Were Pharoah’s Magicians Magic?

by | Mar 28, 2022

boy magician

Highlights for Exodus 7-13

The ten plagues of Egypt is one of the most dramatic, fascinating stories in the Old Testament. It’s a tangible, unforgettable show of God’s miraculous power to unbelieving men.

Let’s quickly note miracles don’t convert skeptical people.

Who Hardened Pharoah’s Heart?

Did God harden Pharoah’s heart for him and take away his agency? This verse has always puzzled me!

KJV Bible – Exodus 7:3

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.

Joseph Smith Translation – Exodus 7:3

Thanks to our prophet Joseph Smith, we know that Pharoah used agency, and it was his choice to harden his heart.

strikethrough = words Joseph Smith deleted (sometimes what Joseph crossed out can be just as much information as what he added)

bold type = words Joseph Smith added

3 And I Pharoah will harden Pharaoh’s his heart, as I said unto thee; and thou shalt multiply my signs, and my wonders, in the land of Egypt.

Interestingly, Robert Alter (The Hebrew Bible) agrees with this sentiment. He explores the specific meaning of the Hebrew words, their roots, etc., used in verse 3 and notes how poorly they translate into English (KJV). He suggests God “allowed” Pharoah to harden his heart, rather than He “caused” it.

Robert Alter: “The force of all three idioms [in Hebrew: hiqshah, hizeq, kaved]** is to be stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible, to show firm resolve…”

**idioms: a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogssee the light).

Do you see modern examples of a hardened heart within your own family?

Magic or Illusion?

As we read about the ten plagues, Pharoah’s magicians seem to be able to imitate some of Moses and Aaron’s miracles. This raises two big questions: why did God send Moses to give signs that man could replicate? How did that set Jehovah apart as a God of miracles? And by what power were the magicians able to do the same miracles?

Staffs and Snakes

KJV Bible – Exodus 7:11-12

11 Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

What a scene!

The Hebrew Bible – Exodus 7:11-12

And Pharoah, too, called for the sages and sorcerers and they, too, the soothsayers of Egypt, did this with their spells. And each flung down his staff and they became serpents and Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.

I love the details provided by Robert Alter as he looks deeper into the Hebrew verbs, meanings, and roots. He shares a more accurate story that stirs our imagination and almost puts us back at the scene.

Robert Alter: let it become a serpent. The noun used here, tanin, is not the ordinary nahash, “snake”… The tanin is usually a larger threatening reptile…and is sometimes used for the Egyptian crocodile or for a mythological dragon.

Robert Alter: and they, too, the soothsayers of Egypt, did thus with their spells. The Hebrew word for “soothsayers,” hartumim, is a direct borrowing from the Egyptian designation for priest-magicians. The term translated as “spells,” lehatim, either is related to the root l-‘-t that means “to conceal” or…is derived from the root l-h-t, “to flame out,’ which links with the fire-and-flash technique of the illusionist.”

“Ibn Ezra [famous Jewish scholar from around 1100 A.D.], a rationalist, thus implies that the soothsayers’ success in transforming their staffs into serpents was an act of legerdemain [sleight of hand; skillful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks]. …the point of the story is the capacity of this [magic] technology was limited, and hence the authentically miraculous serpent into which Aaron’s staff has turned swallows up the other serpents.”

The magicians didn’t match God’s miracle; they imitated it by illusion. But Aaron’s staff consumed all of their reptiles. Thus, God trumps and outdoes their attempts from the start. This becomes a repeating pattern.

Water Turns to Blood

This isn’t a simple magic trick with a bowl of water – this plague transforms the entire Nile river and the related streams and ponds.

KJV Bible – Exodus 7:20-22

20 And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.
21 And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
22 And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said.

The Hebrew texts add valuable context to the miracles Moses and Aaron performed; please contrast them to the small, rival magic tricks of the Egyptian magicians:

Robert Alter: the soothsayers of Egypt did thus with their spells. Ibn Ezra wonders where they got water to turn into blood if Moses and Aaron had already done the trick for the Nile and all the rivers and ponds. His answer is that they performed their magic with water dug up from subterranean sources, a conjuror’s act of transmutation that is not to be compared with the miraculous conversion of streams of flowing water into blood. Again, the reality of a technology of magic is not called into question but it is noteworthy the soothsayers can do no more than effect a pale imitation of the destructive act of the God of the Hebrews; what they are powerless to do is reverse the process of destruction (God turns the blood back to water after seven days – the magicians could not.)

The Rest of the Plagues

Frogs come next, and the magicians do some sleight of hand. Once again, they cannot remove the frogs, and they die in big heaps over the land and create overwhelmingly foul odors.

The magicians finally admit they cannot pretend to the rest of the miracles: lice, flies, dying livestock, boils, fiery hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children. Perhaps Pharoah’s ability to ignore all of these plagues and the extreme destruction to his country is a phenomenon by itself! I think I’ve encountered people like that – and they’ve usually been diagnosed with some kind of personality disorder.


Hebrew is worth understanding because it helps us visualize the Old Testament stories with more detail and understanding. I am grateful for all the books and information we have at our fingertips today.


This post draws on two resources – (1) Joseph Smith’s complete translation of the Bible – amazingly, Joseph Smith corrected translations for more than 3,900 verses from the KJV Bible. And (2) Robert Alter’s “The Hebrew Bible – A Translation with Commentary.” Robert Alter’s book is considered one of the best translations of the Bible in our modern time and came highly recommended by bookofmormoncentral.org – a premiere Latter-day Saint scholarship site. Robert Alter’s lifetime work was published in 2018. See My Secrets for Falling In Love with the Old Testament for more information about these two books and where to get them.

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