Exodus 7:9 The Tannîn

Exodus 7:9 The Tannîn

Yoel Halevi No Comments

It is an established concept that words in Biblical Hebrew may mean more than one thing, while others can mean only one. In the following paper, I will examine the word Tannin used in Exodus 7:9 and see if this specific word has been treated correctly by translations and commentaries and rendered as “snake”.

The Verses in question

כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין

This verse has been translated in a relatively consistent way in multiple translations:

“When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, ‘Show a miracle for yourselves,’ then thou shalt say unto Aaron, ‘Take thy rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.’” (KJ21)

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miraculous sign,’ then you are to say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it in front of Pharaoh.’ It will become a serpent.” (ISV)

“When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Work a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, so that it may turn into a serpent.’” (NASB)

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Do a miracle,’ and you say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ it will become a snake.”(NET)

These are just examples and there are many translations. The question presented is the last word in the Hebrew Tannin translated correctly. In three translations we can see the word “serpent” while in the last the word is translated as “snake”. It stands to reason that the intent of each translation is the same and they are all referring to the concept of the modern-day snake of the suborder of “Serpentes” of the order Squamata. 

Dictionary (BDB, HALOT, Kedari)

The dictionaries give several proposals for the word Tannin:

  1. Snake
  2. Crocodile 
  3. Sea Monster 
  4. The Greek LXX uses the word δράκων (drakōn) which is a mythological beast.
  5. In many Semitic languages “worm”. 

Commentaries

  1. Traditional Jewish commentaries such as Rashi and others go with the interpretation of Snake. The Aramaic Targum uses תנינא, a word that is different than the usual word for snake חיויא and is phonetically equivalent to Hebrew. Rav Se’adya uses words that indicate a reptile which is not a sanke. 
  2. Scholarly works are divided up on this matter. Propp shows that some modern scholars interpret the word as snake, and in particular a cobra because of a need to differentiate between the Tannin and Naḥash. Others attempted to harmonize the text with Exo 3:4 and 7:14-25 where a staff is used to perform miracles. Others such as Grossmann (1913) and Cassuto (1952) interpret the word Tannin as a crocodile (Propp, 1999, 322). 

The problem with harmonization

As can be seen, some commentaries follow the idea that the Tannin was a snake based on a harmonization of the text due to so-called themes regarding the staff. The idea standing behind these commentaries is that a staff reappears in the next section. 

לֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר וְהַמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לְנָחָשׁ תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ…

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים

Go to Pharaoh in the morning ]just as he is going out to the water, and position yourself to meet him on the bank of the Nile; and you shall take in your hand the staff that was turned into a serpent… Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and extend your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, so that they may become blood; and there will be blood through all the land of Egypt, both in containers of wood and in containers of stone.’” (Exo 7:15, 19)

The narrative of the plague of blood instructs Moses to hold the staff, previously transformed into a snake. Nevertheless, the directive does not explicitly specify the utilization of the staff; Moses is merely instructed to keep the original staff in his hand. In the execution of the plague of blood, it is noteworthy that Aaron’s staff is employed, not the one that had undergone the transformation into a snake. The potential for misinterpretation arises from the assumption that the staff referred to in the preceding account is the same as the one utilized here. However, upon careful examination, a clear distinction emerges, revealing the substitution of Aaron’s staff in this instance.

The use of the second-person personal pronominal suffix, “your,” in Moses’ address to Aaron, indicates the specific identification of the staff as “your staff, Aaron,” as opposed to “my staff” or simply “the staff.” This linguistic nuance underscores the existence of two distinct staffs in play. Importantly, the staff that transformed into a snake in Exodus 3:4 is not identical to the one that manifested as a Tannin in 7:9. This refutes attempts by various commentators to reconcile the two staffs and assert that one staff exclusively underwent a snake transformation. The narratives are shown to be independent of each other, featuring distinct objects and miraculous events. The fulfillment of the sign of the snake occurred in 4:30, and a subsequent command was issued to Moses in chapter 7.

