Moses as Lawgiver

What is a lawgiver? In exploring this question, we turn to Moses, the earliest example of a lawgiver, and we contrast his character with others who came before him, such Abraham or King Hammurabi.

rembrandt moses
Moses Breaking the Tablets by Rembrandt in 1659

Abraham, the teacher of the Israelites, is a father of a people -of “many nations” as promised by the Lord. He is given this covenant by the Lord, who routinely tests his obedience. The promise is first as expressed to Abraham in order to ‘make Abraham a great nation’, to ‘bless him’, to ‘make his name great’, and ‘make him a blessing’. Abraham, then called Abram, follows these instructions without qualification or question. He is, throughout his travels, rigidly obedient to the Lord, El Shaddai, also called El Elyon. For this reason, and of being exposed to divine revelation, Abraham is called a “prophet” (Genesis 20) for his mahazeh, or prophetic revelations from the Lord. However, Abraham never prophesies anything found in the text. He is model for the Israelite people, an obedient servant who flings “himself down on his face” before god more than once. He cannot be a lawgiver because he does not protect his own -he is not political. Consider his obedient decision to bring his only son, Isaac, as sacrifice. With cleaver in hand, a deux ex machina appears -a divine revelation from the “messenger” of God who prevents the killing. Abraham is held in high esteem by the Israelites for his “fear” of God, to the point of sacrificing his own progeny (22:12-15).

Moses on the other hand, is born of an unknown Leviite father, possibly the chid of rape (Exodus 2:1-4). His youth is also shrouded in secrecy as a product of the Egyptian law destroy all male children among the Israelites. Like Noah he is rescued through an ark, or tevah, by the pity of Pharoh’s daughter.

As Moses grows, he conceals his unjust deeds. He kills an Egyptian man for striking down a “Hebrew brother” (2:11-13), and returns out the following day to inquire about a brawl between two Hebrew men. Moses speaks to the one in the wrong, presumably Moses has already passed judgement on their moral status. The man responds by demanding authority for Moses by asking who sent him to prince or judge over the Hebrews. He then recalls Moses’s killing of the Egyptian and burying him in the sand. It is only at this point that Moses becomes alarmed, or “afraid” -only when knowledge of his illicit deed is seen or heard does Moses begin to fear. Unlike Abraham who lives terrified of the Lord, Moses lives beyond good and evil, living beyond the reach of the Pharonic regime.

When first the “messenger” of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, and later the Lord appears in the smoke to tell him to bring the Israelites up out of Egypt, Moses asks for authority from God three times (Exodus 3-4). Moses is concerned with the political question, his authority must be justified to the people otherwise he will be laughed, at or killed. Therefore, the Lord provides three signs and wonders, miracles to persuade the people of Moses’s divine quest. For the masses are compelled by divine wonders more than anything else. However, Moses is still not satisfied and requires a speaking partner, Aaron, flaring the “wrath” of the Lord.

After the flight from Egypt, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the laws from God. The laws are masked in secrecy, their creation must be kept private from the masses. Nevertheless, the people grow impatient and, under Aaron, create a golden calf to worship the Lord. Moses pleads with the Lord and his wrath, not unlike the wrath of Achilles, to spare his people and remember the covenant He made -and this agreement works. Moses is able to persuade the Lord. However, back in the camp, he instructs the Levites to kill each of their brothers, men, and kin. Moses wants to burn a painful destructive memory into their heads, while preserving the Israelite tribe. 3,000  men are killed, and Moses rewrites the ten words on two tablets in his own hand. Moses is given the law, but not allowed the see the future city. He speaks it to the people, for law never proceeds from the bottom up, even in the most democratic regimes. The lawgiver can only give forth, like a cup that is overflowing.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

Persuading Achilles: Books IX, XVI, XXIV Considered

“Triumphant Achilles” by Franz von Matsch

In Book IX of the Iliad, the Achaeans have been stricken with Panic (“panicos” meaning pertaining to Pan, the god of shepherds and wild animals). In the absence of Achilles on the battlefield, Hector has beaten back the Achaeans nearly to their ships. All that is left is to burn the Achaean ships into the sea. The prospect of returning home begins to cross the Greek minds, and Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people, pleads that Odysseus and Ajax form an embassy and persuade Achilles to return to the battle.

