The Egyptian “Magicians”
Whether portrayed as failing to interpret dreams (Gen 41:8, 41:24), transforming staffs into serpents (Exod 7:11-13), or as exacerbating the plagues in an effort to prove their abilities (Exod 7:22, 8:3, 8:14, 9:11), the Egyptian magicians always serve as literary foils for God’s plan. Despite their uncanny abilities, they continually demonstrate the superiority of Yahweh.
But does the Bible’s portrayal of these magicians fit what we know of them from Egyptian sources? Their roles as literary figures encourage one to ponder whether they represent bonafide Egyptian functionaries and whether their marvelous feats depict real or imagined Egyptian practices. After all, biblical narratives set in Egypt often evince a knowledge of Egyptian customs and beliefs:
- The ten plagues represent attacks against specific Egyptian dieties (cf. Exod 12:12).
- The method by which Joseph interprets pharaoh’s dreams finds parallels in an Egyptian dream manual.
- The hardening (lit. making heavy) of pharaoh’s heart tendentiously alludes to the Egyptian belief that pharaoh’s heart must be weighed against the feather of truth, maat(mꜣʿ t) to grant him entry to the afterlife.
In fact, the very term used for the magicians, ḥarṭummīm (חַרְטֻמִּים), is a Hebrew refraction of the Egyptian title ẖry-ḥb, “lector-priest.”
The Problem with “Magic”
This last fact naturally begs the question of whether it is accurate to label the actions of these figures “magical.” The answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes, in that lector-priests performed numerous spells and rituals that evoked the illocutionary power ofḥkꜣ (ḥeka), a cosmic force perceived as efficacious, capable of manipulating reality in this world and the next. Yet, no, because Ḥeka also was a deity in his own right, and so invoking his power also constitutes a form of prayer (Fig. 2).
Moreover, as contemporary scholarship has shown, the definition of both magic and religion is fraught, and the dichotomy “magic vs. religion” is problematic, having its roots in an outdated and pejorative understanding of “primitive” (read: non-monotheistic) religions as “superstitious.” Regrettably, such views have informed early interpretations of the biblical ḥarṭummīm. Therefore, while Egyptian priests evoked ḥeka to empower apotropaia (repulsion of harm), heal ailments, induce love, produce rain, harm Egypt’s national enemies, and even enliven the dead in the afterlife, it is more accurate to think of the ḥarṭummīm as highly learned priests, masters of their ancient literary traditions and rituals of perceived power.
It bears stressing that there is nothing inherent in the title or actions of the biblical ḥarṭummīm 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.
Learned Egyptian Priests in Context
Egyptian reliefs typically depict lector-priests as donned in a white kilt and sash (see Fig. 1 above). Elsewhere they appear without the sash and carrying a sacred scroll or other ritual implements (Fig. 3), or with a longer kilt and a shaved head (Fig. 4). They were Egypt’s elite religious professionals and the prime players in major rituals connected to the pr ʿnḫ, i.e., “House of Life,” an institution of higher learning associated with temples. They also presided over the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, by which the deceased entered the afterlife as a transfigured being.
Therefore, it is more useful to examine the acts of the ḥarṭummīm from the perspective of Egyptian priestly rituals and the portrayals of priests in Egyptian literary texts. Indeed, when approached in this way, a number of striking parallels emerge. I shall restrict myself to two primary examples, the plague of blood and the transformation of the staffs into serpents.
Example 1: Plague of Blood
I begin with the first plague—the turning of the Nile to blood—a wonder that the ḥarṭummīm easily replicate. The event has three analogues in Egyptian texts.
Tale of Ipuwer: The Tale of Ipuwer (ca. 1650-1550 B.C.E.), which laments the chaos that has engulfed Egypt, claims: “The river is blood. If one drinks of it, one rejects it and thirsts for water… Foreign tribes have come to Egypt” (2:10, 3:1). As in the biblical text, the Egyptian story describes a bloody Nile and a defeat at the hand of foreigners.
A Demon of Bastet: A ritual text that identifies one of seven demons of the goddess Bastet (here a manifestation of Sekhmet) as “The one who is in the Nile-flood who makes blood” (924-889 BCE). As Thomas Schneider observes: “This could be understood as a demon who creates carnage in the Nile, and thus turns the Nile into blood (Exod 7:17-20).”
