Hebrew College: Humanity vs. Divinity: Whose Side is Moses On?

In the spring of 2009, I took a graduate-level class co-offered by Hebrew College and the Andover Newton Theological School called Interfaith Models of Religious Leadership, taught by Rabbi Or Rose and Professor Gregory Mobley, examining the leadership styles of Moses and Jesus through interfaith engagement with the primary texts as well as writings from both Jewish and Christian scholars about both figures. This was my mid-term paper, wrapping up the Moses unit.

As the holiday of Passover approaches on the calendar, it’s hard to consider the role of Moses in the exodus from Egypt without questioning how important Moses himself really was in the liberation of the Jewish people.  After all, if he can be so completely[1] written out of the story that he doesn’t even bear mention at the Passover seder, was he ever really anything more than a prop?

Of course, the Haggadah, as a text with a particular religious purpose, has its own set of reasons for focusing its telling of the Exodus on God and away from Moses.  Popular culture certainly has its own set of reasons for storytelling choices, but as artifacts of “the people,” pop culture can offer windows into what elements of the story have captured the imaginations of regular folk in different times and places.

The giving of the Ten Commandments marks a border in the story of Moses, a liminal point at which the story of liberation transitions into a story of law-giving and nation-forming.  Because this moment signifies not only a transformation of the Israelites into a nation, but also a transformation of Moses from liberator to lawgiver, it serves as an interesting point of comparison through which to examine retellings of the story.  Comparing the account in Exodus 19-34 with a play from a medieval Corpus Christi cycle and a contemporary “musical spectacular” reveals telling differences in how each storyteller perceived the character of Moses at this moment in his story.

The most challenging difference in examining these texts together is the relative length of the account in Exodus compared with the concise accounts in the dramatic renditions.  One significant factor in this difference is the multisource nature of the Bible.  Richard Elliott Friedman sees traces of J, E, P, at least two different redactors, and a separate Ten Commandments source within this section.  However, to understand Moses in the popular imagination, we must look at the narrative as whole cloth, even as we skim past the chapters of Priestly insertions delaying the narrative payoff.

The necessities of a merged account do give Moses more to do, if only because his conversations with God alternate with conversations with the people of Israel, sending Moses to scurry up and down the mountain five times[2].  Moses’ role as communicator is of utmost importance, for he relays messages between the Israelites and God in both directions.  And yet Moses is not a passive mouthpiece.  Resembling a biblical Dolly Levi, Moses “arranges things” to seal the match between God and His people.  The first hint of Moses’ sense that he will need to help this process along comes in 19:15, when he adds to God’s purification instructions, inserting “do not go near a woman” into the divinely ordained boundaries.  His move pays off a few verses later, when God nervously asks Moses to renew his warnings (19:21-22), Moses can confidently report that the Israelites have been amply warned.  Moses therefore moves the process forward at a moment it seemed poised to stall.

Moses’ next move might be his most surprising to readers more familiar with retellings than they are with the original text.  Moses descends from Sinai (19:25), placing him among the Israelites for the revelation of the Ten Commandments.  Unlike the mediated moments of divine speech in which God speaks to Moses, who then relays God’s messages, here we are told “God spoke all these words” (20:1).  The lack of an indirect object is significant.  Nachum Sarna points out “this introductory statement is unique in the Torah in that it does not indicate to whom the divine declaration is addressed.”  Sarna explains that this singular expression has led to rabbinic debates as to whether “all the people” heard the revelation together, or whether individuals each experienced the revelation in their own ways.  Sarna cites Talmudic aggadahthat after the first two commandments, the people needed Moses to mediate the experience.  Although this is supported by a change in grammar in the commandments, the Biblical account places their request after the completion of the Decalogue (20:16).

By experiencing the revelation among the people, Moses affirms his membership in the community and his obligation to the commandments alongside the rest of the nation.  The community’s insistence “You speak to us… and we will obey” (20:16) affirms Moses’ leadership position comes not simply by divine right, but also by communal acclamation.  Of course, this election of Moses provides a wry bit of dramatic irony to the story. The very first commandment delivered through this new intermediary system is “You shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (20:20). Despite Moses both repeating and writing down these new laws (24:3-4), this commandment against idols of precious metal becomes very first commandment the nation breaks with the creation of the golden calf.   Perhaps Moses was more effective as a yenta facilitating the relationship between Israel and God than he was as a more formal go-between.

