In Search of Moses

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DAVID VAN BIEMAHe was marked by his imperfections. He stammered. He oftentimes hated the very people he led. Almost as frequently, he was at odds with the God who sent him on his mission--and thus the God who worked wonders through him kept Moses from the wonder that was his life's longing, the Promised Land. And yet, for more than 3,000 years, there have been few lives more memorable. He was raised among the privileged princes of Egypt, only to throw in his lot with slaves. He would lead his oppressed people safely through a valley of watery death that had been cleft from the sea. A pillar of smoke guided them by day, a pillar of fire by night. And on the heights of Mount Sinai, above a world filled with idols, Moses walked into the terrifying presence of the divine and declared that God is One.It is in our nature to search for heroes, and Moses, rebel and saint, is as relevant today as he ever was. He is a metaphor for our times, proof that a single flawed human being can be chosen to change the world. Is it any wonder then that the great and the small cite him for inspiration? Martin Luther King Jr. evoked him in his thunderingly prophetic speeches. Only last month several Republican Congressmen grandly compared the fallen Newt Gingrich to the man who led the chosen people out of the desert. Movie directors have immortalized him, most famously as a bewigged Charlton Heston throwing down the tablets in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. And next week brings Hollywood's latest celebration of Moses: DreamWorks SKG's The Prince of Egypt, an animated epic that would make David Lean blush.What we choose to dwell on in the story of Moses says as much about our dreams and fears as it does about Scripture. Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister in Boston's poor Dorchester neighborhood, has depicted Moses as an African revolutionary (Egypt is in Africa, after all) to teach gang members about throwing off the yoke of slavery to drugs. Norman Cohen, provost of New York City's Hebrew Union College, used the prophet's speech defect to come to terms with his own temporary paralysis. Moses is a universal symbol of liberation, law and leadership, sculpted by Michelangelo, painted by Rembrandt, eulogized by Elie Wiesel as the most solitary and most powerful hero in biblical history ... After him, nothing else was the same again. Even baseball managers grow eloquent about Moses as paragon: when recounting why Mets star Bobby Bonilla failed to inspire his teammates during his first stint with the team in the early 1990s, Frank Cashen explained, He was supposed to lead us out of the wilderness, take us to the Red Sea and part the waters. It didn't work that way. He said he couldn't swim.Thankfully, when The Prince of Egypt opens in 3,000 theaters worldwide, there will be no Moses and Pharaoh Beanie Babies at the local Burger King. Instead, there will be a kids' book, a CD and lithographic portraits of the characters. Two of the more notable of several new books on the subject are Moses: A Life by Jonathan Kirsch and The Road to Redemption by Rabbi Burton Visotzky (a consultant on the new film). The Moses boom is already intensifying the debate that theologians and archaeologists have been waging for years about the ancient prophet, amplifying and revivifying the much told story.And that is as it should be. Any modern assessment of Moses' story needs to expose him to historical detective work, scientific speculation and literary intuition. But it must also acknowledge him as an irresistible personality, a man both weak and strong, a savior rejected, a brother reproved, a prophet both happily and unhappily caught up in the whirlwind of God. The modern search for Moses is like a climb up Mount Sinai. It is a bracing ascent over starkly arid terrain, the ancient volcanic rock giving way to deep chasms, full of darkness and danger. But the view can be spectacular: the light splaying in many hues at sunrise as the visitor reaches the spot where the Bible says Moses received the word of the Lord. The venerated images rush to mind: the burning bush, the parted sea, the dry rock bursting with water, manna.But then the visitor stops and remembers that there is more than one Mount Sinai; indeed, there are at least eight spots that could have inspired the tale that grips us all. In spite of the solidity of the rock and the exultation of the climb, the questions arise: Did the Exodus happen? Can the words of the Bible be matched with evidence of deeds? Did Moses even exist?When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and calked it with bitumen and pitch. (From the translation by the Jewish Publication Society)A Pharaoh, traditionally assigned the identity of Rameses II (reign: 1279-1213 B.C.), was threatened by a growing Israelite population. And so the Egyptians made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks. When they continued to multiply, he ordered all newborn males thrown into the Nile. Moses' mother kept him hidden for three months and then set him adrift.The story of the baby in the little ark woven of reeds is a favorite among some scholars who believe Moses was a creation of the ancient Hebrews' binding together their own national epic out of the tales of neighbors. They point out that a birth narrative of Sargon of Akkad, a Mesopotamian King who ruled in the millennium before Moses, reads, My priestly mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. There is also the Egyptian legend of the god Horus, who is hidden in the Nile delta by his mother Isis to protect him from the wrath of his uncle Seth.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
