Transfigured Hermeneutics - Transfiguration and Exodus

In my previous post, I introduced my exploration of the significance of the event of the Transfiguration. I began by observing the prominence of the event within the narrative structure of the gospels and its various parallels with the event of Jesus' Baptism. In addition to the parallels and interrelations between Baptism and Transfiguration, the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration also echo events at Sinai in the book of Exodus, escalating and developing some of its themes. Within this post, I will explore some of these parallels, preparing the ground for a discussion of the mutually illuminating character of the events that occurred on the two mountains.

Luke's account of the Transfiguration is situated within a broader Exodus pattern in chapter 9. Signs and wonders are performed by Jesus and the Twelve, leading the Pharaoh-like Herod--who, like Joseph's Pharaoh in Genesis 40:20-22, had just celebrated his birthday with an execution (Matthew 14:1-12)--to seek to see Jesus for himself. Jesus then goes out into the wilderness, where he is followed by a multitude (Luke 9:10-11--John 6:1 refers to Jesus crossing a sea to do so).

The feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness is a food miracle with similarities to God's provision of manna for the children of Israel during the Exodus. While within the gospel of Luke the connection is established chiefly by literary framing and echoes, John's gospel makes the connection more apparent within the bread from heaven discourse that follows the miracle. Jesus' delegation of the ordering of the multitude to his disciples is reminiscent of Moses' delegation of the rule of the multitude of the Israelites to the elders in Exodus 18. In Mark 6:40, the people are described as sitting down in ranks, in fifties and hundreds, as if in military array. The numbering of the males and the division of the 5,000 into groups of 50 might also recall the numbering of the people in the wilderness (Numbers 1 and 26) and the departure from Egypt and entrance into the Promised Land in companies of fifty (see the Hebrew of Exodus 13:18 and Joshua 1:14).

While John's gospel situates the feeding of the five thousand upon a mountain (John 6:3), Luke speaks only of a deserted place (Luke 9:12). The 'mountain' comes later in Luke 9, in the account of the Transfiguration. In verse 28, Jesus ascends the mountain, accompanied by Peter, John, and James. In Exodus 24, Moses takes Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy elders with him up Mount Sinai. Like those who accompanied Moses, the disciples see a divine theophany on the mountain (Luke 9:29; cf. Exodus 24:10-11).

After descending from the mountain, Jesus encounters a multitude (v.37), much as Moses encountered the multitude of Israel when he descended Sinai in Exodus 32. Both Jesus and Moses face representatives who have proved faithless in their task during the period of their absence on the mountain. Here the disciples are like Aaron and the demon-possessed child like the people of Israel. Aaron could not restrain the Israelites and the disciples could not restrain the demon. Indeed, although it is not attributed to it, the behaviour of the Israelites in Exodus 32:25 is described in a manner that bears some resemblance to demon possession. The impression is given in both accounts of a rebellion expressed in a violent physical manner.

The demon throws the boy down (v.42) and 'shatters' him (v.39). The same verb is used in the LXX to describe the shattering of the tablets when Moses casts them to the ground at the foot of Sinai (Exodus 32:19). Jesus' response is surprisingly accusatory: 'O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you?' The clearest echoes are of the statements of YHWH and Moses concerning the children of Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:28; Numbers 14:11, 27). In particular, one is reminded of Deuteronomy 32:20, where Israel is described as a 'perverse generation, children in whom is no faith'.

Although such literary parallels may initially appear no more than decorative, one of their effects is to frame the Mount of Transfiguration and the events that occurred there as a new Sinai, placing in sharper relief the relationship between the two. Among other things, three key events occurred at Mount Sinai: the LORD's glory was revealed to Moses, the plans for the tabernacle were laid out, and the Law was given. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see analogies to each of these. Within the next post, I will begin to discuss them.

Alastair Roberts did his doctoral studies in Theology in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair's Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged