[K:NWTS 12/1 (May 1997) 33-40]
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Egypt was the most formidable force with which to be reckoned in the world of Ancient Near East. Nestled in the fertile soil surrounding the Nile, Egypt very early became a great civilization. The pyramids stood as an impressive and imposing testimony to its scientific and architectural accomplishments; its statues great and small showed in their delicacy and refined details the artistic genius of that nation; the ubiquitous hieroglyphics daily reminded not only of its great history of its great kings and their conquestsbut also of the spiritual reality of the involvement of their gods, and their benevolent blessings, in its daily life. Its military prowess rode on the wheels of the fierce and fearsome chariots which seemed to know no defeat; and the Nile provided abundantly as the well-suited cradle for the development of Egypt as a great nation and civilization.
If there was no doubt about the magnificence of Egypt, neither was there any doubt that this greatness was owed to the person of Pharaoh. He was the center of the government of Egypt. He was the final word on the administrative, legislative, judicial, military, social, financial and even religious functions of the government and nation. Private property existed only in the form of royal donations; the same was true for every personal liberty, personal status, or rank.1 Everything hinged on him and he ruled with an absolute sovereignty over the nation.
This absolute sovereignty of Pharaoh over the nation and people of Egypt could not be possible unless an aura of supernaturalism surrounded his person and office. Pharaoh was treated with reverence and awe fitting only for the gods. Indeed, Pharaoh was regarded as the very incarnation of the gods. There were truly a great number of different gods in Egypt. The Egyptians were known in the ancient world not only for the meticulousness with which they carried out their religious worship and ceremonies but also for the great variety of their gods ranging from animals, fish, birds and reptiles to the great powers of nature and to many beings that inhabited the heavens and the earth. Different gods came into prominence at different times and Pharaoh was associated with many of the gods. Most particularly, Pharaoh was considered as the son of Re, the self-created sun god, who supposedly created all things. However, he was endowed with powers and authority of different gods for his sovereign rule over the nation.
Of the various gods with whom Pharaoh was associated, two goddesses were crucial with regard to his power and authority as the great king of Egypt: the Uraeus (or snake/cobra) goddess, Wadjet, and the vulture-goddess, Nekhbet. Wadjet was personified in the cobra and was the titulary goddess or guardian goddess of Lower Egypt. Nekhbet was personified in the vulture and was the titulary deity of Upper Egypt. "Those two goddesses together simply represented all strength, power, and sovereignty in the two lands of ancient Egypt."2 Obviously Pharaoh's authority to rule over all the land of Egypt came from these two goddesses. One of the ancient records tells how the king of Egypt came to possess this sovereign authority: "In the year one of his coronation as kinghis majesty saw a dream by night: two serpents, one upon his right, the other upon his left. Then his majesty awoke and found them not. His majesty said: 'Wherefore [has] this [come] to me?' Then they (the two goddesses) answered him, saying: 'Thine is the Southland; take for thyself (also) the Northland. The two goddesses (Wadjet and Nekhbet) shine upon thy brow, the land is given to thee, in its length and its breadth. [No] other divides it with thee."' (it seems as if the vulture-goddess, Nekhbet sometimes appears as a vulture and sometimes as another serpent.)
The two goddesses were said to shine upon Pharaoh's brow. This belief was physically represented on the front of Pharaoh's crown which sometimes was designed with the faces of a vulture and a cobra and other times with two enraged female cobras. These uraei (cobras/serpents) at the front of Pharaoh's crown became, then, the very emblem of Pharaoh's power and authority. Listen to the words of a newly enthroned Pharaoh to the uraeus-crown:
O Red Crown, O Inu, O Great
O Magician, O Fiery Snake!
Let there be terror of me like the terror of thee.
Let there there be fear of me like the fear of thee.
Let there be awe of me like the awe of thee.
Let me rule, a leader of the living.
Let me be powerful, a leader of spirits3
This symbolism was taken up even by the Scriptures in Ezekiel 29:3:
"Speak and say, 'Thus says the
"Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt,
The great monster (or serpent: tannim) that lies in the midst of his rivers,
That has said, 'My Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.’"
