Athens and Jerusalem: Odysseus and Moses

by Geoffrey Clarfield and Joseph Adler (August 2011)

In 1909, Arnold Van Gennep, a French speaking ethnologist published an anthropological classic called The Rites of Passage. It eventually revolutionized the way anthropologists understand ritual and, the way the rest of us have come to understand and analyze the symbolic structures of religious practice, music, theatre, dance, drama, literature and film, or what anthropologists now call “expressive culture.”


Having examined ritual sequences from hundreds of non-Western and non-industrial cultures, Van Gennep noted that almost all rituals comprise three stages. The first stage of any ritual separates the participant from the rest of society, from normal time or daily life. The second stage transforms the participant and often includes challenges and obstructions that he or she must overcome, very often of a dream like, frightening or ecstatic nature. Once these obstacles are overcome the third stage brings the participant “back to reality” by bringing him or her back to his starting point, but with a changed status, usually higher than the point of beginning as an initiate, as a person of power or a leader of some sort, or as someone positively transformed.


This ritual sequence makes sense of most literature in the Western canon, most opera, novels and almost all films. It is nearly identical to the quest of the hero but, it can be expressed as simply as the daily mass of the devout Catholic or among the ten-man prayer quorum of Orthodox Jews. It is a structure that you can see almost everywhere and it has its secular versions in school graduations and the three levels of security that now characterize our airports. It is also the structure of two of our most cherished stories and contrasting heroes, as expressed by the character of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and in the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus.


It is easy to look at Odysseus in this fashion for, with few exceptions, his story is no longer sacred to us and belongs to the realm of epic poetry. If we look at the ritual transformation of Odysseus across the Iliad and the Odyssey we track a man who begins as a chief, is torn away from his chieftainship, is obliged to fight the Trojans, overcomes his tribulations sent by Poseidon, loses every man for whom he was responsible, and is then reintegrated back to his own family and royal position with the help of a Goddess.


It is in essence a cyclical story and introduces us to the tragic in life – so much suffering and hardship, only to end up in the place where we started, perhaps a tad wiser. The three part ritual structure of the Homeric epic is clear to scholars and much has been written about it, including the fact that there seems to be no great moral lesson to be gained from the story, apart from the necessity of surviving the arbitrary actions of the gods during your transformational voyage in life. In that sense it is a very modern story and for those without belief it is the ideal guidebook for “getting through.” It is also the ultimate survivalist TV idea. Indeed, Odysseus ‘ greatest “virtue” is “cunning” and his could be the tale of any man forced to fight a war that he did not choose or, to sojourn on an island of his TV producer’s choice.


Yet if we look at the story of Moses in the same way that we do for Odysseus, a whole new symbolic order emerges from the pages of the Bible, for by looking at the story of Moses as a three part ritual transformation similar to the tribulations of Odysseus, we can discern a particular moral symbolism that is unique to his story and which still informs our own moral consciousness today. The structure is the same yet the moral end of the tale is fundamentally different.  The story is an epic worthy of Homer but it is distinguishable by that fundamental moral difference.Moses does nothing for himself but is dedicated solely to his people, whereas Odysseus acts only in his own self-interest. 


Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, after three thousand years, these two books are the most widely read and admired stories of literate Westerners. They are the two ends of a continuum of hope and despair or if one is more forgiving of Homer, between egotism and altruism. For those who watch television, Odysseus is the ultimate survivor, whereas Moses is obliged to hand the “prize” to Joshua.


The following exposition of the story of Exodus has emerged from an intellectual friendship between a student of the Talmud and an anthropologically informed reader of the Bible. We thought by applying the theory of Van Gennep to the story of Moses, while at the same time applying a Talmudic frame of mind to a reading of the Exodus story, we could discover something new. This is what we found. As the secondary literature on the Bible is vast, our interpretation may already lie in some journal or archive. We doubt it, but welcome it if it does.


Reading Exodus as the heroic story of Moses who must go through the three stages of ritual transformation brings to light the structural integrity of the Exodus story. The normal condition of life for Moses’ people in Egypt is slavery. By killing Pharaoh’s foreman and running away to the wilderness he severs all ties with his normal life as an adopted Prince of Egypt.  In the second stage both he and the people of Israel are in the desert in their transformative period, which culminates in the giving of the law. The final stage is their exodus from the Sinai into the land of Israel through Moses’s successor, Joshua and their fulfillment of their destiny as a nation covenanted with God. They begin in slavery, are transformed in the desert and emerge a free nation in the land of Israel.


The first stage of the ritual takes place in Egypt, the second in the desert of Sinai and the third (although Moses is not permitted to go there) in Israel through his symbolic proxy, Joshua. The particular symbolic system of this epic ritual comprises Egypt as the land of death, the Sinai as the land of heavenly transformation and the land of Israel as the return to normal at a higher level, representing life.


According to John Bright in a History of Israel (Bright, 1975: 120) the Jews had, “escaped Egypt through the accompaniment of events so stupendous that they were impressed forever on her memory.”  Bright asserts that these events would be remembered  “for all time to come as the constitutive event that had called her into being as a people.”


Furthermore, the remembrance of their deliverance from Egypt would be solidified through specially designated holidays and rituals. Consequently this sacred tale has become inextricably linked with Jewish mythology and has established itself as the preliminary or formative stage in the symbolic and physical progression from Egypt to the Land of Israel.


