Thursday 25 July 2013

From the Deep - Aaron's Staff - Exodus 7

8 And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 

9 "When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying: 'Perform a wonder'; then say to Aaron: Take your staff, and cast it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a serpent (tanin)."

10 Then Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did just as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent (tanin).

ח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר: ט כִּי֩ יְדַבֵּ֨ר אֲלֵכֶ֤ם פַּרְעֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֧ח אֶֽת־מַטְּךָ֛ וְהַשְׁלֵ֥ךְ לִפְנֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה יְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין: י וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֔ן כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֣ה יְהוָֹ֑ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֨ךְ אַֽהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־מַטֵּ֗הוּ לִפְנֵ֥י פַרְעֹ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י עֲבָדָ֖יו וַיְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין:

Moses receives signs to show God's power both to the Israelites and then to Pharaoh, including the miraculous transformation of a staff into a serpent.

The original instruction for this miracle came in Exodus 4:3-4, in which Moses tells God that the Israelites won't listen to him, and God replies telling him to throw his staff on the ground where it becomes a snake. The word used here is nachash, which seems to clearly indicate a mundane snake, albeit transformed miraculously by the power of God.

But when it comes time to confront Pharaoh, the staff does not become a nachash but rather a tanin, the word that we have already seen in Genesis 1 last week refers to Sea Monsters, something monstrous and supernatural. Then all Pharaoh's sorcerer's repeat the trick, and their staffs also become serpents (taninim). But Aaron's staff swallows all the others, proving the supremacy of God.

Should we take this shift in language seriously? And if so, what does it mean that the staff became a tanin for Pharaoh and the Egyptians?

Rashi (the 11th century commentator) gives us a one word comment that speaks volumes. On the word tanin he writes simply 'nachash'.

Reading the verse according to its pshat, its contextual meaning, he compares ch7 to ch4 and concludes that the word tanin here simply means a normal snake. There is no real significance to the shift in language, simply a different word.

Nahum Sarna, in his JPS commentary, follows Rashi and argues that tanin is simply the general Biblical word for a large reptile, sometimes monstrous, sometimes not - and this will be a live question when we get to Ezekiel 29 and 32.

Luckily for 'From the Deep', not every commentator agrees.

The Bechor Shor (12th Century) connects this tanin to Ezekiel 29:3 (that we'll examine more closely in a few weeks), in which Pharaoh is compared to a tanin. He explains that the transformation of the staff into a tanin is a warning to Pharaoh himself, that just as the staffs of the magicians is swallowed by Aaron's staff, so too Pharaoh and his followers will be defeated by God.

Bechor Shor here takes the change in language to indicate a new idea, a particular message for the Egyptians, a threat encoded into the miracle, but he doesn't necessarily see the serpent as anything other than a natural beast.

Of all the commentators I've seen, only Richard Elliott Friedman, in his commentary on Exodus, actually draws on the mythological overtones of the word tanin. He writes:

"a serpent. Not a snake... This is different from the snake... that Moses' staff became in Exodus 4:3. Moses performed that miracle for the Israelite elders (4:30). Now, in front of Pharaoh, Aaron's staff becomes a tanin... They are not merely snakes, as people have often pictured them. They are extraordinary creatures from a seemingly unearthly realm."

Friedman sees the serpents of Ex7 as radically different from Ex4, monstrous, unearthly manifestations of the sea serpents of Gen 1 - perhaps even the primordial chaos monsters themselves, created from the staff of Aaron and the Egyptian sorcerers.

What does this all mean for us?

For Rashi and Sarna, the miracle of the staff is the transformation and the swallowing itself - the message is the power of God to defeat the sorcery of the Egyptians. For Bechor Shor, the miracle encodes a message for the audience, not just the power of the transformation, but the details of that event - the tanin, the swallowing. For Friedman, the creature that the staff becomes is itself supernatural, a monstrous, otherworldly creature.

Partly this argument is about how closely do we read the text - should we understand it contextually, or should we interpret any variations in language? When is a serpent a snake, and when is it a chaos monster?

But I want to suggest that for Bechor Shor and Friedman this confrontation with the Egyptian sorcerers is loaded with mythic symbolism. The Egyptians are associated with taninim, they are connected to the chaos monster as the enemy of Israel and God. God defeats them not by a greater level of order, but by a greater mastery of chaos. God's tanin is more powerful than theirs', when God brings forth the chaos monsters, none can stand against them.

Sometimes we think that chaos can only be defeated by order - that greater legislation is the key to crime, that a more rigorous schedule will stop me procrastinating - but sometimes the opposite is true. It takes a tanin to swallow a tanin - one single element of chaos to defeat the rest.

Summer camp is a good example. Sometimes the kids are just climbing the walls - maybe it's rain, maybe it's heat, maybe they didn't sleep last night - but they are running wild and out of control. In such a situation, more rules is not the way to go. What they might need is a way to let off steam - run around the block, play a game of football.

A focussed, controlled chaos can defeat the larger problem; a single tanin can swallow many others.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Psalm 74 - primordial combat between God and the sea monsters.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash. I've been burning the midnight oil to research Leviathan, and share with you the fruits of my labour.

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