Moses and Thebes

While Christians are celebrating Easter, traditional Jews are celebrating Passover. In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan and lasts for seven days (or eight days in some traditions). The month of Nisan is said to be in the Spring, and thus corresponds to March or April in the Gregorian calendar. According to various Jewish customs, the world was created in this same month; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all born in this month; Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in this month.

The story of Moses is of course foundational to the Jewish faith. The birth of Moses and the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh is recounted in Exodus, chapters 1 through 14. In my most recent reading of this material I made several notes specifically on the birth narrative. Moses is placed in an ark of bulrushes (Ex. 2.3) and sent down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and is raised as her own son as an Egyptian prince (Ex. 2.5-10).

The motif of a hero of destiny being drawn from an ark out of the river is widespread. Sargon the Great is also placed in an ark and sent down the river where he was found, raised, and eventually made king. The Hindu hero Karna is likewise placed in an ark at birth, as is the Greek hero Perseus. This motif has ancient mythic roots related to kingship. The original context cannot be known.

Remarkably, Oedipus, the famous king of the Boeotian Thebes, is depicted sailing in a chest or an ark on a Boeotian cup of the first century BCE. This image represents a part of the Oedipus myth that is unknown to us. The founder of the mythic Thebes is Cadmus. In one variant of the myth Cadmus places his daughter and grandson, Semele and Dionysus respectively, in a chest and casts them out to sea. Semele perishes but Dionysus lives, and this most famous of mystery gods is thus also drawn from the waters. Finally, the mythical builder of Thebes is Amphion. Amphion is so talented with his musical lyre that as he plays stones move and form the seven gated walls of Thebes. Amphion, like Oedipus, is exposed as an infant and left for dead; he is found by a shepherd, and eventually becomes king.

The great city of Thebes is thus associated with several kings who share in the motif of the exposed infant and an ark which delivers the infant to his destiny. Of course, one cannot help but to notice that one etymology for the word “Thebes” is têboh or tâbût, referring to an ark. Is this coincidence? Perhaps, but it is also curious that the Greek writer Armenidas informs us that the acropolis or temple of the city was named Μακάρων νήσοι, “The Isles of the Blessed.”  These Fields or Isles were the Kingdom of Heaven. One entered these blessed lands on an ark. It only makes sense that the hero king is related with this cosmic imagery by being delivered from an ark.

The narrative motifs of Moses and the Exodus follow a pattern. Moses goes through a series of Labors (the ten plagues). The last task is to overcome the angel of death itself. Moses flees Egypt with the aid of his guide and god Jehova. He crosses a pillar of fire and a body of water and leads his people to the mountain of the Lord. Moses ascends the mountain and sees god face to face. Moses establishes order and incorporates the revelations on Mount Sinai by erecting a temple. Of these motifs Margaret Barker, in her book The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God, observes, “Scholars have also long suspected that the account of Moses receiving the Law on Sinai had been merged with memories of Solomon’s temple, and that a temple ritual had been the original framework of the story” (38). Barker poses a very interesting question, “Had there been a temple ritual, where the god and king [i.e. Moses] received revelation in heaven among the angels and brought it [back] to earth?” (38).

Our various motifs suggest that the original ark story belonged to a cosmic liturgy dealing with kingship. The narrative fragment that survives in the Moses story is part of a very old and lost oral tradition. Then again, the entire Passover narrative may belong to this same ancient and oral storehouse of thought which once regulated the hieratic city. The king ruled by celestial mandate. He obtained his authority by his ritual journey through the heavens. Part of this ritualized journey was the harrowing birth of the king himself.

This entry was posted in Myth.