Play 6, Moses


1 Here Moses, seeing the burning bush, says with wonder

2 Keep the precepts of the Lord thy God: Deuteronomy 6

3 First commandment: You will not keep strange gods

4 Second commandment: You will not take the name of your God in vain

5 Third commandment: Observe the day of the Sabbath to sanctify it

6 Fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother

7 Eighth commandment: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor

8 Ninth commandment: Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, etc.

9 Tenth commandment: Do not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything else that is his, etc.


Abbreviations: PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne; S: N-Town Play, ed. Spector (1991).

In the British Isles, there are dozens of references to medieval and early modern Moses plays depicting different episodes such as Miriam and Moses, Moses and Aaron, the Isra­elites in Egypt, Moses and Pharaoh, the Exodus, and Moses receiving the Ten Command­ments. Yet we have only four play texts. Chester’s version begins with the promulgation of the Decalogue from Sinai (lines 1–95), but continues with the comic Balaam and the ass story (Numbers 22–24), and concludes with Phineas’ ending of the plague (Numbers 25). It is clear that the Chester Moses Play is more of a prophets’ play that (with the Doctor’s fre­quent comments) points toward the Nativity. Woolf observes that the York Moses Play (and the Towneley version, which is a variant of the York play) follows the Speculum humanae sal­vationis in juxtaposing the Exodus from Egypt with the Harrowing of Hell (English Mystery Plays, pp. 153–54, 379n53). In this parallel, Pharaoh prefigures Satan, and Moses pre­figures Christ. It makes good sense, then, for the York version to focus on Moses’ birth in cap­tivity, his childhood, the encounter with the burning bush, and Moses’ miracles that even­tually lead to Pharaoh’s demise and the Israelites’ release from bondage.

The N-Town Moses Play, on the other hand, consists of only two episodes: the burning bush and a sermonic rendering of the Decalogue, two events which seem to have little in common. (See Exodus 3:1–12, 20:1–17, and Deuteronomy 5:6–21.) It seems that this play could have been two plays spliced together by a playwright or even the compiler. The unique couplet in the play (for the rest of the play is entirely in octaves), "The comaundment of thi Lord God, man, loke thu kepe / Where that thu walk, wake, or slepe" (lines 49–50), ap­pears to be a linking re­iteration of later lines, "Frendys, these be the lawys that ye must kepe. . . . / Wethyr that thu do wake or slepe" (lines 187, 189).

It is interesting to note that the N-Town Moses describes the Decalogue as existing in two distinct tablets, divided into three and seven commandments (lines 59–60). Fur­ther­more, the ecclesiastical thrust of the sermonic commentary on the Ten Commandments found in N-Town is somewhat unusual. While it may be predictable for the gloss on the third com­mand­ment to say that we should spend Sunday "In Goddys hous" (line 113), the sermon on the fourth commandment ("fadyr and modyr to wurchep alway," line 118) ends with:
To thi gostly Fadyr evyr reverens do; Thi gostly Modyr is Holy Cherch. . . . Ever them to wurchep loke that thu werch. (lines 127–28, 130)
As opposed to York and Chester, which foretell the work of Christ’s salvation, this N-Town Moses Play points to other elements of the cosmic plan of salvation — the Virgin birth and the birth of Holy Church, Ecclesia — embodied in the Virgin Mary. The Speculum humanae sal­va­tionis explains that Mary’s heart contained the two tablets of the Decalogue (lines 1243–48) and that the burning bush be