King Moses

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, “The Bible Rewritten and Expanded,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 126-127.

“In his dream Moses is conveyed to Sinai’s peak, where he sees a gigantic throne and upon it, God himself in human semblence. God bids him approach the throne, gives him the sceptre, seats him on the throne and crowns him. From the throne, Moses beholds the whole universe. According to the interpretation, Moses ‘will cause a great throne to arise,’ (line 95), and he himself will rule over mortals. His vision of the universe is interpreted not cosmologically, but historically; he will see all things present, past, and future…Moses’ enthronement draws on the idea that the prophet was also king, an idea attested in Philo of Alexandria and the Rabbis and based on Deuteronomy 33:5[–‘There arose a king in Jeshurun, when the leaders of the people assembled– the united tribes of Israel.’ NRSV]. His being seated upon God’s throne may reflect Exodus 7:1 (‘See I make you as God to Pharaoh’).”

Nicklesburg is talking about a composition of Ezekiel the Tragedian, who could have written anytime between the third-first centuries B.C.E. (Nobody knows.) The above quote reminds me of things I’ve heard in the course of my education:

1. In my evangelical Bible study group at DePauw, the leader loved to poke fun at the biblical heroes’ foibles, since they clearly demonstrated that God saves people by grace, not on account of their personal merit. “And so you’re not supposed to worship the Bible heroes, as the Jews do,” he said.

He’s partially right about Judaism. No, it didn’t “worship” the biblical heroes, but it did tend to hold them in high regard. In The Bible As It Was, James Kugel points out that Jewish exegesis attempted to explain away the faults of the biblical heroes, since it expected godly people to behave in a righteous manner. In the Prayer of Manasseh, Manasseh boldly affirms that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not need repentance. Try to say that at an evangelical Bible study group! “Of course they need repentance, for all have sinned,” a bunch of evangelicals would say at once.

At the same time, Judaism can also be pretty hard on biblical heroes. The Aggadah is not that nice to Deborah and Jephthah, for example.

But Moses was a high-ranking biblical hero, so I’m not surprised that Ezekiel the Tragedian elevates him to such a high rank. As far as the Bible goes, we can’t deny that it makes a big deal about Moses’ faults, to the point that Moses doesn’t even get to enter the Promised Land. At the moment, though, I’m not sure how Jewish exegesis handles Moses’ errors.

2. If memory serves me correctly, Stephen Geller at Jewish Theological Seminary said something to the effect that Moses was a king-like figure. And that makes sense, considering that kings in the ancient Near East were often the source of law. Case in point: Hammurabi. So why does the Torah have Moses giving the law rather than a real king? A professor of mine here at Hebrew Union College says it’s because the Torah is exilic and post-exilic–times when the monarchy was irrelevant.

Another professor at JTS, Stephen Garfinkel, has done research on Moses as a divine figure. The Bible can be interpreted to imply something like that, since Moses had horns when he came down from Sinai, and horns are a sign of divinity. I never had Dr. Garfinkel, so I don’t know what his argument is. But Ezekiel the Tragedian does lean in the direction of treating Moses as a divine figure.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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