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.