Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo – Moses Defends Jethro’s Daughters at the Well

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Moses_at_the_Well_-_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_Moses_Botticelli

Exodus 2:16–21 (KJV)

[16] Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.
[17] And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.
[18] And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day?
[19] And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.
[20] And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.
[21] And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.

Philo’s interpretation, below, is quite good and bears close reading.  However, in addition to his explanation, perhaps something can be made of the fact that these events occur at a well, a symbol often associated with inspiration.  Thus, the daughters of Jethro’s seven daughters may symbolize spiritual senses or the like, seeking to draw from the well of inspiration; but which are waylaid by robbers who seek to distract them with worldly thoughts, or to give false, self-interested meanings to the what the well of spiritual inspiration supplies.  Moses, then, would be a disposition of the mind which seeks to push aside the robbers and enable the pure thoughts to enter awareness and take root.

Philo, On the Change of Names (De mutatione nominum) 19.110–20.120

19. (110) This now is one of the things which are shown by the name of Midian; another is that more excellent and judicial species which by the affinity of marriage is connected with the prophetic race. The scripture then says, “The priest of judgment and justice” (that is to say, of Midian) “has seven daughters;” [Ex 2:16]

(111) by which seven daughters are frequently intimated the powers of the irrational part of the soul, the power of generation and the voice, and the five outward senses, tending the flocks of their father; for by means of these seven powers it is that all the progresses and increases of their father, the mind, exist in the perceptions which are produced from him. These, then, coming each to its appropriate object, the power of sight to colours and shapes, the sense of hearing to sounds, the faculty of smelling to scents, taste to flavours, and all the other faculties to those objects which are adapted for their exercise do in a manner imbibe some of the external objects of the outward senses, until they have filled all the channels of the soul, and from these channels they give drink to the sheep of their father; I mean by these sheep that most pure flock of the reason which bears safety and ornament at the same time.

(112) But the companions of envy and jealousy, the leaders of the wicked herd coming up, drive them away from that use of their powers which is in accordance with nature, for some conduct these things which are without, inwards to the mind as to a judge and a king, in order that they may do well from having the most excellent of governors;

(113) but others take the opposite side, pursuing and proclaiming the exact contrary, while it is possible for the mind to be drawn towards them, and to give up the flock which was entrusted to it to Feed.

[The meaning here is obscure, perhaps due to a manuscript problem.  Colson remarks: “the thought may be that while the mind holds its proper seat, it makes the right use of αισθητά, but if it is enticed out into the body-loving region, αίσθητά are used by it as slaves or prisoners.”]

Until the good disposition, devoted to virtue and inspired by God, which for awhile has appeared to be resting in inactivity, by name Moses, holds his shield over them and defends them from those who would attack them, nourishing the flock of his father on wholesome words,

(114) and they having escaped the attack of the enemies of intellect who admire only the external appendages, like people in tragedies, go no longer to Jother but to Raguel, for they have abandoned all connections with pride, and having connected themselves with lawful persuasion, choosing to become a portion of the sacred flock, of which the divine word is the leader, as his name shows, for it signifies the pastoral care of God.

20. (115) But while he is taking care of his own flock, all kinds of good things are given all at once to those of the sheep who are obedient, and who do not resist his will; and in the Psalms we find a song in these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore shall I lack nothing;”[Psalm 23:1]

(116) therefore the mind which has had the royal shepherd, the divine word, for its instructor, will very naturally ask of his seven daughters, “Why is it that you have contended with such great haste to come hither this day?“[Ex 2:18] for formerly, when you met with the objects of the outward sense, remaining a long time outside, you were a long time in returning again by reason of the manner in which you were allured by them, but now I do not know what it is that has happened to you, but you are speedy in your return, contrary to your usual custom.

(117) Therefore they will say that there were not the same causes why they should run back with such exceeding speed, making the double course from the objects of the outward sense and to the objects of the outward sense, without stopping to take breath, and with excessive impetuosity; but that the cause was rather the man who delivered them from the shepherds of the wild flock. And they call Moses an Egyptian, a man who was not only a Hebrew, but even a Hebrew of the very purest race, of the only tribe which is consecrated, because they are unable to rise above their own nature;

(118) for the outward senses, being on the confines between the objects of the intellect and those of the outward senses, we must be content if they aim at both of them, and are not allured by the objects of the outward sense alone. And to think that they are inclined only to attend to the things which are purely objects of the intellect is great folly; on which account they give him both these names, since when they call him a man, they indicate the things which are within the province of reason alone to contemplate, and when they call him an Egyptian, they indicate the objects of the external senses.

(119) When they had heard this, he will again inquire, “Where is the man?” In what part of you is the reasonable species dwelling? Why have you left it so easily, and have not rather after having once met with it, preserved that which was the most beautiful of possessions, and the most advantageous for yourselves?

(120) But even if you have not done so before, at least call it to you now, that it may eat of and be supported by your improvement and your close connection with him; for perhaps he will even dwell with you, and will bring with him the winged, and divinely inspired, and prophetical race by name Zipporah.

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

December 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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