This is the third in a series of messages. The reader will benefit from reading the previous two first. Darkness and Chaos and Such and Pseudo-Persons and Deities are their names.
Exodus 5:2 “But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go.’” (NASB).
In this verse, the Hebrew word transliterated as Yahweh or Yahovah is translated as “the LORD” in most English translations. It is believed that Yahweh, however it is pronounced, is the “given” name of God, and not a title. Both in Jewish and in Christian practice, folks mostly don’t try very hard to figure out how to actually pronounce that name – sometimes as a matter of piety and sometimes due to its foreign sound.
It is not likely true that Pharaoh was reluctant to speak the name of the LORD. Rather, he probably said that name in the passage quoted. That might be considered to be equivalent to his naming any other god. He might have said, for example, “who is Zeus that I should obey”? The point is that Pharaoh knew gods by their names, at least many of them. He would know the names of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Anubis, for example, because the names of these Egyptian gods were in common use.
Let’s go so far as to suppose that Pharaoh had even heard of the LORD, or at least his advisors knew who the LORD was. After all, they dominated an entire group of people who considered themselves to be “people of the LORD”. For the Israelites, the LORD was their only deity. He was the creator and only living God. But to the Egyptians, He was only “another god”. They knew of hundreds of gods. The contempt with which they viewed the Israelites would be extended to their deity. So, really Pharaoh was actually expressing contempt. By implication, he was saying that the LORD was not anyone for him to be concerned with. He might even have, with the advice of his counsellors, been able to give the LORD a “rank” among the Egyptian gods. He might well have supposed that Horus was of much more power while some “god of tadpoles” might be lower than the LORD, but not much lower.
So when Moses told Pharaoh that the LORD wanted him to release the Israelites to go and serve Him, Pharaoh would consider the request to be fairly trivial – especially given the value of the labor the Israelites provided to the Egyptians. After all, if the LORD permitted His people, the Israelites, to suffer as they did, how powerful could He be?
When Noah and his sons emerged from the ark, there was only one god – God. There is no good reason to suppose Noah was a polytheist (one who believed in multiple gods). It is not likely a polytheist would have built the ark to begin with. It seems more likely a polytheist would have sought advice from another one of his gods rather than undertake such a thing – get a second opinion. Then, when things turned out as they did, he would certainly be in fear of the LORD and not very concerned with any other gods. Hebrews 11:7 tells us: “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Genesis 6: 8 tells us: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (NASB) The evidence is all in favor of the assertion that Noah was a man of God.
Furthermore, it seems likely that Noah instructed his sons regarding the person of God. He would make sure they knew who God was and how to relate to Him. After all, they had been on the ark with Noah. They were no doubt present with Noah when he offered sacrifices to God after he came out of the ark (Gen. 8:20-22). So, God the LORD was the only god to these fellows. They in turn, then, would have no reason to speak to their sons of any other god than the LORD. This would be even more surely the case because Noah was still alive and lived among them. He would likely be held in high revere and would not permit even the mention of any other god. After all, what other gods would they know about? Where would any such ideas come from?
Over time, though, virtually all (if not all) of Noah’s grandsons were born. Then came the situation in which Ham despised his father. When Noah dealt with that, he cursed the last of Ham’s sons. That fellow, Canaan, would have likely been pretty unhappy. In fact, Ham was already in a poor relationship with his father. So when the time came that the very strange events occurred at the place called Babel, the people began to disperse in various directions. It turns out that Ham and his descendants moved quite a distance away from Noah. Their lack of physical proximity to Noah and their psychological estrangement from him, might well have caused them to try to redefine God.
Perhaps “redefining” God was simple right at first. Ham would insert his own thoughts into what Noah had taught him. Those thoughts would relate to disagreements he had with his father. After the events related to Noah’s drunkenness and the subsequent curse on Canaan, the more extreme dis-affectation would likely cause Ham to, in particular, “change” the God narrative away from factors such as His Fatherly nature and love in a direction more like his own feelings about Noah. He and Canaan would doubtless fail to see the love in Noah’s judgment.
In the tents of Ham and his sons, then, discussions would often include complaints that would focus on Noah’s leadership of the people and of the God whom Noah served. As the view of God’s character began to morph, the Hamitic family would begin to emphasize the things that made their view of God different from the views of the other families in the house of Noah.
Several generations into the descendants of Noah, the decision to build a tower in Babel was taken. This decision was probably not one Noah would have made, but he was a real old man by then and he had probably lost much interest in the affairs of the people. And, by then, there were quite a few of them who might no longer revere Noah so much – particularly among the Hamite families. In any event, the “confounding of languages” launched a period in which the various families began to go to other places, some of which were quite distantly located. These migrations focused on family groups, as apparently the confounding of languages took place between families but not within them.
Let’s take one of the Hamite groups – the Egyptians. One of the four sons of Ham was Mizraim. Mizraim is the Hebrew word for Egypt. Anyway, the Egyptians (Mizraimites) wandered as a group in a southwesterly direction away from Babel. We have no way of knowing how long it took, but eventually they came to the Nile River and settled down. In that new place, the Egyptians began to have experiences unlike those they had encountered before. As they sought to understand those experiences, they would naturally add a dimension of the supernatural to their understanding. They remembered the God of Noah as He had been “modified” by Ham. But they might well give to the LORD a new name of their own making – a name that felt better in their fairly new language. They would never see Noah again and would need to make their own way in the world. They would, in a sense, “claim” God for themselves by giving Him a new name and persona. Stories about the god of their greatly modified idea of God would begin to contain imagery from the new life they were now living. Somehow, in the midst of all that, the limitations they had gradually imposed on their view of God would begin to make Him incomplete in their thinking. So they would begin to “create” children for Him. Soon, nearly all linkage to an accurate perspective of God would be lost. They would come to think of their own pantheon as being all there was of the divine. Noah and his God would simply become lost memories to them. Some vestiges might remain but would be massively changed in language and liturgy.
As far as any Egyptian knew, the ideas they had about deity were the original ideas of all human beings. Of course, as they encountered other peoples – mostly other Hamites by the way – they would find that the other folks had different ideas but there were compatible beliefs. This would lead to a tendency to define divinity in only their own terms. Hence, when they encountered any other gods, those gods would be compared to their own, but would be interpreted as being inferior to their own. After all, you have to live with your gods after the other folks leave town.
As far as the names given to the individual diminished gods, might it be that various “servants of Satan” would suggest names to the Egyptians in a bid to be sure they were the ones worshipped and not the God of Noah? That seems likely actually.
So, when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, the response he got made perfectly good sense to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Who is the LORD (Yahweh)? They had lost track of who God was and had substituted a bunch of demonic entities in His place. They had done so partly because their deficient view of God had made them susceptible to exploitation by those who are servants of Satan.