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Ezekiel the Poet


EZEKIEL THE POET , Hellenistic Jewish writer of tragedies. *Eusebius quotes from a unique Greek tragedy on a biblical theme, entitled Exagoge ("The Exodus"), written by Ezekiel "the writer of tragedies" (Praeparatio Evangelica 9:28), giving *Alexander Polyhistor as his source. The fragments are the only surviving example of a Jewish drama in antiquity that is consciously patterned after Greek drama.

The play begins with a long soliloquy by Moses containing an exposition of the events that have led up to the first scene. Moses tells how the Jews came to Egypt, how they were oppressed, and how Moses was cast into the water and saved by Pharaoh's daughter (1–31). He then tells how he learned about his childhood, avenged a kinsman who was being beaten by an Egyptian, and fled from Egypt for fear of Pharaoh's retaliation (32–58). The action of the play apparently begins with Moses watching the seven fair daughters of Raquel ("Reuel" – Jethro, cf. Ex. 2:18, 18:1) and with Zipporah telling him that he is in the land of Libya, which "is held by Ethiopians" but ruled by her father (59–65). Later, in reply to a question of a certain Chum, Zipporah says that she is wedded to the stranger (66ff.). Moses tells of a dream in which he saw a kingly person seated on Mount Sinai. In his dream, the throne was offered to Moses and he accepted it (68–82). Moses' father-in-law interprets this dream to mean that Moses will be a leader and a judge, who will know all things past, present, and future (83–89). Moses then sees the burning bush and inquires about it (90–95). God tells Moses to remove his shoes and have no fear, for He is God. He then appoints Moses His messenger to Pharaoh to tell him that he will lead the people of Israel out of Egypt (96–112). Moses complains that he lacks the eloquence for the task (113–5), at which God says that Aaron will speak for him (116–9). God then tells Moses to cast down his rod and turns it into a snake. He tells him to put his hand into his bosom and it (his hand) becomes leprous (120–31). There is a description by God of the plagues that He intends to send on the Egyptians and He tells Moses to instruct the Hebrew people about the Passover (132–92). A messenger relates the destruction of the Egyptians and how the Hebrews were saved (193–242). The last two fragments depict the oasis at Elim with its 12 springs of water and its 70 palm trees (243–53) and the wonderful bird that appeared there (254–69). This latter description is probably in the voice of a messenger sent by Moses to find a resting place.

From this summary it can be seen how closely the author follows the biblical account in the Book of Exodus. The vocabulary, too, reflects the Septuagint. Some elements, however, seem to be original to the author, or else derive from aggadic material, as, for example, the character of Chum in line 66ff.; the dream of Moses in line 68–82; the details of the destruction of the Egyptians, line 193–242; and the appearance of the bird (the Phoenix?) in lines 254–69.

The 269 verses of iambic trimeters that have been preserved represent a considerable portion of the play. This indicates that the author, influenced directly or indirectly by Euripides, was fluent in Greek and adept at writing verse. Aside from being a late example of ancient Greek tragedy, the play may be seen as an anticipation of the later medieval passion plays. Like these its primary function was probably to exploit the existing profane form as a vehicle toward familiarizing its audience with sacred history. The dependence of the work on the Septuagint means that it was written not earlier than the beginning of the second century b.c.e., while the latest date is the middle of the first century b.c.e., when it is mentioned by Alexander Polyhistor. Eusebius' reference to Ezekiel "the writer of tragedies" (an epithet also found in Clement of Alexandria) suggests the existence of more examples of this genre by the same author.


Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1:23, 155ff.; J. Wieneke (ed.), Ezechielis Judaei poetae Alexandrini… (Lat., 1931); J. Gutmann, Ha-Sifrut ha-Yehudit ha-Hellenistit… (1963), 9–69; G.M. Sifakis, Studies in the History of Hellenistic Drama (1967), 122–4; Pauly-Wissowa, 12 (1909), 1701–02.

[Marshall S. Hurwitz]

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