The story of Moses and the Israelites has intrigued the imagination for centuries. The question of how tens of thousands of people survived forty years in the desert, raised their children, warded of enemies, and fulfilled a God-given plan and purpose continues to baffle many. Although many have tried to scientifically quantify the odds of all the miraculous events that took place, the numbers only help to point towards the hand of God at work. Of course, many are still skeptical that any of the events narrated in Exodus actually took place. But the fingerprint of God pervades the story in seemingly unexpected places, and not just in the many miracles that the story is most well-known for in the popular consciousness.

In particular, a careful analysis of the historical significance of the Exodus will shed further light on how this story has shaped not only religious views of the three great Abrahamic faiths but also the workings of the society of the time and those of subsequent generations. A brief look at the ten plagues which ravaged Egypt and the Law in which God introduces some revolutionary ideas to His people suggests that none other than the mind of God could have conceived such radical events that reverberated through time.

The 10 Plagues

There are certain key numbers that show up time and again throughout the Bible. One such number is ten. God sent ten plagues upon Egypt and they came in pairs.  But have you ever wondered why it was those particular ten plagues that God used? Were they merely arbitrary demonstrations of God’s wrath or did each have a greater significance. Consider the plagues in their tandem pairs and you get a hint of what God was trying to do.

Plagues one and two had to do with water. First the water turned to blood and all the water-dwelling creatures died. Paired with that were the frogs which came up out of the water, the Nile, and filled the cities. This is critical because the Nile was Egypt’s critical source of sustenance. No Nile equals no Egypt. As such, the Nile was also deified and imbued with great religious significance.  The plagues that struck the Nile therefore rendered the source of Egypt’s power almost completely powerless. It was nothing less than a clear demonstration of who had real power - the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

Plagues three and four had to do with insects that fly in from the desert. Five and six afflicted livestock and land-based creatures. Seven and eight affected the crops. By the time they had all been unleashed, Egypt’s agriculturally-based economy was utterly devastated.

Plagues nine and ten concerned the sun. Darkness covered Egypt in the ninth plague. This is significant if we remember that the sun was the central deity in Egyptian theology. Hence, the sun not showing up in the morning terrified the Egyptians and dealt a severe blow to their own religious foundations. Plague ten is the killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians, including the Pharaoh’s firstborn. The Pharaoh was believed to be the literal reincarnation of the sun god Ra; the crown prince’s death would therefore have been equated with the removal of Ra’s protection. With this final blow, Egypt was reduced to chaos while the nation of Israel began its birth. 

The Law of God

A crucial part of the Israel’s identity as God’s people was the Law that God gave them through Moses. The latter part of Exodus along with the book of Leviticus deals with the Law of God, the moral code that was given to the Israelites. Upon first glance, these laws seem irrelevant and primitive (for instance, rules about what must be done if an ox is unruly). However, an analysis of the underlying principles established by God in His law will reveal a moral code containing exceptionally progressive social ideas compared to those of the time.

For example, the Law commands that a slave owner must release a slave after seven years. This suggests that slaves had rights, an unheard of idea. The Law also states that if a man is unfaithful, a woman is free to leave the marriage, suggesting that women had rights as well-another strange and extremely unpopular idea for the time. Many claim that the Bible is unfair towards women. On the contrary, for the first time, women were given some sort of privileges.

Indeed, every individual in this society had rights. This stood in stark contrast to other law codes of the era, such as the Laws of Hammurabi. In these codes, men were given preference over women and men holding high offices were practically immune to penalties for wrongdoing. Women were good only for child-bearing. Slaves had no rights whatsoever. The punishments were different depending on your standing in the community. In the Law of God, each and every person had equal status and responsibility before the law. Each life was valued, including those in the womb (see Exodus 21:22-25).

Myth or Reality?

There are critics who attempt to debunk the entire account in Exodus, claiming that Moses was a non-existent mythical figure and relegating the story of the Exodus to the status of a mere figment of somebody’s imagination. They cite myths existing before the time of Moses such the legend of Sargon. However, the facts surrounding the Exodus and the life of Moses are not so shallow. We see that the events surrounding Moses’ life are verifiable historically.

Furthermore, looking simply at the resounding significance that these events had in affecting Egyptian power and setting up a society governed by radically different laws suggests that it could not possible have simply been the product of the imagination. Imagination does not bring the world’s foremost superpower of the time to its knees; imagination doesn’t make a whole nation of people change the way they live within a generation. God, however, most certainly can do these things.


Lecture Notes. Dr. Alexander Globe. English 230B, University of British Columbia.