Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Masking Moses and Mosaic Authority in Torah

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Masking Moses and Mosaic Authority in Torah

Article excerpt

Exodus 34:29-35 tells how Moses acquired shining skin on the mountain of God and why he needed to veil his face after descending. The episode takes place after the final mountaintop encounter between Yahweh and Moses in Exodus 34. The basic message of the story is clear enough: Private theophany is so intense that Moses is transformed, which results in his facial skin radiating the afterglow of God even when he descends the mountain. But the literary structure and function of the story are more complex.

The problem with literary structure is that the story is at once a past narrative (w. 29-33) and a paradigm for continual ritual practice (w. 34-35).1 Exodus 34:29-33 begins with an account of Moses' descent from the mountain with shining skin (11y -1]7, v. 29). The leaders react with fear at the sight of Moses' face (v. 30), but return upon hearing his voice (v 31 ). Moses then mediates divine law (v. 32) and upon completion covers his face with a veil (. .., v. 33). Past narrative gives way to an account of continual ritual practice in Exod 34:345. The closing verses state that whenever Moses would enter to speak with Yahweh he removed his veil to receive revelation and to communicate it to Israel. Once divine law was mediated, Moses would cover his face with the veil. The account of continual ritual practice raises a question concerning the function of this episode in the subsequent portrayal of Moses within the Pentateuch, since it suggests that Israel's perception of Moses continued to be restricted to his shining skin during cultic revelation and his veil at all other times.

Commentators have struggled with the puzzling nature of this episode, even while sensing its significance in the characterization of Moses. Brevard Childs probed the prehistory of the story, noting its unusual problems with regard to form and function, and concluding in the end that the origin of the tradition was untraceable.2 Hugo Gressmann sought to make sense of the story by interpreting the veil as a mask analogous to the representative function of masks in primitive religion.3 Many have been attracted intuitively to Gressmann's approach, but there is debate whether the veil conforms to his definition of a mask.4 In addition, his focus on an isolated Sage provided no insight into the function of the episode within the Pentateuch. Interpreters of literary setting have also been frustrated by the story. Martin Noth judged the story to be an insertion, implying that it has little or no role in its present contexts Frank Cross used the term "postscript," suggesting some relation to the preceding literature, perhaps as a conclusions Menahem Haran concludes simply that Exod 34:29-35 deals with "one of Moses' unique peculiarities," which is "unmentioned elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible."7

Research on ritual masks has progressed beyond the original insights of Gressmann, confirming his identification of Moses' veil as a mask. My aim is to employ recent research on the meaning and function of ritual masks to interpret the literary significance of Moses' shining skin and veil within the larger setting of the life of Moses in the Pentateuch. My study also departs from Gressmann's earlier work by being limited to an interpretation of the literature. It is not an argument for the cultic use of masks in ancient Israelite religion, as Gressmann sought to demonstrate? My interpretation has three specific goals.

First, a summary of recent definitions of masks will demonstrate that both the shining skin of Moses and his veil are masks, and that their interrelationship creates Mosaic authority. Second, examination of literary setting will clarify that Moses' masking is intended to influence his portrayal throughout the Pentateuch as the unique mediator of divine law. Third, attention to composition will illustrate two interpretations of Mosaic authority in the design of the canonical Pentateuch. A pre-Priestly version anchors Mosaic authority within the Tent of Meeting, while a Priestly version shifts the setting to the Tabernacle cult. …

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