Moses and the Rambo Problem by Janet Maika’i Rudolph

Moses is an interesting character is in the pantheon of religious leaders. He is such a major personage, considered the founder of Judaism and yet there are no extra-biblical accounts of his life and his deeds. He only exists in the bible. You’d have thought that such a major event as leading a whole class of people away from Egyptian slavers, would have shown up on the radar of other written or mythical accounts from the time. Nothing!

Even his name is interesting. When the Egyptian princess gathered Moses out of the waters she said:

She named him Moses, explaining,

“I drew him out of the water.”

Exodus 2:10

This is one meaning of his name. But there are others. In Egypt, the land where he was born and raised, the M-SH (variations: m-s or m-ss) root simply means “son.” Or it can mean “child” in a non-patriarchal sense. We see this in other Egyptian names Ramses is the child of the sun god Ra. Tutmose is the child of Tut. 

There is a great deal to unpack about Moses’ life as it is described in the bible. Today I am going to focus on his parting of the Red Sea. The Red Sea is one of the iconic images of our day that has penetrated into our consciousness and underlies our culture. Who doesn’t remember the movie version where a fierce Charlton Heston as Moses raises his staff and shouts, “let my people go?” It’s very cinematic. And I would argue, a foundational example of toxic masculinity. Moses is depicted as an angry white man working in tandem with an angry male god, who, while creating something miraculous that allows the Hebrews to escape, also drowns all the Egyptians.

I see this vision of Moses as more of a precursor to the modern-day Rambo. And it is not a good role model for a peaceful world. There are many examples in today’s world where angry people feel they are working with “god’s will” to destroy those they see as enemies.

What if the story is different than we popularly understand? What the origins of this story are about a child of divinity (read: any human being) who guided people on a mystical journey of transformation, and self-discovery?

The first problem we have when examining this story (besides trying to understand Moses) is that the name of the Sea is wrong. In Hebrew, it is Yam Suph. Yam means “sea.” Suph means “reeds.” Together they translate to Sea of Reeds. I’ve never read a description that makes sense as to why it is even called the Red Sea.

Suph is a fascinating word. It is translated 12 times in the King James Bible as “threshold.” Perhaps the more correct name was the “Sea of Thresholds.”

And this was not Moses’ first time crossing a watery threshold. When he was a baby and his mother put him in the ark to float him down the Nile, she . . .

laid it in the reeds (suph) by the river’s bank.

Exodus 2:3

Rushing rivers, such as the Ganges in Asia, the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East, the Amazon in South America, as well as the Nile have been considered the “cradles of civilization.” They are also important thresholds of spiritual transformation and centers of spiritual trainings.

Suph as threshold gives new meaning to the journey that Moses and his people took. Thresholds are places of magic and transformation and clearly something magical occurred at Yam Suph. Moses, having already crossed his own watery threshold as a baby, is the perfect guide to such a journey.

I like to think that the Hebrew people entered a mystical realm akin to Oz or Asgard [the “god-garden” at the top of the Norse world tree] to cross beyond their own Sea of Thresholds. The Egyptians could not have followed, because even though such passages did exist in their spiritual traditions, the people of the time had lost their connection to such teachings.

We know the Hebrew people were on a spiritual quest, as evidenced by the fact that their journey resulted in the founding (and/or codifying) of a new religion. This was a quest that no one else could have followed because it didn’t take place on the earthly realm. They may not have travelled through Oz or Asgard, but they did find the Biblical equivalent — Mt. Sinai, literally the Mountain of the Moon.[1] They passed through the spirit realm via the Sea of Thresholds to discover a mysterious lunar landscape before emerging into their new lives with their new religion.

Another meaning of the word suph in Hebrew is “whirlwind.”[2] It is a whirlwind in the form of a tornado which took Dorothy from her ordinary life in Kansas to begin her extra-ordinary quest in the realm of Oz. The suph as tornado physically carried her across the boundaries between the worlds of Kansas and Oz. Yam Suph was also a transit method to pass through thresholds.

The image of Moses as Rambo, is a dysfunctional foundational underpinning of our culture. Rambo is a man armed with every inch of his body, ready to wreak destruction. And even though Heston didn’t carry anything but his staff, god-directed destruction was clearly on the menu.

What if instead of Charlton Heston channeling anger and drawing down god’s wrath, our foundational image was of Elizabeth Taylor as Moses’ sister Miriam, dancing and singing people on their way through the threshold veils of spiritual dimension? What if the cinematic climatic moment of such a movie was of a community coming together to drum, chant and channel the beauty of divinity to open the doorways of their spiritual journey? 

WE NEED NEW PARADIGMS!


[1] The name “Sinai” is derived from the Babylonian moon-god Sin.

[2] Strong’s #5492, Benner’s #1339N.



Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, General, Patriarchy, Power relations, Women's Agency, Women's Power, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Wonderful post, Janet. You demonstrate the importance of understanding that cultural/religious stories shape our thinking and beliefs about the world. Stories, like all symbols, have multiple interpretations. Patriarchal interpretations as you show us regarding Moses are not ultimately helpful. New paradigms needed, indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh Janet, such superb writing such penetrating research – I love your posts because they always add a new thought or dimension and i learn so much. Mosses always scared me but as i discovered mythology I began to see him as yet one more image of the “divine male child”, abandoned at birth crucified etc _ Isis and Horus come to mind…oh and so many others. This is where we see that Myth lives through every culture in its own way – I know nothing of Rambo but you managed to make me laugh and that helped too – just what we need another mysogynist bully.. thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, yes, YES! BRAVA! Even when I was a teenager, I hated that movie and hated Charleton Heston off-screen because he was such a gun fanatic. Your readings of the names Moses and Red/Reed Sea are excellent. Everybody who lives in the Middle East should read this post. Brava! RO and BB!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Janet, you always have such searingly beautiful images in your posts after you reconsider Biblical stories in light of new translations. “Moses’ sister Miriam, dancing and singing people on their way through the threshold veils of spiritual dimension…” This is a perfect vision for leading us in our own time “through the threshold veils of spiritual dimension.” Thank you for your scholarship and your courage and imagination to find such new wonder in these ancient texts.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Carolyn, I appreciate your words of support. I’ve worked very hard to express my visions so others can see them as well. Thank you for seeing.

