A tale of two staffs  

Why two different words for the reptiles that the two staffs were transformed into?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism נחשים
Last week’s parashah, Shmot, recounted how Moses had first encountered G-d, Who had dispatched Moses on his mission to redeem the nation of Israel. When Moses demurred, doubting whether the Jews would believe that he really had been sent by G-d, He gave him a sign to perform: “Hashem said to him: What is that in your hand? And he said: A staff. And He said: Cast it on the ground! So he cast it on the ground, and it became a snake” (Exodus 4:2-3).

This week’s parashah recounts the riposte. G-d sent Moses and his brother Aaron to confront Pharaoh with the demand to send out the Children of Israel. And when confronting Pharaoh, the staff and its transformation was again a major theme.


But there are two important differences between the two events. The first is that in the interaction between G-d and Moses at the burning bush, it was Moses’s staff that was transformed. When Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh it was Aaron’s staff that was transformed. G-d told Moses: “Say to Aaron, Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:9).


The second difference is the animal that the staffs were transformed into. Moses’s staff at the burning bush was transformed into a נָחָשׁ, nahash – a snake. Aaron’s staff in Pharaoh’s palace was transformed into a תַּנִּין, tannin – a crocodile.


This difference is often lost in translation: the JPS translation, for example, renders both נָחָשׁ (Exodus 4:3) and תַּנִּין (7:9) as “serpent”; ArtScroll translates them both as “snake”; the Margolin Edition translates נָחָשׁ as “snake” and תַּנִּין as “serpent” – as though the words are synonymous.


This is not as unfounded as it seems: Rashi interprets תַּנִּין in Exodus 7:9 to mean “snake”; and Targum Yonatan renders נָחָשׁ (4:3) into Aramaic as חִוְיָא (snake), and תַּנִּין (7:9) as חִיוִי חוּרְמַן, “poisonous snake”. Several Midrashic and Talmudic sources (such as Sh’mot Rabbah 3:12, Lekach Tov on Exodus 7:9, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 43, and others) also imply that נָחָשׁ and תַּנִּין are synonymous.


However, the fact remains that the Torah uses two distinctly separate words in these two instances. According to the simple reading of the text Moses’s staff turned into a snake and Aaron’s staff turned into a crocodile, and “no Scriptural verse leaves its plain literal meaning” (Shabbat 63a, Yevamot 11b et. al.).


According to the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), the word תַּנִּין applies to two different species: “Those mentioned on the land are a kind of species of snake, and those mentioned in the water are a kind of species of huge fish which resembles a snake” (Sefer ha-Shorashim, entry תנן).


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946), in his commentary to Exodus 7:9, writes that “the Hebrew tannin denotes any large reptile, sea or river monster, and more especially the crocodile, as the symbol of Egypt”.


Commensurate with this, the S’forno (commentary to Exodus 4:3), the Ibn Ezra (commentary to Exodus 4:17 and 7:10), the Ramban (commentary to Exodus 4:21), the Malbim (commentary to Exodus 7:15) and others distinguish between the נָחָשׁ (snake) which Moses’s staff became and the תַּנִּין (crocodile) which Aaron’s staff became.


The Ibn Ezra, for example, explains the word הָאֹתֹת, “the signs” (Exodus 4:17) to mean that the staff “turned into a snake in the sight of Israel and a crocodile in front of Pharaoh” – that is to say, there were two separate signs (hence the word “signs” in the plural). And later, when Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh, and Aaron cast his staff onto the ground (Exodus 7:10), the Ibn Ezra comments that “this, too, was a miracle – that the staff turned into a crocodile, which was unlike the miracle that He performed for Israel, when it only turned into a snake”.


Why the difference?


Let us begin our answer with a question: When G-d first charged Moses with the task of redeeming the Jewish nation and he doubted that they would believe him (Exodus 4:1-5), why did G-d use the transformation of the staff into a snake as a sign? What kind of faith can be based on a conjuring trick? Transforming a staff into a snake? Well, yes, impressive, but Pharaoh’s magicians matched it. Indeed plenty of stage magicians can probably do better.


In fact, when G-d transformed Moses’s staff into a snake, He was giving an important coded message. Several Midrashim (for example Sechel Tov on Exodus 4:3, Sh’mot Rabbah 3:12, and Tanhuma, Sh’mot 23 among others) explain that the snake is the symbol of lashon ha-ra, evil speech, slander. When Moses had argued that “they [the Children of Israel] will not believe me” (Exodus 4:1) he had slandered them unjustly, and G-d implicitly reprimanded him by transforming his staff into a snake.


Hence the transformation of staff into snake (which sign Moses did not have to do for the Children of Israel) was intended not as a miracle for Israel to make them believe, but rather as a reprimand to Moses for this unwarranted slander.


