The Egyptian priests and their snakes (Exodus 7)

The Bible frequently records particular events without explaining how they happened. Exodus 7, for example, reveals that Egyptian magicians mimicked Moses’ changing of his staff into a snake “by their secret arts” (verse 11). This could mean that they employed supernatural power and actually changed staffs into snakes. The Bible, however, does not explicitly state whether or not supernatural agents, either divine (Numbers 22:21 ff.) or demonic (Deuteronomy 18:10-11, Job 2:7) were involved.

The majority of scholars believe that the Egyptians used mere trickery on this occasion. Throughout the ancient world priests regularly deceived gullible people (e.g. a priest would hide in a large, hollowed-out idol and speak for the god). So the Egyptians could have used sleight of hand (anologous to modern stage magicians performing tricks with animals). Evidence also reveals that Egyptians regularly practiced a method of snake charming that allowed then to put snakes into a kind of catalepsy, whereby they would remain as stiff as a rod until awakened. This trick is still practiced in Egypt today.

It is helpful to recognize that the purpose of this Biblical text was not to debunk Egyptian magic, but to show that the power of Israel’s God was greater than any power Egypt possessed. When Moses’ snake swallowed the Egyptian’s snakes, the evnt predicted disaster for the pharaoh. A representative snake from Israel’s God had defeated one of Egypt’s national symbols – the serpent – an animal considered sacred in Lower Egypt where Moses’ confrontation with the pharaoh was taking place.

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