Moses in Hellenistic literature

Moses in Hellenistic literature

While the Pentateuch represents Moses as the greatest of all prophets, to whom the Lord made Himself known face to face (Deut. xxxiv. 10; comp. Num. xii. 7), and who, when descending Mount Sinai, had a halo about his head which so filled the people with awe that they could not look at him (Ex. xxxiv. 29), yet there is no attempt made to lift him above the ordinary man in his nature. He lived for forty days and forty nights on the mount without eating and drinking (Deut. ix. 9), but this was owing to the power God lent him while he received the Law; he died and was buried like any other mortal (ib. xxxiv. 5-6). Owing to the contact of the Jews with the Greeks in Alexandria, Moses was made the subject of many legends, and in many respects lifted to supernatural heights.

Ben Sira was probably the first to compare him with the angels—a suggestion from Ex. xxxiv. 29 (Ecclus. xlv. 2; the Hebrew text reads "ke-elohim," while the Greek reads ?????= "saints"). Especially favorable to the accretion of legends or fictions around the life of Moses was the fact that he was born in Egypt and brought up by the daughter of the king. This suggested that "he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts vii. 22). But the Jewish men of letters who lived in Alexandria were by no means satisfied with the idea that Moses acquired the wisdom of the Egyptians; they claimed for him the merit of having given to Egypt, Phoenicia, and Hellas all their culture. He taught the Jews the letters, and they then became the teachers of the Phoenicians and, indirectly, of the Greeks, says Eupolemus (Eusebius, "Præparatio Evangelica," ix. 26). Artapanus of Alexandria, in his history of the Jews, went so far as to identify Moses with Tot-Hermes (the Egyptian messenger and scribe of the gods, who invented the letters, the various arts of peace and of war, as well as philosophy), and with the Greek Musæus, "the teacher of Orpheus." He even ascribed to him the division of the land into its thirty-six districts, with their various forms of worship. As the foster-mother of Moses, Artapanus names Merris, the wife of Chenephres, King of Upper Egypt; being childless, she pretended to have given birth to him and brought him up as her own child.(Eusebius, l.c. ix. 27).

"Jealousy of Moses' excellent qualities induced Chenephres to send him with unskilled troops on a military expedition to Ethiopia, where he won great victories. After having built the city of Hermopolis, he taught the people the value of the ibis as a protection against the serpents, making the bird the sacred guardian spirit of the city; then he introduced circumcision. After his return to Memphis, Moses taught the people the value of oxen for agriculture, and the consecration of the same by Moses gave rise to the cult of Apis. Finally, after having escaped another plot by killing the assailant sent by the king, Moses fled to Arabia, where he married the daughter of Raguel, the ruler of the district. Chenephres in the meantime died from elephantiasis [comp. Ex. R. i. and Targ. Yer. to Ex. ii. 23] —a disease with which he was the first to be afflicted—because he had ordered that the Jews should wear garments that would distinguish them from the Egyptians and thereby expose them to maltreatment [this is characteristic of the age in which it was written] . The sufferings of Israel then caused God to appear to Moses in a flame bursting forth from the earth [not from the bush!] , and to tell him to march against Egypt for the rescue of his people. Accordingly he went to Egypt to deliberate with his brother Aaron about the plan of warfare, but was put into prison. At night, however, the doors of the prison opened of their own accord, while the guards died or fell asleep. Going to the royal palace and finding the doors open there and the guards sunk in sleep, he went straight to the king, and when scoffingly asked by the latter for the name of the God who sent him, he whispered the Ineffable Name into his ear, whereupon the king became speechless and as one dead. Then Moses wrote the name upon a tablet and sealed it up, and a priest who made sport of it died in convulsions. After this Moses performed all the wonders, striking land and people with plagues until the king let the Jews go. In remembrance of the rod with which Moses performed his miracles every Isis temple in Egypt has preserved a rod—Isis symbolizing the earth which Moses struck with his rod"

The record closes with a description of the personality of Moses: "He was eighty-nine years old when he delivered the Jews; tall and ruddy, with long white hair, and dignified."

Fantastic as these stories are, they are scarcely inventions of Artapanus only. Long contact of the Jews of Alexandria with Egyptian men of letters in a time of syncretism, when all mythology was being submitted to a rationalizing process, naturally produced such fables (see Freudenthal, "Hellenistische Studien," 1875, pp. 153-174), and they have found a place in the Palestinian as well as in the Hellenistic haggadah, in Josephus, Philo ("De Vita Moysis"), and the Alexandrian dramatist Ezekiel (Eusebius, l.c. ix. 28), as well as in the Midrash (Ex. R. i.-ii.; Tan., Shemot), the Targum, and the "Sefer ha-Yashar," or the older "Chronicles of Jerahmeel" (xliv.-l.).

