As I am reading Philo for reading his discussions of Moses’ visions, I cannot but help return to this strange little obsession of mine with Moses’ “beauty” (ἀστεῖος). In a previous post (from February--wow how time flies), I discussed the terminology and usage in the New Testament (Acts 7 and Hebrews 11). There I had some helpful comments, and I have looked up how this little verse in Exod 2:2 has been re-interpreted by Rabbis, Josephus, and, here Philo. It is time to put this into a little bit of context.
Naturally, one turns to Philo’s Life of Moses, although the terminology appears elsewhere. In this work it appears in the following passages:
Now, the child from his birth had an appearance of more than ordinary goodliness (ἀστειοτέραν), so that his parents as long as they could actually set at nought the proclamations of the despot (1.9; trans.Colson LCL)
Compare this with:
Therefore, surveying him from head to foot, she [the Pharaoh’s daughter] approved of his beauty (εὐμορφίαν) and fine condition, and seeing him weeping took pity on him, for her heart was now moved to feel for him as a mother for her own child (1.15).
As he grew and thrived without a break, and was weaned at an earlier date than they had reckoned, his mother and nurse in one brought him to her from whom she had received him, since he had ceased to need an infant’s milk. He was noble and goodly (ἀστεῖον) to look upon; and the princess, seeing him so advanced beyond his age, conceived for him an even greater fondness than before, and took him for her son…. (1.18-19)
In the Life of Moses at least, Moses’ beauty, signaled primarily by ἀστειοτέρον and ἀστεῖον, although with some synonymous terminology, serves the purpose to explain why he was saved by his parents and why Pharoah’s daughter was so willing to take him in. Nonetheless, we see some adjustments made: it is not just for his birth, but an ongoing trait of his advanced status. His physical “beauty” mirrors his general physical and, later, educational advancement. The other adjustment is that, unlike the LXX and the New Testament, he does not just have “beauty” or “goodliness,” but is “more” so, signaling at his birth his superlative, and, for Philo, unique stature.
Moses’ beauty, or goodliness as Colson translates it, appears in other treatises as well.
On the other hand the mind called Moses, that goodly plant, given the name of goodly (ἀστεῖος) at his very birth, who in virtue of his larger citizenship took the world for his township and country (ὁ τὸν κόσμον ὡς ἄστυ καὶ πατρίδα), weeps bitterly in the days when he is imprisoned in the ark of the body bedaubed as with “asphalt-pitch,” which thinks to receive and contain, as with cement, impressions of all that is presented through sense. He weeps for his captivity, pressed sore by his yearning for a nature that knows no body. (Confusion of Tongues 106; Trans. Colson and Whitaker, LCL)
Moses, here, stands for a type of mind—one that contrasts with the Noah-mind. Both were put in arks of asphalt and pitch (that is, the body). The Noah-mind, when the world presses in, find the body a source of strength; the Moses-mind, the higher mind, finds it oppressive, recognizing the body cannot give real safety; the body is mutable upon the waves of life's seas, but the highest mind of the most virtuous is stable. The mind-type (Moses) is, again, ἀστεῖος, and finally Philo plays his hand. He uses it to transition smoothly into Moses (and the minds who emulate him) as cosmopolitan (world citizen)—the world is his city, his ἄστυ.
Finally, the term shows up again in the amusingly titled On Mating with Preliminary Studies 132:
This is Moses, the mind of purest quality, the truly “goodly” (ὁ ἀστεῖος ὄντος), who, with a wisdom given by divine inspiration, received the art of legislation and prophecy alike, who being of the tribe of Levi, both on the father’s and the mother’s side, has a double link with truth.
As with On the Confusion of Tongues, Moses being ἀστεῖος is no longer just about physical appearance, but of quality of mind. But this passage takes it even a step further: it is linked with Moses’ ability to receive the revelation of the divine legislation; it ties, in fact, three out of the four roles he would have according to the Life of Moses (law-giver, prophet, and high priest—assuming that is the point of emphasizing his link with Levi—the only thing missing is him as philosopher-king). The link between his beauty/goodliness and his prophetic abilities would reappear in Rabbinic sources as well.
Philo readily exploits the LXX rendering of Moses as ἀστεῖος (Exod. 2:2). He uses it exegetically to explain why his parents saved him—and other parents did no such thing—and why Pharoah’s daughter took an instant liking to him: it all came down to his appearance. In this case, it is further amplified with synonyms of beauty and nobility as well as made “greater goodliness/beauty.” Moreover, it mirrors Moses’ overall advanced status: it is not just of body, but of mind. Philo pushes the terminology further, looking to its Stoic resonances, when speaking of the Moses-mind: the mind that emulates Moses’ beauty/goodliness. Using a term that literally means “of the city” allows Philo to transition smoothly into Moses’ virtues as a cosmopolitan, one for whom the entire cosmos is his “city.” Moreover, as something beyond a physical quality, it interlinks with Moses’ prophetic abilities: it is the mind of the greatest purity and, thereby, the mind that can commune with the divine.