Miracles Versus Magic

By Pamela Lewis

A Reading from Exodus 7:8-24

8 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12 Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. 15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. 16 Say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened. 17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. 18 The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’” 19 The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt — over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water — so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

20 Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, 21 and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.


At first, this anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better scene of Aaron’s staff becoming a snake when he throws it down, and the Pharaoh’s magicians doing the same thing, evokes wonder. Of course, this is no miracles versus wonders competition. When the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians are swallowed up by Aaron’s, Pharaoh and his retinue are impressed, but they are focused only on the drama of the miracle rather than on the message — and the messenger — behind it. The miracle does not soften Pharaoh’s heart but hardens it against Moses and Aaron. His stubbornness, grounded in his false understanding of who Moses, Aaron, and the children of Israel are, will bring suffering to him and the Egyptians.

It is not surprising that the magicians by their “secret arts” (or “enchantments” in some translations) can duplicate the staff-to-snake miracle, as well as the series of plagues which Aaron and Moses unleash on Egypt; even Satan can imitate some aspects of God’s work. But there is a difference between a miracle and magic. Miracles contain and convey messages that magic, no matter how dazzling, can never achieve. The message which Moses had learned from his burning bush experience is that I AM is the source of life and the one who has sole control over it.

God’s works are not cloaked in secrecy, but rather in mystery. This was where Pharaoh got it wrong, and where we, too, often stumble. By letting God’s Word be the foundation of our life, we can know the difference between real miracles and flashy magic.

Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New YorkerEpiscopal Journal, and The Living Church.

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