Audio file

By Dr. Christopher A. Decaen

Note: The following text is the transcript of a talk Dr. Decaen presented at Thomas Aquinas College on January 12, 2011. 


In reading contemporary Scripture scholars one sometimes comes across the claim that there is no Devil in the Old Testament. While evil and sin are surely present throughout the Hebrew Bible, and we might even grant that by its end there is some notion of demons or evil spirits, nevertheless (the story goes) the idea that there is a first and highest among them is foreign to the Old Testament. Rather, the Devil is a creation of the New Testament. Or, when this view is asserted by scriptural scholars that intend to be orthodox, it is put more moderately, so that the existence and nature of Satan is described as one of the doctrinal developments that crystallized in the time of Christ.

Now, although I do not want simply to dismiss the latter form of this thesis — there is sense in the notion that our awareness of Satan and his role in salvation history developed — still there’s a natural objection one could make to the assertion that there is no chief fallen angel at work in the Old Testament. One need look no further than the third chapter of the first book

Genesis, where one encounters a rather peculiar serpent. This apparently rational “beast” stands out among the animals in Eden by appearing to be both less than God and in a way more, or at least more clever, than man. For no apparent reason this serpent is intent upon creating a breach between man and God, craftily deceiving the woman into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And after it succeeds, although Yahweh asks the man and the woman why they broke the command, no similar question is put to the serpent; God appears not to be surprised by the serpent’s treachery, or even by its presence in the Garden. Finally, when allotting punishments, Yahweh does not dismiss the serpent as just a dumb animal that did not know any better; rather, he singles it out first, punishing it by dooming it to crawl on its belly, to eat dust all its days, and to be hated and, finally, crushed by the seed of the woman.

So in spite of modern scholarship that, in one instance I came across, insists without explanation that “the serpent is by no means ‘satanic,’ as in the lens of later Judeo-Christian tradition,” the details of the story of Genesis 3, and especially the curses assigned the serpent, suggest that this is no ordinary serpent. Indeed, these details suggest even that the serpent and its offspring will play an enduring and contentious part in the history of man. Moreover, because the serpent’s hatred for man and his seed, and presumably for God Himself, is explicit, we should expect his further attacks to be more implicit in the rest of Scripture — he will try to hide. For he is the “most cunning” — “most subtle” some translations say — of all the animals. He will be at work, but he will not make his presence felt if he does not have to.

This talk, then, is not so much a direct defense of the enduring presence of Satan in the Old Testament, or even in the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses; rather, you might call this a literary study of the presence of the serpent in those Five Books. Of these books, three are historical narratives (Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers) and two are chiefly records of the Jewish Law (Leviticus and Deuteronomy); what I want to do in this talk is to bring out the lurking presence of the serpent in those three histories. Admittedly, after Genesis 3 there are only two other events that explicitly involve serpents in the Pentateuch — the first being the serpent into which Moses turns his rod in confronting Pharaoh, and the second being the seraph serpents that punish the Hebrews in the desert. Neither of these is particularly extensive; indeed, the seraph serpent episode, in Numbers 21, is only 5 verses long. So the serpent does not readily appear to be a principal theme or character in the Pentateuch. Yet I hope to show that these few explicit references to serpents, and a couple of implicit ones that bring them all together, are significant; indeed, they suggest a deep unity to the Books of Moses that is worth noticing. Whereas it is commonly thought that the last four books are principally about the exodus and the dispensation of the Law, whereas the first, Genesis, is just a prologue of sorts tacked on to give context, I want to show that the serpent is a thread that pulls together the Five Books more tightly. For while the books are truly about the defining period of Israel’s history in her flight from Egypt, the serpent itself has an important connection with both Egypt and Israel.

To make this argument we will need to walk through the three serpent episodes in order, attending to certain suggestive details. So let’s begin by looking first at the curse upon the serpent in the Garden. After the man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent, Yahweh inverts this order and addresses the last first.

