Sunday, February 24, 2019


I've written a lot about how the Tempter in Gen 3 was probably meant to trigger associations with ophiomancy and ophiolatry. But crocodiles may be a related motif in the Pentateuch. 

There's the identity of the "sea-monsters" in Gen 1:21. Some commentators think that's mythological. But it's arguably demythologizing crocodiles. The original audience didn't have our extensive knowledge of marine life, so we have to ask what that would mean to them. I think Nile crocodiles are the best candidate. (Which doesn't exclude other marine life.) 

Scripture doesn't seem to have a technical term for crocodiles. Ezk 29:3-4 is the most explicit reference, with its crocodilian imagery. There it symbolizes Pharaoh. Cf. D. Bock The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48 (Eerdmans 1998), 134-37; H. Hummel, Ezekiel 21-48 (Concordia 2007), 885-87.  

On traditional authorship, refugees from Egypt comprised the original audience for the Pentateuch. They'd be painfully familiar with the Nile crocodile, a notorious predator. In addition, crocodiles frequented the Crocodile river (Nahal Taninim, Wadi az-Zarqa) near Caesarea and Mt. Carmel. Down by the Delta, the Nile might have the occasional Bull shark, but crocodiles were ubiquitous. 

Not only were Nile crocodiles a constant menace to anyone who ventured into the river or river bank, they might also be nocturnal predators. Imagine a crocodile snatching a sleeper from a nearby mud hut. Or suppose you have to leave your hut in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature, with a crocodile lying in wait. Years ago I watched a nature show about saltwater crocodile that snatched a camper from her tent, even though they camped out about a mile from the beach. 

This may play into the emblematic significance and psychological resonance of light and dark, day and night in Gen 1. Many invisible dangers lurk under cover of darkness. 

In the confrontation with the Egyptian sorcerers (Exod 7), even though the context probably refers to cobras (Exod 4), the choice of wording (tannin) may be designed to evoke crocodiles. The narrator is using a double entendre. Cf. T. D. Alexander, Exodus (IVP 2017), 158-61. D. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus (Kregel 2014), 272-73n3; V. Hamilton, Exodus (Baker 2011), 116-20; Pnina Galpaz-Feller, "Egyptological Motifs in the Sign of the Serpent (Ex 4:2-5; 7:8-14)," BMik 171 (2002), 322-335.

Just as ancient Egypt had snake-gods, it also had a crocodile god (Sobek). So Gen 1:21 and Exod 7 are ways to naturalize and demote a creature Egyptians deified.  

On a related note, who named the Tempter in Gen 3–Adam or the narrator? If the narrator, then that may play on later, occultic associations with venomous snakes in the world of the Exodus. 


  1. On a related note, isn't the leviathan a description of some kind of monster/dinosaur? It seems to describe an existing thing, yet fits no animal alive today

    1. If you mean Job 41, that might be based on the Nile crocodile, but with some poetic license. Compare that to the hybrid monsters in Daniel and Revelation: literary constructs composed of bits and pieces of real animals.