Moses’ Competitionith Pharaoh’s Magicians

Andre LaCocque. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

There is miracle and miracle. Or, more accurately, there is miracle and there is prodigy, two aspects of the “wonderful” that need to be mutually distinguished. The Hebrew vocabulary does not always differentiate the two in the Old Testament (OT) stories. Their domains overlap and there is a reason for this, as we shall see: interpretation of the sign is decisive.

This chapter focuses on a somewhat embarrassing text, which is strategically situated at the heart of Israel’s self-consciousness, namely, in the book of Exodus. The story has to do with Moses’ training before his return to Egypt, where a price has been put on his head (Ex 4:1-9). After repeated objections by Moses to God’s mission, he is commissioned to perform a series of three awesome acts that should convince Egyptians and Hebrews alike of God’s presence and power. Convincing Pharaoh was designed to get him to let the Israelites out of bondage. Convincing the Hebrews was intended to encourage them effectively to leave.

Let us reflect upon the differentiations to be made between the supernatural and the miracle proper, concentrating on this most intriguingly relevant text. Exodus 4:1-9 presents all the appearances of magic. Scholars have regularly stumbled over these verses that, biblically speaking, are unexpected and paradoxical. The very fact that Egyptian magicians are capable of duplicating most of the wonders displayed by Moses and Aaron at Pharaoh’s court seems sufficient to give any reader a spontaneous impression of unease.

Yet, that initial reaction may be premature and bypass the essential message of the text. Moses’ signs are polyvalent,differing in their psychological bearing according to three elements: the person of the miracle-worker, the nature of the wonder, and the conflicting standpoints of the witnesses. The Egyptians and the Hebrews do not see the same phenomena eye to eye. We can draw substantial conclusions if we sharpen our definition of the miracle and the sign within it.

The Supernatural and the Miracle

Edgar Poe considered that when the supernatural is approached through the “Calculus of Probabilities,” it is an anomaly to apply “the most rigidly exact in science … to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation.”1 Belief in a miracle or in a prodigious event rests upon the conviction that there exists an invisible powerhouse, a heaven, that at times breaks through from the invisible to the visible (see Is 64:1).

The miracles that the present world acknowledges are of the medical order, of the electronic sphere, of special exploration, of genetic manipulation, and the like. Today, Moses’ burning bush would be a technical creation at Hollywood. Such wonders leave us blasé or desperate. For, in a one-dimensional technological world, the human being is a senseless speck lost in a meaningless horizontal cosmos. Desperation leads to violence, for the feeling of emptiness must be assuaged by something to fill it, even though it be artificial or compulsory. Hitler found fellow Germans that had lost all vision of a goal, and he provided the illusion of a transcending goal, through rage and outrage.

Regarding Exodus 4 and its display of prodigies, the word “technical ethos” comes from the pen of Martin Buber in his book on Moses. In that Exodus narrative, we are facing manifestations of wonders presented as “proofs of truth,” an idea otherwise generally foreign to biblical literature. Martin Buber reminds us that, for the prophets, a miracle is a signification of some transcendent truth, and such a sign is the incarnation of that revealed truth. That is different than the miracle being a proof (see Is 20:3; Ez 4:3).

One of the terms used in the Bible for the miraculous is niphla’oth, a problematic designation. It properly means marvels and suggests something contradicting the natural and scientific laws; though Buber erroneously says that the miraculous in the Bible is never contrary to nature. On the contrary, the term sign (’oth in Hebrew; in the New Testament [NT] Greek, semeion), signifies a heavenly or divine truth. The miracle does not suppress the natural, but transfigures it; “eternity changes it,” says Mallarmé. When the prophet Elisha heals Naaman the Syrian, the latter’s leprosy is not denied but, as it were, set within God’s intent for creation, which does not include the maladies that plague humanity (cf. 2 Kgs 5).

A biblical miracle is an historical act, that is, a history-shaping event, as can be seen, for example, when the fleeing Hebrews crossed the Sea of Reeds. As such, the witness of the sign does not focus on the materiality of the phenomenon, but upon its value as revelation of a transcending reality. This is especially clear in the reports of Jesus’ miracles (see the Lukan theology in 2:20; 17:15; 18:43; 19:17; Acts 5:13).

