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Shemot/Exodus 8:15(19) And the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of G-d!"
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This text contains two unusual words. The first, , translated here as "the magicians", is a loan-word from Egyptian. Although nominally assigned a three-letter Hebrew root - , which itself is not used anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, but in Syriac means "to engrave" - the noun is only found in the plural. Davidson suggests "sacred writers, persons skilled in hieroglyphics", adding that they are mentioned very early in Egyptian records and history (e.g. "Next morning, [Pharaoh's] spirit was agitated, and he sent for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men" (B'resheet 41:8, JPS) and appear later in Babylon (e.g. "None was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king [who] found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom" (Daniel 1:20, JPS)). TheSeptuagint offers a number of early translations such as interpreters of mysteries, enchanters, sorcerers and magicians; English Bibles follow in that tradition.
The second unusual word is - a noun derived from , another unused root, with meanings of "to dip, tinge" in Arabic, "to wet, moisten" in Aramaic. Davidson here offers "finger, especially forefinger"; in the plural "fingers" can be used as a synecdoche for the whole hand, for example, "When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place" (Psalm 8:4, NJPS) and "Blessed is the L-RD, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for warfare" (144:1, NJPS). Plaut notes that the phrase "finger of G-d" means that G-d is directly involved, and adds that in Egyptian literature a plague is called "the hand of G-d".
The commentators debate what exactly the text means; what are the implications of the words - what, in effect, are the magicians saying and what are they not saying. The ancient rabbis explained that "As soon as the magicians realised that they were not able to produce gnats, they recognised that the deeds were those of a God and not witchcraft. They no longer claimed to compare themselves with Moshe in producing the plagues" (Shemot Rabbah 10:7).Rashi paraphrases this to, "The sorcerers said, 'This plague is not the result of witchcraft. It comes from the Omnipresent.'" The Rashbam writes a longer text for the magicians: "This is a natural calamity, not a trick performed by these two. It is had been performed by magic, we could have done it ourselves." We know a thing or two about this stuff, we now how it works, Rashbam has them say; this is the real deal - no smoke and mirrors here. Hirsch uses that to offer the magicians their exit line: "after thrice experiencing their lack of power, the magicians humbly acknowledge 'the finger of G-d' and do not appear in the story again; before the direct power of G-d, they felt they could bow their heads without shame." They were simply outgunned, outranked and outclassed; as religious/spiritual professionals, they knew their place and their level - they knew when to bow out gracefully so that they could keep their powder dry and live to fight another day.
Umberto Cassuto1 takes a slightly more cynical reading: "They admit that there is a power here greater than theirs and that Moshe and Aharon are not working with their own capacities, as they, the magicians, are doing, but they they are the agents of a Higher Power." That sounds good so far, but Cassuto then points out that "this is only partial; they do not say 'the finger of YHVH' but only 'the finger of (a) god.'" Hebrew has no indefinite article - a/an - which as inserted as required. His final shot is the most telling: "Neither do they say 'the hand of G-d', but just 'the finger of G-d', that is, they do not admit that it is a real act of G-d, such as a man performs with his hand, but only a token or form of assistance such as a person can render with a finger." Hardly an admission at all, then, when it comes down to it.
Ibn Ezra's comment is harder still: "They meant, 'This is an act of G-d'. Pharaoh and his courtiers did not deny the Creator, merely the L-rd whom Moshe had announced to them. They saw the finger of G-d, not the finger of YHVH and did or would not connect it with Moshe and YHVH." We all have insurance policies with the small-print clause that refers to Force Majeure or "Act of G-d", but very few of the policy holders believe in G-d. So for the magicians to say "This is an act of G-d" is essentially meaningless, with little more value that shrugging their shoulders and grunting, 'Dunno' as they head for the door. The Ramban disagrees; he thinks that the magicians have simply failed - "they failed because they could not create anything; they had changed the form of the water and called out frogs that already existed, but no-one could create lice from dust other than the blessed Creator." So that puts them in their place!
