Is God the only one who can create life from inanimate material? In light of Exodus 7:11–12 and other passages, is it possible that angels can also create life? (We’re not talking about procreation here.)
Until recently, I would have been quite sure how to answer this question. In fact, some of my fellow believers and scholars might chastise me for even considering an alternative to what is the commonly accepted answer to this question. Nevertheless, I think this could be a helpful discussion, and I am very open to receiving input and correction from Scripture if my answer is inaccurate.
You may have guessed that the traditional answer is a resounding “Yes! Of course, God is the only one that can create life from inanimate objects.” While that sounds great and doesn’t rock the theological boat, I have recently considered the possibility that our answer should be something else.
Let’s take a look at Exodus 7:10–12.
So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, just as the LORD commanded. And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:10–13)
You are probably familiar with the context. God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. This was their second confrontation (the first was in Exodus 5), and God had instructed Moses to have Aaron throw down his staff before Pharaoh. When he did, the staff “became a serpent.” (Interesting side note: the word translated as serpent here is different than the normal word for serpent, which appears in Exodus 4:3 where God turned Moses’ staff into a serpent—the word here is tanniyn, which is elsewhere translated as “dragon” in the KJV.)
The text states that the magicians “did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents.” The straightforward reading of this text seems to state that the magicians (through “occult practices” as the HCSB translates it) were able to do the same thing. That is, the magicians actually were able to make their rods become serpents.
Now, my gut reaction to this has always been to think that there’s no way they could have actually done this since God is the only one who can create life. Other commentators obviously feel the same way, since I have read several explanations that I think explain away the clear meaning of the text. Some claim that they used sleight of hand, illusions, or they had manipulated the animals so that they were rigid serpents in their hands and looked like rods but writhed about when they hit the floor.
Let’s consider the straightforward reading as a possibility: using occult (demonic) powers, the magicians were actually able to turn their rods into serpents. Is this a legitimate possibility from a biblical perspective? Before answering this, let’s look at two other passages.
We know that Satan and his angels (demons) are more powerful than man. While some people ascribe too much power to Satan (such as those who think, or at least act as if he is omnipresent), most American Christians today probably underestimate his abilities. In Job 1, he was able to kill Job’s sheep and servants with fire that “fell from heaven” (Job 1:16). Yes, I know that the verse states that “fire of God fell from heaven,” but these were the words of a servant who was unaware of the conversation that had just taken place between God and Satan in heaven (Job 1:6–12). Fire from heaven may very well refer to lightning, so it seems that Satan is capable of manipulating the weather to some degree or actually causing fire to come down from the sky.
But if we look back in 1 Kings 18, I think we can learn an important lesson about Satan’s abilities (or at least those of his demons). In this chapter we read about Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Elijah challenged these false prophets to see whose God would respond by lighting an offering on fire upon an altar. The prophets of Baal did their various rituals and nothing happened. But Elijah commanded people to dowse his altar with water three times (in the midst of a drought) and God still consumed the sacrifice and the altar with fire. From the passage in Job we know that Satan was fully capable of causing fire to fall that could have consumed the sacrifice. Why didn’t he or one of his demons do it then? I believe it was because God did not allow him to do it at that time. You see, Satan has tremendous power, but he cannot go beyond what God permits at any given moment.
Let’s look at one more passage and then we’ll go back to the Egyptian magicians. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul told his readers that Christ’s return would not take place until the “man of sin” or “son of perdition” had been revealed. I believe this is a reference to the Antichrist. In verse 9, Paul said that this man’s coming would be “according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders.” Jesus also spoke of this time and said that false christs and false prophets would rise and “show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). So the New Testament affirms that Satan has the ability to perform “great signs and wonders” that are so convincing that if it were possible, the elect would be deceived. Could these signs and wonders include the creation of life, or perhaps bringing someone back to life? (Some scholars think that Antichrist will be killed and then resurrected, according to Revelation 13:3, but that seems to be more than what the text states).
So what did all of that have to do with the Egyptian magicians? Well, we can see that Satan has tremendous power and is capable of performing “great signs and wonders.” So is it possible that God allowed Satan or his demons to give Pharaoh’s magicians the power to turn rods into serpents? At this point, in light of the above teachings in Scripture and the straightforward reading of the text, I believe it is possible. Maybe that is exactly what happened.
But why would God allow something like this? Wouldn’t that simply mislead Pharaoh and others in attendance and discourage Moses and Aaron? Well, God had already told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not free the Israelites right away. This may have been one of the ways in which God did that. Pharaoh may have initially been impressed (or worried) by the miracle of Aaron’s rod turning into a serpent, but when he saw his own magicians do the same thing, why would he think that the God of the Israelites (Yahweh) was more powerful than his own gods? Actually, his magicians were able to do the next two signs as well. They turned water into blood (Exodus 7:22) and caused frogs to fill the land (Exodus 8:7). But they could not create lice from the dust or any of the other plagues and recognized the third plague (lice from dust) as “the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).
Throughout the ten plagues that befell Egypt, God demonstrated His power over the various gods of the Egyptians. Even when the rods were turned into serpents, the serpent from Aaron’s rod swallowed the other serpents.
So even though Satan may have incredible power, we know that God is always in control, and that Satan can never go beyond what God permits—even if that means He allows Satan to create life.
If you know of a passage in Scripture that clearly teaches that only God can create life, or that Satan and/or demons cannot create life, then please let me know, so I can correct this. Like I said, my gut reaction is that they cannot, but I tend to think this passage shows that they did.