The LORD God said to the serpent [נחש, nahash], “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust [עפר , haphar] you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise [alt. strike, trample; ישופנו, yeshuphenu] your head and you shall bruise [alt. strike, bite; תשופנו, teshuphenu] his heel.” (Gen 3:14-15)

As often happens in reading Scripture, here is an instance where our familiarity with the words interferes with our noticing their peculiarity. Why is being consigned to crawl on its belly and eat dust curses at all? Didn’t the serpent do both those things already? And to be told that the human race and you will be forever opposed wouldn’t sound so bad if you already hate that race. In short, the serpent’s punishment doesn’t seem too horrible, especially in comparison with the punishment allotted to the man and the woman: death, pain, submission, and living by the sweat of the brow.

Part of the meaning of serpent’s curse, however, is clearer in fact when we take a closer look at the curse Yahweh gives the man:

And to the man [אדם, ’adam] he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the earth [ אדמה, ’adamah] because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread [לחם, lehem] till you return to the earth (אדמה), for out of it you were taken; you are dust (עפר), and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:17-19)

Right away we notice that the serpent and the man are both given curses that bear upon eating; so it seems like there might be something significant going on here. But the connection between them is even stronger when we recall the meaning of the man’s name: “adam” is the shortened form of the word “adamah,” meaning soil or earth or ground, which is here being cursed because of the man, and is what man is cursed to become now. In addition, Yahweh is specifically said to have made the man from the dust of the ground: “The LORD God formed man (אדם) of the dust (עפר) from the earth (אדמה) and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). So the man’s disobedience is punished with the loss of that breath of life, and a return to the dust of the earth, whereas the serpent is punished with having to eat that dust. Here, then, you see the magnitude of the serpent’s curse: Like any snake, the serpent of Genesis wants to eat its victims alive, but here it is cursed with only cold meals. Jesus, recall, later calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning”; here we see that the serpent is fittingly punished with getting to eat only the disintegrated and decomposed corpses of those he murders. I will return to this part of the curse, and the enmity between the seed of man and the seed of the serpent, later. Let’s turn now to the second explicit serpent episode in the Pentateuch, the one involving Moses’ rod.

Moses is given the power to turn his rod into a serpent when he worries to Yahweh that the Egyptians, and perhaps even the Israelites, will not believe that he is Yahweh’s emissary. Yahweh tells him,

“Cast it [the rod] on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand, and take it by the tail” — so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand — “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.” (Ex 4:3-5)

Notice that Yahweh doesn’t tell Moses what is going to happen when the rod hits the ground; Moses has expressed some doubt in Yahweh’s plan, so Yahweh is perhaps testing Moses’ faith by asking him to do something simple without any explanation. An even greater act of faith, however, is demanded when Yahweh tells Moses to pick up the serpent. Yahweh has just taken from Moses the one thing a desert-dweller uses to defend himself against snakes, his rod, and now is commanding him not to flee, but to attack. Further, He tests Moses by commanding him to grasp the serpent by the tail, again without telling Moses what will happen, that it will become a rod again at his touch. A little reflection and one can see that picking up any serpent by its tail is imprudent, to say the least, as it would allow the serpent to bend back and strike. If you must grab a serpent, you grab it by its head.

But notice also what might be subtle references here to the Genesis serpent. Yahweh first draws Moses, the Israelites, and the reader back to the book of Genesis with the reference to the patriarchs. If the Genesis serpent crosses one’s mind, then, one may also notice the immediate opposition or “enmity” we see between Moses and the serpent, such that he immediately flees the serpent, but then is commanded to subdue it. However, unlike in the Genesis curse, Moses does not strike at the serpent’s head but at its tail, so it is unlikely that Moses’ actions here are the full realization of the prophesy in Genesis 3; Moses is not “the seed” that will bruise the head of the serpent. But it seems possible that Moses’ interaction with the serpent here is at least intended to allude to the Genesis curse and prophesy. Perhaps this is clearer still when we notice that the rod is a serpent only when it is cast upon the ground, on its belly where it can “eat the dust” of the earth.

