Old Testament Theology according to Walter Brueggemann Part 4 > > Home

The Magi and the Gnats - Part 3

Our Second Question: Did the Magi actually duplicate the plagues?

Posted Tuesday, May 20, 2008 by Sam Yeiter
Categories: Old TestamentOld Testament Theology  
As we continue (I just killed a gnat...our office is infested with them)...as we continue, we come to a hotly contended issue.  Did the magi really duplicate the plagues?  Everyone has an opinion here...share yours. The next question, then, is this: Were the magi actually duplicating the plagues?  There seem to be only two answers given in the literature.  For those who would affirm their capacity to duplicate the plagues, the real source of power is typically considered to be demonic.  On the other side of the argument are those who consider their actions to be imitation rather than duplication, clever deception foisted upon Pharaoh and Moses.  Bush, states that “there was no real miracle wrought by or through the magicians.”[1]  Stuart, regarding the sign of the staff, says: For a Pharaoh eager not to be persuaded to believe in a foreigner’s God, their ability to produce snakes from staffs (perhaps using boxes and curtains, in the usual manner of magicians doing substitution tricks) would be enough to allow him to follow his predilections and doubt Moses and Aaron – and thus disregard their God.  Second, the text states that the magicians accomplished their imitation “by their secrets arts” (“trickery,” v. 11) rather than by any sort of supernatural means or with the help of Satan or any other similar nonworldly mechanism.  Third, the end of v. 12 states that Aaron’s staff swallowed theirs, a performance they could not and apparently did not even try to duplicate.  They were at that point trumped because a substitution trick is nothing compared to causing one snake to eat a group of other snakes.[2]Stuart goes on to make much of the Hebrew translated as “secret arts” by the NASB, but observes that it is a hapax legomenon, and as such its meaning is much debated.  It is difficult to tell how serious Stuart is, regarding the anachronistic boxes and curtains of the magi.  The imagination has much fodder here, but it seems that the straightforward reading of the text indicates that the magi threw their staffs to the ground just as Aaron had done.  This may well be a case of one bringing their conclusion to the start of the discussion.Though not stated, it may be that some of those who consider the magi to be fraudulent do so because they believe such miracles could not be worked by demonic power.  There is a certain way of thinking about Satan which attributes to him no real power aside from his powers of deception.  Bush represents this view, though perhaps in a more thoughtful manner.[3]  The appeal of such a view is, of course, that our fear of the demonic can be easily reduced.  We need not fear one whose only power is deception.  There are scriptural references which may be cited to support such a view (John 8:44, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).  The burden carried by such a view is not a lack of scriptural support, but its selectivity of scriptural data.  It does not take the account of Job seriously, nor could it accept the accounts of the Gospels, Acts, or Revelation.  Each would have to be systematically undermined.  This is not to say that all who believe the magi are fraudulent would hold this view, but all who hold this view would necessarily believe the magi to be imposters.There are some, like Stuart, who hold the words of the magi, “This is the finger of god,” to be a confession that their tricks had been fraudulent.[4]  It is widely agreed upon that this does not necessarily mean they are acknowledging that there is only one god, or that Yahweh is even the god to which they are referring.  This can easily be a confession that they are simply out of their depth, that their magic is insufficient to equal the power of Moses.  There is a passage that may suggest they continued to attempt to duplicate the plagues (and perhaps even did so).  At the end of the second triad of plagues, 9:11 says, “And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians.”  If the magi had given up and confessed themselves to be frauds, one wonders why they would have continued to stand against Moses and Aaron.[5]  Had they truly revealed themselves as frauds, it seems that Pharaoh’s obstinacy might have wavered and broken at that point and that the magi might have been executed for deceiving their master.  This verse seems to require a continued effort on the part of the magi, and would help explain why Pharaoh would not yield.  Durham puts it thus:They are not mere magicians, the clever tricksters they have sometimes been represented to be, but worthy opponents who are able to match the miracles wrought by Yahweh through Moses and Aaron.  There is no attempt in Exodus to discredit these learned men, for discrediting them means discrediting Moses and Aaron and hence Yahweh.  On the contrary, they are taken very seriously, and the move is to outdo them, not to undo them.[6]  Though it cannot be stated with absolute certainty, it seems plausible that the magi are exercising genuine demonic power to work their magic.

[1] Bush, Exodus, 94 (italics his).

[2] Stuart, Exodus, 195.

[3] Bush’s view is that scripture never attributes miraculous powers to demons; that by definition a miracle implies divine intervention.  See his commentary on Exodus, page 93, for his cogent argument (I can see Adam adopting this view).

[4] Stuart, Exodus, 212.

[5] Motyer, in The Message of Exodus, page 118, addresses this issue in a footnote, “The downhill path of the magicians is one of the lighter moments of the narrative: first they could replicate but not reverse; then they could neither replicate nor reverse (8:18); finally they could not even stand (9:11)!”

[6] Durham, Exodus, 110 (italics his).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008 1:57 PM

Brian wrote: Well kept secrets

Maybe Stuart needs Bibleworks because I found that the same root, “lam,” is used in 4 other contexts.

Judges 4:21 But Jael, Heber's wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died.

Ruth 3:7 When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down.

1 Samuel 18:22 Then Saul commanded his servants, "Speak to David secretly, saying, 'Behold, the king delights in you, and all his servants love you; now therefore, become the king's son-in-law.'"

1 Samuel 24:4 And the men of David said to him, "Behold, this is the day of which the LORD said to you, 'Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.'" Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul's robe secretly.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:11 PM

Brian wrote:  Perhaps the statement, “This is the finger of god" was the Magis' excuse for their failure to expose Moses as a mere trickster.Have we assumed that the Magi were intending to compete with Moses, that is: to compete with God? Maybe their purpose was to demonstrate that Moses was merely acting on his own and without the support of any god. If this was their goal, obvious fraudulence would be an asset instead of a liability. In such a situation the Magi could have been showing Pharaoh “how Moses really did it.”
But when the plagues went beyond their best trickery, they cried “deity!” I can even imagine that this was a matter of professional pride for them. They wouldn't want to admit that Moses could beat them at their own game. So he must have been using a genii. The implications of the involvement of deity may have been of no concern to the Magi - until they got boils and could no longer stand up to Moses.

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