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D'var Torah: Vaeira

By know you must know that I like to talk about the words that the Torah uses and what those words say about the people who wrote the stories and their cultures and beliefs. So today, I’ll pick an unusual word to discuss—actually two words that are related but the meaning of one is a bit uncertain. The word is: snake.

Hey, it’s not my fault that God chose the snake as the sign that Moses was to use to prove his bona fides to the enslaved Hebrew peoples. Back last week, in case you forgot, in Ch. 4 God showed Moses how to do a magic trick with his rod. When he cast it on the ground, it became a snake. When he picked it up by the tail, it turned back into a rod.

Vayomer hashlikhehu artsah vayashlikhehu artsah vayehi l’nachash...
And he said “throw it to the ground”; and he threw it to the ground, and it became a snake... (Ex. 4:3)

Then when Moses met with the people, we’re told he showed them all of the signs—makkot—that God had taught him; obviously the snake trick was included.

“Snake” is nachash and that’s what Moses first produced when he did the trick. Moving to today’s parashah, in Ch. 7 Moses is told to confront Pharaoh, and when Pharaoh challenges Moses to produce a makkah, a sign, here usually translated as “a wonder,” Moses is to:’amarta el-Aharon kach et-matcha v’hashlech lifney-far’oh y’hi l’tannin.
...say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it before Pharaoh; let it become a tannin” (Ex. 7:9, also 10, 12)

But lo, now it’s no longer a snake, it’s a tannin! Here it’s usually also translated as “snake/serpent” but that’s wrong. So what’s a tannin, then? To answer, we need to go all the way back to Genesis 1.

Vayivra Elohim et-hataninim hagadolim...
And God created the great tanninim... (Gen. 1:21)

To see the difference, go to Genesis 3.

V’hanachash hayah arum mikol chayat hasadeh...
And the snake (serpent) was the most cunning of all the beasts of the field... (Gen. 3:1)

So there seems to be a difference, but translators kind of conflate the two words together and many times both are translated as “snake/serpent.” So let’s ask: why was the demonstration for the people a snake but for Pharaoh it was a tannin, whatever that is? Well, the tannin is really a “monster” or sometimes translated as “dragon.” I believe it’s a crocodile, and the Nile crocs are huge, nasty beasts. The Egyptian goddess Ammut, the “Devourer,” was a depicted with the head of a giant crocodile. And the god Sobek was the god of crocodiles, was said to be the creator of the Nile which arose from his sweat, and of whom many sects believed was the creator god who brought order to the universe. Sobek was also held by some sects to be an aspect of Horus because when Horus retrieved the parts of his father Osiris’ body, some of which were in the Nile, Horus assumed the form of a crocodile.

And herein lie our cultural links. Pharaoh was believed to be a god in his own right. So having Moses and Aaron control the imagery of a number of Egyptian gods by turning Aaron’s staff into the appearance of one was Insult Number One. Insult Number Two happened when the Egyptian magicians copied the trick with their own rods, whereupon Aaron’s swallowed up theirs. This swallowing imagery actually foreshadows the later event of the sea’s swallowing Egypt’s army, again by using the same word to link these episodes together—the word is bala’, “swallow up,” it’s a word used very infrequently in the Bible (cf. Ex 7:12 and 15:12) and it's telling that its closest referents are Joseph's pharaoh's two dreams, where the blasted grain stalks and skeletal cattle “swallow up,” their healthy equivalents. Insult Number Three uses the serpent imagery rather than crocodiles. One of the two key royal symbols worn on the royal headdress was the uraeus, the serpent; this was the emblem of Pharaoh’s power, so Aaron’s serpent swallowing the staff-serpents of the court magicians was emblematic of overcoming Pharaoh.

There are other places in the Bible where serpents and monsters are mentioned. One comes up in Numbers where God sent hanachashim hasrafim, (fiery or) poisonous snakes against the people. (Num. 21:6)

Deuteronomy mentions a venomous monster but this is from the Song of Moses, composed in really ancient Hebrew, so the translation is basically a guess at best (Deut. 32:33).

...chamat tannim yainam v’rosh p’tannim akhzar.
“Their wine is the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps.”

Some of the most interesting uses of the word tannin or tannim (monster/dragon) also involve Pharaoh or other kings. Among them is a description in today’s haftarah from Ezekiel where Pharaoh is referred to as a “great monster.” There are other instances too:

Pharaoh as hatannin hagadol, the “great monster” (Ezek. 29:3)
Pharaoh as katannim bayamim, like the “monsters in the seas” (Ezek. 32:2)
Nebuchadrezzar as katannin, swallowed me like a “dragon” (Jer. 51:34)

Isaiah and Jeremiah apparently loved this animal with eleven uses of the word between them and the Psalms are also rich sources for this kind of imagery; they don’t disappoint either. Here are just two cases:

Sea monsters (Ps. 74:13)
...sibbarta rasheh tanninim al hamayim.
“ broke the heads of the monsters in the waters.”
Trample underfoot (Ps. 91:13)
...tirmos k’pir v’tannin.
“you trample under feet the young lion and the dragon.”

And finally, just to confound the poor reader, there are some translations that totally ignore the reptile imagery and translate tannim as “jackal.” This is likely the result of a conflation of the terms tannin and tannim. These may be two different things, but that’s not likely. More likely is a misreading of tannim as a plural. The modern Hebrew word for jackal is tan, tet-nun, and its plural would be tanim. The plural of tannim, tet-nun-yod-mem, is tanninim. So “jackals” is a totally wrong translation.

Just goes to show you. When you read the Bible, you can’t always put your trust in the translation.

Shabbat shalom.

January 2015

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