Exodus 7: Moses and Aaron Go to Pharaoh

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Moses has complained to the Lord that he is a poor speaker. The Lord responds that “I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.” This is actually a new twist on what God has previously told Moses. In 4:16, God states that Aaron will speak the words to Pharaoh and “it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” Again, the ante has been upped. Now Moses will be a God to Pharaoh. This is not to suggest that Moses is suddenly divine. Rather, it is putting Moses in a position of authority with Pharaoh. The last time they met Pharaoh, he dismissed them out of hand. When Moses declares that he speaks for God, Pharaoh blithely responds that he doesn’t know that God. The irony, of course, is that over time Pharaoh will come to know that God, and he will acknowledge that Moses speaks for Him. But for the moment, Aaron will be the spokesperson.

The Lord continues: “Say everything I command you, and your brother is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country.” Moses will tell Aaron; Aaron will tell Pharaoh. It should be noted, however, that the text does not seem to indicate that this actually happens. Moses, indeed, is reportedly the speaker during most of their encounters.

God also repeats his warning about Pharaoh, by again saying, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.” In reality, Pharaoh has already not listened. He has not listened to Moses or to the overseers. He has thrown Moses and Aaron out of his presence and has accused the overseers of being lazy. His heart is already hard. This leads many scholars to simply point out the natural progression of events that will continue to transpire. In an effort to prepare Moses for the resistance that will come, the Lord simply seems to be calling it like it is.

The idea that the Lord has a hold on Pharaoh’s heart rendering him incapable of acting differently is a hard one to grasp. Scholars hoping to counter that question have pointed out the relationship between the Lord and Moses. Clearly, God has chosen Moses to deliver His people. Moses has never been too eager to take on the task. The Lord doesn’t change him. He doesn’t infuse him with great leadership skills. He doesn’t make him an accomplished orator. He doesn’t make Moses into something that he’s not. Instead, the Lord has tried to accommodate his concerns. He accepts Moses as he is. He sends Aaron along, makes Aaron his spokesperson, reassures him that He will be with him all along. In like manner, then, perhaps the Lord knows how it will be with Pharaoh. His heart is already cold and hard. That is the nature of Pharaoh. He has demonstrated that by calling for infanticide, by refusing to provide straw, and by not decreasing the brick quota. The Lord foretells that Pharaoh will witness mighty signs and wonders, but he still won’t change his mind until the Lord lays his “hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment…brings out His people, the Israelites.”

The corollary to this is that all “the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” Even though the deliverance will benefit the Israelites, it will become known throughout the entire world. The world will be a witness to God’s care and concern for His people, as well as His ability to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Egyptians will come to know the God of the Israelites. Some scholars have even placed this in terms of creation— that God’s creation is at stake. Chaos does not have the final word.

“Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them. Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.” This mention of time shows that Moses’ life is marked by three segments of 40 years each. He was roughly 40 years old when he fled to Midian and has lived there another 40 years. The time is fulfilled; the time is now. The complaints have been quelled; Moses and Aaron do “just as the Lord commanded them.”

In continuing His instructions, the Lord says to Moses and Aaron, “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.” This replicates one of the signs the Lord performs before Moses in convincing him of the Lord’s seriousness.

So Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and do “just as the Lord commanded.” Aaron throws his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it becomes a snake. Undaunted, Pharaoh summons his wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians do the exact same things through their secret arts: Each one “throws down his staff and it becomes a snake.” These wise men are thought to be religious dignitaries that are well-versed in spells, incantations, and ceremonial practices. No doubt Pharaoh and his magicians are feeling quite confident at this point. Their replication of Aaron’s snake equalizes any potential threat. But, suddenly, without any command from Moses or Aaron, his “staff swallows up their staffs.” No one sees this coming; no one comments.

Scholars have long tried to understand this event using Egyptian magic as a baseline. It doesn’t work well, however, because the core of snake/staff magic is the other way around. Typically, as part of a demonstration the magician takes a snake and pinches a nerve in its neck, rendering it paralyzed. Hence, the snake becomes a “staff.” Here, staffs become snakes.

Another problem is that the word used here is not the typical one for snakes, nor is it the one used in the earlier demonstration with Moses. In the earlier story the word was nachash; the word here is tannin, more typically used in reference to a sea monster. Therefore, some suggest that it was a different animal altogether, perhaps a crocodile.*

Others try to connect it to the sacred serpent that represents supreme power emblazoned upon the Pharaoh’s headdress. In this situation, the effect would be a symbolic attack upon Pharaoh’s power and a loss of protection for him. Although as many scholars admit, it seems unlikely that this would be the case since he orders his magicians to replicate the sign done by Aaron.

It gets even more complicated by the word in 7:15 that references this scenario, because that word is nachash. Some scholars believe the change in wording is very deliberate, pointing out that tannin is used in mythological stories involving the primordial sea monster, Leviathan, as well as other scary sea creatures (crocodiles). Egypt has its own sea monster in the form of a giant serpent, Apophis. In their mythology, Apophis is the arch enemy of Ra, the solar deity. These two engage in a daily battle for control. Using the word tannin in the presence of Pharaoh would bring a cosmic dimension to the contest.

This has additional merit considering Aaron “cast down” his staff and the magicians do likewise. Egyptian annals recount the “casting down” of Apophis figurines in their ceremonies. Pharaoh’s magicians would have been very familiar with these practices.

The act culminates in Aaron’s staff swallowing the magicians’ staffs. Swallowing also has great meaning in Egyptian annals. To swallow something is to absorb it and benefit from its traits. It is to know it and to have power over it. Kings swallow “spirits;” they “live on the gods.” Magicians are cautioned against swallowing their magic, lest they be unable to control the gods that would then live within them. So when Aaron’s staff of God swallows their staffs, the magicians see this as a threat, a loss of their power and knowledge. It should be pointed out that it is Aaron’s staff that swallows their staffs. No one has satisfactorily explained how a staff can swallow, but the symbolism is blatant.

Rather than take any of this to heart, “Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.”

*Crocodiles hold a special place in Egyptian lore. One notable story is found among the oldest papyrus. It goes as follows: An important city scribe is told that his wife is involved with a young commoner. He gets his magic box, fashions a small wax crocodile figurine, and utters a spell over it. He gives it to a servant telling him that the next time the commoner goes to the lake to wash, he should slip the crocodile into the water.

When this happens, the servant casts the image into the water. It immediately comes to life as a great crocodile that grabs the man. Seven days later the scribe invites the city ruler to the lake. He bids the crocodile to appear. Now it’s a huge reptile carrying the lad in its jaws. The scribe asks the ruler what to do. The scribe is told to return the crocodile to the water, and neither the animal nor the man are ever seen again. The wife is later killed by fire for her part in the ordeal.