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And now in the good providence of God, the time had come for the deliverance of this down-trodden and abused race of Hebrews. Moses appears as the agent of Heaven to commence the work. In obedience to God's command, he demands of Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness." "Let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God." To this Pharaoh refuses his assent, and imposes on them additional burdens; taking from them the straw with which they had heretofore been furnished in the manufacture of brick, and compelling them to gather stubble for the purpose.
The agricultural scenes from the monuments show, that the usage among the Egyptians was to cut the grain some distance above the ground; and to this day, old sun-dried bricks, compacted with stubble instead of straw, are found not only in Egypt, but in Babylonia.
Upon the second application of Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh demands of them some miracle in proof of their commission. Such proof was not wanting: and here, before entering upon the consideration of it, a few preliminary remarks may be of service. It has been observed of all the unusual incidents preceding the exodus, that they find a foundation in the natural phenomena of Egypt, and stand in close connection with ordinary occurrences; and this has been urged as an argument against the truth of the story. To give force to this objection, it is necessary to establish the fact, that the performance of no act, which, under any circumstances might have occurred of itself, in the natural course of events, can possibly be miraculous. But this proposition is very far from being true. Take, for instance, hail and locusts; it will not follow that, because both these exist in nature, they therefore never can appear under circumstances which will prove them to be miraculous. Grant them to be common manifestations in nature, still, when they, with many other events that might happen in nature occur in rapid succession and with great intensity, out of their usual order of occurrence; when they do so in a particularly specified region of country, and at a particular time, on the bidding of some individual; when at the same bidding they cease, and in some instances cease at a precise time previously designated by the person who is affected by them, and earnestly requests their withdrawal; it is idle under such circumstances to view them as mere natural phenomena, presenting themselves in their ordinary occurrence. There is something preternatural here; and the distinction must be taken between the occurrence itself, and the very unnatural and extraordinary combination of circumstances under which it occurs. Hail may be very natural, and yet the attendant circumstances of its appearance may prove its presence at a particular time and place, its duration and cessation, all to be supernatural. There is, therefore, no difficulty in understanding how a natural phenomenon may be converted into miraculous proof.
Further, in reference particularly to the plagues sent on Egypt, which merit our consideration, we should remark the fitness of the character of the miracles performed to the end proposed. A succession of strange and unprecedented terrors, brought suddenly and in rapid succession on Egypt, would not have served as well as the plagues did to accomplish the great end in view; which was, as we are told, to show that Jehovah was "the Lord in the midst of the earth" or land. These terrors would have only proved that, for the moment, Jehovah possessed a terrific power: but idolatry was much more likely to find a lasting reproof and condemnation, when many events with which the Egyptians were familiar (for some of them were of annual recurrence) were seen succeeding each other, out of place; showing that the Jehovah of Israel was indeed "God in the midst of the land," ordering and altering, as he pleased, events with which they were well enough acquainted in their ordinary mode of occurrence. There was, therefore, here a special reason for a class of miracles, uniting the supernatural with the natural. And to this it may be added, that in the Scriptures generally, while there are miracles entirely separated from all union with natural events, (such are most, if not all, of those by the Saviour,) yet there is a large class in which the supernatural is blended with the natural. Such blending does not destroy the miracle, or impugn its testimony to truth.
We now proceed to the Scripture story. It will be remembered that certain signs, not hurtful in their effects, precede the plagues, properly so called. The first of these is,
The change of Moses' rod to a serpent.
Before entering on a consideration of the fact here men13
tioned, it may be remarked, that we find the rod to be the mseparable companion of Moses. This was not accidental, for it was an Egyptian custom. On the monuments, the Egyptian nobles are almost always seen with the rod when they are without the house. It is a staff from three to six feet long. Some of them have been found among the ruins, and are preserved in modern museums. One of them, thus preserved, is of cherry wood. Generally, it would seem, the acacia was preferred. The priests also, and other persons of rank, are often represented as walking with sticks.
One of the most curious subjects of inquiry connected with natural science, is the power possessed by man over the serpent race, both in ancient and modern times, and especially in Egypt. Indeed, the accounts are such as to startle credulity; and yet, so strong is the testimony on which they rest, that incredulity becomes unreasonable, and betrays the vulgarity of a mind that fancies independence in the rejection of every thing that is very strange, (no matter what the testimony,) unless its existence has been verified by personal experience or observation.
Some of the testimony we have on this subject does not come from a class of men, likely to betray any undue anxiety to sustain the truth of the Pentateuch. The men of science who went from France, and furnished the "Description de VEgypte" all agree in their accounts. Some, who candidly acknowledge that they entered on their examination of the subject with utter unbelief, were forced to acknowledge that there was in it something more than their philosophy could fathom. "We confess," (thus write some,) "that we, far removed from all easy credulity, have ourselves been witnesses of some things so wonderful, that we cannot consider the art of the serpent tamers as entirely chimerical. We believed, at first, that they removed the teeth of serpents and the stings of scorpions; but we have had opportunity to convince ourselves of the contrary." "I am convinced," (says Quatremere,) "that there was a certain number of men, found among the Psylli of antiquity, who, by certain secret preparations, put themselves in a condition not to fear the bite of serpents, and to handle the most poisonous of them, uninjured." "In Egypt and the neighboring countries," (says the same author,) "there are men and women who truly deserve the name of Psylli, and who, uninjured, handle the cerastes and other serpents, whose poison produces immediate death." Hasselquist says that they do not extract their teeth.
The Psylli are formed into an association, and the art is transmitted from father to son. In Egypt, serpents not unfrequently conceal themselves in houses, and thus become very dangerous. A part of the business of the Psylli is to dislodge the unwelcome intruder. The French commander-in-chief, on one occasion, resolved to test the powers of the Psylli. Traces led to the suspicion that a serpent had found its way into the palace he occupied. The Psylli were summoned. They examined closely all moist places, and there imitated the hissing, first of the male, then of the female serpent. After a little more than two hours, they lured him out.
In their religious festivals they present probably the most frightful exhibition: they then appear entirely naked, with the neck, arms, and other parts of the body, actually coiled around by serpents, which they permit to bite and tear their chests and stomachs, while they themselves, in a sort of wild frenzy, having their features contorted to an expression of insanity, with foam falling from the mouth, bite the serpents