************ Sermon on Exodus 7:8-13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 11, 2003
In our Scripture reading this morning we read of Moses and Aaron appearing before Pharaoh. By means of Moses' miraculous staff they attempt to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. To understand what is going on here, we need to look at the background, the staff of Moses, and the snakes or serpents.
I The Background
A The children of Israel came to Egypt as free men. But because the Egyptians feared them the Israelites were made into slaves. The Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. For close to 300 years the Egyptians made life bitter for Israel with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields (Ex 1:11-14). The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out to the LORD for help (Ex 2:23f).
B One day the LORD announces to Moses that He has heard the cries of the people and is concerned about their suffering. God says He will rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and bring them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:7f). Moses might have thought to himself, "That's nice, but how does this concern me?" God tells him:
(Ex 3:10) So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.
Wow, what a job! To bring Israel out of Egypt! Moses is no fool. He knows he can't just appear before Pharaoh one day and demand Israel's freedom. He knows Egypt will not let Israel go without a fight. He knows the job requires someone bigger than himself. So he has all sorts of objections: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex 3:11)? Who are you to send me on such an assignment (Ex 3:13)? Why should anyone listen to me and how can they know I am telling the truth (Ex 4:1)?
C Of interest to us today is God's answer to this last objection. We read this answer at the beginning of Exodus 4. God commands Moses to throw his shepherd's staff upon the ground. When Moses does this it becomes a snake and Moses runs from it. Obviously it has turned into one of those deadly, desert snakes that Moses has come across in his wanderings; it is full of poison and venom that is lethal to man and beast alike.
A group of us were biking to the coast last weekend. As we were going down the mountain by Parkfield we suddenly had to swerve because of a fully grown rattlesnake coming out of the ditch and going to the other side of the road. We stopped to look at it. It was at least 2.5 feet long and a couple of inches wide and I counted 8 rattles on its tail. Like Moses, I kept well away.Then God commands Moses to go back and grab the snake by the tail. Everyone knows you never grab a poisonous snake by the tail; instead, you have to grab it right behind the head so it cannot whip around and bite you. So the command to take it by the tail appears to be an accident waiting to happen. Yet Moses must learn that God is serious in commanding him to confront the danger and evil of Pharaoh. So Moses grabs the snake by the tail. When Moses does this the snake turns back into a staff in his hand. God says that when Pharaoh and Israel see this sign from the LORD they will know that Moses' words are true and should be listened to:
(Ex 4:5) "This," said the LORD, "is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has appeared to you."
D Moses returns to Egypt with his staff to do what is humanly impossible – to lead Israel out of slavery. When the elders of Israel hear everything the LORD has said to Moses and see what Moses can do with his staff, they believe. Then Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh and say, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: 'Let my people go ...'" (Ex 5:1). But Pharaoh refuses to let Israel go. In fact, he makes life even harder for them by no longer supplying straw and yet requiring the same number of bricks as before (Ex 5:6).
This is the background of the passage in front of us: the slavery of Egypt, the call of Moses, the miraculous staff, Pharaoh's stubborn and foolish resistance.
II The Staff
A Next, we need to look at the staff. It is obvious that the staff Aaron throws down before Pharaoh is none other than the wondrous staff of Moses (compare vs 15 & 17 with vs 19 & 20). It is but a shepherd's staff and represents Moses' calling as a shepherd over his flock of sheep.
B There is more to the staff than what first meets the eye. At the time of Moses each tribal ruler led his group with a staff. The staff became a symbol of leadership and authority. In Moses' case it represents his calling as shepherd over Israel.
C The staff of Moses is also called the "staff of God" (Ex 4:20). God, in some deeply mysterious way, binds up His almighty and wondrous power in that staff so that Moses can perform miraculous signs with it (Ex 4:17).
The staff of God appears often in the hands of Moses and Aaron. And often God performs wondrous doings with that staff. For instance, the staff plays a prominent role in the ten plagues visited upon Egypt. When the water of the Nile is struck with the staff all the waters of Egypt turn into blood (Ex 7:14f). When the staff is stretched out over the streams and canals and ponds of Egypt the land is covered with frogs (Ex 8:1f). When the dust of the ground is struck with the staff Egypt is visited with a plague of gnats (Ex 8:16f). When the staff is stretched towards the sky, the result is a hail storm that destroys everything growing in the fields (Ex 9:13f). And, the staff is also used to bring the plague of locusts (Ex 10:1f).
