Moses, The Exodus and The Hebrew War Machine
An Essay by John David Ebert
I. Theological Embryogenesis
Hegel seems to have been right: history moves dialectically, with each age serving as a counter-argument to the one before it. If Akhenaten had eliminated the sun’s nocturnal journey through the underworld, then the life of Moses restores it, for the characteristics of his biography have all the markings of a journey through the underworld: not only does he travel from West to East in imitation of the sun’s course through the world beneath the earth, but he also battles monsters and adversaries which turn up in the narratives disguised as Pharaoh (who functions in the role of the Apopis serpent) and the giants of Anak which the Hebrews encounter once they reach Canaan. The imagery of the parched red deserts which the Egyptians so dreaded that they identified them with the underworld turn up, too, in the narrative as the complaining Hebrews always running short of water and blaming Moses for leading them out into the deserts of the Sinai to die. The same image of waterless sands turns up in the Fourth Hour of the Book of the Netherworld which the Egyptians of the New Kingdom painted on the walls of the tombs of their pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.
Moses, furthermore, is said to have learned his wisdom from his studies in the Egyptian city of On, or Heliopolis which, we have learned, was also an important city in the pedagogical training of Akhenaten, for it was the city whose patron was the ancient god Re-Harakhty, the sun god who traversed the sky in his barge from one horizon to the next. Thus, both Moses and Akhenaten seem to have graduated from their theological studies from the same city, while the two men split the course of the sun’s 24 hour journey in half, the rebel pharaoh taking on its 12 hour daytime half, while the founder of Hebraic monotheism took with him the nocturnal half of its journey through the world below. In both cases, what emerged were two different monotheisms, one identified with the sun as its primary image and icon, the other with an invisible, and very transcendent, god whose being consists precisely in his very absence from the phenomena of the physical world.
The two religions, furthermore, may not have been more than a century or so apart if we follow the currently favored academic date for the Exodus taking place during the time of Ramses II, who ruled for most of the 13th century BC. If we imagine the Exodus to have occurred circa 1250 BC, in about the middle of his reign — since the stele of his son Merneptah dating from 1207 BC mentions “Israel” for the first time in Egyptian chirographic history — and since we know that Akhenaten’s reign terminated sometime around 1340 BC or so, this would give us about a century between the two religions.
It is likely, though, as scholars such as T.J. Meek once pointed out, that the actual Exodus concerned only a very small portion of the Hebrew people, perhaps only one or two tribes, such as the Levites — the only tribe, incidentally, with Egyptian names — and Judah. The Amarna Letters from the time of Akhenaten reveal the so-called “Habiru” running around the north of Palestine taking over its cities from about 1400 BC on. The city of Shechem, moreover, was taken at this time, and seems to have become the capital of a confederacy of tribes that formed the northern nation of Israel. Joshua’s name turns up in these letters, too, as “Yahuya,” so he may have led the northern conquest and may not have known Moses at all, who appears to have led the settling of the south and eventually what later became the kingdom of Judah.
If we were to follow the date for the Exodus given in the Bible (1 Kings 6:1), however, which tells us that 480 years elapsed between the building of Solomon’s Temple around 960 BC and the occurrence of the Exodus, this would put the event somewhere around 1447 BC, which is far too early, in my opinion, since this would place it long before the monotheistic Truth Event of the pharaoh Akhenaten. There are, however, simply too many structural similarities between the two religions for them to be wholly unrelated Truth Events: the monotheistic Idea itself; the ban on images; the intolerance of other deities; the lack of interest in the afterlife; the proscription of magic and divination, etc.
We don’t need to go so far as to say, with Freud, that Moses was a priest in the court of Akhenaten: we need merely take note of Nicholas Reeves’ comment that the cult of the Aten still continued to be practiced in Egypt long after the demolition of Akhenaten’s city, clear down to the time of the pharaoh Sethos I — the father of Ramses II — and beyond; long enough, in other words, for some kind of an influence to radiate throughout Egypt, perhaps eventually finding its way to the mind of a man of priestly ambitions living in the city of Helipolis in the middle of the 13th century, a Hebrew man with an Egyptian name looking for a better life somewhere in another land that would be less hostile to his Semitic inheritance.
The influence, then, could only have run from Akhenaten to Moses, not the other way, for in those days, the haughty and arrogant Egyptians copied from no one, let alone a people whom they would have regarded as culturally inferior such as the Habiru living in their midst. (Indeed, we have an inscription from the time of Ramses II stating that the Habiru were involved in building one of his many giant construction projects). It was the Egyptians who were the great cultural innovators of the time, the Mother Civilization, in other words. The rest of the ancient Near East, in those days, copied them, so to put the Exodus Event prior to Akhenaten’s creation of monotheism does not seem to me a likely scenario.
Moses was a theological student at Heliopolis, and there is no doubt that the Amarna heresy would have become known to him by one means or another. The invention of Hebraic monotheism was simply his transformation of the religion of Amarna.
And so, history moves dialectically, for the advent of Mosaic monotheism seems very much to represent an acknowledgement of, and counter-response to, the monotheistic innovation of the pharaoh Akhenaten. As in the case of all great creators — Isaac Newton, for instance, who stood on the shoulders of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo — Moses acknowledges Akhenaten’s great theological revolution, and then uses it as the basis for a complete transformation of the Hebraic cognitive mental space, a transformation so thorough that it would require the leaving behind of Egypt altogether, just as Akhenaten’s new religion required his own mini-Exodus from the city of Thebes to build a new city within which to house his new religion.