The Hebrew discourse about miracles does not always distinguish clearly between the miraculous and the prodigious. The Gospel of John is more precise on the topic. Jesus’ miracles are called signs, semeia, while what the populace demands are supernatural-appearing wonders, terata. We find both words in the same saying of Jesus in John 4:48. They are not, however, synonymously used. Remarkably, the Nazarean’s miracles invariably enjoin the beneficiaries to praise God. That way, the attention is deflected from the miracle-maker and from any self-reference of the phenomenon. The miracle “rends the veil” (cf. Mt 27:51 and para.) and reveals the divine intervention in human time and space. In other words, the miracle is prophetic (cf. Ps74:9).

As such, the sign demands interpretation, itself interpreting the human reality in a sense that surprises, in that it does not remain at the surface level of meaning but renders audible or visible a more profound message or proclamation begging to be revealed (cf. Mt 8:4; Lk 17:14). On this score, the miracle is less the irruption of the extraordinary than of God’s ordinary. It puts the creation back on track towards its plenitude. It is an “anti-sin.” Characteristically, Jesus says, “Go and sin no more” (Jn 5:14; 8:11). That is why miracles are the presence of eternity, that is, eschatological markers at the heart of human development and the unfolding of human history.

This cannot be said of a prodigy or wonder. Of course, miracle and prodigy have something in common: they are both wonderful. They are arresting. A prodigy can even at times become a sign. However, while the miracle has prodigious dimensions, the prodigy does not necessarily have a miraculous value. In Exodus 4, for example, it is conceivable to have an Egyptian magician duplicating, at least to some extent, Moses’ wonders (cf. 7:9-12:22; see 8:3), but it is unimaginable that magicians work a miracle proper, in the sense of their action signifying some divine or heavenly meaning. Of this, the biblical texts are unanimous in their denial (see Gn 41:8, 24; Dan 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27; 5:7-8; Acts 13:6-12). This is evident when the Egyptian magicians are defeated in their own game by Moses’ wonders, although we are at that point still in the domain of sheer extraordinary manifestations.

Moses, ever since the beginning of his dialogue with God, set himself on the terrain of magical performances as the means for establishing three things: his personal authority, the foundation of his call, and his immunity from the Egyptian death threat against his life. His only excuse is his belief that magic is the sole language capable of persuading both Pharaoh and the Israelites in Egypt. Pure miracles, so to speak, would have isolated Moses and Aaron. For the miracles are valid only within the parameters of the people of Israel. Their effectiveness is intramural because they occur each time as a kind of theophany for Israel; and there is no theophany of Israel’s God outside of Israel. Hence, what Exodus 4 displays is not a series of miracles, but a series of wonders; a more neutral term susceptible of designating either a prodigy or a prophetic sign, or perhaps both at the same time, according to whomever is interpreting it.

The prodigious aspect of Moses’ demonstration puts the whole scene on a stage familiar to Egyptian soothsayers: magic. In this sense, the performance and counter-performance are elements of a dialogue. Moses, like St. Paul later, becomes “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22). The psychological lesson is of great importance. Moses in Egypt behaves and acts as an Egyptian. We are at the antipode of arrogance. Moses does not import a worldview so foreign to his audience as to be totally incomprehensible. Yet, if he does at all, it must be veiled (cf. Ex 34:33) and “as in a glass darkly” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12), lest it be so strong as to blind instead of to illumine the Egyptians. And the Israelites, perhaps? The competition with the Egyptians has an aspect of compassion. Moses’ purpose is not to destroy his competitors, but to convince them. From this perspective, there must be a margin of freedom left to the magicians in their response to Moses. Pure miracles would paralyze them. Soon this will be demonstrated in full when the miracle of the Sea of Reeds will occur; it will open itself to the Hebrews and close itself upon the drowning Egyptian army. Evidently, at that point the dialogue was over. Meanwhile, at the court of Pharaoh, Moses must defeat the Egyptians at their own game.

