Academic journal article Shofar

Moses in Midian, According to Philo

Academic journal article Shofar

Moses in Midian, According to Philo

Article excerpt

In his De Vita Mosis Philo, by building up the personality of Moses, seeks to answer antisemitic charges, notably that the Jews had produced no great men. He defends Moses against the charge that he had not sufficiently helped the Israelites during their oppression in Egypt and justifies his slaying of an Egyptian overseer. While emphasizing the value of his career as a shepherd in preparing him for the role of leadership of the Israelites, he adds that he also devoted himself in Midian to the study of philosophy. In his aid to Jethro's daughters in drawing water for their sheep Philo's Moses, prophetically inspired, shows his tremendous concern for justice. To make the account of the burning bush more credible Philo presents it as a vision and the bush itself as symbolizing the oppressed Israelites. He is careful to omit Moses' self-doubt. When Moses draws his hand from his bosom it is whiter than snow, according to Philo, but not leprous, as in the Bible. He presents a more scientific interpretation of the miracle of turning water into blood. He explains Moses' speech impediment as due to his view that he considered human eloquence to be dumbness as compared with G-d's. For apologetic reasons Philo omits Moses' failure to circumcise his son.

1. Moses' Escape from Egypt

The Bible (Exod. 2:7), at the very beginning of the Book of Exodus, states that the Chidren of Israel in Egypt were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong, so very much so that the land became filled with them. It notes the statement by the new king of Egypt advising his people to outsmart the Israelites lest they become even more numerous and in a war even join the enemies of the Egyptians and then leave. Whereas the Bible (Exod. 1:11) speaks of the enslavement of the Israelites by the Pharaoh before it mentions the birth and upbringing of Moses, Philo (De Vita Mosis 1.5-33) first mentions the birth and upbringing of Moses and only later refers to their enslavement (1.36), thus putting greater focus upon Moses and emphasizing the cruelty of the Pharaoh, stressing the fact, which had obvious contemporary implications for the Jews living in Egypt in Philo's time who were seeking equal rights with the other inhabitants of Egypt,(1) that instead of treating the Israelites as suppliants and friends who were eager to obtain equal rights with the other Egyptians and who were near to being citizens because they differed so little from the original inhabitants of Egypt, the Pharaoh showed no shame or fear of the G-d of liberty, hospitality, and justice to guests and suppliants and enslaved them in the most unspeakable fashion (De Vita Mosis 1.35-36). Surprisingly enough, Philo does not mention here the tremendous services that Joseph had done for the Pharaoh and for which he should have been grateful, perhaps seeking to keep the focus solely upon Moses.

The Bible (Exod. 2:11-15) states merely that Moses went out to his brethren and observed their burdens and killed an Egyptian whom he saw striking a Hebrew. The question might well arise as to why Moses did not do more to help his fellow Jews when they were so terribly oppressed and why the biblical text mentions only a single incident (Exod. 2:11-15) where he did intervene. Josephus (Ant. 2.255) does not raise the question at all and says nothing to explain it, perhaps because he would have been embarrassed to mention the incident in which Moses killed an Egyptian overseer.

In the first place, Philo (De Vita Mosis 1.34-39) describes at much greater length the suffering to which the Israelites were subjected. He mentions the terrible oppression of the Jews, adding (De Vita Mosis 1.37-38) that the Pharaoh chose as superintendents of their labors men of the most cruel and savage temper who showed no mercy to anyone, that the Israelites built houses, walls, cities, and canals, and carried the materials themselves without respite day and night without being allowed even to sleep, so that they died one after the other, as though in a pestilence, and were not even given the minimal rights of burial. …

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