The story of Pharaoh’s magicians can be found in Exodus 7–8, when Moses and Aaron confront the Pharaoh in Egypt, demanding that he free God’s people, the Israelites, from slavery. Moses and Aaron performed miracles to confirm their message, and on three occasions Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate the miracles.
God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and charged him to speak to Pharaoh on His behalf (Exodus 3). During that commissioning, God granted Moses the ability to perform miracles (Exodus 4:21). Knowing that Pharaoh would demand a sign, God instructed Moses and Aaron to throw down Aaron’s staff upon their first meeting with the ruler. Aaron did so, and his staff turned into a snake. Pharaoh immediately summoned his magicians, who were able to turn their own staffs into snakes. In what must have been an ominous sign for Pharaoh’s court, Aaron’s snake devoured the magicians’ snakes (see Exodus 7:8–13).
Twice more, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to perform miracles to match the signs of Moses and Aaron. The first plague that Moses called down upon the Egyptians was a plague of blood. The magicians were also able to turn water to blood as Moses had done to the Nile River (Exodus 7:14–22). The second plague was a horde of frogs sent among the Egyptian people, and the magicians summoned their own frogs as well—adding to the problem rather than alleviating it (Exodus 8:1–7). After this, however, the magicians’ power stopped, as they were unable to replicate any further plagues, and they acknowledged they were witnessing “the finger of God” in Moses’ signs (verse 19).
But how were the magicians of Egypt able to perform the miracles in the first place? There are two possible answers to this question. The first is that the magicians received their power from Satan. Although not as powerful as God, Satan, formerly one of God’s highest angels, has the power to deceive, emulate miracles, and even tell the future with a certain degree of accuracy (see Luke 4; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Acts 16:16–18). Satan may have given Pharaoh’s magicians the power to duplicate some of the signs God performed through Moses and Aaron.
The second option, and the more probable, is that the magicians simply created illusions. Through sleight-of-hand and conjurer’s tricks, they deceived their audience into believing that they were performing the same miracles as Moses and Aaron. The first illusion, that of turning the staffs into snakes, may have been performed by snake charming, which was widely practiced in ancient Egypt (and even some today). There was a way in which snake charmers could cause a snake to stiffen like a staff and relax on command. Since the magicians were summoned after Aaron threw down his own staff, they would have had time to prepare the trick in advance. As for turning the Nile to blood, only dye is needed to make water run red. The frogs may be a more complicated illusion, but, just as modern illusionists can pull rabbits out of hats, Pharaoh’s magicians could have summoned frogs.
Whether they were creating illusions or performing actual miracles, the Egyptian magicians were eventually stymied by God’s power. They were unable to summon gnats (Exodus 8:16–19), turn the sky dark (Exodus 10:21–23), call down hailstones (Exodus 9:22–26), or duplicate any of the other plagues. God’s power is great enough to defeat both man’s conniving and Satan’s power with ease.