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Masculinity, Materiality, and the Body of Moses


In: Biblical Interpretation
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The body of the prophet Moses is a site of persistent difficulty. To be sure, at birth, Moses’ body is singled out and described as “good”; at death, his eyesight and vigor alike remain undiminished. But between these two moments, the text is filled with references to Moses’ bodily problems, including a “heavy tongue and impure lips” that threaten his prophetic mission and a glowing face that terrifies the Israelite people. Moses’ body is likewise thematized in the battle against Amalek, the prophet’s affliction with “scale disease” or leprosy, and above all the famous “bridegroom of blood” incident (Exod. 4:24–26). Taken together, these incidents offer a pattern of bodily difficulty and material alterity. Moses’ experience of corporeality exposes the demands that prophecy places upon the body. In particular, prophecy displaces hegemonic masculinity and normative practices of male embodiment. Moses represents an alternate “Mosaic masculinity,” organized around an open, fluid, and vulnerable male body.


Abstract

The body of the prophet Moses is a site of persistent difficulty. To be sure, at birth, Moses’ body is singled out and described as “good”; at death, his eyesight and vigor alike remain undiminished. But between these two moments, the text is filled with references to Moses’ bodily problems, including a “heavy tongue and impure lips” that threaten his prophetic mission and a glowing face that terrifies the Israelite people. Moses’ body is likewise thematized in the battle against Amalek, the prophet’s affliction with “scale disease” or leprosy, and above all the famous “bridegroom of blood” incident (Exod. 4:24–26). Taken together, these incidents offer a pattern of bodily difficulty and material alterity. Moses’ experience of corporeality exposes the demands that prophecy places upon the body. In particular, prophecy displaces hegemonic masculinity and normative practices of male embodiment. Moses represents an alternate “Mosaic masculinity,” organized around an open, fluid, and vulnerable male body.


Moses’ body is a body fraught with problems and difficulties. From birth onward, Moses’ body is perceived by onlookers as different, special, frightening, other. This judgment, first passed by the prophet’s mother (Exod. 2:2), follows him until his death. Moses possesses “a heavy tongue and uncircumcised lips” (Exod. 4:10), which threaten his prophetic vocal performance. At the time of his prophetic calling, he is afflicted with a scaly skin disease (Exod. 4:6–7); later in his life, he is forced to veil his face, which has begun to glow and terrify the very people he serves (Exod. 34:29–35). In between these events, Moses’ life is threatened by Yahweh and saved by the blood of Moses’ circumcised son (Exod. 4:24–26). He also channels divine power in battle, yet finds himself unable to hold up his own hands without assistance (Exod. 17:11–12) – his body at once suggesting power and disability. It is only in death that Moses’ body achieves wholeness and power, reaching a state of perfection it is denied in life (Deut. 34:5–7). Scattered throughout the text, these corporeal moments challenge Moses’ performance of masculinity and suggest that prophecy at once depends upon, disturbs, and alters the body of the prophet.


This paper traces the difficulties and peculiarities of embodiment that the Hebrew Bible associates with the prophet Moses. Far from mere epiphenomena, Moses’ somatic problems are constitutive of his status as prophet. Prophecy demands a prophetic body, and this prophetic body is excluded from the norms of embodiment, and the norms of embodied masculinity in particular. In its weakness, vulnerability, and difference, Moses’ body breaks with the hegemonic masculine norms of the text. Instead, Moses presents an alternative performance of masculinity and an alternative mode of masculine embodiment. I will term this alternative masculinity “Mosaic masculinity.” Moses’ body emerges as a body at once deficient and excessive, threatened and glorious, even as the character of Moses complicates and enriches the discourse of biblical masculinities.


Masculinity, the Male Body, and the Hebrew Bible


Masculinity is having something of a moment in biblical studies. The influence of gender and, more recently, sexuality studies has drawn attention to the question of masculinity (or better, masculinities) in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical masculinity studies displays affinities with feminist and queer readings of the Bible, though it is also influenced by work on masculinity in other disciplines, especially classics and late antique studies. The study of masculinity in the Bible has also benefited greatly from the growth of masculinity studies as a field in other disciplines.1 I will not offer a comprehensive survey of biblical masculinity studies or biblical masculinity here, but I want to highlight a few important points to set up the discussion of Moses that follows.


In the Hebrew Bible, masculinity is not the necessary and inevitable consequence of a male-sexed body; neither is it a rigid binary identity. Instead, as elsewhere in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, masculinity is a matter of degree. It is established relationally, as part of what Virginia Burrus terms “a dynamic spectrum or gradient of relative masculinities.”2 The relations of sexual penetration offered one way of determining relative masculinities, with the active, penetrative partner (normatively male) establishing his masculinity over and against the penetrated partner (male or female).3 However, the performance of masculinity does not depend exclusively on sexual practice or object choice, any more than it depends upon biological sex. Instead, masculinity is a complicated and shifting negotiation of body, sex, sexuality, and performance.


Academic studies of masculinity stress the plurality of masculinities within a specific cultural context. Among these masculinities, there is a particular importance granted to “hegemonic masculinity,” a term that first appears in sociology. “Hegemonic masculinity” describes a culturally specific and culturally valued form of masculine performance. As sociologists R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt write of the term and its usage:


Hegemonic masculinity was understood as the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women to continue. Hegemonic masculinity was distinguished from other masculinities, especially subordinated masculinities. Hegemonic masculinity was not assumed to be normal in the statistical sense; only a minority of men might enact it. But it was certainly normative. It embodied the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men.4

While the theory has undergone refinement since its introduction in the 1980s – the complexity of the relationship between hegemonic and subordinated masculinities, and between masculinities and femininities, are increasingly acknowledged by scholars5 – the basic significance remains the same. Hegemonic masculinity furnishes a cultural ideal of masculine performance. At the same time, it sustains a specific hierarchy of gendered power relations while also benefiting men who themselves do not achieve the hegemonic ideal. This concept has proven to be a useful analytic category for biblical studies as well, particularly in assessing how the biblical text constructs and enforces norms of masculinity.6 Stephen Moore offers a helpful synthesis of the current consensus (insofar as consensus exists) concerning hegemonic masculinity in the Hebrew Bible.7 First and foremost, Moore stresses, hegemonic masculinity actively resists any movement toward the feminine end of the spectrum of masculinities: “To be a man is to avoid feminization.”8 The hegemonic masculine subject is aggressive, dominating others (violently as well as perhaps sexually); he is also deeply concerned with honor. Sexual potency and the fathering of children (particularly of sons) are also important hegemonic masculine acts.9

