Finding New Insights in Very Old Stories
I recently had a little Torah-related freak-out.
I am a middle-aged religious Jewish woman. My parents put me through private Jewish day school, and I went to Jewish summer camp basically every summer of my childhood. I participated in a Gap Year program in Israel before attending a university in America that I specifically chose because it ticked off all my boxes – including a vibrant Jewish community – and after graduation I moved to New York’s Upper West Side, where I continued to live a very full Jewish life until I eventually made Aliyah and created a beautiful life in Jerusalem.
What I’m trying to say is, I have read through the Five Books of Moses a few times. Like, a lot. Like, had several teachers whose entire job was to teach me this topic.
I am by no means an expert, my degrees have nothing to do with Bible studies, and I spend less time than I’d like in my daily life reading these books. But still, I wanted to give all the above background simply to explain that I know my way around these books.
I currently work as a Hebrew-to-English translator and have had the absolute pleasure of translating a large variety of projects. I am currently translating a book, which is one author’s interpretation (perush) of the Torah. While working my way through my translation of his insights on the second book of the Torah, Shmot, Exodus, whatever you prefer to call it, I found myself perplexed. As previously stated, I am by no means a Torah scholar, but I know the story. The Hebrews are slaves in Egypt, Moses tells Pharaoh, “Let My People Go!” yada yada yada, we go over the whole thing at the Passover seder every year, and can enjoy various imagined visualizations like The Ten Commandments, if you’re more old-school, or Prince of Egypt, if you’re [slightly] less so, right?
You know the part of the story where Moses appears before Pharaoh to explain that he is speaking on behalf of God Himself, and Pharaoh says prove it, and Moses takes his staff and casts it to the ground and it turns into a serpent, and then Pharaoh’s sorcerers take a staff and cast it to the ground and theirs also turns into a serpent, and then Moses’s serpent eats the sorcerers’ serpent?
In working on this latest translation project, I was forced to go to the source, and it turns out that the Hebrew word used in the source is not nakhash (snake/serpent) but rather tannin (crocodile/alligator). The author of the book I am currently translating referenced this and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes, and read through three different printed versions of the Bible, and then more online. I then went down a rabbit-hole, spending more time than I’d like to admit looking into this (and finding, for example, that the famous commentary, Rashi, seems to be one of the only sources that states that this word could mean snake) before ultimately consulting a Bible scholar who also has a PhD in this topic. She explained that this is widely agreed to be a misconception, especially knowing the kind of animals that are native to Egypt and would have been living in and around the Nile River at that time. She quite nonchalantly said that one can’t help but conclude that it was crocodiles rather than snakes that were involved in that particular Bible story.
As an aside I will admit here that whether they were snakes or crocodiles doesn’t exactly change the plot of the story, it’s just that I have always pictured it one way and it seems my imagination of this story wasn’t spot on.
What could I possibly do but immediately call my father, who happens to be a rabbi? Did I notice before calling him that it was eleven o’clock at night? No, sorry to say I did not. And what was his delightful response to his one-track minded daughter calling him way too late at night for something that was definitely not urgent and could certainly have waited till a more normal time the following day? That this just goes to show that you can learn something new every time you read the Bible. That it doesn’t matter how well you think you know the stories, how many classes you have had on the subject, there is always something new you can take away from it.
Well, I certainly don’t consider myself able to impart wisdom to the masses, but when I am given wisdom like this, I feel compelled to share it with others. Feel free to take this lesson and apply it to literally every other facet of your lives. Or don’t.