D. Mathews, Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Mathews, Danny, Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses (LHBOTS, 571; New York: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. 192. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN 978-0-567-11614-7.

This study opens with a reference to Deuteronomy 33, which, according to Danny Mathews, integrates the Pentateuch's major subjects—God, Israel, and Moses—in a climactic fashion. For Mathews, this chapter is the “capstone of the Pentateuch” (p. 2) and refers to Moses as Israel's founding king (Mathews assumes that Moses is the subject of Deut 33:5 [see p. 1]). Builiding on this observation, and predominately through comparative and literary analyses—but not at the expense of exegesis and canonical observations—Mathews endeavors to demonstrate that, “[The] Pentateuchal authors adapted tropes and traditions, well attested elsewhere in biblical and other ancient Near Eastern sources, to identify Moses as an exalted, even divinized figure…the portrayal of Moses in the likeness of a ‘king’ serves to elevate Moses and to emphasize the preeminence of his work” (p. 2). By no means does Mathews reject Moses's characterization as a prophet, but he argues that this has been given undue privilege.

This monograph consists of five chapters, and in the first Mathews argues that modern scholars have parted ways from their classical predecessors. Traditionally driven by methodologies of historical criticism, but more recently by literary methodologies, modern interpreters often fragment and/or humanize the portrayals of Moses, emphasizing his prophetic characteristics in the process. Conversely, ancient interpreters, particularly Hellenistic interpreters such as Philo and Josephus, emphasized the exalted, quasi-divine depictions of Moses. Mathews's Forschungsgeschichte is brief, but it demonstrates his point. Recovering the characterization of Moses as a royal figure is necessary to provide a fuller understanding of Moses.

Chapter 2 is foundational to Mathew's argument because it establishes the presence of royal motifs in the Old Testament and the pervasiveness of these motifs throughout the ANE. In this chapter, Mathews surveys the various depictions of Moses throughout the Pentateuch, ultimately concluding that the authors “utilized and adapted traditional features of royal portraiture” (p. 85). The argument is a comparative one, and the most important features surveyed and analyzed include Moses's birth narrative, flight and exile, private commissioning followed by his public emergence, military success, and status as Israel's lawgiver, judge, and sanctuary builder. However, the potency of the argument does not exist in any one comparison or motif. Rather, it is the clustering of several motifs that evinces Moses's portrayal as a royal figure. Mathews not only emphasizes this repeatedly but also substantiates it nicely via particular examples from the literature associated with ANE royal figures such as Hammurabi, Esarhaddon, Nabonidus, and Cyrus.

Chapter 3 examines more deeply the phenomenon of motif-clustering through an analysis of Exod 1:1–7:7. First, Mathews argues that the infant-rescue motif strongly informs Moses's birth narrative. Matthews goes so far as to suggest that Moses's birth narrative echoes the Sargon Birth Legend to the extent that “the Sargon birth narrative was familiar to the author of Ex 2:1–10” (p. 90). However, such a proposal is not unique (cf. pp. 87–90 and footnotes). Second, Moses's flight to Midian after he kills an Egyptian rings of the flight motif. Mathews at this point spends a significant amount of time examining Exod 2:11–22, which is structurally and thematically intricate and serves to establish Moses's identity “as a royal figure without claiming that Moses functioned as an actual king” (p. 100). The third and fourth motifs—private commissioning and public emergence and validation—are intertwined. Ultimately, Mathews asserts that Exod 1–7 functions coherently and systematically to assert Moses's role as a royal figure who enjoyed divine sanction.

Chapter 4 examines the clustering of four other motifs. According to Mathews, Exod 22–24 assumes the royal/divine nexus motif, a motif that posits a uniquely intimate connection between a royal figure and the respective deity. Alongside this portrayal is one of Moses as the paradigmatic lawgiver and covenant maker, which was common amongst ancient Near Eastern monarchs as they bore the responsibility of societal order. Moses is also Israel's sanctuary builder, and here Mathews builds closely upon Hurowitz's work,[1] who argues that the tabernacle's reconstruction exemplifies a pattern in ancient Near Eastern literature that understands sanctuary construction as the quintessential function of a monarch; here, Mathews extends these implications to understanding Moses's role as a royal figure. In turn, Mathews asserts, “Attempts to categorize Moses as a non-royal figure will ultimately fail, since this aspect of the work of Moses cannot be adequately accounted for as a part of a non-royal role” (p. 132). Finally, the death and succession motif caps Moses's portrayal as a royal figure.

