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The Magi and the Gnats - Part 4

The Driving Question: Why could the magi not duplicate the third plague?

Posted Tuesday, June 10, 2008 by Sam Yeiter
Categories: Old TestamentOld Testament Theology  
I am terribly sorry for the delay here...but finally we get to the big question.  Please forgive, also, the lengthy footnotes...but do read them...they are quite important.

          The driving question may now be asked: Why were the magi unable to duplicate the third plague?  Those who answered the question prior to this in the negative appear to have easier explanations.[1]  But if the magi are truly powered by demonic energy, and perhaps by Satan himself, the answer seems more difficult.  Are demons, who are capable of some amazing feats earlier in the text, powerless over this situation for a reason?  This seems to be exactly the answer, according to Enns.  He states “The first two plagues concern the water, which is the life and power of Egypt, politically, economically, and religiously.  The gnats, however, come from the dust of the earth, which is not the Egyptian ‘power source.’  Their magic and secret arts are empowered by the Nile, but with the third plague, the magicians are out of their element.”[2]  This seems to be suggesting that the demonic powers behind the magi were unable to manipulate dust in the ways they could the Nile.  He offers no further defense or explanation.  A failure of this view is that the Egyptian pantheon seems to have had a god for every aspect of life, and since dust was ubiquitous, it seems unlikely they would not have had an appropriate god for such an occasion.[3] 

          One possible answer is that the demonic powers are unable to perform this sort of miracle, namely a creative act.  Bringing life (gnats) out of not-life (dust) could be argued to be the sole province of God.  This does have echoes of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2.  This view is not without merit, but its weakness is that a series of assumptions must be made about the previous sign and plagues.  In the case of the staffs (not-life) turning to serpents (life), one must either stress that a wood staff had been alive at one time or that the staffs were actually serpents which had been made to appear to be staffs.[4]  In the case of turning water (not-life) to blood (life), one must determine that it was not actually blood, but rather something that resembled blood.[5]  In the case of the frogs, one must determine that frogs were merely summoned rather than being caused to exist.  If these concessions are granted, then this theory has real strength.

          Durham says, “This difference is a difference of nearness.”[6] His meaning is that the magi recognize the presence of Yahweh in their midst; previously, their gods/magic had been powerful, but now someone greater was there, and apparently prevented them from producing gnats.  This view has great value, especially given the significance of the presence of Yahweh in Exodus.  The weakness in this approach is that the text does not directly state this, and the understanding presented earlier regarding the episode of the boils may confound this (ie. if they continue to attempt to stand against Moses after acknowledging that Yahweh is more powerful than their local gods).  However, if this view is accepted, namely that Yahweh exercises some sort of restraint over the magi, it begs the question: Why does God impose restraint at this point?

          The overwhelming answer given in the literature is that this is where God displays his power as being superior over that of the magi (or the gods they represent).  Bush is representative, answering this question, “Had they succeeded, the effect would have been the same as if Baal had answered his votaries by fire; it would have followed of course that Moses, whatever he might pretend, was a magician only, and not a divinely commissioned messenger, and also that Jehovah was not the only sovereign of nature”.[7]  This conclusion, namely that Yahweh wants to demonstrate his thorough superiority over the magi, Egyptian gods, and Pharaoh, is in theological harmony with the rest of the book, and with Scripture as a whole.  It may be helpful, (in answering this question) to consider one more: Why did God allow the magi to perform any of the wonders he worked through Moses?  If his goal was simply to show himself superior, could he not have done this by disallowing the magi from performing any works (real or imposters)?