The Hebraic Truth Event that signifies a historical rupture — a complete singularity, in fact, in religious history — from all that had gone before it, requires a decisive severance from the Egyptian state apparatus. A three-dimensional mental horizon opened out in the mind of Moses, and it was a landscape that would require a new city with a new map, for its strictures were incompatible with a continued existence inside the body of Mother Egypt. This new theological topography was so extensive, so thoroughly conceived and arranged in the cognitive eye of Moses, that he knew it would ultimately require an entirely new civilization within which to house its new insights.
And so Egypt must be left behind, the very Egypt inside of whose protective walls the young Moses had grown up. The Bible says that Moses fled from Egypt as the result of his murder of an Egyptian that he saw beating one of his own people, but the biography of Moses penned by Josephus leaves this out of account and instead, Josephus has him fleeing Egypt as the result of a dawning paranoia that pharaoh might suspect him of kingly ambitions.
In reality, Moses fled from Egypt because he was so startled by the audacity of his own Vision, a Vision that was too large to be compatible with a further existence inside the Egyptian macrosphere. A new macrosphere — this is Peter Sloterdijk’s term for the all-containing world-womb within which a people comes to exist, comes, that is, into being-in-the-world in a certain way, as Heidegger would put it — was emerging like the embryo of a god taking shape within the skull of Moses, and he needed time and space to plan it out and shape it into a new historical mode of Existenz.
So he fled to the deserts of Midian (perhaps located just east of the Gulf of Aqaba) where he lived for forty years as a shepherd caretaking his new father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, but all the while the vision of a new mode of being was taking shape inside the microsphere of his head. Akhenaten, he knew, had attempted to build a monotheistic society within a world surrounded and soaked in ancient polytheism. What was required was a new field altogether, a field where such ancient cults could not squash out the new religion before it could get a foothold on new ground. He needed a new land…
The idea languished. Perhaps he even forgot about it: in Midian the endless desert horizons of hot days alternating with cool nights unfolded and spooled past. He was a shepherd now. He would, apparently, always be a shepherd.
And then something happened: another Truth Event.
II. The Hebrew Avatar
One day, Moses is out with his sheep near Mount Horeb (the older name for Sinai) and he sees a burning bush. Then he hears a voice calling to him from out of the bush, a voice that insists he must return to Egypt and put the idea into action: he must go down into the underworld of Egypt and ‘draw forth’ the Israelites. Then he must act as midwife to an entire people, giving birth to them in a New Land with a new macrosphere inside which they will exist. He asks the voice of the god speaking to him from out of the bush what he will tell the Israelites when they ask him the name of his god, and the god tells him, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Moses, in other words, wants to know the name of this new god, because in those days, names were everything. It is a bit like the Egyptian story of the goddess Isis who manages to trick the sun god Re into telling her his name after he has been bitten by a snake, and she promises to give him the anti-venom only if he will reveal his name, which he does. Hence, the epithet of Isis: “The Lady of a Thousand Names.”
The subject of names, at this point, is worth dwelling on, for there is the problem of Moses’ name: it is an Egyptian name, but only half of one. The word ‘moses’ means ‘child of’ or ‘born of,’ and usually occurs in conjunction with the name of a god, such as ‘Thuthmosis,’ meaning ‘child of the god Thoth,’ or ‘Ramesses,’ i.e. ‘Ra-moses,’ or ‘born of the god Ra.’ The suffix was especially common in the Egyptian New Kingdom, and so it is interesting that the name of Moses is missing whatever Egyptian god’s name would have formed its prefix. Thus, we have x-Moses: a man who is the child of an unknown god.
When the god whom he will later serve gives him his name as “I am Who I am,” (Ehyeh asher ehyeh) it appears, once again, to be a bit of a mystery, as though the god were being cagey about Moses knowing his real name. The name does begin and end, however, with a word in which the syllables of YHWH (i.e. the letters yod, hay, va’a, hay) are inverted, as though it were code for ‘Yahweh.’ (The Hebrew verb hayah means ‘to be.’) Yahweh, then, is the god who IS. He is, in other words, the reason for the existence of everything that IS.
According to the Book of Exodus, when pharaoh’s daughter rescues the infant Moses from the basket on the river, she gives him the Hebrew name ‘Moshe’ from a folk etymology of Hebrew mashah, meaning ‘to draw out.’ Since we can scarcely consider the likelihood that pharaoh’s daughter knew Hebrew well enough to give him such a name, we must assume that it really is an Egyptian, not a Hebrew, name. And yet, the Hebrew name, with its connotation of ‘drawing forth’ from the water, is precisely what Yahweh, at the episode of the burning bush, is telling Moses to do: go and ‘draw forth’ the Hebrews from the waters of the Egyptian underworld. The Egyptian name ‘Moses,’ with its connotations of ‘giving birth,’ is actually not all that far away from the Hebrew word mashah, since it is precisely an act of giving birth that Moses will perform, by descending into the darkness of Egypt and ‘drawing forth’ the captured Hebrew peoples from bondage.