Hegemonic biblical masculinity also entails certain specific forms of embodiment. The hegemonic masculine ideal evokes a specific sort of male body. The norms of domination, virility, and paternity elevate strength, agility, and power as bodily ideals. The hegemonic bodily ideal is likewise an abled body, as recent work on disability studies and gender by Thomas Hentrich and Carol Fontaine has shown.10 There is also a concern that the body is not overly open or leaky. The regulation of sexual activity and accompanying concern with purity is linked to two discourses of the body: the investment in (male) bodily wholeness, which is breached by fluids and discharges (Lev. 15:1–18); and the concern with avoiding association with the female body, which is leaky, unstable, and contaminating (Lev. 15:19–30). Bodily wholeness – itself associated with male bodies and not female ones – is a major concern of the purity laws and the legal texts more generally.11 Beauty has also sometimes been associated with hegemonic masculinity, noted most explicitly by David Clines, though this claim has not passed without complication and critique.12 While male beauty is sometimes noted in the text – here Joseph, David, and Absalom are key examples, as well as the male lover in the Song of Songs – it does not bear a straightforward relationship to masculine power, as Stuart Macwilliam has demonstrated.13

Despite the power of hegemonic masculinity as an ideal in the text (and as a textual object for interpreters), it is not the only type of masculine performance along the gradient of masculinities. Instead, hegemonic masculinity is negotiated over and against other masculinities. Nor is the hegemonic position intrinsically stable. Rather, as Roland Boer writes,


Despite the effort in the Bible to present a series of overlapping ruling and dominating perspectives, all the way from social organization to sexuality, not to mention religion, they are very shaky indeed. Or to put it even more forcefully, the very act of asserting dominance is inherently unstable. Subversion lurks in every murky doorway and under every bed. Hegemony is continually undermined from within and without.14

Even as the text constructs hegemonic masculinity as an ideal, it places this ideal under pressure. As Boer indicates, the instabilities of the “ruling and dominating perspectives” are already present in the text. Masculinity in the Bible, even hegemonic masculinity, is unstable – “shaky indeed.”


In the remainder of this paper, I will trace a specific shakiness in the representation of biblical masculinity: the representation of Moses. Moses is sometimes taken as a model of hegemonic masculinity in the biblical narrative.15 However, when we examine Moses more closely – and in particular Moses’ body – the prophet’s masculine performance appears increasingly unstable. His body does some very strange things in the course of the text. And so, let us turn now to that body.


Moses’ Body


There is no single difference that marks Moses’ body as radically other. Instead, the effect of Moses’ body – and the resulting challenge prophetic embodiment poses to hegemonic masculinity – is cumulative. This bodily otherness is hinted at when Moses is born, and again at his death; it likewise appears at multiple moments within the prophet’s lifespan. It is also dispersed across the prophet’s body, emphasizing both specific body parts (hands, face) and a more general bodily condition. And so before theorizing Moses’ body as a whole I want to consider, briefly, the essential moments in his experience of embodiment. What follows is an account of the most important features of Moses’ prophetic body.


The Good Baby


Moses’ body is special from birth. When he is born, his mother immediately observes that he is “good” (טוב): “The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was good, she hid him three months” (Exod. 2:2). Moses’ mother’s words are exceptional; the quality of babies is not frequently remarked upon in the Bible. When information is given at the time of a child’s birth, it generally marks a present or future narrative significance, as in the births of Jacob and Esau (Exod. 25:22–26), Peleg (Gen. 10:25), and Ichabod (1 Sam. 4:21–22). Unlike these other narratives, however, the details given about Moses’ birth do not serve to explain either his name or the general condition of the world at the time of his birth. Thus the mention of Moses as טוב, while brief, is not simply a literary mechanism.16 In addition to telling us something about the narrative, the identification of the infant Moses as טוב tells us something about the prophet’s body as body.


Moses is born at a moment in the Exodus narrative when Pharaoh has ordered the death of all Hebrew boys (Exod. 1:22), lending a certain pathos to his mother’s identification of her newborn boy as “good.”17 What makes this boy child “good”? טוב may refer to the infant Moses’ moral or ethical goodness or to his appearance; טוב can refer to good looks, though usually it bears this meaning when used in conjunction with a longer description or phrase.18 It may also predict Moses’ future importance, which his mother somehow perceives as she looks upon his infant form. Or טוב may mean not “good” or “good looking” but simply “viable,” implying that the infant Moses is less exceptional than (barely) acceptable. This is the reading advanced by S. Levin, who has argued that something about the physical appearance of the baby created initial doubt – perhaps a cleft lip or palate, given Moses’ own descriptions of his “heavy tongue” subsequently in the narrative.19 In Levin’s reading, Moses’ mother’s words are less a celebration than an assessment of visible bodily difference or deformity.


This last reading, while provocative, seems a stretch – the mother who looks at her newborn child and callously pronounces him “viable” is a better fit for dystopian science fiction than biblical literature. However, it is valuable insofar as it directs attention toward Moses’ body as body. Too often an emphasis on Moses’ goodness (whatever this goodness should mean) overwhelms any atten­tion paid to Moses’ embodiment. Whatever their specific meaning and affect, Moses’ mother’s words are triggered by the sight of the infant boy. Furthermore, her judgment suggests that there is something other about this child, and about the child’s body. This suggestion gains credibility when the prophet’s body, in adult form, reappears two chapters later. When Moses receives his prophetic calling, his body, already marked as טוב by his mother and the text, is again brought under scrutiny.


Heavy Mouth, Heavy Tongue


The most famous of Moses’ bodily afflictions are his “heavy mouth” and “heavy tongue” (כבד פה וכבד לשון, Exod. 4:10). These difficulties with the prophet’s mouth first figure in his call story, when Moses raises his difficulty in producing intelligible speech as an objection to Yahweh’s call (Exod. 4:10–16). Later, he repeats the description, but with the variation of “uncircumcised lips” 


(ערל שפתים, Exod. 6:12; 6:30). The precise meanings of a “heavy mouth” and a “heavy tongue” are ambiguous. Mouth (פה) and tongue (לשון) refer unambiguously to parts of the body but may also be used as metonyms for “speech.” Heavy (כבד) refers to some sort of malfunction; what exactly this malfunction is remains unclear.20 The problem may be a difficulty with enunciation, such as a stutter or soft or slurred voice,21 or it may indicate a physical deformity, perhaps a cleft palate.22 It is also possible that the meaning of the phrase is metaphorical, indicating a lack of eloquence (Moses is an inferior public speaker) or of linguistic competence (Moses is unable to speak Hebrew and/or Egyptian, or at least unable to do so fluently).23

Let us take these variant readings in turn. If “heavy mouth” and “heavy tongue” suggest a physical disability such as a cleft palate, then they mark the otherness of Moses’ body. Jeremy Schipper has demonstrated the existence of “a meaningful conceptual category regarding physical difference” in the ancient Near East.24 Visible physical disability thus sets the prophet apart, separating him from the Israelite norm of embodiment even as it draws attention to his own othered body. This particular interest in Moses’ body does not diminish if we follow the second reading and take “heavy of mouth” and “heavy of tongue” to refer to a difficulty in speech or enunciation. Such a difficulty with speech represents the interference of the body in the transmission of meaning. An affliction such as a stutter marks the stubborn materiality of the body, its refusal to surrender and vanish, leaving only pure voice.25 Instead, the body is present, and the body presents trouble. Even if Moses’ difficulty lies in linguistic competence (though this third reading seems least likely),26 we can still see the difficulty with language production directing attention to the body, which produces sound but no meaning.


