Moses: A Lifeby Jonathan Kirsch, Michael Gross (Read by)
Lawgiver and liberator. Seer and prophet. The only human permitted to converse with God "face-to-face." Moses is the most commanding presence in the Old Testament. Yet as Jonathan Kirsch shows in this brilliant, stunningly original volume, Moses was also an enigmatic and mysterious figure--at once a good shepherd and a ruthless warrior, a spiritual leader and a magician, a lawgiver who broke his own laws, God's chosen friend and hounded victim. Now, in Moses: A Life, Kirsch accomplishes the wondrous feat of revealing the real Moses, a strikingly modern figure who steps out from behind the facade of Sunday school lessons and movie matinees.
Drawing on the biblical text and a treasury of both scholarship and storytelling, Kirsch examines all that is known and all that has been imagined of Moses. In these vivid pages, we see the marvels and mysteries of Moses's life in a new light--his rescue in infancy and adoption by an Egyptian princess; his reluctant assumption of the role of liberator; his struggles to wrest his people from the pharaoh's dominion; his desperate vigil on Mount Sinai. Here too is the darker, more ominous Moses--the sorcerer, the husband of a pagan woman, the military commander who cold-bloodedly ordered the slaying of innocent people; the beloved of God whom God sought twice to murder.
Jonathan Kirsch brings both prodigious knowledge and a keen imagination to one of the most compelling stories of the Bible, and the results are fascinating. A figure of mystery, passion, and contradiction, Moses emerges from this book very much a hero for our time.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
"MOSES IS AS ENTRANCING TODAY AS HE WAS ON THE DAY PHARAOH'S DAUGHTER PLUCKED HIM FROM THE BULRUSHES."
"A DEEPLY PROBING SEARCH FOR 'THE REAL MOSES' . . . Kirsch has made uses of an extensive range of sources available in English translation . . . [and] has drawn from them selectively and well. . . . This is the Moses, a man at war with himself and with his world, whose image is enshrined in the hearts of all those inspired by him, whose influence has never ceased, and whose life, struggling against himself, Kirsch is compelled to celebrate."
San Francisco Chronicle
"JONATHAN KIRSCH GIVES NEW LIFE AND PERSONALITY TO MOSES, THE GREATEST OF ALL PROPHETS, OFFERING DELIGHT THAT ONE RARELY EXPECTS FROM BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP."
PETER J. GOMES
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church
at Harvard University
"A LIVELY NARRATIVE . . . There is a figure here looming up through the mists of tradition and folk memory that is of compelling significance, complex and disturbing. In Moses, Jonathan Kirsch picks his way with great skill through traditions, conjectures, legends and known historical facts to produce a plausible . . . account of the life and times of the great lawgiver. . . . The urge to seek a real human figure behind the biblical account is frequently and understandably felt, and we must be grateful to a scholar who has been able to extract and skillfully present virtually all that can now be conjectured about this extraordinary figure."
Los Angeles Times
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Read an Excerpt
NO ONE KNOWS
God answered, "While the light of truth is not in thee
The Bible is remarkably blunt and plainspoken in telling the life story of Moses. Unlike the sacred writings and court histories of other figures from distant antiquity, which tend to dress up their heroes as saints, kings, and even gods, the Bible portrays Moses with brutal honesty and flesh-and-blood realism. Indeed, the essential impression of Moses that we are given in the Bibleand the real genius of his depiction at the hands of the biblical authorsis that he was born like every other infant, grew to manhood with all the impulses and excesses of which real men and women are capable, lived a life marked with passions that are perfectly human, and came to a tragic end that is no less riddled with ambiguity and contradiction than any other human life.
