The serpent, a nahash, that tempts Eve in Genesis, chapter 3, is described as crafty, the Hebrew word being arum, a word which is not necessarily negative, but suggests wisdom and adroitness, or being shrewd or clever.61 According to some ancient Jewish interpretations, the serpent walked erect and had the power to speak, as did all the animals in the Garden, so that it did not seem unusual to Adam and Eve when the serpent spoke.62 Views differ as to whether this was a snake inspired or manipulated by Satan, or was Satan himself,63 while others note that the serpent is described as one of the beasts of the field and so is not a supernatural being, but a real serpent.64 One commentator, in stating that the serpent was Satan, declares that though Satan lost his sanctity, he "retains the sagacity of an angel, and is wise to do evil."65 However the serpent may be seen in this passage, the serpent was later identified with Satan, one who tempted man to go against God's will and who lied about God's word.66 The woman, in believing the serpent, comes to the point of deciding the tree is good, whereas before, it was God who was declaring what was good; however, what results is not good but evil, and the serpent's wisdom leads to a curse and to death.67 The serpent becomes cursed above every beast (Genesis 3:14), and in tempting Eve to eat what she shouldn't, now he must eat dust, a reference to defeat.68
When Jacob blesses his children before his death in Genesis, chapter 49, part of his blessing to Dan in verse 17 is: "May Dan be a snake beside the road, a viper by the path, that bites the heels of the horse so that its rider falls backward," (NET Bible). The generic term for serpent, nahash, is used here. Although Dan later becomes a tribe that worships false gods in Judges 18, and though King Jeroboam of Israel in 1 Kings, chapter 12, places golden calves for worship in the city of Dan, most commentators believe that the serpent image in this passage is positive since this is a blessing. Dan, though a small tribe, will be as shrewd as a serpent, able to bite its enemies' heels so that they are defeated.69 Bible commentator Leupold proposes as well that the serpent imagery is almost neutral, a tribal trait that could be used for good or for bad, and was an oblique warning about Dan's potential for treachery.70
In Exodus, nahash is used in Exodus 4:3 when God tells Moses in the desert to throw down his rod, and it becomes a snake; whereas tannin is used in Exodus 7: 9, 10, and 12 for the serpents transformed from staffs by Aaron and the magicians before Pharaoh. In Exodus 7:15, when God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of His people, God alludes to the episode of the previous day, referring to the staff as turning into a nahash. Since tannin is also translated as "monster" or "crocodile,"71 some scholars believe that in Pharaoh's presence the staffs became crocodiles, while Moses' staff became only a snake in the desert; others declare it a poetic exaggeration.72 It is interesting to note that Moses' rod in Exodus 4:3 becomes a nahash, but it is Aaron's staff in Exodus, chapter 7, that is turned into a tannin.73 However, because God refers in Exodus 7:15 to the staff having turned into a nahash, the terms could be interchangeable.74 The term tannin is broad enough to be interpreted as "snake" in the seventh chapter of Exodus.75
One commentator believes that tannin is used to describe the staff changing into serpents in Pharaoh's presence because tannin was probably an Israelite nickname for Egypt and its king; this word is used by God to rebuke Egypt in other passages.76 According to this commentator, the serpents in Exodus should not necessarily be connected to the serpent in the Garden, or even to the serpent in Pharaoh's crown, the uraeus.77 The same commentator notes that Moses is told in Exodus 4:3 to grasp the serpent by the tail, but normally the serpent would be picked up by the neck.78
According to Egypt historian Currid, many passages in Exodus reflect the author's familiarity with Egyptian beliefs and customs. He points out the use of the Egyptian word hry-hbt as a basis for the term hartom used for the Egyptian magicians, and the understanding that the plagues were sent by God as an attack on the gods of Egypt.79 The constant refrain that Pharaoh's heart was hardened is a reference to the Egyptian beliefs about the heart as the seat of the soul, particularly to the importance of the heart being weighed in judgment in the afterlife.80 Since Egyptian documents such as the Westcar Papyrus and archeological evidence have uncovered evidence of snake-charming and magic spells performed to turn staffs into serpents, and due to the power believed to be represented by the cobra on Pharaoh's uraeus and by Pharaoh himself, the transformation of Aaron's rod into a serpent was a direct assault on Egyptian magic and beliefs, especially since Aaron's serpent swallowed the magician's serpents.81 As Aaron's serpent swallowed the magicians' snakes, so later would the Red Sea swallow the Egyptians pursuing the Hebrews.82
The question arises as to whether the Egyptian magicians were using trickery, such as snake-charming, or actual supernatural demonic powers; there are arguments for both views.83 Snake charming was not unknown in Old Testament times, as can be seen in explicit references to it in Eccl 10:11, Ps. 58:4, 5, and Jer 8:17. Currid states that although serpent-charming is a possible explanation, it is not a certain one, as the text gives no clear indication of this.84 What is clear is that what God did was real. When Moses casts his rod down and it becomes a snake in Exodus 4:3, he runs from it, indicating this was no illusion.85 The mythological feats of magicians in the Westcar Papyrus become real to the Egyptians in Exodus, but the feat that shows true power does not have its source in Egyptian magic, but in the God of Israel, and His might vastly overpowers the skills of the magicians.86 In fact, the Egyptian gods (and Mesopotamian gods) themselves had to rely on magic to defeat foes; their own power was insufficient,87 in contrast to the God of Israel who was able with ease to triumph over the magic and power of Egypt.
Changing Aaron's staff into a serpent is significant for another reason. This is the same staff that will be used with God's power to initiate the plagues and to part the Red Sea, events which will give protection and life to Israel but bring death to the Egyptians.88 As Currid states, the contest was not between Moses and Pharaoh, or between Israel and Egypt, but between Yahweh and Pharaoh, who was considered a god, and who was supposedly imbued with the special powers of his station. The miraculous signs given to Moses and Aaron challenged the potency and deity of Pharaoh, who personified the power of Egypt and whose crown bore the cobra, symbol of supremacy.89