          The answer to this seems to be threefold.  First, it may be that our God is an ironic God.  It is humorous, and not solely from a literary perspective, that God would allow the magi to make the problem worse.  Second, the superiority of God’s power is seen when one considers the quality of the plagues the magi perform; their serpents are inferior (or at least edible), God leaves them no water to use for their own trick aside from digging for it, and it seems unlikely that once Moses has caused frogs to cover Egypt that the magi’s duplication of this could really have added all that much to its intensification.  Third, it suits God’s stated goal regarding the destruction of Pharaoh.  The fact that the magi work something that either replicates or duplicates the wonders worked by Moses serves to give Pharaoh an occasion to harden his heart (see 7:13, 22-23).  Greenberg says this so well, “The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart…is to make him an example for all time of the consequences of prideful defiance of God (cf. 10:1)….It was necessary to avert premature repentance on Pharaoh’s part, which, had he been only normally obdurate (as were his courtiers), would have occurred before the plagues had run their course.…”[8] 

          In conclusion, I would suggest that the reason the magi were unable to duplicate the third plague has very little to do with them or their skill.  I believe it has everything to do with the agenda of Yahweh.  It was at this point that his plan was best served by severing them from their source of power.  The weak wonders of the magi had served their purpose and Yahweh was accelerating the severity of the plagues and displaying his fearsomeness.  It could be argued that the significance of 8:16-19 is the manifest insignificance of the magi when compared to the strength and purpose of Yahweh.  It is as though God is answering Pharaoh’s question of 5:2, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?” 

[1] If one assumes the magi to be frauds, then the two likely reasons for their failure are inability (usually associated with lack of warning) or divine restraint.  For a humorous hypothetical of the former, see Stuart’s commentary, page 211, in which he imagines the magi trying to gather gnats for a magic act. 

[2] Enns, Exodus, 210.

[3] Again, note the chart referenced earlier in the Bible Knowledge Commentary.

[4] Sarna, in Exodus, pg 37, referring to the term the NASB translates as “secret  arts,” says, “The term itself suggests that the wonder belonged to the magicians’ conventional repertoire of tricks.  In fact, to this day Egyptian snake charmers practice the deception of turning a rod into a serpent.  They are able to induce catatonic rigidity in the native cobra by exerting strong pressure on a nerve just below its head.  In this state, the snake assumes a rodlike appearance and can even be handled by onlookers.  The jolt it receives when thrown to the ground restores its mobility.”  It should be noted that in the Hebrew account of this confrontation that the same word for “rod” is  used for both Aaron’s rod and those of the magi.

[5] This is precisely what Stuart suggests in his commentary on Exodus, 199ff.  Stuart asserts that the Hebrew word for blood can be used as a color (something resembling the color of blood).  This sounds convincing until one examines the usage of the word blood (~D') in the OT.  In my brief study of the use of this word, I found that of the 447 occasions, that two of them refer to the blood of grapes (Gen 49:11, Deut 32:14), and that two refer to the moon turning to blood (Joe 2:30-31).  Clearly, only the latter of these fit into the category Stuart claims exists, and one wonders how much we may compare the poetic-apocalyptic language of the fifth century BC with Moses’ narrative choices.  In 2 Kings 3:22ff there is the story of the Moabites who look on a valley full of water that has been turned red by the morning Sun and confuse it with blood.  In this case the Hebrew says that it was red (~doa') like blood (~D').  I was not able to find any instances which support Stuart’s claims.  The Pentateuch has 122 instances of the word blood, and aside from the two mentioned above (blood of grapes), and the disputed ones related to the plague, every other instance seems to mean blood.

[6] Durham, Exodus, 109.

[7] Bush, Exodus, 93.

[8] Greenberg, Understanding Exodus, 138-139.  Greenberg’s words refer to the whole of the plague series, not only to the first three, but his comment is made reflecting on 7:1-7, and so he clearly has the initial duplications of the magi in mind here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008 4:16 AM

Charlie wrote:  Thanks for these posts, Sam. I enjoyed them. Just for the sake of discussion, how would you respond to this theoretical argument against your conclusion: Your conclusion mixes different types of causes. That is, you give an ultimate cause (sovereignty of God), when the options you dismiss were mediate causes. So could it be that God wanted it to work this way (ultimate cause) and the way he did it was by the magicians not having the skill (mediate cause)? Or does your conclusion have to be a mediate cause: God worked directly so that they could not do this (even though they might have had the skill)?

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