    I hope one day we can dance together.

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  6. Moses was not a warrior. According to the tale, he was intimidated by God into assuming this role. And there is passage where his wife Tzipora saved Moses’ life by circumcising him. As the story goes, Tzipora knew that God planned to kill Moses because he was not circumcised. She then circumcised him on the spot (Exodus 4:24-26). Just picture this scene (not very masculine or male-empowering).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your response nivtric. You bring up many interesting points and challenges in understanding biblical stories.

      Here is my take: Moses exists throughout 5 books of the bible. There are endless stories of him, each one that can be viewed in endless ways. We don’t even know if Moses was a real person. I am always fascinated by the myriad of options. I feel its like looking at a Picasso painting, or even a diamond, so many different directions and facets. And here’s the thing. None are “right” or “wrong” they are all part of the tapestry.

      My focus on this blogpost was one of the ways that our culture has attached itself to the image of Moses and how that has affected our culture, our beliefs, our values. In this case, I would say that Heston’s portrayal of Moses is indeed one that reflects our culture.

      Also I find it interesting that you note of the story of the circumcision. I keep a file of spiritual conundrums, or stories I just can’t make sense of. This was probably the first story in my file.To me, it feels like a much much older story that was inserted into the narrative. Its a story that comes out of nowhere with no background. Tzipora as a noun is a type of bird and the “knife” used can be interpreted as a bird’s talon. Goddess imagery there but it still doesn’t make sense to me.

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      • The circumcision story is demeaning. To put it bluntly, she tore his clothes off, grabbed him by the *****, and cut a bit off. Tziporah saved his life in this way. The Egyptian princess also saved Moses’ life. Hence, women saved his life twice. Moses is one of the most important prophets of the Jews. It is part of a pattern. Here are a few examples. God ordered Abraham to send Hagar away when Sarah wanted this. And Bathsheba broke David’s kingdom. She seduced him by bathing naked on a rooftop near the palace. And she made sure that her son Solomon became king.

        A possible explanation is given by Professor Jacob L. Wright in his course The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future. In short, it goes like so. The writing of the Bible can be seen as a response to the destruction of the states of Israel and Judah. The biblical authors reinvented the hero. Rather than valiant warriors, the biblical heroes are ordinary people like Ruth and Boaz. There is a complete absence of martyrdom and noble death in the Bible’s many battle stories.

        The biblical authors developed new survival strategies for their people after the demise of their kingdoms. Those strategies involved a reinvention of the hero and new public and private roles for men and women. In the Bible, men play a big role in family life. By depicting the specific contributions women made to military victory, the biblical authors undermined male authority. One of the great heroines was Deborah, one of the judges. Often women helped to achieve victory on the battlefield. These stories were meant to undermine military spirit.

        It could explain the rather peculiar circumcision scene and the other stories in which women played a decisive role. According to Professor Wright, this is due to the fact that when Jewish society was on the brink of being wiped out. Men had to be involved in family life in a different way. The nation could become stronger if everyone was doing their part. I reacted because the Rambo image of Moses is not apt, nor do I think that the biblical story of Moses contributes to toxic masculinity. Christ said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ But it does not happen. So perhaps, humans simply have a violent nature.

        Course notes of Professor Jacob L. Wright’s course The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future are available on the internet, for instance, here:

        https://www.naturalmoney.org/biblefuture.html

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  7. Thank you again for your perspective (I really do like when someone has a well reasoned take that is different than my own – it makes me think about things in different ways). I do disagree with you re: Moses but I do hear your take.

    I took a quick look at Prof Wright’s site, I do agree with you and him that the bible was written down as part of the diaspora. But I come to different conclusions. When was the diaspora – about 586 BCE. And when did Moses live? Or should I say when is it thought he lived because again we don’t know from anything but the bible if we was even a real person. I’ve read widely divergent time variants but the most common is around 14th-13th century BCE.

    So the bible was put in writing around 800-700 years after Moses lived. It would be like us writing in first person about the 1400s as if we were there. Until the bible was written these were all oral teachings. I believe they were very ancient oral teachings.

    And wrote the bible? Well there are many tomes on that, most that say there were several writers. I would say the writers had an agenda, especially an agenda of trying to cover up the older female based teachings which is what makes them so hard to uncover. William F. Albright had noted that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered it became clear that there were many versions of the biblical books. He also writes that the editing process to bring them all in conformity with the values of the times took two centuries. Archeologist William Dever writes: “The biblical writers may have indulged in a good bit of spin.”

    Here I am agreeing with you that the final version of the bible as we know it engaged in a good bit of reinvention. Including, I think, a definition of what constituted certain concepts that the writers wanted to elevate such as “noble” or “valiant” or even “ordinary.” I see part of the reinvention was to hide or erase earlier pagan (earth-based) teachings. You see it as a need to create new values for a changing times. Can’t it be both?

    It looks to me like you are taking the bible as a historical document. There are many who do and it may well be true. That doesn’t negate my view of continuing to look for those hidden teachings.

    Like

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