How Did God Punish the Jewish People For Disobedience During the Exodus?

Over the centuries, Jews have come into contact with many empires – each shaping Jewish history in its own unique way.

Nahmanides sees God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a necessary step to free Israel. Through Pharaoh’s incalcitrance, plagues could be decreed and lessons could be learned (both by Israel and Egyptians alike). This practice represents covenantal ethics.

The Exodus

The Exodus is one of the key stories in the Bible and annually celebrated through Passover. This holiday symbolizes freedom from slavery while showing God’s mighty power and redemption; indeed it forms the cornerstone for biblical narrative spanning four books of Torah (commonly known as Pentateuch) until reaching Christ and then finally to Revelation’s New Jerusalem.

The Bible describes Israel’s people being oppressed by Egypt’s oppressive and tyrannical government of Pharaoh, refusing to listen to Moses’ pleas for assistance from Him. When Pharaoh did not heed those pleas, God unleashed devastating plagues upon the land, killing livestock while spreading disease and pests across it – thus exacting revenge upon Pharaoh for his oppressive rule and spreading disaster through nature’s own ecosystem – an ecological disaster which God used as punishment against Pharaoh for Egypt’s oppressive rule over years of suffering under Pharaoh and oppressive regime of Pharaoh and his forces.

These biblical plagues led to Israel’s eventual departure from Egypt. God instructed Moses to gather all of Israel and lead them out. After that, He would destroy Egypt and free His people. Unfortunately for Moses, his speech impediment, lack of strength and hostile wife cast doubts upon God’s ability to complete this mission successfully.

At the same time, Moses struggled against his own sinful nature and the temptations to follow his own will rather than God’s. Additionally, Israel began engaging in unclean activities which required God to punish them with exile for disobeying Him.

Moses and Israel managed to escape Egypt, only to encounter one final obstacle – the Red Sea. Mountainous terrain lay on either side and Egypt was closing in quickly on them – until God intervened, parting its waters so the Israelites could flee safely away from its confines.

The Israelites then endured 40 turbulent years crossing through the Sinai desert before reaching Canaan, later known as Israel. Today, millions of believers draw strength and hope from reading the Bible’s messages of love and forgiveness; its story of real people finding freedom from oppression resonates powerfully; this theme has even been carried forward through Jesus Christ who embodied this same spirit as Moses.

Pharaoh’s punishment

God responded to Pharaoh’s refusal to liberate Israel with a series of terrible plagues. After each one, Pharaoh would promise obedience but then harden his heart once more – this pattern continued for several more plagues until finally every first-born son in Egypt would be killed as punishment for refusing to recognize God as their ruler.

Rashi (Northern France, 11th century), suggested one talmudic approach to God’s actions in this story. His philosophy suggested he could sidestep any ethical concerns by viewing the story as depicting an ontological separation between Pharaoh and Israel – or, put another way, God has no reason to treat Pharaoh fairly if he cannot repent of his sins.

Nahmanides and Maimonides offered another approach by viewing this event as part of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. This view not only makes God’s actions understandable in terms of covenantal ethics but it forces us to examine what it means for God to have free will while still having potential cruel and unusual punishment.

Underlying this viewpoint lies the question: why did God need Pharaoh’s cooperation to carry out his plan of punishing Egypt and teaching its people a lesson? Alternatively, Pharaoh could have released Israel by recognising God; however, such action would have destroyed Egypt’s economy and rendered it inhabitable both for Pharaoh and Israelites alike.

Plagues were intended to force Pharaoh to choose between his economic interests and God’s commandment, ultimately accomplishing their intended goal – exodus.

God’s punishment

God will punish Israel for their disobedience to Him and is found throughout Scripture as a common theme. Isaiah warns that Jerusalem, which symbolizes all the tribes of Israel, would suffer twice as much for their sins than Sodom and Gomorrah had to suffer (Isaiah 40:2). God won’t forgive their rebellion nor allow repentance – instead He will correct their offenses appropriately to bring them back into their Promised Land, where He can give rest and peace.

First of all, Hebrew disobedience to God manifested itself when they spied on the land He promised them. Although He instructed them to send out spies as instructed, many rebelled and sent out spy missions instead – leading to all but two Israelites living at that time being barred from entering into it, Caleb and Joshua being exceptions who obeyed his order faithfully.

Another incident of disobedience included when a man was observed gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and as soon as this news reached Moses and Aaron they stoned him to death for violating its sacred nature – God made His will very clear: any individual working on a holy day was guilty of breaking its purity, so anyone engaging in work on that day was guilty of breaking its spirit and must pay with their life.

Once Israel had secured control of their land, they committed a number of atrocious acts against God. When they captured Jericho for example, they massacred every resident – men, women, young adults and older folk, including cattle, sheep and donkey. Furthermore they dedicated it to destruction using sword.

Moses attempted to persuade God not to destroy Israel’s people by saying: “Perhaps I can make atonement for you.” Moses believed he could provide enough atonement through mediation between Him and their nation of Israelites.

Deuteronomy records that, after forty years in the wilderness, Moses returned the Law he received from God at Mount Sinai to Israel. This included commandments not to worship other gods, profane his name or commit adultery.


The Exodus from Egypt is an iconic event in our people’s history. It illustrates that God is sovereign over life, doing whatever He pleases; obedience to Him brings blessings; yet sometimes, like Pharaoh, pride causes us to resist believing that He will work His will. Additionally, Hosea and Isaiah teach us that when we disobey His instructions He sends us into exile as punishment – another lesson from this epic tale of how our people came out from under Egyptian captivity.

The Book of Exodus begins by giving an accurate depiction of Israel’s departure from Egypt. They were slaves there, living lives that were miserable and degrading – hard labor plus moral degradation due to Egyptian practices such as treating women inferior to men or forcing men to do what would normally be performed by female slaves; additionally they forced children as servants into Egyptian homes.

Yet despite these hardships, the Israelites managed to persevere. Led by charismatic leader Moses, they managed to escape slavery in Egypt – leading them to flee armed in a way which belies their image of oppressed people.

When the Hebrews left Egypt, they took with them an army that some sources believe totalled at around 6,000,000 men.

These men were joined by their families and herds; counting these people helps us calculate the size of Israel’s army compared to that of Pharaoh’s vast force.

One reason why God sent the Hebrews into exile was due to their failure to listen to His directions. Though He provided clear guidelines, they disobeyed these orders and started sinfully worshipping multiple gods; furthermore, references are found throughout Isaiah concerning their exile but its exact date(s) remain elusive.

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