Snakes and Signs

One of the tools that God gave his prophets was signs. Let me explain why. How would it be if I came up to you and gave you some tremendously big calling? What if I said, “You’re going to be king of a nation that has never had a king before”? You would probably look at me like I’m a blithering idiot, but this is exactly what happens when Samuel confronts Saul and says, “Hey, you’re going to be king!” (1 Samuel 9) It’s a crazy message from God and Samuel used signs to confirm that it was authentic.

Give Me a Sign

You get the same thing with Gideon. God tells Gideon that he’s going to deliver the people from the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon promptly informs God that he’s a nobody who couldn’t possibly deliver the people, but God says, “Yeah, that doesn’t really matter because I am going to be with you.”  (This is the same thing God said to Moses when he called him to deliver the Hebrews from slavery and Moses protested..) God proceeds to give Gideon some signs to prove this is an actual, real, legitimate message from the Lord. That’s the purpose of signs. They authenticate the message.

Similarly, in Exodus 4 God gives Moses some reassurance. First, he talks to Moses in a burning bush, a sign to Moses that this is the real deal. God is calling Moses to go before Pharaoh and declare the very words of the Lord. Moses knows that unless he can give some sort of sign to confirm that his message is actually from God, Pharaoh will not believe him.

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘Yahweh did not appear to you’?” Then Yahweh said to him, “What’s in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. Yahweh said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. (Exodus 4:1-3)

snake-1758994_1280.jpg

 

Why a Snake?

Have you ever wondered why God decided to use a snake as a sign to convince the Egyptians that Moses was actually sent by God? I think the choice was quite intentional. In Egypt, snakes were a big deal. If you look at a statue of Pharaoh, you’ll notice that often times he’ll be wearing a headdress that has a snake. That snake was called a uraeus. The uraeus was viewed as a source of protection for Pharaoh. In fact, Pharaoh believed that his uraeus went into battle before him. A text called the Qadesh Chronicle records a battle against the Hittites. Ramses II, who many think is the Pharaoh of the Exodus, says, “I entered into the battle-lines fighting like the pounce of a falcon. My uraeus-serpent overthrowing my enemies for me, she spat her fiery flames in the face of my foes.” In light of Pharaoh’s view of the serpent, isn’t it interesting that God is going to attack Pharaoh right where he believes he’s strongest?

Ramses II Uraeus.png

The Battle Lines are Drawn

If we fast-forward to Exodus 7, we see that it actually happens. Moses is before Pharaoh and Aaron takes his staff, throws it on the ground and it turns into a snake. God has set up an intentional play against the very thing that Pharaoh considers to be his protector.

What happens next is critically significant. Pharaoh calls upon his Egyptians to perform the same trick through their magical arts and they somehow manage to get a snake on the ground, and the text tells us that Aaron’s snake eats, or swallows up, their snakes. This is hugely significant polemic where scripture is informing us that God is hitting Pharaoh right where he’s at. The lines of a cosmic battle have just been drawn.

I am With You

So think about this: Moses, some guy who spent the last forty years wandering around in the wilderness of Midian with sheep, is sent to stand before Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world at that time. And God uses signs to help confirm that Moses’ message is actually from God. Think about what it would be like to be in a situation where you are called to stand before the most powerful man in the world and say, “Hey, what you’re doing is wrong. You need to let my people go.”

Moses is well aware that Pharaoh would be within his rights, from an Egyptian point of view, to simply look at Moses and say, “Yeah, you’re dead.” Imagine the fear and the trepidation that Moses would have felt. This is actually part of the reason why Moses initially argues when God calls him to go to Pharaoh. Moses says, “Ah, come on. I can’t do that! I don’t know that I can go before Pharaoh. You should send someone else.” God gets angry at Moses, but not because Moses is afraid. Moses’ fear makes perfect sense. He gets angry because Moses is not grasping what God is saying, which is “Moses, it does not matter what you think you can do. What matters is I am with you.”

God is With Us

For us, the message is that there are going to be times when God puts us into some uncomfortable situations, or puts us into scenarios where we realize, “Oh man, I am way over my head!” But God—the most powerful God, the God who is more powerful than Pharaoh, the Creator Ruler of the Universe—is with us, and that allows us to have confidence.

