Moses among the Idols

Mediator of the Divine in the Ancient Near East

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Amy L. Balogh
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the introduction to Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East, Amy Balogh establishes the problem: the meaning of the language of Moses’ uncircumcised lips and being a god to Pharaoh (Ex 6:28-7:1). Through use of Mesopotamian texts related to Mīs Pî and Pīt Pî, Balogh attempts “to compare Moses and idols with respect to status change” (xxxix). Her investigation proceeds on the assumption that the biblical authors had working knowledge of idolatry in Babylon. Methodologically, she uses Jonathan Z. Smith’s notion of “third term” in conjunction with Clifford Geertz’ “thick description”to narrow down her investigation. 

In chapter 1, Balogh describes the function of idols according to the Mīs Pî ritual, highlighting how the ritual materials give birth to and purify the idol via reeds. Overall, performance of the akitu-festival points to the idol as the axis mundi—the horizontal meeting between civilization and the divine, and the vertical meeting between Apsû, earth, and heaven. In ritual process of becoming an active idol, the idol functioned in the political and religious spheres, legitimizing the imperial and affirming the cosmic order. Finally, she concludes by juxtaposing Passover with Akitu, though the purpose of this is unclear.

In chapter 2, Balogh rebuts traditional approaches to Moses’ heavy mouth, arguing that traditional views of Moses’ heavy lips and tongue are inadequate (language barrier, physical defect, and metaphor), each option harmonizing texts, not explaining the compiler’s logic, and assuming the burning bush as sufficient for Moses’ status change. She also argues thatthe notion of Moses “beinga god to pharaoh”as a metaphor is an inadequate explanation given that kings were regularly perceived as deities in the ancient world.

Second, Balogh reads Exodus 3:1-7:1 engaging Mīs Pî with regard to status change. Exodus 3:1-4:17 shows concern of divine presence, whereas 6:22-7:7 is about effectively channeling Yahweh through a mediator, a dual requirement of Yahweh’s presence and rebirth such that Moses can function as a conduit of Yahweh, explaining “the form and function of Exod 3:1-7:7 as a whole” (50). In Balogh’s view, the Priestly source prompts a re-reading of the burning bush with a Priestly filter. Her reasoning also suggests that the genealogy in the middle of Exodus 6 emphasizes Moses’ humanity, marking his true birth with the circumcision of his lips. Moreover, she describes the orientation and goals of the compiler as attempting to highlight the center of Moses’ status change as the circumcision of his lips.

Chapter 3 compares Moses’ lip circumcision with Mīs Pî in order to illuminate the status change in Exodus 6:28-7:1. Initially analyzing uncircumcision in the Hebrew Bible as physical and metaphoric, both hold negative connotations related to impurity and covenantal infidelity. In Exodus, eliciting uncircumcised lips adds a sense of urgency, only solvable via Yahweh. Shifting to Mīs Pî, Balogh describes the centrality of mouth washing as being oriented towards practical goals of communication by the divine to humanity—central to sustenance in the ancient world. Drawing her discussions of Mīs Pî and Exodus together, she offers two new perspectives: (1) a proposal for the etymology of Moses as from mšh, meaning “pure”; and (2) Moses’ uncircumcised lips as “a characteristically Yahwistic spin on the ancient Near Eastern idea that a mouth needed to be pure and open in order to act as the mouthpiece of the divine” (81).

Chapter 4 examines Moses’ qrn as a result of his maturation as a mediator for the deity. Considering the web of luminosity symbolism in Mīs Pî and the Hebrew Bible, Balogh suggests that it conveys a sign of divine presence. As such, she argues that qrn primarily serves to align Moses with Yahweh, highlighting Moses’ function as an idol-type-mediator.

Chapter 5 examines the outcomes of status change for Moses and idols with regard to the cult systems. First, she links Moses’ mouth-to-mouth speech with Yahweh to Numb 12:8, creatively translating the Hiphil of נבטas “he shone forth the form of Yahweh.” As such, she claims that Moses’ experiential encounter maintained his special status, luminosity language describing “the effect that experience has upon Moses and what that effect says about his status and nature” (124). This status enabled Moses to transcend the Tabernacle parameters with regard to being before God, though Moses is linked with the tabernacle inasmuch as he (1) supervises tabernacle construction, and (2) meets there with Yahweh. Second, concerning idols, (1) idols speak to the divine; (2) an idol’s free will is regulated by the temple parameters; and (3) idols need to travel to commune with other divinities. These points highlight the mutually beneficial interaction between humans and idols. Finally, she outlines the similarities and difference between Moses and idols with regard to crossing boundaries and creating boundaries in cult contexts, leading her to conclude that “[t]he interplay between similarity and difference in idol-Moses comparison ensured that the Pentateuch’s authors met the ancient Near Eastern requirements for an intermediary figure, while reasoning a new paradigm of thought and practice for its audience” (141-42). 