A closer look at the vocabulary of Exodus 4, describing the future of Moses’ performance in Egypt, will help one focus on the nature of these extraordinary phenomena. Throughout the pericope, the word’oth (sign) is used. In verse 8, for instance, we find the term repeated twice; in verses 17, 28, 30, the same word appears in the plural, ’othoth. We have encountered the same situation above about the Gospel of John (semeia). Moses’ signs may, however, be called, by some and in some circumstances, marvels. In verse 21 the term mophthim is found with this meaning; but, whether in the former case or in the latter, the wonders here are signs. They are no gratuitous and random acts; they signify something. So it is not surprising that we see the miracles associated with the term qol (voice) (verses 1, 8, 9), or with peh (mouth) (verses 10, 11, 12, 15 [three times], 16); three times with peh and seven times with qol.

The expressed purpose of the signs is to earn the trust and faith of the people (see verses 1, 5, 8 [two times], 9, 31), and to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go (verses 21, 23 [two times]; note that the verb “to send” is again used five times in associated contexts: verses 4 [twice], 13 [twice], 28). This duality of purpose corresponds to the duality of interpretation offered by the ambivalence of the signs. The latter may appear to the Egyptians as sheer performance challenging their own know-how. To the Hebrews, in contrast, the signs are fraught with divine message, with proclamation (kerygma). Exodus 11:3 makes a clear distinction between “in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials and in the sight of the people” (of Israel).

On Exodus 4:1-9

Let us take one example from among the three wonders Moses performed in Egypt. It seems clear that for the water of the Nile to be changed into blood (verse 9) is no random transubstantiation. To the Egyptians, this meant death. To the Hebrews, it was something like an unveiling of their suffering under Egyptian taskmasters. Therefore, we should probe all the signs as to what kind of message they may convey.

In fact, there are three elements involved: the signs themselves; the recipients of the signs (Egyptians and Hebrews); and the person of the sign-worker (God/Moses/Aaron). This latter element must be emphasized and singled out as the main one of the three. Moses is the performer, but God is the giver of the wonders. The text’s attribution of them to God thwarts, from the outset, all magical interpretation. Only their duplication by the Egyptians is magical and, therefore, the competition at the court of Pharaoh is not magic against magic but logos against magos.4

Moses is the carrier of a message, he is no magician. Of course, he can be mistaken as one, like Daniel later will be considered as the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s magicians (Dan 4:9; 5:11). Yet, this is an optical illusion, as it were, on the part of the gentiles. For in reality the Pharaoh is facing, in the person of Moses, a prophet (cf. Dt 34:10); a servant of the Lord (Dt 34:5; Ps 105:26); God’s elect (Ps 106:23); indeed the mouthpiece of God himself (Ex 4:16; 7:1). The pagan confusion is powerfully denounced in Daniel’s declaration to King Nebuchadnezzar, “The mystery about which the king inquires, no wise man, astrologer, magician, or diviner can set forth before the king, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan 2:27-28). As usual in the Bible, the messengers are hidden behind their message. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, all the prophets in Israel, deflect the attention from themselves to God who sent them. Is, then, a psychological approach to the human heralds made inappropriate or improper? Indeed not, as we shall see below; but some aspects of the signs must first be clarified.

From what precedes, we may conclude that Moses’ demonstration is revelatory. The Egyptian courtiers’ misunderstanding is reported tongue in cheek. Their blindness is incurable. They have eyes but do not see (cf. Ps 135:16). They are fascinated by the spectacle and ignore its meaning. However, when their eyes are opened, the spectacle becomes highly symbolic, as when Jesus changed the water into wine at Cana (Jn 2), unmistakably referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist ushering in Christ’s passion (see Jn 2:4).

