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In this post, I take an in-depth look at Exodus 6:28-7:13. This passage sets up the dramatic confrontation between God and Pharaoh.  

Exodus 7 Photo by Dario Dominico is licensed under CC 2.0. This content uses referral links.

28Now when Yahweh spoke to Moses in Egypt, he said to him, “I am Yahweh. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” 30But Moses said to Yahweh, “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”

1Then Yahweh said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. 2You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. 3But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, 4he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. 5And the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

6Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded them. 7Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

8Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, 9“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.”

10So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said. (Exodus 6:28-7:13)[1]

Introduction

To understand this passage, we must first have a basic understanding of the book of Exodus itself.

Exodus is a natural continuation of the narrative flow of events concluded in Genesis. Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—to Moses. While general scholastic consensus rejects this view, this is unimportant for our purposes here. Whether authored by one author or many authors and editors, the Pentateuch forms a cohesive work with all five of its books flowing together as different parts in the same narrative.

Therefore, to understand this passage, we must understand where it fits within the Pentateuch as a whole.

Genesis Sets the Stage

The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the origin of the human race and the events surrounding its early existence. They particularly emphasize the relationship between God and man.

Included are creation, the fall of man, the great flood, and the confusion of the languages at Babel with its consequential dispersion of humanity throughout the earth. These chapters describe the unfortunate condition of man and its fall from glory, setting the stage for the beginning of God’s redemptive work in Chapter 12.

A Light of Hope

Chapter 12 marks the turning point in the narrative. It is here that God changes the landscape of the divine-human relationship through his covenant with Abraham. His call of Abraham is the first step in the great redemption story.

Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12:1b-3)

The remainder of the Bible is built around this covenant. Its ultimate fulfillment came through Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham, through whom all peoples are blessed.[2]

The Exodus

The end of Genesis finds Abraham’s descendants living in Egypt. Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, had just saved the Egyptians from a great famine and risen to a place of prominence within the Egyptian government. In response, Joseph’s father, Jacob, had moved all of his family to settle in Egypt.

God had promised Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan. Genesis ends, therefore, with the covenant unfulfilled.

The opening setting of Exodus is Egypt. So sets the stage for Yahweh, the God of Israel, to fulfill his covenant with Abraham.

The book begins with evidence of Yahweh’s faithfulness. The first few paragraphs describe his fulfilling his promise to make a great nation out of Abraham.

“[T]he Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:6)

This growth would not go unnoticed.

Who Knew Not of Joseph

When a Pharaoh who knows not of Joseph comes to the throne, he enslaves the Israelites, fearing that they might join Egypt’s enemies in time of war.[3] The enslavement of the people, however, does not prevent Yahweh from fulfilling his covenant with Abraham. Indeed, “the more [the Israelites] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” (Exodus 1:12a)

Seeing this, Pharaoh orders the execution of all newborn Israelite male children. Through his order, Pharaoh finds himself in direct opposition to Yahweh. By cursing the descendants of Abraham, Pharaoh evokes the Abrahamic covenant. (“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse…” (Gen 12:3))

Confrontation between Yahweh and Pharaoh is now inevitable.

After the Exodus

Of course, as anyone familiar with the Exodus story can attest, Yahweh prevails and delivers the Israelites from bondage. The remaining books of the Pentateuch deal with the aftermath of the divine victory.

The latter part of Exodus and the remaining books of the Pentateuch address the Mosaic covenant and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. The Pentateuch ends with the Israelites preparing to take possession of the Promised Land.

After Moses

The end of the Pentateuch begins the long narrative of God’s continued redemptive work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites take possession of the Promised Land through a great military campaign.[4] After settling into the land, the Israelites endure a constant cycle of obedience to Yahweh, disobedience to Yahweh, the consequential oppression by a foreign power, repentance, and then deliverance. A generation would die off, and the cycle would begin again.

Eventually, a brief period of united monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon ensues. Civil war follows the death of Solomon, resulting in the division of the land between Judah in the south and Israel in the North.

Finally, the people’s disobedience to Yahweh’s law and their refusal to listen to the prophets’ call to repentance results in calamitous divine judgment.

First, the Assyrians conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and breed the ten northern tribes out of existence. Then the Babylonians conquer Judah and carry the people off to Babylon. The Old Testament finally ends with a remnant of those exiled to Babylon returning to the Promised Land.[5]

Understanding where Exodus fits within the larger canonical context is critical to understanding its message.

Exodus 6:28-7:13 within the Larger Exodus Narrative

In the same way that we cannot understand Exodus without understanding its place within the larger narrative of the divine work of redemption, we cannot understand Exodus 6:28-7:13 without understanding where it fits within the context of Exodus itself.

Liberation Narrative

Exodus 1:1-15:21 is the liberation narrative.