Tale of the Heavenly Cow: The Tale of the Heavenly Cow (14th-12th c. BCE), describes how the goddess Sekhmet wreaks havoc upon humankind. When the Nile fills with their blood, she wades into it as far as Herakleopolis. The sun god Re, then tricks Sekhmet by filling the Nile with beer that is the color of blood. When Sekhmet drinks the beer, she becomes drunk and is unable to recognize humankind. The sun god, Re thus averts the complete annihilation of humanity.
These three accounts of the water/Nile being likened to blood in Egyptian literature certainly bear on the blood plague in Egypt, especially since that plague, like the Egyptian accounts, shares in common a theme of destruction.
The Red Water of the Bloody Nile
Informing the aforementioned Egyptian texts, and thus also the biblical story, is the color of the water when it turns to blood. In Egyptian, the word “blood” (i.e., dšr) also means “red.” In Egyptian ritual practice, red is the color of Apep, the serpent of chaos, and it serves as a synonym for “evil.” As such, it plays a key role in the ritual of execration, in which priests drowned, stabbed, crushed, burned, dismembered, buried, or otherwise destroyed red pots or red human figurines as proxies for Egypt’s enemies. Thus, the biblical account also evokes Egyptian execration.
From a literary perspective, the bloody Nile marks an ironic reversal in which it is the Egyptian priests who experience, rather than execute, the destruction. More practically, from the vantage of Egyptian ritual praxis, the plague put a stop to the priests’ many protection and purification rites by tainting the water they used to perform them as evil and impure.
Example 2: Staffs into Serpents
The famous account of Aaron and the ḥarṭummīm casting down their staffs to transform them into serpents (Exod 7:8-12) also reflects knowledge of Egyptian priestly traditions. Some have seen the account as reminiscent of the Egyptian Tale of Pharaoh Cheop’s Court, which details several amazing deeds performed by ḥeka masters, all of which involve the manipulation of the natural world, such as the parting of waters and the attachment of a severed head. In one scene, a chief lector-priest turns a wax crocodile into a real one and back again (ca. 1600 BCE). Though there are a number of differences between the two tales, many scholars see the story as evidence for a widespread belief in the transformative powers of Egyptian priests—a point to which I shall return below.
Apep the Primordial Serpent
The biblical account appears to represent a literary inversion of the Egyptian priestly ritual of casting down wax figurines of Apep, the primordial serpent of chaos. Underscoring the parallel is the repeated use of the term tannīn (תַּנִּין) for the snake (Exod 7:9, 9:10, 9:12) rather than the more common naḥash  (נחש). Significanlty, tannīn (תַּנִּין) elsewhere refers to the Israelite’s primordial serpent (Isa 27:1, 51:9, Job 7:12). In the Egyptian context, the rite served to maintain the cosmic order by assisting the sun god on his journey through the underworld. If the Israelite author was aware of the ritual’s purpose, then depicting Aaron’s serpent as devouring those of the ḥarṭummīm would signal a threat to the Egyptian cosmic order, a warning realized the next morning with the first plague.
A Rod Swallowing Rods and Egyptian Serpent Staffs
Exod 7:12 states that Aaron’s “rod swallowed their rods,” a detail that has troubled exegetes for centuries. Many read the rods as metonyms for the serpents, since the passage makes no reference to them turning back into rods. However, some early commentators insist on reading the passage literally and see in it an even greater miracle (see b. Shabbat 97a, Exodus Rabbah 9:7, Rashi on Exod 7:12).
Here again a knowledge of Egyptian priestly praxis is informative. Many iconographic depictions of staffs in the form of serpents exist in Egypt:
People Carrying Serpent Staffs
- A procession of priests carrying a serpent staff in each hand also appears on the western wall in the tomb chamber of the Theban Mayor, Sennefer (Fig. 5, 15th c. BCE).
- Also attested are many depictions of a threshing festival rite, known as the “Driving of the Calves,” in which the king (or less often a priestess) carries two halves of a serpent staff in each hand (Fig. 6).
Gods Carrying Serpent Staffs
- In the temple of Seti I at Abydos, the god Thoth holds two staffs (known as wꜣḏtỉ) wrapped in serpents that wear the headdresses of northern and southern Egypt, respectively (Fig. 7, 13th c. BCE).