Tannin in other places in the Bible

The word Tannin (Tannim) appears in different variations 26 times in the Hebrew Bible. In some cases, it seems that it is a reference to the jackal (Greenstein, 2019, p.128) and not a reptile (Isa 13:22, 34:13, 43:20, Jer 14:6, 51:37, Micha 1:8, Ps 91:13, Job 30:29). In other places Tannin is a mythological beast which dwells at sea and is an enemy of YHWH (Gen 1:21, Is 27:1, 51:9, Ps 44:20, 74:13, 148:7, Job 7:12). Only in Is 35:7, Jer 51:34 and Eze 29:3 there is no doubt that these are crocodiles. We can see from the distribution of the word Tannin/Tannim that it is not always a snake and in most cases is not even a reptile. 

Special attention needs to be given to Jer 51:34 Eze 29:3 where the king of Babylon and Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time are compared to a devouring crocodile. 

אֲכָלַנִי (אכלנו) הֲמָמַנִי (הממנו) נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל [הִצִּיגַנִי] (הציגנו) כְּלִי רִיק בְּלָעַנִי (בלענו( כַּתַּנִּין מִלָּא כְרֵשׂוֹ מֵעֲדָנָי [הֱדִיחָנִי] (הדיחנו(

“Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me; he has crushed me; he has made me an empty vessel he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his stomach with my delicacies; he has rinsed me out.

דַּבֵּר וְאָמַרְתָּ כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יֱהֹוִה הִנְנִי עָלֶיךָ פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם הַתַּנִּים הַגָּדוֹל הָרֹבֵץ בְּתוֹךְ יְאֹרָיו אֲשֶׁר אָמַר לִי יְאֹרִי וַאֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִנִי.

speak, and say, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his streams,that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’

The recurring motif of exerting control over formidable entities, symbolized by the king/crocodile, serves as a thematic representation of power in YHWH’s dealings with mighty rulers. Despite the inherent danger and seemingly insatiable nature of these powerful figures, YHWH demonstrates the ability to subdue and govern them. This thematic thread aligns seamlessly with the sign presented to Pharaoh by Aaron, transcending the mere notion that YHWH can rival the magical prowess of the sorcerers. It extends to the profound concept that YHWH possesses the capacity and determination to overcome Pharaoh, who arrogantly perceived himself as a deity. 

amat- חמת

One argument supporting the interpretation of the Tannin as a snake relies on the use of the term “ḥamat,” translated as “venom.” This word carries a consistent meaning across cognate languages, such as “ḥmt” in Ugaritic and “imtu” in Akkadian. The presence of this shared linguistic concept strengthens the case for associating the Tannin with a snake in the context of the argument.

The specific case in from the poetic fraise in Deut 32:33. 

חֲמַת תַּנִּינִם יֵינָם וְרֹאשׁ פְּתָנִים אַכְזָר

their wine is the poison of serpents
    and the cruel venom of asps.

In this particular instance, the presence of both Tanninim and “ḥamat” is noteworthy. This verse has been employed to assert that Tannin refers to a snake. The verse is constructed as a synonymous parallel, explicitly indicating that both Tanninim and Pȇtanim are categorically types of snakes. The term “ḥamat” is positioned in parallel with “rō’š,” signifying poison, thereby reinforcing the interpretation that this is indicative of a snake bite accompanied by venom (Tigay, 2016, p.786).

Other verses show that snakes have ḥamat:

מְזֵי רָעָב וּלְחֻמֵי רֶשֶׁף וְקֶטֶב מְרִירִי וְשֶׁן בְּהֵמֹת אֲשַׁלַּח בָּם עִם חֲמַת זֹחֲלֵי עָפָר

they shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence; I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust (Deut 32:24)

חֲמַת לָמוֹ כִּדְמוּת חֲמַת נָחָשׁ כְּמוֹ פֶתֶן חֵרֵשׁ יַאְטֵם אׇזְנוֹ 

They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
    like the deaf adder that stops its ear (Ps 58:5 (4)