What is really at stake here is not the specifics of Moses’ condition but rather the more general status of Moses’ body as an insufficient body. The text strongly suggests that Moses is not simply offering an idle protest of his own lack of rhetorical skill. Yahweh himself acknowledges Moses’ assessment of his powers of speech as valid.27 Instead of refuting or dismissing Moses’ complaint, he provides Moses with a solution: a prosthetic mouth in the form of his brother Aaron, “who shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him” (Exod. 4:16). This response validates Moses’ assessment of his own bodily lack without, however, healing or otherwise altering it. Whatever bodily problems precede prophecy will last within it; unlike Isaiah (Isa. 6:5–7), Moses will not have his mouth purified or restored. Instead, his body is metaphorically and functionally extended into the body of his brother, Aaron, who will become his “mouth.” The prophet receives his own prophet, his own earthly bodily prosthesis. This doubling of the structure of prophecy – Aaron is to Moses as Moses is to Yahweh – further thematizes the strangeness of the prophet’s body, at once central and inadequate, necessary and displaced.


A Scaly Hand, Faltering Arms


In the course of his prophecy, Moses’ body is also struck by disease. While his heavy tongue is a permanent affliction (though not one, it seems, that seriously interferes with the practice of prophecy – Moses talks a great deal after his original complaint to God and interview with Pharaoh),28 other problems afflict Moses intermittently. In the call story, the prophet is afflicted with צרעת, “scale disease,” rendering his body abject. This ailment is sent by Yahweh, part of an attempt to persuade Moses of his prophetic calling. After Moses expresses reluctance over his prophetic calling, Yahweh instructs him to place his hand in his cloak, “and when he took it out, his hand was scaly, like snow” (מצרעת כשלג, Exod. 4:6). Like so many of Moses’ bodily problems, the precise meaning of the words is uncertain. The participle מצרעת from the verb צרע refers to a skin disease with a wasting effect. While numerous specific ailments have been proposed (including leprosy, known in modern times as Hansen’s disease; vitiligo; psoriasis; or some other rash or fungal infection), the condition does not seem to correspond to any specific disease.29 The term צרעת suggests scaliness and so, following Milgrom, I will translate it with the general “scale disease”; its primary signification is of ritual impurity staged on the body.30

Moses’ צרעת, while temporary, thematizes the alterity, difference, and ­power of his body. Scale disease marks Moses’ body as impure and threatening. Whatever is afflicted with scale disease – people and body parts but also houses – must be set apart, removed from the community until it is purified (Leviticus 14). Thus the transformation of Moses’ hand portends Moses’ exclusion from his community as prophecy increases his difference, as well as the repeated alterity of his body. At the same time, the scales on Moses’ hand are a marker of his own power. Drawing attention to the scale disease that strikes Miriam (Numbers 12), Propp even suggests, “Within the Elohistic source, ṣāraʿat appears to be the specific penalty for doubting Moses’ authority.”31 In Exod. 4:6, the particular twist is that Moses occupies both roles: the divinely empowered prophet and the divinely punished doubter of Moses’ authority. צרעת is a sign of the prophet’s power, even when the unfortunate bearer of the sign is Moses himself.


The motif of Moses’ body as afflicted medium returns in new form after the prophet’s great success in leading the Israelites out of Egypt. In Exodus 17, the Israelites fight the Amalekites at Rephidim, and Moses’ body is directly implicated in the struggle. The text recounts:


Whenever Moses held up his hand, ­Israel prevailed, but when he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side, so his hands were steady until the sun set. (Exod. 17:11–12)

The Israelites’ success in battle depends directly upon the postures of ­Moses’ body. And yet it is beyond Moses’ capacity to maintain his body in the proper form. He is forced to rely upon the assistance of others, to sit while others hold up his hands. And it is Joshua, not Moses, who actually leads the Israelite army into battle – another bodily extension that recalls Moses’ earlier dependency on Aaron, his prosthetic mouth.


On the surface, this story of the battle with the Amalekites is one of passing weakness – Moses is able, with assistance, to lift his hands; the Israelites win their battle, and Moses commemorates the victory by erecting an altar. Yet the moment of weakness in the middle of the narrative is as significant as the triumphant conclusion.32 Moses’ drooping arms suggest not just weakness but also emasculation. Furthermore, the prophet’s struggle to hold up his hands recalls his previous struggles with speech. As Marc Shell notes, difficulties in speech and difficulties in mobility – paradigmatically, the stutter and the limp – are often mapped onto each other.33 Furthermore, the text figures both problems as heaviness – first a heavy mouth and heavy tongue, now heavy (כבדים) hands (Exod. 17:12). These two tropes of bodily difficulty collocate with each other and reinforce the overarching representation of Moses’ body as both weak and extraordinary, a conduit for the divine word that requires assistance of its own. Shell writes, “God as ventriloquist needed a spokesman because He was unable to speak directly to the people. We will see that the dummy Moses, whom he called on to speak for Him, was both too much and too little like God to do the job.”34 Here again, Moses’ body is called into the service of the prophetic message and, at the same time, altered by it. Prophecy occupies and overtakes the body. Moses is at once powerful and powerless, an architect and an instrument of the victory. The very power of Moses is also what undercuts his masculinity.