The Sign of Symbol

Are Moses’ signs symbols? Moses performs an act of transubstantiation, the change of the Nile waters into blood. Here also the context is clear. It is the truth of the matter that the channel of life to the land of Egypt is a river of blood, metaphorically the blood of the slaves compelled to build mausoleums to dead pharaohs and dignitaries. It is the truth that the “house of slavery” is obsessed with death and pours the blood of the living on the stones of funerary monuments. Thus, the pouring by Moses of the Egyptian water on the ground goes much beyond witchcraft. It broadens the perspective to the whole land of oppression and metaphorically signifies its destruction. What used to be the vital artery of the country is punctured and the blood gushes out until Egypt is bloodless. Some time, in the near future, the tenth plague hitting Egypt will actualize that which the third sign in Exodus 4 signified (see Ex 12:20 ff).

Another reference to blood spilled on the ground is Cain spilling Abel’s blood, of which we read in Genesis 4 (see verses 10-11). Here again, the blood is shed by a wicked agent, Cain. Hence, Exodus 4 may allude to Egypt as a collective Cain the murderer, as both pericopes are from the hand of the same author. There are also other biblical texts denouncing the scandal of human blood polluting the soil. It clamors for justice or vindication (see Is 26:21; Ez 9:9; Jb 16:18). Only blood can redeem the victims’ blood (Nm 35:33; Ps 106:38). Moses and the people are living in an impure land, polluted by crime, violence, and inhumanity. It tries to hide its pollution behind a deceptive culture and other architectural artifacts; but the hiding is in vain, for the Egypt unveiled by Moses’ sign is like a bloody naked rock (Ez 24:8).

“To the one a fragrance of death to death, to the other a fragrance of life to life” (2 Cor 2:16; cf. Ws 18:8). If the Egyptians do not understand the portentous bearing of the sign, soon the first plague will fulfill the omen in a terrible way: Moses strikes the Nile with his staff “and there was blood in the land of Egypt” (Ex 7:21).

With this last of the three signs given by God to empower Moses, we have gone from metamorphosis to metamorphosis. The other two signs follow suit in terms of their bearing. Even Moses’ stick upon which he leans is something of a serpent, that is, something impure to God and a fiend to the humans. Does it look like a staff or does it look like a snake? Is it a serpent or a support? Moses leaning on such a dubious staff is surely no possessor of immortality. He is fundamentally vulnerable, constantly accompanied by tokens of death: serpent, leprosy, spilled blood. The threatening signs that he brings with him to the Egyptians appear not to make him immune to the same fate. A certain analogy with Cain’s story holds true if we remember that Cain may have thought that by killing the competition he guaranteed his own survival: you die, I live.

Moses, to be sure, is not Cain, but he also, it seems, is humbled by God with the realization that as messenger, he is not some kind of Nietzchean superman. Not really unexpectedly, he is physically laid hold of by the very God who sent him back to Egypt as God’s champion (Ex 4:24-26). Thus, the clash with Pharaoh is between two wounded men, one deeply aware of his injury, like Jacob at Jabbok (Gn 32:22-32), the other unconscious of being stabbed to death by the God he chooses to ignore. The blows they inflict upon each other are enormous, though the sparring in Exodus 4 is only a kind of warm-up before the unremitting match in 10 rounds from which Moses comes out the victor.

So, the first wonder God gave Moses concerns the staff that he leans upon. We soon learn that the various signs given him are as many onslaughts against his person before becoming weapons against Egypt. Is not Pharaoh a “broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it” (Is 36:6 [NRSV])? Such concordance between the message-giver and the message-recipient is food for thought. There is here an uncanny consubstantiality of traditor—traditio—receptor that very much falls in parallel with the prophetic process. We are at a far cry from the prodigy where, on the contrary, there often is dissociation between the performer, the performed, and the witnesses.5

In analogy with the prologue to the book of Job, Moses is first hit in the realm of his belongings: “What is in your hand?” (Ex 4:2). Then, the second sign becomes intimately personal: Moses’ bodily integrity is impaired: his hand becomes leprous before it is again healed. As regards the third and last wonder, the water of the Nile changed into blood, it is clear that it puts Moses in a very awkward situation vis-à-vis his Egyptian hosts, who no doubt will take umbrage at such an insult to or violation of the Nile and the whole of Egypt. When the magicians also succeed in transmogrifying the water into blood (Ex 7:22), they prolong the duel with Moses/Aaron as well as their own blindness; while in a way unwittingly rescuing Moses from the lethal wrath of Pharaoh! In short, the three wonders do involve Moses as dramatis persona in the scheme of liberating the Hebrews from thralldom.