Thus, the semiotics of his mission are similar to those of Neoplatonism and Manicheanism: the Hebrews have fallen into the captivity of darkness just as the light particles in the religion of Mani have fallen and been captured by the material world. It is the task of the Manichean holy man to redeem these trapped light particles, just as in the Manichean cosmogony the Holy Spirit is sent down to rescue the Anthropos from his fall into materiality. The Anthropos had descended into the underworld wearing an armor made out of light, and the demons of darkness had torn it off and swallowed it, trapping him in their world of darkness and sensuality. The Holy Spirit reaches down and pulls him back up into the realm of Light.
Moses is given the mission by Yahweh of doing the exact same thing for the Hebrews as a people. As a traditional solar hero, he will descend into the underworld and redeem the captured light particles which the Hebrews represent, pulling them out of their state of bondage and setting them free in the Promised Land.
Yahweh IS; Moses DOES.
Thus, there is a hidden avataric relationship between the two, an idea, of course, that is anathema to traditional Hebrew thought, but which, nonetheless is suggested by the semiotics of the narrative.
In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu sends forth avatars of himself in order to rescue trapped beings: when the goddess Earth is kidnapped by the elephant demon, Vishnu descends as the boar avatar down into the waters of a primordial ocean to dig her up from its depths and restore her to the surface where she can function once again as a sort of Pangaea that gives birth to all life; in the form of his fish avatar, Vishnu descends into the waters in order to save humanity, in the form of Manu — the Hindu Noah — from the flood that will otherwise wipe out all human beings; in the form of Rama, he descends into the world to rescue Sita from her capture by the demon Ravana, and so forth.
Moses, then, is the avatar of Yahweh sent down into the abyssal realm of Egypt to rescue the Hebrews from their fall into captivity.
III. The Man With no Face
Moses, however, is a hero, not a god.
But he is a certain very special type of hero, one who is not just himself, hero x, but a hero who functions as a kind of floating signifier, as Jesus Christ, in fact, will later do. Moses, in other words, is a man who puts on and takes off the masks of other deities. If monotheism is to succeed as a religion — a fact later realized by the architects of early Christianity — then it must do so by absorbing the powers of all the other gods.
Take the serpent staff, for instance, which Yahweh, at the episode of the burning bush, tells Moses he will wield before the Egyptians as a sign of his power. Moses throws his shepherd’s staff to the ground and it becomes a serpent. When he picks it up again, it is a staff once more.
When he tries this trick out on the Egyptians in pharaoh’s court, however, the Egyptians are unimpressed: they know the trick well and are able to duplicate it with their staffs, too. But what they don’t realize is that the god of the serpent staff, known in Mesopotamia as Ningishzida, a god of the underworld, is being absorbed into the spiritual metabolism of Moses thereby. Later, in Greek myth, the serpent staff will become sacred to Asclepius, the god of healing. (Note that Moses is in the role of the serpent god of healing when he sets up the bronze serpent in the desert in order to heal the snakebites from the plague of fiery serpents that Yahweh has sent to punish the intransigence of the Israelites).
When the 10 Plagues begin, Moses takes off the mask of Ningishzida and puts on the mask of Nergal (also known as Erra), the Mesopotamian god of plagues and destruction. The litany of plagues that are visited upon the Egyptians remind one of the catalogue of devastations visited upon Babylon by the god Erra in the Mesopotamian text known as “Erra and Ishum,” written down in the 8th century BC: “I shall finish off the land and count it as ruins,” Erra says, then continues:
I shall devastate cities and make of them a wilderness.
I shall destroy mountains and fell their cattle.
I shall stir up oceans and destroy their produce.
I shall dig out reed-thickets and graves and I shall burn them like Gerra.
I shall fell people and [I shall leave no] life,
I shall not keep a single one back!
I shall not leave out any of the cattle of Shakkan nor any wild beasts [whatsoever].
From city to city I shall seize the one who governs.
In Mesopotamian imagery, whenever a person fell sick it was imagined that he had been ’seized’ physically by the god Nergal and hung upside down in the underworld. Moses, then, is in the process of ’seizing’ pharaoh and hanging him upside down as he blights the land of Egypt with locusts, lice, frogs, darkness, etc.
Later, Moses will put on other masks, such as the mask of Baal when he fights pharaoh at the Red Sea, or the mask of Thoth when he invents the alphabet. When he comes down from the mountain of Sinai after his second confrontation with Yahweh, his face shines with a divine radiance that is too much for the Israelites to bear to look upon, so he is forced, from that moment on, to wear a veil over his face for the rest of his days. He only takes off the veil when he goes in to commune with Yahweh. When dealing with him, the Israelites must have thought him a spooky and frightening man. This imagery, significantly, is omitted from all the later Moses biographies from Josephus to Cecil B. DeMille, and it is a little known detail to anyone who has not read the Exodus narratives.
But the veil is a sort of a mask, too, and it is a clue to the essentially undefined nature of the visage of Moses. He is personality x, a hero unique in all the world’s sacred literature as the Man With No Face. Consequently, he is a man of many faces, a hero who defines himself at any one particular moment in the narrative by whatever god of the ancient Near East he happens to be impersonating.
Once the 10 Plagues have run their course, Moses disengages the Hebrew people from the Egyptian state apparatus — the state is always an apparatus of capture, according to Deleuze and Guattari — and begins to head out with them beyond the boundaries of Egyptian society. Later, he will transform them into a nomadic war machine, but at this point, they are still a formless amorphous mass, like a blastula.
