So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. – Exodus 7:10-11
Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. . . – Exodus 7:20-22
The magicians of Egypt have some pretty neat tricks up their sleeves.
Exodus is off to a roaring start. The book gets underway with Moses’ birth, the circumstances of which are fairly well-known even to me. By this time Egypt has become a racially-divided society and Hebrew male children are supposed to be put to death, so Moses’ mother puts him in a caulked basket which is then placed in the river and discovered by an Egyptian woman. Moses is an Egyptian name, I think, because it is his Egyptian discoverer who eventually names him.
What happened next, though, was totally unexpected, at least to me. Essentially the first thing Moses does is to kill someone and hide the body. He sees an Egyptian man harassing Hebrew slaves, walks up to him, smites him down, and buries the body in the sand. He then flees to another land where he weds and eventually has his famed encounter with the burning bush. I was taken aback by the murder, as it didn’t fit my image of Moses. I somehow imagined a peace-loving man who humbly requests the release of his people from slavery, leads them through trials, and becomes a sage lawgiver. I thought of him as the Dumbledore/Gandalf/Picard of the Old Testament. Those characters aren’t incapable of inflicting deadly violence, but it’s usually not their first resort.
The Moses I’ve been reading about so far is a little more complicated than I expected. For starters there’s this instance of violence. He lashes out in defense of his fellow Hebrews, so perhaps this counts as self-defense rather than outright murder. God hasn’t questioned him about it, and I doubt it will be brought up again, but it’s an episode that seems to call for moral analysis, especially in light of the no-killing commandment that Moses will later transmit.
When Moses eventually encounters God, he expresses a surprising amount of reluctance to fulfill his destiny. I don’t remember any other lead characters, like Noah or Abraham, being so obviously hesitant to do what God asks of them. When God tells Moses to tell the Hebrews that he is to lead them out of Egypt, Moses protests that they will not believe him. They will, God says, after you perform certain miracles in order to prove the veracity of the message. But, Moses replies, I am not cut out for delivering God’s message to the children of Israel. Don’t worry, God says, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But, Moses begs, “please send someone else.” This is the last straw, and “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4:10-14). God has been angry with people before, but apart from Adam and Eve I don’t remember him ever registering anger with a main protagonist. He may have, but I don’t remember it. Perhaps Moses is merely being modest, but he seems genuinely unhappy about the whole thing. He didn’t shrink from conflict earlier in life, though, so I wonder what’s different now.
Moses goes on to win over the Hebrews fairly easily with a lot of help from his brother Aaron, but he continues to doubt his ability to carry out God’s plan. His concern is more justified this time. When God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews from Egypt, God warns Moses that this effort will be unsuccessful. I’ve heard the phrase “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and indeed it is used three or four times to explain why Pharaoh doesn’t respond to the miracles Moses and Aaron perform. But there’s an element of the story that adds another layer of rationale to Pharaoh’s intransigence. It seems that Pharaoh’s court magicians have “secret arts” by which they can emulate Moses’s miracles. I’d like to know more about these arts, because they’re pretty convincing. The magicians can turn their staves into snakes and water into blood, just like Moses (though Moses’s snake eats theirs). If their power stemmed directly from God I would expect a statement to that effect, just as it is explicitly stated that Moses’s power to perform miracles stems from God and that Pharaoh’s heart is divinely-hardened. Instead, the magicians’ power is attributed to “secret arts.” Are these arts native to Egypt? Are they from the devil? I guess their origin will remain a secret, but it’s fun to speculate.
I wonder what other fun surprises Exodus has in store.