Chapter 5 concludes the work. After reiterating his thesis—Moses's characterization as a prophet is dwarfed by the predominant characterization of Moses as a royal figure—Mathews finally tackles the passages that characterize Moses as a prophetic figure: Deut 18:16–22 and 34:10–12. In both cases, Mathews notes subtle nuances as supporting evidence for his thesis, such as the ambiguity of the syntax in Deut 18:15, the reality that a prophet is described as a “mouthpiece” (which is misleading in light of the various characterizations of Moses throughout the Pentateuch), and Israel's acceptance of Moses based on his mighty acts (versus the fulfillment of the prophetic word). Mathews also discusses a few common phrases of description such as “Man of God” and the “Servant of the Lord.” In the case of the latter, Mathews makes a good case for connection between David and Moses (p. 145). The chapter concludes with some diachronic observations, which link the development of Moses's characterization with the development of the major Pentateuchal traditions.

Virtually all of the comparisons invoked by Mathews as evidence that the Pentateuch's portrayal of Moses is more in accord with ANE royal portrayals are indirect, often perceptual and/or thematic. Very few comparisons arise from linguistic connections, direct thematic connections, or potential cases of literary borrowing. Indeed, Mathews's thesis would have been bolstered by more direct evidence. However, such a critique may be balanced by the observation that Mathews argues for the pervasiveness of royal motifs throughout the Pentateuch, which by design attempts to elicit a cognitive response through symbolism. Thus, in evaluating a thesis that espouses perceptual and symbolic associations, it may be asked how much direct evidence one may expect. By implication, the viability of Mathews's thesis should arise from a consideration of the argument in toto. Seen in this light, Mathews's thesis is attractive. Overall, the characterization of Moses throughout the Pentateuch mirrors ANE royal characterizations more than anything else. Indeed, Moses's portrayal recalls other social institutions, and Mathews acknowledges this. However, Mathews is correct to assert that the royal characterizations have not only been relegated by much of contemporary scholarship but are also the most pervasive.

What deserves more attention is Mathews's diachronic framework used to explain the developments and depth of Moses's characterization. The earliest shaping of Moses's portrayal, according to Mathews, occurred in conjunction with the composition of the J/E strata, and here a core cluster of motifs appears indicating “the unique status of Moses as God's trusted servant who is Israel's shepherd, savior, and leader” (p. 149). With development of the D tradition, and the Dtr tradition for that matter, Moses's characterization emphasizes his role as lawgiver and covenant maker (p. 149). With P, Moses as sanctuary builder and semi-divine agent proceeds to the forefront (p. 150). Such a framework is provocative, particularly since it elucidates the data compiled by Mathews. However, the dates Mathews attaches to each Pentateuchal literary tradition reflect a framework that does not properly consider the nuanced traditio-historical associations of these literary traditions.[2] A more systematic discussion of these issues would have significantly enhanced this fruitful study.

This work is useful, deserving familiarization by specialists of the books that make up the so-called Primary History. The legacy of Moses, in one form or another, informs the narratives of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, and this study rediscovers perceptions invoked by the Israelite historians in their efforts to assess the socio-political and religious changes of the community. Through an in-depth examination of the motifs surrounding Moses's characterization, Mathews urges scholars to recalibrate longstanding positions and rediscover early interpretive trends. Such recalibration and rediscovery will not only open new avenues for study in the years to come but it also reinforces the complexity of Moses's character and function for ancient Israelite society.

David B. Schreiner

[1] Most notably, Victor Avigdor Horowitz, “The Priestly Account of Building the Tabernacle,” JAOS 105 (1985): 21–30; idem, I Have Built You An Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and North-West Semitic Writings (JSOTSup, 115; Sheffield: JSOT, 1992). reference

[2] For example, Konrad Schmid has argued for the composition of a Moses Story, which situates the composition of the non-P portions of the Pentateuch alongside a portion of the Dtr material in the Iron II period. As for D and other portions of the Dtr material, Schmid contextualizes its composition in the post-exilic period (cf. Konrad Schmid, Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel's Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible [trans. James D. Nogalski; Siphrut, 3; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010]). Particularly interesting about Schmid's ideas is that they may explain a peculiar feature of Mathews's study. Mathews periodically states that Moses is characterized as a royal figure but is never explicitly referenced as a king. Indeed, it would be anachronistic for the biblical writer to refer to Moses as Israel's first king, but another explanation may be in order. If this phenomenon is contextualized in a literary work that spanned Exodus–2 Kings, could it be that the refusal to explicitly equate Moses, a venerated figure of the northern traditions, is indicative of a Judean writer's effort to appease northern sentiments without undermining the perceived superiority of the Davidic dynasty? reference