The Scriptures use the phrase "the finger of G-d" sparingly, just four times in all. In the Hebrew text it appears here and twice in reference to the first set of tablets of stone inscribed by G-d (Shemot 31:18 and D'varim 9:10). The closest parallel comes in the Greek text, where Yeshua says, "But if it is by the finger of G-d that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of G-d has come upon you" (Luke 11:20, ESV). Like Moshe, Yeshua has been challenged by the religious/spiritual leaders of His day, the Pharisees. He has been casting a demon our of a man who was mute and, according to Matthew, blind; the man has been healed and the crowd marvelled. But the Pharisees make a very similar comment to the magicians of Pharaoh's day: "Yes, this is a higher power, but probably not the G-d we know and serve, this man casts them out by the prince of demons" (v. 24, own paraphrase). Just like the Sanhedrin who could not deny the public healing of the lame beggar in the Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 4:16), the Pharisees recognise the power but cannot attribute it to HaShem, the G-d of Israel. They believe G-d, but have emasculated Him by failing to recognise what can only be His hand at work. Rav Sha'ul warned Timothy about such people, who are "holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power" (2 Timothy 3:5, NASB).
Interestingly, the Matthew parallel quotes Yeshua slightly differently: "But if it is by the Spirit of G-d that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of G-d has come upon you" (Matthew 12:27, ESV). Here we have the "Spirit of G-d" rather than the "finger of G-d". That makes it easier to see the second half of Yeshua's sentence. The Spirit of G-d was the executive force of the Creation; the Spirit of G-d empowered and enable Moshe to govern the people in the wilderness; the Spirit of G-d moved the prophets to speak, giving dreams and visions; the Spirit of G-d reminds the disciples of what Yeshua said and did and brings comfort, encouragement and boldness; the Spirit of G-d gives gifts of healing, power and miracles, supernatural knowledge and faith. The Spirit of G-d is the presence of G-d being manifest in this world; He shows the kingdom of G-d breaking through. When we see G-d touching people or situations, as with His finger, but in reality by His Spirit, we see the authority and power of the kingdom at work; we see G-d Himself stirring the waters, splitting the rocks, burning bushes and forests with fire - the physical elements of the world responding to the touch or presence of the Creator.
We see instinct and reflex at work here. Just as a light touch on a newborn baby's cheek causes the head to turn towards that side and the mouth to open, as if being held to the mother's breast for nursing, so we are to respond to the prompting and nudging of the Spirit in our lives and around us every day. We are not to grow old in the L-rd and lose that reflex as many do, but instead we are to cultivate our awareness of and responseto the Spirit. We must keep our spiritual radar carefully tuned, ready at any moment to detect and respond to what G-d is saying or prompting. We then become an extension of G-d's finger, His physical means of reaching out and touching others in this world. We become an agent of breakthrough as we allow G-d to break through us and into the world around us, like water from a nozzle. Yeshua spoke about "the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (John 4:14, NASB). As that living water sprays out around us, whoever is wet or moistened by it is touched by G-d's finger, as if they had been dipped in a vibrant colour-wash and tinged - however briefly - with His glow.
How can we see the finger of G-d at work today? The short answer, as with many prayers, is being prepared to be a part of the answer. In this case, being available to be the finger of G-d. Our openness to being used by G-d to bless others is the quickest way to seeing and receiving His blessing ourselves. As the water sprays out, as His presence flows into a situation, we are bound to get splashed and in turn enable others to be God's finger in the lives of those around them - sometimes, even in our lives. We must remember that the finger of G-d is not usually hard and rigid to prod, poke or jab, but gentle to touch, stroke or caress; we are messengers of G-d's grace far more often than a hammer or a harbinger of judgement.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: John 11:45-52; Colossians 1:4-8
Application: How can you be more flexible and available to be the finger of G-d today? How could you adjust your behaviour or attitude to touch more people and situations with G-d's love and living water?
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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