"There is nothing divine about Moses," observes the eminent Bible scholar Gerhard von Rad, and, as if to remind us of this crucial fact, the Bible refers to him with a simple, sturdy, and straightforward phrase"the man Moses." (Exod. 32:1, 23; Num. 12:3)
Yet much of what we think we know about Moses is simply made up, and much of what the Bible does say abouthim is left out of both sacred and secular art. When they conjured up the visions of Moses that are so deeply familiar to us today, Renaissance artists and Hollywood moguls alike felt at liberty to make him over into a shimmering iconthe ultimate irony for the first iconoclast in recorded history. Even the learned theological commentaries and richly decorated sermons of the clergy tend to leave out the more scandalous incidents of his troubled and tumultuous life. Ironically, some of the most intriguing details to be found in the biblical account of Moses never find their way into art and literature, sermons and Sunday school lessons, and what is invented is often much less interesting than what has been left out. So we are left to wonder: Who, after all, is the real Moses?
As we shall discover in the pages that follow, Moses is the most haunted and haunting figure in all of the Bible. To be sure, he is often portrayed as strong, sure, and heroic, but he is also timid and tortured with self-doubt at key moments in his life. He is a shepherd, mild and meek, but he is also a ruthless warrior who is capable of blood-shaking acts of violence, a gentle teacher who is also a magician and a wonder-worker, a lawgiver whose code of justice is merciful except when it comes to purging and punishing those who disagree with him, an emancipator who rules his people with unforgiving authority. Whatever he may have looked likeand the Bible never really tells usthe fact is that he hid a disfigured face behind a veil for the last forty years of his long life. He is God's one and only friend, and yet he is doomed to a tragic death by God himself.
But as we shall soon see, the real Moses has been concealed from us, sometimes by subtle manipulation of the ancient text, sometimes by pointed silence and sins of omission, and sometimes by unapologetic censorship or outright lies, first by the priests and scribes who were the original authors and editors of the Bible, then by the preachers and teachers who were the guardians of the sacred text, and finally by the artists and bards who interpreted the Bible in works of art and literature. Devout tradition in both Judaism and Christianity has always felt obliged to portray Moses as unfailingly good and meek, dignified and devout, righteous and heroicand that is why we do not hear much about the passages of Holy Writ in which Moses is shown to act in timid and even cowardly ways, throw temper tantrums, dabble in magic, carry out purges and inquisitions, conduct wars of extermination, and talk back to God. The real Mosesthe Moses no one knowswas someone far richer and stranger than we are customarily allowed to see.
THE REAL MOSES
Two or three thousand years of art, theology, politics, and propaganda have turned Moses from a mortal man into a plaster saint. Among pulpit clergy and Bible critics alike, both Christians and Jews, Moses is hailed as Lawgiver, Liberator, and Leader, the prophet who bestowed upon Western civilization the Ten Commandments and the very idea of "ethical monotheism," the hero who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and delivered them to the portals of the Promised Land. According to Jewish tradition, he is Moshe Rabbenu ("Moses, Our Master"), a phrase that honors his role as "the greatest of all the Jewish teachers." Christian theology regards Jesus as "the new Moses," and the Gospel of Matthew depicts Moses as a ghostly witness to the transfiguration of Jesus atop a sacred mountain (Matt. 17:3). Islam, too, recognizes Moses as among its first and greatest prophets: the Koran characterizes Moses as the one who first predicted the coming of Mohammad, whom Muslims regard as an inheritor of the mantle of prophecy once worn by Moses and Jesus.
"And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses," enthused the author of the Book of Deuteronomy, "whom the Lord knew face to face." (Deut. 34:10)
So Moses tends to loom up as much larger than life. He was "the pattern prophet," the first and greatest of the seers whose writings make up much of the Bible itself. He was regarded as the role model for earthly kings from David and Solomon to the more recent royals of Western Europe who claimed to rule by divine right. In both Jewish and Christian tradition he was thought to be the precursor of the Messiah, and the key moments in the life of Jesus are presented in the Gospels as a reenactment of the Moses story: Pharaoh's death sentence on the firstborn of Israel predicts Herod's slaughter of the innocents; the crossing of the Red Sea is understood by some Christian commentators as a symbolic baptism of the children of Israel; and the miracle of manna and quails anticipates the miracle of loaves and fishes.
