Christian Platonism

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Philo – Moses and Water from the Rock

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Gustave Dore - Moses and Water from the Rock

In two places (Exod 17 and Num 20) the Bible relates how Moses was instructed by God to strike a rock to obtain water for the complaining Israelites.  Many biblical scholars believe that these are two different versions of the same incident.  Note that both locations are called Meribah; one takes place in the Wilderness of Sin, the other in the Desert of Zin.  Philo doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two descriptions.

Meribah (Wilderness of Sin) –  Exod 17:1-7

[1] And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the LORD, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink.
[2] Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD?
[3] And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?
[4] And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me.
[5] And the LORD said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.
[6] 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. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.
[7] And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not?

Meribah (Desert of Zin) – Num 20:1-13

[1] Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
[2] And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
[3] And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
[4] And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
[5] And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.
[6] And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.
[7] And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
[8] Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
[9] And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
[10] And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?
[11] And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
[12] And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
[13] This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.

Philo, Allegorical Interpretation (Legum Allegoriarum) 2.83-2.86

[Note: to make clearer Philo’s flow of thought, sections 85 and 86 are reversed below.]

(83) But many souls that have been in love with perseverance and temperance, when removed to a distance from the passions, have nevertheless withstood the power of God, and have undergone a change for the worse, while their Master has made a display of himself and of the work of creation; of himself, that he is always immovable, and of the work of creation, that it vibrates as if in a scale, and inclines opposite ways at different times.

(84) For Moses speaks to the Israelites of God, “Who led ye then through that great and terrible wilderness, where there were biting serpents, and scorpions, and thirst; where there was no water? who brought forth for thee out of the hard rock a fountain of water? who fed thee with manna in the desert, which thy fathers knew not?” Do you not see that not only did the soul, while longing for the passions which prevailed in Egypt, fall under the power of the serpents, but that, also, while it was in the wilderness, it was bitten by pleasure, that affection of varied and serpent-like appearance? And the work of pleasure has received a most appropriate name, for it is called a biting.

(86) Moreover, the soul falls in with a scorpion, that is to say, with dispersion in the wilderness; and the thirst, which is that of the passions, seizes on it until God sends forth upon it the stream of his own accurate wisdom, and causes the changed soul to drink of unchangeable health; for the abrupt rock is the wisdom of God, which being both sublime and the first of things he quarried out of his own powers, and of it he gives drink to the souls that love God; and they, when they have drunk, are also filled with the most universal manna; for manna is called something which is the primary genus of every thing. But the most universal of all things is God; and in the second place the word of God. But other things have an existence only in word, but in deed they are at times equivalent to that which has no existence.

(85) Moreover, not only they who were in the desert were bitten by serpents, but also they who were scattered abroad, for I, also, often having left the men who were my kinsmen and my friends, and my country, and having gone into the desert in order that I might perceive some of those things which are worthy of being beheld, have profited nothing. But my mind, being separated from me, or being bitten by passion, has withdrawn towards the things opposite to them. And there are times when in the midst of a multitude composed of infinite numbers of men, I can bring my mind into solitude, God having scattered for me the crowd which perplexes my soul, and having taught me that it is not the difference of place that is the cause of good and evil, but rather God, who moves and drives this vehicle of the soul wherever he pleases.

XXII. (87) See now the difference between him who turns to sin in the desert and him who sins in Egypt. For the one is bitten by serpents which cause death, that is to say by insatiable pleasures which inflict death; but the other, he who meditates in the wilderness, is only bitten by pleasure and driven astray, but is not killed. And the one, indeed, is healed by temperance, which is the brazen serpent which was made by the wise Moses; but the other is supplied by God with a most beautiful draught to drink, namely, wisdom, from the fountain which He himself has brought forth out of his own wisdom.

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Written by John Uebersax

March 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm