The Jewish Holiday week of Passover is once again upon us. Millions around the world will experience the traditional Seder meal and remember an event
The Jewish Holiday week of Passover is once again upon us. Millions around the world will experience the traditional Seder meal and remember an event from thousands of years ago. They will eat and drink symbolic foods in a yearly ritual to commemorate their ancestor’s escape from Egypt, and to remember the man who led them to their freedom: Moses. He founded the Passover event on that fateful night long ago when the Israelites finally fled Egypt.
Imbued throughout the Passover tale is an undeniable sense of magic. Moses and his brother Aaron engage in contests of magic with the priests of Pharaoh, turning the Nile into blood, blotting out the sun, and bringing other terrible plagues like lice to force Pharaoh to let the Israelites escape. They use their staffs as they would magical wands, and Moses even conjures the power of the Lord with his staff in order to part the waters of the Sea.
Charlton Heston as Moses in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), raising his arms as he separates the waters of the Red Sea in a classic pose of Egyptian magicians and priests. ( Public Domain )
The word “Passover” comes from the Hebrew word pesach, which most scholars believe means protection. It refers to the “passing over” or protection of the Israelite homes against the Angel of the Lord during the last plague, that of the “death of the firstborn of Egypt.” During the plague, Moses commanded his people to spread some blood of their lambs on the doorframes of their homes, to mark them apart so as to be protected from God’s Angel. In Exodus 12:12-13, we read:
“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”
“The Angel of Death and the First Passover,” Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, 1897. ( Public Domain )
Recent scholarly consensus seems to be shifting back towards the view that the Passover and Exodus were in fact real historical events that happened sometime in the late Bronze Age. This is the view of scholars like Kenneth Kitchen, Manfred Bietak, James K. Hoffmeier, and Richard Elliott Friedman, who comes closer in his most recent book ‘ The Exodus’ (2017) to assuming its historical reality than most Biblical scholars have in decades.
By assuming the Passover and Exodus really happened, we can begin to better understand the world of magic in which Moses lived. Passover is a holiday of magical potential, full of ancient stories of awe and wonder. This was known even 2,000 years ago when we read the words of the martyr Stephen in Acts 7:36 concerning Moses: “He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.” I believe this idea of “wonders and signs” derives from the ancient practice of Egyptian magic . Let us now examine some of these magical motifs and see how they find their way into the Passover story.
Passover Magic and Heka – “Activating the Ka”
Magic, or Heka, was a pervasive aspect of everyone’s life in ancient Egypt. Performed since the country’s earliest days by nearly everyone in society, it was regarded as a primeval cosmic force, created by the gods and given to humankind, who could in turn manipulate it for their benefit. Heka meant “activating the ka,” or the spiritual force of all life.
Well-preserved wooden Ka statue of the Pharaoh Hor I, 13th Dynasty, 1777-1775 BC, showing the upraised arms that symbolized magic. ( Jon Bodsworth )
It was used for nearly everything: to ward off all forms of evil, find love, encourage fertility, communicate with the gods, perform medicine, test for pregnancy , curse enemies, secure an eternal afterlife, and even for good luck in business. Most importantly, practitioners of heka would interpret dreams , and we get a direct glimpse of this practice through the tales of Joseph in Genesis, who became a dream interpreter/magician for Pharaoh. Heka was performed most potently by Pharaoh and the “lector” priests, the highest class of priests who could read, write, and perform “words of magic” (heka-u) using scrolls, wands, staffs, and other devices such as wax figures and copper serpents.
Sycamore-wood statue of Chief Lector Priest Ka-Aper, 5th Dynasty (~2500 BC), holding a long staff. (Djehouty/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Passover, the earliest of the Jewish remembrances, is also the one rifest with magical qualities. Its very name, Pesach, means protection, referring to the protection offered by the blood of the lamb painted onto the doorframes. When Moses commanded this strange ritual, he was ordering in essence a magical ritual. It was a perfect example of Egyptian apotropaic magic, or “protection magic,” one of the main functions of heka in Egypt.
These rituals were conducted during precarious times like childbirth, death, and, in the case of Passover, protecting against the plague of the death of the firstborn. Blood was often used in Egyptian potions and rituals, and its presence on the doorframes would have served a similar terrifying/protective role to that of the Gorgon in Greece, or the Evil Eye. We read of numerous Egyptian spells and rituals for protection, besides the classic Egyptian curses inscribed in and around Egyptian tombs (discussed by Liz Leafloor in her article “ The Ancient Art of Magic, Curses and Supernatural Spells ”).
For example, we read of a spell to protect a book: “As for any man … who shall remove this book, carrying it off from me – their corpse shall not be buried; they shall not receive cool water; their incense shall not be inhaled; no son or daughter shall wait upon them to pour water offerings to them; their name shall not be remembered anywhere on earth; they shall not see the rays of the solar disk.”
Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier notes that the Hebrew word used in the Bible for “magicians” was hartummim, for which an Egyptian origin has long been recognized. Scholars generally agree the word derives from the Egyptian priestly title hry-tp hry-hb, or “chief lector priest,” the boss of all the lector priests. They were the most powerful priests who worked in the “House of Life” (Per Ankh), studying and transcribing ritual texts.
As described by Professor Scott B. Noegel in his article “The Egyptian Magicians”: “It bears stressing that there is nothing inherent in the title or actions of the biblical hartummim that suggests that they are merely charlatans engaged in sleight of hand. Quite the contrary, the Bible portrays them as elite professionals who possess considerable abilities, even if they pale in comparison to those of Yahweh.”
In the famous Westcar Papyrus in the Berlin Museum (~1780-1570 BC), we read several stories about these chief lector priests, or magicians, who work for Pharaoh. However, none were as strong as the king himself. As Bob Brier explains in his ‘Ancient Egyptian Magic’ (1980): “one magician who could never be accused of trickery was the pharaoh. By virtue of his position he was the most powerful of all magicians. It was he who caused the wasters of the Nile to rise and fall and who brought fertility to the land…Descending from the gods, the pharaoh had the greatest of magical powers.” (p. 51). Thus, it was Pharaoh whom Moses and Aaron had to directly confront if they were to convince him to let their people go. They would need magic as potent as Pharaoh’s.
Westcar Papyrus – Tales of Magicians similar to the Exodus stories. (Fotowerkstatt/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
Was the “Staff of Moses” Really an Egyptian Scepter?
The Staff of Moses is perhaps the greatest magical object of the Passover narrative. It remains one of history’s most interesting artifacts, alongside the Ark of the Covenant , the Holy Grail, and Excalibur. The Bible speaks of it being used by Moses to perform magical feats and to demonstrate the power of God. It is first mentioned in Exodus 4:2-3: “ Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand? “A staff,” he replied. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it.”
It is assumed that because Moses was a shepherd at this point in his life, he was carrying a simple wooden crook. However, the first time his staff is mentioned, magic pervades the scene, for it immediately turns into a serpent. This has led some to wonder if this innocent staff was really not a lector priest’s magical wand, or even an Egyptian scepter of royalty?
Heqa scepter of the Pharaoh, this one belonging to Tutankhamun. It was meant to symbolize the shepherd’s crook, so the king could metaphorically shepherd his people. It was a symbol of authority and rulership, according to Caroline Seawright. A nearly identical word, heka, was used to describe magic, and the scepter was also a magical implement with a long history. In an ancient Predynastic tomb at Abydos, an ivory heqa scepter was found, likely that of the king. ( CC0)
Hoffmeier notes that throughout Pharaonic history, the shepherd’s crook has been a regular symbol of kingly authority. Deriving from the concept that the king was the “shepherd” of his people, we read in the ‘Wisdom for Merikare ,’ a text from 2200 BC, that: “Well-nourished is mankind, god’s flock”. Because the word for “ruler” and “scepter” was the same (i.e. heqa), Hoffmeier wonders if perhaps the Staff of Moses presented a direct challenge to the authority of Pharaoh. We know from Exodus that Moses was a prince in Egypt and raised in Pharaoh’s court before he left Egypt, so it is highly likely he would have been trained in the ways of the lector priests and possessed his own heqa scepter.
This is where the magic comes in, for Hoffmeier notes the wordplay between the nearly identical words for “ruler” and “scepter” (heqa) and “magic” (heka), which use slightly different “k” sounds, (the lateral being more guttural). If Moses was indeed a high-ranking prince of Egypt, he would have had a magical scepter (heqa), through which he could perform magic (heka). If he was once a Pharaoh, he would have had the most powerful heqa scepter, with the most powerful heka magic. This makes more sense considering in Exodus 4:20, Moses’ Staff is called Matteh ha-Elohim, a Hebrew phrase meaning “Staff of God.” This gives it divine power, and bestows upon Moses special authority as God’s messenger, exactly as Pharaoh’s staff did for him.
Ivory scepter from the Abydos tomb of Scorpion I (“U-j”), a ruler of Upper Egypt that lived centuries before Egypt was unified. Even in these early times, the heqa scepter was a powerful tool of the king, and remained so until the Roman times. From: Seawright, Caroline, “Tomb 100, Tomb U-J and Maadi South: Themes from Predynastic Egypt”, In ARC3RFC Essays, 2013 ).
Snakes or Crocodiles?
In Exodus 7:10-11, we read: “So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and did what the Lord had commanded them. Aaron threw his staff in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and sorcerers, and they—along with the Egyptian magicians—did the same thing with their secret arts.” Curiously, the Hebrew word for serpent, nahash, is not used here, but rather the word tannin, which translates as “crocodile.”
