Posted by: mattcolvin | December 8, 2011

Transfiguration and Transactions on the Mountain in Matthew 17

Friday of the Second Week in Advent: Matthew 17:1-13.


This little 13 verse pericope stirred up a lot of thoughts for me.

17:1 – ”he look them and brought them up to a lofty mountain” (παραλαμβάνει… και αναφέρει αυτούς εις όρος υψηλον) — cf. Matthew 4:8, where exactly the same locution is used of Satan when he is tempting Jesus. It is worth investigating the causes of this similarity. One thing that occurs to me is that mountains afford an extended view. Daube points out that showing someone a piece of real estate is part of the legal ritual by which the property is conveyed into their ownership. Most commentators I’ve seen identify a similarity with Moses on the mountain to receive the law, but in light of Daube, I wonder whether there isn’t rather a parallel with Deuteronomy 32. That is the passage where God tells Moses to get up on a mountain and look at the promised land. He is also told that he will die. Yes, this means that he “shall not go there, into the land which I am giving to the children of Israel.”(Dt. 32:32) But it also means that the land has been symbolically, formally, legally conveyed to Moses. (In Roman law, such conveyance was called traditio or fines demonstrare. Cf. Daube, “Law in the Narratives” in CWDD vol. 3, p. 52.)

In Deuteronomy 3:27, Moses is commanded to “get up into the top of Mt. Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and behold it (the land) with thine eyes.” Says Daube, “This precise formulation, this command to look around in all four directions, seems slightly out of place in the narrative… but the words become perfectly intelligible if we assume that they derive from the older account which represented God as ‘traditing,’ as conveying the land to Moses.” Deuteronomy 34:1 again shows Moses seeing the land, and again notes his eyes being directed toward all the points of the compass.

In light of these passages, Matthew 4:8’s depiction of Satan taking Jesus up “onto a high mountain” and showing Him “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” makes sense. Never mind that there is no mountain on earth from which all the kingdoms of the world are visible. The scene follows the precedent of Moses and YHWH, except that in this case, Jesus refuses the transaction. As Doug Wilson puts it, he has no need to buy that which He intend to plunder from “the strong man.”

Back to Matthew 17. I submit that Jesus is up on a mountain because He is about to claim the land. But this time He is not making, or refusing, transactions with Satan. His interlocutors are Moses and Elijah. More on them below.

17:5 – ακουετε αυτού, “hear Him” – a direct echo of Deuteronomy 18:15, the prediction of the “prophet like Moses.” Doubtless the more proximate fulfillment was Joshua, but Jesus is the final fulfillment. The allusion serves to reinforce Jesus’ assimilation to Moses.

The account of the same scene in Luke 9:31 says that Moses and Elijah έλεγον την εξοδον αυτού — “spoke His exodus” or “his decease”. Moses went up on Mount Pisgah to receive the land and die. Jesus is about to die and receive the whole world.

17:9-13 is particularly concerned with the disciples’ attempt to fit the transfiguration into their existing understanding of Jewish eschatology.

Elijah’s role as the forerunner of YHWH’s return to Zion (cf. CWDD vol. 2, p. 131-5) is of course taken from Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6. Elijah is of all figures an appropriate candidate for this job since (1) he had not died, but had been taken up bodily to heaven and (2) he is a prophet against a corrupt regime. Concerning (1), it is interesting that the Jews should have supposed that Elijah would come back because he had been bodily taken up. Acts 1 appears to validate the logic of this supposition: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way you have seen him going into heaven.” But the disciples are puzzled because Elijah has not come back, as far as they know. Certainly there has been no bodily return of the prophet “in the same way”, i.e. in a whirlwind with a chariot and horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11).

So the disciples are puzzled. I would suggest that their puzzlement over this piece of eschatological chronology is essentially of a piece with Peter’s misguided suggestion (not told in Matthew 17, but in Luke 9) that the disciples should erect shelters (Gk. σκηνές τρεις, 9:33). Peter figures that if Elijah and Moses have appeared, then the kingdom of God has begun, and as at the Exodus, it is time to dwell in tents. If Passover has already happened, then it is time for Sukkoth, the feast of booths.

But they are wrong. Passover has not happened yet. Jesus’ correction of the disciples’ understanding (17:12) is simultaneously an affirmation of their expectation — “Elijah does come first and shall restore all things” — and a claim that Elijah’s coming has already happened and has gone tragically wrong. For John came in the same garb, eating a similar diet, similarly ministering in the desert, and delivering similar relentless criticism of an evil regime (Ahab, Herod). Thus Jesus asserts that John has come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” — that is, to do the Elijah-job, to be the fulfillment of Malachi 3:23. Not a new whirlwind, but John. (Incidentally, Elisha’s inheritance of Elijah’s office is a precedent for this.)

But then Jesus says that the people — His use of the plural “they” surely broadens the crime beyond Herod — “did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished.” (I wonder if we may force an echo of 14:7 — ”[Herod] promised [Salome] with an oath to give her whatever she asked.”) What must the disciples have made of this? What did Jesus expect them to make of it? The kingdom is coming, but Israel rejects it. The disciples must plug this outcome into Malachi 3 and 4 once more: “behold, He is coming…but who may abide the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appeareth?” These are dreadful words. The disciples, if they do the math, must see that Elijah has come, and the hearts of the children have not turned to the fathers. The consequences are plain: “I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:6)

Thus, the Transfiguration shows us…
1. Jesus up on a mountain about to receive His kingdom,
2. which is to be obtained by His death (“exodus”).

And the Disciples are uncomprehending because…
3. They think that the kingdom has already begun. (“Let’s build tents.”)
4. They don’t understand that John was Elijah.
5. They don’t realize the horrible consequences that will befall Israel once it has crowned the murder of John with the killing of Jesus.
6. They don’t understand that suffering and death is the way the kingdom comes. (In the immediately previous chapter, 16:22 Peter tells Jesus that “this shall never happen to You!”)



  1. […] have blogged before about David Daube’s observation that many of the Bible’s mountaintop scenes are […]

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