Overall, Balogh’s interpretation of Moses as an idol is insightful and illuminating, providing plausible solutions to obscure texts. The volume provides strong evidence and discussion in justifying Moses’ idol status as a new paradigm for intermediary figures in the ancient Near East. Unfortunately, her argument has significant weak points which raise skepticism concerning her conclusions. These may be broadly grouped into the following categories: Judeans and akitu; idols and horns in the Levant; Egyptian rituals; and Pentateuchal criticism.

First, fundamental to Balogh’s argument is that Judean elites would have been present in Babylon during the first half of the 6th century BCE and possibly witnessed the brief procession of Marduk to Esagila, his temple (18-22). Problematic, here, is the evidence of intercultural contact. Though some Judean deportees were located in Babylon proper, the majority of Judeans settled in the Babylonian countryside, at least based on current records. Moreover, Yahwistic personal names are typically not associated with Babylonian temples (Tero Esko Alstola, Judeans in Babylonia: A Study of Deportees in the Sixth and Fifth Centuries BCE, 2017). In other words, though Judeans likely encountered Babylonian temples, the degree of contact with and absorption of Babylonian ideas is unclear. This point should be further discussed by Balogh given that it would provide better historical evidence for contact she assumes to have occurred between Judeans and Babyloniansperforming the akitu-festival. 

Second, her conclusions related to issues of luminosity, horns, and idols would be stronger if they were connected to Levantine archaeology. For example, how do horns, as signifying alignment with the divine, show continuity of the Hebrew Bible with the material culture of the Levant and how do idols function in the Levant (e.g., on horns see Federica Spagnoli, In the nostrils of God: stone incense altars in Phoenician cult context, Beyrouth, 2015; and on aniconism in Phoenicia (see Brian Dank, Phoenician Aniconism in Its Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern Contexts, SBL Press, 2015)? In other words, Balogh’s arguments could have found further support and significant refinement through Levantine material evidence.

Third, Balogh briefly describes the Egyptian Mouth Opening and Mouth Cleansing rituals (xxxii-xxxv), recognizing the value of them in relation to Mīs Pî and Moses’ status change. Yet, she limits her analysis to only Mīs Pî and the Hebrew Bible. Though her reasoning is justifiable, namely that she would be unable to provide adequate critical discussion, it is unfortunate that she did not expand her project to include such rituals. In terms of cultural contact, evidence indicates trade between Judah and Egypt during the 7th century BCE (Avraham Faust and Ehud Weiss, Judah, Philistia, and the Mediterranean WorldBASOR 338, 2005), and open lines of communication between Egypt and Judah in the Persian Period (e.g., Elephantine Papyri). On account of economic, and therefore cultural, interactions between Judah and Egypt during these periods, Balogh should continue her work in the future by comparing the Egyptian forms of the Mouth Opening ritual with Moses’ status change. This would significantly enrich, strengthen, and fine-tune her analysis.

Finally, throughout the volume, Balogh’s use of Pentateuchal source criticism is unclear. From the outset, she states her position: “[a]s the compiler presents the Pentateuchal narrative in chronological order, one may read the figure of Moses and his actions subsequent to his transformation from ‘uncircumcised of lips’ to ‘god to Pharaoh’ (6:30-7:1) only through the lens offered by P: Moses is YHWH’s idol” (xxviii; 120). In skipping straight to how P should be the lens by which the audience understands the other source material, Balogh makes a number of methodological errors and unsubstantiated assumptions.

Though she recognizes the value of source critical readings of Moses’ status transformation, she avoids this. Instead examining the Pentateuch in its final form whilst leveraging P as an interpretive lens for Moses’ status change, she fails to justify why P should take priority as the interpretive lens with any substantial evidence. Moreover, even though she approaches the Pentateuch in its final form, it is methodologically essential that Balogh identify and discuss the various traditions brought together by the compiler, understanding each on their own terms initially—only in doing so can she begin to make arguments about how the compiler constructs the relationship between sources.

In conclusion, Moses Among the Idols is a well-argued volume which presents innovative solutions concerning Moses’ status change and many ambiguous passages. She sets out a narrow path of comparison from the beginning of her analysis between Mīs Pî and Moses’ status change, as made evident through her use of thick description and third term. Paradoxically, the narrow path contributes to essential information, such as material context, Egyptian rituals, Judeans in Babylonia, and Pentateuchal criticism, being excluded from her discussion. As a consequence, potentially fruitful philological discussion is excluded from her analyses. In light of the groundwork established in the volume, though, I look forward to how she further develops her approach to Moses’ status in the future by leveraging and bringing into the conversation more data points.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Brown is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy L. Balogh is Program Manager at the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Adjunct Lecturer for the Department of Religious Studies. She also teaches at Colorado College and Regis University.

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