Heart Hearts, Feathers and Crocodiles

Exodus 6:28-7:13

Have you ever picked up a feather?  Even though they are very light, there are thousands of different parts, and it is an amazing creation.  Have you ever heard someone say “I feel light as a feather?  It’s great when you feel like you have nothing weighing your heart down.  Discouragement, depression and anger can also burden the heart.  It can be easy to develop a hard heart, but so it’s important to guard and care for our hearts.  Your heart is the source of your thoughts, your words and eventually your actions. 

Egypt was a land where magic played a pretty big role in religious and everyday life.  There were many gods, and they were unpredictable, so the people were constantly trying to placate or manipulate them.  Egyptian magicians had rituals and magic incantations that were used in ceremonies, and they were considered almost priest-like in their roles. 

Some people argue as to whether or not the plagues could be real events, or part of a large natural catastrophe, but the point in all of these writings is theological.  The Genesis 1 narrative writes about how things are ordered and arranged to show who Yahweh is, compared to the gods of the other nations.  The plagues, or ‘signs and wonders’ that will occur, are not a series of random events, but, as Nahum Sarna writes, “the calculated, purposeful, directed, and controlled workings of the Divine Intelligence.”[1]  Yahweh is going to show that he is in control of nature, animals, weather and events, as he comes up against the Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt. 

There are some gods and concepts that are helpful to know before reading this story. Some of them have truth in them, but it’s a bit like cheap imitation items.  When it comes to eternity, there’s nothing like the real thing! 

According to the most popular creation myth, the god Atum stood on the primordial mound, amidst the swirling waters of chaos, and began the work of creation. It was through magic that order rose from chaos and the first sunrise appeared.[2] In the Book of the Dead, Atum says that he will eventually destroy the world, submerging everything back into the primal waters that existed at the beginning of time.

Ma’at was the daughter of the Egyptian Sun God, Ra, at the beginning of creation.  She is associated with the river Nile and with harmony, justice and truth.  To do ‘Ma’at’ was to do what was right.  She is not a goddess, and to honor her was to live according to her principles and having balance.[3]  The Pharaoh was supposed to live with a good sense of balance and order, or he would be considered unfit to rule.[4]

Ma’at is sometimes depicted with wings on each arm or as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head—that represented truth.  When you died, Ma’at and the council of Ma’at would be the one who would preside over the Ceremony of the Heart in the Hall of Two Truths. This ceremony determined whether or not you would proceed to the afterlife.   

In iconography Ma’at is usually at the side of Ra in his heavenly barge sailing with him across the sky during the day and helping him defend the boat against the great serpent Apophis by night, as he tried to prevent the sunrise and return order to chaos.[5]

There are many different kinds of serpents in Egyptian culture.  Some are negative, some are positive.  They represent the duality of good and evil.[6]  The snake, Uraeus grants protection, whereas the serpent, Apophis, symbolizes hostility and danger. 

Just before and during the time of the Exodus, the crowns of the Pharaohs have circles of Uraei—or cobras, and these snakes are more or less considered ‘good’, and helps the king defeat his enemies.  Sometimes feathers are in the royal crowns, which show qualities of other gods, like Ma’at, with the ostrich feather—representing order.   

Apophis, is a great serpent—not simply a snake, and not a god. He’s sometimes pictured as a snake, or with a bit of crocodile in him, and he’s NOT good.  Apophis was said to have been swimming in the dark waters of chaos before the primordial mound rose up.  Apophis was angered at creation, because of the introduction of duality and order, and the categories created such as water and land, light and dark, male and female. He became the enemy of the sun god because the sun was the first sign of the created world and symbolized divine order, light, life, and if he could SWALLOW the sun god, he could return the world to a unity of darkness.[7]    

There are often staffs pictured in the hands of Atum and Ma’at.  The Pharaoh also had a scepter, and sometimes a serpent staff with a carving of the cobra,[8] and he is perceived as the shepherd of his people.[9]  In the tomb of Seti I, there are four divine figures that are each holding a staff.  The first figure holds a tree of life; the second holds a shepherd’s staff; the third carries a staff that symbolizes life and health; and the fourth holds a simple staff.[10] Staffs are important symbols. 

I’d like to recap a couple of things from Exodus chapter 4, just before getting into the text for today.  Remember that God has called Moses for the job of going before Pharaoh, in order to pass on to Pharaoh what God tells him to say, SO THAT Yahweh is shown to be the one true and powerful God.[11]

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”  Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  “A staff,” he replied. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”  Exodus 4:1-5

God goes on to give Moses two more signs in Exodus 4: putting his hand in his cloak and it gets all white, and then water that turns to blood.   The section closes with this note: …take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.” Exodus 4:17

Moses and Aaron are not magicians, or kings, but they ARE agents of God,[12] and a simple shepherd’s staff in their hands will end up being more powerful[13] than the king’s staff.  Now we’re going to finally get to the text for today.  Everything from Exodus 6:28 and forward are not random happenings.  They are the proof that God is God, and Pharaoh is not. 

