The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Moses supposes his toeses are roses

January 26th, 2006 · No Comments · history, ritual

Classic Horns of Light poseFew characters in the Bible loom as large or stand as central throughout the Bible as . If it wasn’t for Moses stories, I don’t know that there would be Jews or Christians or Muslems. The Hebrew Moses is similar in many respects to another hero in the Greek tradition: Heracles. Stories wild and amazing were told of the exploits of Moses and Heracles over a fairly large region: which is to say that both characters were products of oral epic traditions. Both characters were adopted by royalty after suspicious circumstances of birth. Both were said to have extraordinary powers and could talk directly with god(s). One may even wonder if there would have been a “Phillip of Macedon” had there not been in Heracles such a role model of greatness. Moses becomes understandable to me when I think of him as an Assyrian Heracles.

When the Jewish exiles in Babylon converted the oral-epic character of Moses into the literary character depicted in the Bible, no doubt only a shade of the original was captured. If I have to tell you one more time about keeping this camp tidy, I'm gonna start breaking things!One can easily imagine that the stories told of Heracles were told about Moses in various places. Given that “Moses as a strongman” stories are few in the Bible, we might surmise that the Babylonian authors of Exodus wanted to distinguish their hero as more of an intellectual and spiritually attuned creature than the barbarian Greek hero. Heracles wielded swords, Moses hefted stone tablets. They could both perform simple magic tricks (with the right props, naturally), but Moses clearly had a role in developing and shaping the culture of his “tribe” (or “nation”, if you prefer) that involved some impressive illusions and extensive knowledge of natural phenomena.

There are a surprising number of words in the Bible directly or indirectly concerning Moses. I can think of few other characters in the Bible that get even close to the same number of column inches as this guy. Consequently, there’s a heap of contradictory information about who he was, what he was like, or even what his motives were. This makes sense if you consider that the exiled redactor assembling the stories probably had to draw from an enormous number of sources and was writing everything out by hand. (It’s unfathomable to me know how anyone could compose prose without the tools available today on the modern desktop computer. Yeah, I can do without, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good!)

Michaelangelo's horny MosesIn at least the early part of his career, Moses must have been a fairly stout, attractive man with a lot of good connections or the ability to gain peoples’ confidence quickly. At one point, Moses claims to have a speech impediment, although this does not keep him from speaking authoritatively to the peoples of his “tribe”, only the the Pharaoh. (Perhaps this is meant to say that, instead of a lisp, he had a politically unfavorable dialect.) Towards the end of his life, he apparently had some sort of disfigurement, as he spent all of his time in his tent or with his face obscured. The translation is a little odd, either his face had taken on a luminescent quality (it glowed), or he had developed (literally) horns. How he transformed from handsome to horny isn’t explicit, so naturally a number of theories developed.

The personality deviation exhibited by Moses and illustrated in Exodus is so severe that Freud suggested that the “first” Moses was murdered by the indignant Hebrews and replaced by someone a little more motivated to get out of the desert. It’s also interesting to note that “Mose” was a fairly common nominal suffix in ancient Egypt meaning “child of”. Moses detail from a Roman fountainTypically, ancient Egyptians would name their children “child of Thoth” or “child of Amon”, which we would read as “Thothmose” (or “Tutmose”) or “Amonmose”.

There are several overlapping possibilities. One is that Moses was originally named something that specifically invoked an Egyptian deity, like Thoth. Another possibility is that the set of epics centered around those who migrated from Egypt into Canaan had several “main” characters whose names started with an Egyptian god name and ended with “Mose” — after the foreign god names were removed, there was nothing further to distinguish the characters for later readers, which may help explain the personality quirks. Go ahead. Pull my finger.Another possibility is that “Moses” was simply a title held by a series of individuals, each with different agendas and leadership styles. To put a fine point on it, there could have been a pagan high-priest with a title something like “Thothmose” leading the Hebrew tribes around the desert during their nomadic period.

There’s a great scene that gets a totally different reading once you’ve read the ‘Gilgamesh’ epic. It’s the ‘golden calf’ bit where Aaron gets everyone to contribute gold towards a calf statue that everyone worships. Moses comes down from the mountain and shatters the stone tablets, rents the calf statue into sand that is scattered into a body of water from which everyone drinks. The Bible story appears to make Moses into an angry father figure breaking up a pagan revel, disturbed that his rules were broken. In the story of Gilgamesh, you see almost exactly the same scene taking place, only it’s clear that Moses was playing a key role, that of the speaker from the (female!) divinity, and is carrying out the crucial transformative part of the ceremony. The deity being worshiped is symbolized by a golden idol that is dissolved into a water source from which everyone drinks, so that the whole tribe becomes infused with the power of the deity. But that’s probably not the interpretation you’d get in Sunday school.

Now this is a whole other topic, so I shouldn’t be bringing it up. However, there’s a few different threads that are brought together in the exodus stories and it’s helpful to know what they are. There was quite a bit of cross-migration between Canaan and Egypt depending on politics and weather, but it was certainly not a universal experience for all Yah worshippers in the Levant that their families had, at one time or another, come both from Assyria and from Egypt. The story of being brought out of exile and back into the homeland after many years meant a whole lot to the Jews in Babylon, and they wrote the story so as to apply to as many of the Canaanites as possible. Another key element is connected to the pastoral charm the nomads held for those stuck in those unsanitary and desperate places in Mesopotamia that we humorously refer to today as “cities”. Babylon was one of the biggest cities of its day and the Jewish exiles therein waxed long about the charmed life of the free nomad. Tradition holds that Moses led the tribes around the desert in order to cleanse them of their Egyptian error. Part of that cleaning was rejection of worldly civilization and adoption of the charmed nomadic life.

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