Which form of persuasion is best when speaking to Achilles? What is his response to the various methods of persuasion lobbied towards him?

Upon the Achaean arrival to the camp of the Myrmidons, Odysseus and Ajax are greeted as friends of Achilles, in fact the ‘men he loves most’ and together they feast until Ajax nods to Phoenix and Odysseus raises a toast to the “health” of Achilles (269-273).

Before we examine this diplomatic mission further, let us step back for a moment and consider the scene.

The heroes Odysseus and Ajax make their way along the beach, praying to Poseidon to “bring the proud heart of Achilles round with speed and ease” (217-221). Odysseus leads the way. Upon arrival, they find Achilles “delighting his heart” by plucking his lyre, part of the spoils from razing Eetion’s city, and singing the famous deeds of heroes. Here, Achilles assumes the role of poet with an audience of, at least, Patroclus. He is startled out of his peaceful song by his “dearest friends,” and instantly Achilles realizes that he must be sorely needed on the battlefield.

Achilles welcomes the emissaries and sits them down on purple carpets with bigger and stronger cups of wine than he and Patroclus are currently enjoying. Presumably, they are both under the comforting spell of wine as they speak with Odysseus and Ajax. Achilles carves and serves the meat, while Patroclus lights the spit and delivers the bread in wicker baskets. Together, with Achilles sitting against the far wall, they sacrifice to the gods and eat and drink.

Now that we have properly characterized the scene -a symposium, or a banquet -let us return to Odysseus’s toast. He fills his cup and raises it to the “health” of Achilles. It is healthy and fitting that friends should eat and drink with one another. Second, Odysseus compares the great feast from Achilles to that of the feast in the son of Atreus’s tent, Agamemnon. He states that they are both excellent feasts, and by making this comparison, he reminds Achilles of the unity existing between the Achaean forces.

Following this toast, that is the sweet honey he gives to Achilles before delving into political matters, Odysseus tells the great warrior that the Achaeans are “afraid” (276). First, he explains the dire situation: the Trojans have pitched thousands of tents and fires along the ramparts of the Achaean lines, Zeus sends favorable fire bolts on the right (in classical antiquity, fortune always favors the right, while the is always sinister, coming the Latin meaning “left”), and Hector yearns for morning to destroy the Achaeans. All hangs in the balance, and the fate of the Achaeans lies in the hands of Achilles.

Odysseus also recalls the parting words of Achilles’s father, Peleus, before sending him out with Agamemnon. He reminds Achilles that his father said friendship is always better than troublesome quarrels. In addition to invoking the memory of Achilles’s father, Odysseus also tries to persuade Achilles with troves of gifts and promises from Agamemnon: seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of golds, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen prize-winning stallions. He will also give twenty women, fine artisans, from Lesbos, including Briseis, whom he swears a sacred oath over that he did not have relations with her. Finally, if they conquer Ilium, Achilles will take his pleasure of the spoils: twenty women second only to Helen, and he can choose any of Agamemnon’s three daughters -Chrysothemis, Laodice and Iphianassa to marry into his family and be treated as an equal of Orestes. Agamemnon will also promise seven citadels to Achilles on sandy Pylos -all facing the sea.

Odysseus closes by beckoning Achilles to, at least, take pity on the Achaeans who will, no doubt, honor him like a god if he returns to the battle to kill Hector in his murderous frenzy.

Achilles responds to Odysseus’s attempt to persuade him (although we should bear in mind that Odysseus has been compelled to relay the messages of Agamemnon, and therefore his attempt to persuade Achilles is both a mix of Odysseus’s tact and Agamemnon’s offerings). He says he will speak bluntly with Odysseus because he hates “the man like the very Gates of Death who says one things but hides another in his heart” (378-379). Rather than riches or honor, Achilles is preoccupied with death -what is the point of fighting if the same fate awaits the coward and the hero?

