When God informs him that he’s been chosen to lead his nation out of Egypt, Moses expresses his opposition, arguing, “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The Lord hath not appeared unto thee” (Exodus 4:1).
In response, God provides Moses with the miraculous sign of the snake: “And the Lord said unto him: ‘What is that in thy hand?’ And he said: ‘A rod.’ And He said: ‘Cast it on the ground.’ And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Put forth thy hand, and take it by the tail and he put forth his hand, and laid hold of it, and it became a rod in his hand 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, hath appeared unto thee’” (Exod. 4:2-5).
The image of the staff that turns into a snake fired the imagination of the sages, who saw it as a symbol of the power relationship between Moses, God and Pharaoh. With regard to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), the first portion in the Book of Exodus, Midrash Tanhuma cites a verse from Isaiah, “Declaring the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), according to which God alludes in the very beginning of the story to what will transpire only later.
Midrash Tanhuma explains: “God told Moses in the burning bush scene what Pharaoh will do in the future. He asked Moses, ‘What is that in thy hand?’ And he said: ‘A rod.’ And He said: ‘Cast it on the ground.’ And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Put forth thy hand, and take it by the tail.’ whereupon the snake changed back to a staff. God told Moses, ‘Just as the snake twists and turns, similarly Pharaoh will twist and turn against all of you,’ as it is written, ‘Declaring the end from the beginning’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Buber Edition, Parashat Va’era: 11).
According to this midrash, the wriggling of the snake alludes to what will happen in the end to Pharaoh: The Egyptian ruler will “twist and turn against all of you” – that is, he will oppress the Children of Israel and torment them until God liberates them from their bondage in Egypt. In order to graphically illustrate what will happen in the future, God turns Moses’ staff into a snake.
A much more radical interpretation of the image of the snake appears in another version of this midrash, one that was found in the Cairo Genizah and is substantively different from the above-mentioned one: “It is written, ‘Declaring the end from the beginning.’ The scholars say that, when Moses stood before the burning bush, God showed how Pharaoh would twist and turn and stand up against him. Thus, God turned himself into a snake before Moses’ very eyes to show him what the future would bring: ‘Just as the snake twists and turns, similarly Pharaoh will twist and turn against you, Moses.’ God then said to Moses: ‘If he twists and turns against you, Moses, then stand up like a man and fight him’” (Genizah fragment from Midrash Tanhuma).
According to the latter version of the midrash, God wants to show Moses what will happen next in the narrative; here as well, the snake represents Pharaoh and the snake’s convolutions represent Pharaoh’s future opposition to Moses’ message concerning liberating the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt.
Mark Bergman, in his research study “The Literature of Tanhuma-Yelamdenu,” proposes that the latter version of the midrash, offers a surprising interpretation of the miraculous sign of the snake that is demonstrated before Moses’ very eyes. In Exodus 4:1, Moses argues that the Children of Israel will not believe him because, “they will say: The Lord hath not appeared unto thee.” Four verses later, the Torah states that the snake is turned back into the staff that Moses holds, so that the Children of Israel “may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.”
In the Genizah version of the midrash, claims Bergman, the purpose of the miraculous sign of the snake is not to demonstrate magic power but rather to enable Moses to see God, appearing in the form of a snake. After he witnesses God in this form, Moses can, in all sincerity, proclaim before the Children of Israel that he has seen the Almighty.
The homilist’s insistence that the snake is a configuration not of Moses’ staff but rather of God has serious theological ramifications. (Perhaps because of these ramifications, it was thought more appropriate to state that God transformed Moses’ staff into a snake, rather than to say that God transformed himself into one.)
Pharaoh challenges God’s authority because the Egyptian ruler sees himself as a divinity. In the Book of Ezekiel, Pharaoh is thought to say, “My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself,” and is described as “the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers” (Ezekiel 29:3)
According to the radical interpretation presented in this midrashic fragment, God uses the sign of the snake to teach Moses something about God’s own convolutions, which express an outlook that will not brook any opposition or any debate. The homilist argues that, for a brief moment, the staff Moses holds in his hand turns into God, who then plays the role of his own mortal enemy, and thus facilitates a dual representation – simultaneously, of God and of God’s enemy.
In this midrash, God ends the passage with some sound advice for Moses: “‘If he twists and turns against you, Moses, then stand up like a man and fight him, even if it means that you must not be afraid to grab the snake’s tail.’”
This radical homily thus argues that God gives Moses advice that will become very useful when he faces all the snakes that he will have to deal with in the future. According to the homilist, Moses will need such advice as he faces Pharaoh, as he will appear in upcoming weekly readings, and later on in the Torah – for instance, when Israel commits the sin of the Golden Calf and, in response, God unleashes his immense might – and as he faces the Almighty himself.