Now when the Lord spoke to Moses in Egypt, 29 he said to him, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” 30 But Moses said to the Lord, “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”  Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.  Exodus 6:28-7:4

Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them. Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Give us a sign or a wonder,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”  Exodus 7:5-9

This instance may make you think back to chapter 4, where Moses is asked to cast down his staff and it becomes a snake, and when picks it up again, it becomes a staff. 

Same animal, right?  WRONG.  This word is different.  WHY they don’t translate it differently is beyond me.  This isn’t a snake we’re looking at with Aaron’s staff, it’s a different type of reptile.  The term occurs in different places throughout the Bible. 

God created the great sea monsters. Gen 1:21

You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters. Ps 74:13

Praise the LORD from the earth, sea monsters and all deeps; Psalm 148:7

In that day the LORD will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, with His fierce and great and mighty sword, even Leviathan the twisted serpent; and He will kill the dragon who ives in the sea.  Isa 27:1

Sea monster?  It could also be translated as crocodile[14] here.  And that’s no coincidence. The crocodile sparked a fear in the hearts of the Egyptians because of the crocodiles that dwelled in the Nile River. It is a destructive and killing force, while at the same time something with great power, as the ruler of the Nile. The crocodile was also worshiped as a sacred animal.[15]  This is a much different picture than I had always envisioned.  It’s terrifying!  When Moses threw down HIS staff, he got a snake, which was bad enough.  Aaron gets to throw down his staff and deal with a sea monster! 

10 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. (serpent/sea monster/crocodile) 11 Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: 12 Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. (serpent/sea monster/crocodile) But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.  Exodus 7:10-12

Just so we’re on the same page, this is not sleight of hand, or a simple magic trick. Moses and Aaron have come up against the best minds in Egypt.  Their tricks are not fake.  There IS a spiritual entity and power behind them that allows for very real, and very scary scenarios to play out.  These magicians are a power to be reckoned with.[16]

So, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a a crocodile, a sea monster, or whatever you want to call it, and the magicians do the same thing.  Now, there is more than one magician in the room!  At the very least, there are three to four of these huge beasts hissing and snarling and crawling around the floor in the palace.  And Aaron is EIGHTY-THREE years old.  Talk about crazy!  But this scene really shows the Power of God.  In ancient Egyptian religion, a crocodile was seen as a devourer—one that could devour magic spells.[17]  Swallowing is typical of the crocodile, which to Egyptians are aggressive, gluttonous and lustful. In essence, now Aaron’s crocodile, “knows” the magicians’ secrets, because it swallowed the others.[18] And God’s power is shown “to swallow” the great king of Egypt.[19]  Carol Meyers notes: The swallowing of these creatures anticipates the swallowing of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, and the end of oppression and chaos.[20]  This is the beginning of the end for Pharaoh. 

Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.  Exodus 7:13

Pharaoh’s heart became hard.  The root of that word ‘hard’ means to be firm, or courageous, even.  But in this case, it means more like ‘stubbornness, resoluteness, firmness’[21] In later chapters, it means a heart that is ‘heavy’.  God had already told Moses back in chapter 4 what the results of his pleas before Pharaoh would bring:

When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do.  But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.   Exodus 4:21

So, did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or did Pharaoh harden his own heart?  Well, it’s different in each of the varying plagues.  Eight times Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but God doesn’t harden his heart until after the sixth plague, which is very important, because Pharaoh is really evil, and he is called into account for his actions.  And since Pharaoh is seen as divine, when God hardens his heart later on, it means that God is taking away his freedom and mocking his divinity.[22]

The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the character, and thus represented the good or bad aspects of a person’s life.[23]  When you die, you go on a journey of Two Ways—you ride a waterway one way through the sky and then back again—with a lake of fire in the middle that would consume those who were doomed.  There are obstacles to go through[24] where you need to use the book you were given to recite the names of the gods.  With so many names to remember, isn’t it interesting and ironic that the Bible mentions NONE of their names?  I’m sure that’s very intentional.  The book of Exodus in Hebrew is ‘SHMOT’—names.  The only names that are important are the people that GOD chooses in this story, and then the NAME that is revealed to Moses—I AM.  Yahweh.  He was the unnamed one that is now named.  The gods of Egypt are not worthy to be named.   

Anyway, after dying, and finally arriving at the gateway to the afterlife, there is a judgment.  No one could escape judgment, and the king of the land would have to stand before the scales of judgment just like the lowest slave or field hand would. 