- Several registers on the Metternich stele (4th c. BCE) feature gods grasping serpent staffs.
- The god Nehy holds a serpent staff in each hand at the temple at Kom Ombo (Fig. 8, 180-47 BCE).
- Two serpent staffs precede Sekhmet at the temple of Isis at Philae (Fig. 9, ca. 370 BCE).
- Several coffins also depict the god Ḥeka himself wielding a serpent staff in each hand (Fig. 10).
*Detail from the coffin of Neb-Taui at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (ca. 1000 BCE). Found in Alexander Piankoff and N. Rambova, Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations: Mythological Papyri (Bollingen Series, 40/3: New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), p. 59.
Depictions of Serpent Staffs
- A vignette found in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire (ca. 1400 BCE) shows a collection of items produced by temple artisans. The utensils include, inter alia, three curved ivory “magic” wands for use in birthing rituals and two copper serpent wands (Fig. 11).
- At the Ramesseum at Thebes (ca. 2055-1650 BCE), excavations even unearthed an engraved copper serpent wand, now housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (see fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).
Thus, rods and serpents were intimately connected in Egyptian priestly rituals of power.
Holding Snakes as Depictions of the Power of Ḥeka
Moreover, priests believed that ḥeka could protect them from poisonous snakes and other natural dangers, as the Coffin Texts make clear: “The serpent is in my hand and cannot bite me” (spell 885). A visual depiction of this appears on a number of cippi that depict the so-called “Horus of the Crocodiles,” such as the aforementioned Metternich stele, in which the young god Horus stands upon crocodiles while holding a variety of noxious animals by their tails, including serpents, thus sympathetically conferring protection on the stele’s owner from snake bites and other forces of chaos (Fig. 12).
Grabbing the Serpent by the Tail
John Currid opines that the depictions of Egyptians with serpent canes represent the serpent charming tricks performed by the Psylli, the so-called “snake charmers” of Egypt. This is a very old view. Nevertheless, the trick involved grabbing a serpent by the head, whereas these images picture the priests holding the serpents by the tail. This fits with what Yahweh instructed Moses in Exodus 4:4, namely to “grasp its tail” (וֶאֱחֹז בִּזְנָבוֹ).
Swallowing as Performative Tool for Destruction and Absorption of Power
In addition, priests generally viewed swallowing as a performative act that functioned either to destroy the thing swallowed or to acquire its power and knowledge:
Pyramid Texts (ca. 2400 BCE): “(King) Unas is one who eats men and lives on the gods… Unas eats their ḥeka, swallows their spirits” (spell 273).
Coffin Texts: “I have swallowed the seven uraei-serpents” (spell 612), and “I have eaten truth (lit. Maat), I have swallowed ḥeka ”(spell 1017).
Book of the Heavenly Cow: “Moreover, guard against those handlers of ḥeka who know their spells, since the god Ḥeka is in them himself. Now as for the one who swallows/knows him, I am here.”
Thus, we may see the devouring of the ḥarṭummīm’s staffs by Aaron’s “staff of God” (Exod 4:20) as depicting the destruction of their authority and absorption of their power.
Superpositioning and Control of the Ḥarṭummīm
A priestly ritual in which one item was placed atop another, a rite that Egyptologists have labeled “superpositioning” elucidates another element of Exodus. Known primarily from royal iconographic materials, the image positions a human over an animal, an animal over another animal, or a human over another human. In each case, the ritual sympathetically conveyed control over the subjugated object. Of special interest are cases in which one serpent was poised atop or striking another serpent. Such depictions specifically functioned to transform one’s opponents into one’s allies.
Strikingly, this is precisely what occurs after Aaron’s contest involving the serpents. Not only do the ḥarṭummīm abet the Israelite cause by conjuring more bloody water and more frogs, the Egyptian people give the Israelites gifts of silver and gold, and of clothing before they depart (Exod 12:35-36). In essence, the Egyptians have become allies who assist Moses in his mission.