When we come to the episode of the Red Sea — which is apparently a mistranslation of ‘Reed Sea’ — we may say that the Hebrews have arrived at the membranous boundary of the Egyptian mother body. The water has burst and the embryo is ready to come forth. The walls of the birth canal part; the Hebrews come through; and then the waters fall upon pharaoh and his army, wiping them out.
The episode has the feel about it of the Hebrews actually emerging from the sea, as though the image were a recapitulation of the evolutionary story of the migration of lobe-finned lungfish to the sand, where they begin laying eggs beyond the reach of the water, eggs which then hatch into an entirely new organism, an amphibial creature known as Acanthostega, a full blown land-dwelling, air-breathing creature. Spiritually speaking, however, this evolutionary image is a direct analogue of the state of the Hebrews as a people at this point in the narrative, for they are mere spiritual newborns with a long and arduous test on the land ahead of them.
The emergence from the Red Sea is also a threshold crossing of another sort, for it marks the final emergence of the Hebrews from the protective womb of Egyptian civilization itself. It is a moment that is directly analogous to Dante’s exile from the walled city of Medieval Florence, when he is cast out into the wilderness of the forests between Florence and Siena. His frightening sojourn in the woods, where he encounters monsters like the lion, the leopard and the wolf, and then his subsequent descent downward on a vertical plane into a spiraling abyss of concentric circles is directly analogous to the sojourn of the Hebrews across a horizontal netherworld through the wilderness of Sinai, where they will encounter monsters such as giants, huge armies of Amalekites and other such desert predators.
But there is yet another level to the image, which Jonathan Kirsch points out in his biography of Moses, for some scholars believe that the story of Moses and Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea is a deliberate echo of the Canaanite myth of the battle of the god Baal against the sea dragon Yam. The use of the rod by Moses to part the waters thus becomes an echo of the club used by Baal to hurl against Yam. This mythic substratum would therefore cast pharaoh in the role of the dragon and Moses, wearing the mask of Baal, as the dragon-slayer who brings order out of chaos. The myth also conveniently underscores our analogy to the narrative of evolution, which is a narrative in which reptilian elements throughout evolutionary history are gradually defeated and overthrown by mammalian ones: the womb is victorious over the egg; the limbic ring over the reptilian brain stem; three bones in the ear and one in the jaw as a reversal of the reptilian single ear bone with three in the jaw, etc.
Thus, the Canaanite story tells of the victory of a more highly evolved being — Baal, the son of El — over a more primitive, less evolved dragon monster named Yam, just as the Hebrews see themselves at this point as a more highly evolved spiritual organism triumphing over the mere animal gods of the Egyptians.
And since the god Baal was identified by the Egyptians with their god Seth, we also have an image that echoes Seth’s slaying of the Apopis serpent in the Books of the Netherworld, which depict the nocturnal journey of the sun through the world beneath the earth. Thus, the story of Moses retrieves and restructures the Egyptian night sea journey of the sun beneath the earth, and by reversing that story’s semiotics, in which pharaoh is now identified with the chaos monster, and the Hebrews with the forces that defeat him, the myth is appropriated by the Hebrews and completely overturned to the detriment of the Egyptians. Pharaoh is the great beast which, like the Apopis serpent that appears to block the passage of Re’s barque, attempts to stop the passage of the Hebrews and must be overcome by them.
V. The War Machine
After a period of wandering in the desert and feasting upon manna and quail, the Hebrews come upon the Amalekites and soon discover themselves born as a people united by the concept of Holy War. This is the first battle of the Hebrews with another people after their escape from pharaoh at the Red Sea, and it is an episode that brings into being the very concept of the Holy War.
Moses tells Joshua, whom we meet here for the first time, to go down with an army and fight the Amalekites while he and his brother Aaron and an elder named Hur will watch the battle from the cliffs up above. Whenever Moses raises his staff, the Hebrews will prevail; when he lowers it, the Amalekites will prevail. The name of the place is Rephidim, which means “support,” and evidently refers to the fact that when Moses — who is about 80 years old at this point — becomes too tired to raise his arms, Aaron stands on one side of him while Hur stands on the other and they support the raising of his arms.
This little clue also informs us that he was raising both arms into the air, thus making the shape of the Hebrew letter of the alphabet called heh, or the letter “E” turned onto its back which was, originally, the image of a man with arms upraised into the air in prayer to his god.
According to Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the letter heh means “Breath, cry, prayer, interjection: hey! With the letter heh we gain acces to the first breath with which a human being can begin his existence, with a rhythm and power that are constantly renewed.” (Mysteries of the Alphabet, 163)
The Hebrews, in other words, with the battle of the Amalekites at Rephidim, are constructing themselves as a nomadic war machine: they are drawing their first breath as a newborn embryonic war machine that has detached itself from a pre-existent state apparatus and is now moving horizontally across the flat space of the desert, defending this space. If the state, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is an apparatus of capture that functions by internalizing things to itself, then the nomadic war machine exteriorizes itself completely. It is a social formation without a state.