The Body Radiant and Veiled


The scale disease that Moses experiences in his call story is a temporary affliction. Though it prefigures the transformations, both physical and social, that prophecy will bring upon Moses, it does not permanently alter his body. Yet prophecy does have permanent bodily consequences. Moses spends forty days on Mount Sinai without eating or drinking (Exod. 34:28). This feat of restraint presages a still greater bodily transformation. When he descends from Mount Sinai, where he has been speaking with Yahweh, beams of light stream from Moses’ face, frightening the people until they hear his voice and recognizehim:

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the ­covenant in his hand coming down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face radiated light from speaking with him (ומשה לא־ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו). When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was radiating light (והנה קרן עור פניו) and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites approached, and he instructed them in all that Yahweh had said to him on Mount Sinai. (Exod. 34:29–32)


The text presents a scene of terror as well as transfiguration. The radiance of Moses’ face distances him from the other Israelites, socially and physically, and makes him more like Yahweh.35 Moses and Yahweh speak face to face (Deut. 34:10); it is fitting that it is Moses’ face that is transformed. This transformation, moreover, is not simply an increase in brightness but also a physical change. The Hebrew verb קרן, which is used to describe the light streaming from Moses’ face, is used elsewhere to mean “to sprout horns.”36 The semantic range of the term thus suggests that the light beaming from Moses’ visage has some kind of solidity and heft to it. This materiality of light occurs in other ancient Near Eastern texts, as in the melammu, a blinding mask of light possessed by the Akkadian gods, “a somatic mark of divine rulership.”37 As Seth Sanders has demonstrated, these conceptual categories hold for ancient Israel as well. Sanders writes, “Moses’ face could, quite literally, radiate horns, and the need to translate the term as either divine radiance or physical protuberance is merely a side-effect of our conceptual categories, irrelevant to ancient Israelite ideas.”38 Thus the light that streams forth is literally incorporated into Moses, becoming an extension of his body. Unlike the normative modification of the male Israelite body, the cut of circumcision, here bodily transformation is additive.39

Yet Moses’ face does not merely stand as a marker of Yahweh’s presence among the Israelites. Instead, the prophet chooses to cover his face whenever he is among the people:


When Moses had finished speaking with them, he placed a veil (מסוה) on his face. Whenever Moses went in before Yahweh to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. When he came out, he told the Israelites what he had been commanded. The Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was radiating light; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exod. 34:33–35)

This veiling further sets Moses apart. No longer able to wear his own face, neither can he display the radiant face of Yahweh in the midst of the Israelites. In the streaming light of Moses’ face, we thus have two forms of transformation: the divine glow of the prophet’s face, and the opacity of the covering he places over it. The first moves the prophet closer to Yahweh, almost blurring the divine-human boundary with its radiance (even as this blurring comes at the expense of Moses’ human identity and appearance). The second moves the prophet away from the category of the normatively masculine. In covering his face, Moses further erases the specificity of his identity. He also makes his body into a concealed, private, interior space, thereby suggesting a move outside of ordinary masculine performance and self-presentation. Yet this veiled face also signals an intimacy of voice, shared between Moses and Yahweh.40 Above all, the body of Moses is altered, a change at once transformative and terrifying, and one that marks his altered relations to the community itself.41

The word used for Moses’ facial covering, מסוה, occurs only in this passage.42 The singularity of the term perhaps reflects the singularity of the moment – Moses’ self-concealment is unlike any other moment of self-concealment in the text, just as Moses is singular among the prophets. Yet the act of veiling also implies certain thematic parallels. In the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East, veiling is a predominantly feminine practice. Significant narrative moments involving veiling or covering the head or face nearly always concern female characters, such as Tamar disguising herself as a prostitute (Gen. 38:14) or Rebecca veiling herself upon meeting her future husband Isaac (Gen. 24:65). While head coverings are not explicitly required of women in the Hebrew ­Bible, the act of covering the head is culturally legible as a feminine action.43 The text thus invites us to see at least the traces of a displacement of gender in Moses’s veiling; Jennings goes so far as to call Moses’ veil a “feminizing mark” and links it to “the wounding of patriarchy.”44 Whether it is patriarchy that is transformed or only Moses’ face, the text suggests, at a minimum, a move outside of normative masculine embodiment.


“Did I Conceive this Entire People?”


If Moses’ veiling opens the possibility of reading the prophet’s body as feminized, then Moses himself forces the question of feminization by describing his own body as female. Exhausted by the demands of mediating between an intractable God and a rebellious people, Moses protests:


Moses said to Yahweh, “Why do you treat your servant so badly? Why am I unable to find favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, ‘Carry them on your breast like a nurse carries a nursing child, to the land which I have promised to their fathers’? Where will I get meat to give to this people, because they cry to me, ‘Give us meat and we will eat!’ I cannot carry this entire people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, just kill me – if I have found favor in your eyes – so I will not see my misery!” (Num. 11:11–15)


Struggling to express the depth of his frustration, Moses figures his body as female. He likewise imagines a feminine role for himself, bearing, carrying, and caring for children. Yet tellingly, his apparent auto-feminization occurs exclusively through rhetorical questions, which disavow the feminine even as they draw on its figurative power. His complaint is also unstable in the categories of female bodies it employs. Almost as soon as the maternal body is introduced, it is displaced, as the prophet shifts his comparison from mother to nurse (אמן, “nurse,” “attendant,” or “nanny”; the masculine form of the noun is used). This shift removes the sexual specificity of the reproductive female body in favor of the nurturing role, gendered but not sexed, which is shared by mother and nurse. Yet even this role proves undesired and unsustainable; Moses claims to prefer death to serving as Israel’s nurse.


It is tempting to read Moses’ complaint as a statement of the feminizing ­effects of prophecy: prophecy rendering men as women; the prophet giving birth to a divine word or even a divinely chosen people. I want to maintain my focus, however, on the specificity of the prophet’s body. For Moses, prophecy complicates the experience of masculine embodiment without, however, offering a simple resolution into femininity or the female body. His angry metaphors push up against hegemonic masculine embodiment. An alternative construction of masculinity lingers behind this apparent use of the feminine.


The Body in Death


The closer Moses draws to Yahweh, the more his body is transformed. The shining face of the prophet anticipates his further alienation from ordinary forms of masculine embodiment. This reaches a peak in the account of Moses’ death. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is buried “in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, and no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6). In describing Moses’ death, the text also goes to pains to reinscribe his vigor in life: “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (Deut. 34:7). Moses’ body, subjected to so many pains and difficulties in his life, is returned to wholeness in the account of his death. חל or “vigor,” evokes virility,45 as does the mention of the prophet’s undimmed vision (it is perhaps worth considering here the phallic symbolism of the eyes).46 This body is not a terrifying body or a body marked as Other, but a body that fits a cultural ideal of masculine embodiment (discussed above). The prophet achieves in death what he could not in life: a whole and robust body. And this body, it seems, maintains a power and an appeal, such that its location must be deliberately obscured.