Of course, the wonders could have been confined to the realm of artifices contrived by human skill, leaving intact the person of the performer. However, they are precisely not mere artifices in this case. Moses’ staff becomes a serpent and he must grab it by the tail. Then his flesh is rotting under his eyes and we can imagine his distress. Eventually, Moses is literally attacked by God who “sought to kill him” (Ex 4:24)—that is, Moses returning to Egypt is under no status of immunity! The signs he is equipped with are too closely personal to constitute an efficient shield of protection. If the wonders do not work as expected, Moses is no better than dead. The point is important. Moses’ bargaining dialogue with God has the double purpose of getting a magical protection for his person and providing an inescapable argument for the fulfillment of his mission.

On both counts, Moses does not get what he wants, as he did not earlier when he asked to be privy to the Name of God(Ex 3:13-14). What he gets is less and it is more. On both occasions God shifts the realms from magos to logos. No divine sacred “name of power” is at Moses’ disposal. Similarly, no magical shield will immunize him from harm, and no argument he will formulate will appear incontrovertible to his audience. As messenger, he passes from a desired automatic outcome to a feared responsibility. The liberation of the people of Israel from the land of graves (Ex 14:11) demands that Moses first shares the present endangerment of the Hebrews (cf. Nm 20:15; Dt 26:6; Jgs 10:11), as later when Queen Esther must first put herself in harm’s way (“If I perish, I perish” Est 4:16). Exodus 4, or more accurately Exodus 3-4, is about the training of Moses for leadership, but also for some sort of martyrdom.

Polyvalence of Moses’ Signs

“What is in your hand?—A staff!” We, the rereaders of the old Bible stories know that Moses’ staff will have multiple functions. Marvelously as a scepter or a serpent, it will hit the Nile waters and change them into blood; it will also be stretched over the Sea of Reeds and part its waters to let the people ford to the other side; further, it will again hit a rock and water will gush out. A magical wand of sorts, its multilayered function transcends any flat interpretation. In the eyes of the Egyptians, Moses’ stick effects lethal signs for the present and in the future: serpent; blood; drowning tide (Ex 14:26). Not so in the Israelites’ eyes. Moses’ staff is salvific: the “Hebrew” serpent swallows up the Egyptian serpents (Ex 7:12); the sea’s waters are split and its bottom turns into dry land for the people (Ex 14:11-22); the rock is hit and gushes drinking water in the desert (Ex 17:6). Therefore, the so-called Aaron’s rod,” after it miraculously bloomed, is deposited within the Ark as a token of divine interventions (Nm 17:23-26 [Engl. 17:8-11]). Elsewhere, it is called “the staff of God” (Ex 4:20; cf. Is 10:26).

This polyvalence is verified once more as regards the intermediary sign granted by the Lord to Moses: the leprous hand. This second wonder belongs to the category of “miracle of trial,” in the same way that Exodus 15:25 says that the Lord “tested them” by the sweetening of the bitter waters of Marah (cf. also 16:4). Moses’ staff was already a sign testing its owner; now the probing becomes more personal. The message is branded in his own flesh. For the physical limitation and transience of Moses’ disease must not blind us. From now on, as a matter of fact, one will wonder whether his body is whole and wholesome (and accidentally plagued), or unhealthy (and graciously, incessantly restored to wholesomeness).

“Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives,” says Job 2:4 (NRSV). Between the property and the proprietor, the difference is biblically one of degrees. But now, the divine onslaught reaches its apex, for Moses’ leprosy signifies his death (see Nm 12:12; ExR 11.23). Moses’ mission is to save from death an enslaved people. He must first go himself through death (see Ex 4:24). In no way will Moses be an outsider or a diplomat. His testing in Midian before his daring return to Egypt implies his going down into the crucible, in common with those that Pharaoh submits to a slow genocide (cf. Ex 1:22: the drowning of the Hebrew boys is symbolically a forced disintegration, a return to chaos).

