Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume One: Israel and Revelation – Part IV – chap. 12 – Moses

09/26/2010 – Joanne Tetlow on Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume One: Israel and Revelation – Part IV – chap. 12 – Moses


Without exception, Moses is the key figure in the Old Testament. The historical memory of the legends, stories, and facts about Moses, his role as prophet of God, and founder of the people of Israel constituted through the Sinaitic covenant endured in the Deuteronomic Torah and the “positive communal consciousness” of the Jews. In this chapter, Voegelin highlights the centrality of Moses to Israel and Revelation in the following interrelated ways:

(1) Moses as an individual experiences order in his soul as a “leap in being” in response to divine revelation at Sinai;

(2) Moses mediates the historical substance of a “people under God” as a collective “Son of God” in contrast to the gods of the cosmological order of Egypt;

(3) Moses communicates Yahweh as “I AM WHO I AM” in the thornbush episode not as a philosophical proposition, but as a compact experience, which contains the potential of a differentiated metaphysics of God’s divine nature; and

(4) The Mosaic Covenant creates a new dispensation of a theopolity through the Decalogue and inculcation of divine order to Israel as a community.

           Beneath and behind the layers of literary and historical forms about Moses and his acts (and divine acts) against Pharaoh, i.e., plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, magical tricks of turning a staff into a serpent, and so on, Voegelin identifies the common historical substance: the clash between the Yahweh of Moses and the cosmic-divine civilization of Egypt. In Israel’s history, this is a struggle between prophets and kings. Despite Moses being sidelined in the Old Testament from the Deborah Song to the end of the Davidic Empire, because Moses’ words are secondary to the words of God Himself, the prophetic myth (legends, etc.) around Moses served to legitimatize subsequent Old Testament prophets and their writings, e.g., the Deuteronomic Torah. The Mosaic problem of legends is that the stories and events may render opaque the true meaning of Moses’ direct experience of Yahweh as opposed to the cosmological gods of Pharaoh and his Egypt. This direct experience is the “leap in being,” a differentiating event that can only be understood by symbols, not concepts.

            The symbol of “Son of God” is identified by Voegelin as one in the Pyramid Text where Pharaoh is greeted by the gods as the “Son of God.” In Exodus 4:22, the new “Son of God” is Israel. An existing symbol was transferred from the cosmological myth of Egypt to the new “Son of God” created by Yahweh through Moses: a people under God. Moses was indispensable as God’s agent in constituting a people into the present under God. And, this could only be accomplished by Moses, who himself had the original experience of a soul touched, ordered, and made present by and under God.  

          Yahweh revealed himself to Moses and his people in the thornbush episode as “I AM WHO I AM.” Although this statement has been interpreted through the centuries as God’s metaphysical disclosure, Voegelin reminds us that because of its compactness, Israel did not articulate or engage in philosophy. As such, Etienne Gilson describes this statement not as a “metaphysics in Exodus, but as a metaphysics of Exodus.” In other words, Aquinas’s interpretation that God’s name as “I AM WHO I AM” denotes his essence, universality, and present being as the incommunicable substance of God is valid in the respect that a philosophical proposition was contained within the compact symbol itself, even though at the time of Exodus 3:14, this revelation to Moses meant that the divine presence was with him and his people. In the context of this revelation, God was not making a metaphysical disclosure, but assuring Moses and Israel that he was with them, even though he was hidden in substance, and manifest in many forms, similar to the cosmological Amon Hymns of Dynasty XIX. Yet, the compact symbol of “I AM WHO I AM” had the potential of future differentiation by Christian philosophers, such as Aquinas, about the nature of God. 

            In this example and in the entirety of the work, Voegelin makes the claim that Revelation and History are inseparable. It is in the history of Israel that Revelation occurs. The New Dispensation of the Sinaitic Covenant mediated by Moses to form a people under God was established by the Decalogue, not principally as moral or ceremonial law, but as rules to create a theopolity that could restrain rebellious existence, and inculcate divine order into the souls of Israel. Similar to the extrapolated metaphysical statement about God’s “I AM” statement, the compact symbol of the 10 commandments, although at the time did not mean moral law, could be interpreted and differentiated as a philosophy of order at a later time.

The God of Moses was not the God of Israel, but of mankind, a point Voegelin consistently makes in this work. Thus, although the Davidic Empire may have deformed the theopolity established at Sinai by instituting a “royal” Son of God, Israel itself as a collective “Son of God” was already defective, which the Davidic kingship mitigated by infusing a universal spirit into the compact community. A break with the collective existence under God to a personal, universal experience would have to wait until Christ and the New Testament. Moses and Israel established the necessary conditions for such a further Revelation to occur.

Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume One: Israel and Revelation – Part IV – chap. 11 – The Deuteronomic Torah

08/21/2010 – Joanne Tetlow on Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume One: Israel and Revelation – Part IV – chap. 11 – The Deuteronomic Torah


    Voegelin’s important distinction between Israel’s paradigmatic and pragmatic history returns in full force under the Deuteronomic Torah. We are reminded again that when the people of Israel were constituted as the Chosen People under the Sinaitic Covenant in Exodus a “leap in being” occurred. As such, Israel was differentiated from the compactness of the cosmological civilizations, and under this paradigmatic experience, God became divinely transcendent. This “inner form of existence” under God experienced as a leap in being survives and carries Israel through the recession and despair of its own idolatry, rebellion, and disobedience. Despite the deep level of corruption and idolatry under Manasseh, King of Judah, recorded in 2 Kings 21, the discovery of the Deuteronomic Torah by Manasseh’s 2nd successor Josiah and his immediate and complete repentance and institutionalized reform held hope of restoration of true order in Israel’s pragmatic history.

But, the compactness of Israel’s identity as a collective people under God in history prevented openness to the spiritual universalism that Yahweh was the one God of mankind, and that the history of Israel was world history. A further differentiation of the individual soul under God did not occur for Israel as it did in Hellenic philosophy.  An explanation why is the Deuteronomic Torah.

According to Voegelin, the Deuteronomic Torah is the symbol in which the spirit of the prophets blended with the Judaite will of collective existence. The universal monotheistic God of Israel was contained by the words of Moses. Apparently written during the late 7th century B.C., Deuteronomy was the new Torah found and made public by Josiah in 622 B.C. Instead of the words of Yahweh spoken to Moses at Sinai, the book of the covenant, or Deuteronomy, were the words of Moses recounting what happened at Sinai and Israel’s subsequent history before entering the promised land. Moses’ authorship of Deuteronomy is a myth of political order, because, of course, Moses could not write a book about his own death. While Exodus is about the paradigmatic event of Moses and the people being spoken to directly by Yahweh creating the “inner form” of existence, Deuteronomy contains the words of Moses telling the people about their own history of the Exodus, covenant, and desert experience. Voegelin does not see this as a relapse in being into cosmological myth, but he interprets the Deuteronomic Torah as mythical in the sense that the immediate existence under God is broken by the mediation of a fictitious author of the Torah. This Torah of Moses is not the living constitution of Israel, but a myth by which Moses attempts to reconstitute Judah who is falling into Sheol. The depth of the fall from true order is such that the people have the capacity to respond to only an artifice, not the real source of being in the Sinaitic covenant.

The effect of this myth is twofold. First, Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy was not discredited until the 20th century, and second, holding onto the myth of Moses supported the bible as the “word of God.” In actuality, then, the problem with the Deuteronomic Torah was ignored for centuries, but now it has come to light. That problem is that the Deuteronomic Torah changed the inner form of existence under God qua the Sinaitic Covenant to existence under God in the form of written law. The Deuteronomic Torah transformed the “word of God’ into the words of Moses. Voegelin earlier observed that: “The “nature of Israelite compactness can be summarized, therefore, as a perpetual mortgage of the world-immanent, concrete event on the transcendent truth that on its occasion was revealed.” (164) This mortgage occurs when the historical circumstances of revelation are given the authority of the word itself, and made permanent because the concrete events become the content of revelation, rather than its context. The instructions of Yahweh become permanent regulations suppressing the inner form of existence to a life of law.

In other words, the historical context of God’s revelation to Israel has become the content of revelation ending the narrative history of Israel. This added content is both the Book of the Covenant of Deuteronomy 5 and 12 consisting of Yahweh’s words and the ordinances spoken by the prophets in 9th century B.C., and the later regulations applicable to kings, priests, and prophets of the Kingdom of Judah in 7th century B.C.  As such, Deuteronomy is a symbol of the border between the original order of Israel as the inner form of existence and the Jewish community. Despite the flattening of the life of the spirit by the instantiation of the leap of being into a written law book, the living order of Israel endured, and Deuteronomy became the symbol of Jewish communal existence and preservation of the Sinaitic tradition. However, that tradition is Law and Prophets for a particular ethnic-religious community, a contraction of the universal potential of the Sinaitic revelation to all mankind. Still, the survival of the Sinaitic tradition and the “positive communal consciousness” the Jews experienced from the negative aspects of religious warfare and the end of the Israel’s worldly existence, gave rise to the Old Testament and the “spirit” of Christianity.

One of the most provocative claims by Voegelin is the dating of Deuteronomy in 7th century B.C., and that Moses is not its author.