The Time Moses Body Slammed a Lion

Until I started researching It’s a Feudal, Feudal World, I thought I was familiar with the languages that fused Hebrew with another language. One was Yiddish, which combined Germanic grammar with and Slavic and Hebrew vocabulary. The other was Ladino, in which medieval Spanish adopted Hebrew vocabulary.

It turns out that I was wrong. It only took a little reading to discover just how many languages exist in which communities have merged the grammar or vocabulary of their native tongue with those of the people who live around them. There’s Judeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic written in Hebrew that was used by many Jews, including the philosopher Maimonides, and Judeo-Persian, a dialect of Persian written in Hebrew that are the basis for some of the oldest texts in the Persian language. Nor were Jewish communities the only ones to develop these kinds of tongues. In medieval Spain, there was late Latin or early Spanish written in Arabic script by Spanish Christians – what scholars often call Mozarabic. After the reconquista, a similar combination of early Spanish in Arabic script, now written by Spanish Muslims, is known by scholars as aljamia. The whole phenomenon of mixing languages and scripts was in an early draft of the book but ended up on the cutting room floor.

Though I knew a little about the existence of Judeo-Persian, I was still stunned by the beauty of the illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts I found in last year’s award-winning illustrated art book, Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts. These manuscripts, some of them in the collections of major research libraries, adopted the same style as the intricate Timurid and Safavid manuscripts of the same era. The most famous of the texts in these illuminated manuscripts are the Biblical verse epics written by the fourteenth century Judeo-Persian poet Mawlana Shahin-i Shirazi and his artistic successor, ‘Imrani.

Moses observing a battle. From the Musa-namah, Ms. or. oct. 2885, f.5v, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0).

Between them, Shahin and Imrani wrote verse versions of the books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, most of Samuel, Job, Esther, Ezra, and the life of Moses. Instead of attempting to retell precisely the facts in the original biblical narrative, they poems drew on commentary, midrash, and Islamic tradition to expand their stories. Inspired by Persian epics such as the Shah-namah (or Book of Kings), they transformed the biblical narrative into a Persian epic. Among the consequences of this “Iranization” (Vera Basch Moreen’s term) were the addition heroic episodes akin to the acts of great Persian heroes.

Talking animals feature in many of these new moments. In Shahin’s retelling of Genesis, not only do Joseph’s brothers bring the wolf they claimed murdered the boy to their father, Jacob, but the patriarch and the wolf engage in an extended dialogue. My favourite, though, has to be Moses’ experiences guarding Jethro’s flocks in Midian from Shahin’s Musa-namah (or Book of Moses). Here, Moses faces a terrible serpent, a ravenous wolf, and a “black lion,” each of whom demands Moses give up the flock. Each time, Moses refuses and wreaks terrible vengeance. The serpent is decapitated, the wolf is torn apart and then hung by the neck with a rope made from his potential victim’s wool, and the lion is … well … body slammed. Vera Basch Moreen, one of the few scholars to translate much Judeo-Persian literature into English, translates:

In anger Moses grasped his staff and struck him
On the chest so that he turned to flee.

He seized the lion, hauling him overhead;
Then struck him to the ground and smashed his body.

Which is a pretty awesome image, in a WWF sort of way

Most English translations of Judeo-Persian appear in scholarly journals or books – the episode with the black lion comes for Moreen’s article in Prooftexts entitled “God’s Shepherd: An Episode from a Judeo-Persian Epic” (JSTOR link) – but there is an anthology, In Queen Esther’s Garden (also by Vera Basch Moreen) that gives good sense not just of the biblical epics but also of Judeo-Persian poetry, biblical commentaries, and historical writing.


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