The Sign of the Staff

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Sign of the Staff

By Rav Michael Hattin


Last week's Parasha concluded with the disheartening failure of Moshe and Aharon's first mission to Pharaoh. Unimpressed by their impassioned demand for the peoples' release, unmoved by their invocation of God's name, Pharaoh dismissed their words with disdain and escalated the harshness of the servitude. "That day, Pharaoh gave orders to the taskmasters and to the foremen: 'Do not give the people straw for bricks as before. Let them go and gather their own straw. The quota of bricks that they must make, however, shall remain the same as it was, and will not be lessened. They are indolent and therefore cry out that they want to go sacrifice to their God. Let the work be heavier upon them to occupy them, so that they are not distracted by lies!'"

Encountering the people after their unceremonious exit from Pharaoh's palace, Moshe and Aharon could only bear the brunt of their understandable anger and disappointment. "Let God see your deed and judge you both accordingly, for you have made us repugnant in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors; you have placed in their hands a sword to kill us!" Disgruntled, Moshe returned to God and cried out: "Oh Lord, why have You dealt harshly with this people, and why did You send me? From the time that I have come before Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has made conditions worse for them, and You have done nothing to save your people!" Though not denying the thrust of Moshe's harsh words, God responded: "Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send them forth, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land!"

Thus began the struggle between Pharaoh and the God of the Hebrews, in which Pharaoh's ongoing stubbornness was countered by progressively harsher and more wondrous plagues that eventually culminated in the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, a blow so grievous that Pharaoh finally capitulated. This unfolding and incremental process effectively accounts for the majority of the parashiyot of VaEra and Bo. It is characterized by a repeating formulaic pattern of Divine warning, Pharaonic refusal, pestilential visitation, Pharaonic acquiescence, relief from the affliction, and renewed noncompliance. Remarkably but not surprisingly, the human figure most cited in these sections in none other than Pharaoh himself.


There is, however, an introductory encounter that precedes the actual imposition of the plagues proper. After Moshe has been informed by God once again that Pharaoh will not acquiesce until the bitter end, the reluctant leader and his older brother are then handed their first remarkable sign:

God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon saying: When Pharaoh addresses you saying: "produce a wonder on your behalves," then you shall say to Aharon: "take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, so that it becomes a "taneen." Moshe and Aharon approached Pharaoh and they did as God commanded, and Aharon threw down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants and it became a "taneen." Pharaoh then called the wise men and the magicians, and the sorcerers of Egypt also did so with their spells. Each one of them threw down his staff and they became "taneeneem," but Aharon's staff (then) swallowed up theirs. Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he would not hearken to them, just as God had spoken (7:8-13).

What is the need for the sign of the "taneen" with the onset of the plagues just around the proverbial corner? How and why were the sorcerers able to immediately duplicate the remarkable feat that was calculated to highlight the omnipotence of the God of the Hebrews? And what, of course, was the "taneen" at all, the sign that was deliberately selected by the God of the Hebrews to constitute the opening salvo in His cosmic battle against the god king?


The classical commentaries are uncharacteristically silent concerning this passage, with most of them offering but a brief line or two of explanation. From among them, it is the Seforno (15th century, Italy) who offers the most plausible explanation for the necessity of the episode:

The purpose of the wonder is to indicate the power of the sender and that it is therefore appropriate to hearken to his voice, while the sign comes as evidence concerning the messenger. Therefore he (Moshe) did signs before the eyes of the people of Israel, for they did not doubt the power of the Sender or His ability, but only whether the messenger was in fact truly sent by Him. But Pharaoh who was doubtful about the Sender or even denied His existence, as he himself stated that "I do not know God" (5:2), asked for a wonder that would verify the power of the Sender, in order to indicate that it is appropriate to hearken to His voice. Furthermore, it is not impossible that a single thing could function as both a sign as well as a wonder for different people (commentary to 7:9).

