February 4, 2006
Jeremiah mockingly opens his description of Egypt\’s false sense of strength while poised to defend itself against a Babylonian offensive as but a \”mere noise\” or a \”tumult\” – \”shaon\” (verse 17) since the Egyptian\’s expectations of their capabilities against the superior Babylonian forces were completely unrealistic. This message was meant not only to ridicule the Egyptians but also as a severe message to Jeremiah\’s home audience, the Judeans, who had cast their lot with this southern power against the onslaught of their northern neighbor. This is why Jeremiah spared no words in scorning the Egyptians, hoping that his facetious ridicule would hit home. For Jeremiah, words are a potent weapon. This explains Jeremiah\’s description of Pharaoh\’s army\’s troop movements in the face of their enemies with the words \”she shall rustle away like a snake\” (verse 22 – NJPS translation – meaning uncertain) which literally translates as \”The voice thereof shall go like a serpent.\”
In the first part of his philosophical opus, The Guide to the Perplexed (1:24) , Rambam (Maimonides) examines the exact meaning of Biblical language. He notes that the intent of this metaphor was to indicate the subtle nature of the movement of the body. Why the comparison with the movement of a snake? In comparison with the previously described \”tumult\”, the sound of the \”rustle\” of a snake is painfully unimpressive. This same sense is captured in the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonathon (7th century Eretz Yisrael): \”the sound of the banging of their weapons was like that of a slithering snake.\”
The following midrash retains the sense of embarrassment captured above, but its description of the sense of this verse is turned on its head by interpreting it in light of the punishment to the serpent in the story of Adam and Eve. There, the serpent was punished for his sin by having to crawl on his belly: \”When the Holy One Blessed be He said to the serpent: \’On your belly you will crawl\’ (Genesis 3:14), Ministering Angels descended and chopped off the serpent\’s hands and feet. [Despite the fact that Scripture does not state explicitly that this happened, we know that] the serpent\’s scream traversed from one end of the world to the other. [How do we know?] The serpent (snake) came to teach us about the fall of Egypt [in our passage in Jeremiah] and in turn teaches us [about the response of the serpent in the Adam and Eve story.], as it is written: \’And the voice of the serpent traveled\’\” [So just as we understand from this new interpretation of this verse that the Egyptians cried out upon being attacked by the Babylonians, so, too, the serpent cried out.] (Genesis Rabbah 20:5 according to printed edition. See Albeck ed. 186 note 5)
What is common to these two contradictory interpretations is their attempt to make the one who leads others astray into a source of derision so that people will not be tempted by them – neither on an individual level nor on a national level.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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