Exodus 1:1-4:31 describes Yahweh’s preparations for the deliverance. A new king comes to power who challenges Yahweh’s covenant with his people (1:1-22). Moses is born and delivered from Pharaoh’s attempts to kill him (2:1-10). Moses flees Egypt (2:11-22). Yahweh sends Moses back to deliver the Israelites (2:23-4:31).[6]

In Exodus 5:1-11:10, Yahweh demands through Moses that Pharaoh let the Israelites go.[7] In response, Pharaoh not only refuses Yahweh but also increases his oppression of the people (5:1-6:1).

Yahweh then reveals His intentions for dealing with Pharaoh to Moses (6:2-30) and follows through with great miraculous signs. These include the transformation of Aaron’s staff into a serpent and the plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail, locust, darkness, and the death of the firstborn (7:1-12:39).[8]

After a pause in the narrative for directions concerning the annual observance of Passover (12:40-51) and the special observance of the dedication of the firstborn son (13:1-16), the narrative resumes with Yahweh’s guiding the Israelites to the Promised Land by the pillars of cloud and fire (13:17-22).

Then Pharaoh, regretting the liberation of the Israelites, decides to chase after them. In response, Yahweh leads the Israelites through the Red Sea where he drowns the pursuing Egyptian army (14:1-31).[9]

Exodus After the Escape

The remainder of the Exodus narrative describes the events surrounding the people’s traveling to Canaan. It particularly addresses Yahweh’s provision and the people’s ingratitude. During this time, Yahweh reveals his power by making bitter water sweet (15:22-27), giving the people manna and quail to eat (16:1-36), bringing forth water from the Rock (17:1-7), and giving the Israelites victory over Amalek (17:8-16).[10]

The Mosaic Covenant

Exodus 19:1-24:18 describes the new covenant that Yahweh makes with the Israelites. After providing the law, most notably the ten commandments, Yahweh orders Moses to build a tabernacle so that he might dwell among the Israelites (25:1-31:8).

The Israelites’ idolatrous worship of the golden calf, however, suddenly interrupts the narrative (32:1-35). Yahweh’s anger burns fiercely against the Israelites, and he even threatens to destroy them all. Moses, however, intercedes on behalf of the people, and Yahweh relents (33:1-34:28).

Israel then proceeds to build the Tabernacle as Yahweh directs.[11] Yahweh, in his mercy, still agrees to dwell among a rebellious people who have shown so little gratitude for their liberation.

The Place of Exodus 6:28-7:13

Exodus 6:28-7:13 serves to initiate the display of Yahweh’s power. He begins his resounding answer to Pharaoh’s earlier question, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2a). Yahweh begins to reveal exactly who he is to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt. The transformation of Aaron’s rod into a snake is just the beginning.

Yahweh wages war, and “[t]he dramatic power of the narrative is found in its presentation of Yahweh in deep conflict and combat with the gods…of Egypt.”[12]

Exodus 6:28-30

28Now when Yahweh spoke to Moses in Egypt, he said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.’ 30But Moses said to Yahweh, ‘Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?’” (Exodus 6:28-30).

A list of genealogies in Exodus 6:14-27 abruptly interrupts the narrative. So, in keeping with common Old Testament narrative practice, the author recapitulates a small amount of the story before continuing with the narrative events by repeating verses 10-12[13] in verse 28.[14]

Who Is Yahweh?

The narrative resumes with Yahweh’s response to Pharaoh’s question, “Who is Yahweh?”

“I am Yahweh,” he declares, and Pharaoh will soon understand the full significance of that statement. Yahweh begins his assault with the charge to go “[t]ell Pharaoh,” an explicit claim of authority over the Egyptian king.[15]

Who Is Moses?

Yahweh’s powerful claims of superiority quickly contrast with Moses’ doubt in verse 30, leaving the prospect of Moses’ obedience to Yahweh uncertain.[16] Throughout the narrative, Moses doubts his ability to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.[17]

Moses is so concerned with his own ability that he forgets his real role in the events. Yahweh alone, and not Moses, will secure the release of the Israelites. Moses is merely the tool by which Yahweh has chosen to do his work. The narrative intentionally portrays Moses as a flawed hero to emphasize Yahweh as the prime mover in the Exodus.[18]

The preceding genealogy in Exodus 6:14-27 further accentuates Moses’ weakness. Not only does Moses lack natural ability, but he also lacks a distinguished genealogy. He is not a descendant of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, but Levi, his third, a man so wicked that Jacob denied him an inheritance and cursed his descendants to scatter (Gen 49:5-8).

He is also not a descendant of Levi’s first son, but his second. Moses is not even the firstborn in his own family. That title belongs to Aaron.[19]

The simple point is that Moses, the man with whom Yahweh so freely converses, has few credentials except that which Yahweh has given to him. Yahweh is all Moses has, but that is sufficient.[20]

Indeed, Yahweh’s use of the weak to accomplish great works is a common theme throughout Scripture (cf., 2 Cor 12:9-10), and his use of Moses further illustrates his tendency to exalt the humble.

