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Alexandria Frisch





A Not-Quite Mortal Moses



APA e-journal

Alexandria Frisch





A Not-Quite Mortal Moses






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A Not-Quite Mortal Moses

Moses transformed into an angel, sat upon the divine throne, and was an instantiation of the Greek God, Hermes: These are some of the ways Second Temple authors reimagined Moses.


A Not-Quite Mortal Moses

Moses and the Ten Commandments (detail), James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum

The biblical Moses has many different roles.[1] He is a deliverer, first of individuals (e.g., Exod 2:11 15, 17), and later he delivers his entire people from Egyptian bondage (e.g., Exod 3:7–12, 14:3). Along the way he works miracles (e.g., Exod 7–11, 14), acts as a military leader (e.g., Exod 17:8–12), and judges disputes (Exod 18:13–27). His legacy to the ages is as God’s lawgiver (e.g., Exod 20–30), and a prophet unmatched by any other in the past or the future (Num 12:6–8, Deut 34:10–12).

Moses Was Beautiful: Hellenistic Depiction

Second Temple literature expands and reimagines Moses’ character to make him fit with their norms and worldview. Philo of Alexandria (early first century C.E.), in keeping with his philosophical bent, understands Moses as a “divinized mind” who had foregone all of those passions, such as eating and sex, that characterize mortal existence (Mos. 2.68).[2] At the same time, given the importance of beauty in Hellenistic culture, he depicts baby Moses as possessing a “more beautiful and noble form than usual,” (1:9) and “more perfect than could have been expected at his age” (1:19).

Josephus (1st cent. C.E.) also depicts Moses as beautiful (e.g., Ant. 2.224, 232),[3] and aiming his work at a Roman audience, omits those events in Moses’ life that would cast him in a negative light, such as the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster (Exod 2:12).

Moses Receives Special Knowledge

Some texts tell how God or an angel reveal secret wisdom to Moses. For example, the Book of Jubilees (ca. 161–140 B.C.E.) narrates that God commands an angel of the presence to teach Moses the contents of the Book of Jubilees, a retelling of the Pentateuchal narrative from Genesis through Exodus 24:18 (Jub. 1:27–2:1).

In in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (1st cent. C.E.), God reveals to Moses such mysteries as the pathways to paradise (19:10):

He showed him the place from which the clouds draw up water to water the whole earth, and the place from which the river takes its water, and the place in the firmament from which only the holy land drinks. He showed him the place from which he rained down manna upon the people, all the way to the paths of paradise.[4]

Right before his death, Moses requests to know when the end of days will arrive, and God teaches him this as well (19:15):

And he (God) said to him: “On one side there is a large black cloud, the fullness of a cloud, on the other side a drop from a ladle. But time will fulfill all things. Four and a half have passed, two and half remain.”

Similarly, in 2 Baruch (early second century C.E.), Moses is the recipient of divine knowledge on all sorts of subjects (ch. 59):

He showed him, at that time, the measures of fire, the depths of the abyss, the weight of the winds, the number of the raindrops, the suppression of wrath, the abundance of long-suffering, the truth of judgment, the root of wisdom, the richness of understanding, the fountain of knowledge, the height of the air, the greatness of Paradise, the end of the periods, the beginning of the day of judgment, the number of offerings, the worlds which have not yet come, the mouth of hell, the standing place of vengeance, the place of faith, the region of hope, the picture of the coming punishment, the multitude of the angels which cannot be counted, the powers of the flame, the splendor of lightnings, the voice of the thunders, the orders of the archangels, the treasuries of the light, the changes of the times, and the inquiries into the Law.[5]

The kind of knowledge Moses receives in Biblical Antiquities and 2 Baruch is what scholars call apocalyptic,[6] from the Greek word apocalyptean, meaning “to reveal or uncover.” The term refers to “a literary work that has an angel or some inspired worthy revealing a secret or unraveling a mystery.”[7] These angelic revelations are often eschatological in character, focusing on the secrets of history and the end times (e.g., Daniel 7 and 11),[8] whereas others answer such fundamental human concerns as the mysteries of nature (e.g., 1 Enoch 17) or theodicy (e.g., 1 Enoch 6–11).[9] Apocalypticism, therefore, was a new form of divine revelation, a transformation of prophecy.[10]

In the three examples surveyed here, Moses receives divine knowledge, much as he does in the Torah, but both the revelatory method and the content in the apocalyptic texts differ significantly from the Torah’s depiction of Moses as the recipient of laws.

