The biblical material related to the “ten plagues” that afflicted the Egyptians is quite an interesting narrative. It has several dimensions that may have exegetical importance to us. In this discussion, however, I will focus on one of the dimensions that is generally overlooked. Let’s look together at the role played by the magicians in Pharaoh’s court.
I say Pharaoh’s court to help us orient ourselves to who those folks were. They were persons who were attached to the government for some purpose. It seems very likely they were available to Pharaoh and his senior officials on what we might call an “on-call” or “standby” basis. That being the case, they were probably not employed in any other capacity. They were, to some degree, members of the retinue of Pharaoh.
They were probably associated with the category of priests in the religion that prevailed in Egypt at the time. Exodus 7:11 informs us the magicians were of two kinds: wise men and sorcerers. This suggests they were not priests in the strict sense of the word. They would, nevertheless, be associated with religious functions. Being on Pharoah’s payroll, they probably focused on a fairly narrow range of quasi-religious activities. First, they would be practiced in skills and knowledge of the application of the teachings of the standard priests insofar as the more magical aspects of Egyptian religion. They were probably also engaged in the development of potions and incantations that would be used in their operations at court or on behalf of Pharaoh. They might well have been also engaged in developing the various doctrines of Egyptian religion on behalf of Pharaoh. We have no way of knowing one way or the other, but there might have been a small contingent of the more senior members of the group who were simply present whenever Pharaoh was “holding” court in the formal sense. They might have even been around in the more informal times, dependent on the extra-physical predisposition of any particular Pharaoh. However things were actually structured, the magicians were consulted by Pharaoh whenever he decided it was proper or desirable to do so.
In 2 Timothy 3:1-8, Paul speaks of two Egyptian magicians by name. They are Jannes and Jambres. These two are noted as opposing the truth. In The Book of Jasher, chapter 79 (a sort of collection of Jewish thoughts concerning the early ages), these fellows are also proposed to be sons of Balaam. Anyway, they may be considered to be the guys in the court who represented the “wise men and sorcerers.” The truth they opposed was the existence, identity, and power of The LORD.
I already mentioned the strong probability that the functioning of the magicians was, in some manner, folded into the religious exercise associated with government functions. They were a significant component of decision making whenever religious considerations were in play. The polytheistic nature of Egyptian religion (it is believed there were hundreds of deities – a topic for another time) was almost pantheistic. Hence, religious considerations were usually given some weight in matters of state. This would be especially true when anything out of the ordinary was under consideration.
We know that after the death of Joseph (at 110 years of age, Genesis 50:22), there came a time when Joseph’s brothers had all also died (at least 80 or 90 years after the migration), and a Pharaoh came to power who had no fondness for the memory of Joseph (Exodus 1:8). This implies a dynastic change, but that is beyond our scope for now. After that time, things apparently grew progressively less favorable for the infant nation of Israel. Eventually, the “nation” within a nation became no more than a source of forced labor for the Egyptians. That was the situation into which Moses was born. Some eighty years later, Moses returned to Egypt from the wilderness and was in the process of presenting God’s requirements to Pharaoh. Of course, The LORD was not in Pharaoh’s pantheon. So the stage was set.
As the opener to the “discussions” with Pharaoh, Moses was required by Pharaoh to “work a miracle.” This may seem strange, but it is consistent with the polytheistic nature of Egyptian religion. God had told Moses in advance that such an event would occur. The essence of this is that what was about to occur was a sort of trial Pharaoh was to conduct in which the questions of the existence and power of the Living God were the defendant ideas. The people of Israel and their situation in Egypt may be viewed as the context for the trial. In that sense, the narrative of the plagues was the series of events in which God proved Himself to be Himself, followed by a test of power with the entire Egyptian pantheon. The magicians were to perform the critical function of “witnesses for the prosecution” in the trial.
Certainly, the magicians considered themselves to be quite powerful. To the extent they had represented the throne previously, religious considerations were moot because of the actual powerlessness of the Egyptian gods. Their magical arts were actually substitutes for real spiritual power, and they would have no reason to believe they would actually come against a legitimate spiritual power. Pharaoh, no doubt, was of the same opinion. God, full-knowing that, was ready for the contest. Pharaoh and his magicians did not know what God knew but certainly did not believe in the reality of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses had left Egypt 40 years earlier, he too had no reason to suppose the God of the Hebrews had any real power. He might not have actually believed in God.