The celebration of Moses’ body in death works to underscore its peculiarity in life. Moses’ vigor and undimmed vision are signs of bodily wholeness and power, and thus of hegemonic masculinity. Yet they offer a different sort of narrative of the prophet’s body than the text to this point has constructed. While alive, Moses repeatedly breaks with hegemonic masculinity. His body is at once deficient and excessive, opened onto Yahweh and frightening to the people he leads. This is especially true of the surfaces of Moses’ body, his skin and face, as well as his mouth. Moses’ body also displays a disturbing tendency to extend beyond the prophet himself. He cannot lift his hands without the assistance of others; he speaks with Aaron as an external mouth; light radiates outward from his face and requires a permanent veiling. These prosthetic additions are matched by the lack inherent in the prophet’s own body: his heavy tongue and lips hinder his speech. Moses’ body, already unusual at birth, is pained and altered by its participation in prophecy. The result is a prophetic body that breaks with the norms of biblical embodiment. But to what end?


Moses’ Body as a Challenge to the Norms of Embodiment and Masculinity


Biblical prophecy is a deeply embodied practice. The prophet is not simply a mouthpiece, but also a mouth, and a body. Nor is the body unaffected by the demands of the prophetic calling. What Albert Cook calls “the burden of prophecy” is a burden enacted on and through the body.47 This body, ­moreover, does not endure the demands of prophecy unchanged. Instead, the prophetic body becomes exceptional, its material form reflecting the demands of the prophetic calling. While this is thematized across the prophetic literature – ­Jeremiah speaks of the prophetic word as fire in his bones (Jer. 20:9); Ezekiel enters into prophecy by swallowing a scroll and incorporating its contents into his body (Ezek. 3:1–3) – it is especially clear in the case of Moses, whose body figures in every stage of his prophecy.


In the case of Moses, the prophet’s exceptional body has multiple significances in the text. It serves as sign (and symptom) of his prophetic vocation. At the same time, it challenges the norms of hegemonic masculine embodiment. This challenge comes not, on the whole, through the feminization of the body but rather through a reconfiguration of the masculine. Ordinarily, as we have seen, the biblical texts privilege a male body that is complete, whole, and normatively abled. Yet Moses’ body is alternately weak, afflicted, and radiant. It is also curiously unbounded, depending upon and extending into the bodies of others: from Aaron, who serves as Moses’ prosthetic mouth; to Hur and Aaron, who lift the prophet’s faltering arms; to Yahweh, whose conversations leave Moses with a terrifying glow. Prophecy demands an alternative norm of embodiment, one that stands in uneasy relation to the standards of text and community.


These transformations of Moses’ body also have a specific gendered significance. The biblical norm of the closed-off and whole body is not a gender-neutral ideal but a specifically masculine one. Yet Moses repeatedly fails to conform to this masculine norm. The veiling of his face is the climax in a sequence of actions and bodily experiences that challenge and confound hegemonic masculinity. The disabling of Moses’ body, whether the temporary weakening of his arms or the permanent difficulty of his uncircumcised lips, likewise moves the body of the prophet outside hegemonic masculinity. Moses’ affliction with scale disease, too, marks his body as feminine by associating him with Miriam, and with the broader trope of the female body excluded from the community for exceeding its bounds. Female embodiment in the biblical world is problematic, in part, because of the ways that the female body breaches its own boundaries, through discharges, fluidities, and so forth. The margins of the female body are messy – and so too with Moses, whose body so often exceeds the ordinary or blurs into the bodies of others. The textual flirtations with feminization do not, however, produce a feminine prophetic body. Instead, what appears as a feminization represents a reconfiguration of the masculine and a move toward an alternative form of prophetic masculinity.


The disability, femininity, and boundary-blurring fluidity of Moses’ body are central to the challenge it poses to hegemonic masculinity, and to the possibility of an alternative organization of masculinity that it implies. Elizabeth Grosz in particular has argued that an embrace of messy corporeality, especially fluidity, makes possible a new conception of masculinity. Grosz writes,


A different type of body is produced in and through the different sexual and cultural practices that men undertake. Part of the process of phal­licizing the male body, of subordinating the rest of the body to the valorized function of the penis, with the culmination of sexual activities occurring, ideally at least, in sexual penetration and male orgasm, in­­volves the constitution of the sealed-up, impermeable body. Perhaps it is not after all flow in itself that a certain phallicized masculinity abhors but the idea that flow moves or can move in two-way or indeterminable directions that elicits horror, the possibility of being not only an active agent to the transmission of flow but also a passive receptacle … A body that is permeable, that transmits in a circuit, that opens itself up rather than seals itself off, that is prepared to respond as well as to initiate, that does not revile its masculinity (as the transsexual community often does) or virilize it (as a number of gay men, as well as heterosexuals, tend to do) would involve a quite radical rethinking.48

Grosz’ argument is specifically addressed to contemporary masculinity, not to the biblical text. Yet the body of Moses in many ways fits her requirements for a “radical rethinking” of masculinity beyond the hegemonic, phallicized ideal. Moses’ body is passive, permeable, open. Instead of exercising a monopoly of phallic power, it is a body acted upon by (divine) others, a body altered, open, and fluid. Moses’ body thus presents the possibility of reimagining masculinity within the biblical text. To see one text where such a reading is possible, I want to turn now to a final, crucial textual moment in the body of Moses: the “bridegroom of blood” story in Exod. 4:24–26. The messiness of Moses’ body and its boundaries is especially thematized in this passage, which also offers a striking example of a non-hegemonic Mosaic masculinity, a masculinity centered on the fluid, open male body.


The Male Body and the Bridegroom of Blood


Exodus 4:24–26 offers perhaps the best textual moment to seek a non-phallicized Mosaic masculinity. This fragmentary incident occurs shortly after Moses’ call story, as he returns to Egypt with his wife Zipporah and sons. The text reads,

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, Yahweh met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his ‘feet’ (ותגע לרגליו) with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom/son-in-law49 of blood to me!’50 (כי חתן דמים אתה לי) So he left him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom/son-in-law of blood by circumcision’ (חתן דמים למולת). (Exod. 4:24–26)


The passage, despite its terrific brevity, is fraught with textual difficulties, mostly concerning the antecedents of the masculine pronouns and object suffixes. The first instance, “Yahweh met him and sought to kill him” seems fairly clearly to refer to Moses, who is the object of Yahweh’s address in the previous verse. The foreskin likewise clearly belongs to Moses and Zipporah’s son (though which son is unclear, as Moses has two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, according to Exod. 18:2–4). But whom does Zipporah touch with the foreskin, and where? There is a textual question concerning the dual noun רגלים, which I have translated as “feet” but which can also refer to the legs or the genitals. There may also be a deliberate metonymy or doubling of meanings in the text. But whatever the specific referent here, the passage is clearly genitally charged, as the central event is a circumcision. It is even more concerned with the blood this circumcision produces. Whether this blood is applied to the penis or some other lower extremity on the male body is a secondary concern .


