Concluding Sperling

I finished S. David Sperling’s The Original Torah.  In this post, I’ll talk about Sperling’s views on Aaron and Moses.

1.  I’ve been waiting for a long time to read Sperling’s views on Aaron.  They pretty much go as follows: In early traditions, Aaron was not the brother of Moses or a priest, for Micah 5:4 (from the eighth century B.C.E.) does not say that Aaron was related to Moses.  For Sperling, Aaron was a wonder-worker, who accompanied Moses to Egypt and performed wonders, which helped bring about the Exodus.

Later, according to Sperling, Jeroboam I decided to use the figure of Aaron to justify his Golden Calf cult, and, at this stage of tradition, Aaron was a priest.  Sperling agrees with Moses Aberbach and Leivy Smolar that there are similarities between Jeroboam and Aaron: both make a golden calf, which is introduced to the Israelites with the phrase “These are your gods, who brought you out of Egypt”; both build altars and institute festivals; and both have children with similar sounding names (Aaron’s sons are Nadab and Abihu, and Aaron’s sons are Nadab and Abijah).  For Sperling, Aaron’s statement in Exodus 32:24—that he threw gold into the fire, and out came the calf—was not a poor excuse on Aaron’s part, but was rather a positive statement.  In thirteenth century B.C.E. Ugaritic texts, fire consumes the gold and the silver that were intended for the construction of Baal’s house, then the house spontaneously appears, in a completed state!  Sperling’s argument is that, originally, Aaron in Exodus 32:24 was describing the miracle of how the Golden Calf came to exist.

But the story came South after the destruction of Northern Israel in 720 B.C.E., and the South added its negative spin on it, making Aaron and the Golden Calf look bad.  At some point, however, the image of Aaron was rehabilitated, and “certain elements of the second temple priesthood” claimed descent from Aaron, who was not even a historical figure (unlike the competing sons of Korah, for whom we have actual archaeological evidence, Sperling notes).  According to Sperling, we know that the requirement that all priests be descended from Aaron emerged in the sixth century, for Exodus 28:42-43 says that the new priesthood must wear pants, which were invented by the Persians and first appear in Persian reliefs in the sixth century B.C.E., “precisely when Jews began coming into contact with Iranians.”  During the sixth century B.C.E., there was only one sanctuary in Yehud—the one in Jerusalem—and so there was a limited number of spots for priests.  Many agreed that the sons of Aaron should fulfill the role, and yet the sons of Korah were unhappy with this arrangement.  Thus, we have stories in Numbers about God elevating Aaron and putting down the sons of Korah!

Here are my reactions:

First, I’m a little confused by Sperling’s chronology of sources.  He says on page 104 that that the early traditions about Aaron come from the eighth century B.C.E., and that they don’t present Aaron as a priest, or as Moses’ brother.  Yet, he says on page 109 that Aaron was a priest in the Golden Calf story, and Jeroboam I ruled in the tenth century B.C.E.  Is Sperling’s view that the Golden Calf story was written after the reign of Jeroboam I—to justify the Bethel cult against detractors (perhaps Hosea in Hosea 8:5-6)?

Second, there are places in the Exodus story itself in which Aaron is called Moses’ brother (Exodus 4:14; 7:1-2).  As far as I could see, Sperling doesn’t address those passages.  If his view is that a later interpolator inserted the part about Aaron being Moses’ brother—meaning that it’s not part of the original story—then I’ll just sigh, since it seems to me at this point that one can defend any proposition with the interpolation card (not that Sperling plays it).

Third, regarding pants, James Hoffmeier refers to the use of pants before the Persian period, as I discuss in my post here.

But Sperling’s scenario may still have truth in it.

2.  Regarding Moses, Sperling sees him as an allegory for Saul, who, like Aaron, later got a bum rap by someone with political interests (in Saul’s case, David).  Both Moses and Saul defeated the Amalekites, had sympathy for Kenites (whom Genesis 15:17-20 lists among the bad people of Canaan), and consolidated Israel.  Moreover, I Samuel 14:35 says that Saul was the first to build an altar to the LORD—which many English translations obscure, and which Leviticus Rabbah tries to explain away.  On page 134, Sperling says that “the traditions concerning David, even those that speak of the Exodus, make no reference at all to the figure of Moses”, the reason being that Moses was a character created (I think) by pro-Saulides to promote Saul.

That said, I want to talk briefly about the “Saul among the prophets” stories in I Samuel 10 and 19, which Sperling discusses on pages 124-125.  Sperling says that the story in I Samuel 10 is positive—“His inclusion among the prophets is a sign that God has given him ‘another heart’; he has been changed from an ordinary human being into someone divinely chosen to lead Israel.”  Then what about I Samuel 19, in which Saul experiences the same thing, only while he is pursuing David (which is an evil deed in the story)?  For Sperling, Saul in that story is a naked madman, utterly unfit “for royal office.”

Robert Alter discusses these stories on page 89 of The Art of Biblical Narrative.  He states:

“One can, of course, argue for a certain purposeful pattern even in such a repetition: the same divine power that makes Saul different from himself and enables him for the kingship later strips and reduces him as the divine election shifts from Saul to David.  There is, however, at least a suspicion of narrative improbability in this identical bizarre action recurring in such different contexts, and one may reasonably conclude that the pressure of competing etiologies for the enigmatic folk-saying determined the repetition more than any artful treatment of character and theme.”

When I have read I Samuel 10 and 19 for my quiet times, I have wondered why the story of Saul’s ecstasy appears twice—when Saul becomes king, and when he pursues David.  When I checked commentaries, they usually took the approach that Alter takes above—that they are two alternative etiologies for the saying “Is Saul also among the prophets?”  (This is uncharacteristic for Alter, who usually employs a synchronic approach, rather than a diachronic one.  Personally, I think that a synchronic approach can work here, for, even if the two stories are alternative etiologies, they are both put into the narrative—and I’d like to think that’s for a reason.)  But that did not satisfy me—maybe because I preferred deeper reasons than “there are different traditions.”  I learned that I Samuel 10 is about God’s spiritual anointing (to draw from charismatic terminology) of Saul for the kingship, but then I wondered why Saul would get anointed later, while he is pursuing David.  I thought that maybe God was trying to remind Saul of his spiritual experience years before, to make Saul lament the heights from which he had descended, and to encourage him to come back to God.  That could be, but I can understand the view that God was seeking to humiliate Saul in I Samuel 19.

I’ll stop here.

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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3 Responses to Concluding Sperling

  1. Fred Glynn says:

    There was no Moses. How can we be sure that there was no Moses? Egypt gained control of Canaan in 1550 BCE after driving the Hyksos out of the delta and kept control of it until 1141 BCE when Rameses VI withdrew Egyptian troops from Canaan and Midian. There was thus no opportunity for Joshua (or anyone else) to have conquered Canaan from outside. Among the various sources of information on the state of affairs in Canaan during that period, are the Amarna letters exchanged between Akhnaten and the vassal Canaanite princes. Without a conquest, there would have been no exodus from the delta. Without an exodus, there would have been no Moses. All the biblical tete-a-tetes between Moses and God were simply made up. Professor Sperling analyzes the situation from his analysis of the Hebrew Bible and, as you observed, sees Moses as an allegorical character representing Israel’s first king, Saul. So while Saul is a fictional character, there is real history behind the story of Moses . . .


  2. Fred Glynn says:

    I should have ended the above with “So while Moses is a fictional character, there is real history behind the biblical story of Moses . . .


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comments, Fred.


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