Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Ezekiel the Tragedian

PhoenixIntroduction to Ezekiel the Tragedian:

Ezekiel the Tragedian re-frames the exodus account as a Greek tragic drama in iambic trimeter, suggesting the original was written in Greek. Dated to the 2nd century BCE, the short drama reflects traditions of the Septuagint, a 3rd-2nd century BCE translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Among various reworked elements of Exodus, the inclusion of a Phoenix at the end of the drama is the most intriguing to me.

The following provides a brief description of the Phoenix:

“The stories of the Egyptian benu-bird formed the inspirations for the classical story of the phoenix, a bird whose mythological life cycle ends in a fiery conflagration that resulted in the renaissance of the new phoenix rising from the ashes of the old. Tales involving the phoenix traveled far and wide throughout the ancient Mediterranean world… The benu-bird had a close association with the sun god and appeared on scarab-shaped [spell] amulets”(134).

“The benu-bird figured in certain Egyptian cosmogonic stories. In Pyramid Text spell 600, the benu-bird is said to appear as the creator god Atum-Khepri at the beginning of time upon the primeval mound rising from the cosmic waters” (134).

Source: Rozenn Bailleul-Leuser (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Oriental Institue Museum Publications 35. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute, 2012. Link: http://tinyurl.com/kfquyo2

Having provided a brief description of the role of phoenix in ancient Egypt, the following will explore the phoenix’s significance with regard to use in Jewish materials and its relationship to a “triumphant bull” (268). Before proceeding, here is the portion of text I am examining:

254 Another living creature there we saw,
255 full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
256 ’twas near in scope to twice the eagle’s size
257 with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
258 Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple’s shade,
259 its legs were red like ochre, and its neck
260 was furnished round with tresses saffron-heud
261 like to a coxcomb did its crest appear,
262 with amber-tinted eye it gazed about,
263 the pupil like some pomegranate seed.
264 Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent;
265 of every other winged thing, the king,
266 it did appear. For al the birds, as one,
267 in fear did haste to follow after him,
268 and he before, like some triumphant bull
269 went striding forth with rapid step apace.

R. G. Robertson. “Ezekiel the Tragedian”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.

The Phoenix and the Bull in Ezekiel the Tragedian:

As noted above Egypt associated the phoenix with Egyptian deities. The addition of a phoenix by Ezekiel demonstrates cultural exchange in which certain elements are modified and utilized within another culture. Of course, the Jewish author is likely not attempting to follow the Jewish exodus account with a non-Israelite god. Rather, the author re-appropriated the traditions and mythology behind the phoenix and applied them to Yahweh during the 2nd century BCE. By attributing to the phoenix a king-like status, Ezekiel implicitly declares Yahweh as the phoenix.

Additionally, the phoenix is found in Pyramid Spell 600  at “beginning of time upon the primeval mound rising from the cosmic waters”. The phoenix appears in exodus drama directly after Moses leads the people across the sea to an oasis of sorts: “248 And there we found a meadow shaded o’er / 249 and splashing streams: a place profuse and rich, / 250 which draws from out one rocky ledge twelve springs”. Associating the phoenix of the drama with the springs is akin to Egyptians relating the phoenix to the initial landmass from water. Perhaps I am stretching this connection, but it may have some credibility.

Secondly, the phoenix in compared to a triumphant bull. Common within Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern theology and mythology is the representation of gods as bulls. In this case, the phoenix is likened to a bull. Already associated with deity, the association of the phoenix with a bull further suggests that drama writer wants the audience/reader to recognize the phoenix as a manifestation of the deity active in the exodus drama. Of course, in this drama, the deity is Yahweh, the Judean god during the 2nd century BCE.

Bibliography:

Rozenn Bailleul-Leuser (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Oriental Institue Museum Publications 35. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute, 2012. Link: http://tinyurl.com/kfquyo2

R. G. Robertson. “Ezekiel the Tragedian”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.

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