The Finger of God: The Finger of Thoth or Seth
In fact, when the ḥarṭummīm realized that their abilities were out-matched, they relented and proclaimed: “this is the finger of God” (אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים הִוא; Exod 8:15). The expression stands out as peculiar, especially in the light of the more familiar “hand of God” (Exod 9:3). As Abraham Yahuda long ago observed, the idiom is Egyptian. It appears usually in the phrases “the finger of Thoth” and “the finger of Seth” to denote these gods’ performative powers.
Moreover, numerous extended “Horus” forefinger amulets (Fig. 13) have been recovered from ancient Egypt, and extending the forefinger was an apotropaic ritual gesture used alongside spells, especially by shepherds, to ford dangerous waters with their herds. To ensure safe passage the herdsman pointed his hand over the water, and those nearby were commanded to stop talking (Fig. 14). Such a practice calls to mind the account of the shepherd-priest Moses extending his arm over the Reed Sea (Exod 14:27) and commanding the Israelites to “be quiet” (Exod 14:14).
How Could the Israelites Obtain Knowledge of the Egyptian Priestly Arts?
Such parallels, which could be multiplied, suffice to demonstrate that the biblical depictions of the ḥarṭummīm reflect a knowledge of Egyptian priestly arts. Yet, how did the Israelite writers obtain this knowledge? Indeed, the texts involving the ḥarṭummīm reflect a grasp of Egyptian priestly performative praxis that goes well beyond the sort of information that one might have obtained from Egyptian literary traditions. Recall that some parallels occur only in ritual texts. Moreover, one must ask how Israelite authors could have known any Egyptian literary traditions, since most of the literary parallels cited above predate the Israelite monarchy by many centuries.
Egyptian Learning Outside of Egypt
Some scholars have assumed that the Egyptian priestly traditions circulated widely, even beyond Egypt’s borders. However, there is little evidence for this; in fact, lector-priests safeguarded their professional knowledge from the non-initiated as divine mysteries. Even the artistic depictions of lector-priests and their ritual tools would have been inaccessible to most Egyptians, and of course, all Israelites. Others have suggested that some knowledge was accessible to educated Israelite elites, though to date no one has offered a plausible scenario for how these elites would have acquired this knowledge.
An Outsider’s Imagination about Egyptian Religion
Others have posited that the biblical and Egyptian literary accounts alike represent widespread beliefs concerning the Egyptian priesthood and their perceived extraordinary powers. The problem with this view is that many of the parallels bespeak a deep knowledge of ritual texts to which few Egyptians (much less Israelites!) would have had access. Moreover, the Egyptian priestly elite produced the literary texts. Therefore, the stories that highlight the miraculous feats of lector-priests tell us little about what the average person might have thought of such figures, but a great deal about the kind of self-image of ritual power that the priestly professionals sought to promote.
Israelites and the Egyptian Priesthood
Therefore, it would appear that we must posit some degree of Israelite contact with the Egyptian priesthood. Such a view fits well the position held by a number of scholars that the Levites originally were Egyptians who settled among the indigenous Israelite tribes and became their cultic officials. According to this view, the group introduced the ark of the covenant, and perhaps even the worship of Yahweh, and it is their story, the exodus from Egypt, which entered Israel’s narrative of national origins.
Such a reconstruction certainly accounts for how Israelite narratives could exhibit such a close knowledge of Egyptian ritual and literary texts. It also explains why many of the individuals connected to the early Israelite priesthood possess Egyptian names (e.g., Aaron, Assir, Hophni, Hur, Miriam, Moses, Phinehas, etc.). Yet, such a model also bears significantly on how we understand these and other so-called “Egyptianisms.”
If they are the product of a highly literate cultic group from Egypt with a deep knowledge of ritual and lore, it is difficult to view them merely as literary attempts to lend biblical narratives an Egyptian flair or even as literary tools in the service of polemic. Instead, it is best to understand them, like the integration of their story into the larger national narrative, as representing a negotiation of Egyptian religious ideas within the nascent Israelite cult. To what degree other aspects of Egyptian religion informed Israel’s developing cult is a matter worthy of further consideration.
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March 30, 2017
January 20, 2021
Prof. Scott B. Noegel is Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University andan Honorary Ph.D. in Letters from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Among his many books are Nocturnal Ciphers: The Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East; and (with Gary A. Rendsburg) Solomon’s Vineyard: Literary and Linguistic Studies in the Song of Songs.
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