Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo on Exodus 4:1-5 — Moses’ Rod Becomes a Serpent

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Moses’ Rod Becomes a Serpent (Exodus 4.1-5)

[1] And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.
[2] And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.
[3] And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
[4] And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand:
[5] That they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.

Philo of Alexandria, Allegorical Interpretation (Legum allegoriarum) 2.88-2.93

(88) Nor, indeed, does the pleasure which is in the form of a serpent, abstain from attacking that most sincere lover of God, Moses, for we read as follows; “If, therefore, they will not obey me, nor listen to my voice–for they will say, God has not been seen by you–what shall I say to them? And the Lord said unto Moses, What is that which is in thy hand? And he said, A rod. And God said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch forth thy hand, and take hold of it by the tail. And having stretched forth his hand, he took hold of it by the tail, and it became a rod in his hand. And the Lord said unto him, That they may believe Thee”. [Ex 4:3]

(89) How can any one believe God? If he has learnt that all other things are changed, but that he alone is unchangeable. Therefore, God asks of the wise Moses what there is in the practical life of his soul; for the hand is the symbol of action. And he answers, Instruction, which he calls a rod. On which account Jacob the supplanter of the passions, says, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan”. [Gen 32:10] But Jordan being interpreted means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand.

XXIII. (90) Well, therefore, does the Godloving Moses answer. For truly the actions of the virtuous man are supported by education as by a rod, tranquillizing the disturbances and agitations of the mind. This rod, when cast away, becomes a serpent. Very appropriately. For if the soul casts away instruction, it becomes fond of pleasure [philhedonos] instead of being fond of virtue [philaretos]. On which account Moses fled from it, for the man who is fond of virtue does flee from passion and from pleasure.

(91) But God did not praise his flight. For it is fitting, indeed, for your mind, before you are made perfect, to meditate flight and escape from the passions; but Moses, that perfect man, ought rather to persevere in his war against them, and to resist them, and to strive against them, otherwise they, relying on their freedom from danger and on their power, will ascend up to the citadel of the soul, and take it by storm, and will plunder it entirely, like a tyrant.

(92) On which account God commanded Moses “to take hold of it by the tail,” that is to say, let not the hostile and untameable spirit of pleasure terrify you, but with all your power take hold of it, and seize it firmly, and master it. For it will again become a rod instead of a serpent, that is to say, instead of pleasure it will become instruction in your hand;

(93) but it will be in your hand, that is in the action of a wise man, which, indeed, is true. But it is impossible to take hold of and to master pleasure, unless the hand be first stretched out, that is to say, unless the soul confesses that all actions and all progress is derived from God; and attributes nothing to himself. Accordingly he, when he saw this serpent, decided to flee from it? But he prepared another principle, that of temperance, which is the brazen serpent: that whosoever was bitten by pleasure, when he looked on temperance, might live a real life.

Source: Yonge, Charles Duke.  The Works of Philo. Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition. David M. Scholer, editor. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0943575931.

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Written by John Uebersax

February 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm

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