The rod that became serpent

God gave three signs to Moses for the children of Israel to believe that he was sent by the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. What does these signs signify that allows the children of Israel to believe that way? In this post, we will explore the first sign, the rod that became serpent.

The first sign of Moses

So the LORD said to him, “What [is] that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and take [it] by the tail” (and he reached out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand), “that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

Exod 4:2-5

For a typical reader who is unaware of Egyptian mythology, these miracles are just random signs to show power. However, God is not giving some random signs to show His power, but a clear sign of what He is saying in those signs for those who are in Egypt who knew Egyptian mythology.

Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD!

Josh 24:14

Irrespective of how the later scribes want to portray the story of Exodus, the children of Israel never worshiped the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob when they were in Egypt.

They committed harlotry in Egypt, They committed harlotry in their youth; Their breasts were there embraced, Their virgin bosom was there pressed.

Ezek 23:3

We can read about the children of Israel not worshiping YHWH even in later prophets, where God is retelling the story of Israel. If the children of Israel never worshiped the God of Abraham, how are they going to identify Him?

Symbols in Egyptian Mythology

To understand how God is trying to convey a message to His people who had no clue about Him, we need to put ourselves in their shoes by looking into their understanding of Egyptian mythology.

In Egyptian mythology, Ra was the solar deity, bringer of light, and thus the upholder of Ma’at. Apep was viewed as the greatest enemy of Ra, and thus was given the title Enemy of Ra, and also “the Lord of Chaos”. Apep was seen as a giant snake or serpent. It was viewed as the greatest enemy of Ra, and thus was given the title Enemy of Ra, and also “the Lord of Chaos”. Apep was first mentioned in the Eighth Dynasty, and he was honored in the names of the Fourteenth Dynasty king ‘Apepi and of the Greater Hyksos king Apophis. Ra’s victory each night was thought to be ensured by the prayers of the Egyptian priests and worshippers at temples. The Egyptians practiced a number of rituals and superstitions that were thought to ward off Apep, and aid Ra to continue his journey across the sky.

Wikipedia – Apep

By using snake as a symbol, God is conveying an important message to both Pharaoh and the children of Israel. The message to Pharaoh is that, He is going to unleash chaos in the land of Egypt because the cause of chaos represented as snake but also making sure that snake has nothing to do with those signs by exalting Moses above and giving it as a sceptre in the hands of Moses.

So the LORD said to Moses: “See, I have made you [as] God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.

Exod 7:1

Didn’t God say to Moses that he will be a god to Pharaoh? It has more meaning and symbolism only ancient Egyptians can understand better. But, how does this symbol identify YHWH as God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob? To understand this, we must go back to the promise God gave to Abraham.

God’s promise to Abraham

Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror [and] great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land [that is] not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.

Gen 15:12-14

For anyone with no Egyptian background, God’s promise to Abraham simply refers to a promise of inheriting the land of Canaan after his descendants serve another nation for four hundred years. But for someone with ancient Egyptian background, the promise sounds like it is coming from the someone who is against the primary god of Egypt. The children of Israel fell into idolatry in Egypt and Moses had no clue about the God of Abraham. We will explore Moses view of God (or gods) before he encountered the God of Israel through a burning bush in the next section. However, in the eyes of those who live in ancient Egypt, sun going down and darkness is viewed as an absence of the sun god of Egypt who was primarily worshiped. Hence, God is using the knowledge the children of Israel had to convey a message in a way they can understand.

Polytheistic background of Moses

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as [El Shaddai], but [by] My name [YHWH] I was not known to them. … Moreover He said, “I [am] the God of your father–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. … Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, [when] I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What [is] His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exod 3:3,6,13

If you look at the conversation between Moses and God, we notice that neither Moses nor the children of Israel knew the name of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, that is, El Shaddai. Even after crossing the Red sea, the children of Israel still didn’t know the God of Israel but went back to idol worship of the golden calf. Moses had been a shepherd for forty years in his father-in-law’s house who happens to be a priest.

And Jethro said, “Blessed [be] the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, [and] who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD [is] greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, [He was] above them.”

Exod 18:10-11

You might wonder that Moses’s father-in-law may be monotheist but Scriptures clearly identify Jethro as polytheistic. Only after the LORD God rescued Israel, Jethro knew that LORD is greater than all other gods. The statement implies, that he was a polytheistic priest.

Conclusion – The Message

When Moses shows the sign of his rod becoming a snake, the children of Israel and Pharaoh could immediately recognise it in their Egyptian mythology as the snake which rivals the sun god of the Egyptians. But YHWH, the God of Israel is not merely using their knowledge to convey a message, but instead, making a mockery of their gods by exalting Moses as a god to Pharaoh through all the signs and plagues.