שָׁנְנוּ לְשׁוֹנָם כְּמוֹ נָחָשׁ חֲמַת עַכְשׁוּב תַּחַת שְׂפָתֵימוֹ סֶלָה

They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s,
    and under their lips is the venom of asps, Selah (Ps 140:4 (3)

Nevertheless, the challenge arises from the poetic nature of the text, making it problematic to directly apply poetic language when interpreting narrative elements. Poetry often employs words with nuances distinct from those in narratives, introducing potential discrepancies in dialect and usage. While it is accurate that “ḥamat” can indeed denote venom in certain contexts, it is essential to recognize that the same word may also convey the meanings of “wrath” or “violence.” For instance, both humans and creatures, not necessarily identified as snakes, may exhibit “ḥamat.”

יוֹם מַלְכֵּנוּ הֶחֱלוּ שָׂרִים חֲמַת מִיָּיִן מָשַׁךְ יָדוֹ אֶת לֹצְצִים.

On the day of our king, the princes
    became sick with the heat of wine;
    he stretched out his hand with mockers (Hos 7:5).

כִּי קִנְאָה חֲמַת גָּבֶר וְלֹא יַחְמוֹל בְּיוֹם נָקָם.

For jealousy makes a man furious,
    and he will not spare when he takes revenge (Prov 6:34).

חֲמַת מֶלֶךְ מַלְאֲכֵי מָוֶת וְאִישׁ חָכָם יְכַפְּרֶנָּה.

A king’s wrath is a messenger of death,
    and a wise man will appease it (Prov 16:14).

In the same chapter, specifically in verse 32:24, the motif of biting is expressed through the use of the term “ḥamat,” associated with a variety of creatures. Tigay interpreted this as referring exclusively to snakes (Tigay, 2016, p. 782). However, the term “zoḥale ‘aph’ar” (dirt crawlers) is expansively broad, encompassing numerous creatures exhibiting “ḥamat,” not solely limited to snakes. While the genitive “zoḥale ‘aph’ar” is a hapax legomenon in the Bible, and the root זח״ל is exceptionally rare (appearing only three times), it might be tempting to conclude that it exclusively refers to snakes. This notion is reinforced by Micah 7:17, which draws a parallel between the snake and “zoḥale ‘ereṣ,” where the second term, “land,” is synonymous with dirt. However, the verb זח״ל serves as a parallel to הל״ך, used for all creatures that move on the earth, including snakes (Gen 3:14, Lev 11:42), and could potentially encompass anything capable of biting and possibly delivering venom.

What do you mean by “Snake”?

The term “snake,” as defined by the online etymological dictionary, traces its roots to Old English “snaca,” derived from the Proto-Germanic *snakon, which is also the source for Old Norse “snakr” and German “Schnake,” all signifying “ring snake.” This term, rooted in the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root *sneg- meaning “to crawl” or “creeping thing,” gradually replaced “serpent” in popular use in Modern English. Notably, Old English translations often rendered the term not as “snake” but as “adder” or “serpent.”

Whanne Farao schal seie to you, Schewe ye signes to vs, thou schalt seie to Aaron, Take thi yerde, and caste forth it before Farao, and be it turned into a serpent (Wycliffe).

Whanne Pharao shal say to you, Shew to us signes, thow shalt sey to Aaron, Tak thin 3erde, and throw it bifore Pha- rao, and be it turned into a bosk eddre (Forshall).

However, the source of these old translations is the Vulgate:

cum dixerit vobis Pharao ostendite signa dices ad Aaron tolle virgam tuam et proice eam coram Pharao ac vertatur in colubrum

Jerome’s proficiency in Hebrew has been questioned by scholars, with indications that his knowledge of the language was likely limited (Froehlich, 2014, pp.31-32), despite his claims. It appears that Jerome employed the term “colubrum” to translate the Hebrew word “naḥaš” as snake or serpent, not necessarily due to an actual understanding of Hebrew but rather influenced by common Jewish interpretations (Bruce, 1988, p. 89). At this time, many Jews relied on traditions rather than a comprehensive grasp of the Hebrew language. Jerome’s translation set a precedent, influencing subsequent translations to follow suit and adopt the same terminology without critical discrimination.

