Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism


The God of the Desert

Before God brings the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, there is an encounter between Moshe, Aharon and Pharaoh in his palace:
"Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; Aharon cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a tanin. Then, Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic. Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became taninim; but Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs." (Shemot 7:10-12)

In almost all Bible translations the term tanin is translated as "serpent". However, the term nachash has already been translated to mean serpent when God reveals himself to Moshe through the burning bush: "And the Lord said to him, 'What is this in your hand?' And he said, 'A staff.' And He said, 'Cast it to the ground,' and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from before it" (4:2-3). Of course we also already know from the story in Gan Eden that nachash means "serpent". It wouldn't make sense that two totally different terms – tanin and nachash – mean exactly the same animal: a snake.

One of the few commentators and Bible translators who had the courage to swim against the stream was Rabbi Hirsch: He translates tanin as "crocodile". Hirsch bases himself on a chapter of Yehezkel which is read as our Parasha's Haftara:
"Speak and you shall say; so says the Lord God: Behold I am upon you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, hatanim hagadol, the great crocodile that lies down in the midst of its rivers, who said, 'My river is my own, and I made myself'" (29:3). Here Pharaoh's self-perception as a deity is being expressed. We know that in ancient Egypt, crocodiles of the Nnile were worshiped as gods. The ancient Egyptian deity Sobek is portrayed in statues and hieroglyphs as a human with a crocodile head. Pharaoh himself is hatanim hagadol, the great crocodile. This line of translation of the term tanin leads us to a deeper understanding of this whole encounter between Moshe and Pharaoh: This first "duel" between these two leaders of their respective nations is crucial in order to understand the rest of the story.

The "staff tricks" in the palace are not called makkot, plagues, but rather otot, signs. This distinction makes sense since they do not have an effect on all Egyptians, but what are they about to signify? It seems that their goal is totally different: Their primary goal is begin a conversation with Pharaoh and to create a communication line in which the latter feels comfortable. When Pharaoh sees how Moshe and Aaron's staffs which have turned into crocodiles fight a duel with his own, he feels at home. Even the fact that Moshe and Aaron's crocodiles swallow his servants' doesn't trouble Pharaoh too much since this whole mini-battle takes place in a framework which he is familiar with; the world of crocodiles with supposedly supreme power. Pharaoh feels he's on his home ground.

Later on, when God is about to attack and announces through Moshe the beginning of the plagues, the wording changes: "Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand. And you shall say to him, 'The Lord God of the Hebrews sent me to you, saying, 'Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me in the desert'" (7:15-16).
All of a sudden God changes both His tone and His wording. Now He tells Moshe explicitly to take a totally different staff into his hand, not the staff which recently turned into a crocodile before Pharaoh, but rather "the staff that was turned into a serpent", which is the staff Moshe took with him from the desert after the divine encounter at the burning bush! This is the Matteh haElokim (4:20), the staff of God, and this and only this staff should be used for the Ten Plagues. Now the rules of the game have changed. The plagues which are about to fall upon Pharaoh and his nation don't derive from a "God of the Nile" who they were familiar with. Rather the "God of the Hebrews" awaits his chosen people to serve him "in the desert". Now the time has come to introduce to the Egyptians a totally new dimension of Deity. The divine perception of Ancient Egypt was entwined by the vitality of water, the life-giving Nile and the crocodile which lives in it. However The God of the Jews is "at home" in the desert, in a place where nature doesn't admit any life – because He is above nature.

Even though crocodiles have big jaws, the main way they overcome and kill other animals is by dragging and drowning them into the depths of the waters. In this light, the continuation of our Haftara is even more powerful: "And I will put hooks in your jaws… and I will drag you up out of the midst of your rivers… and I will scatter you in the desert…; upon the open fields shall you fall" (Yehezkel 29: 4-5). The God of the Jews drags the Egyptian Nile God out of his secure fluid territory up onto the dry lands of the desert, "…and all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the Lord".