By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
לעילוי נשמת אמי מורתי מרים בת יצחק ורקבה ז"ל הכ"מ
Excerpted from Between The Lines of the Bible, Vol. 2
Although we read the Biblical text in the sequence that it is presented –
and this is truest when reading narrative (we assume that event A precedes
event B in the text because it preceded it in real time), there are numerous
examples where the Biblical text adds in interjections which reflect a later
reality to help the reader understand the text – or to maintain the
narrative flow. For example, at the beginning of Numbers, we are told that
the count of the people and their assignments to different camps was first
commanded on the “first day of the second month”; this series of assignments
includes the division of Levitical labors in transporting the Tabernacle.
Yet, a month earlier, the chieftains offered (over 12 consecutive days in
the first month) a total of 12 wagons which, as we are told in the
pre-summary of the narrative of their donation (Numbers 7:3, 7-9) that Moses
distributed the wagons and teams of oxen to the Levites based on the
specific transporting needs of each family – in other words, it seems as if
Moses already knew – and communicated to the Levites – which family would be
in charge of which component of cargo; yet that command is only given in the
The answer to this puzzle lies in our understanding of the Torah as an
“edited” text; in other words, the events were not recorded as they
happened, rather at some point later, God commanded Moses to commit them to
writing – and in an order that would maintain narrative flow as it clarifies
the reasons and etiology of certain practices. This is, parenthetically, a
point of consensus among nearly all medieval commentators (Rishonim) and is
fully anchored in traditional Rabbinic exegesis. In the example invoked
above, although the text marks the dates when the chieftains brought their
gifts and when the people were to be counted (and the Levites were given
their assignments), the final editing took place at a time when the results
of those were all known – hence, the distribution of the wagons and oxen is
integrated into the text of Numbers 7 to complete the narrative of the gifts
and identify where each ended up.
This an example of a chronologically “flexible” narrative; yet there are
more obvious examples of “interjected texts”, such as I Samuel 9:9 and Ruth
4:7 where early nomenclature or practices are clarified for the later
(current) audience who would no longer recognize the words or practice invoked.
This short introduction will help us demystify several enigmatic passages
involving the wizards of Pharaoh’s court and their role in the “Plagues
The wizards/magicians of Pharaoh’s court appear in the Biblical narrative
several times – and in all cases, they come off as quite incompetent and
The first time they appear is in their lack of success in interpreting
Pharaoh’s double-dream (Gen. 41:8) which leads to Joseph’s release from
prison and, very quickly, to his meteoric rise to royalty. This particular
mention sets the Hartumim up as foils for Joseph and anticipates their
serving a similar role for Moses and Aaron in our passages.
Before assaying the interactions with the wizards in the Exodus narrative,
it is prudent to point out that the word Hartum (BDB reckons it as
derived from חרט – to chisel or engrave. Occult practitioners were familiar
with forms of writing their incantations) does not appear in the
Biblical text after our passages – until the middle of the Hellenistic era
(Daniel 1:20, 2:2) and, again, they are unsuccessful in interpreting the
king’s dreams when Daniel (surely a latter-day Joseph) is able to do so.
The wizards appear in five passages in our narrative, which we will refer to
as the “serpent” (I leave this in quote marks, as it is entirely
unclear that the תנין here is a serpent – many regard it as some amphibious
creature, following Gen. 1: 21, Ezekiel 29:3 and others), blood,
frogs, lice and boils.
A: The “serpent” (7:8-13)
Before the plagues begin, God charges Moses to go to Pharaoh and present
his “bona fides” (per the note above, I have not left “Tanim”
8 And Hashem spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 9 'When Pharaoh shall
speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then you shall say to Aaron:
Take your rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a Tanim.' 10
And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so, as Hashem had
commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his
servants, and it became a Tanim. 11 Then Pharaoh also called for the
wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in
like manner with their secret arts. 12 For they cast down every man his rod,
and they became Taninim; but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods. 13
And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as Hashem
Moses and Aaron enter Pharaoh’s palace, representing a deity foreign to
Pharaoh. In order to demonstrate the power of their God, they must show
their abilities in the occult “language” of Egypt =- magic. Pharaoh’s
response is understandable – his magicians can match their tricks and
they’ve brought nothing new to the table; when Moses and Aaron’s “magic”
proves to be stronger, Pharaoh, who should lend an attentive ear to these
interlopers and their demands, hardens his heart instead and refuses to listen.
B: Blood (7:19-22)
It is in the next passage – the first of the plagues – where the role of the
wizards and their behavior becomes unclear and hard to decipher.
19 And Hashem said to Moses: 'Say unto Aaron: Take your rod, and stretch
out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their
streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds 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.' 20 And Moses and Aaron did
so, as Hashem commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that
were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his
servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. 21
And the fish that were in the river died; and the river became foul, and the
Egyptians could not drink water from the river; and the blood was throughout
all the land of Egypt. 22 And the magicians of Egypt did in like
manner with their secret arts; and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and
he hearkened not to them; as Hashem had spoken.