Moses the Inventor: Artapanus

Artapanus,[11] a Hellenistic Jewish writer of the Egyptian diaspora (2nd cent. B.C.E.), after describing how Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, explains that Moses was the teacher of Orpheus, i.e., the legendary Greek musician, prophet, and originator of mysteries. This was because Moses was himself an even greater inventor:

When he (Moses) reached manhood, he bestowed on humanity many useful contributions, for he invented ships, machines for lifting stones, Egyptian weapons, devices for drawing water and fighting and philosophy.

In addition to these universally useful inventions, Artapanus credits Moses with designing Egypt’s political system and even its religious system:

He also divided the state into thirty-six nomes (=districts), and to each of the nomes he assigned the god to be worshipped; in addition, he assigned the sacred writings to the priests. The gods he assigned were cats, dogs, and ibises.

Artapanus even identifies Moses with Hermes,[12] the herald of the Greek gods:

Moses was loved by the masses, and being deemed worthy of divine honor by the priests, he was called Hermes because of his ability to interpret the sacred writings.

Moses Escapes Pharaoh by Wielding the Name of YHWH

Artapanus goes on to retell the story of the exodus, with many deviations from the biblical account. For example, he narrates Pharaoh’s attempt to imprison Moses:

When night came, all the doors of the prison opened of their own accord, and some of the guards died while others were overcome with sleep; also their weapons broke into pieces. Moses left the prison and went to the palace. Finding the doors open, he entered the palace and aroused the king while the guards were sleeping on duty. Startled at what happened, the king ordered Moses to declare the name of the god who had sent him. He did this scoffingly. Moses bent over and spoke into the king’s ear, but when the king heard it, he fell over speechless. But Moses picked him up and he came back to life again.

Wielding the divine name appears later in Midrash Tanchuma (Shemot 9), which imagines that this is how Moses killed the Egyptian: הזכיר עליו את השם והרגו “he mentioned the Name at him and killed him.” Moses’ power here is reminiscent of the angel that appears to Daniel, whose voice causes Daniel to pass out and who has to awaken him.[13]

The Divine-like Qualities of Moses

Ezekiel the Tragedian, author of the 2nd cent. B.C.E. drama Exagōgē (“Leading Out”), includes a scene in which Moses tells Raguel (=Reuel, Moses’s father-in-law) about a vision he had in a dream in which Moses sits in the heavenly throne (lines 68-82):

I had a vision of a great throne on the top of Mount Sinai, and it reached till the folds of heaven. A noble man was sitting on it with a crown and a large scepter in his left hand. He beckoned to me with his right hand, so I approached and stood before the throne. He gave me the scepter and instructed me to sit on the great throne. Then he gave me the royal crown and got up from the throne. I beheld the whole earth all around and saw beneath the earth and above the heavens a multitude of stars fell before my knees, and I counted them all. They paraded past me like a battalion of men. Then I awoke from my sleep in fear.[14]

Writing around the same period (ca. 180 B.C.E.), Joshua Ben Sira describes how God: “made him (=Moses) equal to the glory of holy ones” (Ben Sira 45:2).[15]

Divine-like Moses in the Torah

The biblical text provides antecedents for Moses having divine or angel-like properties.[16]  Prior to Moses and Aaron meeting Pharaoh to make their demands for freedom, God tells Moses:

שׁמות ז:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה רְאֵה נְתַתִּיךָ אֱלֹהִים לְפַרְעֹה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֶךָ.
Exodus 7:1 YHWH said to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of elohim to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”

While some commentators understand the term Elohim here as leaders or judges, the simple meaning here is “god.” Indeed, the LXX translates the term θεὸν “god,” and Philo of Alexandria, who refers to Moses as God, alludes to this verse more than ten times.[17]

After Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, he is imbued with the physical characteristics of a deity or angel:

שׁמות לד:כט וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת מֹשֶׁה מֵהַר סִינַי וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ.
Exodus 34:29 And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him.[18]

The effect is sufficiently disturbing to those around him that Moses begins to don a veil in the Israelite camp (Exod 34:33–35). Shining, or giving off light, is a quality found in divine beings. Consider this description of one of the angels who Daniel encounters:

דניאל י:ו ...וּפָנָיו כְּמַרְאֵה בָרָק וְעֵינָיו כְּלַפִּידֵי אֵשׁ וּזְרֹעֹתָיו וּמַרְגְּלֹתָיו כְּעֵין נְחֹשֶׁת קָלָל...
Daniel 10:6 …his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze…

This depiction of Moses’ divine look appears again in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, who describes how Moses looked when he died (19:16):

When Moses heard this, he was filled with understanding and his appearance was changed to a state of glory; and he died in glory… The angels mourned his death and went before him all together with lightning bolts and torches and arrows. On that day the hymn of the heavenly hosts was not sung…[19]

Here Moses is not described as a divinity or angel, but his appearance contains glory—usually a term that describes God’s appearance (e.g., Exod 16:10).

The Vision of Amram (=4Q543–548), an Aramaic text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls which purports to be Amram’s first person deathbed account to his kinsman and children, refers to Moses as an angel.[20] First Amram calls Miriam to him, notes that she is 30 years old, and then holds a seven-day feast. Next, he calls Aaron, but his message to Aaron and what happens next are missing. After this, Amram says, קרי לברי למלאכיה “call my son, Malachiyah (=the angel)” (4Q545, 1:1.9). As Amram addresses Moses, he refers to him again as an angel and more, אל תהוה ומלאך תתק[רה] “you will be a god and you will be cal[led] an angel” (4Q543, 3.1).[21]

Turned into an Angel During His Life

The Animal Apocalypse, a Judean text which dates to 164–160 B.C.E. and was integrated into the book of Enoch (1 Enoch 85–90), has Moses become an angel during his time on earth. The work is described as a vision that Enoch shares with his son Methuselah, which retells biblical history using animal figures. For example, Adam and Eve are a bull and heifer, Ishmael is a wild donkey, Esau is a black wild boar, etc. The angels, however, are described as people. (In other words, in Animal Apocalypse, animals = humans, humans = angels.)

In two cases, an animal is transformed into a person. The first is Noah, when he was taught a mystery and commanded to build the ark (89:1). The second is Moses, who turns from a sheep—the Israelites are sheep in this account—into a person after he and his fellow Levites punish the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf:

89:36 And I looked there at the vision until that sheep became a man, and built a house for the LORD of the sheep, and made all the sheep stand in that house…. 89:38 And that sheep which led them, which had become a man, separated from them and fell asleep (=died).[22]

This reference to Moses’ angelic transformation is mentioned after his ascent onto Mount Sinai, and again after the ascent up Mount Nebo prior to his death.[23] Moses, like Noah, must be transformed to something more than human to properly fulfill his mission.[24]

A similar interpretation of Moses’ time on Mount Sinai appears in the Qumran text known as 4Q Apocryphon Pentateuch B. The fragments we have include a speech to the people of Israel, which remind them of the Sinai experience. The speaker recalls to the people how frightening God’s voice from the mountain was, and contrasts this feeling with the experience of Moses who went up the mountain (4Q377, 1:2.10–12):

ומושה איש האלוהים עם אלוהים בענן ויכס עליו הענן כיא [...]בהקדשו וכמלאך ידבר מפיהו כי מי מבש[ר] כמוהו איש חסדים
But Moses, the man of God, was with God in the cloud and the cloud covered him because […] when he sanctified him, and he spoke as an angel through his mouth, for who was a messen[ger] like him, a man of the pious ones?

This fragmentary text suggests that Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai contributed to the idea that he was an angel.[25]

Moses: Human and Beyond

Some texts envision Moses as merely a great human, immensely beautiful, a wise inventor, or even recipient of divine secrets. Others take it further and envision Moses as something more than just human, whether exhibiting the look of an angel, having the powers of an angel, or even literally sitting on God’s throne and holding God’s scepter, if only in a dream.


December 30, 2021


Last Updated

April 1, 2024


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Dr. Alexandria Frisch is an Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at George Mason University. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from New York University, an M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and an M.A. in Jewish Education from Baltimore Hebrew University. Frisch is the author of The Danielic Discourse on Empire in Second Temple Literature (Brill 2017), which examines empire in Second Temple literature through a postcolonial lens. Her latest article, “The Power of Pain: A Literary Reading of the Wicked Priest’s Death(s) in 1QpHab” appears in the recent festschrift for Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, her doctoral adviser.