Most elaborate is the haggadah from which Josephus drew his story ("Ant." ii. 9, § 2-ii. 10, § 2):(comp. Sanh. 101b; Ex. R. i.; Targ. Yer. to Ex. i. 14; see Jannes and Jambres).

"Egyptian priests skilled in prophesying foretold the birth of a Hebrew who would bring misfortune on Egypt, and thus caused Pharaoh's edict to have every new-born male child drowned in the river" (see Amram; Miriam).

"Amram in his distress at the fate of every new-born child prays to God and receives a revelation" (comp. Ezekiel in Eusebius, l.c. ix. 29; "Chronicles of Jerahmeel," xliv. 8; Yal?. i. 166).

"Thermutis was the name of the princess who saw Moses in the water-cradle and conceived a love for him on account of his striking beauty. The child, however, refused to suckle from any other breast but that of his mother." "Moses excelled all by his tall stature and beauty of countenance as well as by his quickness of apprehension." "Thermutis, being without child, brought him up as her own son, and one day when she presented him to her father as her own child, and heir to the throne—a gift she had received from the river-god—Pharaoh took the child on his lap and placed his diadem upon its head; whereupon it cast it down on the ground and trampled upon it. This was taken as an evil omen by the king, and the priestly soothsayer, finding Moses to be the one who would bring upon the kingdom the misfortune predicted for it, wished to slay him, but Thermutis succeeded in saving his life" (comp. "Chronicles of Jerahmeel," xlv.-xlvi.; Yal?. i. 168).

"An attack on Egypt by the Ethiopians caused all to look to Moses for aid, and the king asked his daughter to permit him to go forth as general of an army to Ethiopia. Moses took the short road along the desert, deemed impassable on account of its many flying serpents ('serafim'), and provided himself with numerous baskets filled with ibises, the destroyers of serpents, by the help of which he removed the dangers of the desert. He thus took the Ethiopians by surprise and defeated them, driving them back to Merve, a fortified city. While he was besieging the city, Therbis, the daughter of the king, saw him upon the walls, fell in love with him, and proposed to him to become his wife. He accepted the offer under the condition that the city should surrender to him; finally he married her"

This is obviously a midrashic tale connected with Num. xii. 1, but disavowed at a later stage (see Sifre, Num. 99, and Targ. ad loc.).

Philo also shows familiarity with these legends; he refers to the beauty of the babe Moses (l.c. i. 3) and mentions the fact that the princess, being childless, contrived to make Moses appear as her own child (i. 4-5). Moses' education in science, art, and philosophy, however, is ascribed to Egyptian masters (i. 6); he was grieved by the sufferings of his Hebrew brethren, many of whom died an untimely death and did not have even seemly burial (i. 7); his prophetic powers were attested at the Red Sea when the Egyptian dead were cast up by the waves and were actually seen by the Israelites, as Moses had announced (iii. 34, with reference to Ex. xiv. 13, 30).

Moses' Preexistence

The end of the great lawgiver especially was surrounded with legends. "While, after having taken leave of the people, he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua on Mount Nebo, a cloud suddenly stood over him, and he disappeared, though he wrote in Scripture that he died, which was done from fear that people might say that because of his extraordinary virtue he had been turned into a divinity" ("Ant." iv. 8, § 48). Philo says: "He was entombed not by mortal hands, but by immortal powers, so that he was not placed in the tomb of his forefathers, having obtained a peculiar memorial [i.e., grave] which no man ever saw" ("De Vita Moysis," iii. 39). Later on, the belief became current that Moses did not die, but was taken up to heaven like Elijah. This seems to have been the chief content of the apocryphon entitled "Assumption of Moses," preserved only in fragmentary form (comp. Charles, "The Assumption of Moses," 1897, Introduction; Deuteronomy Rabba xi.; Jellinek, "B. H." i. 115-129, vi. 71-78; M. R. James, "Apocrypha Anecdota," pp. 166-173, Cambridge, 1893). No sooner was the view maintained that Moses was translated to heaven than the idea was suggested that his soul was different from that of other men. Like the Messiah, he is said to have been preexistent; he is thus represented in "Assumption of Moses" (i. 12-14); so too "He was prepared before the foundation of the world to be the mediator of God's covenant, and as he was Israel's intercessor with God during life [xi. 11, 17] , so is he to be the intercessor in all the future." While his death was an ordinary one (i. 15, x. 14), "no place received his body"; "his sepulcher is from the rising of the sun to the setting thereof, and from the south to the confines of the north; all the world is his sepulcher" (xi. 5-8). Philo also calls Moses "the mediator and reconciler of the world" (ib. iii. 19). Especially in Essene circles was Moses apotheosized: "Next to God," says Josephus Flavius ("B. J." ii. 8, § 9), "they honor the name of their legislator, and if any one blasphemes him he meets with capital punishment" (comp. "Ant." iii. 15, § 3).

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