Of significance is the fact that Moses is not hit from above by his vulnerability and humanness, but from the mere contact with his own flesh. When facing himself Moses discovers his impurity (Lv 13:2 ff.). Even the partial spread of the disease contributes to the demonstration, for were he entirely leprous he would retrieve his purity by the laws of cleansing (see Lv 13:13, 45-46). Moses is impure because he is a sinner before God (see Nm 12:9-15, 19: Miriam; 1 Kgs 13:4-6: Jeroboam; 2 Kgs 5:27: Gehazi). The return to health (Ex 4:7) is thus Moses’ “resurrection” by the grace of God (cf. King Jeroboam’s recovery; and in a different context, see Isaiah’s purification before being sent on a mission, Is 6). Moses experiences his “exodus from Egypt” before he leads the people out of the “land of darkness” (Ex 10:22). Earlier, he had shown his commitment to and his capacity for leadership and liberation in Exodus 2:17.

We must stress the idea of substitution as the basis of Exodus 4, including, of course, the rite of circumcision in verses 24-27, “prerequisite for the participation in the Passover.” Moses is not merely a messenger; by substitution he incarnates his people. Had he been killed in Egypt, there would be no Israel in history. True, his incarnation is in the form of a servant (cf. Nm 11:11; Dt 34:5; Jos 1:2; Heb 3:5; Rv 15:3), humble to the point of death (cf. Ex 32:32; Nm 12:3; cf. DeutR Ki Tavo 7.10). God’s testing purported to exalt him as the promise of his people’s glorification (cf. Ws 19:22).

Summary and Elaboration

Let me highlight a few points and develop further some of their implications. The very ambiguity of the signs granted to Moses and performed in Egypt is revealing. These phenomena are considered magical or prodigious by the Egyptian witchcraft workers, while Israel interprets them as miraculous and thus worthy of being told from generation to generation. It is not surprising that the Exodus history is absent from the Egyptian annals. That is in keeping with the skewed Egyptian interpretation of Moses’ wonders as little more than circus performance. Yair Zakovitch is thus right to emphasize the nature of the reception of a sign as decisive to how it is experienced. He writes, “The decisive factor is a literary one: the expression of excitement and wonder in the face of an incident and the amount of words devoted to its description.”

That is somewhat one-sided. First, it is true that the marvelous has the property of stirring a feeling of wonderment, while “most people think they sufficiently understand a thing when they have ceased to wonder at it,” as Spinoza says. Yet, we must also insist with Franz Rosenzweig that a miracle is intelligible only when it is experienced as miracle at the time of its occurrence. “When it no longer seems a thing of the present, all there is left to do is explain…. In fact nothing is miraculous about a miracle except that it comes when it does.” This effect in the moment of the miracle being perceived as a miracle prevents the development of any supernaturalism as the basis of religion.

For it is quite clear that the very notion of the miraculous implies a confrontation between transcendence and nature. This philosophical problem was hotly debated already by Renaissance thinkers. Much earlier, Tertullian famously exclaimed, “credo quia absurdum” (I believe such and such because it is absurd, i.e., there is no way to apprehend or handle this absurd reality but to embrace it by faith). Theology, in such a case would be in opposition to nature; a proposition rejected by Thomas Aquinas for whom the mysteries transcend nature.

On this point, Aquinas is closer to the Hebrew worldview, namely, that the universe is wrapped up in transcendence. At times, there occurs, as it were, a tear in the heavenly envelope and transcendence becomes visible, like sunshine piercing the clouds—“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down … so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is 64:1, 2 [NRSV]). This does not strike out nature; it makes nature meaningful. Moon, wind, earth, are St. Francis’s brothers and sisters!

This same conception lies, for instance, at the basis of Jeremiah “seeing” a branch of an almond tree with its signification. “Then Yahweh said … ‘You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to fulfill it’” (Jer 1:11-13). It has nothing to do with idealism or with pantheism. As the earth cannot live without the sun’s light and warmth, so the world draws its substance, sustenance, and meaning from the beyond. Although, to be sure, not everyone in ancient Israel was a saint, everyone was religious because no other kind of existence was conceivable.