The exalted and sanctified Moses has been a man for all seasons and every age. Ancient sages identified Moses as the inspiration for and counterpart of a whole pantheon of pagan gods, including the Egyptian scribal god Thoth and the Greek messenger god Hermes. Like these pagan deities, Moses was traditionally credited with the invention of the alphabet and the art of writing. Philo of Alexandria shoehorned Moses into the conventions of Hellenistic philosophy as "the epitome of ideal humanity" and "the best of all lawgivers in all countries."
Fresh interest in Moses as a liberator flared up in the fires of the French Revolution, and the very same man who symbolized kingship to the ancien régime was claimed as a symbol of liberation by the oppressed people who sought to behead their king. African-Americans who were literally enslaved in the Land of the Free enshrined Moses in their folk culture as well as their churches: "Go down, Moses" can be seen as one of the earliest anthems of the civil rights movement in the United States. More recently, Moses has been brought fully into the New Age as "the true Empath," in the words of essayist Ari Z. Zivotofsky, who invites us to regard Moses as a man who is "not only caring and concerned for others, but also ... willing and ready to act upon those feelings."
Moses was even appropriated by the worst enemies of the Jewish people in what must rank as the single most cynical use of a much abused biblical figure. During World War II, the Nazi bureaucracy that ran the machinery of the Holocaust printed up a supply of currency especially for use by the Jewish inmates of the "model" concentration camp at Terezin, a showplace that was operated for the benefit of inspectors from the International Red Cross, who were never allowed to see Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau. As if to taunt the doomed men, women, and children of Terezin with their own impotence, the image of Moses was imprinted on the concentration camp currencyand the Nazis chose a rendering of Moses that showed him at his most potent and militant.
No matter what political and theological agenda he is made to serve, Moses is usually presented as a purely ideal figure, always humble, mild, and righteous. Truth be told, however, the biblical Moses is seldom humble and never mild, and his conduct cannot always be regarded as righteous. At certain terrifying moments, as the Bible reveals to anyone who is willing to read it with open eyes, Moses rears up as arrogant, bloodthirsty, and cruel.
THE MASK OF MOSES
Among the oddest and most often overlooked moments in the life of Moses is the mysterious disfigurement that results from his close encounter with God on the holy mountain called Sinai. When Moses descended after forty days and nights in the company of God, he discovered that something strange had happened to his facehis own brother, Aaron, and the rest of the Israelites were afraid even to look at him. From that moment on, Moses wore a veil or a mask to conceal his deformity. The eeriness of the incident and the odd ways it has been explained away are emblematic of how and why the image of Moses has been so persistently misunderstood over the centuries.
The Bible does not offer a straightforward explanation of what happened to the face of Moses that made it so fearful. The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin renders the obscure text in a manner that suggests Moses sprouted horns. Thus instructed by the Latin Bible, Michelangelo famously rendered Moses as an otherwise heroic figure with a set of slightly diabolical horns on top of his head! A more accurate translation of the original Hebrew text suggests that Moses had suffered something we might describe as a divine radiation burnhis face literally glowed with celestial radiance. "And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses," the Bible reports, "that the skin of Moses' face sent forth beams." (Exod. 34:35) According to the Bible, the face of Moses was masked from the day he descended Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments in his arms until the day of his lonely death in the wilderness of Moab. Only when Moses engaged in one of his frequent tête-à-têtes with Godand then reported his conversation to the peopledid he take off the face-covering.
So Moses was, quite literally, a masked man. Despite the imaginative efforts of Greco-Roman historians, Renaissance artists, and Hollywood movie-makers, we do not know what Moses actually looked like. Artapanus, an author of late antiquity, described Moses as "tall and ruddy, with long white hair, and dignified." A tale preserved by the rabbis in the early Middle Ages imagined that Moses was exactly ten cubits, or approximately fifteen feet, in height. Artists working in medieval Europe often rendered Moses as a lookalike of Jesus, but Michelangelo offered a now iconic vision of Moses that strongly resembles a horned version of the Roman god of the sea, Neptune. Cecil B. DeMille apparently worked from Michelangelo's high-culture model in casting, coiffing, and costuming Charlton Heston as the matinee-idol vision of Moses in The Ten Commandments, which has become the definitive image of Moses in late twentieth century popular culture: "I want to see Moses," one delegate to the 1996 Republican national convention told a newspaper reporter to explain why she was attending a cocktail party featuring Heston. But the Bible itself, which chronicles the life and works of Moses at epic length, never describes his features or any aspect of his physical appearance, with or without his mask.
Indeed, the Hebrew Bible rarely gives us a physical description of any character in the biblical narrative. Unlike other writings of the ancient worldand especially Greco-Roman civilizationthe Bible does not exalt the strength or beauty of the human body. Now and then, someone might earn a bit of grudging praise. "Behold now," Abraham says to Sarah, "I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon." (Gen. 12:11) But according to pious tradition, one's physical appearance is less important than one's godliness (or lack of it), and a physical description is given only when it is crucial to understanding the fate of a particular man or woman.
The Bible discloses that Moses was "slow of speech," which is usually interpreted to signify that he suffered from a stammerbut only because one of the biblical authors sought to make the ironic point that God's spokesman suffered from a speech impediment and required divine assistance to get his message across to Pharaoh. Other than his stutter and his disfigured face, however, the Bible is silent on Moses' physical characteristics. "We do not know whether Moses was tall or short, thin or heavyan unpardonable omission in the Greek style of writing," one rabbinical scholar has written by way of explanation. "We do not know these things because they are not relevant to Moses' role as an intermediary between God and His people."
Even if his face and overall appearance remain a matter of purest speculation, the Bible allows us to see and understand the inner nature of this man Moses with a degree of honesty and intensity that is sometimes unsettling. The Bible shows us Moses in his moments of fear and doubt, his black spells, his childlike tantrums and dangerous fits of rage, and his long, difficult, and sometimes even dysfunctional relationship with God, whom he was perfectly willing to hector, cajole, and threaten when the spirit moved him to do so. And yet, paradoxically, the passages of the Bible where Moses is revealed with the greatest intimacy are precisely those that are most often skipped over by the hagiographers who want us to see Moses as an iconand an icon, no matter how gilded and glittering, is always smaller than life.
Of course, storytellers have always felt at liberty to borrow Moses from the Bible and recast him as the one-dimensional figure of both high art and pop culture that has become so familiar to us. And yet even as they seek to glorify Moses, even as they dress him up as a demigod or a matinee idol, the storytellers leave out the most intriguing and provocative facts of his life. In that sense, Moses remains a masked man even when the veil is stripped away from his face.
THE SORCERER AND THE
For example, the Bible does not always depict Moses as a well-behaved monotheist who toted the tablets of the Ten Commandments wherever he went. Sometimes he shows up in the guise of a sorcerer with as many tricks up his sleeve as a lounge-act magician in Las Vegas. Armed with the so-called rod of Goda shepherd's wooden staff, but we might as well call it a magic wandMoses worked all kinds of sideshow legerdemain to impress both Pharaoh and the ever dubious Israelites. First he announced the divine commandment against making graven images, then he fashioned a bronze snake that he used to cure snakebite. And he was equipped with the mysterious Urim and Thummim, a tool of divination that may have consisted of a pair of inscribed gemstones used to consult God for answers to yes-or-no questions, not unlike a Magic 8 Ball at a children's birthday party.
Some of his tricks, of course, are famous. Moses engaged in a contest of dueling magicians in the court of Pharaoh by casting his staff to the ground and turning it into a snake. The Bible, which sometimes allows us to glimpse a livelier sense of humor than do the sermonizers who came later, renders the encounter as a kind of burlesque: when Pharaoh's magicians matched Moses by turning their staffs into snakes, too, Moses' snake promptly devoured the other snakes as if to make the point that all magicians may be created equal, but some are more equal than others.
Other works of magic were not so playful. Moses used the rod of God to call down upon Egypt the Ten Plaguesboils, vermin, plague, pestilence, and so on. The sufferings of the Egyptians built to a bloodthirsty crescendo when God himself struck down the firstborn children of Egypt, rich and poor, guilty and innocent. And the Bible describes a magic-soaked ritual that Moses used to protect the Israelites when God ranged across Egypt in search of the firstbornthe blood of a slaughtered lamb was smeared above the doorways of the slave dwellings to catch the attention of a deity who was so intent on killing that he might not have noticed if he alighted on one of his Chosen People. Compared to the pristine and even prissy preachments of the Ten Commandments, the blood ritual strikes us as raw and primitive.
So the Bible preserves the fingerprints of a faith that seems profoundly at odds with all three religions that regard Moses as the Lawgiver. And a still deeper mystery can be discerned just beneath the surface of the biblical text: Who, after all, taught Moses the tricks of the sorcerer's trade? According to a few intriguing clues buried in the Bible, Moses was tutored in the ways of magic by his father-in-law, an enigmatic figure named Jethro, who is plainly described as a pagan priest but who played a decisive role in the enlightenment of Moses and the destiny of the Israelites. It was Jethro, not Moses, who offered the very first sacrifice to Yahweh. According to a slightly revisionist reading of the Bible, Jethro was a sorcerer and Moses was his apprenticean apprentice who eventually replaced his master.
The revelation of the One God by Moses has been praised as a great leap forward in the history of religion, a moment when the faith of ancient Israel was purged of the superstitious claptrap that had always burdened the rest of humanity. Moses introduced Yahweh as a god of justice and mercy, a god for whom right conduct was more important than rituals of worship, a god who seemed to disdain idol worship and all the trappings of magic that go with it. Yet Moses himself was a magic-user. "Moses the sorcerer, the healer, the dispenser of oracles, the Faustian magician," one Bible scholar points out, "is a different figure from the man who summarized the essence of piety and morality in a few lapidary sentences of the Decalogue."
"HAVE YE SAVED ALL THE WOMEN ALIVE?"
Moses appeared as a humble shepherd in the biblical scene where he first encountered God, and the Bible praises his mildness and modesty: "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth." (Num. 12:3) Yet the mild-mannered Moses was already a man-killerhe had murdered an Egyptian taskmaster in cold bloodand he would kill again with much greater ruthlessness and in vastly greater numbers.
The carnage that set the Exodus into motion predicted the scale and scope of the violence that was to come. "And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt," we are told in the Bible, "from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon." (Exod. 12:29) Guilt or innocence does not figure in the fate of Egypt, nor does the Bible own up to the irony at work herethe death of the firstborn is necessary only because "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Exod. 11:10) in the first place!
Moses himself conducted a series of bloody purges, each one more ruthless than the one before, within the encampment of the unruly Israelites in order to rid himself of the doubters and dissenters who seemed to proliferate among them. The apostates who dared to worship the golden calf were put to death" Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh," Moses told his priestly praetorian guard, "and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor" (Exod. 32:27)but not before Moses ground the idol into powder and literally forced the stuff down the throats of the Israelites. Three thousand died on that day, we are told; but worse was yet to come. Surely it was the warrior instinct in Moses, and not his humility, that inspired the frank admiration of Napoléon Bonaparte, who regarded him as "the one man of mark in all Biblical history, not excluding Jesus!"
When the Israelites later succumbed to the temptations of pagan gods and goddesses and the sacred harlots who worshipped them, God sent a plague that killed twenty-four thousand of his Chosen Peopleand Moses, in order to appease God and bring an end to the plague, decreed the death of every man who "commit[ed] harlotry with the daughters of Moab." (Num. 25:5) Then Moses sent the army of Israel on a punitive campaign against the Midianites, whose women had apparently joined their Moabite sisters in seducing the men of Israel; the fact that his wife and father-in-law were Midianites, too, did not deter him. The Israelites succeeded in slaughtering every male among the Midianites, and the women and children were brought back to the encampment as captives. But Moses was stirred to yet another rage at the very sight of them.
"Have ye saved all the women alive?" Moses complained to the captains of his armyand then a coldblooded command fell from the lips of the True Empath. "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him." (Num. 31:15, 17)
So the emancipator is also the exterminator, although the bloodthirsty and ruthless nature of Moses is almost never spoken out loud. If the purges and massacres are mentioned at all in sermons and Sunday school lessons, they are explained away as the harsh but just punishment that God decrees for sinners and seducers. The awkward fact that the victims include wholly innocent men, women, and children is rarely mentioned at all. "The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties," hems and haws J. H. Hertz, the late chief rabbi of Great Britain, in his otherwise authoritative commentary on the Bible. "We are no longer acquainted with the circumstances that justified the ruthlessness with which it was waged, and therefore we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised in that connection."
To contemporary Bible readers, Moses may appear to be less sympathetic than some of the victims of his stern authority. Among the several insurrections that Moses put down, for example, is the one led by a man named Korah who dared to challenge his authority over the nation of Israel. If the Israelites were a "nation of priests," as Moses himself proclaimed and Korah now reminded him, why did they need Moses and Aaronor any priest, for that matterto act as a go-between with God?
"Every member of the community is holy and the Lord is among them all," taunted Korah, who voiced the very sentiments that would inspire freethinkers across the ages in the struggle for religious freedom. "Why do you set yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?" (Num. 16:3 NEB) For his impudence, Korah and his cohorts were punished with a severity and a showiness that were intended to deter other dissenters. "And the earth opened her mouth," we read in the Bible, "and swallowed them up." (Num. 16:32)
Moses, then, is not always presented in the Bible as the emancipator of enslaved men and women, nor does he always symbolize the blessings of liberty. At certain moments in the biblical narrative, Moses comes across as an autocrat and an authoritarian, a stern and punitive high priest, a man who was ruthless and single-minded in enforcing the truth as he alone was given the light to see the truth.
THE MAN GOD BEFRIENDED,
THE MAN HE SOUGHT TO KILL
Above all, what makes the life of Moses so strange and unsettling, what sets him apart from every other man and woman who ever lived, and what contemporary clergy find so awkward and embarrassing, is his profoundly intimate but also deeply troubled relationship with God. If Moses was the man God befriended, as we shall discover, he was also the man God sought to kill.
Moses is the only man in the Hebrew Bible to encounter God "face to face." (Deut. 34:10) No man may see God and live, we are told, but Moses was permitted to gaze upon God in all his glory. God vowed that he would appear to ordinary mortals only in dreams and visions and "dark speeches" (Num. 12:8), but Moses and God spent countless hours in direct conversation, sometimes on the sacred mountain but more often in the cozy confines of a tent set aside for their private use. "With him do I speak mouth to mouth," God said of Moses, "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." (Exod. 33:11)
God and Moses were on intimate terms with each other, but their intimacy often resembled that of a cranky old couple in a bad marriage. Moses displayed a shocking tendency to kvetch to God about the burdens of leading the Israelites out of slavery. "Wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?" demanded Moses, sounding more like Woody Allen than Charlton Heston. "And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee." (Num. 11:11, 15 KJV) And God was forever threatening to break forth in violence against his Chosen People. "Now therefore let me alone," God fumed to Moses in a typical outburst, "that my wrath may wax hot against them." (Exod. 32:10 KJV)
In fact, the tension between God and Moses could spin wildly out of control and turn suddenly dangerous and even life-threatening. The single most bizarre passage in all of the Bibleand the one most often censored by fussy Bible teachersreveals how God actually stalked Moses and sought to kill him at the very moment when God had just selected him for the crucial mission of liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God expended much time and effort in convincing the reluctant Moses to take the job, and then, just when Moses gave in to God's demands and set out for Egypt, God showed up at the encampment where Moses and his family were bunked down for the night and tried to murder him. Only an eerie blood ritual performed by Moses' wife, Zipporah, managed to turn away the divine assault at the last moment and save his life.
