Sunday, 27 August 2017

Moses and Myth

Think about the great persons of our times. Think of, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. These are persons whose characters are experienced as being fundamentally different than those of other persons. They are felt as somehow transcending the ordinary limits of human possibility. When we want to express this experience, we turn to narrative. We tell stories about their great deeds, how they defied sheriffs and governors and other hostile folk who sought to destroy them and their people. We speak with awe about King sitting in Birmingham jail, a prisoner of conscience, or Malcolm X's courage in breaking with the Nation of Islam in favour of a moderate orthodox form of his religion, one that he came to recognize more fully affirmed the humanity of all persons. We tell these stories, which find a complement in the resources of modern historiography and the social sciences to provide analytical depth.

But imagine if we didn't have those resources. Imagine if virtually all we had was cosmological myth, i.e. narratives that seek to explain the reality of an ordered cosmos, one in which the sun rises and sets everyday, in which every year days grew intermittently longer and shorter as seasons change and crops are sowed and harvested, one in which the moon travels around the earth twelves times in approximately the time it takes for the seasons to complete their annual cycle. And when such cosmological myths constitute our only real way of accounting for order, they also become how we account for social order. The state is imagined as being as much part of the cosmic order as anything else. The same gods operating within the rounds of the sun or the moon or the Nile are the gods operating through kings. How do we describe someone like a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Malcolm X, who comes along and disrupts the social order? How does one talk about a man who defies a king when kings are immanently part of the cosmos?

The answer, of course, is simple: you use the imagery of cosmological myth. But of course you must do so in ways that subvert that imagery. Historically, sheriffs were seen as exemplars of law and order. The Martin Luther King, Jr., cycle subverts that, recasting sheriffs as the source of injustice and violence and the "criminal" MLK as the one restoring order through adherence to a higher law. Likewise Exodus recasts Pharaoh, the exemplar of ancient Egyptian law and order, and the murderer Moses, as respectively destroyer and restorer of just order. Pharaoh destroys just order when he subjugates the Israelites to slavery. Moses' story as an adult begins when he commits a murder and must flee, but the murderer returns to restore just order by leading the captives to freedom. Suddenly the story of the plagues makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the disorder that has distorted Pharaonic reality but by showing how continued refusals to act justly cause the cosmos itself to turn against Egypt? The Mosaic birth narrative also now makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the imminent restoration of just order better but by showing how the entire cosmos--natural and social--conspired to save the human agent of that restoration from the very injustices that he must later confront? And of course the man who restores just order must also be the one who delivers a just law, and indeed any departure from the Egyptian cosmos would have necessitated a new conceptual basis for social order. Moses as prodigy, Moses as plague-bearer, Moses as law-giver: this connection of symbolizations makes eminent sense as an effort to explain the unexpected, for in a world of cosmological myth one must account for the unexpected through cosmological myth. Moses was the unexpected.

All the above explanations disappear without a historical Moses. Without the experiential core of a historical Moses, the biblical accounts of the exodus simply become the senseless agglomeration of disparate mythical images from a myriad of sources. Of course, Moses has become mythologized, and that because there was no other imagery by which to communicate the experiences that his operations generated. When all you have is cosmological myth, you communicate by cosmological myth.

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