Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

September 05, 2006

Crocodile Tears

In honour of the passing of Australian wildlife conservationist, Steve Irwin, I have decided to make a few comments concerning reptiles in the Hebrew Bible.

The first reference to these animals can be found in the beginning of Genesis. We are told, in 1:21, that:
ויברא אלהים את־התנינם הגדלים
"God created the large taninim"
What does this word mean?
To answer this question, the best place to look is a Biblical concordance. According to mine, this word appears some fourteen times. Of these times, several of the references are poetic and there is not much contained within them that may shed light on the word's meaning. Some of the others, however, are a little more explicit.

Isaiah (27:1) speaks of taninim that exist in the sea, and Ezekiel (29:3) speaks of one 'crouching' within a river. Perhaps the most interesting reference is found in Exodus 7 when God teaches Moses a trick by which he may prove his power to Pharaoh.

God tells Moses that he should cast his rod upon the ground and it shall turn into a tanin. Moses does so and, behold, that is exactly what his staff does. Pharaoh's response, however, is to have his magicians perform the same trick, and we are told that their rods turn into taninim as well. The tanin of Moses and Aaron, however, eats the taninim of Pharaoh's magicians and, assumedly, God's supreme power is demonstrated.

This all seems very simple until a few verses later when Moses is told to meet Pharaoh at the bank of the river. God explicity tells Moses that he should bring his staff with him: the one that had turned into... a snake. What's going on? It would seem that tanin and nachash ('snake') are not too dissimilar! So a tanin must be something very like a snake, that lives in water, and 'crouches' within a river...

I considered inserting a photo of a crocodile here, but I thought that might be a little too obvious. Indeed, tanin means crocodile in Israeli Hebrew.

So, in the beginning of Genesis, God created giant reptiles on the fifth day...
No comment.


At 10:17 AM , Blogger Billie Jean said...

I wonder what Steve would think of this essay!


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