When Moses’ staff first turns into a serpent, the correct Hebrew word ‘nahash’ is used. However, when they are finally before Pharaoh, the staff turns into a crocodile. Eventually, Pharaoh’s chief lector priests duplicate the magic act by turning their own staffs into crocodiles, only to watch in horror as Aaron and Moses’ crocodile consumes its Egyptian counterparts, proving the authority of the Israelites and their Lord.
A Nile crocodile basking in the sun. (Steve Slater/ CC BY 2.0 )
The idea of consuming something to gain its power dates back to the Pyramid Texts, a millennium before the Passover. In the Pyramid of King Unas (5th dynasty, ~2350 BC), we read: “Unas eats their magic, and swallows their spirits”. Noegel explains: “In Egyptian magical parlance, to swallow something is to know something, and to know someone is to have power over that person.”
Also, the idea of turning an inanimate object into a living crocodile is similarly old. Crocodiles were a common element of ancient Egyptian myth, best personified by Sobek, the crocodile-headed god of crocodiles and the Nile waters. He was called “Lord of the Waters” and even featured in the Book of the Dead. If the deceased wanted to turn into Sobek, they would have to recite: “I am the crocodile who is terrifying. I am the crocodile god. I bring destruction!” They were also important to the lector-priests, who admired their raw, primeval power.
In the story of one lector priest, Ubaeoner from the Westcar Papyrus, we read of the wife of Ubaeoner who is seeing another man behind his back. Ubaeoner decides to do something about it, so he fashions a wax crocodile “seven fingers long,” and casts it into the pool near to the other man. It immediately grows to seven cubits in length (~3.5m) and consumes the other man.
Fortunately, Ubaeoner acquiesces to the king’s demand to reverse the magic, and after seven days he performs another incantation that opens the crocodile’s mouth and frees the man. Listen to the Egyptians describe what happened next: “Ubaeoner bent down, and he caught it and it became a crocodile of wax in his hand.” Compare this to the verse from Exodus 4:4 describing what happens after Moses’ staff turns into a serpent: “So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand.”
We can find numerous images from Egyptian history of lector-priests, Pharaohs and deities all holding serpents and serpent-shaped staffs, mirroring the image of Moses and Aaron as their Israelite equivalents. For example, from the tomb chapel of the Vizier Rekhmire (~1450 BC), we see painted images of serpent wands, and recovered from a lector-priest’s tomb from ~1900 BC was a bronze cobra wand, now in the British Museum (EA52831), identical to the “bronze serpent” erected in the desert by Moses.
Copper magician’s wand, in the shape of a cobra; from a Middle Kingdom tomb of a lector priest (1773-1665 BC). Along with the wand was found amulets, beads, ivory wands, and most importantly, reed pens and 23 papyri. On these were written hymns, rituals, and also medical and literary works. ( Tree of Visions )
From the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, we see Thoth, god of magic, holding two staffs wrapped in serpents. Even the personification of magic itself, the god Heka, can be seen painted on coffins, usually wielding multiple serpents to indicate his power. In Spell 885 of the Coffin Texts we read: “the serpent is in my hand and cannot bite me”.
Top: Depiction of copper serpent wands/staffs, from the Tomb Chapel of the Vizier Rekhmire, ~1450 BC, Thebes. ( Osirisnet) Bottom: Painted coffin of Padu-amen from the Middle Kingdom, showing many gods, including Heka, the personification of magic, holding four serpents, guarding Osiris on this throne. ( kimbellart.com)
Perhaps more intriguing are the images on two seals discovered by Flinders Petrie from the first decade of the 20th century. These depict a lector-priest holding a crocodile in each hand, in the classic Egyptian magician “power-pose,” demonstrating his magical authority over them by grabbing and holding them up together. Centuries later, numerous protective stelae, such as the Metternich Stela , were produced showing Horus as a young boy, holding serpents and scorpions by the tail in each hand and standing atop two crocodiles, proving his power over these dangerous creatures.
Drawing of the Metternich Stela, from E.A. Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians, 1904. ( Public Domain )
By handling and controlling magical staffs, serpents, and crocodiles, Moses and Aaron were very much acting as Egyptian lector-priests, and powerful rivals to Pharaoh and his own magicians.
Top Image: Charlton Heston as Moses in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), raising his arms as he separates the waters of the Red Sea in a classic pose of Egyptian magicians and priests. ( Public Domain ) The upraised arms that symbolized magic on a well-preserved wooden Ka statue of the Pharaoh Hor I, 13th Dynasty, 1777-1775 BC. ( Jon Bodsworth ) (Deriv.)
Jonathon Perrin is the author of ‘ Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told ,’ available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.
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