What we think we know may not always turn out to be true.

This is the same today as it was in ancient times. Giving up our beliefs is not something easily done and usually requires a great deal of convincing. In such a way, ancient Egyptians, and more specifically, their leaders were forced to reflect on what they believed based on the evidence before them. Egyptians depended on their gods, their rituals and their Pharaoh to not only explain the ways of the world but to keep it in order. The events of the exodus of Israel challenged every aspect of Egyptian life by assaulting its very foundation of religion and spirituality. This assault on Egyptian culture is primarily presented through the actions of God and Moses on one side with Pharaoh and his magicians on the other. It is through the book of Exodus’ descriptions of Pharaoh’s magicians that the impact of ‘God’s finger’ on Egyptian culture is best understood. It is common knowledge that the magician played an important role in ancient Egypt. Life in those days regarded “the magician [as] an esteemed and influential member of Egyptian society, exercising authority…by means of powerful words and actions” (Koulis). As a link to the divine (often seen as a priest), the magician would invoke words of power and perform sacred rituals to solve everyday problems in Egypt. Lesser magicians “…used magic to rid an area of poisonous reptiles and insects” (Pinch), while their superiors focused on more important issues. One example of this is that Egyptians believed that they had to perform rituals in order to directly influence the rising and setting of the sun. This ‘repulsing of the dragon’ was a ritual performed by magicians to prevent the sun-god Re from facing “peril of destruction from a demon in the underworld, Apophis” (‘The Repulsing of the Dragon’, FYP Handbook, 5). It is because of these rituals that it is acceptable that the magician was a symbol of religion to Egyptians. Magicians were believed to be essential in helping keep the divine order of everything, oftentimes believed to be a god-like force themselves: “Heaven thunders, the earth trembles before [me], [I] am a magician, [I] am he who is possessed of magic” (The Pyramid Texts, utterance 472, § 924). Powerful and as influential as they were, magicians were not gods, but acted as stand-ins or visors of a god; Pharaoh (“Prieste Caste”).


Almighty and all powerful, the Pharaoh, king of Egypt was not without his limitations. Running the most advanced civilization in the world at the time was not always easy. Problems were bound to arise that Pharaoh did not have a solution for. It is for this reason that Pharaoh prized his scribes, soothsayers, wise men or magicians (“Prieste Caste”). They would provide him with understanding or other points of view on difficult issues. A very predominant issue was not always economical or political, but spiritual. The interpretation of dreams was a very common thing among the Egyptians, but only the most important of revelations would come to Pharaoh. The Bible gives an example us this: “…And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt…” (Genesis 41:7-8). Even though this event occurs in an earlier generation of Egypt it still exemplifies Pharaoh’s dependence on his magicians. The later story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt provides its own set of problems for the Pharaoh of the time. This Pharaoh, who proclaims ‘…I do not know the Lord…’ (Exodus 5:2), becomes deeply perplexed by the supernatural events that later rise from Moses. The once exiled prince returns to Egypt with a message: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go…’” (Exodus 5:1). This message was not taken seriously by Pharaoh, as he did not recognize the God of the Hebrews. Pharaoh then, as God foresees, said, “Prove yourselves by working a miracle,” (Exodus 7:9). By following God’s instruction Aaron, Moses’ brother, tossed his rod before Pharaoh and it became a serpent. This was not something totally uncommon for a man to accomplish in Pharaoh’s view, and so “...Pharaoh summoned…the magicians of Egypt, [who] did the same by their secret arts” (Exodus 7:11). Even though “…Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods” (Exodus 7:12), the message of Moses continued to be unheeded. This is not surprising considering Moses was raised in the presence of the royal magicians himself, possibly learning a


spell or two in his lifetime. By replicating the sign of God, the magicians falsified Moses and his message. Pharaoh’s heart became hardened, causing him to deny Moses’ request. Moses then went on to deliver another, more serious demonstration of God’s power by striking the Nile and all other bodies of water red, “…and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened…” (Exodus 7:21-22). It is not clear how much water the magicians of Pharaoh transformed, or if they could even reverse the effect. But even after “[s]even days passed…” (Exodus 7:25), Pharaoh was satisfied with the replication by his magicians “…and did not lay even this to his heart” (Exodus 7:23). Again, by being able to reproduce ‘the work of God’ the magicians were able to cast some doubt on the validity of Moses’ message and also on the God of the Hebrews. Continuing to follow God’s instructions, Moses and his brother once again came before Pharaoh demanding that the Israelites be let go. Moses warned: “But if you refuse to let them go, behold [God] will plague all your country with frogs…” (Exodus 8:2). Pharaoh once again dismissed the demand of Moses and “[s]o Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:6). Pharaoh’s magicians once again succeeded in doing the same by their secret arts, bringing frogs upon the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:7). This time, however, Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Entreat the Lord to take away the frogs from me and from my people; and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord” (Exodus 8:8). Not only did Pharaoh recognize the God of Hebrews but he submitted to Him, indicating the magicians were incapable of reversing this plague. To the Egyptians, the frog goddess, Heket, was a symbol of life and fertility (Lindemans). By bringing this plague on the Egyptians, God proved His superiority over the Egyptian gods. Despite this, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart after tricking Moses into reversing the plague.


God then spoke to Moses and told him, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats throughout the land of Egypt’” (Exodus 8:16). Aaron did as he was told and many gnats invaded the land. This time “[t]he magicians tried by their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not…And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God…’” (Exodus 8:18-19). The magicians were in awe of this work. All their prayers and all of their rituals were rendered useless, their gods became powerless. The statement, even in its simplicity, symbolized the submission of all they had once believed to Yahweh. They accepted that Moses may have told the truth. Later, the magicians, once thought blessed by the gods of Egypt, “...could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians” (Exodus 9: 11). These magicians went from being rivalled in power with Moses to inferior men who could not even stand before him. They soon found that they could not trust either in their gods or in their own abilities. What a blow this must have been to their former confidence. This sense of inferiority soon turned into fear of what the God of the Hebrews was capable of. The servants of Pharaoh became so insecure that they even went as far as to doubt the judgement of Pharaoh, their god, by saying, “…Let the men go…do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exodus 10:7). The impact of the magicians’ acknowledgement and fear of the God of Hebrews is immense; reflecting the views of the majority of the Egyptian populace. A foreign power managed to overcome centuries of devout belief and generations of tradition in Egyptian culture. In a short period of time, the Egyptians came to a sad realization, having had the very strength of their civilization shattered, that the God of the ‘slaves’ was more powerful than their own. This realization left not just magicians but all Egyptians with questions to answer.

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