Since the birth of the movie industry, few Biblical accounts have received as much attention as the Exodus. It is hard not to read Exodus today without picturing Charlton Heston as Moses or hearing the voices of Steve Martin and Martin Short, Pharaoh’s court magicians, singing and dancing during the Serpent Confrontation. In many ways, Hollywood’s portrayal of the Exodus has shaped our understanding of the Exodus more than any scholar in the past century.
The struggle of the modern reader then is being able to dissever the sensationalized caricatures performed on the big screen from the Biblical text.
One spurious feature which Hollywood has produced is the emphasis on the relationship between Moses and Rameses. This relationship is often conjectured as a sibling rivalry between the two. The problem with this dynamic is that it places Moses as the central protagonist of the narrative. It is Moses who stands as the heroic opposition to Rameses. But in the Biblical text, the Pharaonic counterpart is not Moses, but Yahweh himself. That is not to undermine Moses’s significance in the history of Israel or the meta-narrative. Moses becomes a typology for the Messiah himself in the New Testament.
Nevertheless, as each plague is proclaimed, it is clear that the challenge between Yahweh and Pharaoh extends into other spheres of Egyptian life. In Part 1 of our discussion of the controversial themes against the political and religious worldview of the Egyptians, we will focus on the challenge between Yahweh and Pharaoh in the application of military imagery and the Serpent Confrontation. In Part II, we will evaluate the relationship between each plague and the pantheon of the Egyptians, conjoined with the “hardening” theme of Pharaoh’s heart.
Appropriation of Egyptian Military Language
The first indication of a direct conflict between Yahweh and Pharaoh appears in the author’s use of “strong [HB. yād] arm/hand” or “outstretched [HB. zeroa] arm/hand” as a descriptive of God’s agency in rescuing Israel from Pharaoh [Ex. 3:19; 6:6; 13:3,14,16; 32:11; Deut. 3:14; 6:12; 9:26; 26:8]. Both “strong” and “outstretched” appear in a military context, a Biblical idiom employed to symbolize power and strength [Gen. 49:24; 1 Sam. 12:9; 2 Sam. 1:10; 22:35; Judges 3:8; 61-2; 15:14; Ezek. 30:21] (Hoffmeier, 380). The use of military imagery employed in the narrative is somewhat expected considering that The Song of Moses praises Yahweh as “a man of war [Ex. 15:3].”
The surprising aspect appears when one considers how Egyptian texts applied this same metaphor to the Egyptian gods (especially Horus) and Pharaoh. Egyptologist and Old Testament scholar, James Hoffmeier, has identified numerous examples in Egyptian texts where the conquest or protection of Pharaoh is described via the movement of his arm. Some of the earliest examples appear in the naming of Pharaohs. In one example, “The Hyksos king Apophis” bears a name that means, “He is Lord or Possessor of a Strong Arm.’” King Thutmose II and III both used the epithet of a “great” or “mighty” arm when referencing their military conquest and rule (Hoffmeier, 380). Even the tomb of King Tutankhamun (i.e., King Tut) bears inscriptions and texts which describe him as having a “mighty arm” (Hoffmeier, 382). And these are only a few of the dozens of Egyptian references Hoffmeier provides, which span from the 21st Century B.C.E. to well after dates proposed for the Exodus.
The attack on the power and might of Pharaoh is made clearer by God’s own declaration in Exodus, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land [Ex. 6:1].” The irony here is that the symbol of Pharaoh’s power and might is being appropriated here of Yahweh and his control over Pharaoh. Outside of Exodus, Ezekiel utilized this polemical imagery from Exodus when prophesying against Egypt, pronouncing this judgment, “Behold, I [God] am against Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and I will break his arms… [Ezek. 30:22].” Therefore, in the context of the Exodus, the attack is clear:
The imagery of the power and rule of Pharaoh, imagery which sought to glorify the divine kingship of Pharaoh, is destroyed by the mighty arm of Yahweh.
Serpents & Magic in Pharaoh’s Court:
One of the first encounters between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh is the Serpent Confrontation [Ex. 7:1-13]. Here, Aaron performs a previously alluded to sign in which Moses’s rod is transformed into a Serpent in Pharaoh’s Court. This encounter is significant because it initiates the Plagues and the first manifestation of a direct power struggle between Pharaoh and Yahweh. The might of Pharaoh is here represented by the serpent as well as the ability of the magicians to mimic the sign of Yahweh.
In Egypt, serpents were both feared and revered; feared since a bite from a desert cobra was deadly, and revered because some serpents killed poisonous snakes and other dangerous creatures, thereby offering protection. The duality of this symbolism explains the Pharaoh’s crown, which was called a Pschent. This crown was a two-part crown representing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. The crown also bore two animal symbols, an uraeus (i.e., Cobra) and a vulture, representing the patron goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt. This same crown is also depicted in hieroglyphs as being worn by Horus, a significant detail since Pharaoh was considered to be the divine incarnation of Horus.
As serpents represented both danger and protection, so Pharaoh’s crown symbolized his power over the enemies of Egypt and the protection of her people.
Beyond mere symbolism, the power of both Yahweh and Pharaoh is manifested in the competition between Moses and Aaron vs. the court magicians. Egypt was known for its magic in the ancient world, and many stories and texts from Ancient Egypt emphasize the power that stemmed from one’s magical abilities. The prevalence of magical amulets and talismans among Egyptian artifacts reveals the elevation of magic among all members of Egyptian society (E.A. Budge, Egyptian Magic, 4). And Pharaoh, a divinized ruler, was said to possess the greatest craft and ability to wield magic, power which was extended to his court. It is unsurprising then that Yahweh would choose to beat the Pharaoh at his own game. The symbol of his power (a serpent) combined with the manifestation of his power (magic) was eaten by the strength of Yahweh in the mouth of his serpent.
The point to Pharaoh was clearly illustrated: What you consider to bring yourself power and might are nothing before the might of Yahweh.
As God’s arm struck the arm of Pharaoh, so God’s Serpent swallowed the magical serpents of Pharaoh’s court. Thus, the battleground of the Exodus was set, and the gods of Egypt and the human rulers were put on trial.
Hoffmeier, James K. “The Arm of God Versus the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives.” Biblica 67, No. 3 (1986).