#92. Does the staff turn into a snake OR a serpent? (Ex 4:3 vs Ex 7:9-10)

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Not only do the Elohist and Priestly sources disagree on whose staff we’re talking about: Moses’ or Aaron’s (#91), but they also use different terms when it comes to describing the serpent or snake it turns into. In E (4:3) the staff becomes a snake (nahash), but in P (7:10) it becomes a serpent (tannîn). Each author chose a different term, and the Priestly writer might have even had a reason for changing nahash to tannin.

Furthermore, in E it was supposed to be Moses who was to produce this sign with his own staff (4:17), but in matter of fact, in P (7:10, 7:19, 8:1) it is rather Aaron who produces the sign, and contrary to E’s account where Aaron performs the sign in front of “the children of Israel” (4:29-31), P claims that Aaron performed the sign with his own staff and in front of the Pharaoh and his servant (7:10)! But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. More about how and why P rewrote E in the forthcoming contradictions.

6 thoughts on “#92. Does the staff turn into a snake OR a serpent? (Ex 4:3 vs Ex 7:9-10)

  1. I’m inclined to speculate that the Priestly writer did have a motive in mind when he changed nahash to tannin, although that eludes me.

    Here’s a thought: Exodus 12:12, also from the P author, says: “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.”
    The P author has chosen to heighten the miracle by changing the nahash into a sea monster or dragon that swallows the monsters/dragons of the magicians, symbolizing the conquest of Yahweh over the Egyptians’ gods. Alternately, Peake’s Commentary on the Bible suggests that the tannin is a crocodile, which was a symbol of Egypt.

  2. What’s the difference between nahash and tannin? I’m pretty sure snake and serpent are interchangeable synonyms in English. Is this mostly an example of different styles of the different writers?

    1. Exactly Chris. I’m not sure, at least based on my novice level of Hebrew, if there is a distinction. Tannin, however, is quite an interesting word choice because it shows up in some older passages in Psalms and Job to describe sea serpents, perhaps even crocodiles, maybe even Rahab. But in general my decision to include this as a contradiction was more to highlight differences in vocabulary choices between textual traditions. So the context where we find nahash there is also talk of Moses’ rod and Yahweh commanding him to perform this trick in front of the Israelites. The context of the passage that uses the term tannin speaks now of Aaron’s rod and it is he who is commanded to perform this in front of Pharaoh. I’m inclined to speculate that the Priestly writer did have a motive in mind when he changed nahash to tannin, although that eludes me.

  3. A great site! Sir, how I wish you are addressing the best of the attempted harmonizations attempted by the fundamentalists for each of the contradictions you presented!

    1. Thanks Michael, glad you’re enjoying the site. In fact, I am attempting no more than to bring some clarity to this collection of texts we call the Bible by demonstrating how these texts interacted with one another, and by presenting the unique and competing claims and stories of the individual authors of these diverse and competing texts.

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