But God's homicidal rage welled up again many years later. Moses spent the last forty years of his life doing exactly what God asked him to do, and he succeeded magnificently in his task: the Israelites were ultimately transformed from a ragged band of ill-tempered and ill-disciplined slaves into an army and a nation, and they were ready to invade and conquer the land that had been promised to them by God. And then, almost in a fit of pique, God decided that Moses would not join the rest of the Israelites in crossing the Jordan River into the land of Canaan after all. Instead, Moses would be permitted one fleeting glance into the Promised Land from atop Pisgah on the far side of the Jordan Riverand then he would die. To explain and justify God's harsh decree, the Bible offers an obscure and trivial incident of disobedience that had taken place long before: Moses, we are told in the Bible, was punished because he struck a rock in the wilderness of Sinai in order to draw water for the Israelites instead of speaking to the rock as God would have preferred. But the punishment does not fit the crime, and the long, arduous, and faithful ordeal of Moses seems to count for nothing at all.
A bittersweet tale has attached itself to the death of Moses in the rabbinical legend and lore that have grown up around the Bible. The Bible reports that Moses pleaded with God to allow him to cross into Canaan before his death, but the rabbinical storytellers elaborated upon the biblical text by imagining that Moses recites no less than fifteen hundred urgent and eloquent prayers. As it turned out in both Holy Writ and rabbinical storytelling, God was unmoved by his pleas. Indeed, one tale told in the rabbinical literature imagines that God kills Moses with a single divine kissjust as God breathed life into Adam at the moment of Creation, he draws out the last breath of life from Moses with his own lips.
According to the Bible, God himself insisted on bearing off the body of Moses to a secret burial place, "and no man knoweth of his sepulchre until this day." (Deut. 34:7) A certain tenderness can be seen in the gesture, as if God were honoring Moses in one final intimate act. But even so there is a barb in the final encounter between God and Mosessince God alone knew where Moses was buried, the Israelites were unable to visit his grave, honor his memory, and venerate the mighty deeds of the man who liberated them and bestowed upon them faith, law, nationhood, and a homeland. The heartbreak of his fate is underscored by the manner of his death and burial: Moses failed in the very task to which he devoted his life only because God, who set him to the task, decided to snatch the prize away from him at the last moment.
So the life of Moses came to a tragic end, one that is not often mentioned in sermons or Sunday school lessons because it offers such a bleak and dispiriting message about the futility of human endeavor and the unpredictability of divine will. Surely it was the same sense of despair that turned the thoughts of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to the death of Moses on the very last night of his life. The stirring words of the sermon he delivered in a steamy Memphis church on that night in 1968 are well remembered and often quoted, although his specific and pointed allusions to the sorrowful fate of Moses may be lost on those who are not familiar with the Bible.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life ... [b]ut I'm not concerned about that now," King said only hours before he was shot down. "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land." And then he spoke out loud the ominous message that his Bible-reading audience, mindful of the story of Moses, surely already knew: "I may not get there with you."
THE SEARCH FOR THE HISTORICAL MOSES
Somewhere beneath all the magic and miracles, the battles and bloodletting, the troubled and ultimately tragic encounter between God and Mosessomewhere behind the mask that conceals the real face of Moseswe hope to find the mortal man whose life is celebrated so grandly and yet so enigmatically in the pages of the Bible. Did a flesh-and-blood human being called Moses ever really exist? Where and when did he live and die? Did he do the remarkable things that are described in the Bible? And if so, did he leave any trace in the archaeological record that corroborates the biographical details that we find only in the pages of Holy Writ?
For those who regard the Bible as the Received Word of God, these are impudent and impious questions with one obvious answer: Moses was born exactly when and where the Bible tells us; he lived and died exactly as the Bible tells us; he did all the marvelous things that the Bible reports. Indeed, according to devout tradition, the first five books of the Bible, the so-called Five Books of Moses (or "Torah" in Jewish usage) are actually works of history and autobiography authored by Moses himself: "From the mouth of God to the hand of Moses," as the Sabbath liturgy of Judaism proclaims every time the Torah is read in a synagogue. True believers point to a single line in the Book of Deuteronomy as scriptural evidence of Mosaic authorship: "And Moses wrote this law [torah], and delivered it unto the priests and the elders of Israel." (Deut. 31:9)
Starting in late antiquity, however, and continuing with ever greater fervor over the centuries and millennia, some awkward questions have been asked about the "historicity" of the Bible in general and Moses in particular. "Is it really true," Voltaire wondered out loud in his Philosophical Dictionary some two hundred and fifty years ago, "that there was a Moses?" Critical scrutiny of the Bible has reached a fever pitch over the last one hundred years or so, and today it is no longer taken for granted that Moses wrote the Five Books of Mosesor, for that matter, that Moses ever existed at all.