Now, the episode of Moses and his transmogrifying rod is not over here in Exodus 4. Yahweh commands Moses to perform this sign to convince Pharaoh that Moses speaks for the God of Israel, and Scripture records this display of power in one of Moses’ first confrontations with Pharaoh, in Exodus 7. Allow me, however, to hold off taking a close look at that part of the second serpent episode; my reasons for doing so will become clear soon enough. Let’s now take a close look at the third serpent episode, in Numbers 21.

This event occurs near the plains of Moab, just east of the Jordan, at the entrance to the Promised Land; it is at the very end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, itself a punishment for the Israelites’ lack of trust that, by Yahweh’s hand, they would conquer the land of Canaan. Aaron has already died of old age, Moses himself has sinned at Meribah, and is now near death. In this last, and perhaps most astounding, of the long series of Israelite “murmurings,” the people suddenly begin “speaking against God and Moses” again. At this point, God has several times already provided them with food and water, and even the strength to conquer several nations surrounding Canaan; yet here the Israelites reach a low point in their ingratitude to, and lack of faith in, the God that has delivered them by such manifest and manifold wonders. The people now suggest that the flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering were all just Moses’ crackpot sadistic scheme, not a supernatural and spectacular act of love: “Why have you [Moses] brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?,” they ask. They then add, in spite of the daily miracle of manna, what is, to the reader, an almost incoherent complaint: “For there is no food {literally, bread (לחם)}, and no water; and we loath this worthless food {again, bread}” (Nu 21:5).

Then the LORD sent among the people fiery serpents [נחשים שרפים, seraphim nahashim], and they bit the people, so that many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpent [נחש , nahash] from us. So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery [serpent] [שרפ, seraph], and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit a man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Nu 21:6-9)

What is surprising in this episode is that God chooses to heal the Israelites not merely a graven image (in apparent violation of the First Commandment), but the graven image of a serpent. Even granting that God is not bound by His own Law, it appears incongruous that the instrument of healing should be made to resemble the instrument of the illness. Would not a brazen image of the glory of God — say, of the pillar of cloud, or the burning bush — be more appropriate an object for the mortally wounded Israelites to gaze upon for healing?

The brazen serpent is even more shocking to the Christian when St. John much later reports that Christ revealed that it somehow signified himself:

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15)

Later in St. John’s Gospel it becomes transparent that this “lifting up” is the crucifixion (Jn 8:28, 12:34). While the basic parallel between the healing power of the crucifixion and that of the bronze serpent on the pole is clear, still, much of the comparison seems abhorrent, since a vicious and lethal creature like a serpent, even if only in effigy, isn’t an apt figure of our Savior. This prefiguration is especially troubling for my thesis that the serpents in the Pentateuch should be considered together, since the Genesis serpent at least is certainly not Christ-like, and is more likely Satan himself, the “ancient Serpent” of the Book of Revelation (Rev 12:3-9).

To make a little more sense of this incident, then, and of Christ’s mysterious appropriation of it, let me call your attention to a couple other details in the way Moses relates it, ones that call to mind the Genesis and Exodus serpents. First, notice that these are fiery serpents, “seraph” serpents in Hebrew. Although one may be quick to associate these flames with the infernal regions, the connotations of fire are somewhat obscure; one source I read said that the idea of fire probably referred to the burning effect of the snake’s venom. Regardless, it is apparent that these are both aggressive and fatal serpents that fall upon the Israelites as they reject the bread from heaven. Again, like in the curses in Genesis 3, man and serpent are associated with eating: The God-given food, itself a temporary and symbolic suspension of the “sweat of the brow” part of the curse, man rejects, apparently because this bread is insufficiently tasty. Again he is punished by the mortal bite of the serpent, who is again trying to “eat” the dust that is man. Indeed, one can almost suspect that the Israelites, who perhaps had heard from Moses the story of creation and the fall, see the connection between these serpents and the original serpent. A small piece of evidence for this is that, in spite of how it’s consistently translated in all the editions I’ve looked at, the Israelites beg Moses to pray not that Yahweh “take away the serpents from us,” but that He take away “the serpent” (singular).

