Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Beauty of Moses

I have been working through the different references to Moses in the New Testament for an upcoming project.  While there are some well-worn topics discussed by scholars (Jesus as a prophet like Moses; which, from the other perspective, makes Moses a Proto-Christ; Moses as faithful servant; etc.), I was struck by a detail--one of the smallest of details--that shows up in the Acts of the Apostles in Stephen's speech and again in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Acts 7 and Hebrews are often discussed together, particularly for their rather similar views of the temple and the notation of Moses making the tabernacle "according to the pattern" shown to him--used in both texts to suggest a temple not made with hands and that God does not dwell in hand-made temples.

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.

First the terminology.  Both Acts and Hebrews have the same term as found in Exodus:   ἀστεῖος.  It literally means "of the city," much like "urbane."  It has a range of meanings relating to urbanity, such as well-bred, courteous, polite, refined, elegant, clever, pretty, and, as translated here, beautiful or lovely.  I also did a quick and dirty search, and, as far as I can tell, in the New Testament this term only shows up in these two places.  So, for at least these NT writers, it is something that is associated with Moses and not found with anyone else.

While considering use, we should also note that it always refers to his "beauty" at birth.  It is used, in fact, as the reason used for his parents' sparing him:  they spared him, hid him, covered him because he was beautiful.

But this is missing a bigger question, I think.  Of all the passages, issues, characteristics, events of Moses' life, why remember this?  Why bring it up?  Is this a fixed part of tradition?  Are there other traditions of Moses' "beauty"?  Are there competing traditions of other figures' "beauty" that are not necessarily in the canon?  This question of why to recall this at all may seem odd when considering Acts 7 as a whole, where half the discussion is Moses--perhaps it is bound to come up.  Stephen talks about all kinds of events in Moses' life: his life in Egypt, his Exile, the Exodus, his meeting with the angel on the mountain, Sinai (somewhat), the golden calf, and the Tabernacle.  The passage generally emphasizes how the people failed to understand Moses' divinely appointed role and how they continually rejected him (using him as a prototype for the later rejection of Jesus).  Oddly, with all of this detail, the Passover is absent.  The actual Sinai experience is also rather vaguely discussed.  So, one might just say Stephen's speech has it because it has so much of the tradition, but, really, some major aspects of the Moses tradition emphasized so greatly elsewhere are downplayed here (the giving of the Torah on Sinai, though the burning bush episode receives extensive treatment, and the downplaying of the Passover).  This suggests that what does show up is important.  What is more, Acts 7:20 has a little editorial shift not found in Exodus or Hebrews:  not only was Moses "beautiful," but he was "beautiful before God."  Other texts usually just indicate his beauty in the eyes of his parents; here it is divinely acknowledged beauty.  It is a heightening of Moses' beauty.

Stephen speaks of Moses' beauty in a string of attributes of and actions by Moses.  In fact, the text emphasizes Moses' great qualities stating, "he was mighty in his words and his deeds."  How much more interesting, then, is it that Hebrews, which discusses Moses much more succinctly, also mentions this quality.  There are only four events mentioned in Heb. 11:23-28:  (1) Moses beauty as a child and his parents hiding him; (2) his rejection of his Egyptian upbringing in which he becomes sort of a proto-Christian:  "He considered abuse suffered for Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt"; (3) his vision of God "seeing him who is invisible"; (4) and the Passover.  So, when it comes down to the four things to mention "by faith" Moses (or Moses' parents) did: hiding him due to his "beauty" made the cut.  While mentioned elsewhere in Hebrews, Moses' vision of the pattern of the tabernacle is not here (see Heb. 8:5).  Also mentioned elsewhere is Sinai (Heb. 12), but it is not here (not explicitly anyway).  So, we receive an emphasis on Moses' beauty, his suffering (something also suggested in Acts 7), his vision of the invisible (something actually denied in Acts 7, where he meets an angel and, even then, looks away), and the Passover (something again ignored in Acts 7).  Between the two passages (again, without mentioning other parts of Hebrews), the only things that overlap as worth mentioning, as deserving emphasis are Moses' beauty and his suffering--suffering in a way that foreshadows Christ and Christ-followers.

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?


J. K. Gayle said...

Great analysis! As usual, wonderful post!

You got me thinking here.

Jared Calaway said...

Glad you liked it, and glad it sparked further thoughts in new directions.

MGVHoffman said...

Josephus makes a big deal of Moses' beauty (though he doesn't use αστειος). Cf. Ant 2.224, 231
Simlilarly Philo who does use αστειος: De vita Moses 1.9, 15, 18.
Mostly it accounts for why Pharaoh's daughter was attracted to the baby Moses and why he later attracted attention. Don't see anything about "beautiful to God"...

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks Mark. I have been looking into Josephus and Philo the past couple of days--as well as Rabbinic stories of Moses being "good" at birth (usually noting that this means he was born circumcised; poised for prophecy, or that "tov" was his name).

I found the Josephus instance particularly interesting, because he says that when Pharaoh's daughter presented Moses to Pharaoh, he appeared like the "form of God."

For the tale, it does primarily explain why Moses attracted attention, though it seems in Josephus those who find him striking to look at are removed from his parents are are exclusively the issue with the Egyptians.

Still, the "form of God" comment and a couple other issues suggest that it has an additional aspect. Perhaps it is, however, just participating in a wider ancient narrative pattern that emphasizes the striking, perhaps god-like appearance of legendary heroes when born.

Overall, the NT authors likely mentioned this detail simply because it was something that was being more greatly emphasized in the first century. It is a nod to this enhancement of the tradition of Moses' striking appearance at birth. A minor tradition, perhaps, but one that helps fill out the picture of the growing Moses legends of this time period.

Anonymous said...

I remember it saying "for he was a proper child."

Jared Calaway said...

In Hebrew it says he was "tov," which primarily means "good," but can be translated as "fine" or "proper." The Greek version of the Bible, which was the version the authors of the NT used, say he was "asteios," which, as noted, is more like "urbane."