Sign of the תנין in Art
The various artworks shown here, the image from the Sarajevo Haggadah,1 a tapestry based on an oil painting by Nicolas Poussin,2 and the illustration from the LaHaye Bible,3 all depict the miracle of Aaron's staff turning into a תנין. The artists differ widely in how they envision the תנין and in the way they understand the miracle as a whole.
The Haggadah's illustration is the simplest of the compositions. It depicts just six static figures, Paroh, Moshe and Aharon, and three Egyptians. The תנין, depicted as a lizard-like creature, lies on the table, calmly swallowing the other תנינים, whose heads peek out from his mouth.
This vibrantly colored tapestry 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. Paroh is distinguished only by the fact that he is the sole seated figure. Moshe and Aharon face him, fingers pointed heavenward, presumably saying that the miracle is the work of God.
This engraving, in contrast, sets the miracle outside the palace. It is filled with figures and movement, as many onlookers besides Paroh's courtiers approach to view the site. Moshe and Aharon are placed in the left foreground, backs to the viewer, while Paroh towers over them, looking at the תנינים below. The creatures are pictured here as winged dragons, fighting and biting each other.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Identifying the תנין
The most fundamental difference between the portrayals is each artist's depiction of the תנין. Poussin renders it as a serpent, whereas the LaHaye Bible shows it as a dragon, and the Sarajevo Haggadah illustrates it as a lizard. Which is correct? The Biblical text is unclear, and although the word appears in several places, the various contexts can sustain a broad range of possible meanings, from crocodile to serpent. See תנין – Serpent or Sea Monster for details.
Swallowed Staffs or Serpents?
In both the Sarajevo Haggadah and the LaHaye Bible, it is Aharon's תנין who swallows the other תנינים. According to a literal reading of Shemot 7:12, though, Aharon's staff itself (and not the creature into which it has been transformed) swallows the other staffs. Commentators debate the meaning of the verse. Some say that there was in fact a double miracle; the inanimate object was given the ability to devour other objects.4 Others suggest that the word "staff" is not to be understood literally but refers to the staff-turned-תנין.5
While the artist of the Sarajevo Haggadah and Poussin assume that the miracle was witnessed only by Paroh and his courtiers and set the incident inside the palace, the artist of the LaHaye Bible allows for a much greater audience, setting the miracle in full view of the larger Egyptian population. The impression left by the chapter matches the former reading but does not rule out the second possibility. The difference relates to how one understands the purpose of the sign. Was it meant as a warning merely to Paroh to encourage him to set the Israelites free, or was it an initial demonstration of Hashem's power aimed at the entire Egyptian nation? For more, see Purpose of the Plagues.