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Why did God give Moses two practice signs?

Moses confronting the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Credit: by James Tissot circa 1896-1902/Wikipedia/Public Domain

When God encountered Moses at the burning bush, the Lord not only commissioned Moses to deliver Israel out of Egypt, but also gave Moses three signs to convince them they were to be delivered, two of which he actually practiced.

The Hebrews had flourished for decades in Egypt after being brought there by Joseph, but after a change in government (Exodus 1:8), they were now beaten down and enslaved, much of it due to how the Hebrews thought and perceived their masters.

The public relations firm working with the Egyptian pharaohs had successfully built up a mystique around them.

We even see hints of it in the book of Isaiah, where the prophet directly attacked the wrong perceptions that the Jews had about Egypt:

The Egyptians are man, and not God,
    and their horses are flesh, and not spirit
. (Isaiah 31:3a ESV)

Even though this prophecy was given years after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, there was still this mistaken perception of how powerful the Egyptians were.

I suspect that Isaiah was addressing the stories that were in circulation at that time. How could you fight an army if you believed they were gods and were riding spirit horses that could not be killed.

Their perception of the Egyptians terrified the Jews.

When God called Moses to deliver Israel, he was concerned the Hebrews would not believe.

Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ (Exodus 4:1)

So God gave Moses three signs.

But here is what is interesting, God had Moses practice two of these signs at the burning bush before taking them before the Pharaoh (Exodus 4:2-9).

This suggests that Moses may have needed a bit of convincing as well, but probably covered-up his fears by stating that it was the Hebrews who actually needed the help.

Having grown up in the Pharaoh’s house, Moses would be steeped in the lore surrounding the pharaohs who were considered to be half gods, suggesting he needed to be delivered from this fear as much as the Hebrews.

So God gave Moses three signs, the first two of which he practiced:

  • Moses threw down his staff, and it turned into a snake, which caused Moses to flee in terror. But he returned, grabbed it by the tail, and it turned back into his staff (Exodus 4:2-4).
  • The second involved sticking his hand inside his cloak and having it become leprous and sticking it back in and having it return to normal Exodus 4:6-7)
  • The third was taking water from the Nile and seeing it turn into blood. This was the only one that God did not have Moses practice (Exodus 4:8-9).

So what was the purpose behind these signs?

In his article for Israel365 News, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki shared how these signs were intended to destroy the mystique built up around Egypt.

Turning the staff into a snake

According to Wolicki, snakes were symbolic of the magic that protected the Egyptians.

“It was common for Egyptian gods to be depicted holding snake-wands,” Wolicki writes.

He cites how they have found a depiction a female sau or sorceresses holding snake wands in each hand, intended to protect Egypt.

If Moses was going to take on the pharaohs, he needed convincing that God could protect him from these Egyptian sorcerers. The first sign demonstrated just that.

In the actual confrontation, when Aaron’s rod became a snake, the Egyptian sorcerers were able to do the same thing, but Aaron’s snake then consumed the Egyptian ones destroying the aura surrounding Egyptian magic.

The leprous hand

In explaining the second sign involving the leprous hand, Wolicki cites a classic on pagan religions written by Sir James Frazer entitled The Golden Bough.

When Moses asked if they could go out into the wilderness to make sacrifices to Jehovah, the pharaoh initially said they could hold the festival in Egypt.

But Moses explained that they couldn’t because, the Hebrews would sacrifice animals that the Egyptians considered sacred:

25 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? (Exodus 8:25-26 ESV)

According to Sir Frazier, leprosy was one of the curses associated with eating such animals.

So this sign showed Moses, that they would be safe from Egyptian curses.

Turning the Nile into blood

Though Moses never practiced the third sign, it was equally important because when God told Moses to take the water from the river, this could only be referring to the Nile (Exodus 4:9).

As Wolicki points out, when Moses had this encounter with the burning bush, he was probably on the Sinai Peninsula, hundreds of miles away from the Nile River, so it was impossible for an actual demonstration.

This is because only water from the Nile would work for this sign.

The Nile was one of the three major gods of Egypt because it brought life to Egypt. And by turning the water into blood, it symbolized the death of the Nile, the death of the Egyptian god. It showed the Hebrews, they had nothing to fear.

These signs were intended to break the false perceptions that Moses and the Hebrews had about the Egyptians and by changing their thinking, they could set them free from captivity.

READ: Shemot – The Three Signs: Pharaoh’s Perspective

I did a couple podcasts on the Exodus story:

13 | What is so mysterious about an Egyptian guard?
74 | Does the Ipuwer Papyrus solve the mystery of the Egyptian Guard?

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