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Shemot/Exodus 7:22 And the magicians of Egypt did likewise with their secret arts and Pharaoh's heart became hard
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This is the response to the first plague - turning all the water in Egypt to blood - the second sign that Pharaoh had been shown. The first, coming a little earlier in the chapter, is where Aharon's staff becomes a snake and then eats the staff of the magicians who duplicate the miracle, but is received with essentially the same response: "The Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells; each cast down his rod, and they turned into serpents" (vv. 11-12, JPS). In the next chapter, the second plague, is also dismissed with the same logic: "But the magicians did the same with their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt" (8:3, JPS). In all three cases, Pharaoh hardens his heart and will not listen to the word ofHaShem being brought by Moshe and Aharon.
How were the Egyptian magicians - some say sorcerers, others necromancers - able to duplicate these supernatural signs?Rashi says that the words "secret arts" means "an incantation that they say in a whisper and in secrecy", while the ancient rabbis comment that the phrase "and the magicians of Egypt did likewise" teaches that they held it all to be the work of witchcraft (Shemot Rabbah 9:11). As a result, Pharaoh's heart became hardened because he said "Through sorcery you are doing this"; since it was only sorcery, of which the Talmud tells us there was much in Egypt (b. Sanhedrin 67b and b. Menachot 85a), there was nothing of G-d in it, so Pharaoh had nothing to worry about, bar any personal inconvenience. Friedman translates the last phrase of the text, "And Pharaoh's heart was strong" which, if he was right, was not perhaps an unreasonable position. If the Egyptians thought all this - the staff turning into a snake, the water turning to blood and the frogs - was simply witchcraft, which there own magicians could duplicate, then they were essentially, but perhaps unwittingly - denying that the actions of G-d were G-d at all. Does this approach Yeshua's words of caution in the gospel: "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven" (Matthew 12:31, NASB)? Perhaps we should consider our judgement of the supernatural until we are able to determine what is a move of the Spirit and what is not.
We have three threads to follow from here: what the magicians accomplished, why Pharaoh's heart was hardened and why the signs could be duplicated. Umberto Cassuto starts the first thread, by his comment: "In this detail there is an element of derision. What did the wise men of Egypt achieve by their efforts? They added plague upon plague!"1 Simply being able to duplicate the signs actually achieved nothing; it did not reverse them or change them in any way. In the latter two cases, it actually made things worse, by multiplying the plagues. It is interesting to note that in the first instance - staffs turning to snakes - although the magicians also threw their staffs down on the floor and they turned into snakes, the snake from Aharon's rod ate all their snakes: a clear demonstration of superior power or authority. In fact, the text gives us a hint that even more might have been going on: "But Aaron's rod swallowed their rods" (Shemot 7:12, JPS) - was this a snake fest or a rod fest? Cassuto puts his finger on an important point: although the signs were duplicated, this does not demonstrate any superiority or higher power. On the contrary, in the first sign, Aharon is shown to be superior, while in the third sign, it is Moshe who asks Pharaoh when he would like the frogs to disappear, "that you may know that there is none like the L-RD our G-d; the frogs shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile" (8:6-7, JPS); the removal of the frogs is as much part of the sign as their appearance and that the magicians could not do.
OvadiahSforno provides the second thread by returning to the question of Pharaoh's heart: why was Pharaoh's heart hardened? This question has troubled many commentators, Jewish and Christian, over the centuries; is this a denial of free will? If his heart was hardened, how can he be held responsible for his actions? Is the contest real at all, or is it just G-d fighting Himself with Pharaoh and the Egyptians as the hapless pawns in the game? The Sforno answers it this way: "The Almighty sent plagues to stir the Egyptians to repentance ... and there is no doubt that, had not Pharaoh's heart been hardened, the latter would have let the Israelites go, but his action would not then have been motivated by sincere repentance and submission to the Divine will, but merely because he could no longer bear the suffering of the plagues. This would not have constituted true repentance." To be real, repentance has to be sincere and from the heart and lead to a willing change of behaviour; it has to include a complete surrender to G-d and an acceptance of His ways - that brings relationship with G-d and a life of faith. The Sforno is suggesting that G-d wants, or is at least offering, for Pharaoh to come to true repentance, rather than simply changing his mind about letting the Israelites go as a matter of convenience but not actually engaging with the real crux of the matter: his relationship with G-d. Hence, G-d keeps Pharaoh's mind concentrated on the matter.
