After God called Moses on Mount Sinai and sent him back to Egypt to bring the people out of their oppression, Moses presented himself before Pharaoh as God’s messenger, one appointed by God himself to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf.
But God warned Moses that Pharaoh would not listen to his voice, that he would harden his heart and would not allow the people to leave Egypt. God also warned Moses that Pharaoh would request a sign that Moses had the authority to speak of the behalf of the God of Israel. When that happened, God told Moses to perform a sign as a means of showing to Pharaoh that he spoke with authority. Gold told Moses:
“When Pharaoh says to you, Prove yourselves by working a miracle, then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’ So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD commanded; Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. For every man cast down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods” (Exodus 7:9-12).
On his new program, “Beasts of the Bible,” to be presented in the USA on Animal Planet, on Thursday, April 1st at 8:00 p.m. ET, Simcha Jacobovici, the Naked Archaeologist, said about Moses’ rod that became a snake:
“Did you know that, when facing Pharaoh, it is not Moses that throws down his staff; it is his brother Aaron and, according to the original Hebrew, it did not turn into a snake but a crocodile? Since the Egyptians worshipped the crocodile god – Sobek, when Aaron’s crocodile swallowed up the Egyptian crocodiles, Pharaoh understood that the God of Israel was more powerful than his entire pantheon. All this is lost if the Hebrew word ‘tanin’ is mistranslated as ‘snake’ instead of ‘crocodile.’”
Many readers of the Bible do not realize that two different words are used in the book of Exodus to describe what happened to Moses’ rod. The first word appears in Exodus 4:2-3. God told Moses:
“What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” Then God said, “Cast it on the ground.” So Moses cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.”
The word used for serpent in verse 3 is nāhāsh, a word that appears 41 times in the Hebrew Bible and is translated “serpent,” “snake,” or “viper.”
The second word is tannin and it is used three times in Exodus 7:9-12, in the passage quoted above. The word tannin has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew Bible. According to H. Niehr, in an article in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, the word tannin can be translated as “dragon,” “serpent,” “crocodile,” or “sea monster.” In addition, Niehr said that the tannin lives in the sea, lakes and rivers, and the netherworld.
In the creation context, the word tannin is associated with the battle between Yahweh and the forces of chaos: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters” (Psalm 74:13 ESV). The ESV translates the word tannin as “sea monsters” and the KJV translates the same word as “dragons.”
The word tannin is also used metaphorically to describe political powers, primarily leaders of nations who oppressed the Israelites.
In Ezekiel 29:3, the word tannin is used as a metaphor for Pharaoh who was sprawling in the middle of the Nile like a great sea monster, claiming that he made the Nile for himself:
Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon [tannin] that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’”
This metaphor is used again for Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32:2. God told Ezekiel:
Son of man, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: “You consider yourself a lion of the nations, but you are like a dragon [tannin] in the seas; you burst forth in your rivers, trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers.”
The same metaphor is also applied to Nebuchadnezzar, who like a monster [tannin], has swallowed Israel: “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 [tannin]” (Jeremiah 51:34).
In light of these and several other examples in the Hebrew Bible, the word tannin in Exodus 7:9-12 should be translated by something more monstrous than a “serpent.” John Durham, in his commentary on Exodus, translated the word tannin as “a monstrous snake” (p. 89). A. Cassuto, in his commentary on Exodus translated the word as “a crocodile” (p. 94-95).
A. Fuller, in his commentary on Exodus wrote:
A serpent. A word different from that in Exodus 4:3. Here a more general term, Tanniyn, is employed, which in other passages includes all sea or river monsters, and is more specially applied to the crocodile as a symbol of Egypt. It occurs in the Egyptian ritual, nearly in the same form, Tanem, as a synonym of the monster serpent which represents the principle of antagonism to light and life.
Douglas K. Steward, in his commentary on Exodus (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p. 195, quotes P. Galpaz-Feller who “suggests that the term [tannin] refers rather to the crocodile, an animal that in ancient Egyptian religion was understood as a voracious devourer and one who could devour magical spells. By this reasoning Aaron’s staff’s devouring of the other staffs was no accident but a symbol of the impending demise of Egyptian power in the face of Yahweh’s.”
Terence Fretheim, in his commentary on Exodus suggests that Pharaoh, who represents Egypt, “is an embodiment of the forces of chaos” (p. 106). Writing about the tannin of Moses swallowing the tanninim (the plural of tannin) of the magicians of Egypt, Fretheim wrote:
“This act functions as a sign of things to come in a very specific way: the fate of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. The only other use of the verb ‘swallow’ (bala‘) in Exodus occurs in 15:12, where it refers to the swallowing of the Egyptians in the depths of the earth beneath the sea . . . The seemingly innocuous reference to snake swallowing is thus an ominous sign for Pharaoh: it is a sign of his fate.”
Pharaoh’s obstinacy required a demonstration of divine power. The transformation of Moses’ rod into a tannin is what is generally called a miracle. Moses went before Pharaoh on a divine mission and for him to accomplish his mission, God gave him the power to make extraordinary signs for the purpose of demonstrating his authority and commission. Moses’ rod became a tannin for that purpose. Now, whether the rod became a serpent, a crocodile, or any other animal is difficult to know. However, the important truth of the sign Moses performed before Pharaoh was that because of the work of Moses and the outstretched arm of God, Israel came out of Egypt to become God’s people with a mission to the nations.
A. Cassuto, A Commentary of the Book of Exodus. Jerusalem: The Magness Press, 1967.
Durham, Exodus. Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1987.
Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Luisville: John Knox Press, 1991.
A. Fuller, Exodus-Ruth. Ages Digital Library. In loco.
H. Niehr, “tannin,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 15. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
Douglas K. Steward, Exodus. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary