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Capital letter M. Exodus 4:20

CAT 34 Capital letter M.  Genesis.  Exodus 4.20.  Taferelen. BA 45.jpg

CAT 33. Capital letter M. Printed as the first letter of Tableau 3 (from Exodus 4:20) in Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament. The Hague: Pieter de Hondt, 1728, 1:93. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

This scene prefigures the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt in the New Testament. Because it shows no chapter or verse, it could be associated with various Old Testament scenes of exile during the captivity of the Israelites among the “Pharaos” (a word that appears in the Dutch text on the verso of Melville’s print). When the identical image was used as the opening letter of Discours 45 in volume 1 of Saurin’s Discours historiques (1728, 1:303), a specific Biblical citation was added: “Exode ch. IV. Vers 20.” Exodus 4: 20 is the verse in which “Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and returned to the land of Egypt.” This would certainly seem to be the subject of the imagery within which this capital letter M is embedded in Melville’s cut-out from the Dutch Taferelen.   

In addition to Moses, his wife, the sons, and the ass, the image shows Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, on the left. Jethro has approved of this return to the land of Pharaoh by saying “Go in Peace” (Exodus 4: 18). This same cast of characters appears in another of Melville’s cut-outs with a capital letter M, illustrating Exodus 18:5 (see CAT 35). There Jethro brings the wife and sons to Moses in the wilderness after the Lord had “delivered” him and his followers “out of the hand of the Egyptians.” Saurin’s discussion of the present tableau in the Taferelen follows Moses from Midian up to his first appearance before Pharaoh in Exodus 5, emphasizing the cruelty with which the Pharaoh commands the captive Israelites to make the same number of bricks, but without any straw, leaving them no alternative but to desperately seek to collect “stubble for straw.” The Dutch words for stubble (“stoppeln”) and straw (“stró”) are visible on the verso of Melville’s cut-out image.

Melville alludes to these Old Testament exile scenes constantly in his writing, from a casual aside in Typee (NN T 107) to multiple references in Clarel. His most extended response to this section of Exodus comes in Israel Potter, when Israel toils with “scores and scores of forlorn men” in a dismal brickyard outside London in chapter 23 (“Israel in Egypt”). Here, too, there is no straw, or even stubble, nothing but “mud and water” to be “squashed” into moulds passed along in “desolate trays” so that “poor Israel seemed some grave-digger, or church-yard man, tucking away dead little innocents in their coffins” (NN IP 154-55). At the end of Saurin’s discourse on the Egyptian brickmaking scene in Exodus, “once the waters of oppression reach the soul, deliverance is born.” No such deliverance is in store for Israel Potter during the next forty years in London.