by Lois Tverberg
The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. – Exodus 4:21
It seems odd that God would tell Moses from the very beginning that it would take many plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Why couldn’t God have freed them with one spectacular display of power? Why couldn’t God have skipped the milder plagues if he knew he’d send the more powerful ones later?
One reason was that the purpose of the plagues wasn’t just to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites, but to declare that God was supreme over the many “gods” that Egypt worshipped (Ex.
12:12). God was communicating this to Pharaoh, and also to his own people who very likely believed in them after four hundred years in that land. Each of the plagues was a defeat of one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped – the Nile god, the Sun god, the Frog god, the animal gods
Another reason could have been mercy. God didn’t simply come in and destroy the oppressor of his people, Pharaoh, before giving him a chance to let them go on his own. God gave him many chances that he rejected, and only after several times did God harden him from further repentance.
Finally, perhaps it was simply that God realized that after four hundred years of not knowing him, his people had to experience his power firsthand many, many times. He knew that they would soon be in the desert facing trials, and would lose faith quickly enough. He knew they would be there for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, and they needed strong memories to sustain them. He also knew that humans often think they’ve learned a lesson when they need to repeat it many times. He was instilling in his people a sense of his power that would sustain them for the millennia ahead.
Photocred: J. M. W. Turner and Riccadov
by Lois Tverberg
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. 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. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said. – Exodus 7:10-13
It is fascinating that the first sign that God gave Moses to show Pharaoh God’s power is so weak as to be almost humorous. Pharaoh had imagined that the God of Israel was one of the small gods of other nations, and assumed his powerful gods could easily defeat him. This first story sounds like that is the impression that God wants him to start off with, too, initially.
God told Aaron to throw down his staff so that it changed into a snake, fully knowing that the Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same thing. They must have smirked when they saw it, recognizing it from their bag of standard warm-up stunts and laughing to themselves at how easy it would be to replicate. It’s like God was lobbing a slow pitch over the plate for an easy swing – something to draw the attention of the spiritual powers that there was a new “god” in town who
had wandered into their territory.
Interestingly, the word to describe the snake is different that what one would expect. The typical word for snake was nahash (nah-HAHSH), but this was a tanin, (tah-NEEN) a larger reptile, possibly describing the hooded cobra of the Nile. The cobra is the snake-god associated with Pharaoh’s powers as king, the one seen in the golden headdress and masks of Pharaohs in Egypt. The magicians were able to produce it too, either by sleight of hand or by some occult powers.
It is interesting that when God interacts with humans, even his enemies, he starts out in such a humble way, like a baby laid in a manger. He begins by looking a lot like what was around, like one teacher among many, one Galilean carpenter in the crowd. Only later will his full power be displayed.
Photocred: Erik Hooymans