Moses: Rock ‘N Rage

Moses: Rock ‘N Rage
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 36/24
Year: 2006

This painting fuses two separate stories about Moses, one at the dawn, and the other at the dusk of his career. In between stories, history undulates and unfolds, but Moses’ moral outrage, which is his greatest spiritual asset as well as his gravest moral flaw; radiates without abatement, and is limitless in power, substance and consequence.

In the beginning of Exodus (II) Moses who is raised as a prince of Egypt goes out and witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of his Hebrew brothers. Moses looks around and makes sure that no one is watching, and then “vayach et hamitzri vayitmaneyhu bachol”, “he hit (murdered) the Egyptian and buried him in the sand”. This is written on the top line of Moses’ four raised arm in this painting. The multiple arms capture in one static two- dimensional image the repeated and multiple furious movements of his arms, creating a collage of movie-like frames. This is a transformative experience wherein Moses for the first time in his life identifies with his birth nation, and publicly reveals his intense solidarity, loyalty, compassion and empathy for his enslaved brothers. His courageous leadership gestates and blossoms in a wellspring of confrontation, autocratic judicial rectification, rebelliousness and manslaughter. He is guided not by reason but purely by passion, instinct and rage. These early personality traits, inherited from his grand/great-grand father Levi, foreshadow his future behavior. Whether or not he intended to murder the Egyptian is unknown. Most likely his uncontrollable moral outrage led to beating him repeatedly (pamyaim), and by the time it was all over, the Egyptian lay dead in a pool of his own blood. The bloody Egyptian face is portrayed in the painting. Ultimately with the best of intentions, Moses was not very different from Cain who murders Abel, in a fit of rage. Moses destroyed a “tzelem elokim”, “an image of God”. He sinned, and he knows it, because before he approaches the Egyptian he looks both ways to ensure that his intended actions will go unnoticed. Thus Moses early on establishes himself as savior and sinner, and later on as prophet and pragmatic leader.

The next day when Moses witnesses Hebrew brother hitting Hebrew brother he asks “why are you hitting your neighbor?” To which one of them responds “who appointed you Master and Judge upon us? Will you kill me just like you killed the Egyptian?” These two fighting Hebrews are portrayed on the bottom left of the painting speaking with forked tongues. Their serpentine words are above their heads. This part of the story also foreshadows the complicated future relationship between Moses the savior who gives and risks all, and his people who sacrifice naught, are not looking to be saved, and resent any of Moses’ well meaning attempts to liberate them.

We now fast forward to Numbers (XX).Moses and the Israelites are in the desert at Kadesh. They are literally dying of thirst and cry out to Moses “Why did you take us out of Egypt (into the desert) to kill me?” This is written on the lower left of the painting to the right of the two complaining people. Thus the original enslaved ingrates who complained about Moses killing the Egyptian, and the current thirsty desert ingrates are fused, and echo similar resentful rhetorical complaints toward Moses. They could easily be the same persons (eyrev rav, mutterers). This episode is highly similar to a situation in Numbers XVII wherein God instructs Moses to hit the rock and quench the Israelites’ thirst (water is not plentiful in a desert).

God in Numbers XX instructs Moses and says “Take the staff and speak to the rock before “their eyes”, “leyneyhem,” (and it will give its waters, and you will remove water for them from the rock). This is written on the upper right of the painting in the sky. The word “leyneyhem” is typically interpreted as “before the nation’s eyes”. In this painting it can be interpreted as “speak to the eyes of the rock”.

Then Moses raises his arm and “Vayach et hasela bemateyhu pamayim”, “and he hit the rock multiple times, (and plentiful water came out and gave water to the community)”. The word used to describe Moses hitting (vayach) the rock is identical to the language used for his hitting (vayach) the Egyptian. These words are also written on his four extended hands on the bottom line. The juxtaposition of these two sentences, one on top of each other, highlights the similarity of Moses’ actions during these two separate yet similar incidents. Likewise the word “bemateyhu” (with his staff) is extremely similar to the word “vayetmeneyhu (he buried)”. These two words are written one on top of each other, and the letters M and T are highlighted in blue demonstrating a probable etymological and thematic similarity of language in the words used in the two stories.

Just like the enraged Moses could not control himself from hitting the Egyptian, he similarly could not control himself from hitting the rock, when God explicitly commanded him to talk to, not hit the rock. Likewise the enraged Moses could not control himself from shattering the Ten Commandments; a set of rocks. Analogously, the implication is that Moses probably should have talked to the Egyptian instead of hitting (killing) him. Also perhaps, he should have thought twice before shattering (hitting) the tablets inscribed by the finger of God.

The major thematic image of this painting is the fusion of the Egyptian taskmaster being hit by Moses in the first story, and the rock being hit by Moses in the second story. We see Moses drawing on his prophetic powers to draw both blood and water from the Egyptian/rock. We see the Egyptian buried in the sand spewing out a fountain of water after its hard core is ripped open by Moses’ battering, quenching the thirst of the Israelites below. The Israelites’ heads are portrayed as stamen in a resuscitated flower bed being watered.

God is displeased with Moses’ behavior, and feels humiliated before Israel because Moses displayed lack of faith by resorting to violence instead of speech to extract water from the rock. God then states that because of this, both Moses and Aaron will not be allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Moses is not being punished for merely hitting a rock. He is being punished for not having developed the fortitude to control his rage after all those years of speaking face to face with God, he is being punished for killing the Egyptian, he is being punished for hitting (shattering) the ten commandments.

The Egyptian in the painting is wearing the typical Pharaohic Egyptian headdress. Written from right to left on his headdress, in blue, are the hieroglyphic symbols for water and life i.e. the water of life (mayim chayim) which the Egyptian/rock is granting. Also written in Hebrew on his headdress in red is “face of the rock” which is a pun on the words “peney haselah” which is contextually interpreted as “in front of the rock”.

The Egyptian is holding both the “crook” and “flail” in his arms. All Pharaohs are portrayed in pyramid paintings with these items, and were buried with them in their sarcophagi. The crook and flail are symbols of leadership as well as divinity (the god Horus is portrayed in pyramid paintings with these). I would venture to speculate that the crook (the tool on the bottom right of the Egyptian) which is essentially a staff used by shepherds to retrieve runaway sheep, symbolizes the compassionate stewardship of the leader (Egyptian god) protecting his flock. The flail (the tool on the bottom left) symbolizes the leader’s (god’s) capacity to enforce his will on the people. The god/pharaoh firmly grasping on to both cook and flail thus symbolizes harsh leadership when necessary combined with kindness and compassion.

Not coincidentally, Moses also has a crook, his staff. The divine/Pharoahic symbolism of this staff would be well recognized by any denizen of Egypt. In the painting Moses is portrayed hitting he Egyptian/rock so hard and furiously with his staff (crook )that a portion of it breaks off after knocking out the rock‘s eye. Surrounding Moses’ head is a halo of light (keren) which burns bright red at its periphery with the hot ambers of rage. The sky is red and hot as are the desert sand dunes.

The “flail” of the Egyptian, the blue tool on his bottom left, is probably what he used to beat the Hebrew slaves. The flail, if one looks closely, is the ancient Hebrew letter “Lamed”. The proto-Sinaitic Hebrew letters for “El” (god, aleph-lamed), are symbolized (spelled) with the picture of an ox (aleph, god) with his ox’s goad/flail (lamed). Clearly the word for God (El) is derived from the Egyptian paintings and symbols of Horus’/Pharaohs’ (gothic ox horns) and their flails.