Exodus Day Eleven
July 15, 2020, 4:00 AM

Three Signs

The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.”
…And he said, “Throw it on the ground.”
So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it.
But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—
So he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand. (4:2, 3-4)

Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.”
And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out,
behold, his hand was leprous like snow.
Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.”
So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out,
behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. (4:6-7)

“If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice,
you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground,
and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” (4:9)

Nahum Sarna has a good take on these three “signs” God gives to Moses. He says, “at first sight, [they] appear to belong to the realm of wonder working magic so well known from polytheistic cultures. Egypt, especially, was the classic land of magic, which played a central role in its religious life. In fact, magic permeated every aspect of life. The number of gods in Egypt was almost unlimited. One version of the Book of the Dead mentions over five hundred. This prodigious multiplicity of divine beings in itself meant that no god could be either infinite or absolute” (Exploring Exodus, p.58). This will be the challenge Moses will be facing.

“Magicians” in Pharaoh’s court will enter the Story when Moses gets back to Egypt. These magicians duplicate the first three of the signs that Moses brings before Pharaoh, which includes two of the three referenced here in this chapter. However, after the initial signs, the magicians learn they are not in the same league with the God known as “I AM.” Inferiority is an obvious distinction.

There is another distinction between Moses and the court magicians: The magicians are skilled at manipulating the gods to do what they want them to do. That’s their job. That’s why they’re hired. With Moses, he merely follows God’s lead. God uses him. One more spot-on Sarna nugget here: “Moses knows no techniques, recites no spells, utters no incantations or magical formulae that are supposed to be automatically efficacious. He cannot perform wonders at his own discretion.” (N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, p.59). God is the mover in the Story.

In fact, the first sign demonstrates God’s lead— Moses is directed to pick up a stick. A common staff that an ordinary shepherd would use to ply his trade. It’s not a magic wand. It doesn’t possess any magical properties. Yet, God turns it into a serpent. God says pick it up by the tail, something, I understand one should not attempt! But Moses obeys God, and the serpent becomes a rod once more.

This sign would/should resonate with Pharaoh. The staff, he would know, represented authority and power in the Egyptian court. Usually, the Pharaoh carried a staff molded into the shape of a deadly cobra at the head. These golden cobra scepters signified Pharaoh had the power of life and death in his hands. Be subject, subjects! Turning the staff into a real cobra was quite an upping of the ante and turning of the tables on Pharaoh!

This is kind of the sense of the second sign. “‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ And Moses put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow.” In the next instant, God heals the serious skin disease. Plagues, as will be evident throughout the sacred history of Scripture will usually be a sign of God’s displeasure (Think Miriam, Numbers 12). The sign demonstrated in Pharaoh’s presence will be a message of both salvation and judgment. Moses is bringing the might of the God into the house of Pharaoh. He can repent and turn, or he can harden his heart.

The third sign of the Nile turned to blood follows the same plot line. The river is the ultimate sign of life, especially in Egypt, where the growing season is predicated on the yearly flooding of the river. (In the Google Maps satellite image to the right, it's not hard to find the Nile River!) Irrigation canals sprout out from the river. Life is attached to this watery, life-giving vein. But the faucet can be shut down in an instant. Blood coursing through the arteries is life; but released into water — death.

These signs are meaningful. They are Pharaoh-size hors d'oeuvres. God knows that these initial signs will not persuade. The heart is hard. Pharaoh is stubborn. His multiplicity of gods are his salvation. But, in these preliminary signs, God is giving his servant, Moses, his calling card. The plot will thicken.

In the meantime, it is intriguing to think that in our own day and time, we are experiencing more than our share of plagues and upending of the normal. This, for me, is not a sign that the Second Coming is at the doorstep, though we never know. Revelation teaches that between the First and Second Coming of Christ, the world will reap cycles of judgment that are consequent to the fall and sin. The cycles in Revelation ramp up and intensify as they go from the seals to the trumpets to the bowls. When we read the story of Pharaoh and his stubbornness in the face of these displays of God’s wonders and might (like the signs in Revelation), how often we must think, “How could Pharaoh continue to resist God?” “Why doesn’t he get it?” “Why doesn’t he repent and relent?” And yet, look at what we are going through these days. Most of the phenomenon we witness in the book of Revelation is playing out in real time. Yet it seems the world is full of little Pharaohs!

This passage from Revelation 16 comes readily to mind: “The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.” (16:8-11). Don’t get indigestion as God serves up the hors d'oeuvres in these difficult days. Keep your heart tender!

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