At the burning bush, in last week’s Torah portion (Shemot), God gives Moses his mission: to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses protests that the Israelites will not believe that their god appeared to him, so they will not listen to him. God responds by showing Moses two “signs” he can perform to demonstrate that God is with him.
God said to him: What is this in your hand? And he said: a matteh. Then (God) said: Throw it to the ground. So he threw it to the ground, and it became a nachash, and Moses fled from it. Then God said to Moses: Reach out your hand and grasp it by its tail. And he reached out his hand and he held it, and it became a matteh in his palm. (Exodus/Shemot 4:2-3)
matteh = staff, an official symbol of authority
nachash = snake, instrument of divination or bewitchment
Both a staff and a snake are phallic symbols, and I suspect the image of a snake stiffening into a staff when Moses holds it in his palm is a deliberate evocation of an erection. The staff and the snake represent two varieties of masculine creative power. God uses them to demonstrate, first to Moses and then to the Israelites, that the ultimate control over everything masculine belongs to God.
In the Torah, a staff is not only a stick used by a shepherd, but also a symbol of authority over a tribe or a country. Sometimes the twelve tribes of Israel are called mattot, staves. So I think that on another level, the staff-snake-staff transformation illustrates God’s power over both the bewitching snake in the Garden of Eden, and the twelve tribes that God will liberate from Egypt.
God shows Moses a second “sign” to use if the Israelites are insufficiently impressed by the first one. At God’s cue, Moses puts his hand into the front fold of his garment, and when he withdraws it, the hand is covered with dreaded skin disease tzara-at, “like snow”. Then he puts his hand back in, and pulls it out completely healed. The underlying message is that God controls both sickness and health.
Moses has to use both signs to convince the Israelites that he really is speaking for their god, but then they do believe him. Next, Moses and his brother Aaron ask the pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves take a three-day vacation and go into the wilderness to worship their god. They refer to God by God’s personal name, the four-letter name related to the verb meaning “to be” or “to become”. God has already told Moses that the pharaoh will refuse, and he does, saying that he does not know any god by that name.
The pharaoh then increases the workload of the Israelite slaves. When they protest, he says Moses’ vacation request proves they are lazy. So the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for their unpaid overtime.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (And I appeared), God tells Moses to speak to the pharaoh again, and adds:
When Pharoah speaks to you, saying “Give for yourselves a mofeit“, then say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh”. It will become a tannin. (Exodus 7:9)
mofeit = portent, marvel (from the same root as mefateyha = deceiving, persuading)
tannin = a giant reptile (such as a crocodile), a sea monster
The pharaoh says exactly what God predicts. Some commentary assumes that the pharaoh is refusing to listen to another request until Moses and Aaron prove to him that they are bona fide magicians for a god. But I agree with the 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who argued that the pharaoh is challenging Moses and Aaron to redeem their ruined reputation in public, by producing a wonder for themselves. He thinks that when they fail to produce a marvel, and his own magicians succeed, any whisper of a slave revolt will be nipped in the bud.
And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did thus, as God had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a tannin. Then Pharaoh also called for the sages and for the sorcerers, and they also, the diviners of Egypt, did thus with their flame-magic. And each one threw down his staff, and they became tanninim. And the staff of Aaron swallowed down their staffs. But Pharaoh’s heart was firm, and he did not listen to them, just as God had spoken. (Exodus 7:10-13)
Why does the staff become a snake for the Israelites, but a tannin for the pharaoh? One theory is that the crocodile was important to Egyptian religion. The transformation of a staff into a crocodile would remind Egyptians of their crocodile god, Sobek, who both created the Nile and gave strength to the pharaoh. In the Torah, Aaron’s crocodile confronts the pharaoh’s crocodiles. When Aaron’s swallows down all the others, it is an obvious omen that the god of Moses and Aaron will triumph over the pharaoh.
The Hebrew in the Torah implies that Aaron’s crocodile does not swallow down the others until after it has changed back into a staff. According to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, God arranges it that way because it is more impressive for an inanimate object to swallow things. The Midrash says the pharaoh is amazed, and afraid that the staff might swallow up him and his throne next. Nevertheless, he strengthens his psyche with firm resolve, the first of a series of heart-hardenings.
Modern Torah readers are familiar with the concept that God is omnipotent. The magic tricks that God arranges with a staff seem like a sideshow before the main action of the ten plagues begins. Yet it is necessary for Moses to prove to both the Israelites and the Egyptians that he really is speaking for a powerful god, and that his God is more powerful than any Egyptian god or Egyptian magic. Otherwise the Israelites will never follow him out of Egypt, and the pharaoh might attribute the plagues to other deities.
Therefore the staff is not Moses’ phallic symbol, nor Aaron’s. It is God’s phallic symbol, as God shows off to the simple-minded people in Egypt, from slave to monarch. It would be easy for me, as a feminist, to mock these crude displays of male power. Yet even today, that is what it takes to get some people’s attention.
Moses notices the subtle miracle of the bush that burned without being consumed. But not everyone is able to notice subtle cues and then question their views of reality. In the Torah, the pharaoh does not give up on his assumption that he must keep his slaves until he is hit with the death of his own first-born son. I know people like that today.
I do not know how much I can notice subtle cues and change my approach to life accordingly, and how much I am mired in habits of thought I do not even recognize. But I hope–and I pray–that I will become more like Moses than like either the Israelites or the pharaoh. I’d like to wake up without being hit by either a disaster or a phallic symbol.