Moses the son of Amram; Moses our teacher; the lord of all prophets - leader, liberator, legislator, guide, chief justice, Israel's link with God. All these and more are aspects of Moses’ job description in the Bible and in post-biblical traditions relating to him. Without a doubt he is one of the most popular subjects of biblical art.
Below we will survey some of the artwork depicting parts of Moses’ life and for each one, we will ask the question: who is Moses and what is his character?
The Birth and Rescue of Moses
The wall paintings in the Dura Europos Synagogue, dating from the 3rd century CE, focus primarily on God’s redeeming hand in the Bible’s stories. This focus apparently reflected the community’s hope that the redemption of the Jewish people, even if delayed, would surely come.
Moses appears in at least five of the Dura Europos paintings. This one illustrates the story of his miraculous survival as an infant. The account appears in Exodus 2, after the description of the enslavement of the Israelites by a “new king… who did not know Joseph” (1:8). The text then moves from the general to the specific; likewise, the painting in Dura Europos is a progression divided into three scenes by curtains draped above the characters.
Dura Europos, Rescue of Moses
On the right, fortifications and an open gate represent Egypt, from which the children of Israel will leave; beside them sits the king of Egypt, dressed in the style of the Persian nobles who ruled over the Jews of Dura. Aides flank the king and write down his commands:
In the center, beneath the second curtain, two women stand, gesturing in response to the king's aide, while another woman, her hair exposed, crouches at their feet. Because the painting was damaged, it is hard to see that this woman is placing a cradle in the Nile – this is Jochebed, the mother of Moses and the scene is described in Exodus 2:3. The two other women are either the midwives (Exodus 1:15-21) or Jochebed and Miriam; according to the Midrash, these pairs of characters are actually identical!
At the left, in the widest section of the painting, three women stand with washing utensils in their hands – they are certainly the maidservants of Pharaoh’s daughter since they are dressed differently than Miriam and Jochebed, who appear again on the left edge holding a baby. And finally, below, a cradle floats on the Nile, while a naked woman standing in the river holds a baby. Who is this woman?
In Jewish commentaries and Midrashim on Exodus 2 we find two different responses to the question, Who is drawing Moses out of the water? Both are derived from interpretations of Exodus 2:5:
By painting her with a necklace, the Dura Europos artist seems to indicate that it was Pharaoh’s daughter herself who rescued Moses.
The emphasis on the figure of Moses in Dura Europos is surely an example of the synagogue's art as an expression of the Jewish people’s hope for redemption. The story of the miraculous rescue of the infant Moses, who is pulled out of the Nile by none other Pharaoh’s daughter herself, is, thus, particularly fitting.
Moses and Aaron
From the outset of his mission, Moses is given a partner, his brother Aaron. Aaron's role appears in Moses’ call prophecy, the vision of the burning bush:
According to this text, Aaron’s role is to be Moses’ spokesman, a role created due to Moses’ lack of rhetorical skill or perhaps his speech impediment. And indeed, later on, in Exodus 4:12, Aaron accompanies Moses, addressing the children of Israel and Pharaoh.
But the better-known role of Aaron and of his descendants throughout the generations is that of the High Priest.
And now take to you your brother Aaron and his sons with him from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office, Aaron, and Nadab and Abihu, Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aaron.
Other texts stress that the exclusivity of this position:
These two roles, spokesman and priest, are reflected in the two artworks below.
A comparison of these two images highlights the clear differences between them, not only regarding Aaron’s roles, but also in the artists’ understandings of the relationship between Moses and Aaron. On the left, American Jewish folk artist, Morris Hirshfield depicts Moses and Aaron as equal in height and each one occupies an equal space. Moses, who has rays of light emanating from his head, holds the Tablets; Aaron is dressed in the priestly garments and holds a censer – and between them stands the Ark of the Covenant, whose two bowing cherubs mirror the two brothers who work together: Moses in the legal domain and Aaron in the ritual domain. On the right, the Finnish sculptor Hans Autere depicts Moses and Aaron as a single column, long and narrow, with the larger Moses standing behind the smaller Aaron, who is waving a book. On the one hand, Aaron’s head is concealing Moses’ mouth; on the other hand, Moses holds Aaron in his palms. The relationship between the two figures is therefore similar to that between a puppet and its ventriloquist; the role of Aaron as spokesman is merely for appearance.
Moses and Bezalel
The photograph above is of the doors of the Holy Ark of Temple Israel in Charleston, West Virginia. They were created by Milton Horn in 1960 and their theme is Halakha and Aggada (Jewish law and legend).
On the left, the barefoot Moses reaches up to receive the Tablets of the Law, emerging from an open book. On the right, Bezalel is surrounded by his creations: the Tabernacle’s vessels, the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubs before him and the Menorah behind him. A divine hand imparts to him the spirit of wisdom to fashion these vessels and he grasps in his hands a hammer and a chisel. Between Moses and Bezalel a plant is rising: the Burning Bush on the left and a tree for fashioning the Tabernacle vessels on the right.
Bezalel and Moses, the artist and the thinker, represent the two essential components of Jewish life, aggada and halakha: imagination and careful deliberation.
In Horn’s doors, the roles of the legislator and of the artist are distinct. In Scottish artist Benno Schotz's statue, Moses performs both roles.
According to Exodus 34:1, God commanded Moses to chisel new tablets to replace the first tablets that he had smashed during the incident of the Golden Calf. The root פס"ל (“sculpt”), is very rare in the Bible, appearing only here (and in the verse that describes the fulfillment of the command) and in Exodus 20:4 – in a verse of the Ten Commandments that seems to prohibit sculpture.
In fact, this famous verse does not prohibit all sculpture, but only the creation of objects intended for worship.
As a Jewish sculptor, Schotz may have been intrigued by the verse in Exodus 34 for two reasons: 1) his personal response to traditional Jewish reservations regarding images and 2) his identification with Moses, who is depicted here as a sculptor in the context of his role as the legislator.
The picture below is a detail from Michael Sgan-Cohen's painting, Moses.
As is well-known, Moses accomplished his task of bringing the people to the land of Israel, but he himself was not allowed to enter. He was permitted only to see the land from Mount Nebo, on the other side of the Jordan River, where he died and was buried. Usually this event is perceived as a tragedy and even an injustice.
Michael Sgan-Cohen, Moses (detail), 1978
Because the observer is looking from behind Moses’ back, he or she adopts the great leader’s view and emotions. In the distance, the sun is setting over the Mediterranean Sea. The Land of Israel is depicted schematically, as a map that highlights the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, the date palms of Jericho and the bay of Haifa. Beyond that a Star of David frames the map of the land.
As for Moses, the only thing that can be said based on this image is that his hair is long, unruly and still dark, even though he is 120 years old, as we know from the text of Deuteronomy 34.
Through his hair, however, a face is discernible. Thus, Moses is looking in three important directions: toward the unobtainable future, toward the observer and toward his own past. Through this play with points of view, Sgan-Cohen expresses his own identification with Moses, as a tragic figure.
A look at the full scope of Sgan-Cohen's painting reveals a lengthy text written across Moses’ back. It is part of
which describes what Moses saw. But the shape of the text is also reminiscent of a tombstone or obituary notice.
Note also that the highlighted word צער, which in this context denotes a place name, can also be referring to an emotion – ‘distress, sorrow’.
In comparison and contrast, note the tombstone of Theodor Herzl, who similarly did not see the fulfillment of his vision.