The Seforno explains that the wonder of the "taneen" was neither necessarily enjoined by God nor enthusiastically initiated by Moshe but was rather precipitated by Pharaoh himself. Earlier, during the first visit of Moshe and Aharon to demand the release of the Hebrews, Pharaoh had remarked that he did not know or recognize God. But it soon became apparent (or so, at least, we must read the narrative according to Seforno's interpretation) that notwithstanding his imposition of even harder labor upon the hapless Israelites, their aged and wizened leaders were not about to give up. And so it was that Moshe and Aharon insisted upon another meeting with the monarch, to again press their claim for the people's release. This time, though, in order to forestall any further and time-consuming consultations, Pharaoh decided to test the potency of the so-called God of the Hebrews by demanding the performance of a wonder. This was in order to demonstrate to Moshe and Aharon once and for all (and by extension to the entire people of Israel who looked on expectantly) that they were nothing more than feeble figureheads of hapless slaves invoking the name of a similarly ineffectual and hopeless deity.

Moshe's signs to the people, on the other hand, earlier performed in their presence when he first returned to Egypt and proclaimed to them the imminence of the redemption (4:1-9; 29-31), were not meant to impress upon them God's grandeur – a concept that they were only too eager to embrace as the counterpoint to their own wretched existence. Rather, his signs of the stricken hand, the staff-cum-serpent, and the Nilotic waters turning blood red were calculated to bolster his own claims of being God's messenger, for it was Moshe's efficacy that they doubted and not the dignity of the message that he bore.


Seforno's perceptive remarks are of course inspired by the text itself, for while Moshe's signs to the people of Israel are invariably referred to as "ottot" (4:8-9, 28,30), the wonders of the "taneen" are always refers to as "moftim" (4:21; 7:9). Significantly for Seforno (as well as for his predecessors Rashi on 7:9 and the Karaite Yefet quoted by Ibn Ezra on 4:3), the "taneen" was none other than another version of the serpent that had constituted Moshe's first sign to the people. There, the text had referred to a "nachash" or serpent and here to a "taneen" but for this group of commentaries they are one and the same. It is not clear according to these commentaries why the text should use two different names to describe the same creature, especially in light of the fact that in the very next passage describing the plague of blood, God once again refers to Moshe's staff as "the staff that was transformed into a serpent" (7:15). Perhaps the "taneen" is a certain species of serpent that differs from the more generic "nachash."

There are at least two Biblical references that support the contention that the "taneen" is a type of serpent. The first is from the concluding chapters of the Book of Devarim. There, as Moshe describes in haunting song the providential history of the people of Israel and their ineluctable mission, he refers to the poison of the enemies that will seek to destroy them:

Their vines are from the vines of Sodom and from the fields of 'Amora, their grapes are grapes of bitterness and sour are their clusters. Their wine is the poison of the "taneeneem" and of the python's cruel venom…(Devarim 32:32-33).

Later, when the author of Chapter 91 of Tehillim wishes to highlight God's overarching protection of those that trust in Him, he relates:

For you God are my shelter, make the Most High your refuge. No evil shall befall you, no pestilence shall draw near to your dwelling. For He shall command His angels to guard you on all of your journeys. They shall bear you upon their hands, lest a stone smite your feet. You shall tread upon the lion and the python, and trample the whelp and the "taneen"…(Tehillim 91:9-13).

If in fact the "taneen" is a type of serpent, then to the mind of this author, the most plausible identification would be that of the cobra. This venomous elapid snake, indigenous to Africa as well as to Asia, is able when excited to expand the skin of its neck into a threatening hood-like form by movement of its anterior ribs. In ancient Egypt, the cobra was held in special esteem, and Pharaoh's graceful crown was encircled by a representation of this snake called the Uraeus. For the polytheistic Egyptians, the cobra was sacred to the goddess Buto, who was the patroness of Lower Egypt (i.e. the Delta). But Buto was often represented as a vulture, and the vulture was a personification of Nekhebet, the patroness of Upper Egypt. Thus the Uraeus that combined both the cobra and the vulture was a potent symbol for Pharaoh's unified rule over the Two Lands. The king himself was represented in the Uraeus by the sun disk, borne aloft by the wings of Nekhebet while protected by the fire-spitting tongue of Buto.

