The Birth of Moses (ii)

Following on from the previous post, let’s say some more about the legend of the birth of Moses.

It’s worth noting that there is a Hebrew word תֵּבָה (tevah) which appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible. It means a box, or a chest. It’s used, firstly, of Noah’s Ark in the Genesis story about the Flood, and perhaps gives some idea of what that supposedly amazingly compendious and commodious vessel would have looked like. It might have been as large as some contemporary cruise ships, but nowhere near as sea-slicingly, aqua-dynamically elegant. In the story, however, it serves its purpose! The same word is used, secondly, of the box, chest or basket in which the baby Moses was placed, prior to its being hidden among the reeds of the river Nile. We’re told that both ‘vessels’ were suitably caulked to keep them safely afloat. 

Assuming that this use of the same rare word is intentional, a link is being made between Noah and Moses. Just as Noah was specially chosen by God to be the means of deliverance whereby the human race was not consigned to oblivion, so Moses has been specially chosen by God to be the means by which the people of Israel will be liberated from Egypt, and thus delivered from the historical oblivion of being worked to extinction as slaves building the monuments of the Pharaohs.

As we mentioned in the previous post, there are very many, incredibly amazing, world-wide legends attached to the birth of political, national and religious leaders. For such illustrious people, there must surely have been remarkably noteworthy signs, from the very beginning, that great prospects and achievements lay ahead of them. Among such portents will be dramatic instances of timely deliverance from deadly threats, arising from those by whom they are regarded as a threat. As we noted, the Greeks told such stories about Dionysus and Hercules; the Persians about Zarathustra; the Romans about Romulus; and Christians about Jesus. 

So what does the New Testament say about the birth of Jesus? There are, of course, the necessary and inevitable ‘signs and wonders’, including the heavens opening, choirs of angels singing, a low-flying guiding star, and wise men bringing lavish gifts. But there is also deadly danger from someone who regards this birth as a personal threat and so, like the Pharaoh, Herod demands the death of all newborn infants, girls as well as boys this time – in for a penny, in for a pound.

Once again, however, there’s another divine deliverance, this time by means of a warning dream to Jesus’ proxy father. Where do his parents take Jesus? Where else but Egypt. Including this story enables its putative writer ‘Matthew’ to make the claim that, “in this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: out of Egypt I have called my Son”. Lo and behold, once Herod is dead, a follow-up dream calls for his parents and Jesus to ‘Exodus’ from Egypt and return to God’s promised land of Israel. The parallel here is underlined by the parents being told that “those who were seeking the child’s life are dead”. This recalls Exodus 4:19, where God tells Moses, who has fled for his life after killing an Egyptian, that “all the men who were seeking your life are dead”. 

Jesus, in other words, is the new Moses. Later on, in Matthew 17, Jesus ascends “a high mountain”, where he is “transfigured and his face shone like the sun”. In Exodus 34:29, “when Moses came down from Mount Sinai … the skin of his face shone”, so much so that he had to “put a veil on his face”. It’s no surprise, then, that when Jesus stood on his ‘mountain of transfiguration’, who should appear but “Moses … talking with him”.

This is what makes the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels of the New Testament so endlessly fascinating. They are full of correspondences, echoes and re-echoes, recurring motifs, images and symbols. For such riches to be fully understood, however, they must be approached in the light of two centuries of critical (in the positive sense of that word), textual, literary, cultural, comparative mythological, psychological, anthropological, and historical scrutiny. In my view, rather than being ‘damaged’ by that, on the contrary, they emerge from it as supremely great works of spiritual literature which can richly reward every open-minded, discerning and receptive reader. 

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