At the judgment, the dead person would recite Negative confessions; things that they could claim they had never committed, like:  I have not committed sin.   I have not committed robbery with violence.  I have not stolen. I have not slain men and women.  I have not stolen grain. I have not been angry without just cause.  I have not acted with evil rage. I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.[25]

Then came the weighing of the heart ceremony, and a conference with Osiris and the Forty-Two Judges and the god of wisdom, Thoth.  A scale was presided over by Anubis.  The person’s heart was placed on one side of the scale, and Ma’at’s white ostrich feather of truth was placed on the other side of the scale.  If your heart was light, you were considered worthy, and would be allowed to pass on through the hall and go on to paradise.   There was another beast that lay in waiting–part-crocodile, part-lion, and part-hippopotamus.[26]  You might think that combination sounds crazy, but just read Ezekiel —or Revelation where there is a seven headed beast that is part leopard, part bear, and part lion.[27]  Anyway, if your heart was heavy, Ammitwould move swiftly and gobble your heart up and then you would cease to exist.[28]  Even the name Ammit—sounds like eating—Amm, Amm, Amm.

The fact that Pharaoh has a hard heart in Exodus is a judgment against him: a terrifying one, and one that has dreadful ramifications for the afterlife.  In essence, his doom is being sealed…a nail is being put into his coffin as his heart gets harder and harder…[29]

The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes. Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts. To do righteousness and justice is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice. Proverbs 21:1-3.  Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into disaster.  Proverbs 28:14 ISV  Above all else, guard your heart, For everything you do flows from it.  Proverbs 4:23

That puts things in a different perspective, doesn’t it?  Biologically, our hearts can become hard as we age.  Smoking, old age and high blood pressure can do damage to the heart, but the heart can also calcify, so that the tissue that was once soft can harden the heart and block blood vessels.[30]  Spiritually, our hearts can become hardened over time, too.  Pharaoh’s heart became hard as he hunkered down, refusing to budge in his position, stubborn and unyielding, unwilling to submit to God and his ways. He is destroyed by his inability to give in.[31]  What was true for Pharaoh is true for us: sin hardens our hearts, and that’s a dangerous thing for people of God. 

So, how is your heart?  Have you stopped caring about people?  Are you mad at anyone?  Are you obsessed with something?  Are you worried and upset about many things? Do you recognize sinful patterns in your life? Have you celebrated someone else’s failure? Do you recognize an area of stubbornness in your mind and thoughts?

Watch your heart

If you see signs of hardness happening, the first step is to confess your sin—and not just to God—Jesus’ brother James states that we are supposed to confess our sins to one another in order to have healing, too.  Confess and then repent—be aware of what happened and work to change those patterns for the future.  Pray to God for a softening of your heart.

God said to his people through Ezekiel:  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  Ezekiel 36:26

As the people of God, we DO have an enemy.  The great serpent, the dragon, the monster—THE Satan, or adversary is on the prowl, looking for hearts to devour, or swallow.[32]  In Revelation, there are strange visions of a serpent who pours water like a river out of his mouth—angels waging war with a dragon, and a dragon who goes after those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.[33]

But we have what the people of God were looking forward to.  We have Jesus, the one who has the name above every other name, the one who has gone into eternity and paradise ahead of us; who, through the cross, has defeated sin and death.  Isaiah the prophet writes that Death has Swallowed men up, but through Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul writes that THIS saying will come true: 

“DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

Arie Leder writes: “Like the swallowing of Pharaoh’s staffs, Christ’s death and resurrection signal the end of the great adversary. Yet, Paul’s admonition to the church to stand firm and to let nothing move it indicates that the conflict is not yet over; the adversary still possesses the power and permission to do tremendous harm.[34] Thus, the church of Christ continues under the persecution of the dragon-monster who moves to and fro upon the earth, seeking whom he may[35] devour.[36]

After studying all of these things, these verses from Psalm 91 resonated strongly:  With his feathers he will cover you, under his wings you will find safety. His truth is your shield and armor…You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent/dragon/crocodile you will trample down. Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name.  Psalm 91:4, 13,14

Here’s a short prayer to end, from St. Ambrose: O Lord, who has mercy on all, take away from me my sins, and mercifully kindle in me the fire of your Holy Spirit. Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh, a heart to love and adore you, a heart to delight in you, to follow and enjoy you, for Christ’s sake, Amen. St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)

Going Deeper Questions

–What is the most impressive magic trick you have ever seen? 

–The magicians of Egypt were also like religious priests and had spells, incantations, magical objects and rituals that were used in ceremonies, in everyday life, and even in preparation for the afterlife.

Read Exodus 6:28-7:7

–How do you think Moses and Aaron feel about appearing before Pharaoh and his court?  (Remember, Moses has been estranged from Egypt, and had the job as a shepherd—considered the worst job ever by Egyptians.  Aaron, his newly recognized brother, is going to be his spokesperson)

Read Exodus 7:8-12

–The word ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ in this text, is NOT the same as in Exodus 4:1-5. 