“Faltering Lips”

The Hebrew word used for “faltering” in verse 30 is ערל. The word is thusly translated only one other time in Scripture.

Elsewhere, it is translated “closed” in Jeremiah 6:10—“Their ears are closed so they cannot hear” (italics added)—and “forbidden” in Leviticus 19:23, where Yahweh commands the Israelites to consider the fruit of a newly planted tree “forbidden.”

The vast majority of the time, however, the word is translated “uncircumcised.” Literally, therefore, Moses has “uncircumcised lips,” a vivid way of describing his dysfunctional speech.[21]

The word makes many appearances in the Old Testament including Exodus 12:48—“No uncircumcised male may eat of it” (italics added)—Leviticus 26:41—“then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin,” (italics added)—and Judges 14:3—“Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” (italics added).

Moses’ use of ערל to describe his lips adds more significant meaning than merely slow of speech. He describes his lips in the sense of impurity and unacceptability. The word choice is intentional and further emphasizes the flawed character of Moses and his total dependence on Yahweh to lead the Israelites to freedom.

Exodus 7:1-7

1Then Yahweh said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. 2You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. 3But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, 4he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. 5And the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.’ 6Moses and Aaron did just as Yahweh commanded them. 7Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (Exodus 7:1-7)

Here begins the dramatic confrontation between Yahweh and Pharaoh, “a struggle for power, control, and sovereignty.”[22] The entirety of the plague narrative opens with a response to the doubt of Moses.[23]

This passage serves to reassure Moses, something of which he is in desperate need after both Pharaoh and the Israelites reject his message in chapter 5.[24]

The passage also includes a command reasserting that Moses is merely an instrument of Yahweh’s activity. Yahweh does not answer Moses’ question of doubt as he had asked it but rather gives Moses a new perspective on the task at hand. Getting Pharaoh to respond is not Moses’ task, but Yahweh’s.[25]

Moses as God

In addition, Yahweh defines the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh and the relationship between Moses and Aaron. By making Moses “God” to Pharaoh, Yahweh gives to him enormous authority.[26] Moses will appear to Pharaoh as no one has ever appeared to him before. He will be “God” to Pharaoh by the words of Yahweh. Yahweh will confirm his message through mighty deeds.[27]

The passage also defines the relationship between Aaron and Moses, likening it to that of the relationship between a god and his prophet.[28] Though the documentation of genealogy in Exodus 6:14-27 justifies Aaron as an equal partner with Moses,[29] here Yahweh leaves no doubt as to who is superior and who is subordinate in their relationship.[30]

In a move of great theological importance, Yahweh gives up the sole right to the word “God.” This act is one of “divine self-effacement,” in which Yahweh allows the achievement of the divine purpose to be clothed in human form.[31] Therefore, Moses serves Yahweh’s purpose before Pharaoh. “In and through what Moses says and does in what follows, God himself is present and active.”[32]

Challenging Pharaoh’s Divinity

The impact of Yahweh’s making Moses God is significant. After all, Pharaoh considered himself to be a god. Therefore, by making Moses God to Pharaoh, Yahweh is using Pharaoh’s arrogance against him, beating him at his own game.

How ironic, therefore, to think that the God in the confrontation is not the ruler of the most powerful nation on earth but rather a shepherd and leader of slaves. Furthermore, Moses defeats Pharaoh in such a mighty way as to leave no doubt as to the source of his power. Unlike Pharaoh, Moses, by Yahweh’s power, controls all things. Even nature itself obeys him. “Moses is not simply like God to Pharaoh. He truly is God to Pharaoh in that God is acting through Moses.”[33]

Surely, Pharaoh also finds it perplexing that another divine being—for he considered himself a god—would not converse with him directly but would instead send a humble messenger. Yahweh’s refusal to directly converse with Pharaoh must insult him and serve as yet another reminder that Pharaoh is but a man and consequently powerless before the real God.

God and Man

Here, it is important to remember that the Pentateuch forms one cohesive work, such that themes from one book play out in another. Moses’ relationship with Yahweh in Exodus recalls man’s intimacy with God in the garden. Indeed, in Moses’ relationship with Yahweh is seen the type of intimacy that Yahweh intended every human being to have with him before the fall.

From this perspective, therefore, Moses’ acting as God is not a grand elevation of Moses to some superhuman status but is rather a sad commentary on the “subhuman” condition of the rest of humanity because of Adam’s sin. The intimate nature of Moses’ relationship with Yahweh and his role as mediator between Yahweh and the Israelites demonstrates his true humanity. Yahweh plans to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of Pharaoh to a new level of intimacy with him. Previewed in the person of Moses, Yahweh will later show how intimacy with himself can be sustained, namely through the law.[34]

Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart

In verse 3, Yahweh immediately undermines both the assurance and the command in verses 1 and 2 by intensifying the power struggle with Pharaoh. For although Yahweh will do “signs and wonders” that will dazzle and amaze, he will simultaneously harden Pharaoh’s heart.