There is also some connection between these serpents and Moses’ serpent/rod in Exodus. First of all, both are of Divine origin: At Divine command the rod becomes a serpent, and at Divine command the seraph serpents are dispatched to punish the Israelite murmurers. Further, both serpents are associated with rods or poles; indeed, one even wonders whether the pole on which the bronze serpent is mounted might in fact have been Moses’ staff, though Scripture is silent here. In the three cases we also have the serpent descending and ascending, and in that order: The Genesis serpent is cast onto his belly to eat the dust, just as Moses’ rod is cast upon the earth; Moses’ rod is then picked up, upon which its threat to Moses is neutralized, just as the pole on which the bronze serpent is mounted is itself lifted up, which elevation then saves the Israelites from the bite of the serpent.

Perhaps now one can catch a glimpse of how Christ can appropriate the bronze serpent to himself; nevertheless, time constraints preclude my going into this today. Rather, let me mention one last set of serpents lurking in the Pentateuch. This one will bring us back to the second serpent, Moses’ rod, which he transforms before the eyes of Egypt, and I think will seal the argument I’m making that the other three serpent episodes are to be read together.

Although it’s never mentioned in the book of Exodus, it would have been known to Moses and the Israelite slaves that Egypt has a profound relationship to serpents; let me show you this by making you dig into your memory, something you’ve seen many times but probably never quite noticed. We’ve all seen images of the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamen. I venture to guess many of us could draw from memory his headdress. Have you ever noticed what it resembles? A cobra’s head perhaps? Those of you with even better memories might recall that there is a small golden cobra headpiece that is nestled right above King Tut’s forehead. The archaeologists tell us that for over a millennium the Pharaohs always wore either this headdress or a smaller serpent crown, called the “Uraeus.” The Uraeus appears to have invoked the protection of the goddess Wadjet, one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon, known for guarding both Pharaohs and other gods (which amount to the same thing, for the Egyptians). Wadjet, we might note in passing with reference to the “fiery” serpents of Numbers 21, is a fire-spitting serpent. Nor is Wadjet the only Egyptian serpent god: the supreme god Ra (also known as Ammon) was originally worshipped as a snake deity, and his crown is always pictured as the Wadjet Uraeus; indeed, in myth he is usually pictured as accompanied by Wadjet.

So Pharaoh himself, then, takes on the look and persona of a serpent, and expects the personal protection of a serpent goddess, while the supreme Egyptian deity, Ra, the god of the sun, has a serpentine origin. But these are not the only serpents in Egypt’s closet. One more must be mentioned, one who is in a way an explicit character in the book of Exodus: The Nile itself.

Perhaps no one would be surprised that a mythologizing people would deify their river, as it is the source and center of their life, nor that such a river god would be a fertility goddess, and no river was quite the source of a civilization and fertility the way the Nile was. Nor should we be surprised that a sinuous and always changing river like the Nile would be associated with a serpent. In addition, when we realize that one of the Hebrew words translated as “serpent” in Exodus, (תנין) tanin, can be translated as “sea serpent,” “dragon,” or “crocodile,” the ubiquitous presence of such monsters in the Nile would only add to this sense that the river is a great serpent giving birth to lesser serpents. They would be her seed. Thus we find that in Egyptian myth the swamps of the Nile delta were created by Wadjet the serpent goddess herself, and so the Nile is itself sometimes identified with Wadjet.