He criticizes Agamemnon. While Achilles risks his life, pirating 12 cities by sea and 11 cities by land in Troy, the spoils always end up in the hands of Agamemnon. Achilles takes a stand on principle. Agamemnon gets the greatest share of goods, but is undeserving of them because he waits calmly behind the lines. Therefore Achilles’s principle is that the person, or warrior, who takes the greatest risk should receive both the greatest share of bounty and also the greatest honor. He feels cheated and lied to -and he takes down each prize offered to Achilles from Agamemnon and promises to return home after the third day. He wants no brides, or prizes, or citadels, or stallions, or any other gifts offered by Agamemnon, for what good are transient things when a man’s life breath slips away between his teeth. He reminds Odysseus of his fate as told by his mother, Thetis. Achilles can either remain in Troy and die a quick death but will be unendingly honored, or he can return home to a long but forgotten life.

Achilles’s response stuns them all into silence.

Phoenix, the great Myrmidon charioteer, speaks next. He reminds Achilles of his training, in both arms and letters, upon setting out from the house of Peleus to join Agamemnon. Phoenix teaches Achilles and helps to rear him as his own son. He recalls his childhood and running away from the house of his father, only to be taken in by Peleus. He also invokes the image of the gods, none of whom have such an inflexible, iron heart as Achilles. Phoenix, apparently the most poetic and skilled in the art of music, recalls an ancient tale for Achilles, a tale only to be told among friends. He tells the fable of Meleager, the great fighter for the Curetes, as they were locked in combat with Aetolia. His rage was so powerful that he turned the tide of the war, but he suddenly became enraged at his mother, and he retired to his bed to be with Cleopatra, his wife. It was not until Cleopatra wept bitterly as the city was torched, prizes taken, women raped that he decided to rejoin the fight, however it was too late. He ultimately won the battle, but he was not given the treasures he was promised by fighting alongside his friends.

Achilles responds firmly, not persuaded like Chauntecleer of pleasing poems and speeches. He will not rejoin the battle, so long as Agamemnon is his enemy. He also invites Phoenix to join him in his spurn of Agamemnon, as they should shun him together. He tells Phoenix to sleep in his tent tonight, and in the morning they will decide whether to sail home or not -a noticeably different answer than the one he gave to Odysseus. He, at least, leaves open the possibility that the Myrmidons will rejoin the war.

Lastly, Ajax, son of Telamon, rises and speaks to Odysseus that their mission to win over Achilles has failed. He rebukes Achilles for behaving this way over a single woman -perhaps forgetting the catalyst of the war is conducted over the illicit capture of Helen -he asks Achilles to open his heart and show respect for those who want to become his dearest, closest friends. Ajax’s chastisement of Achilles is the shortest attempt to persuade him yet.

Achilles responds “warmly” and that everything he said is after Achilles’s own heart, “or at least mostly so” (788). What could Ajax have said that is not after Achilles’s own heart? Perhaps Achilles, one of the few unmarried men in Troy, does not respond favorably to the fight over a woman, as he does not care for women the way other Achaean warriors do.

Contrast this scene with the image of Patroclus weeping to Achilles in Book XVI. He laments Achilles’s stubborn “heart of iron” and wishes there was a way to help their comrades push back the Trojans as they close in on the Achaean ships. Achilles moved to “pity” admits, for the first time, that is anger could not last forever and also that the Trojans have not yet reached the Myrmidon ships. Therefore, he tells Patroclus that he may don the mighty shield and armor of Achilles and enter the battle with the Myrmidons to push back the Trojans. However, he tells Patroclus that he must return to the camp once the Trojan army has been sufficiently stultified.

Odysseus, in his attempt to move Achilles to pity, gave the best effort at persuasion. Yet he was bound by covenant to present Agamemnon’s gifts as possible retribution. However, with Patroclus, Achilles -who is also a poet and a player of music -is moved to pity at the tears of Patroclus in his love for the Achaean comrades.

Consider a final example of persuasion and Achilles. In Book XXIV, Priam, with the help of the messenger Hermes, goes to the Achaean camp as all of the Myrmidons are stricken with wonder as they see him. Priam, as Odysseus attempted to do and Patroclus did successfully, persuades Achilles by appealing to his sense of sorrow and pity. He begs Achilles to recall his father and the great sadness that comes to a father who loses his son (presumably Achilles recalls his fate that will never let him see his father, Peleus, again). They both weep together as Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, the killer of his son. Once Achilles overcomes his state of lament, he vows to return Hector back to Priam. In addition, Priam offers gifts, as Agamemnon once did, in an attempt to persuade the Achaeans to sail away as they have won the war. However, Achilles does not respond in kind. As in the earlier case from Book IX in which Agamemnon sends Ajax and Odysseus to offer gifts to Achilles, he, once again, does not embrace the idea and also threatens Priam, alluding to his impending death.