So the king of Egypt sat high on his throne. He was surrounded by his royal entourage, including the magicians and priests of their gods. These magicians were important to the royal court because their function was to manipulate the powers of nature with their secret arts (Ex. 7:11) for the benefit of Pharaoh. The ultimate proof of their secret powers was in their ability to change their staffs into serpents, the symbol of the goddesses who adorned the crown of Pharaoh. Now enter Moses and Aaron, the emissaries of Yahweh. They passed through the corridor between the gigantic marble pillars of Pharaoh's palace, inscribed with hieroglyphics of the myths and histories exalting the power and authority of Pharaoh—all designed to induce reverence and awe of the great divine king of Egypt. Pharaoh watched them from his high throne, surrounded by his royal court. On his brow shone his golden crown with two cobras fiercely projecting from it. Two sons of Hebrew slaves in shabby clothes and with rugged appearance walked in. They have no entourage, no royal attire. There was nothing to show forth their credentials and authority. Indeed, one was a slave, another a shepherd. And yet they commanded Pharaoh—the great king of Egypt, the son of Re, endowed with the powers of the great goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet—"Let the sons of Israel go!"
"Not again! " grumbled Pharaoh in great agitation. "Have they not learned their lessons? Have they not learned that neither the name of Yahweh nor his claim mean anything to me? Have I not proven the utter emptiness of Yahweh's claim by suppressing his people even more merely by the command of my mouth? Don't they recognize that Yahweh has no power over me? That I, Pharaoh, endowed with the strength of Wadjet and Nekhbet, am far more powerful than Yahweh—whoever he may be?" And yet Pharaoh was puzzled. "What makes them come back to me again so foolishly? I will humor them this time .... So, Moses and Aaron, on what authority do you come to me? Show me a sign!"
This request by Pharaoh was met with a most ironic response. Moses ordered his brother to throw down the staff at the feet of Pharaoh, upon whose brow was the golden crown with two snakes projecting from it, and the staff turned into a serpent.
Moses ordered his brother to throw the staff down at the feet of Pharaoh. Both Pharaoh and his servants knew all too well what the throwing down of the staff meant. In their mythical legends, many magicians challenged one another by throwing their magic wands/staffs down, which through their secret arts and sorcery were transformed into other things, as a demonstration of their magical powers. Now, Aaron, nothing but a Hebrew slave, threw his staff down and that staff changed into a writhing, living serpent. What was believed to belong only to the divine Pharaoh and his most esteemed magicians was performed by this simple Hebrew slave.
And the throwing of the staff was all that was necessary for the staff to turn into a living snake. There was no incantation, no ritual accompanying this supernatural occurrence. Aaron, in obedience to the command of Moses, the servant of the Lord, simply threw the staff down and it turned into a snake immediately, just like that—as if it were a natural thing. And how ironic the next scene was! The Egyptian magicians were called to do the same, as was supposed to be their expertise. And yet, this was done only with a great deal of effort, only after applying their secret arts.
Don't forget to note that the staff of Aaron was turned into a snake, which was the emblem of Pharaoh's power and authority. The moment Aaron's staff was turned into a serpent, the sacred territory of Pharaoh's royal and divine authority (which never had been and was not to be trespassed by anyone) was violated: the cloud of myth that surrounded Pharaoh was completely dispelled. And this staff, which turned into a snake (the emblem of Pharaoh's almighty power), was totally in Aaron's control. It came into life by the simple act of Aaron's tossing. It would later be turned into a staff again by the simple touch of Aaron's hands.
And the staff of Aaron swallowed up (Heb. bela, translated in the LXX as katapino) the staffs of the Egyptian magicians. What a graphic demonstration of the total helplessness of the magical power of Pharaoh's magicians before the mighty power of Yahweh! The snakes which represented the sovereign authority of Pharaoh were helplessly swallowed up by the snake transmogrified from the staff of Aaron, a servant of the Lord.
This confrontation was to be the paradigm for the ten plagues to follow. Indeed, this encounter between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh does not belong to the ten plagues. It acts as a preliminary introduction, providing the paradigm for the ensuing battle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.
The staff would be used again and again throughout the narrative of the ten plagues. Ultimately, the staff would be used for the division of the Red Sea, which provided a safe passage for the sons of Israel and at the same time proved to be a deadly trap for the armies of Pharaoh.
