The Gods of Egypt

For almost 3,000 years, ancient Egypt was the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean world. The many monuments and archaeological treasures unearthed stand as a testament to the complexity of Egyptian life and its religious traditions. According to the Bible, the Hebrews made their exodus only after Egypt’s gods were confronted. It’s a history that continues to fascinate. Even now film director Ridley Scott is at work on a new epic treatment of the account. What can we learn from the story of the Hebrews and the gods of ancient Egypt?

The ancient Egyptians worshiped thousands of gods, but today we only know about 1,500 by name. Each had their place and their sphere of influence. Egyptian religious beliefs and practices were closely integrated into society.

According to scholar Richard Wilkinson, Egyptian religion “ultimately shaped, sustained and directed Egyptian culture in almost every imaginable way. The deities of Egypt were present in the lives of pharaohs and citizens alike, creating a more completely theocratic society than any other of the ancient world.”

As far back as the fifth century BCE, Greek historian Herodotus noted that the Egyptians were the most religious of people. Their gods were involved in every aspect of life.

Egyptian gods are renowned for their wide variety, including animal forms, and mixed forms with an animal head on a human body. Egyptian monuments are remarkable in the amount of inscription they bear; vast numbers of texts and representations, much that is religious in nature or has religious implications.

By contrast the children of Israel and their forefathers knew only one God. The back story to the epic biblical account of the Exodus can be seen as the ultimate battle between the gods of Egypt and the Hebrew God Yahweh. In the days leading up to the Exodus, the enslaved Hebrews witnessed the power of Yahweh over any and all of His Egyptian counterparts.

According to Bible scholar Douglas Stuart, “Yahweh demonstrates that the gods of Egypt—the greatest political and military power of the time—were empty nothings.”

Because much of nature was understood as a manifestation of the divine, multiple gods were inevitable in Egypt’s pagan society. Yet through the Hebrew prophets, Yahweh declared Himself as the one true Creator God. Belief in Him was at odds with Egyptian dependence on copies of the created world for objects of worship.

At the liberation of the children of Israel, Yahweh made clear the difference between worship of the creature and that of the Creator. The catalyst for the freeing of the Hebrew slaves was a series of ten unique plagues imposed on Egypt. In bringing about the 10th and final plague Yahweh announced, “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (Exodus 12:12).

But what did the Hebrews’ Yahweh mean when He said he would “execute judgment” on “all the gods of Egypt”? By considering which of the known Egyptian gods can be related to each of the biblical plagues, we can begin to understand how God’s judgment was accomplished. It was the Egyptians’ belief in their gods very existence that would be challenged. The fact that the gods could effect no change in the course of any of the plagues would demonstrate that they were nonexistent deities and that God is the only one true to His name, which means “the Ever-Living One.”

While it can be clearly demonstrated through all ten of the biblical plagues that Egypt’s gods and goddesses were powerless, let’s now consider a few.

The first plague recorded in the Exodus account, was turning water into blood. The central importance of the Nile for Egypt’s life and prosperity was underscored by Herodotus when he said, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Various gods were associated with the river: Hapy was understood to be the river’s divine power; Khnum was the guardian of the Nile’s source; and Osiris was responsible for the annual flooding that brought fertile soil. Other gods were associated with the river's fish and crocodiles. Though Pharaoh's magicians were able to produce a similar bloodlike effect with water, by His intervention, the God of the Hebrews was demonstrating the Egyptian gods’ inferiority.

The third of the ten plagues arose from the dust as the land was besieged by lice, or possibly gnats (the Hebrew word is somewhat unclear). For the Egyptians, Geb was god of the earth; the fact that “the dust of the earth” was turned into innumerable annoying insects was a great embarrassment, yet he was powerless to reverse the plague. Even the priests would have been affected: scrupulous cleanliness with frequent washing and shaving their bodies of all hair to prevent just this sort of infestation was a prerequisite for performing their priestly duties. But it was to no avail. They couldn’t even enter the temples and plead with their gods to bring an end to the plague.

Plague number six was a severe outbreak of boils on humans and animals. The lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet was both the cause of and protector from epidemics, and Imhotep was the god of medicine. Egypt’s most important goddess, Isis, was revered for her magic power to protect and heal. Yet prevention of infection and promotion of healing did not happen with this plague.

The second-to-last plague was a three-day period of severe darkness across the land. Several sun gods were connected with this plague: Ra, Khepre, Harakhte, Aten, Horus and Atum. The moon god, Thoth, and the sky and air deities, Nut and Shu—they were all implicated in the failure to end three days of thick darkness.

But it was the tenth and final plague that would ultimately break the stubborn will of the Pharoah. The final and most severe of the plagues was the death of all firstborn, both human and animal. Again the gods were powerless. Min, the god of procreation; Isis, the great mother goddess, a healer and protector, ostensibly able to bring the dead back to life; the childbirth goddess, Hathor; and the sacred Apis bull—none could prevent the widespread death of the firstborn. Though Pharaoh himself was considered divine, his household was not spared: his firstborn died also.

This final plague was the breaking point for Egypt and its hold on the slave nation of Israel. The Egyptian gods had been defeated, the Pharoah could take no more, and he sent the Israelites away.

When the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews reflected on Moses’ departure from Egypt, he noted that his faith was in the invisible God. This was in contrast to the visible gods of Egypt, whose temples, statues and depictions were everywhere. Yet those gods had achieved nothing for their followers.

The problem of worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator is a universal human problem. The gods and goddesses of Egypt persisted long after Israel left their slavery behind. Many centuries later, in the Greco-Roman world of the apostle Paul, temples were dedicated to Isis and Serapis (a Greek conflation of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis). Paul wrote to the people of his time, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Exodus 1:22–23, NKJV). This, he said, led to a debased intellect and to many of the destructive characteristics we see in the modern world.

Yet Yahweh showed His power over the gods of Egypt. At that time He equally demonstrated the need for all humans to recognize that idolatry leads to a corrupted mind, incapable of true godly values.