In this encounter, God seems to mimic the magicians of Egypt. For the commentators, this seems both bizarre and absurd. Virtually in every one that I have available, they talk about how this is just the way that God desired to do it. God uses the practices of the magicians to show that the magicians can’t do all that God does (eventually, anyway). Another suggests that God allowed the demons to perform the same works through the magicians. For some reason, this is the question that the commentaries raise. Why is God telling Moses and Aaron to perform magic?
Personally, I don’t think this is magic. It’s miraculous, and we saw that back at the burning bush. Just because the magicians are able to perform magic that mimics this feat doesn’t mean that it is magic for Moses or Aaron. The sole commentary that suggests another view is the JPS Torah commentary (Jewish), which explains that Aaron’s staff was an actual staff, where the magicians simply had real snakes that were paralyzed temporarily. Whether this is possible or not, I don’t know. Still, I find the point is being missed.
What is the point?
The passage begins with God telling Moses that when Pharaoh asks for a sign, that Aaron is to then throw down his rod. Did you catch it? Pharaoh is the one who is demanding a sign. It is Pharaoh who says that if our God wants to deliver us that we must show him the power and authority of our God. Think of Jesus’ words: A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign. Why? Because the signs of the plagues, which are about to unfold after this scene, were not brought about due to God wanting to show His power among the Egyptians, but because Pharaoh demanded a sign. God sends the plagues as judgment upon the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12). Is that enough of a sign for you, Pharaoh? Your gods cannot save you, and you keep crying out, but there is no one listening. Is that enough of a sign, you Egyptians?
We find that later in Exodus the very same magicians who perform this magic trick are the ones who beg Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and even contend that the plagues that are ensued are “the very finger of God”. There comes a point at which no longer do the magicians repeat the acts, but recognize that no man has this power. There comes a point at which the plagues are no longer devastating, but the magicians can do it too. Something happens in the minds of the magicians, and in the Egyptian society. There is recognition that these things are judgments, and only the God of gods can do this.
Therefore, it comes to pass that the magicians themselves, who at this present time are most likely mocking and laughing, will turn to Pharaoh and be appalled. Do you want your entire kingdom to collapse? Can’t you see that you’ve already been defeated? Why should Egypt cease to exist? In the history books, you can find within the 19th dynasty that there was actually a Pharaoh who died, his wife panicking now because there is no son to take his place, and the gods of Egypt completely tossed aside for the establishment of “new gods”. I wonder what it could be that would cause this…
It is interesting that the Hebrew word used for “snake” is not used in this passage for what Aaron’s rod turns into. Back in Exodus 4, it turned into a nachash – a snake. Here, it turns into a tanniyn – a sea monster. Later in Ezekiel 29, this same word will be used in reference to Pharaoh himself. I’m not sure I understand the significance, and neither do the commentators. There is certainly something that Ezekiel perceives that is past the mere suggestion that this was a crocodile instead of a snake (as Sarna and Durham suggest). This is the ancient sea monster, the one comparable to Leviathan, of which is a symbol of the Antichrist who comes out of the sea (Revelation 13:1-2).
What do you think? How do the pieces come together on this one? What is the significance of this act before Pharaoh? And, do you know why the rod turns into a “sea monster”?