The ancient world is not as different as we like to pretend it is. People often err on one of two sides. They either overestimate the ancients by presuming them to be of a purer or greater stock than ourselves. Or they can err by thinking too little of them, presuming that our ability to order pizza with our phones somehow renders us advanced.
Our world today, much like that of our ancient counterparts, is one mesmerized by symbols. Perhaps you are branded by certain products; the name on the package expresses something of quality to you. In the ancient world, animal symbols bore great significance, as symbols do today. One such animal was the snake. The snake held a unique place int he life and thought of Egypt, and right before God unleashes the 10 plagues upon the land of Pharaoh, He provides us with a battle of serpents.
The Word of God tells us, “Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh...And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants and it became a serpent.” (Exod. 7:10 NKJV) I admit that I have no love for snakes. I simply unite myself with the likes of Henry Jones Jr., who simply cries out “I hate snakes!” But snakes were central in Egyptian mythology.
The Egyptian goddess Wadjet was symbolized by a snake, and there were others. But the Egyptian cobra or “uraeus” as it was called, was a divine symbol. We often find them upon the crowns of the ancient Pharaohs (go ahead and look up King Tut’s mask and you’ll a snake sitting on his forehead). In Egyptian mythology the “uraeus” would guard and defend its own in battle. The symbol became tied to power, military strength, divine royalty, authority and even death itself.
In short then, the serpent which sat upon Pharaoh’s crown was a direct symbol of defiance against the LORD God Himself. It claimed far too little of the true God, and granted far too much from creation. We also need to remember one crucial point: in this text mentioned we are drawn back to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1f) Not only is the image of a serpent a visible symbol of all of Egypt’s power, but it is most basically a symbol for the Satanic forces in most cases. If that’s the case, why does God use a serpent in our story found in Exodus 7:8-13?
Words are often clues of intentionality, irony, humor, and most beneficial for our purposes, they are bridges of connection n Scripture. We notice in our text that God is symbolizing His ultimate victory over Pharaoh when the serpent of Aaron devours the Egyptian serpents (Exod. 7:12). They are “swallowed up”. The only other occurrence of that Hebrew verb in Exodus shows up in Exodus 15:12 when it speaks of God conquering Pharaoh and Egypt, “The earth swallowed them.” God foreshadows His victory in the battle of the serpents. As the serpent of God devours his enemies so shall God consume His foes. Note that this story occurs right before the events of the 10 plagues.
Now this is what I love about the Bible, the image extends beyond Exodus. In Isaiah 25:8 we hear of God’s promise to “swallow up death forever, And the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces...” (NKJV) The Apostle Paul ties this unique work of conquering death with the Lord Jesus Christ’s work in 1 Corinthians 15:54. And lastly the Apostle John unites them together in his promise of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Revelation 21:4.
We return then to our question: Why does God use the symbol of death, the serpent, to defeat death, the serpents? God was foreshadowing His redemption for His people Israel, by shaming Pharaoh who seemingly had the keys of death in his hands. But this was a foreshadow to what Christ Himself would do for His bride the Church. Christ, by means of Death conquered Death once and for all time. This is the wisdom and power of our God. O Christian marvel in Him, and hope in Him. For our God can make even the most bleak of affairs, twist into a glorious demonstration of His power, authority and reign. Hallelujah!