When I’m having a conversation with my co-worker and I’m afraid that I’m going to say the wrong thing, or turn him off toward the Lord, or when I somehow try to talk about Jesus but so badly misrepresent him, God is with me. When you have an interaction with your boss and you’re kind of afraid, and it’s a little bit uncomfortable but you know that you need to do it, God is with you.

In our daily lives, we are regularly confronted with things that make it easy for us to operate out of fear. The message from Exodus 4—and God even gives signs to show it—is that you can face the most daunting most intimidating circumstances when God is with you.

Advertisements

God Commanding the Watery Chaos

Genesis 1:2 presents the world in watery chaos. How is Yahweh going to bring order? Why a watery chaos? Ancient Israelites would have seen a watery chaos at the beginning of a story as a genre trigger for a creation story (what we call a “cosmogony”). In the same way we think, This is going to be a fairytale, when we hear the words “once upon a time,” an Israelite would think, This is going to be a creation story, when they heard “watery chaos” (i.e. “now the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep”).

deep_water_4

There are four elements at the beginning of creation that find close parallel to Egyptian beliefs about creation (a separate post will look at Mesopotamian parallels): Emptiness (i.e., an earth that is “formless and void”), darkness, the deep (i.e., the primeval sea), and the spirit of God (some translations have “mighty wind,” – but that’s a post for another day). Egyptian texts (more specifically, Hermopolitan texts) feature four deities that are frequently called “the chaos gods”: Nu, whose name means the watery one and who is called the father of the gods (His name is later rendered Nun from the Egyptian word for inert.); Huh, whose name means infinity or boundlessness; Kuk who is darkness; and Amun, the god of wind, whose name means hiddenness.

J. Hoffmeier, an evangelical Egyptologist, and bible scholar propose the following parallels:

Nun = the deep

Huh = the earth that is ‘formless and void’

Kuk = darkness

Amun = spirit (or wind) of God

The image portrayed both in Genesis 1:2 and in Egyptian texts is that of a cosmos that is without proper form. The creative activity of the deities brings order and function out of the initial inert chaos. Which god is actually doing the creating varies in Egyptian texts. No attempt is made to explain the origin of the watery chaos in any text from the ancient Near East. Apparently, they didn’t care. However, there is general agreement that life springs from the primeval sea.

What’s the point?
Two things:

1) We need to understand that ancient Israelites, especially the Exodus generation, were not monotheists. They needed to be taught that their God, Yahweh, was in fact the creator God. They needed to understand that their God put each facet of the created world into its correct place, for a specific purpose.

2) For us, I think it’s helpful to see that God enjoys and is capable of bringing order out of chaos. God has an ability to make things, even seemingly crazy, chaotic things in our lives, work together for good.

First Fruits

img_4044-newer

The Old Testament describes several rituals and ceremonies, including the consecration of the firstborn, which is tied in with the celebration of the Passover. It’s a commemorative sign of what God did for the Israelites; a ritual they would perform to remember.

Let’s Remember Where This Came From

But the firstborn ceremony is not the only first-fruits type offering. There is an offering described in Deuteronomy 26 that is specifically about the first fruits of the soil. The point is this: the first thing you do when you receive your income—the first fruit of your labor, so to speak—is give some of it back to the Lord as a reminder of who provided for you in the first place. When the first fruits offering were presented in Deuteronomy 26, it was accompanied by a narrative: “Our ancestors were in Egypt and the Lord delivered us and he brought us into this good land so we give back to the Lord a part of what he has given to us.”

In other words, “Hey Israel, God delivered you from Egypt, and as a way of remembering who ultimately provides for you, you need to give back the first fruits of all of your income.”

Be Creative in Your Offerings

Let’s think for a moment about the implications for us. There are two big ramifications for us as believers: First, God really likes it when we commemorate his provision by giving back to him. It doesn’t really matter what it is, though it’s easy to think in terms of income. I’ll give back a certain percent of my income right off that bat and that makes good Biblical sense. But we’ve got to think in terms of everything. What is it that the Lord is giving us? If you have a plot of ground in your backyard where you grow some awesome corn, when you harvest that corn, take a little bit of it and give it away. Or throw a party with your friends and eat some awesome corn. The nitty gritty details of exactly how we give back to God are not important. The important thing is that we continually remind ourselves of who is ultimately our provider.