Thus, in summary, Achilles, as a man of many passions, is persuaded best by feelings of pity. He is a tragic man who sees only sorrow and rarely comedy -we are never given an instance of laughter with Achilles, but we are given many examples of him weeping. He is compelled to act by his great tragic pity he feels for his friends, and this influences his mighty wrath, which Homer identifies as the subject of the Iliad. While Ajax chastises Achilles and Phoenix tells a pleasing fable, Odysseus makes the best presentation by appealing to his pity for his fellow soldiers. Although Odysseus ultimately fails in this mission, he, nevertheless, gives a lasting impression to the young Patroclus who is moved by feelings of pity as he sees the Achaean forces being trampled by the Trojans. This moment, in turn, causes his appeal to Achilles and Achilles relents his wrath in exchange for feelings of pity for his friends. As when Zeus bears two jars at his feet, one with honors to bestow on humans, and the other with sorrows to bestow on humans, Achilles takes far too much stock from the latter and opens his fate to a tragic demise.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Thoughts on Odysseus and Achilles

The Education of Achilles by Chiron, fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD

Achilles is a man of many passions. He is often described as quick, or “swift-footed.” For Achilles –the warrior– his life is short and grim. His unfettered rage is drawn out and directed toward those who have offended him, especially those who have offended him most recently. He knows only friends and enemies. Rather than pursuing a strategy of diplomacy, of weighing the advantages and disadvantages among both friends and enemies, Achilles knows only contest and battle. Friends and enemies are without qualifications –they are, so to speak, plain and easy to distinguish to a warrior like Achilles.

Achilles also demands moral perfection. He expresses dislike for men who give speeches and commit acts that do not reflect the truth concealed in their hearts. He wants honesty and authenticity. Any lie is a bad lie for Achilles –he does not approve of such a thing as a noble lie. He is skeptical of poets, especially tactful poets like Odysseus. This is why he fails in the realm of politics. He lacks the will to negotiate with Agamemnon, and his decision leaves his Myrmidon men muttering to themselves. The Iliad is a text explicitly dedicated to the passion, the rage, of Achilles. The bard calls to the goddess in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey, he calls to the Muse about “a man.” Who is this man, to whom an entire Homeric epic is dedicated?

Odysseus, on the other hand, is filled nostos, the root for nostalgia meaning homecoming. His deep longing is to return home to reclaim the house of his fathers. This is in contrast to Achilles, who is described as longing to return home to garden and live a long but quiet life. In the second line of the Odyssey, Odysseus is identified as the winner of the Trojan war. This is of course contra Achilles, the great warrior, whose rage is not credited with winning the war. Instead Achilles’s rage is characterized as leading many Achaeans to their deaths. Notably, the killing of Hector is considered inferior to the wooden horse ploy in conquering the city of Priam. Odysseus, on the other hand, is identified as the man of many twists and turns. He speaks in different ways to different groups. Toward the noisy masses, like Thersites, he forcibly punishes them. Toward men of renown, such as Agamemnon, he persuades them, appealing to their capacity for reason. As an example, Helen explains to King Priam that Odysseus’s wise council is second only to Zeus. He is crafty and cunning, a man of many disguises. He is also a dangerous poet to his foes, a pleasant liar who speaks and acts with reason, rather than passion. He is favored by Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Perhaps the differing educations of both Achilles and Odysseus bear significance on their divergent characters. Achilles is a properly educated man. The centaur, Chiron, is the legendary teacher who educates Achilles as his own disciple. Achilles, however, can only be reared to a certain limit. His heel, after all, is the only body part not dipped into the river Styx by his mother Thetis. On the other hand, Odysseus received no formal education, he was presumably trained in the art of war, and also in music and poetry. In addition, Odysseus, who is perhaps a genius, has the gift of interpretation. While Achilles responds to events, typically with rage, Odysseus analyzes and then responds with tact. For this reason, Odysseus endures through many twists and turns while Achilles lives a short life but memorable life.