Moses’ role in the Corpus Christi cycle is considerably different, with good reason.  The cycle consisted of a series of pageants, tracing Christian Biblical stories from the fall of Lucifer to the End of Days.  Although the plays were born from church drama, David Bevington explains the evolution of the Corpus Christi plays as a secularization of what was one strictly a sacred rite.  In this case, secularization was manifest by the teaming of local guilds with Church authorities beginning in late fourteenth-century England to produce the plays, rather than any movement away from religious content in the plays.  The cycle draws its name from the Feast of Corpus Christi, a post-Easter celebration of the Eucharist initiated in the thirteenth century, and draws heavily on patristic tradition.

The episode of the Ten Commandments from the Chester Cycle of plays, places upon Moses the yoke of symbolism.  He both represents the authority of the Church Fathers, delivering “the highest expression of the Mosaic Law” while also prefiguring Jesus as “both a prophet of Christ’s advent and an antetype of Christ” (337-338).

The Ten Commandments play wastes no time diving into revelation.  The first character to speak is God, and by the fifth line He is already spouting the first commandment, “I will, you honour no God save me” (339).  Although each of the local Cycles had variation in the episodes presented, the separation of the experience of Exodus (through the crossing of the Sea of Reeds) from the revelation of the Ten Commandments is evidenced in at least two of the cycles included in Bevington’s anthology.  Stage directions are scarce in medieval manuscripts. God’s opening lines provide a sense that the staging matches the communal revelation of Exodus: “Moyses, my servaunte life and dere, / And all the people that be here, / You wott in Egypte when you were / Out of Thralldome I you broughte” (338-339).  Moses seems to have taken his place among the nation, but at the conclusion of the revelation, the chief priest speaks to God and Moses “as if on behalf of the people” (339).  Again, following the biblical account, he expresses the nation’s fear of direct experience with God.  However, as soon as Moses calms there fears about God, the priest continues,

“That Moyses shines wondrous bright!

I may no way for great lighte

Now look upon him.

And honred he semes in our sighte!

Sith he came to the hill, dight

Our lawe he hase, I hope, aright,

For was he never so grim.”     (340)

Combining the two different Biblical accounts of Moses visiting Sinai to receive tablets (Exodus 24-32 and 34), the medieval characterization of Moses focuses on his near-divine aspect.  The Moses of the Chester Cycle is as much like God as he is like his people, strengthening his identification with the fully-human, fully-divine Jesus.

The play acknowledges its own condensing of the story, with an Expositor noting “This storye all if we shold fong, / To playe this moneth it were to[o] longe” (341) before narrating the episode of the Golden Calf and breaking-and-replacing of the tablets.  By relegating this event to narration, the role of Moses is emphasized, both as the only named character in the episode, but also by shifting the focus from the sin (which only warrants two versets) to Moses’s reactions.

This shift in emphasis also brings to the foreground an interesting difference between the two sets of tablets, present in Exodus but easier to miss in the ocean of words:  the first set “Toke Moyses these comaundmentys, verelye, / Written with His owne hande” (ie, God wrote them, and Moses took them), whereas “Other tables of stone made he ./ in which God bade written shold be / His words that were written before.”  In other words, the divinely inscribed first tablets are replaced by divinely dictated tablets inscribed by Moses.  The resulting tablets are much more the product of a partnership between God and Moses than the initial set.

Unlike the yenta/mediator of the Biblical account, this medieval Moses never speaks to God, only for Him.  In the play, the people (represented by the chief priest) address their grievances directly to both God and Moses, bypassing Moses’ intercessory role.  However, God’s only spoken lines are the commandments themselves.  Otherwise, God speaks through Moses.  As a church teaching emphasizing the role of the church fathers, this emphasizes their role in declaiming the word of God on earth.  As a drama about the Biblical figure of Moses, this technique shifts the balanced role Moses once held as both leader and Israelite much closer to the leader column.  Were it not for the way God addresses the commandments, one would have no sense at all that Moses was anything other than an agent or aspect of God.

The 2004 stage spectacle The Ten Commandments: The Musical also shifts the balance.  For this production, preserved on a DVD released in 2006, God is practically erased as a character from the story.  He has a few lines in the burning bush scene, but otherwise, God doesn’t speak and rarely acts.  Following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, Moses (played by Val Kilmer) stands alone on the mountain soliloquizing for forty days and forty nights before God answers by wordlessly carving tables out of the mountainside through the magic of special effects (Chapter 27).  Here, Moses once again resembles Jesus, but not the divine savior of the church; rather, one can imagine the production team furiously scribbling notes while examining Ted Neeley’s performance of “Gethsemane” in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Like the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, this attempt to dramatize the bible for contemporary audiences (by Patrick Leonard, and Maribeth Derry) focuses on the humanist side of the story.  However, in its rewriting of Moses’ childhood, Moses slays the Egyptian taskmaster only because he sees that slavery is wrong – he hasn’t yet learned of his Hebrew heritage.  And rather than run lest he get caught, his “brother,” the soon-to-be-Pharoah, offers to help him before the current Pharoah banishes Moses from Egypt.  It is only at the moment of banishment that Moses’ family of birth steps forward to reveal his true past.  The dynamic is so changed that when the time comes for Exodus, Bithia leaves with the Hebrews.

