Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The power of Moshe's hands

At the end of Beshalach, we're told of Joshua's battle with Amelek. During the fight, Moshe, Aaron and Hur went to the top of a hill to watch, and "whenever Moshe held up his hands, Israel prevailed; whenever he lowered his hands Amalek prevailed."

On the surface, it may have seemed to early readers like there was something magical about Moshe's hands. This is a theory ancient interpreters apparently wished to defeat.

Thus we see:

(1) The raised hands were just a symbolic message [Philo]
(2) The raised hands inspired Israel to trust God, and when they trusted God He performed miracles for them. [Mechilta de Rabbe Yishmoel]
(3) Moshe raised his hands in prayer [Targum Neophyte]

The early Christian interpreters took a similar approach, only they added an interesting wrinkle

(4) Moshe stretched out his hands in a representation of the cross [Letter of Barnabas]

I admit to doing a double-take when I saw this. I've read this story dozens if not hundreds of times, and in my mind's eye Moshe's hands were raised above his head in prayer. I see now that this was a form of interpretation, and one not necessarily shared by those who approach the text from a different set of assumptions.  While Jewish interpreters thought of Moshe as praying, or otherwise inspiring the Israelites, Christian interpreters saw this episode as foreshadowing of an event that would play out later in the New Testament, as follows.

According to early Christian interpreters, Joshua (Jesus in Greek) is a type (that is a representation) for the New Testament Jesus, and his battle with Amalek, a type for the Devil, was a foreshadowing of Jesus's victory over sin.  During the battle with Amelk/sin, Moshe (also a type for Jesus) interceded with God through the sign of the cross, ie, his raised hands. There are many examples of this style of exegesis. (Crossing the Red Sea = baptism; Sacrifice of Isaac = crucifiction; Story of Joseph's sale = Jesus's betrayal; and many, many more.) This approach to interpretation is called "typology".

Now, there's no doubt that these Christian interpretations were the result of pre-existing set of assumptions.  Christian interpreters wanted to justify a view of history, and the role of Jesus in it, and to explain why the Old Testament was necessary and valuable yet inconsistent with what Jesus was believed to have taught. The typological approach, that is the "discovery" of allegories and foreshadowing in the Old Testament, was the answer.

Question for discussion: Did something similar happen in Jewish interpretation, that is were some passages and events understood in ways that fit a different pre-existing set of assumptions?  I think so.... As an example, let's close the post where it began: Some ancient interpreters had the pre-existing view that magic wasn't real; thus, they had to read the story of Moshe's hands in a way that put the power in God's hand, rather than man's

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