A second question is whose “feet” are these – Moses’, Yahweh’s, or the son’s? The confusion is longstanding; the Talmud takes up the difficulty:


One said, “It was at the feet of Moses.”

Another said, “It was at the feet of the angel.”

The third said, “It was at the feet of the child.”51

Among modern commentators, Propp argues that the feet belong to Moses, “since it is Moses’ crime that is being atoned” – here the crime refers to Moses’ previous manslaughter of an Egyptian.52 Hans Kosmala, however, argues that the blood is applied, prophylactically, to the body of the son.53 And ­Christopher Hays suggests that the feet belong to Yahweh, and that Zipporah’s smearing of the blood is apotropaic, seeking the protection of her family.54

If the blood is applied to Moses body, then its application serves as a reminder of the fleshliness and vulnerability of Moses’ own bodily form. If the blood is applied to Moses’ son, meanwhile, the text thematizes the ­vulnerability not of Moses’ body but of his genealogical line – second-degree sterility, narrowly avoided.55 Making the son’s body central to the scene also displaces ­Moses, destabilizing the paternal power balance. But perhaps it is not essential to distinguish between the body of Moses and the body of his son. Instead, in this brief passage, the bodies of father and son function as a single symbolic unit. The son represents the continuation of Moses’ line; his blood saves ­Moses’ life. Just as circumcision serves, in general, as the bodily sign of the covenant, so does the son’s circumcision, in particular, serve as a bodily sign of the relationship between Moses and Yahweh. And the blood this circumcision releases binds Moses and his son, both momentarily and historically. In this moment of relation, the masculine body is constituted through its fluids, or through the fluids of others applied to it.


There remains a third possibility, that the blood is applied to Yahweh’s feet. If this is indeed the intended reading, then Exodus 4 offers a striking example of what Howard Eilberg-Schwartz terms a “God sighting,”56 a moment when the body of God appears in the text. This does not, however, resolve the problem of the male body, or of Moses’ male body in particular. Instead, as Eilberg-Schwartz’s work demonstrates, whenever such a “God sighting” occurs, its effect is to destabilize human masculinity.57 If the body where Zipporah places the blood is Yahweh’s body, then Moses’ masculinity is under threat.


Under each of these readings, the human male body is a site of vulnerability, of potential (for Moses) and prophylactic (for the son) wounding. The opening of the son’s body saves the father’s. The cutting of the son’s genitals – the symbolic wounding of Moses’ line – allows Moses himself to live. The blood of the son’s penis evokes the body – and the bodily vulnerability – of the father, wherever it is smeared. The fact that Zipporah performs the action on her son, while Moses is the recipient of the shed blood, reinforces the passivity of the prophet and his body. This passivity, moreover, is a reversal of the ordinary expectations of biblical masculinity and confirms Moses’ break with hegemonic masculine embodiment. The play with fluidity, openness, and wounding also suggests the possibility of imagining alternative forms of masculine bodies. If the stutter and/or cleft palate suggested a body outside the domains of the “normal,” and the scaly hand suggests a body outside the bounds of the community, then the bloody penis in this story of the bridegroom of blood further pushes the body out of the ordinary organization of bodily masculinity.


Thus while Exod. 4:24–26 centers on circumcision, it offers a productive starting point for a non-phallicized masculinity. The penis is indeed central to the text: Zipporah’s flint cuts her son’s foreskin, and there is blood; as a result, Moses is allowed to live. Even with the ambiguities of the text, these details are incontrovertible. But this penis does not signify the phallus. In a reversal of the ordinary formulations made familiar by psychoanalysis, it is the penis and not the phallus that is critical. What phallic power there is belongs to Zipporah, who administers the critical cut. The male bodies, for their part, are represented as bloody and vulnerable. The significance of the penis depends upon its opening and its wounding – the genitals as site of vulnerability instead of locus of phallic power. Deliverance comes in the form of a cut. And the male body, as well as the configuration of the category of masculinity, is transformed.


The Body of Moses and Mosaic Masculinity


The opened, bloody, non-phallicized male body of Exod. 4:24–26 presents an alternative paradigm of masculinity. The challenge that Moses’ body poses to hegemonic masculinity, visible at multiple moments in the Moses narrative, appears most clearly here, even as the textual ambiguities effect a blurring between the bodies of father and son. This is a different sort of male body: wounded, opened, vulnerable, non-phallic. And it entails a different sort of masculine performance than that of hegemonic masculinity – what we might call Mosaic masculinity.


Significantly, the wounded, opened, and afflicted body of Mosaic masculinity is never criticized by the text. Nor does the feminization of Moses’ body brought about by the veiling of his face and the smearing of blood by Zipporah come under fire. Instead, the text is at pains to emphasize Moses’ exemplary status (“there was never again another prophet like Moses,” Deut. 34:10). Thus the body of Moses suggests that the hegemonic norms of masculine embodiment in the Hebrew Bible are less singular than they at first seem, and other forms of masculine embodiment are possible and indeed occur without censure. As mentioned above, recent work on gender and disability has tracked how disabled and differently bodied male characters are excluded on both religious and narrative levels.58 Moses poses an interesting complication to this dynamic. The prophet’s body is clearly and repeatedly positioned outside of ordinary or normative embodiment. Yet Moses does nevertheless occupy a space of authority. Moses’ body thus complicates the question of masculinity and embodiment through its imperfection and glory.


Understanding Moses’ body opens new ways of understanding Moses as a biblical figure. It also opens a new way of understanding prophecy – through prophetic embodiment. “There was never another prophet like Moses,” Deuteronomy 34:10 insists, yet when we look at other prophetic bodies, we find them not so different from Moses’ prophetic body. Why else does Isaiah imagine his “impure lips” as purified with a fiery coal? Why else is Ezekiel struck dumb and then driven to strange bodily performances (Ezekiel 3–5)? Prophecy depends upon the body – but at a cost. Biblical prophecy comes at the price of bodily wholeness, bringing in its place pain, shattered masculinity, and corporeal transformation. No prophet demonstrates this so much as Moses. Moses fails at hegemonic masculine embodiment, yet his gender performance is never criticized by the text. Instead, Moses seems to introduce the possibility of an alternative form of masculine embodiment: a Mosaic masculinity.


1For an introductory survey of important articles in masculinity studies, see R. Adams and D. Savran (eds.), The Masculinity Studies Reader (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002). Another good introduction is found in R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2nd edn, 2005). On the question of masculinity in biblical studies, O. Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond (The Bible in the Modern World 33; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010), is a good place to start, particularly the responses by Stephen Moore and David Clines.


