“Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you”?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ he replied. The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it” (Exodus 4:1-3).
“The Lord said 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’” (Exodus 7:8-9).
I am thoroughly enjoying my colleague’s lectures in the ‘Encountering the Old Testament’ module at College. Understanding the story of the Old Testament is a real blessing. Last week we explored the Exodus events and Paulus asked us the deceptively simple question: “Why a snake? Why did Moses’ staff become a snake and not some other animal?” On the face of it, Moses’ staff-to-snake transformation (Exodus 4) was to convince the Israelites that he came with God’s authority. Aaron’s later staff-to-snake transformation (Exodus 7) is even more dramatic and occurs in front of the Egyptians. But: “Why a snake?”
There’s a ‘theological’ answer which relates to the role of the Satan/Snake in the Garden of Eden, the ongoing enmity between Humanity and Evil, and the subsequent judgement of God that the offspring of women would crush the head of the serpent. And there’s also a ‘cultural’ answer which relates to the symbolism of ancient Egypt. Wadjet, an Egyptian goddess and ‘right eye of Ra’, supposedly took the form of a cobra poised to strike. The raised cobra was therefore symbolic of the power and authority of Egyptian royalty, featuring in the headdress of the Pharaohs.
What a powerful image it must have been then for the Israelites to see Moses throw down and control a staff-to-snake metamorphosis. Even more striking is Aaron’s staff-to-snake consuming the ‘snakes’ produced by Pharaoh’s magicians in the very presence of Pharaoh’s presence in the royal court. These are graphic representations of the superiority of the God of Moses and Aaron.
Such studies and questions of course add a depth of understanding and nuance to many later episodes in the New Testament. But they also give us timely, relevant and helpful insights for today. In our current world of chaos, uncertainty, upheaval, and violence, it is so good to be reminded of God’s sovereign power. What ‘pharaohs’ and ‘snakes’ have the apparent ascendency today? Which of them are you face-to-face with and afraid of? What makes you want to run? The God of the staff-to-snake is above them all. His power is supreme. Like Moses and Aaron and their people we must learn to trust our God – the One Who hears and heeds the prayers of His people; the One Who sets captives free; the One Who breaks the hold of oppressors; the One Who transforms the most hopeless of situations.