These two events do not merely serve to counteract each other as a literary device for intensification. Rather, Yahweh and Pharaoh are bound together in an intense standoff waiting for one or the other to lose nerve and back down. As Yahweh takes action to liberate the Israelites, Pharaoh orders greater oppression, which in turn produces a more intense resolve for liberation.[35]

Yahweh will harden the heart of Pharaoh so that he might not take heed too early, lest he be left with anything less than unquestionable belief in Yahweh. Yahweh’s rescue of the Israelites will “occur in such a manner as to provoke even the Egyptians to belief.”[36]

Moses, therefore, is right to think that Pharaoh will ignore him, but that is of no consequence. Yahweh is determined that Pharaoh will learn who he is through experience and not through an elegant presentation on the part of Moses.[37] 

In addition, Yahweh’s ability to harden Pharaoh’s heart demonstrates Yahweh’s power over Pharaoh, proving who the real God is.

Yahweh as the Universal God

Yahweh will make his power evidence through his great “acts of judgment.” This suggests that the reader should understand the coming plagues as enforcements of divine decrees. Yahweh is about to shatter the Egyptians’ notion that they are not accountable to him. (“Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him?”)

In his oppression of the Israelites, Pharaoh seeks to secede from the authority of Yahweh, for the sign of such rebellion is the oppression of the powerless.[38] Egypt and the whole earth will soon know that Yahweh is not indifferent to evil.[39]

Furthermore, Yahweh will show the Egyptians that he is more than the local ethnic God of the Israelites.[40] The Exodus, therefore, functions not only to free the Israelites from slavery but also to remind Egypt and the rest of the world that the God of Abraham is God over them as well.

Obedience and Doubt

Exodus 7:6 repeats a theme prevalent in the narrative: command and obedience. Despite the doubts and misgivings of Moses, he obeys Yahweh’s commands. In this particular case, Yahweh commands Moses and Aaron to speak to Pharaoh. They respond by doing just that.[41]

The obedience of Moses and Aaron despite their own doubts and uncertainties clarifies who is in charge, giving Yahweh all the glory for which Moses and Aaron may otherwise have received credit.

Yahweh makes it abundantly clear yet again that both Moses and Pharaoh are his instruments to prove his glory. Yahweh orders Moses to speak to Pharaoh—through Aaron—the words he has given him. Pharaoh will, in turn, become stubborn, so that the wonders of Yahweh will increase and consequently have greater impact.

Yahweh In Control

Yahweh’s complete control of the situation is abundantly clear in the narrative as he orders Moses to do his part by speaking to Pharaoh. Yahweh will then see to it that Pharaoh does his part by hardening his heart.[42]

Thus Yahweh is orchestrating, in a combination of opposing and unlikely forces, a deliverance that will above all be proof of his active Presence. A reluctant Moses, an unbelieving Pharaoh, a crushed and dispirited Israel, a proud and ruling Egyptian people, a non-nation against the greatest of nations, are brought together, and the opposing sides are set still more firmly in their respective ways, so that the proof of Yahweh’s Presence, which is to turn everything upside down, may be established irrevocably. Even as Moses and Aaron speak Yahweh’s words of command to Pharaoh, Yahweh will increase Pharaoh’s resistance, thus creating an impasse.[43]

His preparations made, Yahweh then proceeds to bring about his mighty deeds in the land. These deeds will function as convincing evidence of his presence and authority and the climax of the exodus itself. The Egyptians will know through experience who Yahweh is.[44] That experience will invite them to their own belief.[45]

Hardening and Free Will

The word used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 7:2 is קשה, which literally means, “to be hard.” The root word appears elsewhere to refer to stiff-necked people (Ex 32:9, 33:3-5, 34:9, Ezek 2:4, 3:7).[46]

In Genesis 49:7, it is translated “cruel.” “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel!” (italics added). In Exodus 18:26, it is translated “difficult.” “The difficult cases they brought to Moses…” (italics added). The narrative here, therefore, stresses the resolve of Pharaoh against Yahweh in refusing to obey and instead oppressing the people all the more.

Pharaoh is still accountable for his actions. It is not impossible for outside events to persuade one with a hardened heart. For example, Yahweh hardens the hearts of Pharaoh’s servants (10:1), yet they see the negative impact of divine judgment on Egypt and urge Pharaoh to change his ways.