2V. Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis,” in T. Penner and C. Vander Stichele (eds.), Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses (BibInt Series 84; Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 1–10 (4).


3In the words of Daniel Boyarin, “the world was divided into the screwers – all male-and the screwed – both male and female” (D. Boyarin, “Are there Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 [1995], pp. 333–355 [333]).


4R. W. Connell and J. W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender & Society 19 (2005), pp. 829–859 (832).


5In reevaluating the definition, Connell and Messerschmidt have shifted away from the idea of a “‘global dominance’ of men over women, arguing instead for a more complicated assessment of relations among groups of men and forms of masculinity and of women’s relations with dominant masculinities” (Connell and Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity,” pp. 846–847).


6On this question, see S. Haddox, “Favoured Sons and Subordinate Masculinities,” in Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity, pp. 2–19 (4–5); David J. A. Clines, “Dancing and Singing at Sinai: Playing the Man in Exodus 32–34,” in Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity,pp. 54–63 (55); H. C. Washington, “Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Hebrew Bible: A New Historicist Approach,” BibInt 5 (1997), pp. 324–363 (326).


7S. D. Moore; “Final Reflections on Biblical Masculinity,” in Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity,pp. 240–255.


8Moore, “Final Reflections on Biblical Masculinity,” p. 246; cf. Haddox, “Favoured Sons and Subordinate Masculinities,” p. 4.


9David Clines has suggested several other features that constitute hegemonic masculinity, including persuasive speech, musical skill, and male beauty; see Clines, Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 212–243.


10T. Hentrich, “Masculinity and Disability in the Bible,” in H. Avalos, S. J. Melcher, and J. Schipper (eds.), This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies (Semeia Studies 55; Atlanta: SBL, 2007), pp. 73–87; C. Fontaine, “‘Be Men, O Philistines’ (1 Samuel 4:9): Iconographic Representations and Reflections on Female Gender as Disability in the Ancient World,” in Avalos, Melcher, and Schipper (eds.), This Abled Body,pp. 61–72.


11On the male body in Deuteronomy, see M. K. George, “Masculinity and its Regimentation in Deuteronomy,” in Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity, pp. 64–82.


12Clines is a strong advocate of the male beauty as ideal argument, drawing on other classical and Near Eastern parallels; Moore has raised a critique. See Clines, Interested Parties,pp. 221–223; compare Moore, “Final Reflections on Biblical Masculinity,” pp. 249–250.


13S. Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” BibInt 17 (2009), pp. 265–287.


14R. Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 72.


15For example D. Clines, “Dancing and Shining at Sinai.” The study of Moses’ masculine performance, though without a particular focus on masculine embodiment, has also been undertaken by B. DiPalma, “De/Constructing Masculinity in Exodus 1–4,” in Creangă (ed.), Men and Masculinity, pp. 64–82.


16Macwilliam makes a similar point about the function of male beauty in the biblical narrative (Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” p. 285).


17This is, moreover, only the first in a series of events in which Moses’ life is saved by women, including his sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, and his wife Zipporah. This repeated deliverance by women also challenges Moses’ performance of hegemonic masculinity.


18Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” p. 278.


19S. Levin, “The Speech Defect of Moses,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 85 (1992), pp. 632–633.


20For a good overview of the theories, see J. Tigay, “‘Heavy of Mouth’ and ‘Heavy of Tongue’ on Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978), pp. 57–67.


21This is the most common explanation. It occurs in LXX, the Syriac text, and a number of ancient and modern interpretations (W. H. C. Propp, Exodus 1–18 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999], pp. 210–211). For a contemporary example, see M. Shell, Stutter (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 102–136.


22For example, Levin, “The Speech Defect of Moses.” Propp argues that “Moses really has a physical problem” but adds, “The precise nature of Moses’ impairment could be almost anything, from a soft voice to severely slurred speech. At least it is clear that, while his kinsman Aaron understands him sufficiently, Moses is ineffective as a public speaker” (Propp, Exodus 1–18, p. 211).


23See, for example, S. D. Luzzatto, Commentary to the Pentateuch (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1965); quoted in Tigay, “‘ Heavy of Mouth’ and‘ Heavy of Tongue’ on Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” p. 63 n. 4. This position also occurs in Philo, Ignatius, and Cyprian, among other ancient sources, as Tigay notes. As Tigay observes, “The extension of terms for speech impediment to describe foreign language is a widely attested semantic development, both among the Semitic languages and elsewhere” (p. 60).


24J. Schipper, Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies 441; London: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 73.


25On this point, see further M. Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006), pp. 12–33. On prophecy and stutttering, see as well H. Marks, “On Prophetic Stammering,” in Regina Schwartz (ed.), The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 60–80.


26See Propp’s comments on E and P in Exodus, p. 211.


27The masculinity of the deity has significant consequences for Moses’ own masculinity and embodiment; therefore, I will use masculine pronouns to refer to Yahweh.


28Furthermore, Aaron, Moses’ prosthetic mouthpiece, almost never seems to speak for him.


29While leprosy is the most commonly offered explanation, it is almost certainly not what is meant by the biblical text. The LXX translates with λέπρα for the disease and λεπρός for the sufferer, both related to the meaning of “scaly.” This word is used by the Greek medical authors to refer to a number of conditions and also furnishes the root for the English “leprosy”; it does not refer specifically to Hansen’s disease (caused by mycobacterium ­leprae). Furthermore, leprosy was likely unknown in the Near East until brought by ­Alexander’s armies (J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16 [The Anchor Bible 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991], pp. 816–826). Milgrom also notes that Rabbinic Hebrew treats ṣāraʿat as referring to multiple diseases (p. 776).


30As Milgrom notes, “The text does not purport to be a diagnosis of disease; it is part of the Priestly system of impurity … Nothing could be clearer: we are dealing with ritual, not medicine” (Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16,p. 817).


31Propp, Exodus 1–18,p. 210. The number of instances, however, is strictly limited.


32On Exod. 17:8–16 as a narrative about Moses’ weakness and inadequacy, see B. P. Robinson, “Israel and Amalek: The Context of Exodus 17:8–16,” JSOT 32 (1985), pp. 15–22 (16, 19).


33Shell, Stutter, pp. 109–111; cf. pp. 188–189.


34Shell, Stutter, p. 107.


35Clines argues that Moses’ transformation also increases his sexual desirability (Clines, “Dancing and Shining at Sinai,” p. 60).


36In the Vulgate, Exod. 34:29 reads, “cumque descenderet Moses de monte Sinai tenebat duas tabulas testimonii et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua ex consortio sermonis Dei.Jerome translated the passage literally, giving rise to the idea that Moses had horns.


37S. L. Sanders, “Old Light on Moses’ Shining Face,” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002), pp. 400–406 (404).


