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should almost certainly take up from language employed in the early part of a narrative, are in fact corrected by something naturally introduced in a subsequent part, without any apparent consciousness in the writer that it was necessary to explain what had first been said. In such cases, we learn that we had interpreted erroneously what first came under our view, only in consequence of something being added which serves us for a commentary upon it. The presumption is, that, in other cases, had the narrative been further pursued, light would have been thrown on what now is affected with some obscurity.
With these preliminary remarks, I proceed to a review of some of the circumstances attendant upon the emancipation of the Jews from Egypt. Moses is told, that repeated miraculous interpositions will be necessary to overcome the reluctance of Pharaoh to the dismission of his slaves; and that by resorting to such, and so effecting the designed result, their divine protector will show that he is Jehovah,* that is, that he is immutably true to his word. In the fulfilment of their mission, Moses and Aaron accordingly presented themselves before Pharaoh, and, the latter, to authenticate their authority, throwing down his rod before the king, it became a serpent. “Then Pharaoh,” as we are told in the English translation, “also called the wise men and the sorcerers; and the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.”+ In short, here began a contest between Moses and the Egyptian wise men, which was continued through two other stages of Moses' acts, and the nature of which it belongs to us to investigate.
The question here presented is simply this. Are the
Egyptian “sorcerers," as our version calls them, represented as persons capable of suspending or subverting, through any agency, the established laws of nature; or is the language such, that we are to esteem them to have been merely jugglers, as we well understand the meaning of that word ? Is it intimated to us, that they actually performed acts similar to those performed by Moses, or that they cheated the senses of spectators by the appearance of performing them ? Were they real wonder-workers, in a fair interpretation of the narrative, or were they impostors?
The former theory has been to a great extent held; and by Jewish and Christian commentators different views have been presented, in order to maintain its credibility. Some have understood, that the sorcerers actually performed these works, through the aid of evil supernatural agents; a view which has no foundation in any thing which we know of superior evil beings, and is obviously opposed to all just theory of miracles. Others have conceived the Divine Being to have empowered the sorcerers supernaturally to perform these acts, in order that the final victory of Moses over them might be still more signal ; an exposition, which one need not scruple to call altogether unsatisfactory and puerile. The fact is, that there is no ground whatever for the violent supposition, which is thought to call for these explanations. If there be any such ground, it is to be found either in the words used by the historian in speaking of the Egyptian “sorcerers” and their acts, indicating the character which he ascribed to them, or else in the acts themselves which are recorded, they being of a nature to exceed human power.
* I believe that this matter was first put upon its proper footing by Hugh Farmer, in his excellent “ Dissertation on Miracles.” The passage before us is treated at length in chap. 4, § 1.
No such inference can be drawn from the words, used in the narration, respecting the acts, or those who did them. The agents are denominated by Hebrew words, translated “wise men,” “sorcerers,” and “magicians.”* The phrase "wise men,” which is literally and exactly rendered, is certainly as fit to be used of persons expert in arts of legerdemain, as of persons invested with supernatural control over the powers of nature; and the etymology of the two other words is such, that the closest rendering of them would be by
“mutterers,” and “scribes.” Again; their acts are called, in our version, "enchantments.” But the original describes them by a term, the meaning of which is simply, covered, or secret arts, an expression in the highest degree applicable to acts of simple imposture.f I may add, that, had the names been (as they are not) such as indicate, in their essential meaning, any supernatural endowments, nothing is more common than to apply such terms to those who claim such endowments, though the justice of their claim be not allowed. A person, who should speak, at the present day, of fortune-tellers, would not be understood as himself recognising those of whom he spoke, in the character indicated by the original composition of that word, but simply as describing the individuals in question by the character to which they made pretension.
Again ; no inference is to be drawn, favorable to the supernatural character of the acts of the Egyptian wise men, from the nature of the acts ascribed to them. This we are to see in looking at them singly. We shall have occasion to observe that they were, in each case, very imperfect imitations of the acts of Moses; being, by the necessity of the circumstances, exhibited on a much
.חַרְטֶמִים מְכַשְׁפִים חֲכָמִים *
, ?, . + Diony; the Vulgate renders the word arcana quædam.
more limited scale; and that, considering the advantage of preparation, which was actually in each instance possessed, as long as the attempts continued to be successful, there was nothing, in either, which was not entirely within the compass of those arts of deluding the senses, which this profession makes its study. Of course, I do not pretend to describe the methods of operation, which, in each instance were resorted to; for it is the very nature and essence of the art to conceal its processes. But, if it appears that nothing is related to have been done by these wise men of Egypt, which can be affirmed with any confidence to be beyond the resources of legerdemain, this is all which it can be thought necessary to show.
The rod of Aaron having been changed to a serpent, in Pharaoh's view, the contest between the Jewish leaders and the courtiers of that prince began. Pharaoh, we are told, “called the wise men and the sor
It may be presumed, that in summoning them to his presence, he informed them what it was that Aaron had done, and that they were expected
At all events, the intelligence of what had taken place could scarcely fail to reach them, and thus they had opportunity to prepare themselves for an imitation of the wonder which had been wrought. The taming of serpents, so as to conceal them about the person, and substitute them, by a sudden movement, for something held in the hand, is well known to be, in the East, at this day, one of the most common arts of jugglery. This was what was done in the present instance. The mere appearance of a transformation of a rod into a serpent, by an adroit and sudden concealment of the one, and production of the other, is what no one probably would affirm to be an impossible delusion of
* vii. 11.
“ They also did in like manner with their enchantments, for they also cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents. — But Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods.” This was something which they had not come prepared for; and accordingly we do not read that they attempted either to prevent it, or to follow it with any imitation.
But, it will perhaps be said, the narrative declares, that the wise men “also did in like manner with their enchantments”; and, in this expression, the historian is to be understood as representing them to have done the same act as Aaron. No such sense, however, is conveyed by the language. To “do in like manner,” is not necessarily to repeat; it is simply to imitate, to copy, whether in the way of actual, or of apparent repetition. If this is not already sufficiently plain, it will be made so by a comparison with the eighteenth verse of the following chapter, where we find the same language, and there evidently not in the sense, which it has been thought to bear., “The magicians did so with their enchantments, to bring forth gnats; but they could not." — And this might be dwelt upon as one of the several instances, occurring in this connexion, in which a hint, subsequently given, without any apparent purpose of throwing light on expressions previously used, compels us to abandon an interpretation of these, which otherwise would be not unnatural. And I am tempted here again to enlarge on the thought, that such instances admonish us not to urge general expressions to their utmost possible significance, even when no such subsequent explanations happen to occur. But I trust that enough has been said to make this principle familiar.
The wonder wrought in Pharaoh's view did not subdue his purpose ; and he is threatened with a second,