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The Beauty of Moses, or his Urbanity? how the Exodus puts it

February 19, 2012

Jared Calaway, in his post “The Beauty of Moses,” suggests that the New Testament considers baby Moses beautiful.  I’d like to suggest something different, something significantly rhetorical.  But I wouldn’t have thought about this if it weren’t for Calaway’s astute observations.

He says:

But there is another detail that I had not previously considered about Moses they share:  his beauty.  When Stephen begins his discussion of Moses (which takes up about half of his speech), he states:

At this time Moses was born and was beautiful (ἀστεῖος) before God. (Acts 7:20)

Similarly, in the “hall of faith” chapter of Hebrews, one reads:

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful (ἀστεῖον).  (Heb. 11:23)

I am not particularly surprised by its occurrence, in and of itself.  It appears to be merely a reference to the LXX version of Exodus 2:2:  “Seeing that he [Moses] was beautiful (ἀστεῖον) they sheltered/covered him for three months.”  There it translates the Hebrew טוב.  To see where the NT authors found the tradition of Moses’ beauty at birth, one need look no further than Exodus.  Nonetheless, I think it is worth stopping and considering.

Calaway’s post, after some smart analysis, ends with questions, good questions:

So, clearly his beauty was important enough to heighten it (before God) and mention it in the sketchiest of biographies. So why recall this aspect of Moses? Put another way: why is this social memory pattern preserved? Why Moses the beautiful, Moses the urbane, Moses the lovely, Moses “of the astu” for the earliest Christians?

I’d suggest that to understand why the New Testament retains the Greek word ἀστεῖος from the Septuagint is the real question.

The real fascinating thing, the focus of my post here, is why the Septuagint translators used this description of the baby Moses in the first place.  So consider the place where the Jewish translators are rendering Hebrew in the first place.  It’s back in Egypt again.  It’s in Alexandria, the namesake city of Alexander the Great, the great pupil of Aristotle.

The Exodus is a big book there.  The people of Joseph lose their status there, they become enslaved there in the book of Genesis, of generations, of birthings.  Moses leads them to liberation, to the adventurous way out, the Ex – Odys.

Greek readers of this story, this Ex – Odys, must understand.  There will be no more enslavement of Jews in Egypt, not even in a Greek empire.  And all Greek readers of the Odyssey get who the hero is:  Odysseus.  So in the Ex – Odys, there’s a hero.  From his birth, his very own mother saw that this child was ἀστεῖον, that he was “urbane.”  Now, in Greek, that’s extremely political.  It’s agonistic.  It’s the core value in the contests of states and of nations.  “Beauty” is a later sense, even for this context of a little beautiful unnamed baby.

So where do the Septuagint translators look for inspiration?  Not from Aristotle’s Politics, not from Plato’s Socrates’ Republic.  Rather the Jews back in Egypt, in Alexander’s City now, find their inspiration from Odysseus.  And Odysseus is crying like a woman.

Here’s the salient text, from the Odyssey, Book 8, lines 520 – 535.  Here’s the A.T. Murray translation, but notice the political, urban emphasis, the parallels that Murray’s English retains [with the highlighted Greek words in brackets]:

This song the famous minstrel sang. But the heart of Odysseus was melted and tears wet his cheeks beneath his eyelids. And as a woman wails and flings herself about her dear husband, who has fallen in front of his city and his people [πόλιος λαῶν], seeking to ward off from his city and his children [ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν] the pitiless day; and as she beholds him dying and gasping for breath, she clings to him and shrieks aloud, while the foe behind her smite her back and shoulders with their spears, and lead her away to captivity to bear toil and woe, while with most pitiful grief her cheeks are wasted: even so did Odysseus let fall pitiful tears from beneath his brows. Now from all the rest he concealed the tears that he shed, but Alcinous alone marked him and took heed, for he sat by him and heard him groaning heavily.

