I have been a bit under the weather for a few days, so please pardon me if this post meanders more so than usual. Between some illness-inflected dreams and what little headway I have made in Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah over the last few days, I have Moses on my mind and I thought it might make sense to talk a little about why.
Moses looms large in the Ancient Near East, both within and without Judaism. One of the reasons for that has to do with his peculiar relationship to the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. It is through Moses that Egypt’s wisdom is incorporated. In the Books of Moses, this is no more clearly stated than in parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent engulfing of the Pharaoh and his army. That text forms the basis for the 72 names, suggesting that the 72 names derive some of their force by the authority over the spirits of Egypt. Knowing the names is knowing how to control some of those spirits swallowed up in the Red Sea.
In broader Near Eastern mysticism, we also find Ibn al’Arabi’s account of Moses in the Bezels of Wisdom. There, Moses’s great wisdom derives from the Passover offering, in which the knowledge that the first-born Egyptians would have acquired in their life flows into Moses through their death. Supplementing the account of the Red Sea, Ibn al’Arabi emphasizes that the Pharaoh was converted in his final moments by the miracle.
I would suggest that these sorts of stories provide the architecture for what will become the European grimoiric model, although by the time it makes its way into Christendom more than a few of its key elements have been filed off. The connection to the Flood, to Egypt, and to the conversion of those engulfed have mostly faded.
(I would also like to point out that this structure is repeated in a quite disparate context: the Popol Vuh also describes a pair of brothers who go before kings, humble them, and through that act also humble the spirits attached to that kingdom, spirits that then become useful through their hunger. Admittedly, that story has the flooding before the humbling, but this is myth, and what is myth but a mobile structure? Anyway, it’s just been a while since I rambled about the influence of the discovery of America on the grimoire tradition.)
Apparently, too, there were popular accounts of “how Moses had climbed to heaven over the angels’ objections and captured Torah for Israel” (Sigol summarizing David J. Halperin in Word and Image, p. 172, n. 47; Sigol locates these stories in the “third century,” but unfortunately neglects to specify which third century, CE or BCE). That comes in handy for Sigol because one of the earliest images (MS Pharma 1390, folio 94a; ca. 1280 CE) that diagrams the Sefer Yetzirah occurs alongside an account of Moses’s ascent into the heavens.
This diagram looks a good bit different than the diagrams that we are more familiar with today. At the bottom of the diagram is a ten-spoked wheel with a stalk extending from it that expands into the Throne of Heaven (three elemental lines + the cube of space), with a tree growing from the Throne with seven leafy/fruit-laden branches. Looking at the diagram, it appears, too, almost as if one of the branches of the tree is itself drafting the account of the Moses’s ascent.
Okay, let me ramble on just a little further.
Mapping the SY onto the story of Moses puts it alongside the ideal block of time embodied by that story, puts it on the timeline of Israel’s rescue from oppressive spirits, and the restoration of Israel. When does Moses ascend to the heavens? After the escape from Egypt, after the Red Sea, but before the return to Israel. If the powers of the Red Sea represent the rescue of the people, it is the powers of the SY that oversee their reconstitution as a people, that lays the generative framework under which they come to be.
In other words, we’re looking at an ideal model that begins with the conquest of the lower world through the 72 names which then proceeds to constitute a covenant with the SY. The SY forms the foundation, the base camp, toward which the final movement of restoration becomes possible. Moses also becomes the threshold through which that passage becomes possible, which isn’t exactly an easy place to occupy. The seal of the covenant doesn’t get to participate in the covenant, which gets us to the indirect and complex nature of so many figures who make possible the ascent for others at the cost of delaying it for themselves. Peter and Paul as the repetition of Moses and Aaron in the early Christian frame? Where else does this movement repeat itself?
Or perhaps I am just overheated with fever. I do feel a bit like I am writing this with a blanket on my head.