And the very same word, "swallow", was used, not only for the snakes, but also for the Egyptian army in Exodus 15:12. In the song of victory, Moses and the sons of Israel confessed, "Thou didst stretch out Thy right hand; the earth swallowed (bela) them."
Throughout these confrontations, God was in the business of reclaiming his authority, blasphemously ignored and scorned. He is the supreme Ruler—the sovereign Lord over all creation, including Egypt, and even Pharaoh himself. This he demonstrated by meeting Pharaoh on his own ground. He picked up the very emblem of Pharaoh's authority and power and destroyed him with it. Such was the way God used to demonstrate his complete victory: the very emblem of Pharaoh's power would be turned into an emblem of his destructiona great reversal.
However, this was merely an introduction to a great demonstration of God's power to be revealed for his people. Later in redemptive history, we would witness another confrontationa confrontation filled with ironies as well. For there was another king—a king who was greater than Pharaoh. This king surrounded himself with his demonic entourage and sat high in the throne of his palace. Out of his livid crown shot forth the emblem of his power—death, the ultimate enemy of God's people. And into the very palace of Satanic power, the Son of Man, in the appearance of a helpless and suffering Servant, entered. And the Satanic king, with all of his demonic court surrounding him, would watch the entrance of this suffering Servant. And from the brows of Satan himself, death in its hideous serpentine form would watch piercingly with its bloodthirsty beady eyes every movement and step of the Son of Man, its long-awaited Victim.
Death did not have any idea that this seemingly helpless Son of Man was destined to be its final Victim. For God meant this confrontation to be a great eschatological battle, filled with irony. Jesus, very God of very God, the Giver of life, would meet death face to face. And he would surrender himself to death, the great and final enemy of his people. He would surrender himself and let death wrap him around with its lethal coils. And thus he would be lifted up on the cross to die.
Yet, what an irony! The death of the Son of Man was the death of death itself! As the Son of Man bore our sins in his body on the cross and paid the penalty of our sin completely through his death, death had to die. For the wages of sin is death and where sins are completely paid for in death, there can be no death! "And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14)!
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very proof that death has died. And for the people of God who are united unto Jesus Christ through faith, death is no longer a cruel tyrant. That is why Paul breaks out into a song of victory in his meditation upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ: ... Death is swallowed (katapino) up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:54b-57)! In this song of victory for the defeat of Satan and death, Paul uses the same word katapino, which was used for the defeat of Pharaoh and his magicians. Yes, death is swallowed up in Jesus Christ, as were the serpents of Pharaoh. What a great reversal! What a complete victory! The death of Jesus Christ was used for the death of death!
So complete is God's victory in Jesus Christ that death is not merely removed: in Jesus Christ, death, the pinnacle of despair, has been transformed into the entrance to our eternal glory; the emblem of Satan's power is transformed into an emblem of God's triumphant power and life; the grave has been turned into a place of hope. Not only that, death will be our final witness and testimony to the surpassing greatness of our heavenly inheritance in Jesus Christ. For in death, we are called to give up all things—all of our earthly possessions, all of our beloved ones and even our life itselffor the joy of possessing God! And so should you live each day: your daily life should be a reflection of your final testimony at death. For if death, which is the culmination of our sufferings, is swallowed up in victory, how much more are our sufferings in this life! As Christ embraced our sufferings in his incarnation and earthly life, they too have been transformed in him. How else could the Apostles exhort believers to rejoice when sufferings and trials come! "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2-3). "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen him, you love him, and though you do not see him now, but believe in him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory . . ." (1 Peter 1:6-8).
Listen to the testimony of apostle Paul: "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison . . ." (2 Cor. 4:16-17). So, brothers and sisters in the Lord, do not lose heart in your spiritual journey. Rather, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice," for the Lord has overcome the world and death and the victory is yours in Christ Jesus our Lord!
New Life Mission Church of La Jolla,
Presbyterian Church in America
La Jolla, California
1 Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, p. 51.
2 John D. Currid, "The Egyptian Setting of the 'Serpent'." Biblische Zeitschrift 39/2 (1995):209.
3 Currid, p. 212.