The third thread comes from the Torah commentary by Gunther Plaut: "The text expresses no surprise that the sign which G-d gave to Moshe to demonstrate the divine power could be readily duplicated. It is therefore clear from the outset that the real battle is not between Moshe and the magicians, or between one set of signs and their imitations, but between G-d and Pharaoh. The latter's will is the battleground, and he will be made to yield though his resolve to the contrary is hard and persistent." Although Plaut fails to see past Pharaoh to the enemy of our souls who is using Pharaoh to fight G-d, his assessment of the battleground is correct. As Rav Sha'ul points out, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12, ESV). It was Satan's supernatural forces that duplicated the signs as a means to keep Pharaoh from acknowledging G-d - the battle was indeed in the mind of Pharaoh. The longer Satan can deceive Pharaoh, the longer he remains in control-by-proxy of Egypt, the longer the Israelites stay in slavery and the more G-d's plans are thwarted or delayed.
On three successive occasions, then, in this parasha, the magicians of Egypt duplicate the signs or plagues that G-d has given Moshe in order to bring the Israelites out from under the oppression of the Egyptians. Each time, although they can duplicate it, they are not able to reverse or limit the sign. Similarly, on each occasion, Pharaoh's heart is hardened; his resolve is stiffened and he refuses to acknowledge G-d or release the Israelite people. As far as Pharaoh is concerned, this is simply business as usual. Pharaoh even taunts Moshe by asking him why he has brought a sign of sorcery to Egypt, when Egypt is already full of sorcery (Shemot Rabbah 9:6-7) - the equivalent of asking today why someone is taking coals to Newcastle2.
What can this teach us about our relationship with G-d and the way we recognise what G-d is doing in the world today? Firstly, that it is easy to miss or misread quite big signs that G-d may be giving us. For example, the world financial crises that have been running now for the last five or six years may well be signs from G-d; equally, they may be dismissed as banking incompetence, corruption or greed, government incompetence, human error and greed, or a combination of all three. The rise in global seismic activity in recent years (earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis) may be a sign of creation groaning (Romans 8:22) or the imminent proximity of G-d (Isaiah 64:1-4); on the other hand, it may be dismissed as a greater awareness of normal tectonic plate movement due to better instrumentation and instant communication. We do know that Yeshua told us to judge the signs of the times (Matthew 16:1-4; Luke 12:54-56) and to recognise them as the signs of His return (Matthew 24:33-34). Secondly, we do not see what we do not want to see. Like the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14), our hearts have become insensitive and our senses dull (Isaiah 6:10) lest we should hear something that might mean we had to really change our lives. Our mind is where this battle takes place; where we evaluate the rival claims of the world and our conscience. This is where the Spirit speaks and the enemy bring fear, uncertainty and doubt as well as his lies. Pharaoh paid for his stubbornness and rebellion with his kingdom and his life. The question for each of us: will you?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. - Newcastle has been a source of coal since the year 1000 CE. In 1257-59, coal from Newcastle upon Tyne was shipped to London for the smiths and lime-burners building Westminster Abbey. This coal was usually found on the sea-shore, washed out of underwater outcrops or fallen from exposed coal seams in the cliffs, but was regularly shipped by sea to London before being sent up river on barges as far as Oxford. Taking coals to Newcastle has been an obvious taunt since at least those times.
Further Study: Isaiah 56:10-12; Joel 1:15-20; Luke 19:41-44
Application: Have you really engaged with G-d, or do you simply do lip-service to make your life more comfortable? Have you resolved the battle in your own mind, or just shrugged it off and shuffled a few lifestyle issues around instead? Perhaps it is time to ask the question for real!
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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