Hardening is an act that repeatedly occurs in the narrative, and, as in the formation of calluses, there is a buildup of unshakeable hardness over time. This explains why there is a continuing reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The effects of the hardening at the onset of the plagues are different from its effect at the end. Each refusal makes it easier to refuse the next time.

Therefore, Yahweh does not entirely determine the acts of Pharaoh in the narrative nor does Pharaoh harden his heart out of nothing more than free will. There is a “psychological/theological” split regarding the means by which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. “Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and so does God.”[47] Paradoxically, therefore, Yahweh can harden Pharaoh’s heart without violating Pharaoh’s free will.[48] Yahweh persuades upon Pharoah. He does not control him.

Age of Moses

Exodus 7:7 gives the ages of Moses and Aaron. Though seemingly irrelevant and out of place, this information could serve to remind the reader how long Israel has been in slavery. Alternatively, it could point out the maturity of Moses for the task.[49]

Another possibility, however, considering the narrator’s painstaking efforts to emphasize the weakness of Moses, is that the age of Moses further emphasizes his helplessness. On top of all of his other shortcomings, Moses does not even have his youth. In fact, the first time he tried to stand up for the Israelites by killing an Egyptian oppressor, he was much stronger, much younger, and much more commanding. Yet, he failed miserably.

By all logic, this time should result in even greater defeat. This time, however, Yahweh is fighting the battle, and that, and that alone, will be the difference. The deliverance of Israel, therefore, is naturally attributed to Yahweh rather than a verbally challenged, murderous old man.

Moses stands as a great example of how God can use ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Let My People Go

In Exodus 7:2, the Hebrew word used for “let go” is שלח. Though in Exodus 7:2 the NIV translates the word with a passive meaning—“to let go”—it is more often translated actively—“to send”—as in Genesis 24:7—“he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there” (italics added)—and in Genesis 30:25—“Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland” (italics added).

Yahweh is, therefore, ordering Pharaoh to make an active decision to send the Israelites on their way and to prepare them for the journey. In Exodus 12:33-36 the Egyptians do just that by providing the Israelites with silver and gold in order to expedite their departure.

Interestingly enough, Exodus 6:28-7:7 serves as a summary for Exodus 5:1-13:16, functioning as a theological explanation for its events. It explains why Yahweh does what he does in Egypt, and how Pharaoh can harden his heart despite Yahweh’s great miracles.

This section also makes clear the call and commission of Moses and Aaron as Yahweh’s servants, their status as the messengers of his word, and the fact that they achieve what they do by the work of Yahweh. Most importantly, this passage shows that Yahweh will use Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and even the natural world to reveal his power and glory in all the earth.[50]

Exodus 7:8-13

8Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, 9“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.’” 10So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11Pharaoh then summoned wise men[51] and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as Yahweh had said. (Exodus 7:8-13)

Exodus 7:8 marks the first in a series of signs that Yahweh will bring about in Egypt. Yahweh recognizes that Pharaoh will demand something to prove that Moses and Aaron are more than just political protestors. So, he instructs Moses in performing the first sign.[52]

This also marks the first time the narrative mentions signs as a means by which Yahweh will show Pharaoh his power. Earlier Moses used miracles only to prove the validity of his message to the Israelites.[53] Now Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh where Aaron’s staff, a sign of authority, turns into a snake.[54]

A Snake?

The word “snake” in the NIV is a translation far too mild. The Hebrew word from which “snake” is translated is תנין. In most of its uses, תנין means a great “sea monster.” Here, therefore, it shows Yahweh’s release of chaos into Pharaoh’s structured world. The release of this “monster” symbolizes Yahweh’s unleashing of his power upon Egypt in response to the brutal oppression of the Israelites.[55]

The same Hebrew word appears elsewhere in Psalms 148:7. “Praise Yahweh from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…” (italics added). Here the “monster” is a creature obedient to Yahweh.[56]

This word is different from the word appearing in Exodus 4:3, נחש, the word generally used for a dangerous snake. The word here, therefore, designates a different kind of reptile, possibly a “monstrous snake,” or maybe even a crocodile. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word appears when referring to a terrifyingly large reptile, a sea-monster, or even a dragon. Whatever it is, it is a much more frightening creature than the one in Exodus 4:3.[57]

Egyptian Magicians

Apparently, even to Pharaoh, Moses has performed a fantastic sign. What is yet to be made clear is whether or not the “surplus” of power that Moses possesses is enough to pose a serious threat.[58] Pharaoh effectively neutralizes—in his own mind, anyway—the wonder of Moses by having his own magicians[59] do the same thing.[60]

It is not difficult to image the most powerful empire in the ancient world of the time cultivating magicians capable of performing such tricks. It is surprising, however, that slaves could match the power of Egypt.[61]

Ironically, Pharaoh’s magicians can only make things worse, both here and throughout the narrative: more snakes, more bloody water, more frogs.[62] In the midst of Yahweh’s judgment, they are only able to multiply the plagues rather than neutralize them. In the midst of punishment, they can only punish themselves.