Now, I don’t want to get us bogged down in Egyptian mythology; my point is only to suggest a further reason for making much of the serpents in the Pentateuch; the newly liberated Israelites, for whom Moses wrote the Five Books, would have recognized the aforementioned serpent references as allusions to Egyptian gods, especially the Pharaoh’s guardian and the Nile serpent goddess. They would have probably seen more significance than we readily do in the fact that a serpent tempts Eve and is cursed for it, that Moses is given the power to turn his staff into a serpent, and that serpents descend upon the Israelites wistfully wanting to return to the land of serpent-worship. As we go on, I will try to spell out some of the significance they might pick up on better than we might. For now, just having recognized the cult of the serpent underlying Egypt’s mythology, and therefore underlying the events recorded in the book of Exodus, we can now take a closer look at Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh.

First, as Moses arrives in Egypt, in Exodus 7, Yahweh gives him these instructions:

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle’, then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent [תנין, tanin].’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD commanded; Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. For every man cast down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said. (Ex 7:8-13)

One readily sees here that this is a contest between Moses and Pharaoh’s sorcerers, and therefore between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt. But what is the significance of Aaron’s serpent/rod swallowing those of Pharaoh’s wise men? It seems likely that although the Egyptian sorcerers turn their rods into serpents out of reverence for the power of the serpent gods, Yahweh gives Moses and Aaron the power to turn their rod into a serpent to display His power over the serpent. For not only can Yahweh (and through Him, Moses and Aaron) create a serpent and annihilate it again, the serpent He creates kills, specifically swallows, the Egyptian serpents. Note the returning image of the serpent eating, this time not the bodies of men, but other serpents, themselves images of the false gods of Egypt. If this is an allusion to the serpent of Genesis 3, then it seems to proclaim that the eater will himself be eaten. The man-eating serpent will himself be consumed.

This Genesis imagery continues in the immediately following verses if we follow the rod as Moses reports back to Yahweh:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; wait for him by the river’s brink, and take in your hand the rod which was turned into a serpent [נחש, nahash]. And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the desert; and behold, you have not yet obeyed.” Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD: behold, I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the rod that is in my hands, and it shall be turned to blood, and the fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile shall become foul, and the Egyptians will loathe to drink water from the Nile.”’” And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’” Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded; in the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants, he lifted up the rod and struck the water that was in the Nile, and all the water that was in the Nile turned to blood. (Ex 7:14-20)

First notice that we are explicitly encouraged to remember that the rod Moses and Aaron are to use to strike the Nile here in the first curse of Egypt is the same one that had turned into a serpent, the one that had eaten the serpents of Egypt, and which was at the command of Yahweh. (This same rod will initiate the subsequent nine plagues as well.) It is tempting, then, to see a continuation of the imagery of the conquest of the serpent god of Egypt here. For we see the Nile bleed. Indeed, Aaron’s wounding of the Nile is fatal not only to all the fish in it, but even to the Egyptian crops, animals, and the Egyptians themselves, who could no longer drink of it. The source and symbol of the life, fertility, and strength of Egypt becomes a source and symbol of the death, sterility, and weakness of the gods of Egypt before the God of Israel.

We can perhaps see still better how this is also an allusion to the Genesis serpent when we recall the only other important event that involves the Nile in the chapters before Exodus 7: namely, the slaughter of the infant sons of Israel, recorded in Exodus 1. When we remember that the Nile is a serpent god, it becomes apparent that we have again here the serpent eating man, indeed eating the chosen people. For the serpent, then, though the curse to eat the dust that was man was the beginning of its defeat, here the serpent eats man with relish and in triumph; it may even be a mockery of the original curse. Such a serpent must be put in its place. Thus, the wounding of the Nile and its bleeding is not just a reminder of the Egyptian atrocity of slaughtering the infants of Israel; it is also an allusion to, perhaps a renewal of the prophesy of, the punishment put upon the Genesis serpent, where it is to be bruised by the seed of man, at whom it struck. Indeed, it might not be too much of a stretch to see in this first volley against the gods of Egypt, this red Nile, a prophesy of the final act of power Yahweh performs in the sight of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea. For not only is this final wonder initiated by Moses with the serpent/rod in hand, but this Red Sea will itself finally swallow, eat, Pharaoh and his army; the land of the serpent gods will be subdued by its very strength, and even its head, being consumed by the Red Sea.