But it must defend the smooth space of its habitat against the striated spaces signified by cities. Cities are merely striations in the smooth plane of nomadic space, and they must be flattened out accordingly. The nomadic Hebrews, coming into being as a war machine for the first time, transform this universal goal of the nomad into the very specific goal that is central to all three Abrahamic religions: the Holy War, the divinely sanctioned battle against an enemy who is “not holy” precisely because he is completely Other, and is therefore in the way of the construction of holy space. He who interferes with the physical construction of the topography of sacred space, in this tradition, whether it is configured as the smooth space of the desert or the striated space of the city, is to be eliminated as the Enemy.
The Holy War is a unique structural characteristic of the monotheistic mentality, since all other gods function merely as noise in this sacred space. It is only after he has built the city of Akhetaten that Akhenaten declares a Holy War on all the other gods and priesthoods of Egypt, because the divinely sanctified space of Amarna must not be transgressed by other gods. Likewise, with the Hebrews wandering through Sinai: they are attempting to create a holy space that is sanctified by one god; other gods mean other tribes and so both must be eliminated. Other ethnicities can no more be tolerated than other gods.
Monotheism lends itself very well to ethnic cleansing.
VI. The Birth of the Alphabet
And so we come to the Sinai Event.
Moses has returned full circle from his starting point in Midian. He is reuinted with his wife and two sons, and reports about his trip to his father-in-law Jethro. Then, after taking care of all earthly business, he ascends Mount Sinai. This mountain serves as a sort of local geological ziggurat for a poor nomadic society that cannot afford to build a cosmic mountain in stone or even mud-brick. It is the Hebrew analogue to the Egyptian pyramid — which, in the New Kingdom was substituted by the Theban Mountain in the Valley of the Kings — and the Mesopotamian ziggurat, the axial meeting point between the powers of Heaven and Earth. Moses ascends to meet with his god and when, forty days and forty nights later, he comes down, he is in possession of the Decalogue.
Now, as I see it, there are two aspects to this Decalogue: what it says, and the medium used to communicate those words. Both are revolutionary.
The medium that Moses would have used to compose the Decalogue would have most likely been the alphabet, a medium which he is no doubt being imagined to have originated here (with the help of Yahweh, of course). Though it nowhere says in the Bible that Moses invented the alphabet, the circumstances of his bringing down the very first Hebrew text from the mountain implies as much.
Myths are compressed images and narratives that store cultural memory; they are the way in which entire civilizations remember its past, and like all memories, they can be a bit fuzzy. But also like individual memories, they can store a surprising amount of information if you look at them closely enough.
The myth of Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai is, I suspect, not only a “memory” of the production of what might be the oldest document in Hebrew literature, i.e. the Decalogue, but simultaneously stores a memory of the creation of the Hebrew alphabet.
It used to be thought that the alphabet was created by the Phoenicians somewhere around 1500 BC, but it now seems more likely that it was indeed the creation of Old Hebrew-speaking Canaanites in the Sinai peninsula located in an area not too far away from Mount Sinai — if, that is, Sinai is correctly identified as Mount Catherine in the southern part of the peninsula, although this seems unlikely, since the Greek Christians who operate the world’s oldest Christian monastery on that mountain most likely concocted the notion to lend them credibility.
At a mountain in the south-eastern part of Sinai known as Serabit el-Khedim, the Egyptians had set up a turquoise mining operation that ran there for centuries. They employed a large number of Canaanite workers in this mine, workers who, sometime around 1800 BC seem to have invented the earliest alphabet in the form of some thirty or so inscriptions that have been found on the rocks at this site. These are the earliest dated alphabetic inscriptions in the world, and they are a direct transformation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Take the Egyptian hieroglyph for the word “snake,” for instance: there are two such hieroglyphs, one showing a horned viper and the other a cobra, as follows:
The Canaanite workers, who may have been illiterate, according to Oliver Goldwasser, borrowed the N-shaped picture of the cobra and used it as the N-sound for their word for “snake,” which was “nahash.” This became the letter “N,” (Hebrew nun) which now stood not for an entire word, but for a sound only. A similar process occurred with all the other 22 signs of this proto-Sinaitic alphabet, as it is called.
Located at the site of the Serabit el-Khedim mountain, moreover, was a large temple to the cow goddess Hathor, the patroness of turquoise, which looked like this:
This structure was the only known temple ever built by the Egyptians outside the bounds of their country and it functioned clear down to the end of the New Kingdom, for a total of about 800 years (it was built under the pharaoh Sesostris II around 1953 BC). Hathor is referred to in these Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions as “Baalat,” meaning that the Canaanites equated her with the mistress of the god Baal, a god who was normally pictured standing atop a bull.
That the first letter of the alphabet, the letter “A” (Hebrew aleph) originally meant “bull” and is actually an upside down bull’s head should give us pause in light of the existence of the Hathor temple at the site. And not only that, but we cannot fail to recall that when Moses came down from the mountain bearing the tablets of the law in his hands, he was confronted with the Hebrews worshipping a golden bull, a fact which enraged him. (That the image was a later interpolation by the Judean priesthood condemning the erecting of bull shrines at the cities of Dan and Bethel by the northern king Jeroboam notwithstanding).
Though Moses seems to have lived perhaps in the 13th century BC, many centuries after the alphabet Event, we should nonetheless keep in mind that the image of the golden bull, the mountain and the setting of the narrative in the Sinai desert — as well as the tablets being the primal Hebrew document — should alert us to the possibility that the myth of Moses’ ascent up Sinai might – and I say only “might” — contain a trace memory of the invention of the alphabet in the Sinai peninsula by Canaanite workers in the 18th century BC.