Furthermore, I emphasize not only the referential quality of the sign, but also the person of the performer. An Egyptian wizard is able to change a stick into a snake and the act looks the same whether performed by him or by the Hebrew man, but there is a world of difference between the magician and Moses producing the same phenomenon. The problem arises not so much on the cognitive as on the psychological level. Before becoming a literary feature, the miracle is experienced as a miracle, not by all to be sure but by some eyewitnesses; and then remotely through tradition by generations of hearers and readers, for whom the miracle is then explained, as Rosenzweig said. The explanation of a miracle does not consist in displaying its hidden controls but in the revelation of its proclamation (kerugma). That is why Jesus spoke of persuasion or belief and said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced (believe) even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk 16:31 [NRSV]).

The witness to a wonder faces the impossible. It takes hard-won will and humility to accept a manifestation of the miracle. Such attitude amounts to commitment. When acknowledged, the miracle, as a matter of fact, does not constitute an end but the starting point of a new life (“Go and sin no more!” Jn 8:11; 5:14). This indeed is a strong criterion for determining the nature of the wonder, whether it is a prodigy or a miracle. The miracle’s property is to reorient life in the right direction; the prodigy, at the least, leaves one indifferent and, at the most, gravely disturbed, as it destroys an elementary trust in the stability of nature. Hence, the decisive question regarding a wonder is: what kind of newness of life does it usher in?

Most of Jesus’ miracles are in the form of healing the sick. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to view those healings as a marker of the general nature of Jesus’ actions: they heal and restore. “Go to tell John [the Baptist] what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5; Lk 7:22). The point is valid also as regards our Exodus text: Moses’ signs eventually bring Israel’s liberation from the “house of bondage,” to their liberation from the dangerous sea waters (Ex 14), from the bitter waters in the desert through their being changed into sweet water (Ex 15); and from the snakes’ venom, which is neutralized (Nm 21:4-9).

Remarkable is the frequent cooperation of both God and a human agent in the performance of the miracle, until the supreme agent in the NT arrives. Exodus 14:31 states, “The people feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord and in Moses, his servant.” As God’s word is only proclaimed through human intermediaries, as mouthpieces or interpreters, so God’s work is wrought by human agency. Joshua 10:14 and 1 Kings 17:22 say that “God heeded a human voice” before intervening in history, obeying as it were the human injunction. In the case of Exodus 4, it is rather Moses who heeds the voice of God.

The Yahwist’s Psychology

With this remark, we enter the domain of the Yahwist’s psychology. The Yahwist was the author or editor of the very early narratives in the Hebrew Bible. One of the characteristics of those early biblical narratives is an emphasis on the necessity of human agency in the fulfillment of divine directives. From the beginning of the world, there is according to the Yahwist a cooperation of the divine and the human. Adam works in a Garden planted by God. The humans are under a divine command that respects their freedom (“You shall / you shall not”). This kind of partnership with the divine finds an uncanny echo in the familial partnership between man and woman, and the societal relationship between the one and the many.

On this, the Yahwist is in full agreement with all other biblical sources and traditions: God and the human race are in an ongoing dialogue, a phenomenon that is highly arresting as God puts himself in a situation of need. God needs the human labor to cultivate the Garden; God needs the human agency to actualize his lordship over the whole of creation; God needs prophets and legislators to spell out his will, and poets to laud his glory. A daring rabbinic midrash on Isaiah 43:12 amplifies the biblical text as saying, “ ‘So you are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God.’ That is, if you are my witnesses I am God, and if you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God.”

It is within this perspective that the Yahwist’s adoption of popular traditions is to be understood. His enthusiasm for his people’s unique consciousness of the covenant that binds them with God prompts him to repeat for them the legends about God’s miraculous intervention in the Exodus history. For, as we take into consideration the multiplicity of marvels in the Yahwist’s narratives, especially in the desert between Egypt and Canaan, their very accumulation creates a certain feeling of uneasiness. Clearly, the Yahwist has inherited a folkloric trend of interspersing stories with the marvelous. What this suggests is that the biblical author grounds our trust less upon the actuality of the reported eventsthan on their signification.