Of the four earthly elements conceived by ancient man, earth, air, fire and water, water is the most uniquely distinguished element of these four. We note that Moses life was saved (redeemed) through water by the daughter of Pharaoh when he appeared in the river Nile in his cradle of bulrushes, for it is written in the book of Exodus that


“…the child grew, and she brought him onto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: “because I drew him out of the water.”


As Egyptologists never hesitate to tell us that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile river in a multitude of forms, we note that the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians did not only originate from the river but, “centered on it – they were directed against it, emanated from it, or were announced at is banks” (Elias, 1977: 129). The God of Moses shows his power over the water in two ways, in Moses birth and in the ten plagues. In his power, God shows that he is stronger than the strongest of the Egyptian deities, those embodied by or associated with the Nile.


The most monumental event caused by the God of Moses is the splitting of the Red Sea, which allowed the people of Israel to gain their freedom from slavery under the Egyptians. Clearly water is the essential component of the event. It brings death to the armies of Egypt and life to the Children of Israel. This is subtly contrasted with the experience of drought and freedom when the children of Israel enter stage two of their journey, their spiritual transformation during their desert wanderings and when they complain to Moses in Exodus 7:3 saying,


And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said: “wherefore has thou brought us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”


These are the words of a people who have still yet to accept that they are free whereas we note that in the Bible, Moses never complains about leaving Egypt. In extremis he often turns to God, but he never turns back.


Moses is clearly the hero and protagonist of the epic of Exodus and he redeems the Children of Israel though water, both at the Nile, the Red Sea and in the middle of the desert when all are thirsty. If we are anthropologically honest, when we look at Egypt which the fifth century BC Greek writer Herodotus wrote was and is the “gift of the Nile” there is no ancient culture which was so obsessed with death and the hereafter, not with life and the here and now. We only have to look at the later archaeological record of tombs and burial customs of the Israelites when they lived in the land of Israel. There were and have been few major tombs found there and even princes and priests were buried in simple shrouds. Clearly these cultural contrasts as set out in this text have deep historical roots.


In the nineteen fifties Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver could still write, “the religions of Egypt concern themselves to the point of obsession with death and the hereafter.” Only recently has the tough minded English Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson suggested that ancient Egypt was closer to a cruel hydraulic despotism as opposed to the fun loving and nature loving depictions of ancient Egypt that grace our museums in New York, Toronto, London and Paris. The slavery endured by the Israelites was most uncoincidentally connected to the cruelty of a death-obsessed culture. Today this is not a popular thing to say.


When Moses leads the children of Israel into the Sinai desert they are clearly entering their transformative stage. There are here both external and internal enemies, disease to be overcome, hunger, thirst and a temptation to deny the one God, his representative Moses and return voluntarily to the more comfortable and familiar slavery that awaits them in Egypt.  It is as the anthropologists say, a stage of being “betwixt and between.”


The symbolic foci of this transformative stage are air and fire. These categories are identified with the sky and heavens (where God resides) and provide a way of establishing a means whereby the children of Israel forge a special relationship with God. The heavens provide them with a pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day and with the food, manna that drops from the heavens, sent by God.


The relevant “monumental event” of this stage is God’s decent from heaven in the form of a burning bush on the Sinai mountain to deliver the law to the Jewish people (Exodus 19:20): and the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mount: and Moses went up.”  Given the active centrality of God during this betwixt and between or “liminal” period it is almost as if he becomes the chief protagonist of this section and all challenges or transformations are incorporated into his divine thoughts and actions. There are no other Gods here and he reigns supreme.


As water is scarce Moses is called upon to deliver water from a rock and he violates God’s orders in the way he does so and is later punished for this transgression by God denying him to enter the promised land. This may be a “function” of the mythological strictness of the three-stage form, for water is not a central symbol of the second desert stage. Only manna and fowl fall from the sky but water comes from below:


Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it that the people may drink.


The final stage of Moses and the children of Israel’s journey are in the land of Israel where Joshua becomes Moses’ proxy, but now as an earth bound leader, not as a desert bound, heaven sent prophet. The conquest, control and possession of the land of Israel according to the covenant given to the Children of Israel in Sinai by God shows us an immanent God who is not only active in heaven, but on earth. The Israelites become agriculturalists and God’s justice is integrated into their living off the land. The earth now becomes God’s way of rewarding or punishing his covenanted inhabitants, the people Israel. This is clearly explained in Deuteronomy 11: 13-17:


If ye shall hearken diligently onto my commandments…then I will give the rain of your land in its seasons. And I will give grass in my field for thy cattle…take heed to yourselves , lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and you serve  and worship after gods…and the Lord shall shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit.


Once this mythic structure was established in this early book of the Bible, the land of Israel as a symbol of life  became central to later Jewish history and folklore. Unlike Egypt, which has been regularly recalled by Jewish myth and folklore as a place of slavery and death, the land of Israel is its polar symbolic opposite. It is the theme of the Passover holiday celebrated at home by every Jewish family and their invited guests.


Recently, one of the authors visited St. Paul’s chapel at ground zero in New York, built during colonial times and gazed upon the pew where George Washington once prayed each Sunday. Above the altar there is a copy of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Just after the presidency was conferred upon Washington he wrote:


“May the same wonder working Deity who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the Promised Land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven.”


Washington was not thinking about Odysseus.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large and Joseph Adler is a Toronto-based attorney.



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