Now compare this with Lancelot Brenton’s and then with Larry J. Perkins’ (NETS) translations of Ex-Odys 2:1-2. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that the Greek of the Septuagint translation here is Jewish rhetoric hidden in the Hellene? In the context here of a man and a woman, a wife, a mother, concerned for a child, astute readers might hear Odysseus, like a wife, a mother, crying in the Odyssey. So listen (in Brenton’s and in Perkins’ and in the Septuagint translators’ language):

And there was a certain man of the tribe of Levi, who took to wife one of the daughters of Levi. And she conceived, and bore [ἔτεκεν] a male child; and having seen that he was fair [ἀστεῖον], they hid him three months.

Now there was a certain man from the tribe of Leui who took one of the daughters of Leui and married her. And she conceived and bore [ἔτεκεν] a male child. Now when they saw it was handsome [ἀστεῖον], they sheltered it for three months.

What may get lost a little in Brenton’s “fair” born baby and in Perkins’ “handsome” delivered male child is all that is inferred by the Septuagint translator’s ἔτεκεν ἀστεῖον.

What may be inferred is that the Hebrew baby is as urbane, as political, as Odysseus. Greek readers in Alexandria, in Egypt, should understand.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2012 2:14 am

    Greek readers of this story, this Ex – Odys, must understand. There will be no more enslavement of Jews in Egypt, not even in a Greek empire. And all Greek readers of the Odyssey get who the hero is: Odysseus. So in the Ex – Odys, there’s a hero.

    Ohhh! :applauds: Lightbulbs going on all over the place here. Thanks for drawing out these connections!

  2. February 19, 2012 9:19 am

    Thanks, J.K., for writing this. I am glad my thoughts were able to spark these associations I would not have made. Although the texts do not, so far as I know, portray Moses as cunning, asteios, with urbanity, has the association of being clever–perhaps also like Odysseus?

  3. February 19, 2012 11:54 am

    Thanks for keying in on the bit of connections between the title of Homer’s great epic and that of the Greeked text of those living in Alexandria.

    I’m not so sure the association is so directly between Odysseus and Moses. The bit from the Odyssey I’ve quoted is very layered. We have Homeric poetry containing the notion of the male hero as a wife, but as a mother, for a husband slain, who impregnated her, but who died for his city, for the Polis too – and Odysseus, like this woman, is weeping, for him, for their urban center, for their political domain. There are associations, then, between the author of שמות‎, Šemot, “Names” (was it “Moses”) and between Homer and the LXX translator following what historian Sylvie Honigman terms “the Homeric paradigm.” In Greek, in this Hebraic Hellene, the text of Ex-Odys reads quite rhetorically in Egypt again, in the city of Alexander’s name. Moses, the baby, is handled my his Hebrew mother and by his adopted Egyptian mother, who names him an Egyptian name remembered as a Hebrew name, and by his sister. He’s a rather passive character at this point, and it’s the agency of his mother that, in Greek, assigns to him, to this male baby, this beautiful urbanity. The translator finds himself observing something he allows the mother of Moses to observe. Homer finds himself allowing the woman to get at the urban emphasis of the one Odysseus is identified with. Very layered. Tremendously rhetorical.

    I think you are on to something with your thoughts about the significances of beauty or urbanity on the pre-named baby (Moses) in the Greek New Testament. We have to wonder if it’s Luke and whether it’s the writer of Hebrew who is playing with the LXX wordplay! I remember your post some time ago comparing the Greek opener to the epistle “Hebrews” to the Greek opener of the Odyssey. I think you’re on to something!

  4. February 19, 2012 12:44 pm

    How very Joseph Campbell-ish of you, Kurk! (I mean that it in a good way — Campbell, despite his flaws, was an insightful reader.)

    But Moses’s beauty is a theme in Hebrew Shemos (Exodus) and its associated midrash; most famously in Exodus 34:29-35. Ironically, we know this passage best from the Vulgate’s mistranslation that Moses was horned (cornutam).