38Sanders, “Old Light on Moses’ Shining Face,” p. 405.


39H. Eilberg-Schwartz has argued that the horns are a masculinizing addition, symbolizing the male deity (often associated with bulls) and counterbalancing the feminizing effect of the veil (H. Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism [Boston: Beacon, 1995], p. 145).


40On the intimacy of the voice, see Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, p. 86.


41On the masculinity of Yahweh in relation to Moses’ masculinity, see as well Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus,pp. 152–158.


42Gen. 49:11 contains a related hapax legomenon, סות or “garment.” Phoenician contains the related forms סות (“garment”) and סוית, which may mean “veil.” See further G. A. Rendsburg, “Hebrew Philological Notes (i),” Hebrew Studies,40 (1999), pp. 27–32 (27).


43While the Middle Assyrian laws require women to cover their heads, in other periods no evidence of such a law exists. See M. I. Marcus, “Dressed to Kill: Women and Pins in Early Iran,” Oxford Art Journal 17 (January 1, 1994), pp. 3–15 (7–8); M. Stol, “Women in Mesopotamia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 38 (1995), pp. 123–144 (123). The requirement for women to cover their heads comes later, appearing in the New Testament and the Talmud. See A. J. Batten, “Clothing and Adornment,” Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology 40 (2010), pp. 148–159 (155–156).


44T. W. Jennings, Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 256 n. 7 and p. 256.


45It is also possible to read לח as a variant of לחי (“cheek” or “jawbone”). In this case, the emphasis is on Moses’ exemplary physical condition, even as an old man. There is also perhaps a degree of refutation of the strangeness of Moses’ face emphasized prior.


46Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus,p. 146; W. F. Albright, “The ‘Natural Force’ of Moses in the Light of Ugaritic,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 94 (April 1, 1944), pp. 32–35. S. Freud discusses the genital significance of the eyes in his reading of Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” in S. Freud, The Uncanny (trans. D. McLintock; Penguin Classics; New York: Penguin, 2003).


47A. S. Cook, The Burden of Prophecy: Poetic Utterance in the Prophets of the Old Testament (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).


48E. A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana ­University Press, 1994), pp. 200–201. Grosz’s comments about trans communities are problematic; however, her overall point about non-phallicized masculinity is well worth considering.


49חתן means “male relative by marriage”; hence, either bridegroom or son-in-law.


50In the LXX, Zipporah says, “Ἔστη τὸ αἷμα τῆς περιτομῆς τοῦ παιδίου μου” (“May the blood of my son’s circumcision stand”). According to Propp, “The basis for this last rendering is uncertain”; perhaps the translator “read a passive participle of ḥtm,‘seal,’ which in Syriac and Arabic can describe the healing of wounds (cf. Lev 15:3), and which for later Judaism connotes circumcision” (Propp, Exodus 1–18, p. 189).


51 y. Ned. 3:9, quoted in C. B. Hays, “‘Lest Ye Perish in the Way’: Ritual and Kinship in Exodus 4: 24–26,” Hebrew Studies 48 (2011), pp. 39–54 (40).


52W. H. C. Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24–6),” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993), pp. 495–518 (505).


53H. Kosmala, “The ‘Bloody Husband,’” Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962), pp. 14–28 (24).


54Hays, “‘Lest Ye Perish the Way,’” pp. 45–46.


55This reading is perhaps bolstered by the death of Ezekiel’s wife and the prohibition against marriage for Jeremiah, both of which suggest the sterilizing effects of prophecy.


56Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, pp. 60–64


57Eilberg-Schwartz argues that “the sexual body of a father God is troubling for the conception of masculinity,” especially because “when a man confronts a male God, he is put into the female position so as to be intimate with God” (Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus,pp. 1, 137). Even representations of the divine body that do not appear sexual (God’s feet, God’s back) are threatening because they raise the question of the divine genitals, setting the crisis of masculinity in motion.


58See Hentrich, “Masculinity and Disability in the Bible”; and Fontaine, “‘Be Men, O Philistines’ (1 Samuel 4:9).”

  • 3

    In the words of Daniel Boyarin, “the world was divided into the screwers – all male-and the screwed – both male and female” (D. Boyarin, “Are there Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 [1995], pp. 333–355 [333]).

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  • 4

    R. W. Connell and J. W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender & Society 19 (2005), pp. 829–859 (832).

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  • 8

    Moore, “Final Reflections on Biblical Masculinity,” p. 246; cf. Haddox, “Favoured Sons and Subordinate Masculinities,” p. 4.

  • 13

    S. Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” BibInt 17 (2009), pp. 265–287.

  • 18

    Macwilliam, “Ideologies of Male Beauty and the Hebrew Bible,” p. 278.

  • 19

    S. Levin, “The Speech Defect of Moses,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 85 (1992), pp. 632–633.

  • 23

    See, for example, S. D. Luzzatto, Commentary to the Pentateuch (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1965); quoted in Tigay, “‘ Heavy of Mouth’ and‘ Heavy of Tongue’ on Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” p. 63 n. 4. This position also occurs in Philo, Ignatius, and Cyprian, among other ancient sources, as Tigay notes. As Tigay observes, “The extension of terms for speech impediment to describe foreign language is a widely attested semantic development, both among the Semitic languages and elsewhere” (p. 60).

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  • 24

    J. Schipper, Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies 441; London: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 73.

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  • 25

    On this point, see further M. Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006), pp. 12–33. On prophecy and stutttering, see as well H. Marks, “On Prophetic Stammering,” in Regina Schwartz (ed.), The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 60–80.

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  • 33

    Shell, Stutter, pp. 109–111; cf. pp. 188–189.

  • 34

    Shell, Stutter, p. 107.

  • 37

    S. L. Sanders, “Old Light on Moses’ Shining Face,” Vetus Testamentum 52 (2002), pp. 400–406 (404).

  • 38

    Sanders, “Old Light on Moses’ Shining Face,” p. 405.

  • 40

    On the intimacy of the voice, see Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, p. 86.

  • 44

    T. W. Jennings, Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 256 n. 7 and p. 256.

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  • 47

    A. S. Cook, The Burden of Prophecy: Poetic Utterance in the Prophets of the Old Testament (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).

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  • 48

    E. A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana ­University Press, 1994), pp. 200–201. Grosz’s comments about trans communities are problematic; however, her overall point about non-phallicized masculinity is well worth considering.

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  • 52

    W. H. C. Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24–6),” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993), pp. 495–518 (505).

  • 53

    H. Kosmala, “The ‘Bloody Husband,’” Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962), pp. 14–28 (24).

  • 54

    Hays, “‘Lest Ye Perish the Way,’” pp. 45–46.

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