I’m not a fan of snakes, of any type. It’s not a paralyzing phobia, I’m simply cautious because I know I don’t know the benign from the dangerous. But even the benign aren’t favorites things of mine. So, when I read that Yahweh changes Moses’ staff into a snake, it’s not my favorite method of God’s work.
The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail “– so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand–Exodus 4:2-4 NASB
Yes, I wish Yahweh hadn’t chosen to use a snake. He does it again as the sons of Israel are traveling in the desert too.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”Numbers 21:8 NASB
An additional piece of dubious historical irony, according to Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, Moses had used serpents to defeat the Ethiopians for the Egyptians while he was still among the court of Pharaoh (Antiquities of the Jews, II:10:2). So, why is he scared when the staff becomes a snake? Maybe because he didn’t have a bird to protect him this time?
Snakes factor into Egyptian mythology as well. Unfortunately their myths don’t produce a simple easy explanation for Yahweh’s use before Pharaoh. For instance, Pharaoh’s crown, the pschent (probably not their word), has a representation of a serpent on it, which refers to the goddess Wadjet, the protector of Lower Egypt.
But the great evil opponent of the sun-god, Ra, was Apophis, a serpent, sort of a “sea-serpent” living in the chaotic waters surrounding the world. Think, Leviathan, and you’re in the right area. So, serpents can be good or bad in Egyptian mythology. In fact, one of Ra’s protectors is a serpent named, Mehen. You can find a fairly decent article on Apophis here.
So, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, and Aaron throws down his staff. Dramatically, it becomes a serpent. What is a Pharaoh to do? He calls for his magicians, and they do the same, each man throws his staff, and they become serpents too. Yahweh’s serpent challenge is met, and He’s out numbered. But what does it mean? What should Pharaoh conclude from this, because serpents can be good or bad, so how does he know?
Aaron’s staff swallows the staffs of the magicians. So, in a sense, the protectors of the king, Wadjet, is defeated by another serpent, who must therefore be Apophis. All it probably took is for one of the magicians to speak that name, and now Moses and Aaron are of Apophis, the enemy of order and the gods of Egypt. And, that’s kind of true, from one perspective, just not the whole truth. Regardless, Pharaoh refuses to listen to them.
Judging this passage from a modern western thought mindset could be blinding us from the message of our Creator. We seem to think that, because his magicians could duplicate what Moses and Aaron did, Pharaoh wasn’t “impressed”. But think about that. If impressing Pharaoh were the point, then the consumption of his magicians staffs should have accomplished this, and Pharaoh’s response confuses us. There must be something we’re missing.
What if Yahweh is demonstrating something to Pharaoh, something that will take 11 miracles to fully communicate? Yahweh calls what He’s doing “judgements” (see Exodus 7:4). They are “signs and wonders” (see Exodus 7:3), but they are also “judgements”. Later on, when the angel of death takes the firstborn and passes over Israel, Yahweh says this:
For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments— I am the LORD.Exodus 12:12 NASB (emphasis mine)
These judgements are “against the gods of Egypt”. So, consider for a moment, all gods are real. Pharaoh’s gods are such that serpents can be either protectors or enemies. One comes in the name of a god you don’t know, and his staff becomes a serpent. What do you do? Is it a good or evil serpent, and how do you tell? You call your own powerful magicians, and they turn their staffs into serpents, protector serpents. What happens next tells you what you want to know. This one in the name of the unknown god has a serpent that devours your protector serpents. It must be the evil serpent, and righteously, you refuse their demands. Order prevails, and your gods are pleased with you for fighting with them against this serpent of chaos.
By itself, this act of power looks like Yahweh has aligned Himself with the evil of Egypt, and He has, because the gods of Egypt have aligned themselves against Him. And now, because He is the One True God, He executes judgements against them, and takes away their validity, revealing them for what they are, rebellious servants of Yahweh.
Okay, so that might make a decent movie or exciting fantasy book for nerds and comic book fans. But we’re modern scientific rationalists, what’s the message for us? Well, rationally speaking, this world is upside down. Right is now decried as wrong. Wrong is held up as the highest form of good, and the people holding to belief in our Savior are considered worse than evil, we’re stupid evil people. The beliefs and practices of Scripture are ridiculed, and legislated against. We are sojourners in an unholy land.
But all of this opposition is actually spiritual in nature, the product of these spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). What we, as modern rational believers, need to know is that this spiritual war is between our Savior and those rebels opposed to Him. What we witness is a form of what Moses and Aaron stood up against, and we need to be, as they were, obediently opposing those forces.
It might look like we’re evil in our culture/society’s sight. They may call us evil, but remember the words of Paul in Galatians 5:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no lawGalatians 5:22-23 NASB
Our response to this evil and perverse generation is one of love, not anger. Paul was followed about by a slave-girl possessed by a spirit of divination in Philippi. He wasn’t angry with her, and he didn’t fight her or abuse her. He was worn out after many days, and cast out the demon (Acts 16:16-18). In the same way, we need to address our attacks to the spiritual forces of darkness, and not at the people.
Notice the serpent of Aaron’s staff didn’t attack Pharaoh or his servants. It attacked and consumed the other staffs, the expressions of power of those in rebellious opposition to Yahweh. But Pharaoh doesn’t get it, not yet. And many of those who oppose us will not get it either. Even when we address our attacks against the spiritual forces rather than the people, we will still not get the appreciation or understanding of people.
We, like Moses and Aaron, like Paul and Silas, like Stephen, and like our Savior, Jesus, cannot allow the praise of others to direct our actions. I need this lesson as much as, if not more than, anyone. Because it’s easy to let the praise of others become our measure of success. It’s hard to be misunderstood, and not rail against it. And yet, there is no real victory, no lasting peace, unless we follow in the path of our Savior and His servants ahead of us. It is truly a narrow way.