Yahweh v. Pharaoh

Consistent with the theme of the entire liberation account of Exodus, the clear underlying message of the narrative here is that the battle is not between Moses and the magicians, but between Yahweh and Pharaoh.[63] Yahweh demonstrates His power before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh proceeds then to demonstrate his power before Yahweh. Thus is the continuing development of the liberation narrative throughout Exodus: Yahweh versus Pharaoh.

This encounter seems to end in a stalemate, with both sides having produced their own monsters. The narrative, however, refuses to leave things as such, adding, “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up [the magicians’] staffs.” (7:12b)

Yahweh makes a threat against the order of the empire by having his serpent overpower the controlled chaos sanctioned by Pharaoh. The passage foreshadows both the disorder that Yahweh will unleash on the land and Pharaoh’s inability to do anything about it.[64] The Egyptian king, therefore, is representative of an anti-God, an anti-creation power fighting against the one true God. Yahweh, however, soon conquers.[65]

The narrator by no means intends to present Pharaoh’s men as inept or powerless. Instead, the narrator purposely presents them as a serious force with which to be reckoned. This further emphasizes the power of Yahweh. For despite the might of Egypt, it cannot prevail against the might of Yahweh.[66]

The result of the encounter is just as Yahweh predicted: Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to listen. Consequently, Yahweh brings plagues upon Egypt.[67]

Foreshadowing of Yahweh’s Victory

The narrative also foreshadows the eventual fate of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. The only other use of the verb נבלע in Exodus is in 15:12. There it speaks of the earth swallowing up the Egyptians under the Red Sea,[68] an event resulting from Yahweh’s “stretching out his right hand,” a certain reference to Yahweh’s work through Aaron’s staff.[69]

Here Yahweh’s power results in the swallowing up of the Egyptian rods turned serpents. In the end, Yahweh’s power will result in the swallowing up of the Egyptian army itself. Therefore, “[t]he seemingly innocuous reference to snake swallowing is thus an ominous sign for Pharaoh: it is a signal of his fate.”[70]

Ironically, Pharaoh gets precisely that for which he asked. Pharaoh demands that Moses prove his credentials. By the end of the liberation narrative, there is no doubt as to the great credentials Moses possesses. He is a representative of Yahweh, the Most High God.[71]

Theological Summary

In a world so infested with idolatry and its accompanying idea of regional and limited gods, the Exodus story holds great theological significance. The omnipotent, omniscient Yahweh reveals himself on such a grand scale in a foreign land as to challenge the religious paradigms so ingrained in the Egyptian culture. Yahweh is the one true God, able to subjugate other deities to his will.[72] Borders and boundaries do not limit him. There is no end to his power. Yahweh is Almighty, and nothing can stand against him.

The contemporary theological significance of this passage is enormous still. Particularly in Western culture, God’s authority is challenged every day as people defy his precepts and even deny his existence.

Nietzsche said that God is dead in modern society, killed by a secular shift in culture. These modern powers of political, economic, and social authority, however, are no match for the one true God.

Just as he heard the cries of the oppressed and answered them with deliverance and justice in Egypt so long ago, so also today God sees the suffering of the innocent at the hands of oppressors and tyrants and will bring deliverance to the people and punishment to the oppressor.

The Lord is the defender of the defenseless and the strength of the weak today and forever. Now as then all the world will know that God is not indifferent to evil.

So What?

The Exodus story is doubtlessly a fascinating tale. It has garnered great interest for millennia. Even modern society remains fascinated by it, from Charlton Heston’s classic portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments to DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt to the more recent Exodus: Gods and Kings.

What significance, however, should it have for us today? Is it more than a good story? What should we glean from this passage in particular?

The Lord’s Sovereignty

God is in control. So is the message of the passage. Everything surrounding the Exodus story stacks the odds against Israel’s liberation: Egypt is the most powerful empire in the world, Moses is terrified, Pharaoh is implacable, and even the people whom Yahweh wishes to free are pessimistic.

Yet, Yahweh uses all of these “disadvantages” to bring further glory to himself. He could have waged war against a lesser power, but there is no better way to prove his strength than to take on the best that humanity has to offer.

He could have chosen a strong and powerful man to lead the Israelites, but then the people might glorify their leader instead of their God.

He could have convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go without such a dramatic confrontation, but doing so would have denied the world an exhibition of Yahweh’s full power and might.

He could have rallied the Israelites around the cause for liberation, but then the people might attribute their liberation to their vast numbers.

Yahweh proves here and throughout Scripture that he alone is sufficient.

