Mordechai Silverstein

Evil Will Slink Away Like A Snake (Jeremiah 46:13-28)

During the period that the First Temple was destroyed, Egypt and Babylonia were the two superpowers which faced off against each other, with Judea as the bridge between them. Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction, deftly discerned that Babylonia was the stronger of the two and saw God’s hand in its battles against Judea’s so-called ally – Egypt. Jeremiah does not spare his language in his depiction of the pernicious Egyptians: “She shall rustle away as a snake (kola kanahash yeleh) as they (the Babylonians) come marching in force.” (46:22)

This first part of this verse is difficult to understand but M. Bula seems to capture its spirit: “The sound of Egypt which was previously a clamor (shaon – see verse 17), is now like the rustle of a snake.” (See Jeremiah, Daat Mikra, p. 549) Egypt has undergone a transformation from being strong and willful into being cowardly and weak.

In one midrash, the image of the snake in this verse conjures up an association with the primordial snake in the Garden of Eden: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the serpent, “On your belly will you crawl” (Genesis 3:14), the ministering angels descended and cut off its hands and legs, and its cry went out (halah kolo) from one end of the world to the other. The serpent[’s cry] came and foreshadowed the downfall of Babylonia, as it is said: ‘The sound shall go forth like the serpent’s (kola kanahash yeleh)’ (Jeremiah 46:22).” (Genesis Rabbah 20:5 Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 186)

This verse from Jeremiah, which ostensibly describes the downfall of Egypt at the hands of the Babylonians, is transformed in this midrash into a harbinger of the downfall of the perpetrators of Egypt’s downfall – the Babylonians. A later version of this midrash inserts Rome instead of Babylonia. (See Ecclesiastes Rabbah 10:11 Kipperwasser ed. p. 276) In other words, the serpent becomes representative of the Jew’s most bitter enemies and the verse from Jeremiah is used to describe their dramatic downfall.

This midrash can be understood in even more mythic terms. The epic tale in Genesis is recast, through the verse from Jeremiah, as a message regarding the fate of all of the demonic forces (evil) in the world. They, like the serpent in Eden (and like Egypt in the time of Jeremiah), start out with a roar, creating havoc and clamor, but in the end their fate will be sealed like that of the serpent, slithering around on the ground barely making any noise, defeated by a force greater than them.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
Related Topics
Related Posts