The Staff of Moses

Va'era By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 24, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

In the saga of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, the staff of Moses is more than a prop. Though inanimate, it is nothing short of a lead character, an effective change-agent in the face of determined resistance. To reflect on its ubiquitous role is to gain some insight into the Bible’s view of sorcery.

Moses’ staff puts in cameo appearances throughout the narrative portions of the book of Exodus. At the burning bush, God turns it into a snake in an effort to cajole Moses into extricating Israel from Egypt (4:2-4). Upon his return, Moses repeats the sign before the elders of Israel to verify the authenticity of his mission (4:30). When Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh for the first time, it is Aaron who now tosses the rod on the ground where it morphs into a serpent and devours the serpents of the Egyptian magicians brought in to match his prowess (7:10-3).

The staff is the instrument by which Aaron brings about the miracle of the first three plagues, changing the Nile’s water into blood (7:20) and infesting the land with frogs (8:1-2) and vermin (8:13). Thereafter, Moses wields the staff to unleash plagues seven and eight of hail and locust. Though not explicitly, the text seems to have Moses split the Sea of Reeds by means of his staff (14:21, cf.16). Finally, once across, Moses has recourse to the staff twice more to strike a rock for water (17:5-6) and to beat back the Amalekites (17:9).

It is this prominence which induced the Mishnah to list the staff as one the artifacts created by God in the twilight of the sixth day before the world’s first Sabbath (Pirkei Avot 5:6). Whatever the intention of that list, I mention it here to establish the fact that we are talking about a single staff and not two or even three. Although, in the narrative the staff is referred to variously as belonging to Moses, Aaron and even God (17:9), the Midrash also holds that there is only one staff. Ownership is a function of wielding it (Sh’mot Rabbah 26:3).

Where the Mishnah errs is in attributing extraordinary status to the staff. According to the narrative, the staff is nothing more than an ordinary shepherd’s staff. It was the staff that Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, bore in his hand when he happened to alight on the burning bush (3:1). It could not have been more nondescript and unexceptional. But, that is precisely the point: the staff harbored no inherent potency. At work was solely God’s will which chose to transform a crude artifact into an instrument of titanic power. The spontaneity of the act manifested God’s omnipotence.

The adversaries of the staff are Pharaoh’s magicians. As long as they can duplicate the miracles wrought by Aaron, Pharaoh remains unyielding. But their mode of operation differs markedly from that of Aaron. They effect their miracles by means of spells and incantations. The use of black magic enables them to keep step with Aaron till the plague of vermin when they concede the undeniable presence of Israel’s God (8:15). In contrast, Aaron works in silence. Neither Moses nor Aaron ever invoke God prior to raising their staff. Indeed, its employment, except for one instance (17:9), comes at God’s behest. The staff is purely a tool of the Almighty activated through human agency. Miracles result, but not by virtue of magic. The insignificance of the staff is underscored by the fact that Moses on occasion triggers or terminates a miracle without using it at all, simply by waving his hand (10:22) or offering a heartfelt prayer (10:18). God needs no staff to alter the course of nature nor does the staff possess any power independent of God. It never becomes a relic.

As for the Egyptian magicians, they do not direct their incantations to their own deities or the realm beyond. Whatever they practice seems to be a form of human wisdom. The confrontation as depicted in the Bible is not between the God of Israel and the deities of Egypt, but rather between God and the hubris of mortals. Strikingly, the Bible grants the efficacy of magic up to a point , but only because of human artifice. As the great Israeli biblical scholar, Yehezkel Kaufmann, argued more than half a century ago, the biblical view of monotheism brooked no competing deities. Moreover, stripped of all mythology, the Bible, according to Kaufmann, knows only of the upheaval caused by humans in their unending challenge of God’s sovereignty and moral law. Magic, though supernatural in its effects, is downgraded to a tactic in the human repertoire and forbidden because it seeks to restrict, thwart or circumvent the divine will. Pharaoh’s practitioners of magic were a case in point. When Aaron’s rod-turned-snake swallows those of the court magicians, the episode is meant to affirm the superiority of a worldview without sorcery. In the more quaint formulation of the Talmud, “Sorcerers repudiate the household on high” (BT Sanhedrin 67b).

The thrust of this subplot on magic received its legal formulation later in the book of Exodus: “You shall not tolerate a sorceress (22:17).” And as Balaam, another non-Israelite practitioner of the art, would attest: “So, there is no augury in Jacob, no diving in Israel” (Numbers 23:23). Nomos and narrative converged in unison. In Israel, prophecy and not sorcery would become the acceptable medium of communication between God and humanity. It was beyond human capacity to coerce God into revealing what the future held in store. Biblical monotheism had made a quantum leap toward what Max Weber, the German sociologist and student of religion, called the disenchantment of the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-era are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.