Aaron had turned all of the waters of Egypt to blood (note – real blood, not
blood-colored water, as attested by the death of the fish) and there was no
way to find any water as the blood was throughout the land.
That being the case, what did the wizards do? What liquids remained for them
to turn into blood? Even if we posit that there were some remaining
untouched waters, what would be the point of their adding to the devestation
wreaked on the Egyptian populace and economy through the Aaronide plague?
There is a further anomaly in the text. After the Torah relates the wizards’
success in aping Aaron’s plague (?), the passage concludes with Pharaoh’s
hardening his heart so as not to listen to Moses and Aaron – but the
wizards’ actions (seemingly) have nothing to do with Pharaoh’s stubbornness.
The apparently disjointed read of the text tempts us to consider that it was
the wizards to whom Pharaoh didn’t hearken – note “he hearkened not to them”
– them being the aforementioned wizards – but that would be very odd indeed,
for what did the wizards say that Pharaoh chose to ignore?
C: Frogs (8:1-7)
The next plague keeps us in the company of the wizards functioning in an
apparently parallel manner to their role in the “blood-plague”.
1 And Hashem said to Moses: 'Say unto Aaron: Stretch forth your hand
with your rod over the rivers, over the canals, and over the pools, and
cause frogs to come up upon the land of Egypt.' 2 And Aaron stretched out
his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up, and covered the
land of Egypt. 3 And the magicians did in like manner with their
secret arts, and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt. 4 Then
Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: 'Entreat Hashem, that He take
away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go,
that they may sacrifice unto Hashem.' 5 And Moses said unto Pharaoh: 'Have
you this glory over me; against what time shall I entreat for you, and for
your servants, and for your people, that the frogs be destroyed from you and
your houses, and remain in the river only?' 6 And he said: 'Against
to-morrow.' And he said: 'Be it according to your word; that you may know
that there is none like unto Hashem our God. 7 And the frogs shall depart
from you, and from your houses, and from your servants, and from your
people; they shall remain in the river only.'
Again, the wizards’ actions and Pharaoh’s reaction to them seem odd; even if
there were room to bring more frogs into Egypt (note that the text testifies
that after Aaron effected the plague, the land of Egypt was “covered”), what
would be the pointof this plague. Surely no one would notice more frogs and
identify that they were summoned forth by the royal magicians – and, even if
that were the case, the same question asked above confronts us – what is the
purpose of more agents of destruction and stench? If the wizards were going
to help Pharaoh, they should have removed the frogs and reversed the
Hebrews’ leaders’ plague.
Again, as we saw in the blood-narrative, Pharaoh ignores the wizards and
their actions play no role in his further discussions with Moses and Aaron.
The mystery continues…
D: Lice (8:12-15)
In the final plague of the first plague-cycle, where Aaron is commanded to
strike his staff on the ground and bring forth lice, the wizards finally try
to act in Egypt’s interest – to reverse the plague. They are, however,
12 And Hashem said unto Moses: 'Say unto Aaron: Stretch out thy rod, and
smite the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats throughout all the
land of Egypt.' 13 And they did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with
his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and there were gnats upon man, and
upon beast; all the dust of the earth became gnats throughout all the land
of Egypt. 14 And the magicians did so with their secret arts to bring
forth gnats, but they could not; and there were gnats upon man, and
upon beast. 15 Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh: 'This is the
finger of God'; and Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened
not unto them; as. Hashem had spoken.
The key issue here is the meaning of להוציא – “to bring forth”(
The English here is incomprehensible; how does it follow from their
inability to bring forth gnats (replicating the plague) that gnats (lice)
were everywhere? For better or worse, there is no clear way to translate the
phrase) – what were the magicians attempting to do? If they were
trying to replicate Aaron’s plague – he also “brought forth” lice – then the
same question asked above in the blood and frogs narrative rises here: Why
were they replicating the destructive plague. If, on the other hand, they
were (finally) trying to reverse the plague, then the word כן – and they did
“thus” (similarly) is a bit hard to fathom.
In any case, this is the one point at which the magicians speak up – in
resignation, admitting that the plague is “the finger of God”.
E: Boils (9:8-12)
The final mention of the magicians paints them in their most pathetic hues –
as bystanders who cannot even stay in the company of their master when Moses
and Aaron generate the boils – and they must flee:
8 And Hashem said unto Moses and unto Aaron: 'Take to you handfuls of
soot of the furnace, and let Moses throw it heavenward in the sight of
Pharaoh. 9 And it shall become small dust over all the land of Egypt, and
shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man and upon beast,
throughout all the land of Egypt.' 10 And they took soot of the furnace, and
stood before Pharaoh; and Moses threw it up heavenward; and it became a boil
breaking forth with blains upon man and upon beast. 11 And the
magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils
were upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians. 12 And Hashem
hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as Hashem had
spoken unto Moses.
