When Pharaoh asked for a miracle, Moses was to have Aaron throw his staff down before Pharaoh. Aaron's staff was changed into a living moving creature. But, Pharaoh’s magicians imitated Aaron’s miraculous sign by their secret arts. But, the text says, “Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.”
The point is simple: There are other powers, both spiritual and philosophical, in the earth claiming authority, but Aaron’s God is greater!
The Egyptian “magicians” where the theologians and scientists of the day. They had researched and studied the sacred Egyptian texts concerning the gods of Egypt and had been trained to use the magical incantations contained in those writings. The staffs of these magicians may have been wands that allegedly contained power to protect the owner of the staff. A staff was itself a symbol of the owner’s authority. So, symbolically these staffs represent the authority of the owner and the power of their gods to protect and enforce that authority.
The three signs that Moses showed to Pharaoh were demonstrations pointing to a greater threat that was available for Moses to use to enforce his request to let the people of God go. These first three signs, which included the throwing down of Aaron's staff, were given in an attempt to convince Pharaoh and his court that Moses’ God was a force to be feared. But, if rejected, these signs were demonstrations of Yahweh’s potential power that could be unleashed on Pharaoh’s kingdom. Pharaoh and his court needed to observe and interpret these signs correctly because within these signs were warnings for each of the ten plagues that would strike Egypt.
In Exodus 4:2-3 the Lord tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground:
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 (nahash), and he ran from it.
– Exodus 4:2-3
The word translated “snake” here Exodus 4:2-3 in the Hebrew is nahash, which is a word that appears 41 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is translated as “serpent,” “snake,” or “viper.”
In Exodus 7:12, where Moses tells Aaron to throw his staff down before Pharaoh. The staff becomes a tannin in the Hebrew text, not a nahash as in Exodus 4:2-3. The tannin is known to live in the sea, the rivers and in the underworld. According to The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament tannin can be translated “dragon,” serpent,” crocodile,” or “sea monster.”
The word tannin appears in Scripture as a sea monster that is conquered during creation by Yahweh:
- Psalm 74:13 – “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster (tannin) in the waters.”
- Ezekiel 29:3 – This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster (tannin) lying among your streams. You say, ‘The Nile belongs to me; I made it for myself.’ ”
- Ezekiel 32:2 – “Son of man, take up a lament concerning Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: ‘You are like a lion among the nations; you are like a monster (tannin) in the seas thrashing about in your streams, churning the water with your feet and muddying the streams.’”
- Jeremiah 51:34 - “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has devoured us, he has thrown us into confusion, he has made us an empty jar. Like a serpent (tannin) he has swallowed us and filled his stomach with our delicacies, and then has spewed us out.”
This view of translating tannin as “crocodile” and as a reference to the sea monsters of chaos is supported by the ancient creation accounts of the Babylonian mythology that names Tiamat as the monster of chaos that was defeated by Marduk during creation. In Egyptian mythology the god Sobek (depicted as a crocodile or as a man with the head of a crocodile) was the first god to emerge out of the chaotic waters to create the world. (More details here)
The word “swallowed” could be more graphically translated with an English word such as “gulped” which is bala in Hebrew. The word bala appears again in Exodus 15:12 when Pharaoh’s military forces are bala, or gulped, swallowed violently into the sea.
2 Timothy 3:8 refers to two of these magicians of Pharaoh’s court by name whose staffs (or, tannin) were gulped down by Aaron’s staff. Paul uses this to make a comparison to teachers in the church who oppose the truth of God’s word. In context Jannes and Jambres were empowered by the forces of chaos in rebellion towards God’s law, order and truth. In Exodus the God of creation and order has come to Egypt to get his people. Pharaoh’s manipulation of the forces of deception, chaos and rebellion towards God’s plan will be overcome by the Lord. In history there are times where chaos, deception and rebellion towards truth are allowed to reemerge, but, ultimately, they will always be overcome by Yahweh, the Creator and the Master of creation.