Voltaire was neither the first nor the only open-eyed reader of the Bible to notice the evidence that suggests Moses did not writeand could not have writtenthe books that are traditionally attributed to him. The Bible, for example, speaks of Moses in the third person, an odd way for a man to write of himself. Moses is described as the most humble man who ever lived, which strikes us as something a truly humble man would hardly boast about. Moses is credited with knowledge of people and events that would have been unknown to anyone living at the time of the Exodus, and yet, at the same time, he appears to have made mistakes about people and events that he ought to have known and seen for himself. The sacred mountain where God bestowed the Ten Commandments upon Moses is sometimes called Sinai and sometimes called Horeb, and his father-in-law is identified as Reuel in one passage, Jethro in another, and Hobab in a third! And Deuteronomy, the last of the five biblical books attributed to Moses, presents itself as an autobiographical work that describes the death of its own purported author.
"It is as clear as the sun at noon that Moses did not write the Five Books of Moses," wrote the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza, whose candor was rewarded with excommunication by the Jewish community and the burning of his books by order of the pope.
The apparent flaws in the biblical text have convinced Bible critics and scholars that Holy Scripture was actually the handiwork of "ancient literary artisans" who lived and labored at various times and places over the millennia. None of these sources, who are nowadays regarded as the real authors of the Bible, is believed to have been a contemporary of Moses, and each one seems to have held a slightly different opinion of who Moses was and what he did. "Not one word of these stories," insists Bible scholar Elias Auerbach, "goes back to Moses himself." The image of Moses that emerges from the Bible itself is a mosaic of odd biographical fragments, and we cannot know with certainty which of these pieces of a life are authentic.
WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?
The biblical author whose work is generally regarded as the most ancient and perhaps the most authentic is known as the Yahwist because he (or she) generally called God by his personal name, Yahweh. The depiction of Moses in the threads of biblical narrative attributed to the Yahwist tends to be understated and down-to-earth. "He was no worker of miracles, no founder of a religion, and no military leader," writes Gerhard von Rad about the treatment of Moses by the Yahwist. "He was an inspired shepherd whom Jahweh used to make his will known to men."
By contrast, the biblical author known as the Elohista source who preferred to use "Elohim," the Hebrew word for "god," instead of God's personal nameregarded Moses as a much more exalted and potent figure. The Elohist was probably a priest from the northern kingdom of ancient Israel, perhaps one who claimed to descend from Moses himself, and his contribution to the Bible sought to justify the authority of the priesthood by praising its purported founder and draping him in the mantle of a miracle-worker.
Still more priestly propaganda is found in yet another biblical source, the Priestly source, who is responsible for those lengthy and often tedious chronologies, genealogies, and codes of law that pop up in (and slow down) the otherwise suspenseful storytelling of the Bible.
The last book of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy, is generally credited to still another source, the Deuteronomist, a theological propagandist who may have lived during the reign of the reformer-king Josiah and whose work has been characterized as a "pious fraud" that was concocted to validate Josiah's purge of the priesthood and centralization of worship in Jerusalem.
All of these threads of authorship are interwoven in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and sometimes traces of several different authors can be teased out of a single passage, even a single sentence. The work of collecting and combining these various sources is attributed to still another biblical source, the so-called Redactor, a term that refers to a school of priests and scribes who compiled, edited, and perhaps even censored and rewrote the work of the biblical authors who came before them. The fractured quality of the biblical sources makes the figure of Moses all the more enigmatic, since the Yahwist is sometimes envisioning a very different man than the one the Elohist has in mind.
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Meet the Author
Jonathan Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the critically acclaimed The Harlot by the Side of the Road, writes and lectures widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, he lives in Los Angeles.
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