Most everyone who has ever read the biblical account of the ten plagues in Egypt cannot help but remember the scene in which Moses and Aaron threw down their rod that became a snake, and Pharoah’s magicians imitated the feat. The biblical account states:
And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments (Exodus 7:10-11).
In regard to this account, many have wondered how the magicians of Egyptian could have possessed the miraculous power to imitate the sign that God had given to Moses and Aaron. Did the magicians truly possess supernatural powers by which they could convince Pharaoh, or could there be some other explanations for the events that transpired with the rods? In regard to these questions, the biblical text does not definitively offer any conclusive answers. There are, however, other clues that seem to indicate that the Egyptian magicians used sleight-of-hand trickery devoid of supernatural ability.
Egyptians have long used the snake in their religious and ceremonial rituals. Many murals, ancient Egyptian paintings and carvings, and written texts portray this animal in connection with ancient Egyptian snake charmers, magicians, and even Pharaohs. In fact, many of the golden burial casts used to intern the ancient Egyptian kings have a sculpture of a snake coming from the forehead of the regal personality. Furthermore, the snake is commonly associated with certain gods of ancient Egypt. In regard to this affinity for the serpentine, the ancient Egyptians often used snakes in charming ceremonies and other practices. Due to this close association with the creature, they would certainly have become quite skilled at capturing, handling, and displaying snakes.
In their celebrated commentary series on the Old Testament, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment on the incident between Moses and Aaron and the Egyptian magicians:
The magicians of Egypt in modern times have long been celebrated adepts in charming serpents; and particularly by pressing the nape of the neck they throw them into a kind of catalepsy, which renders them stiff and immoveable, thus seeming to change them into a rod. They conceal the serpent about their person, and by acts of legerdemain produce it from their dress, stiff and straight as a rod. Just the same trick was played off by their ancient predecessors.... [A]nd so it appears they succeeded by their “enchantments” in practicing an illusion on the senses (2002, 1:295, Exodus 7:11-14).
The idea that a skilled magician could use a snake in such a way is no novel concept in the world of magic tricks. Walter Gibson, in his book Secrets of Magic, states that there is a certain type of snake that can be made motionless by applying pressure just below its head. Gibson also notes that the particular species of snake suitable for this stunt happens to be the naja haje (or haja), otherwise known as the Egyptian Cobra (as cited in “Case Studies,” n.d.). Along similar lines, Rod Robison, a comedy magician from Tucson, wrote: “Turning a rod into a snake, for instance, is easily accomplished by the same method modern day magicians turn a cane into a flower or handkerchief. I’ve seen the ‘cane to snake’ performed by magician Allan Rassco. Believe me, it’s impressive” (1999).
In truth, there is nothing inherent in the biblical text that would suggest that these magicians possessed any supernatural powers. Sleight-of-hand trickery can easily account for the “powers” possessed by the Egyptian magicians. While the magicians could at least make it look like they possessed amazing abilities, they could not withstand the power of the Almighty God. Their feeble attempts to mimic the miracle performed by Moses and Aaron was thwarted when God manifested His power by causing the rod of Moses and Aaron to consume all the other rods of the magicians (Exodus 7:12).
“Case Studies” (no date), [On-line], URL: http://www.autobahn.mb.ca/~ggilbey/para7.html.
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (2002 reprint), A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Robison, Rod (1999), “But I Saw Him Levitate!”, [On-line], URL: http://www.dtl.org/article/robison/levitate.htm.
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