Meditations in Exodus: 27. The Battle of the Snakes
Ex 7:8,9 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, `Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, `Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”
The passage we are about to have a look at is without doubt one of the strangest or most weird in the Bible, I believe. To start from basics it either happened or it didn’t. Skeptics and atheists would say it was just made up and so didn’t happen, but you have to ask why should Moses bother to include it or make it up because it is fairly minor in effect when compared to the ten plagues that follow. So let’s accept it happened, but why? Let’s see if we can tease the truth out of the verses to come. I’m sure these are verses we may have read many times before but like many commentators pass over very quickly noting it happened but nothing more. So…..
I confess I had never noticed one part of the above verses. The Lord anticipates Pharaoh is going to demand a miracle: “When Pharaoh says”. Although verse 10 doesn’t tell us that that was what happened we must assume it was so. The bit about throwing down the staff, we encountered before when it first happened at the burning bush in Chapter 4 that we considered in Meditation 15. Now it is going to be Aaron who throws the staff down. But it is this disconcerting thing of Pharaoh expecting or demanding a miracle. Now there are two possibilities.
Possibility no.1 is that Pharaoh neither believes in gods of power nor miracles and just uses all the superstitious worship of gods to his own ends and so he says it out of unbelief as a means of blocking Moses. That doesn’t seem to be very real. The superstitious beliefs of Egypt are well known as is the occult character of them. No, the second possibility seems more likely, that he is saying, “Very well Moses, you are introducing a new god to us, what can he do?” As we go on we’ll see that the occult powers were very real and so maybe indeed he was challenging a power encounter.
So it happens as God said: “So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.” (v.10) As we said, presumably Pharaoh makes the challenge and Aaron throws down the staff and it turns in a snake. Nasty! Presumably the snake doesn’t do much and so Pharaoh’s immediate response is to call for his occult-operating priests or magicians: “Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake.” (v.11,12)
Now it is at this point that commentators go all over the place. There are those, with a more materialistic bent, who suggest that these ‘magicians’ or ‘sorcerers’ were in fact clever snake handlers who by pressing the vein or nerve behind the snake’s head could make the snake go rigid and appear like a staff in their hands, so when they threw them to the ground they regained control and appeared as the snake it was the whole time. Other commentators fluff around the alternative, that somehow they did literally copy Aaron’s little party trick, as Pharaoh obviously saw it. This is why I say this must be one of the weirdest passages in scripture for, with the plague that follows which they copy, these are almost uniquely in the Bible the only times when occult power is manifest in such a tangible manner, and yet the hints are often there that such powers were possible.
It is often said that Satan, who must be behind these occult powers, can never do anything original, he can only copy what God does, and that is exactly what we have here, a copy-cat miracle. These wise men, sorcerers or magicians, call them what you will, did seem to have power of some occult sort. But then see what follows: “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” Oh, gross! I don’t know how many of these other snakes there were but Aaron’s snake goes round and gulps up all of them. Presumably his snake didn’t get bigger and bigger and although we aren’t told this, we must assume afterwards his snake went back into the form of his staff again. Were these things illusions? I haven’t a clue, I cannot explain it, I’m just like all the other commentators. I don’t know how it happened. However, as predicted, it didn’t achieve the desired for effect: “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (v.13)
So why this weird episode? Well there are some specific things we can note.
First, there is power, magic of some form some might say, there in Egypt which counterfeits the work of God. Isn’t that what any false religion does? It counterfeits the true thing, and because it is counterfeit, it deceives and leads people to believe that which is false and that which is wrong. Magic, spells, incantations and manifestations appear to be common in ancient Egyptian literature.
Second, the point of the episode is to show that God’s power is supreme over the occult powers manifested by the magicians. This is going to become manifestly obvious as the plagues progress and no objective observer would be able to deny that. All that follows is really all about power.
Third, Moses and Aaron were no doubt delighted by the scary outcome and I suspect Aaron was very wary when he had to pick up the snake, turning back into his staff. However, I would guess that both he and Moses were greatly encouraged by the outcome; the Lord WAS there for them!
Fourth, it shows that Pharaoh’s hardness is there from the outset and was not going to be easily moved. Nice magic trick boys, but I’m not impressed; I’m still Pharaoh.
We should also note, fifthly, that this was a miracle that had no effect beyond the spectacular. This is what distinguishes it simply as a preliminary warning of what is coming; the plagues caused widespread havoc. This simply caused a stir in the palace – but it no doubt did leave Pharaoh thinking and he is now paying attention – but that won’t be good enough for an end result, but then the Lord knew that from the outset, so perhaps this was just to encourage Moses and Aaron more than anything else. The Lord delights to encourage His people.
So this was a ‘sign’ for Pharaoh but people don’t always take note of signs. That didn’t put Jesus off doing them though. His miracles and the incredible number of healings he brought were signs for those with eyes to see. Signs and wonders were clearly part of his ministry. (Acts 2:22) and he is the same Son of God today (Heb 13:8), so can he still bring that level of ministry through his body today, the Church?