Transforming Aaron’s staff into a crocodile was also symbolic: as several Midrashim (for example Sechel Tov on Exodus 7:9, Sh’mot Rabbah 3:12, and Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 181 among others) explain, the crocodile represents Egypt and Pharaoh, following “Thus says Hashem G-d: I am hereby against you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile” (Ezekiel 29:3).


By transforming his staff into a crocodile, Aaron challenged Pharaoh and Egypt. And when Pharaoh’s magicians reproduced the sign by transforming their own staffs into crocodiles and Aaron’s crocodile ate theirs (Exodus 7:10-12), he allegorised Pharaoh and the Egyptians’ inevitable defeat at the hand of Israel.


In the words of the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), “he allegorically demonstrated to him that just as this crocodile returned to being dry wood, so too Pharaoh would return to being dust and rotting [flesh] and worms”. Or as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) expressed it two-thirds of a millennium later, “This sign says to Pharaoh, ‘You and your gods are no more than a stick in my hand’”.


It is intriguing, then, to note in this context that in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the god Sobek – the god of pharaonic power, fertility, and military prowess and who was supposed to provide protection against malignant forces – was written either as a crocodile on a shrine or as a mummified crocodile; also that the hieroglyph for a generic pharaoh was a pair of crocodiles.


Why was it Aaron’s staff rather than Moses’s which G-d transformed into a crocodile?


I suggest that we can extrapolate the answer from the Midrashic explanation of why G-d told Moses to tell Aaron to use his staff to transform the waters of the River Nile into blood (Exodus 7:19), to bring the frogs up from the rivers (8:1), and to smite the dust of Egypt that it turn into lice (8:12). Why Aaron with his staff, and not Moses with his staff?


The waters of Egypt had protected Moses when, as a helpless baby, the ark in which he lay floated peacefully on the River Nile. Thus it was not appropriate for Moses, whose life had been saved by the waters, to then smite those waters, either by turning them to blood or by bringing forth the frogs. Smiting the waters was left to Aaron.


Similarly, when Moses had killed the Egyptian slave-driver for beating the Jewish slave (Exodus 2:11-12), he hid the corpse in the sand, giving him time to avoid detection for the time it took him to escape from Egypt. It was thus equally inappropriate for Moses to smite the dust of Egypt by turning it to lice; that, too, was left to Aaron and his staff (Sh’mot Rabbah 9:10, 10:4, 10:6; Tanhuma, Va’eira 14).


And extrapolating from this, it is consistent that it was inappropriate for Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s palace, fed and clothed, educated and protected, by the Egyptian royal house, to have his staff transformed into a crocodile, for him to show how Egyptian royalty was no more than a piece of dead wood.


Moses owed some residual loyalty to the Egyptian royal house which had rescued and raised him as an infant.


The trend emerges that Moses’s staff was designated to perform wonders for Israel, while Aaron’s staff was designated to perform wonders for the Egyptians. So complementing this, when Israel stood at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and the remnants of the Egyptian army closing in on them, G-d told Moses – not Aaron – to stretch forth his staff over the waters to split the sea for Israel (Exodus 14:15-16).


Likewise when battling Amalek, it was Moses who stood “with the Staff of G-d in my hand” (Exodus 17:9).


And one final thought about Moses’s and Aaron’s staffs. Aaron was the leader whose overriding characteristic was peace, whose most powerful instinct was his love of peace. “Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). The Talmud and the Mdrashim are replete with stories of how Aaron would do anything for the sake of peace.


This was the contrast between Moses and Aaron: “Moses would say: Let the law [i.e. strict justice] pierce the mountain! Whereas Aaron loved peace and pursued peace, always bringing peace between man and his fellow” (Sanhedrin 6b).


Moses kept the nation in line through justice, while Aaron kept them in line through peace and love of peace:


“Whenever Aaron would walk along the way and encounter an evil man, he would greet him with peace. If the next day that same man would consider committing any sin, he would say to himself: Woe is me! How will I be able to raise my eyes after doing this and look Aaron in the face?! I would be so ashamed before him, since he greeted me with peace! And consequently, that man would restrain himself from sinning” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3).


Therefore when it came to striking against a truly evil nation, enemies of Israel, Aaron was the right man for the job, and his staff was the right tool for the job. Moses, the man of strict justice, was not the right man to bring plagues against Egypt: after all, what sin had the ordinary Egyptian civilian committed, that he deserved to be smitten with blood, frogs, or lice? Strict justice may have prevented the blanket condemnation of the nation.


It was Aaron, the supreme peacemaker, and his staff who had to bring these plagues upon Egypt. It was only Aaron who could teach us the message: If you want peace, then you have to destroy the enemy of Israel whose ambition is to exterminate Israel. That is the way to bring peace into the world – even, when necessary, when that entails suspending strict justice.