When God begins to bring plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh’s magicians do their best to replicate the acts so that they can be dismissed as mere magic tricks. We see four of these instances: one before the plagues begin, and three that are supposed to answer the first three plagues. The evolution of this subplot is key to understanding the whole Exodus narrative.
In the first instance:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle, ’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.
Here we have a microcosm of the divine battle that the plagues embody. We see Egypt’s pagan gods and their “secret arts” pitted against Yahweh and his “signs and wonders.” The moment where Aaron’s staff-snake eats the staff-snakes of the sorcerers is a key moment of foreshadowing about the ultimate triumph of Yahweh that was to come in the exodus itself.
Next we read these two accounts:
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your handover the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs—and they will turn to blood.’ Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt. But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staffover the streams and canals and ponds, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’” So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land. But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt. Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the Lord.” Moses said to Pharaoh, “I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.” “Tomorrow,” Pharaoh said. Moses replied, “It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the Lord our God. The frogs will leave you and your houses, your officials and your people; they will remain only in the Nile.” After Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh, Moses cried out to the Lord about the frogs he had brought on Pharaoh. And the Lord did what Moses asked. The frogs died in the houses, in the courtyards and in the fields. They were piled into heaps, and the land reeked of them. But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said.
The first two plagues are successfully replicated by Pharaoh’s magicians. In the first, the plague of blood, there is no indication that Yahweh’s “magic” is better than that of the magicians. Indeed, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened immediately after seeing his magicians replicate the miracle, strongly suggesting a causal relationship. Pharaoh saw that the plague was mere trickery, no better than a palace magic show, and so he wrote it off and his heart became hard.
In the second plague, however, we again see the superiority of Yahweh’s “magic” as a theme. In this instance, this superiority is embodied in Moses’ ability to call on God to control the exact timing of the plague’s end–at Pharaoh’s choice of time, no less. I’m guessing the magicians were really, really hoping that Pharaoh wouldn’t ask them to replicate that aspect of the miracle. They would have been out of luck. Yet still Pharaoh hardened his heart.
The third plague brings this sub-narrative to its denouement:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’ and throughout the land of Egypt the dust will become gnats.” They did this, and when Aaron stretched out his hand with the staff and struck the dust of the ground, gnats came on people and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became gnats. But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. Since the gnats were on people and animals everywhere, the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said.
In this moment, the superiority of Yahweh compared to Egyptian paganism and sorcery is definitively established. The sorcerers cannot replicate the gnat “magic trick” at all. Even the sorcerers themselves cannot help but acknowledge “the finger of God” at work, and they let Pharaoh know it because they see the writing on the wall for Egypt, and hope that if they convince Pharaoh of Yahweh’s power, then perhaps He will relent and not send more plagues. But Pharaoh again doubles down, against the better judgment even of his own advisers. And the result of his hardness of heart is tragedy after tragedy.
The last we see of the magicians is their utter defeat during the plague of boils:
Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.” So they took soot from a furnace and stood before Pharaoh. Moses tossed it into the air, and festering boils broke out on people and animals. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians.
Just as the magicians “could not stand before Moses,” the gods of Egypt could not stand before the one true God. In all these things, God was working to demonstrate his unique and unsurpassed power both to Egypt and to Israel. And, just maybe, to us as well.