God as Our Source of Hope

The message of the Lord’s sufficiency rings true even today. This tremendous theological truth can bring nothing but comfort and hope to all of his people: to the father trying to raise a godly child in an ungodly world, to the politician fighting corruption in government, to the pastor leading his congregation through financial crisis and persecution. All of these can find hope in God’s tendency to do his greatest works when things are at their worst.

We simply must recognize our own insufficiency and put all of our faith in God. Through him and him alone victory comes. The forces of evil mounting their assault need not bother us, for “if God is with us, who can be against us?” Even where evil seems to be winning, God’s victory is assured.

Conclusion

As we go about doing the work God has assigned to us, we can take heart in the fact that the work he has for us is in reality work he has ordained for himself. We are simply the tools through which he has chosen to accomplish these tasks. We must only trust and obey, believing that he will deliver us, even in the most desperate of circumstances.

Think how foolish it would have been if Jesus had ordered a healthy man to get up and walk or had ordered the Sea of Galilee to be still on a peaceful afternoon!

We must, therefore, take hope in this one timeless truth. Nothing is as great a preparation for the mighty work of God as adversity.

We should trust Jesus in the midst of desperate situations in life…[remembering that] the rest of Scripture and all of history make it clear that his deliverance can take different forms. Sometimes he delivers us from immediate danger by prevention or healing. At other times he delivers us from ultimate danger by resurrection from the dead…Whether the deliverance is immediate or ultimate, we should have faith in Jesus because Jesus is faithful.[73]


Footnotes:

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotations come from the NIV. Where the Divine Name, יהוה, appears in the Hebrew, the NIV translates it “the LORD.” For clarity, I substitute “Yahweh” where the NIV has “the LORD.”  Although the exact pronunciation of this word is uncertain, the best guess at transliteration is YHWH (Yahweh). When “the Lord” appears with regular capitalization in the NIV, it is translated from another Hebrew word, such as the impersonal אדני (Adonai).

A Light of Hope

[2] Genesis 12 sets the stage for the long narrative of God’s redemptive work for all of humanity.

Who Knew Not of Joseph

[3] Given the war-prone climate of the time, this fear is easy to understand.

After Moses

[4] The Israelites fail, however, to obey Yahweh’s command to drive out all of the land’s inhabitants. This would later come back to haunt them.

[5] When I speak of the Old Testament ending, I mean its narrative story. The end of the Old Testament in terms of content varies from version to version. The English Bible, for example, ends with the book of Malachi, while the Masoretic Text ends with Chronicles. The Protestant argument that Jesus’ statement about the Jews shedding innocent blood from Abel to Zechariah (cf. Matt 23:35) affirms the Protestant canon is weak at best.

Liberation Narrative

[6] Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 687-88.

[7] In Exodus 5:3 and 8:27, Moses asks that the Israelites be allowed to take a three days’ journey into the wilderness to worship Yahweh. After Pharaoh denies the first request, however, no one—not even Pharaoh—thinks that such a journey is the issue.

The negative response of Pharaoh has promoted a divine decision that cannot be changed nor negotiated and that does not allow for any gradualist possibilities. See Terence C. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 94. We are, therefore, left to wonder if the liberation of the Israelites would have been much less dramatic had Pharaoh agreed to this initial request. Perhaps this initial request was Yahweh’s offer of mercy to the Egyptians, which they rejected.

[8] Brueggemann, 688.

[9] Ibid.

Exodus After the Escape

[10] Ibid.

The Mosaic Covenant

[11] Ibid., 688-89.

The Place of Exodus 6:28-7:13

[12] Ibid., 690.

Exodus 6:28-30

[13] Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 178.

[14] Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 117.

Who Is Yahweh?

[15] Brueggemann, 736. The Lord’s disclosure of his complete personal name, Yahweh, is significant. “The disclosure of the [divine] name completely changes the calculus between God and people, for this community [of Israel] now has leverage with God, which God has willingly given.” See Ibid.

Who Is Moses?

[16] Ibid.

[17] John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 86. Moses continually doubts his own ability through his constant questioning: “Who am I?” (3:11), “they won’t trust me,” (4:1), “I am heavy of lip and thick of tongue,” (4:1), “Why have you sent me here for this?” (5:22). See Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 344.

[20] Ibid., 345.

“Faltering Lips”

[21] Fretheim, Exodus, 90. Given his similar complaint in Exodus 4:10 and the consequential arrangement with Aaron, this repeated objection is perplexing. Apparently, Moses is not pleased with the arrangement made with Aaron, for Moses alone speaks in 6:9. See Ibid.

While exploring the issue is beyond the scope of this post, I find Moses’ complaint of having uncircumcised lips interesting in light of Yahweh’s earlier intention to kill Moses for failing to circumcise his son. (cf. Ex 4:24-26)

Exodus 7:1-7

[22] Brueggemann, 738.