The stage was set. God was to place Pharaoh and company into a position where they could not resist the opportunity to shut down the last hope of the Hebrews. After that, the Hebrews would accept their hopeless fate. Obviously, it is my contention that God was in charge of the affair from the outset. He would so thoroughly humiliate the spiritual “realities” of Egypt that they would not soon recover.
So the confrontation began – just as God had informed Moses it would. The prosecution team was assembled. Pharaoh was to be the judge and lead prosecutor. His magicians were ready to ambush this Hebrew god. Moses and Aaron were to represent God. As predicted, Pharaoh required a miracle as the bona-fides of God. The magicians were to counter the evidences for God presented by Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron produced the “miracle” required by Pharaoh and his court. The magicians countered by working the same miracle. As I’m sure you remember, Aaron’s serpent swallowed those of the magicians, which left the original question open. For the magicians, the strange event probably embarrassed them, but also emboldened them to move forward.
It was God, however, who determined the content of the “rounds” of the actual contest which is what the trial was to become. I propose this opening event had already put Egypt on the defensive. After that, Pharaoh and his staff had to counter the supernatural power of God in order to maintain the state – particularly its mastery over the Hebrew people. The tables were already turned on Pharaoh.
Let’s quickly recall the ten plagues as a memory aid:
- Egyptian livestock plague
- Lethal hail
- Death of the first-born
God had Moses announce the first two plagues: blood and frogs. In both cases, the Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the plagues by virtue of their “secret arts.” At the end of the periods of the first two plagues, the Egyptian magicians could still weakly claim that there was no actual living God of the Hebrews because that God could not bring about “miracles” that they themselves could not also bring about through the actions of their own gods. A stronger case would have emerged had they worked a miracle He could not replicate, but they were already on the defensive. They would never again have an offensive strategy.
At that point, God had Moses produce a “miracle” without any announcement to Pharaoh and his magicians. Loyal minions that they were, the magicians resorted to their “secret arts” again. This time, they were not successful. The god of the Hebrews had produced a “miracle” they were not able to duplicate. I’m sure they tried really hard because the pleasure of the Pharaoh was at stake. And, no doubt, the gnats were a miserable experience. But they failed. Having failed, they informed Pharaoh that this God of the Hebrews was real, and the gnats were the “finger of God.” But Pharaoh was not to give in yet. God had yet more to accomplish before the sides disengaged.
The narrative concerning the fourth and fifth plagues does not include any information concerning the Egyptian magicians. The emphasis shifted to the fact that God excused the Hebrews from the impact of the plagues. The two plagues were announced to Pharaoh along with the specific exemption of the Hebrews. This was sure to irritate the court. How could this nation of slaves not suffer at the same time as the Egyptians? But, there it was. Not only was God real, He had actionable preferences.
Plague six (boils) was not announced to Pharaoh, but his magicians tried to replicate the appearance of the boils. The boils so afflicted the magicians themselves that they had to give up the contest because of their own discomfort. Not only could they not meet the challenge – they couldn’t even try. At that point, they seem to have withdrawn from the trials. Pharaoh had lost the trial. God had proven Himself and defeated the best Egypt could do insofar as supernatural phenomena were concerned.
In announcing the next plague (seventh, hail), The LORD specified that He could end this ordeal at any time by way of a pestilence (Exodus 9:14-15). The trial was over, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had won. He had, however, without even consulting the “court” of Pharaoh, decided to continue the testing to its logical conclusion in the destruction of inheritance in Egypt.
At some other time, we will look into other aspects of these plagues, but let’s sum up for now. God had determined to bring the Hebrew people out of its birth canal in such a way as to convince both them and Egypt that He was who He said He was. We may infer that His intention was that the Hebrews would not want to stay in Egypt, and that the Egyptians wanted nothing less than Hebrews remaining in their land. This was to be a so-called “clean break” with no return for the Hebrews. They were to depart and enter into their destiny in the land He had bequeathed to their ancestors, the patriarchs. Egypt had done its best to thwart His design, but their system had failed to do so. After this, it was the Hebrews who were to resist Him. But, one phenomenon at a time.
At this time in the history of the Body of Christ, we are confronted with a phenomenon in which influential people tell us to trust the science, or trust the law, or trust the elites, or whatever else rather than to trust God. Perhaps trials that reveal where trust has been assigned are coming? A world system that cannot confront the truth of God, will be drawn to things it thinks it can trust. It is the Body of Christ that is in need of clear and distinct decisions about where it places its trust. Let me be clear. It is not our responsibility to challenge the “gods of Egypt” in some sort of contest. They have no actual power, only deception. It is for us to decide clearly that we believe the LORD God.