Uses and Abuses of Moses

Literary Representations Since the Enlightenment

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Theodore Ziolkowski
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , March
     364 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since antiquity, interpreters have seized upon the creative opportunities presented by the gaps, ambiguities, and issues inherent in the biblical narrative of Moses’s life and work. The practice of expanding upon those areas of Moses’s life that the Pentateuch leaves to the imagination, such as Moses’s youth, family relations, and inner life, is at least as old as the Hellenistic period, and continues well into the present day. From the all too brief story of Moses’s childhood to the cryptic story of his death, writers over the centuries have found areas within the Moses story that allow them to imagine Moses anew and to identify with him from their own vantage point. In many instances, Moses is treated as a blank screen upon which authors project their own ideologies, ethics, experiences, and dreams, thus recreating the Hebrew Bible’s most prominent figure in the author’s own image—or, in some cases, the image of their enemy.

In Uses and Abuses of Moses, Theodore Ziolkowski surveys literary representations of Moses that appeared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to “illustrate vividly the manner in which the biblical figure of Moses can be co-opted for ideological purposes, ranging . . . from religious to secular, from socialist to fascist, from the historical to the psychological, and shifting from generation to generation to reflect the most urgent concerns of the times” (2). This two-fold task is exactly what Ziolkowski accomplishes. On a micro-level, he analyzes many individual works, demonstrating the ways in which the figure and story of Moses were appropriated during the 19th and 20th centuries; on the macro-level, Ziolkowski performs his analysis with an eye for the larger contextual issues that explain how and why the thematic undercurrents of these appropriations change from one generation to the next.

Before delving into the matter at hand, Ziolkowski offers a loose definition of what he means by “abuses,” a term he uses throughout Uses and Abuses of Moses in reference to “any blatantly ideological adaptation of Moses’ name and life beyond his traditional biblical roles as liberator, lawgiver, and religious prophet of the Hebrews” (9). Ziolkowski clarifies that he does not use the term to represent any rigorously defined category or to communicate “any moral or aesthetic judgment”; in fact, some of these abuses are quite ingenious and engaging, even though they extend beyond the boundaries of the biblical story (9). Ziolkowski introduces Uses and Abuses of Moses with an overview of trends in Moses-related literature from antiquity through the 18th century (10-27) then focuses the remainder of the book on portrayals of Moses in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Overall, Ziolkowski’s work is illustrative rather than argumentative. In the core chapters of the book, Ziolkowski prefers breadth of analysis to depth, with most of his analyses of individual literary works ranging from 3-7 pages in length. The volume is well-researched and provides many interesting examples of how Moses has been “used” and “abused” in modern literature, from the Egyptomania of the 19th century, through Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and 40s, to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, and beyond. However, Uses and Abuses of Moses does not work toward an overarching thesis, but rather serves as an extensive catalog and testimony to the range of adaptations of the Moses story.

In addition to the sheer amount of research this work represents, the strongest areas of Ziolkowski’s Uses and Abuses of Moses are the instances in which he frames his examples in relation to larger trends in culture, scholarship, and literature. These include, but are not limited to, the invention of the academic fields of archaeology, biblical studies, and religious studies in the latter half of the 19th century, the rise of Egyptomania and postfigurative novels in the early 20th century, and various politicizations of Moses in the 1920s. These analyses, however, are most often limited to a few pages at the beginning of each chapter, with little analytic thread connecting the numerous examples included therein, and with little to no assessment at the end. It is clear from Ziolkowski’s willingness to make these macro-level observations that he observes noteworthy trends in 19th and 20th century treatments of Moses, yet he does not bring those trends to the fore, despite their being worthy of deeper analysis.

At the end of Uses and Abuses of Moses, Ziolkowski rightly draws two conclusions. The first is that Moses “constitutes an animate seismograph through whose reception we can trace many of the characteristic shifts in the cultural landscape of the past two centuries” (307). This metaphor of Moses as seismograph is well supported by Ziolkowski’s research and the ways in which he presents the modern literary works under investigation. His second conclusion is perhaps not as obvious from the proceeding chapters, as Ziolkowski does not address it specifically until this point, but it is historically true nonetheless: The vast majority of authors who have dealt with Moses, from before the Hellenistic Period through today, come to grips with his character and story by focusing on one aspect of his life, while ignoring all others (314). This concluding remark is one of the greatest contributions of Ziolkowski’s Uses and Abuses of Moses to future generations, because it highlights a gap in both scholarly and literary treatments of the Hebrew Bible’s most prominent figure. To date, there has yet to be published a holistic study of the character and story of Moses, without the usual forms of use and abuse that Ziolkowski so thoroughly illustrates.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy L. Balogh Ph.D. is Program Manager and Lecturer at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Theodore Ziolkowski is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton University.



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