This word is found in Genesis 1:21; Psalm 74:13; Psalm 148:7; Isaiah 27:1, and can be translated as sea monster, or even crocodile.  How does that make you feel about being Aaron, or one of the spectators in the throne room?

–Does it surprise you that the other magicians can conjure up the same animal with their incantations?  Why or why not? 

–There is a spiritual entity and power that is very real for these magicians and still prevalent today.  Their power comes from the Evil One.  It’s not without cause that Peter writes:  Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

Read Exodus 7:13

Here, and especially in chapter 8:15 and following, the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart indicates a stubbornness, and unwillingness to submit to Yahweh as the One true God. 

It has terrible ramifications for him regarding the afterlife, because after death, came the final judgment, where your heart was put on a scale and weighed in comparison to the feather of justice.  If your heart was too heavy, a beast would swallow up your heart and you were forever doomed. 

–How would you describe the feeling of your heart today?  Light as a feather?  A bit weighed down?  Heavy? 

–What is the difference between having a heavy heart and a hard heart?

Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into disaster.  Proverbs 28:14 ISV

Do you recognize any sinful patterns or areas of stubbornness in your mind and thoughts?  If so, it’s not too late!  Confess your sin; Repent; and Pray for a softening of your heart. Read Ezekiel 36:26-28

Just like Aaron’s staff swallowed up the other monsters, Jesus’ death and resurrection has swallowed up death.  (1 Cor. 15:54-57).  But the conflict is not completely over, and we need to be on our guard against the battles for our heart.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Constantly be on your guard so that your hearts will not be weighed down with self-indulgence, drunkenness, and the worries of this life, or that day will take you by surprise like a trap, because it will come on everyone who lives on the face of the earth. So be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to take your stand in the presence of the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)

[1] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1986, 78. 

[2] https://www.ancient.eu/Apophis/

[3] Tobin, Vincent Arieh, Maᶜat and ΔΙΚΗ- Some Comparative Considerations of Egyptian and Greek Thought, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 24 1987, 113-121, 119.

[4] Tobin, Vincent Arieh, 116.

[5] https://www.ancient.eu/Ma%27at/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent_(symbolism)

[7] https://www.ancient.eu/Apophis/

[8] Sarna, Exploring Exodus.

[9] Galpaz-Feller, Pnina, The hidden and revealed in the sign of the serpent (Exodus 4-2-5; 7-8-14), Biblische Notizen, 114 -115 2002, 24-30, 26. 

[10] Leder, Arie C., Hearing Exodus 7-8-13 to preach the gospel- the ancient adversary in today’s world, Calvin Theological Journal, 43 no1 Apr 2008, 93-110, 98. 

[11] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 180. 

[12] Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1986, 59.

[13] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, 195. 

[14] John I Durham, Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Waco: Word Books, 1987, 91. 

[15] Galpaz-Feller, Pnina, The hidden and revealed in the sign of the serpent (Exodus 4-2-5; 7-8-14), Biblische Notizen, 114 -115 2002, 24-30, 28.

[16] John I Durham, Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Waco: Word Books, 1987, 92. 

[17] Stuart, 195—footnote 26.

[18] Galpaz-Feller, Pnina, The hidden and revealed in the sign of the serpent (Exodus 4-2-5; 7-8-14), Biblische Notizen, 114 -115 2002, 24-30, 29.

[19] Leder, Arie C., Hearing Exodus 7:8-13 to preach the gospel: the ancient adversary in today’s world, Calvin Theological Journal, 43 no1 Apr 2008, 93-110, 100.

[20] Carol Meyers, Exodus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 81. 

[21] Wilson, Robert R., Hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 41 no 1 Jan 1979, 18-36, 23.

[22] Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 65. 

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammit#/media/File:El_pesado_del_coraz%C3%B3n_en_el_Papiro_de_Hunefer.jpg

[24] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/coffintext.htm

[25] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maat#:~:text=In%20the%20Duat%2C%20the%20Egyptian,the%20Hall%20of%20Two%20Truths.&text=A%20heart%20which%20was%20unworthy,to%20remain%20in%20the%20Duat.

[26] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammit#/media/File:El_pesado_del_coraz%C3%B3n_en_el_Papiro_de_Hunefer.jpg

[27] Revelation 13:2

[28] https://www.ancient.eu/Ma%27at/

[29] John Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary- Old Testament; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000, 83. 

[30] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-heart-hardens-biologically-180961163/

[31] https://www.alephbeta.org/playlist/ten-plagues-theological-significance

[32] 1 Peter 5:8

[33] Revelation 12

[34] Mark 5:11-13

[35] 1 Peter 5:8

[36] Leder, 103. 

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