Moses, in that case, would have donned the scribal mask of the Egyptian god Thoth, the ibis-headed lord of writing:
VII. What the Decalogue Says
The text of the Decalogue, as Jonathan Kirsch convincingly points out, may be the only text in the Bible to have been authentically authored by Moses himself. The Ten Commandments, he suggests, were probably understood very differently from the way we moderns understand them, but in a way that is quite consistent with the cognitive horizons of a nomadic tribal society.
Consider the last of the Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house.” From the point of view of nomads, this most likely would have meant for the tent-dwelling nomad to keep his mind off of coveting life in the cities, which are not a nomad’s business. “Thou shalt not steal” probably referred not to theft in general, but specifically not to kidnap people or steal their slaves. “Thou shalt not kill” would have referred not to avoiding killing altogether, but specifically to eschewing tribal blood vendettas. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” may have meant to ban the attempt to use the name YHWH in magical spells against one’s enemies.
All the other laws, taboos and proscriptions that are listed exhaustively in page after page of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, refer mainly to the circumstances of settled farmer folk. Taxes and tithes, for example, are specified in shekels when coinage had not yet been invented in the time of Moses. And laws like, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat” (Exod. 23:10-11) are obviously the concerns of farmers, not wandering nomads.
But the Commandments of the Decalogue differ from these other laws in that they can all plausibly be situated within the concerns of a wandering tribal community and therefore it is very possible that the Decalogue is exactly what the Pentateuch says it is: the proto-text of the Hebrew people.
Else, why build an Ark within which to house it?
VIII. The Hebrew Creation of the Guilty Conscience
Moses, then, is a hero of depths rather than surfaces. His cosmology is the exact inverse of the world view of Akhenaten, a man whose project it is possible that Moses studied with some scrutiny.
This is why, when Moses comes down from his second encounter with Yahweh atop the mountain, and his face is permanently disfigured by that encounter, he has to wear a veil for the rest of his days. The face is a surface, and it is precisely surfaces, in this tradition, which are effaced in favor of depths. No graven images, either, for the tradition of making exterior gods is traded off for a graven memory. The god is to exist now within the private interior space of the mind.
Part of the revelation of Sinai, then, is that it is the memory and not the physical body itself which will serve henceforth as the new locus of the socius. The cosmos of laws and taboos and proscriptions, of which there are hundreds in the Mosaic revelation, is a cosmos that is not to be inscribed, as in tribal societies — and the Hebrews, lest we forget, began this way, as a series of tribes colliding one with another — upon the body, but upon the memory, via the instrument of writing in the new medium of the alphabet that Moses “invented” for this purpose. It is the alphabet that will make possible the memorization of these laws that will be inscribed upon the memory, for the breaking of the laws, Moses demonstrates repeatedly, will be punishable by death.
It is an internal world of memory and conscience, in other words, that Moses is bringing into being here. The alphabetic script and the Mosaic Laws which are communicated by means of it serve to inscribe the memory in a new and incredibly complex way: henceforth, the memory will be expanded via writing in such a way that a new ethical cognitive space is brought into being internally within the devout human subject. The memory of the Israelite will become so overcoded with laws and rules of conduct that conscience will sting him no matter what he does or where he goes. If he picks up sticks on the Sabbath, he will be stoned to death; if he steals, he will be maimed; if he practices divination, he will be executed, etc.
This is partially the reason, then, for the dark punishing aspects of Moses as a personality, for the severity of his punishments is part of the key to burning these laws into the memory like etheric tattoos. For instance, when he sees that the Hebrews have reverted to the religion of the golden bull, he smashes the tablets of the law and then orders that all who had taken part in such worship are to be killed. This amounts to some three thousand Israelites, who are thus the first internal victims of the zealotry of monotheism, which now punishes the worship of other gods with death.
Later, when the Hebrew men have been seduced by Moabite women, Moses orders the men to be publicly executed by hanging (Num. 25:5). He then has all the Midianites put to death for helping to seduce the men of Israel, and when the Israelite soldiers return to the camp with a line of women and children they have taken as prisoners of war, Moses tells them to kill all the male children and all those women who have given birth to them, leaving only the virgins, whom he then turns over to his soldiers. And when it comes time to suppressing the insurrection of Korah and his 250 followers, Yahweh causes the ground to open up and swallow them all, and those who are not killed in the earthquake are then burnt to ashes by a fireball which he sends upon them.
Moses, then, is the archetype of the Punisher, who carries out the will of his new god, a dark, violent god, against all those who oppose him and his Law.
IX. The Mandate of Yahweh
But the severities of Moses and his new god are a necessary means of opening up the internal abysses of the Hebrew psyche, and of creating a mental space of guilt and conscience, a space with walls where line upon line of taboos have been inscribed. The Mosaic revelation, in contrast to that of Akhenaten, is an entirely internal one that shapes and creates a private space of mental anguish in which the Hebrew system of overcoding stings the individual at every step.
The only practice of bodily inscription that is held over from the tribal world is that of circumcision, an invention of the Egyptians, and an atavism within this new interior mental space of the Hebrew Vision. Circumcision denotes tribal membership, but it is only a leftover from another macrosphere, the Egyptian one, for it is the memory that is inscribed now, not the body.
