptians. Their foolish hearts were darkened. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image" (Rom. 1:22–23). Egypt was crowded with graven images, and their pantheon teemed with gods. There was Hathor, the sky goddess, sometimes depicted as a cow. There was Osiris, who was married to his sister, Isis. There was Set, the jealous and murderous brother of Osiris. There was Thoth, the moon god, the recorder of the deeds of the dead. There was the jackal-headed Anubis, the despoiler. And many more. It was against these gods of Egypt, led by Pharaoh himself, the incarnation of Ra, the sun god, that Moses was sent. And it was these false and foolish gods Moses was to expose as empty, shattered, and defeated in his hand-to-hand combat with Pharaoh.
The gods of Egypt were prevalent. Every phase of Egyptian life was governed by the gods. They dominated life from the womb to the tomb. Moreover, they were preposterous, usually depicted as humans with the heads and features of animals and birds. There was the lionheaded Sekhmet, a goddess sent to punish people if they neglected the gods. There was Anubis, with the head of a jackal. There was no end to it, cats and crocodiles, bats and beetles. And the folly of it all lay in the fact that these gods were not only false, but they were also powerless. It was God's avowed intent, right from the start, to expose the utter impotence of these gods (Exod. 12:12). Aaron's rod turned into a serpent and swallowed the rods of the magicians and poked fun at the serpent image Pharaoh wore as a crown on his brow. The Nile was worshiped as a source of life, so it was turned to blood. Frogs were worshiped as a symbol of fruitfulness, so God used them to plague the Egyptians. The pestilence on the cattle was aimed at the worship of animals. The plague of darkness showed Ra, the sun god, to be powerless. And, of course, the last, terrible plague that brought death to every home exposed the impotence of each and every Egyptian god. So there Pharaoh sat, in all his pomp and splendor, with the resources of an empire at his command, powerless. And there stood Moses, the despised and detested shepherd, an abomination to the Egyptians, in his homespun, peasant's robes, clothed with power from on high. On the one hand, Egypt's ludicrous gods; on the other hand, Israel's living God. It is still that way. Forty years before, Moses had decided whose side he was on. Adopted into the Egyptian royal family, educated in Egypt's finest schools, offered pleasure and power and boundless prosperity and the very throne itself, it would seem, Moses chose the living God, not this world's tin and tinsel gods. We must do the same.