When Moshe and Aharon appeared before Pharaoh and Aharon threw down his staff, it turned into a snake, right? It’s not so clear:
What’s a תנין? In modern Hebrew, it’s a crocodile. Where does that come from? First, where does the snake come from?
So the sign that Moshe makes for בני ישראל was certainly a snake, but the Torah uses a different word for the sign to Pharaoh. Rashi, however, translates that as:
And that is based on the תרגום יהונתן:
And that is how the Septuagint translates it:
δράκων is the origin of the word “dragon” but just means a serpent, a big snake. And this seems to be the way the word is used elsewhere in the Torah:
So the כלי יקר explains the difference in terminology as simply reflecting a more dramatic display of ה׳'s might to Pharaoh:
But most commentators feel that the תנין is actually a different animal entirely. To determine what that animal is, we will look at this week’s harfotah. But first, I want to mention a mistranslation from איכה that implies that the תנין was a mammal:
But the verb חָלְצוּ is in the plural so תַּנִּים must be plural; the pasuk is talking about an animal called the תן, generally translated as “jackal”.
The other place in the Torah we see the תנין is at creation:
Here the תנין is an animal that lives in the sea, presumably the largest ones that symbolize the creation of animal life (note the use of the term ויברא):
King James translates it as “sea monsters” but in context, “whales” would make sense. But it’s hard to see Aharon’s staff turning into a whale. That seems more silly that impressive. The שפתי חכמים says the term תנין depends on context; here, it is a snake:
Remember that a דג is not a biological “fish”, but any animal that lives in the water (just as an עוף is not a bird but a flying animal).
The מלבי״ם gives the origin of the “crocodile” translation based on יחזקאל:
במיני הדגה יש גדולים מאד ונקראים תנינים, ובמצרים היו מאמינים שהיאור נילוס הוא קודש אלוה והוא מקבל כח מן השמש שהיה אלהי עליון אצלם, והיו עובדים את היאור בכל בוקר בצאת השמש כמו שפרעה יצא המימה בבקר. וכן היו עובדים אל התנינים שביאור שהיו אלהות אצלם, והיו אומרים שיש תנים אחד הגדול מכולם שהוא מושל על כולם, ופרעה נמשל אליו, שהיה אצלם גם כן אלוה וקראוהו התנים הגדול הרובץ בתוך יאוריו.
מלבי״ם, ספר הכרמל
So the symbolism of Aharon’s staff is very clear. Pharaoh, the all-powerful (“apex predator”) Nile crocodile, is just a dead stick in ה׳‘s hands. So why does Rashi insist on translating it as נחש? I don’t think he is translating the word at all. He is drawing our attention to the previous “staff into animal” sign, pointing out that they are connected. He is establishing the narrative of ה׳’s manifestation in Egypt.
The signs that Moshe had made for בני ישראל were not meant to intimidate them; they were meant to prove that ה׳ had appeared to Moshe and that He was about to redeem בני ישראל from Egypt. There were three signs; I think they corresponded to past, present and future. On the pasuk
Rashi brings the שמות רבה:
So the sign of צרעת represented Pharoah’s previous affliction. The sign of the מטה represented Moshe’s present mission to Pharaoh. And the sign of the water turning to blood, of course represented the final redemption through the ten plagues.
And speaking about the ten plagues, there’s an interesting point about the second one. When we illustrate the plagues in children’s books, we always use the frogs because they are so cute; it’s a much less intimidating plague than wild animals or massive hailstorms. But are they really so benign?
צפרדע does not seem to be a Hebrew word. It is only used in this context (and elsewhere in תנ״ך discussing the plagues). What does it really mean?
רבינו בחיי and אברבנל argue very strongly for the “al-timsah” interpretation, from the threat of נגף, from the fact of רק ביאר תשארנה, and from the description in תהילים:
The Netziv reads the text carefully—what does פסוק כט add?—and brings in another pasuk from תהילים:
So צפרדע was, like מכת דם, really a judgment on Egypt’s gods; (שמות יב:יב) בכל אלוהי מצרים אעשה שפטים.