Theodore Ziolkowski, Uses and Abuses of Moses: Literary Representations since the Enlightenment (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 2016). xii + 352. Hb. US $60.00.
Theodore Ziolkowski (hereafter, Z) is emeritus professor of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. Over forty years ago he wrote Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus (Princeton: Princeton, 1972), in which he compares ideological depictions of Jesus in twenty twentieth-century novels. In the present work, Z turns to the major Old Testament figure, Moses.
Z notes that Moses is the most comprehensively depicted character in the Old Testament, and the literary uses of him are not always straightforward. As Z points out, the lion’s share of the post-enlightenment literary depictions of Moses are historical novels in which the ideologies of the author are imposed into the narrative. This is in contrast to Z’s findings regarding literary depictions of Christ that are post-figurations; they are modern novels depicting similar themes to those in the gospels.
This literary use of Moses makes him particularly susceptible to misuse. For example, a Mormon reading of Moses can turn Moses and Aaron into Joseph Smith and Hyrum, and a feminist Moses interpreted from the perspective of Nofret, a so-called proto-feminist of the 2nd c. B.C. These simple illustrations serve to demonstrate the way that Moses has been co-opted in the past three centuries by authors who have found in Moses a character and in the Pentateuch a narrative that is useful for their ideologically laden works.
One of the major challenges of such a project, of course, is determining the texts to use. Another major challenge is determining how best to organize the treatment of these texts. Z confronts these challenges brilliantly. He discusses nearly a hundred unique works in various languages in an attempt to be representative. As for the second challenge, Z organizes the book through a brilliant mixture of chronologically and thematically focused chapters. So, for example, between chapters on the 1940’s and the 1950’s, Z has included a chapter on denominational readings of Moses (eg., Methodist and Mormon).
The content of the book is very interesting and on several occasions this reader was delighted by the eye-opening experience of Z pointing out Mosaic themes in books which I have read and noticed no such themes on my own. This, indeed is testament to Z’s skill as a reader and justifiable role as author of such a work.
Uses and Abuses of Moses is a fascinating read. It is particularly interesting to see side-by-side so many ideologically motivated readings. The book will be of particular interest to literarians interested in theology as well as theologians interested in literature.