When Israel has its back to the Red Sea and the horses and chariots of the Egyptian army are advancing from the front, it is the staff stretched out over the Red Sea that makes the water of the sea divide so Israel can go safely through the sea on dry ground (Ex 14:16f). When Israel is in the desert complaining of thirst, water comes out of the rock at Horeb after Moses strikes it with the staff (Ex 17:1f). Another instance, often misunderstood, when we see the staff is in the war with the Amalekites. As long as Moses holds up his hands the Israelites are winning, but whenever he lowers his hands the Amalekites are winning. It is often supposed that Moses is holding up his hands in prayer but the Bible says nothing of this. Rather, Moses is holding up the staff of God. The power to prevail is not in Moses but in the staff, the symbol of God's power and might.
The staff carried by Moses, then, is God's staff. As such, it is a staff of wonder and might. As such, God's honor and glory and authority is bound up with that staff.
III The Snakes/Serpents
A Next, we need to look at the snakes or serpents. Rather than using the ordinary word for snake, the Hebrew word that is used in our Scripture reading can mean any large reptile: crocodile, lizard, dragon, monster, serpent, or sea-serpent. Most likely our Scripture reading is talking about Egyptian cobras – a dark, narrow-hooded species of snake about 7 feet long. The point being conveyed is that the things slithering on the ground before Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh are repulsive and ugly to normal people, the stuff of nightmares or of Hollywood movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
B As with the staff of Moses, there is more to the snakes than what first meets the eye. Throughout much of Egypt's history the Pharaoh used a cobra as a symbol of his sovereignty. The cobra, made of metal, was fastened on the front of his headdress. In fact, Ezekiel speaks of Pharaoh as the monster, the dragon of the deep, the great sea-serpent (Ez 32:3).
C Ever since man's fall into sin the serpent or snake has also come to symbolize evil. Remember, it is Satan, in the form of a serpent, who tempts the first man and woman to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And in Revelation 12 & 13 we are told that it is a dragon – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan – who leads the whole world astray (Rev 12:9). He opposes God and tries to devour the woman and child. In fact, we can say that the serpent represents every opponent of God: not just Satan, but also Egypt and Babylon (Is 51:9; Ezek 29:3; 32:3; Jer 51:34).
D Finally, the serpent represents chaos or emptiness. Except for a little strip of land along the River Nile, most of Pharaoh's Egypt is uninhabitable waste, desert after endless desert. The desert is chaos, the symbol of non-being. One of its few inhabitants, the slithering serpent, came to represent this chaos or emptiness.
IV The Lord's Staff Meets Egypt's Snakes
A Pharaoh refuses to let Israel go. So at the command of the Lord, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh with the miraculous staff. They throw it down before Pharaoh and it becomes a snake.
Pharaoh is not impressed. He summons his wise men and magicians. Jewish tradition tells us the names of these wise men are "Jannes" and "Jambres" (2 Tim 3:8). These magicians do the exact same thing by their secret arts that Moses and Aaron does: each one throws down his staff and it also becomes a snake.
How do Pharaoh's wise men change sticks into serpents? Do they use trickery? Are they frauds? To this day there are Egyptian snake-charmers who can give a snake a stick-like appearance; they make a snake go rigid by pressing on a nerve at the back of its neck; they then break the spell by grasping the snake by the tail. We aren't told if this is the trick Pharaoh's wise men use. We also need to keep in mind that the powers of darkness are fully able to do supernatural things and to make them look exactly like the wonders done by God. Don't ever forget that Satan is the father of lies and uses counterfeit miracles to confuse and deceive the earth.
B We are missing the point, though, if we focus on the how. It doesn't matter how Egypt's wise men change sticks into snakes. The issue at stake is not fraud, but a genuine conflict of power.
In front of us, dear people, is a conflict of two spiritual powers. On the one side is God, represented by the staff in Aaron's hand; on the other side is Satan, represented by the snakes or serpents of the Egyptian magicians. In front of us we are to see a spiritual conflict between light and darkness, good and evil.
C Aaron throws down the staff of God and it becomes a snake. Egypt's magicians thrown down their staffs and they become snakes. Notice what happens: Aaron's staff swallows up the staffs of the magicians.
You realize, I am sure, the message that is being given. We see that the staff of God triumphs over the serpents of Egypt. We see that the LORD's power is far greater than and much superior to the power of Egypt's gods. We see that Yahweh triumphs over Satan. We see that light triumphs over darkness. We see that order triumphs over chaos. We see that good triumphs over evil.
D Victory anticipated. That is what we are to see here. God's people may be slaves, beaten and oppressed by the Egyptians. Pharaoh may have cruelly increased their work-load. Yet, when the snakes of Egypt are swallowed by the staff of God the Lord's people are assured that someday Pharaoh will listen to God and let His people go.
Victory anticipated. What is anticipated here is not only Israel's victory over Egypt but also – and especially – Christ's victory over Satan at the cross and the grave.
Medieval artists had a particularly graphic way of depicting Christ's victory over Satan. On their canvases they would paint a man holding a sharp two-edged sword. Wrapped around His feet and legs is a serpent with bared fangs dripping their deadly poison. The two are in a fight to the death. The serpent weaves back and forth seeking an opening, looking for the opportunity to strike a major artery and inject its deadly poison. But all that it manages is one little nip at the man's heels before its head is sliced off.
Victory anticipated. What is also anticipated is the great and final victory of God over all that is sinful. At that time the darkness will be no more and all will be filled with the glorious light and splendor and glory of God. At that time Satan and sin and evil will be banished, gone, forever doomed. At that time all will see – either with joy, or with fear and trembling – that the power of God is greater, far greater, than the power of Egypt or Babylon or Satan.
E Victory anticipated. What does this mean for Israel and for you and me? Victory anticipated is a message of comfort and hope for the people of God. The wrong may seem so great and strong, God's people may feel so weak and helpless, but God is the ruler yet and His is the victory. So there is no need for God's people to fear, no need to be scared, no need to be trembling. Instead, with glad hope they can look forward to the future.
Victory anticipated. In his book "Forever Triumphant," F.J. Huegel told a story that came out of World War II.
Topic: VictoryWe are like General Wainwright. Knowing the victory of Christ and anticipating the final outcome we can rise up to assert our rights. Never again do we have to go under when the enemy comes to oppress. Now and forever we can claim victory in Christ's name. We can stand on resurrection ground, counting as dead the old man of sin over which Satan has power, and counting as alive the new man of righteousness over which Satan has no power whatsoever.
After American General Jonathan Wainwright was captured by the Japanese, he was held prisoner in a Manchurian concentration camp. Cruelly treated, he became a broken, crushed, hopeless, starving man. Finally the Japanese surrendered and the war ended. A United States army colonel was sent to the camp to announce personally to the general that Japan had been defeated and that he was free and in command. After Wainwright heard the news, he returned to his quarters and was confronted by some guards who began to mistreat him as they had done in the past. Wainwright, however, knowing that the allies had won and that the Japanese had lost, declared with authority, "No, I am in command here! These are my orders." From that moment on, the Japanese had no more control over General Wainwright.
V Belief or Unbelief
The staff of God swallows the serpents of Egypt. There are only two possible responses to this display of God's superior power: you can respond in belief and obedience or you can respond in unbelief and disobedience.
Pharaoh sees what happened, Pharaoh knows what it means, yet he hardens his heart against the Lord. The God of the Hebrews is shown to be mightier than the gods of Egypt, yet Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge this God and refuses to obey the Word of the Lord.
Almost 2,000 years later we see the same thing again. The scribes and Pharisees, for instance, hear and see many things, yet they refuse to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. In their presence,
(Lk 7:22) The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Like Pharaoh they have no excuse. Like Pharaoh they have hardened their heart against the LORD.
How typical this is of sinful man.
Victory anticipated. That's what we have, my brothers and sisters, when the staff of God swallows the serpents of Egypt. So how do you respond? How I pray that you respond in belief.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page