Serpents And Snakes

The different miracles performed before the Israelites and before the Egyptians symbolize the different messages communicated to each group.

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Thus, we see that similar miracles are used to convince the Jews and the Egyptians. Yet, the miracles are not identical. For the Jews, Moses' staff turns into a snake (nachash), while for the Egyptians, Aaron's staff turns into a serpent (tanin). What does this difference signify?

Varying Interpretations

For an answer, we might look to another place in the Torah where we find snakes and serpents. In Parashat Bereishit, at the very beginning of Genesis, there are two different accounts of creation. The first chapter of Genesis provides a "macro" view of creation.

Beginning from nothingness, the narrative follows the process of God creating light and darkness; the separating of the "upper waters" from the "lower waters;" forming the land, celestial bodies, and flora; and the creating of living creatures, culminating in man. Each step is initiated by God's "intention," and culminates with God's "approval."

The Account of The Fifth Day of Creation

In this account, on the fifth day of Creation, when God "decides" to create living creatures, we read:

"And the Lord (Elo-him) created the great taninim (serpents), as well as every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly…and every winged bird…" (Genesis 1:21).

This verse begins with the creation of the tanin, exactly the symbol that Aaron's staff became in the court of Pharaoh.

In the second chapter of Genesis, we read of creation from a different perspective. In this version, only relatively little attention is given to the creation of the physical and animal worlds. The major focus, rather, is on the creation of man and woman, their placement in the Garden of Eden, God's commandments to them, and their eventual downfall at the hand of the nachash.

While the first account of creation is from a cosmic perspective, the second account is very much from an anthropocentric perspective. And thus, while God is, of course, behind every step of each account of Creation, God is portrayed differently in each version. In Genesis I, God is portrayed as the Master of the Universe, the cosmic orchestrator. By way of contrast, in Genesis II, God is portrayed in a more immanent, intimate light, as the parent of Creation in general, and of man and woman in particular.

How does the appearance of the nachash and the tanin in Parshat Bereishit relate to the use of the nachash and tanin in our parsha?

I believe that these symbols reflect the distinct messages that Moses and Aaron were communicating. For the Egyptians, who did not recognize God's complete mastery and control over the world, Moses and Aaron utilize the imagery of Genesis I, where God's cosmic rulership is demonstrated.

The Snake as Tanin

Moreover, because the Egyptian culture deified certain animals (see, for example, Rashi on Genesis 46:34), the symbol of the tanin, the first creature God created, effectively conveys God's complete mastery over the world. Note that Aaron's tanin, which might be called a "tanin of belief" devours the Egyptians' "taninim of disbelief," thus asserting the validity of the message that Moses and Aaron represent.

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Yossi Ziffer works in the interactive services department of UJA-Federation of New York.