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The Exagoge of Ezekiel Tragicus in its political and historical context

Chaya Cassano

CUNY- Graduate Center, Classics

The aim of my research is to give a new interpretation of the Exagoge of Ezekiel, the only surviving Hellenistic tragedy apart from the Alexandra of Lycophron.

Ezekiel wrote about the history of Jewish slavery in Egypt and the exodus of the Jews under Moses’ leadership. The extant text consists of about 269 verses in iambic trimeter, in the form of dialogues and monologues, in keeping with the pattern of Greek tragedy. The narrative in part follows the Hebrew Book of Shemot and the Greek translation from the Hebrew, the Book of “Exodos” in the Septuagint. I claim that in the Exagoge there are many “deviations,” meaning relevant differences to the biblical text and to the Midrash, which are apologetic and refer to a difficult political situation in early Roman times. I conclude that Ezekiel used the tragedy as a political “pamphlet” against the Greeks.

The Exagoge was incorrectly considered a pseudepigraphical work related to the Old Testament. (Holladay 1989, Lanfranchi 2006). A scholar in search of Ezekiel’s fragments in the Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (=TGF, Nauck 1888) will not find him. Only later did Bruno Snell include Ezekiel in TrGF (Snell 1986, the new edition of TGF). For Elias Bickermann, Ezekiel was “a poetaster” active around 200 BCE and it was not clear if he wrote for heathen readers or his tragedy had to “take the place in Jewish education of Greek plays based on mythology” (Bickermann 1949, 80-81). Although modern scholars have debated about the possible audience for this play (Jacobson 198317-18), the evidence gathered in this paper suggests a tense relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish population and the author’s attempt to lift the spirits of the Jews with the story of the exodos from Egypt. The Exagoge, therefore, signals the birth of a “national” Jewish narrative of freedom and redemption. Contrary to the supporters of multiculturalism, hybridity and pacific coexistence among Jews, Greeks and Egyptians (Gruen 2010, 415 and Zeitlin 2013, 224), I identify several passages that instead indicate ethnic struggle.

In order to achieve this goal, I have analyzed Hebrew literature and compared it with Greek sources related to the tragedy: Philo of Alexandria, Josephus Flavius and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible).

The first significant deviations are found in the opening verses (Ez., Ex., 1-6).

Ezekiel writes of a lasting oppression of the Jews in Egypt “until these times” and “by the hand of evil men and by the hand of the dynasty.” The expression ἐσ ἄχρι τούτων τῶν χρόνων, “until these times,” has no comparison in Biblical texts, so readers would perceive this as a reference to their present situation. Furthermore, Ezekiel accentuated the Jewishness of Moses, adding a detail to Moses’ biography that also has no comparison in any other source. Ezekiel states that Moses’ biological mother had instructed him about “his kin and the gifts of God” (v.34-35, subject is μήτηρ) ἅπαντα μυθεύσασα καὶ λέξασά μοι /γένος πατρῷον καὶ θεοῦ δωρήματα. When he became an adult, Moses later left Pharaoh’s palace stating that: “I left the royal palaces, then my spirit advised me against the deeds and cunning plots of the king.” V. 40-41: ἐξῆλθον οἴκων βασιλικῶν (πρὸς ἔργα γάρ/ θυμός μ’ ἄνωγε καὶ τέχνασμα βασιλέως). This last statement runs contrary to the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, 28,1, par.26), which presents a positive image of Pharaoh and Moses as a beloved member of the royal household.

After an analysis of many other “deviations,” I come to the conclusion that these changes are not coincidental, mistakes or diplomatic embellishments to please a Greek audience. To the contrary, they are intentional modifications of the Biblical tradition of the exodos to adapt it to the contemporary political circumstances of the author.

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Hellenistic Poetry in its Cultural Context

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