This, then, is the real reason for the ban against graven images: they are pure surfaces, and all surfaces in this tradition must be effaced and internalized. The god is to exist now only within the mind: he is to be imagined in the private inner space of one’s mind, not exteriorized in a carven image.
Thus, the alphabet is more abstract than hieroglyphics because the words have to be imagined in the private interior of the mind. The things the words refer to are no longer to be pictured before one, but imagined inside this new interior space that Mosaic revelation announces. The point of an invisible god is the same as that of a pictureless writing: it is not the world out there that counts anymore, but the world in here.
Thus, this shift from the sensory soul to the intellectual soul as Rudolf Steiner would describe it, makes possible a new complexity to the relationship of man to his god: now the god, too, must be held accountable for his actions, which must be explained to the human worshipper and justified. The god cannot simply do as he pleases, with the human subject left behind wondering what hit him. There is an agreement, a covenant governing the relationship. The covenant is repeatedly broken, not just by human beings, but also by the One God which governs them. But reasons must be given for the actions of this god: if he sends the Assyrians to wipe out Israel, it is because the Israelites have reverted back to the northern cult of the bull god.
Catastrophes are no longer explained by a simple, and inscrutable, withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven, as in Chinese or Sumerian theology in which, if a catastrophe befalls your city, it is explained as the god taking a sudden dislike to you and simply withdrawing its favors. There is a certain arbitrariness to these traditions.
But in the new private ethical mental space of the Mosaic revelation, the god must be held accountable for his actions, and they must make sense. If misfortune happens, it is due to the disturbance of the relationship between the Israelite and Yahweh. There is nothing arbitrary about it.
Thus, human suffering is accounted for in this tradition in a way that is completely overlooked in the monotheism of Akhenaten. If the people fail to keep the covenant, they will be punished. If the individual transgresses the Law, he will be punished.
If, in the Egyptian tradition, you act in accordance with Maat – a cosmic, impersonal notion of Truth — then you will be rewarded with good fortune. If you don’t, then misfortune will befall you. But Maat is completely impersonal. You can’t make deals with it. And it can’t be changed.
In the Hebrew tradition, all sorts of deals and bargains can be worked out with Yahweh, who is the sole source and author of Events. What happens in the phenomenal world of “nature” is neither impersonal, nor predetermined, but a function of the whims and moods of this deity.
That is the Mosaic revelation.
X. Conquest: Two Vectors
At this point, the Hebrews have constructed the Ark of the Covenant within which to house the Decalogue, for the instructions for making it were brought down by Moses from Sinai, along with the instructions for building the tent or tabernacle inside which the Ark is to be housed. I find it interesting that this tent is laid out on an East-West axis, with its opening facing to the East, exactly as though Yahweh were some sort of sun god. But then this is the way temples were laid out in Egypt and so the practice is perhaps an authentic carry-over from the sojourn of the Levites there.
Thus, we are to imagine the Hebrew encampment: the Ark is inside the tent; the tent is in the center of camp, where it is surrounded by a circle of tents of the twelve tribes, with donkeys and perhaps camels parked out on the periphery. A defensive arrangement, in other words, for the Hebrews are now becoming a streamlined war machine that is preparing for its new mission: the conquest of Canaan, a mission given to Moses at the top of Sinai and which he now gives to the Hebrews.
As they approach Canaan, Moses tells them that they must volunteer one man from each of the twelve tribes to be sent on ahead as spies in the land of Canaan. When the spies return, they report that the Canaanites are actually a race of giants, the “sons of Anak,” and that the Hebrews are merely the size of grasshoppers in proportion to them. They are terrified, but Moses orders them to launch the first assault upon Canaan, apparently from the south.
This first attack is a total debacle, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites swoop down on them from the north and defeat them, utterly.
Now, at this point, we must mention that there are actually conflicting vectors for the assault upon Canaan given in the Pentateuch. In these early passages, Moses and the Israelites are approaching the land, probably the Negeb, from the south. Later, it says they will go to the east, around Edom and up through the land of Moab, where the Israelites will consort with the women and Moses will punish them for it. The Moses narrative will end with the Israelites perched on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, ready, with Joshua, to invade and destroy the ancient city of Jericho.
However, as T.J. Meek once, long ago, pointed out, Moses could not have known Joshua, who is mentioned in the Amarna Letters from the time of Akhenaten as one of the leaders of the earlier assault on the uplands of Ephraim during the 14th century. Meek reminds us that the authors of these texts are mostly Judeans, for the Israelites were wiped out by the Assyrians and so, along with them, the northern point of view has been lost.
So the editors of the post-exilic period have put Joshua and Moses together into the same timeframe with Joshua subordinate to Moses and his directions. But in fact, the Books of Joshua and Judges preserve, in certain passage (such as Judges 1:1-21) the tradition of a conquest of Canaan from the south rather than the east, led by Judah and Simeon, members of the southern tribes, who conquer the cities of Debir and Hebron located in the far south. This is followed by the conquest of Hormah, Gaza, Ashkelon and Bethel, a movement that sweeps generally from south to north.
Thus, according to Meek, we have the following scenario for the conquest of Canaan: beginning around 1400 BC, the conquest of multiple towns and villages by the Habiru led by Joshua (“Yashuya”) coming in from the east across the Jordan, who end by forming a confederacy centered on the city of Shechem, which long remained the capital of the north, and given the name of “Israel” by the time of the Merneptah stele in 1207.
