Magazine article The Christian Century

Uses and Abuses of Moses: Literary Representations since the Enlightenment

Magazine article The Christian Century

Uses and Abuses of Moses: Literary Representations since the Enlightenment

Article excerpt

Uses and Abuses of Moses: Literary Representations since the Enlightenment

By Theodore Ziolkowski

University of Notre Dame Press, 360 pp., $60.00


A great deal has changed in scripture interpretation since the high days of modernism. Interpreters no longer seek original intent of the text in the fashion of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and as was demanded by historical criticism. Readers of scripture are no longer preoccupied with the author or the original context. Moreover, readers are aware that the biblical text cannot be corralled to serve any particular orthodoxy, which always required a somewhat skewed reading. Now scripture reading thrives on the generative force of imaginative interpretation. The outcome of such work is the recognition that interpretation (and the meaning and work) of the text is pluralistic, complex, and most likely not disinterested.

Theodore Ziolkowski, who taught German and literature at Princeton University, has written a history of interpretation of the Moses tradition. His subtitle indicates two ways in which he has limited his scope: he is concerned with interpretation in the modern period, and his focus is on "literary representations." The latter means that his interest is in renderings of the text in novels, drama, music, and visual arts. While there are implicit political dimensions to this book, it would be well read alongside Bruce Feiler's America's Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, which focuses on political discourse.

Ziolkowski explores the immense latitude that interpreters of the Moses tradition have taken in rendering the material useful for them. He find there are "three pronouncedly ideological uses of Moses":

   by Hitler in his anti-Semitic rants against the Jews, by the
   Holocaust survivor Wiesel as a model for the will of the
   Jewish people to survive precisely the genocidal efforts of
   people like Hitler, and by Churchill as the exemplary leader
   for all men in an age threatened by destruction.

This modern practice is not discontinuous from the older rabbinic tradition of interpretation that found the biblical text immensely plastic, open to rich alternative meaning that smacks of acute ideological interest. This rich interpretive tradition was not preoccupied with "historical questions" as was required by modernist rationality.

In the 19th century there is wide appeal to "Egyptomania," based on critical study but given dramatic and artistic expression in ways that attest Moses' capacity for forceful and violent strength. Ziolkowski highlights here the poetry of Victor Hugo and the work of Chateaubriand, Rossini, and Heinrich Heine. Heine sees Moses as an early moralist. A novel by Joseph Holt Ingraham in 1859 is judged to be the antecedent of Cecil B. DeMille's later blockbuster.

Ziolkowski gives special attention to the use of the Moses tradition as a tale of liberation. He cites Frances Harper who had appealed to Harriet Tubman, followed by reference to the contribution of George Eliot and a suggestion that Twain's Huck Finn is a reconstruction of the Moses saga. …

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