Now to turn the page, the two heroes notably share a common bond on the final point regarding durability. Achilles strives to make an enduring name for himself by, somewhat ironically, sacrificing his own life. He knows, according to the prophecy, that by killing Hector, he will remain in Ilium and never return home with the Myrmidons again. Yet he is driven by his ceaseless rage. Similarly, Odysseus is concerned with his name. For in an age of ongoing political problems, war and contest are the ways people build a lasting name for themselves. Odysseus, who nearly drowns at the hands of Poseidon, cries out that his story be not forgotten. It is good and fitting that the life of a man should emulate an epic, such as the epics of Homer, rather than a tragedy, perhaps of those written by Euripides. It is better to be remembered triumphantly and heroically than it is to be remembered as pitiable and tragic. However, to be remembered is what is most important to the Achaean heroes, and this need to search for the enduring qualities in life, is a powerful lesson to learn from Homer, the teacher of the Greeks.

What is the Rage of Achilles?

The rage, or menin (sometimes translated as “wrath”), of Achilles is the opening word of Homer’s Iliad and it bears crucial significance with respect to the remaining content of the epic. This opening word stands in contrast to the first line of the Odyssey, a text about a man, whose opening word is andra, meaning “man.” If we take the assumption, following from the title, that the Iliad is a book about the city of Ilium, why, then, do we find the rage of Achilles to be a central theme? Is there a connection between the godlike rage of Achilles and either the birth or destruction of the city? What is the rage of Achilles?

In Book I, the rage of Achilles finds its form as a result of Agamemnon ignoring the priest of Apollo, causing the god to send a plague to the Achaeans. Achilles, frustrated with Agamemnon’s tenuous leadership, publicly berates him. A competition then ensues between the two men, revealing an Achaean contest for the best of men –the most excellent among the warriors. Agamemnon believes himself to be the best of men because he rules the greatest number, and therefore he is deserving of the greatest goods. This belief causes Agamemnon to take Briseis, a prize rightfully won by Achilles, to claim her as his own. Achilles, however, believes himself to be the best of men because he is the greatest warrior. The power of his aggression instills fear among the Achaeans and Trojans alike. Since both men cannot be the best, there is need for justice. Therefore, the Iliad is a book which has a great deal to say about politics.

In a world governed by force and compulsion, war is redemption –a fierce and cruel teacher. Conflict offers the opportunity to gain honor, it is a demonstration of pride. In the narrative, Agamemnon commands his great soldiers to forcibly claim Briseis. Achilles initially intends to kill Agamemnon in response, but he is prevented by wise Athena. Instead, Achilles pursues a strategy of inaction. He knows that his deadly skills as a warrior are most valuable to Agamemnon and the Achaeans. Therefore, in order to assert his excellence, he withholds his sword and prevents his Myrmidon troops from entering the battle as punishment.

Achilles prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to turn the tide of war against the Achaeans. By actively not participating in the battle, a version of what might be called “civil disobedience,” Achilles ponders the question of returning home to the house of Peleus where a long and peaceful life awaits him. Long ago, a prophecy was made that Achilles could either remain in Troy and kill Hector only to die shortly thereafter, or instead, he could return home to a long but forgotten life. Achilles makes a choice between having a glorious and memorable death, or else domesticity and anonymity. The character and quality of a hero’s death is paramount, and being remembered is the only chance of glimpsing enduring life.

Achilles’s rage, in Book I, is a decisive factor for the Achaeans. By offending the honor of Achilles, Agamemnon seals the fate of the Achaeans. Achilles’s great wrath is the only impulse that can overcome even the will of the gods, though it cannot escape his fate. Rage, the deep desire for vengeance, is a fundamentally human impulse. Like a wild untamed beast, Achilles struggles to force himself to return home, yet he refuses to return to battle as it would require confirmation of Agamemnon’s excellence. He is trapped in a stasis.