Looking at the Ten Commandments episode, we find that while Moses is dong his soul-searching on the mountain, the former slaves lament that “back in Egypt / figs are ripe for picking on the tree / Pharaoh gives us everything we need / Even though our work was never done / We still found a way to have some fun” (C.28).  Their song soon erupts into a production number where the Israelites try to make “a little milk and honey” for themselves in the form of an orgy, despite Aaron and Miriam’s protests.  Before long, there’s a Golden Calf and Moses returns.  Although Moses himself is not radiating divine light, the tablets he carries do (C.29).

When Moses rebukes the Israelites, he screams “Fools how could you be so weak? / You’ve given in to lust and greed. / These rules were given us by God / The God who broke your cruel bonds” (C.29).  The scene seems out of place for two reasons.  First, Moses has had little-to-no dialogue directly with the people to this point.  Although he has certainly been at the center of the story, he has only spoken to individuals, never to the assembly.  Even more alarmingly, in this rendition of the story, the Israelites have not yet seen the Ten Commandments when they rebel.  Moses seems to be accusing them of breaking rules they’ve never heard of before.  By the time he calls them a “nest of vipers, liars, and thieves” (clearly echoing at least Jesus Christ Superstar, if not the Book of Matthew) one wonders if Moses might have his script pages out of order.

Declaring “You don’t deserve anything,” Moses flings the tablets against the Golden Calf.  They break in two, but they don’t shatter, enabling a child (who I believe is supposed to be his son) to pick them up and sing the Ten Commandments in an angelic boy soprano voice (C.30).  Hearing these words for the first time, the Israelites, including Moses seem to be inspired to mend their ways.  So, Moses takes the two tables and puts them in the ark that has been carried on to the stage.  As the assembly kneels in front of the ark, the chorus takes up the chant “Moses, Moses, Moses,” placing him back as the leader of their group.  Seeing the Israelites kneeling before the ark with their arms stretched towards the heavens chanting his name seems to deify their leader.

But the deification doesn’t last, for there is a finale to be sung.  Moses stands first and declares:

“Here on earth, there’s a light that shines

When it’s darkest you can find it in each others’ eyes.

Here on earth, there’s a brotherhood we share,

When destruction casts a shadow

On good men everywhere” (C.31).

Moses, makes a declaration of humanism, stripping off not only his own deification, but apparently God’s as well. Although the song is called “Say a Prayer,” the meaning is clear that it’s up to individuals on earth to behave appropriately to bring redemption rather than wait for God to redeem us.  “Here on earth, we must draw each other near,” he sings, “Our faith will not divide us, only our fear” (C.31).  Rather than recede from the people to take on a more godly role as he did in the Corpus Christie cycle (and, to a lesser extent, in the Torah), Moses recedes from God to abdicate the idea of religious authority entirely.

If Moses can go from nearly-divine to secular humanist in a mere five-hundred years, from central to the story to nearly absent, perhaps the only answer is the Moses is what one makes of him.  If Moses can comfortably take on so many different roles and personas, maybe his most important role in the drama of the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments is to provide the audience with a figure with whom they can identify.  If at times Moses seems underwritten or self-contradictory, that only opens up the door for a broader range of emotions we the readers can imprint onto him.  Is Moses central or marginal, human or divine?  Yes, and then some.  Because maybe Moses is us.


Works Cited

Arnow, David “The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the human role in redemption.” Judaism. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_3-4_55/ai_n21093779> (March 25, 2009)

Bevington, David Medieval Drama.  Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston:1975)

Friedman, Rachard Elliott The Bible With Sources Revealed.  Harper Collins (San Francisco: 2003)

Sarna, Nachum (ed.) The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus.  Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia: 1991)

The Ten Commandments: The Musical.  DVD.  Directed by Robert Iscove with performances by Val Kilmer  et al.  Los Angeles, CA: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, 2006

[1] Arnow points out this “nearly universal” belief isn’t quite true: “Although the Haggadah certainly downplays his role in the Exodus, the traditional text has not entirely eliminated Moses: it refers to him twice, once by name and once obliquely.”

[2] Ascends 19:3, descends 19:7; ascends 19:8 descends 19:!4; ascends 19:20, descends 19:25; ascends in stages 24:9, 13, 15, 18; descends 32:15; ascends 34:4, descends 34:29.

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