  5. February 20, 2012 6:03 pm

    LOL, Theophrastus. I’ve not read a word of anything Joseph Campbell’s written, whether good or flawed. So I can’t really understand what you mean by this, except perhaps for your ” – ish.” Campbell is religious, no? I’m looking at the rhetorical.

    Jared is allowing the extension of “beauty” to Moses (from an interpretation of the LXX, from the Greek word there he finds cited in the NT). You are suggesting something else that might support his NT interpretation in Acts and in Hebrews (i.e., midrash around another Exodus, but Hebrew “Exodus,” passage). And yet what I’m interested in is this very Greeky political notion of urbanity, not necessarily beauty at all, as assigned to the baby, who will grow to set his people free.

    (Maybe I’ll post later on the assignment of this term, by the LXX translators, to another individual, who in the book of Judges is assassinated. The Hebrew MT is very different. The Hellene translation has no NT referent but seems rhetorical-ish.)

  6. February 20, 2012 6:14 pm

    One of Campbell’s chief works was The Hero with a Thousand Faces which explores archetypes of heroes (including Odysseus and Moses). His thesis, crudely misstated, is that there is a common heroic myth (or family of myths) that re-appears under many guises.

    Needless to say, Campbell was a Jung scholar.

    Among heroic sub-themes Campbell identifies are beauty and relationships with cities.

  7. February 20, 2012 6:23 pm

    Thanks. That helps. Now I’m wondering if the LXX translators of Exodus might have been Campbell-ish. 🙂 Well, that connection between beauty and cities is very interesting. Ever read the opener to the Gorgias “Encomium of Helen”? The connection is pretty blatantly there, but the focus is rhetorical. (It may be why Plato invents “rhetoric” and portrays Gorgias the rhetoricianin the “Gorgias” talking with Socrates.)

    Campbell’s Jungian, huh? Right now I’m reading one of Paul Tournier’s books, which is quite critical of Jung. It’s about faces, or at least about personages and persons. The mythic-religious themes intersect with the psychological, it seems.

  8. February 20, 2012 7:18 pm

    Certainly the “urbanity/beauty” (or “political/beauty”) meme is firmly established by the time of Pericles’s Funeral Speech (in Thucydides); or the dispute between Glaucon’s “city of pigs” and Socrates “city of beauty” (Callipolis) in The Republic. Indeed, it seems so subsumed into Athenian culture that by the time of Aristotle’s Politics, it seems to be taken for granted.

    Regarding Jung — there is much to dislike about him both as a human being and as a “scientist.” Nonetheless, his artistic and cultural influence still remains large: from Sting’s “Synchronicity” to George Lucas’s Star Wars to Jorge Luis Borges’s “La biblioteca de Babel” to Fredrico Fellini’s 8 1/2 to Martha Graham’s Night Journey, and so on. In this regard, I think it is proper to regard Jung more as a type of artist than as a scientist. (One has to wonder, though, if Jung’s influence would have been as great if Jung had described himself as an artist rather than as a scientist.)

  9. February 21, 2012 11:17 am

    Theophrastus, I love your parenthetical musing here on Jung. Words, descriptions of self, really do matter. This reminds me of a conversation I had with scientist/ novelist Alan Lightman, who confessed to me that he knew he was going to be an artistic writer but decided first to be an astrophysicist, because he knew quite well that to make a name for oneself first and primarily as a scientist could help with the later artistic acclaim; but to attempt fame first as an artist might sabotage efforts to do science later. (Lightman’s science writings are still used here in the physics department in the institution where I work; and I still find his novels in bookstores in international airports.)

    Thanks for your comment also on the pervasiveness of the “urbanity/beauty” (or “political/beauty”) meme. I don’t think Aristotle thought that it could be taken for granted. I do see that he was rather desperate to make clear the values of “urbanities,” and this prompted another post here.


  1. Aristotle’s rhetorical Urbanities and the Septuagint’s « BLT
  2. via a few levels of translation | BLT

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