It may seem, after all of this, that Egypt is a rather Satanic nation. Its gods, especially the gods that Yahweh is attacking, are serpents. Its army and its king are associated with the seed of the serpent in Genesis 3, striking at the sons of Israel, who Yahweh explicitly tells Pharaoh is His own seed, His “firstborn son” (Ex 4:22). Nevertheless, I don’t think this is the point of Yahweh’s confrontation with Pharaoh and the plagues upon Egypt. Egypt worships the serpent, but Egypt is not the serpent itself.

Rather, a case could be made that in the book of Exodus the Israelites are not the only ones being rescued. The gods of Egypt are being shown for what they are: If they are not in fact just fictitious, they are at least impotent before the God who rules all things, even serpents stronger than the serpent gods of Egypt. This could mean that not only Israel but Egypt too is being liberated; Egypt is being evangelized.

It would take another lecture to make this case persuasively; let me only point out one piece of evidence that may incline you to my thesis. As the plagues unfold upon Egypt, Yahweh frequently tells the Israelites that the reason for these wonders is “that you may know that I am the LORD” (Ex 10:2, and 6:6), which of course makes sense; such acts of power and love would convince anyone to believe in Yahweh, and even to try to reciprocate His love. But when Moses first comes before Pharaoh, in Exodus 5, to ask that the Israelites be allowed to go forth and worship Yahweh, it turns out that it isn’t only Israel that needs to have its faith deepened. Pharaoh rejects the request dismissively: “Who is the LORD, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go” (Ex 5:2). The god-king of Egypt does not know the God of Israel. Whatever things the Israelite slaves have been doing for the last 400 years in Egypt, making converts has not been one of them; Egypt still doesn’t know Yahweh.

Remarkably, however, from this point on in Exodus, overcoming this ignorance becomes an explicit, and repeated, reason Yahweh gives for all He will do in the land of Egypt. As Yahweh says when He commissions Moses before the first plague: “I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth my hosts, my people the sons of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Ex 7:4-5). This intention is reiterated several more times (e.g., 7:17, 8:6, 8:18, 11:7-8), and it is spelled out at some length right before the plague of hail, when Yahweh tells Moses to tell Pharaoh,

Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues upon your heart, and upon your servants and your people, that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose I have let you live, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” (Ex 9:13-16)

Again, even just before the Passover and the final plague, the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt, Yahweh tells Moses and Aaron, “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Ex 12:12). So although the serpent gods of Egypt are being judged and overthrown, and Pharaoh himself, the god-king, is finally subdued by the death of his firstborn, shortly thereafter Pharaoh lashes out against the fleeing Israelites at the Red Sea. There Yahweh tells Moses one last time that even the annihilation of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army will be for Egypt’s own conversion, for Pharaoh, no doubt wearing the Uraeus and serpent cowl, is the last “god” that needs to receive an “act of judgment”: “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen” (Ex 14:18).

Thus, from the confrontation with Pharaoh’s sorcerers to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, from the poisoning of the Nile even to the death of Egypt’s firstborn in the final plague, Yahweh is acting not only for the good of Israel, but even for the good of Egypt, for her sound theology and religion. He is teaching her, in an admittedly painful way, that not the serpent, but the God of Israel is god of all, and therefore even of Egypt. He wants her to know Him. He is teaching even Egypt that He is good and merciful — both to Israel for liberating her from slavery, but also to Egypt. For He is cleansing her of her false gods, telling her of the true God, and to a great extent revealing His nature to her: that He is generous, patient, and merciful — even to the most Satanic.