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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

the transfiguration - cultural assumptions (part 3)

Our reader Jane Studdok is a little vague when it comes to knowledge of the Old Testament. When she reads Matthew's account of the transfiguration the  elements of the story do not ring any bells for her. The mountain, the cloud, the voice, Moses, Ἰησοῦς Joshua/Jesus are all found in Exodus 24:12-18, The Sinai theophany.

Ex. 24:12 καὶ εἶπεν κύριος πρὸς Μωυσῆν ἀνάβηθι πρός με εἰς τὸ ὄρος καὶ ἴσθι ἐκεῖ καὶ δώσω σοι τὰ πυξία τὰ λίθινα τὸν νόμον καὶ τὰς ἐντολάς ἃς ἔγραψα νομοθετῆσαι αὐτοῖς  13 καὶ ἀναστὰς Μωυσῆς καὶ Ἰησοῦς ὁ παρεστηκὼς αὐτῷ ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ  ... 15 καὶ ἀνέβη Μωυσῆς καὶ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὸ ὄρος καὶ ἐκάλυψεν ἡ νεφέλη τὸ ὄρος  16 καὶ κατέβη ἡ δόξα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ ὄρος τὸ Σινα καὶ ἐκάλυψεν αὐτὸ ἡ νεφέλη ἓξ ἡμέρας καὶ ἐκάλεσεν κύριος τὸν Μωυσῆν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἑβδόμῃ ἐκ μέσου τῆς νεφέλης  17 τὸ δὲ εἶδος τῆς δόξης κυρίου ὡσεὶ πῦρ φλέγον ἐπὶ τῆς κορυφῆς τοῦ ὄρους ἐναντίον τῶν υἱῶν Ισραηλ  18 καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Μωυσῆς εἰς τὸ μέσον τῆς νεφέλης καὶ ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος καὶ ἦν ἐκεῖ ἐν τῷ ὄρει τεσσαράκοντα ἡμέρας καὶ τεσσαράκοντα νύκτας
Ex. 24:12   The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. ... 15   Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.  17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. — NRSV
One detail that jumps out in the Septuagint is Joshua Ἰησοῦς standing beside Moses Ex. 24:13 καὶ ἀναστὰς Μωυσῆς καὶ Ἰησοῦς ὁ παρεστηκὼς αὐτῷ ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ. This is normally understood figuratively to mean that Joshua was Moses' right hand man. I am not sure what to make of this. In Ex. 24 Joshua is Moses' subordinate but he plays a very significant role later in the story. In Matthew 17 Jesus Ἰησοῦς is conversing with Moses and Elijah. This minor detail would have been obvious to any Hellenistic Jew who had knowledge of the Septuagint Exodus.

Assuming Jane Studdok discovered the link with Ex 24, as an English literature scholar she might be oblivious to the storm theophany imagery in the Sinai revelation. However, storm gods are fairly common cross-culturally and we should find echos in English literature borrowing from either biblical or pagan sources.

Once again, Jane Studdok would read the Ex 24 text as a fantasy, not an historical narative. In her worldview clouds don't talk. Tables of stone are not inscribed by deities. Jane might see some elements of magic in the text and associate it with occult literature of medieval Europe. All of this might be entertaining to read but not to be taken seriously. Jane's assumptions about what she calls the “the real world” control her reading of the text.


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