Even if one chooses to translate “naḥaš” as “snake,” the inherent ambiguity persists. The concept of a snake in the Hebrew Bible encompasses not only a creature resembling a modern snake but also a sea monster and variations like Leviathan. Therefore, the term “snake” introduces interpretive challenges.

This linguistic complexity is not unique to Hebrew. An analogy can be drawn from European mythology, where serpents are depicted as creatures such as dragons and the world serpent in Scandinavian cultures. These mythological serpents, although resembling large snakes, are often portrayed with legs. Consequently, the question arises as to whether European languages genuinely distinguish the term “snake” from other serpent-like creatures, or if they encounter a similar complexity as with the Hebrew term “Tannin.” The contemporary notion of a snake as a specific reptile is a modern concept and may not accurately represent the historical use of the term in original English. Consequently, translations heavily reliant on the King James Version, which many English translations use as a foundation, may perpetuate interpretations rooted in old English concepts based on Indo-European language usage. Consequently, even the term “snake” can carry an undetermined meaning, encompassing a range of reptilian creatures.

The comparison to Exodus 4:3-5 the snake is for Israel

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְהוָה ]מזה [מַה זֶּה בְיָדֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר מַטֶּה.  וַיֹּאמֶר הַשְׁלִיכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ וַיָּנָס מֹשֶׁה מִפָּנָיו. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה שְׁלַח יָדְךָ וֶאֱחֹז בִּזְנָבוֹ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק בּוֹ וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ.  לְמַעַן יַאֲמִינוּ כִּי נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתָם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.

The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it turned into a serpent; and Moses fled from it.  But the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out with your hand and grasp it by its tail”—so he reached out with his hand and caught it, and it turned into a staff in his hand “so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

The incident detailed in these verses marks the inaugural instance where Moses employs his staff. The narrative establishes the profound concept that a staff, through the will of YHWH, can metamorphose into a living being. The transformation of the staff into a snake serves as tangible proof before the Israelites that YHWH has sent Moses and is the God of their forefathers. Importantly, there is no indication in this text that Moses is to perform the act of turning the staff into a snake before Pharaoh.

The subsequent act of transforming the staff into a crocodile is introduced in a distinct commandment and involves a different staff. This distinction is underscored in chapter 7, where YHWH instructs Moses to take the specific staff that had been transformed into a snake, referencing the earlier event, but then directs him to use Aaron’s staff when performing the sign. Consequently, the event of turning Moses’s staff into a snake is not synonymous with the occurrence of turning Aaron’s staff into a crocodile. This differentiation is further emphasized by the need for Moses to receive a separate command to approach Pharaoh, as the new sign requires independent introduction and is not contingent upon the initial event.

Egyptian Context -Crocodile of death 

A potential contextual background for the imagery of the crocodile as a symbol of death in Egyptian mythology can be considered.

In Ezekiel, Pharaoh is described as a “Tanim,” a variant of the word “Tannin,” featuring the West Semitic suffix “-mi” instead of the more commonly seen “-ni” (SED, tvnnvn, p.292). Ezekiel portrays Pharaoh as a “Tanim” in the Yȇ’or, referring to the Nile. While the Nile harbors various creatures, the closest association with a “Tanim” would be the crocodile, the sole reptilian creature capable of agitating and muddying the river.

The crocodile held a position of fear in Egyptian culture, perceived as one of the most formidable creatures in the Nile. It was depicted as a voracious and threatening beast, posing a danger to anyone in proximity. In the Book of the Dead (Chapter 31), the crocodile is even portrayed as a threat to the deceased, devouring the magical vestments enabling them to transition to the netherworld and the field of reeds. The act of devouring is a common descriptor for the crocodile in Egyptian literature. The Hebrew verb “בלע” (bal’a), used to describe Aaron’s staff devouring the staffs of the magicians, is cognate to the Egyptian verb “sẖb.” Egyptian hieroglyphs frequently employed the verb “msḥ” (gluttony) to depict the crocodile and individuals characterized as gluttons. Thus, the imagery of the crocodile devouring the magicians’ staffs seamlessly integrates with Egyptian cultural representations (Galpaz-Feller, 2002, p.77-78).

