3.6 The Justice of God
There are a few points to make in response to these criticisms:
a. The primary target of God's wrath was not Pharaoh or the Egyptian people:
"I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt" (Ex 12:12).
When we read Exodus from a typical historical perspective, we see the opposition of Moses to Pharaoh, the contrasting destinies of Egyptians and Israelites, and the unfair treatment of Egypt. But the Bible describes these visible events from another standpoint, and comes up with an entirely different meaning that is missed by the modern interpreter.
The Bible's view is that the primary drama in Exodus was between God and the gods of Egypt, because it is they who enslaved His people for 400 years. These false gods, like those of the Canaanites, wanted to absorb the Israelites and erase the Promise to Abraham. Pharaoh was the mouthpiece of these demon spirits. In all the judgments of God on Egypt, He was punishing the arrogance of these spiritual powers, and showing His greater power. For example, the killing of cattle has been interpreted as ridiculing Egyptian bull- and cow-gods (NIV Study, p.98 footnote). These gods enabled Egypt to gain power and prosperity, but at the expense of hundreds of years of Hebrew labor and blood. So God's judgment on the gods involved widespread devastation of Egypt's material abundance ("Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?" (Ex 10:7).
If we are to understand Exodus at all, we must approach it through the mind of the author. This understanding is best expressed by an unrelated passage in the New Testament:
"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12).
This is precisely the situation in Exodus. Historic events are only the stage for what is happening behind the curtain, and that is a spiritual cataclysm. Because the modern reader is blind to this entire dimension of meaning, he sees only the human characters, and judges events on the basis of appearances.
b. From the Bible's own perspective, the "innocent" Egyptians were in fact guilty in two respects: first, in their allegiance to the false gods. Just as in war, an enemy private is captured or killed because of the decisions of his general, so the common people of Egypt suffered because their deities attempted to destroy God's purpose. It is guilt by affiliation. Second, the Egyptian people participated in the oppression of the Israelites. No, not all of them owned slaves or beat Israelites, but they profited from the subjection of Israel. In such an authoritarian society, perhaps their only benefit was that they were spared being part of the chain gang, because the Israelites took their place. In a similar vein, it is often asked in our own day: "Weren't non-slave-owning white people complicit in and beneficiaries of the enslavement of blacks in America?" and "Don't the German civilian populace bear some share of responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust?" Those who answer in the affirmative to these questions should be consistent in attributing some share of guilt to the common people of Egypt.
c. God's wrath was not unprovoked. In the death of the firstborn, we see at work the principle later expressed by Jesus:
"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Mat 7:2).
The Book of Exodus started with an attempt on Moses' life by an earlier Pharaoh, as part of his scheme to kill off all Hebrew male babies. So the final judgment of God upon Egypt was the very weapon Egypt had previously used against Israel.