Head of Moses [Study in connection with Moses, in View of the Promised Land, Takes off his Sandals] by Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau

Head of Moses (Study in connection with Moses, in View of the Promised Land, Takes off his Sandals), c.1854, Lead pencil, white chalk on laminated tracing paper, 326 x 235 mm, Musée national Gustave Moreau, Paris, 2202, René-Gabriel Ojéda © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Second Law

Commentary by

It is striking that the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 are not the earliest version of this text, but a repetition of Exodus 20. Deuteronomy highlights this, presenting itself as Moses’s words to the second generation of the exodus just before they cross the Jordan River into the promised land. Even the book’s name recalls the fact: it comes from the Greek words deutero (second) and nomos (law). It is the repetition of the law.

Gustave Moreau’s study for the head of Moses also depends on a prior representation of its subject: Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Yet, while depending on the sculpture, Moreau also makes the subject his own.

Moreau’s Moses appears less severe than Michelangelo’s. He is somehow a gentler figure. His beard is not a torrent of tight coils, and we see unkempt hair in place of his infamous horns. This Moses looks more like an elderly academic. And yet his eyes remain piercing, so that Moreau retains the sense that Moses could see through you, perhaps into a deeper dimension of reality.

So too with Deuteronomy: it is not a slavish repetition of Exodus. Deuteronomy repeats the command to celebrate the Sabbath—the day of rest Jews practice on Saturdays—but changes the rationale from God’s rest in creation (Exodus 20:11) to the memory of the slavery in Egypt. This is a precursor of what is to come in Deuteronomy 12–26, in which all manner of instructions from Exodus are reshaped.

Why is this important? It highlights that the Bible is not a flat, static text, but contains within its contents evidence that ideas and practices are alive. Israel’s ideas grow and transform; they adapt to new times and places. Theology and religious practice have never been static, but since the very origins of the Jewish and Christian traditions they have been living, malleable things.

In this respect, they resemble iconic figures depicted in ever-new and fresh ways by generations of artists as they work in ever-changing contexts.

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