Cassuto adds another layer to this discussion by referencing an Egyptian legend about a magician creating a crocodile out of wax and bringing it to life. This act would have been familiar to the Egyptians, and its inclusion in the narrative conveys a powerful message. The underlying message suggests that regardless of the magic employed by the Egyptians, YHWH can surpass them with His divine power, transforming anything into whatever He desires (Cassuto, 1988, p. 29, 63).

Adapting Mythology- the great serpent/dragon/Satan

As a final point, I would like to propose the following observation. The translation of Tannin as “snake” not only relies on the general meaning of Tannin and snake but also reflects a theological inclination. There seems to be a deliberate effort to link the snake in Exodus with the serpent in Genesis, identifying the Tannin with the mythological aspects surrounding sin and the adversaries of YHWH. This theological interpretation is echoed in the words of Tertullian, as exemplified in the following extensive quote for context:

“This imposture of the evil spirit lying concealed in the persons of the dead, we are able, if I mistake not, to prove by actual facts, when in cases of exorcism (the evil spirit) affirms himself sometimes to be one of the relatives of the person possessed by him, sometimes a gladiator or a bestiarius, and sometimes even a god; always making it one of his chief cares to extinguish the very truth which we are proclaiming, that men may not readily believe that all souls remove to Hades, and that they may overthrow faith in the resurrection and the judgment… The serpents which emerged from the magicians’ rods certainly appeared to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians as bodily substances. It is true that the verity of Moses swallowed up their lying deceit” (Chapter LVII. —Magic and Sorcery Only Apparent in Their Effects. God Alone Can Raise the Dead).

Tertullian draws parallels between the concepts of demons, deception, and snakes, evoking the imagery of the serpent in the garden, considered the origin of all deceit and sin. The writer employs a common technique of illusion, indirectly implying that it must be the snake/devil responsible for these deceptive acts.

Conclusion

The multifaceted nature of the Hebrew word Tannin, encompassing meanings such as “crocodile” and other large reptiles, has contributed to the challenge of translation. The preference for interpreting Tannin as “snake” in English translations, particularly evident in the works of Jerome, appears to stem from an attempt to harmonize distinct events in the Exodus narratives and align them with theological themes. This translation choice, however, does not fully capture the breadth of Tannin’s original meaning.

The theological inclination to connect the snake imagery in Exodus with the serpent in Genesis, as demonstrated in the writings of Tertullian, introduces an interpretive layer that extends beyond the linguistic ambiguity of the term. This effort to associate Tannin with the symbolic representation of sin and adversaries of YHWH reflects a broader theological framework.

Ultimately, the translation challenges surrounding Tannin underscore the intricate interplay between linguistic ambiguity, historical context, and theological interpretation. Recognizing the diverse meanings of Tannin in Hebrew, including its modern usage as “crocodile,” allows for a more nuanced understanding of the biblical narratives and the linguistic choices made in their interpretation.

Selected Bibliography

Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, Illinois, 1988.

Cassuto, U. A commamtary On the Book of Exodus, (Hebrew) Jerusalem, 1987.

Froehlich, Karlfried, Sensing the Scriptures: Aminadab’s Chariot and the Predicament of Biblical Interpertation, Grand Rapids, 2014.

Galpaz-Feller, Pnina, Exodus-Reality of Illusions, (Hebrew)Tel Aviv, 2002.

Greenstein, Edward L., Job a New Translation, Yale: Grand Rapids, 2019.

Militarev, Alexander, Kogan, Leonid, Semitic Etymological Dictionary vol. II Animal Names, Münster: Germany, 2005.

Tigay, Jeffrey H., Deuteronomy Introduction and Commentary, Vol. Two XVI:18-XXXIV:12, (Hebrew) Jerusalem: Tel Aviv, 2016.

Propp, William H.C., Exodus 1-18, Yale: New York, 1999.

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