If so, then the significance of the episode would be painfully clear. Pharaoh seeks to lay to rest any claims of Moshe and Aharon that they speak in the name of an absolute and transcendent deity. This he aims to do by summoning them to a contest of sorts that he is certain his skilled magicians will win handily. But to his dismay, the aged Aharon casts down his staff which then becomes a cobra, signifying to the god king that his own iron rule is firmly in the grasp of the God of Israel. Pharaoh counters with cobras of his own, but they are devoured by that of Aharon, impressing upon the recalcitrant monarch that he will not prevail.


But the vast majority of the other ten or so uses of the term "taneeneem" seem to indicate not a serpent but rather some sort of sea creature. Thus, the sublime pageantry of the opening chapter of Bereishit speaks of God creating the denizens of the sea, even the "great taneeneem" that inhabit the depths (Bereishit 1:21). In the eschatological vision of Yeshayahu, when God will cleanse the earth of evil empires and of their minions, "He shall punish with His cruel and great and awesome sword the straight serpent Leviathan, and the twisted serpent Leviathan, and He shall slay the 'taneen' that is in the sea…" (Yeshayahu 27:1). Recalling the splitting of the Sea, the Psalter sings of God who in His power "smashed the sea in pieces and broke the heads of the 'taneeneem' upon the waters…" (Tehillim 74:13). Most tellingly, when the prophet Yechezkel of the late First Temple period wishes to describe the imminent demise of Egypt at the hands of the ascendant Babylonians, he personifies Pharaoh himself as "the great 'taneem' that crouches in the Nile, saying 'the Nile is mine and I have formed it'" (Yechezkel 29:3). The prophet then goes on to describe the "taneem" as possessing scales that will ensnare the fish of the Nile, a reference to all of the petty kingdoms that depended upon Egypt for protection against the Babylonian onslaught (including that of Yehuda!) and that will be overthrown by the same violent hands that will vanquish the Pharaoh.

A sea creature possessing scales, dwarfing the fish that share its domain, similar to a snake in appearance or else in life cycle, indigenous to Egypt and grand enough to serve as a metaphor for Pharaoh himself, can be a reference to only one thing: the menacing crocodile. This thick-skinned aquatic reptile, which can grow to over 6 meters in length and still inhabits small stretches of the Nile basin, has no natural predators. Lurking just below the waterline of the Nile, with only its carnelian eyes and flared nostrils protruding above the still and languid surface, the crocodile can suddenly seize even large land animals that pause to drink at river's edge, violently dragging them into the murky depths with its powerful jaws and then tearing them to shreds. It was a fitting metaphor indeed for a cruel and oppressive tyrant who demanded utter submission and would not brook any hesitation in the performance of his will. Once again, if the "taneen" is none other than a crocodile, then the wonder of Moshe and Aharon is calculated to emphasize to the arrogant god king that like the proverbial clay in the hands of the potter, so too is his vaunted might and regal power, symbolized by the ominous crocodile, like so much putty in God's hands.


Whether the "taneen" is identified as a serpent or as a crocodile, the message of this opening encounter is much the same. The invisible (and indivisible!) God of Israel will prevail, and the Hebrew slaves will be freed. Pharaoh, even before the onset of the plagues, is here given the opportunity to transform his obduracy, saving himself and his captive people much heartache and pain. But like most dictators ancient and modern, and not a few incorrigible human hearts that we are perhaps more personally familiar with, changing one's ways is no simple matter. It is not the physical transformation of one's life in space and time that represents the greatest challenge, but rather the transformation of the heart that must precede it. And like Pharaoh of old, we are stubborn, stubborn to hear God's gentle call and more stubborn still to implement it in our own lives. As we read the account of the Exodus, let us bear in mind it is not simply an ancient historical account of a people freed from bondage, but a perennially relevant story of existential slavery and freedom, for mighty Pharaoh's legacy of insensitivity still lives on in the world at large as well as in the microcosm of the human being. Our mission, then as now, is to battle against it and to prevail.

Shabbat Shalom