Athens and Jerusalem: Odysseus and Moses

by Geoffrey Clarfield and Joseph Adler (August 2011)

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.

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.

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.

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 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,


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.

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.

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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