Not only were the magicians unable to combat the plague and thereby protect
their land and people – they couldn’t even protect themselves and ignobly fled.
This – along with the “serpent” – appear to be the only passages which are
comprehensible as is – but the key three passages of blood, frogs and lice
will require more rigorous - and innovative - reading.
MOSES AND AARON AGAINST THE HISTORY OF EGYPTIAN WIZARDRY
In the introductory paragraph to this chapter, we assayed several examples
of interjected texts, woven into narratives in order to clarify the import
of a particular phrase or action. I’d like to suggest that employing that
interpretive strategy here will be most useful in “unpacking” the role of
the wizards in the three core passages.
One salient note about identifying interjections in a narrative; since we
are accustomed to reading narratives as sequentially “pure” sans parenthetic
statements, it is often a challenge to recognize them. This is ever more the
case when the first introduction of a particular narrative component - such
as a person or group – stays true to narrative sequencing. It becomes much
harder for us to identify an interjection in an adjacent passage involving
the same group, as we are accustomed to seeing them as “active players” in
our story line.
Indeed, the first mention of the wizards cannot be understood as anything
but part and parcel of the narrative sequence – Moses and Aaron enter, do
their magic and Pharaoh summons his court magicians to match the interlopers.
However, once we encounter the blood-narrative, we have an entirely
different role for the magicians. Moses and Aaron were playing on the
Egyptian “field” of magic and black arts (See BT Menahot 85a, where the
Midrash compares Moses bringing magic into Egypt to bringing “grain to
Ofra’im” – a la “coals to Newcastle”); as such, I’d like to suggest
that they began by replicating a plague already induced (in the past) by the
royal magicians. In other words, the report of the magicians’ turning the
water into blood is not in narrative sequence but is a parenthetic mention
that this plague had already been performed in Egypt – by their own wizards!
(Perhaps this was done at Pharaoh’s behest to punish the people, to maintain
fear and loyalty etc.) This explains the significance of the mention – Moses
and Aaron continue to demonstrate their credentials by replicating a plague
with which the Egyptians were familiar. The text may be read as follows:
…And Moses and Aaron did so, as Hashem commanded; and he lifted up the
rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh,
and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river
were turned to blood. And the fish that were in the river died; and the
river became foul, and the Egyptians could not drink water from the river;
and the blood was throughout all the land of Egypt. (And the magicians of
Egypt had, in the past, done in like manner with their secret arts;) and
Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not to them; as Hashem had
Pharaoh did not respond to the magicians because they did nothing here – and
his stubbornness was a direct response to Moses and Aaron.
Indeed, using this approach, we can not only solve the mystery of the
magicians and their (non-)role in the frogs passage, we can also discern an
evolution of power on the part of God’s emissaries vis-à-vis Pharaoh’s agents.
… And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the
frogs came up, and covered the land of Egypt. (And the magicians did in
like manner with their secret arts, and brought up frogs upon the land of
Egypt.) Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron…
In the first plague, Moses and Aaron accomplished what the wizards had done
in the past; in this case, they outpaced them. Whereas the magicians had
brought frogs upon the land, Aaron’s hand introduced frogs that “covered the
land”, besting the wizards at their own dark art.
When we come to the third plague, we have to read carefully – the wizards
are both present and in the narrative shadows. Whereas in the past they had
introduced lice into Egypt (as evidenced by the use of כן), this time, they
get into the act (an unavoidable read, as they report to Pharaoh about their
inability to solve the plague) and try to “take out” (not “bring forth”, but
“take out” of Egypt, reversing the plague) and were unable to do so. This
was the final blow to their prestige – whereas Moses and Aaron had matched
them, then outdone them, now they were utterly flummoxed – the same plague
they themselves had induced in Egypt in the past was now before them and
they couldn’t reduce it, could not help their own country or save their
At this point, as they are part of the “real-time” narrative, they speak up
and tell Pharaoh that this is “the finger of God” and beyond their ability
The final blow, as noted above, occurs several plague-passages later, when
the wizards (who are effectively “out of the action” by now) are standing in
Pharaoh’s court and must flee – their purported powers shown to be illusory.
We might even post that the first cycle of plagues pits Aaron and his staff
(note, Aaron’s staff is only used in this cycle) against the magicians and
their “magicks”; once they are gone, the theological lessons which are so
central to the Exodus narrative move to the next level.
(note: a fuller version of this essay, complete with an appendix which
presents the text in the original following this reading, is available in
Between The Lines of the Bible, volume 2. Inquire at your local Jewish
bookstore - or purchase it online)
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.
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