A second invasion of the Hebrews of the Exodus coming in from Egypt across the Sinai somewhere in the middle of the 13th century, led by Moses and emerging up through the Negeb from the south, eventually settling the land that would come to be known as Judah.
Thus, two traditions, two lands, two peoples: Israel, whose ultimate ancestor Abraham, had originated in Ur of Mesopotamia — the city of the moon god Sin — and who migrated north to Haran and then south to Palestine (a pattern which generally fits the geographical spread of references to the Habiru since about 1850 BC); and Judah, whose founder was Moses, having originated in the city of the sun god Re-Harakhty of Heliopolis, coming across the wastes of the Sinai desert.
Thus also, two different names for a god who was originally two different gods: El, the Canaanite father of Baal who becomes “Elohim” (“gods” plural, that is); and Yahweh, perhaps an Arabic-derived Midianite storm god. (The Midianites are thought by some to have been Arabs and Yahweh may stem from the Arabic root hwy meaning ‘to blow.’) It was at this point in our narrative that Moses may have been introduced to the god Yahweh by his father-in-law Jethro, who may already have been the priest of this god. Moses would then have substituted Yahweh for Akhenaten’s sun disc, and then abruptly realized that with this substitution the Hebrews could be fished out of Egypt using the bait of a Semitic, rather than an Egyptian god. This is the real meaning of the episode at the Burning Bush.
Originally, though, as Meek points out, each of the Hebrew tribes may have had its own totem god, for the names of many of the tribal founders are those of Canaanite gods: Asher may be the masculine form of Asherah, the Hebrew consort of Yahweh; Dan and Gad are both the names of Canaanite divinities; Leah means “wild cow” and Rachel means “ewe”; Issachar is ish’ sakar, Sakar being the name of a god, etc. The god Yahweh, then, was apparently the main god of the tribe of Judah, and he became the national god during the time of the United Monarchy from about the period of David, who was a Judean.
So we have a monotheistic tradition that was originally perhaps thoroughly polytheistic and which was eventually whittled down to two gods who were, in turn, finally spliced together into one god over many centuries of priestly writers and redactors.
XI. Pious Fraud
But according to the Bible, meanwhile, the Hebrews have marched and fought their way east and then north and now remain perched near Mount Pisgah, ready for the assault upon Jericho. Yahweh tells Moses to elect Joshua as his successor, which he does. His brother Aaron has died and been replaced by Eleazar, his son. His sister Miriam is long since gone. He is 120 years old now — a mythical age, no doubt — and ready to be gathered unto his people, as the phrase goes.
But first, according to the Pentateuch, anyway, he delivers a long speech to the Israelites composed of a fresh — and rather overwhelming — batch of new laws that is essentially the substance of the Book of Deuteronomy. Now this book, in its entirety, dates from the 7th century BC, during the time of King Josiah, after the northern kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrians in 722 BC, and so represents an entirely Judean point of view. And one of its most important arguments — which its author has gone back and retroactively placed into the mouth of Moses, the great founding father of Judah, as a way of sanctioning its authenticity — is that Yahweh now should no longer be worshipped in any place other than the Temple in Jerusalem, which is now the only valid place of worship. He is no longer to be worshipped under that tree or atop yonder hill, and most certainly not in the temples erected for him and adorned with golden bulls at shrines set up by King Jeroboam in Israel at Dan and Bethel. By the time of the reforms of King Josiah, which represent a sudden outburst of desperate zealous persecution of all other forms of Canaanite worship — i.e. the Baal cults, the Asherim, etc. — Yahwistic monotheism has narrowed to the point of only tolerating the worship of this god at one location upon the surface of the earth, and that location is to be found in Jerusalem. Thus, the words spoken by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy as he is making ready for death were never words spoken by him at all, but represent a much more severe point of view from the later 7th century BC.
Suffice it to say, however, that after giving his speech, Moses climbs to the top of Mount Pisgah for his final view of the world.
XII. The Final Glimpse
Yahweh has forbidden him entrance into the Promised Land. Back at Kadesh-barnea, Moses had struck the rock of a cliff face with his staff in order to make water flow for the thirsty Hebrews, when Yahweh had told him only to “speak words” to the rock. Apparently, this inattention to detail was tantamount to giving preference to magic over prayer, for the traditions of magic, divination and sorcery are in process of being left behind as the Hebrews migrate to the Promised Land. They are, in the new religion designed by Moses himself, expressly forbidden.
Moses is allowed only a glimpse of the Promised Land, from the top of Mount Pisgah. He stands, an aging old man leaning on his staff, the wind rumpling his robe, as he gazes out over the Land.
His mission is accomplished. He has played midwife to the birth of an entire people, a people who are ready to shape history in accordance with a new set of religious ideas and practices. A people with, already, a difficult past and, at this point, an unimaginably difficult future.
They do not yet have a history. Only a geography.
Soon, the war machine will have fallen and become captured once again by a state apparatus, in this case, the city of Jerusalem, which David will capture from the Jebusites.
Moses dies quietly on some late afternoon beneath a terebinth tree, perhaps. He is buried in an unmarked grave, so that his bones cannot be turned into relics and worshipped.