Rabbi Miriam's Blog
It was interesting this week to look at various pieces of artwork based on biblical narratives. I found three pieces based on the miracle of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake. The artists differ widely in how they imagine the snake and in the way they understand the miracle as a whole.
Image from the Sarajevo Passover Haggadah (Image #1 above)
This Haggadah is considered to be a national treasure. It has illuminated manuscript, and it’s artist is unknown, and is dated to 1350. It use to be housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Since the last war this treasured Haggadah is hidden away out of fear that it would be stolen. The Haggadah's illustration is the simplest of the compositions. It depicts just six static figures, Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron, and three Egyptians. The snake, depicted as a lizard-like creature, lies on the table, calmly swallowing the other snakes, whose heads peek out from his mouth.
This vibrantly colored tapestry is based on an oil painting by Nicolas Poussin ((Image #2 above). It places the scene of the miracle inside the palace. The various characters are arranged in a line across the image, with the staffs-turned-snakes wriggling on the floor before them. Pharaoh is distinguished only by the fact that he is the sole seated figure. Moshe and Aaron face him, fingers pointed heavenward, presumably saying that the miracle is the work of God.
LaHaye Engraved Bible (1728) - Moses and Sorcerers (Image #3 above)are turning their staff into snakes. This engraving, in contrast, sets the miracle outside the palace. It is filled with figures and movement, as many onlookers besides Pharaoh's courtiers approach to view the site. Moses and Aaron are placed in the left foreground, backs to the viewer, while Pharaoh towers over them, looking at the snakes below. The creatures are pictured here as winged dragons, fighting and biting each other.
The snake is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. They have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and to their dual expression of good and evil. In some ancient cultures snakes were symbols of fertility, or the spirit of the Underworld. In other cultures snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. In Eastern traditions Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. The snake is identified with wisdom when he appears for the first time in the Torah in the Garden of Eden when it lured Eve. Snakes are also connected with poison and medicine. The Nehushtan was a sacred object in the form of a brass snake on a tall pole when Moses used it to cure the Israelites from snakebites in the desert.
May you see the intertwined snakes on the Caduceus, the symbol of Medicine, as a source of healing to you. Amen.
Ahavat Torah of West Los Angeles
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.