On the other hand, we need also to be reminded of the irrefutable historicity of miracles attributed to modern personalities such as the Curé d’Ars or Don Bosco; within Judaism, the Hasidic tradition in particular, reports of miraculous rabbis. Thus, the miracle exists, and its exploitation by the populace also exists. This fact puts in relief the limit of the psychological in our interpretation of miracles. Psychologically speaking, there is a similarity of attitude and expectation on the part of people motivated either by faith or by superstition. Theologically, however, the difference between them is an unbridgeable divide. A rationalistic approach to miracles presses the psychological beyond its proper limits and reduces the transcendent to the trivial. As in everything that pertains to human existence, interpretation is the decisive factor. I have tried to put in relief some features of the marvelous that can serve as criteria of authentication. To repeat the main point, it is less a matter of historicality than of signification. Moses’ signs signify.

While the prodigy can be said to be “monologic,” the miracle is fundamentally dialogic. The prodigy demands, it is true, an audience like the miracle, but the witnesses remain passive. All that is required is awe and amazement. Not so with the miracle: when there is only a watching, there is no miracle. Miracle demands the witnesses’participation, that is, faith. As long as the Nile waters, changed into blood, remain a spectacle, as for the Egyptians, the event is prodigious, merely a wonder. When the Nile is revealed for what it actually represents, as for the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, namely, divine intervention for their salvation, the prodigy itself is also changed into miracle. Interpretation is what gives breath to the lump, so to speak.

However, interpretation is a two-edged sword. On this score, the Egyptians in Exodus 4 are confounded by an act that negates the apparently immutable laws of nature. After that, they cannot trust anything in the world. They have become subjected to the arbitrary. The sun can be obscured; the rivers can be streams of blood; the felds’ crops can swarm with frogs or insects. Nothing makes sense anymore; existence has become as meaningless as the prodigy itself was. The Egyptian interpretation results in a nihilistic view of the world. The prodigy is destructive and produces only despair.

For the Hebrews, by contrast, the marvel, after some hesitation on their part as to its message, has opened up an entirely new perspective on life. What their experience in thralldom meant to them is now broken open for all to see. The Nile, the life artery of the land of Egypt, is in truth flowing with their blood. The Egyptian civilization is in fact a broken reed that pierces the hand of anyone leaning on that unreliable staff (see Is 36:6). It can be revealed anytime as a lethal poisonous serpent. The Egyptian toleration of the Israelites, as long as they were useful as laborers, is a transparent veil thrown over what all now can see as impurity, indeed leprosy.

We remember Manetho’s contemptuous depiction of the Hebrews as being themselves leprous. Manetho certainly expresses the persistent Egyptian sentiment regarding the non-Egyptians and especially their northern neighbors. Moses’ move with his hand becoming leprous in contact with his own flesh would thus fill the role assigned to him as a Hebrew. For it goes without saying that, in the eyes of the Egyptians, the leprous Moses did confirm an ingrained Egyptian opinion of the Hebrews. But in a second phase of this story, Moses demonstrates his purity and, consequently, the purity of his people. By contrast, among the plagues that eventually afflict the Egyptians, there are a deadly pestilence and boils (Ex 9), but none for the despised but exalted Israelites.

While the prodigy leaves all people voiceless with awe, the miracle is always dialogical in that it invites conversation about and response to the signification: divine interventions of healing and deliverance. No healing performed by Jesus left his audiences indifferent. Besides stirring a reaction of praise to God, there was always the possibility of the signification of the miracle being contested. In other words, the conviction, the persuasiveness of the miracle and its signification, is never coerced. The Egyptian side in the audience is safeguarded and respected.

There is no reasonable reply to the prodigy, but with the miracle there is the ongoing invitation to believe, that is, to agree with being reoriented toward a different way of life. For the Hebrews, the process starts with the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, the metaphoric value of which has defined the life and destiny of the people of the Bible ever since. Not an easy life, but a life of freedom and purposefulness. That signification is the core of Judaism and Christianity. Happy are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear; they will leave the land of oppression, while the mere rationalists will stay there forever.