Most people have heard of the 10 plagues. At least people familiar with Bible stories that is. Before we get to the 10 plagues there is a slightly less known episode in the beginning of chapter 7. Some commentators (Stuart) note that it is more biblical to see 11 signs of sovereignty rather than 10 plagues. This is mainly because the latter word is not sufficient to cover all that happens. Given this understanding, the first of the 11 signs of God’s sovereignty takes places at the beginning of chapter 7, before the actual plagues themselves begin to descend.
Chapter 6 had ended with Moses questioning God one last time. Things had not gone well the first time he went to Pharaoh and said Israel needed to go have a wilderness festival. As we pick up the narrative, God is giving Moses final instructions before he returns to Pharaoh:
And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them. Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. (7:1-7)
In the same way that God speaks to his people in the Old Testament through prophets, so shall Aaron speak on behalf of Moses to Pharaoh. This complicates things a bit, since now we have God telling Moses to tell Aaron to tell Pharaoh what’s up. If that were not enough, God promises this time that Pharaoh won’t listen, but will instead have his heart hardened. Though some object to this, it’s not as if Pharaoh was willing to listen to begin with. When we first encounter Pharaoh, his heart was already rather hard. Because of that, he is now going to be locked into his position in order that God might punish Egypt for her sins and rescue his people Israel.
Before he does that, there is a kind of foreshadowing event which constitutes the first “sign of sovereignty.” As the narrative continues, God gives the instructions for this next showdown with Pharaoh:
Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’ ” (7:8-9)
God doesn’t specify why they should do this, or what will happen. But between verse 9 and 10, Moses stops questioning, tells Aaron what to do, and he does it:
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. (7:10)
Just like those Upworthy links, what happens next shocks the casual reader:
Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (7:10-13)
It is perhaps hard for us to grasp the cultural significance of what all goes on here. Clearly, Aaron’s staff swallowing up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians implies some kind of superiority. When we peek into the background a bit, we can see that snakes mean something a little different in Egyptian culture than they do in ours. Fretheim is so helpful here, I’m going to quote him at length:
The encounter between Pharaoh and Moses/Aaron in 7:8–13 is sometimes considered formally to be the first plague. There are some structurally common elements that suggest this (cf. v. 13), but its scope and effect are very limited. It is more likely a preface to the plagues, setting the stage for what follows and providing some interpretive clues.
(1) It sets the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in place. The plagues follow from Pharaoh’s initial refusal and begin (7:14) with the recognition that Pharaoh is in a stubborn mode. (2) It puts the staff front and center as the instrument for God’s activity through Moses and Aaron. The staff takes on a virtually sacramental status in these texts. (3) Pharaoh himself ironically requests a wonder. God has only to give him what he asks for. He will live to see many more! (4) Pharaoh asks, again ironically, that Moses/Aaron establish their credentials. They will more than “prove themselves” over the days to come establishing with clarity that Yahweh stands behind all they do. (5) The “wisdom” character of what follows is established with the activity of the “wise men” (cf. 1:10). Whose wisdom regarding world order will prove to be superior? Ironically, all that the magicians can do is make matters worse: more snakes, more bloody water, more frogs! This is also established as a battle of wills. Whose will will come to prevail?
The important hermeneutical clue to what follows is found in the sign character of what happens, particularly the swallowing of the magicians’ staffs by Aaron’s. This does not represent Aaron’s superior power to do magical tricks! Only indirectly is it concerned with God’s power. This act functions as a sign of things to come in a very specific way: the fate of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. The only other use of the verb “swallow” (bala‘) in Exodus occurs in 15:12, where it refers to the swallowing of the Egyptians in the depths of the earth beneath the sea. This results from God’s “stretching out his right hand,” a reference to the staff (see 7:5; 14:16).
That the word for serpent is here different from that used in 4:3 supports this interpretation. Tannin is a much more terrifying creature than any snake. A closer look at the symbolism shows this to be an ironic reversal. The staffs of the magicians also become tannin. Aaron’s tannin swallows theirs. Elsewhere, this word refers to the chaotic forces that God defeated in the exodus (see at 15:1-21; Ps. 74:13; Isa. 51:9). Even more, it is used elsewhere as a symbol for the Egyptian Pharaoh (see Ezek. 29:3-5; 32:2; and for Babylon as a swallower of Israel, Jer. 51:34); God is imaged as a fisherman who will catch him and give him to the animals for food. Here God turns the tables, using a dragon to swallow up the chaos monster.
The seemingly innocuous reference to snake swallowing is thus an ominous sign for Pharaoh: it is a signal of his fate. This connects with the pervasive creation language of the text; God defeats chaos and reestablishes the creative order.” (Fretheim, 112-114)
It is here then that we have a foreshadowing of not just the oncoming plagues, but the eventual destruction of Egypt and redemption of Israel. When God acts to redeem, save, and restore, there are often signs. It is hard for us to read these signs ahead of time, and I’m not even sure we should try. But, reading backwards, we can see God’s providential hand at work guiding things along to his intended conclusion.