[23] Ibid. “Yahweh has uttered a magisterial, ‘I am Yahweh,’ and Moses has resisted in his paralyzing doubt. The dynamic of resistance (from Moses) and resolve (from Yahweh) is characteristic of calls to obedience, as in the cases of Gideon (Judg 6:11-24) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:4-10).” See Ibid.

[24] Fretheim, Exodus, 89. After the Israelites reject Moses’ message, no further attempts are made to speak to the people until the very evening of their liberation. Yahweh is determined to liberate the Israelites despite themselves. See Fretheim, Exodus, 89.

[25] Durham, 86.

Moses as God

[26] Brueggemann, 738. Unlike the NIV translation, the Hebrew text does not read “like God,” but only “God.” See Ibid.

[27] Durham, 86-87.

[28] Fretheim, Exodus, 90. In Exodus 4:16, Yahweh tells Moses that he would be as a god to Aaron in speaking with the Israelites. Now Moses is to be as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron will be his prophet. After the Israelites reject the message of Moses, there is a shift of focus from the people to Pharaoh. See Ibid.

[29] Durham, 85.

[30] Brueggemann, 738.

[31] This “divine self-effacement” reaches its fullness when Yahweh himself comes in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.

[32] Fretheim, Exodus, 91.

Challenging Pharaoh’s Divinity

[33] Enns, 181. This imagery so rich in the Hebrew text is unfortunately lost in the NIV translation. See Ibid.

God and Man

[34] Ibid., 182. Real intimacy with Yahweh, of course, was finally achieved through Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the law.

Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart

[35] Brueggemann, 738-39.

[36] Durham, 86-87.

[37] Ibid.

Yahweh as the Universal God

[38] Brueggemann, 739.

[39] Fretheim, Exodus, 95.

[40] Enns, 184.

Obedience and Doubt

[41] Brueggemann, 739.

Yahweh In Control

[42] Durham, 87.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 87-88.

[45] Kaiser, 345. Some did indeed believe, for, when the Israelites left Egypt, there was a “mixed multitude” of peoples among them. (Exod 12:38 KJV)

Hardening and Free Will

[46] Fretheim, Exodus, 96-97.

[47] Ibid., 97-98.

[48] It is important to note that the point of the narrative is to stress Yahweh’s sovereignty and his control over the situation. It is not meant to serve as a philosophical exposition on free will versus determinism, as much as we may like to transform it into one. We must resist the temptation to turn the literature of Jerusalem into that of Athens.

Age of Moses

[49] Ibid., 118.

Let My People Go

[50] Durham, 88.

Exodus 7:8-13

[51] Or learned men of the day. The term means these men were well educated. See Childs, 347.

[52] Brueggemann, 739.

[53] Durham, 91.

[54] Brueggemann, 739.

A Snake?

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Durham, 89, 91. All this notwithstanding, it is still possible—though unlikely—that these two words are simply synonyms for one another.

Egyptian Magicians

[58] Brueggemann, 739.

[59] Paul gives their names, Jannes and Jambres, in 2 Timothy 3:8.

[60] Ibid. Indeed, the Egyptians mastering of magic is well-documented in the Westcar Papyrus where magicians are credited with turning wax crocodiles into real ones only to have them turn right back into wax when the magicians grabbed their tails. See Kaiser, 347.

[61] Brueggemann, 739-40. “The report that Pharaoh’s ‘learned men’ are able to duplicate this wondrous deed is by no means to be taken as an indication that what is described here is nothing more than fancy sleight-of-hand, making ‘a snake go rigid by pressing on a nerve at the back of its neck….’ All such attempts to find ‘naturalistic’ explanations for the wondrous deeds of the Book of Exodus, along with designs on ‘what really happened,’ are not only misleading and impossible, but irrelevant as well. The whole point of this prologue is its miraculous element. The narrator goes to great trouble to make plain that Pharaoh had to call in the best he had to match the wondrous deed of Moses and Aaron: ‘wise scholars,’ ‘magicians,’ ‘learned men,’ with ‘arcane arts.’” See Durham, 91.

We must take care to avoid trying to reconcile Scripture with our own post-Enlightenment worldview and thereby making Scripture say something it never intended to say.

[62] Fretheim, Exodus, 113.

[63] Brueggemann, 739.

Yahweh v. Pharaoh

[64] Ibid., 740.

[65] Enns, 197.

[66] Durham, 92.

[67] Childs, 151.

Foreshadowing of Yahweh’s Victory

[68] Fretheim, Exodus, 113.

[69] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Plagues As Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (Fall 1991): 388.

[70] Fretheim, Exodus, 114.

[71] Ibid., 113.

Historical and Contemporary Theological Summary

[72] Yahweh used the plagues to prove the uselessness of the Egyptian gods. Each plague defied a specific Egyptian deity, making it clear that no god of the Egyptians could stand up against Yahweh.

[73] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 247.

Categories: Applying the Bible

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