Although there is an attempt made by Odysseus and a group of Achaean leaders in Book IX to offer to return Agamemnon’s stolen gifts to Achilles, and thereby persuade him to rejoin the battle, this request ultimately fails. Achilles remains firm, he will not be persuaded. Achilles privately mentions to Patroclus that he will not remain wrathful forever, only until the Trojans have beaten the Achaeans all the way back the hulls of their ships. He mentions this fact upon taking “pity” on his friend Patroclus, with tears streaming down Patroclus’s face (Book XVI 1-19). As a warrior, Achilles is moved great passions. Achilles allows Patroclus to rejoin the battle with the Myrmidons because young and impressionable Patroclus has been emotionally moved to action by the words of Nestor when visiting the Achaean front lines. This makes Patroclus’s death all the more devastating for Achilles. Upon Patroclus’s tragic death, Achilles redirects his anger instantly.

“…the spirit within does not drive me
to go on living and be among men, except on condition
that Hector first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life
and pay the price for stripping Patroclus, the son of Menoitios” (Book XVIII, 90-93).

As a man of deep passions, Achilles nevertheless wishes for all strife and anger to dissipate. Due to the death of Patroclus, Achilles will actively forgo (rather than forgive) the past transgression of Agamemnon and refocus his rage on Hector. Notably the rage of Achilles, a natural outward impulse, is initially directed inward –toward the Achaeans. However, once his great passions are drawn externally toward Hector, the killer of Patroclus, Achilles immediately relinquishes his rage and peaceful comity resumes among the Achaeans. Achilles is the archetypal warrior, and can only direct his anger toward one kind of enemy: internal (against the city) or external (toward an enemy of the city). It is, therefore, in the interest of the city to see the warrior treated justly internally, but unjustly externally –that he faces an enemy. In this way, the warrior and his unbearable rage, helps to reinforce the city as a cohesive whole.

However, the rage of Achilles is vengeful, and it is therefore reactionary. He is driven toward revenge, or perhaps requital. Take, for instance, the stripping of Achilles’s armor from the body of Patroclus in Book XVI, which is an unforgivable act in Achilles’s eyes. In order to claim his vengeance on Hector, Achilles mercilessly slaughters his enemy, and with his dying words, Hector tries to persuade Achilles not to leave his body for the dogs, but stubborn Achilles refuses –he has a “heart of iron” (Book XXII, 288-361). His interaction with Hector stands in stark contrast to other Trojans v. Achaean battles, which are predicated on mutual respect. Achilles, instead, yearns to demoralize and defile the body of Hector. His rage transcends the limits of law and custom in battle.

Finally, the last point to be made in an examination of Achilles’s rage, occurs in Book XXIV, the final book of the Iliad. Priam, king of Ilium, comes to Achilles to plead for his son’s body to make a proper burial. Notably, throughout the text, only two people successfully persuade Achilles and both occur in weepy moments of lament. The first, as discussed earlier, is the weeping plea of Patroclus to rejoin the Achaeans and help push the Trojans back. The second, however, occurs when King Priam approaches Achilles, physically takes his hand, and beckons him to recall his own father, Peleus. How is it that Achilles allows himself to be persuaded during these impassioned moments, but refuses to Odysseus or Ajax? Achilles, the archetypal warrior, does not have a particularly strong capacity for reason. Instead, he allows his heart and his wild passions to overpower him. In order to persuade the warrior, one must physically regulate his emotions. His only weakness is in what exposes his vulnerabilities, whether it be his heel or his deep affection for a friend or a father. In both cases his heart is softened. Achilles is vulnerable to pity and sorrow. However, this great pity is intimately connected to his deep sorrow –the warrior must be made to feel more than to discourse. Still, a problem persists in the need for the city in possessing warriors who take honor and pity among their own stock, yet feel rage toward the city’s enemies. For Achilles, this rage takes its greatest form in reaction to the death of an intimate friend.

The warrior, unlike the magistrate or king, is dangerous. His untamed passions are the fruit of chaos, both within and without the city. Therefore a wise leader, like Nestor, who compels the spirit of the young Patroclus, can wisely redirect Achilles’s rage by foreseeing the death of his friend. It is far better that the great warrior’s rage is channeled outward, rather than inward, in order for the city to endure.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.