Jonah Sarcophagus by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Jonah Sarcophagus, Late 3rd to early 4th century, White marble, 66 x 223 x 19 cm, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, MV_31448_0_0, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

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A Gift of Life

Commentary by

The water is flowing but the Moses of the so-called Jonah Sarcophagus still holds his rod aloft, a further continuation of his already extended right arm. There’s no hint of exertion on his part; this strike must have been a tap, not a whack.

Exodus 17 suggests a ritual component to this event: ‘Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb’ (vv.5–6).

But here there’s no element of ceremony. The fact that the sarcophagus artist overlooked it is understandable. In Exodus’s narrative context, the striking of the rock was a divinely stage-managed response to the people’s question, implied at the beginning of the episode and stated explicitly at the end: ‘Is the LORD present among us or not? (17:7). But here on the sarcophagus, the question of God’s presence is eclipsed by the people’s other, earlier question: ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to kill us [in Hebrew, me and my sons] and our livestock with thirst?’ (v.3). They speak as though death by dehydration in the wilderness is a foregone conclusion.

The three figures (perhaps a father and sons as in verse 3’s original Hebrew), shown scooping the water into their mouths with their hands, are an answer to that question. But also, in this context, they are an answer to a question that plausibly preoccupied the sarcophagus artist: will the dead be resurrected? These three men were ‘dying of thirst’. Water sprang forth from the rock, they drank and—with all that entails—they lived.

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