The gigantic monuments of Rameses II provide no evidence of the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt. Indeed, Israel does not appear in Egyptian records until the reign of Rameses' son and successor Merneptah. By then it is clearly a nation, not a wandering mass of refugees. But some scholars argue that a group of people called the 'Apiru in Egyptian chronicles may actually have included the Hebrews. And they point out a papyrus fragment that may show that Semitic peoples were used for forced labor. Between 1630 and 1521 B.C., Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos, a Semitic people from western Asia, until they were expelled by a native dynasty. Perhaps the Israelites shared a history with the Hyksos. Of Moses and the Israelites, says James Hoffmeier, an archaeologist and the author of Israel in Egypt: There is one important thing to remember. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.A tantalizing hint of historical truth comes when Pharaoh's daughter adopts the child in the basket and names him Moses. The name is connected to a Hebrew verb indicating that she drew him from the water. Many scholars, however, think it derives from an Egyptian suffix meaning to be born--just as Rameses, who was considered divine, is a form of Ra-Moses, or the god Ra is born.He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian.When the ancient rabbis imagined Moses' days as a prince of Egypt, they thought mostly of a good education: Moses, they wrote, absorbed all Egypt's learning, both scientific and occult, and spoke 70 languages. More recent commentators and The Prince of Egypt have focused on questions of assimilation and dual identity. But Exodus cuts directly from the infancy story to Moses' fateful moment of outraged ethnic solidarity and justifiable homicide. Pursued by Pharaoh, Moses flees to the land of Midian. There he meets Zipporah, the daughter of the chieftain Jethro (also called Reuel and Hobab), as she draws water from a well. Soon he takes her as his wife, and they have two sons. Nahum Sarna, in his book Exploring Exodus, notes the story's similarities to an Egyptian tale circulating at the time of Rameses. In it, the courtier Sinuhe takes refuge with Bedouins in southern Syria fearing he will be blamed for the assassination of a Pharaoh; there he marries the eldest daughter of the local chief. In the end, Sinuhe returns to Egypt to face the new Pharaoh. Such tales of political refuge and return abound in the ancient Near East.But could someone like Moses ever become a prince? In his book, Hoffmeier notes that the Egyptian court reared and educated foreign-born princes, who then bore the title child of the nursery. He believes Moses was one of these privileged foreigners, some of whom went on to serve as high officials in their adopted land. In an intriguing study published in 1988, the German scholar Ernst Axel Knauf speculated that the Moses story could have been built around a Syrian named Bay, who had served as Egypt's chief treasurer and ascended the throne as Ramose-khayemnetjeru. Civil war ensued, leading not only to his exile but also to that of his followers. Chancellor Bay, who flourished after Rameses II, had a tomb built in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.There was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed ... God called to him out of the bush: Moses! Moses!Like many prophets to come, Moses is reluctant to take up the burden. I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry, announces God. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians. Moses responds with excuses and conditions: I am slow of tongue and slow of speech. This line caused some religious scholars to assume Moses stuttered; others inferred a more serious speech impediment. Who am I, he asks, to help undertake this mission? And who, exactly, is God to ask it? Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, replies the deity, which has been translated as I am that I am. In another response God announces his name as YHWH, a Hebrew word that may have been derived from the verb to be. It came to be regarded as so holy that it could not be pronounced and was read out loud instead as Adonai, or the Lord.Was the jealous YHWH inspired by the religious policies of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, who reigned in Egypt from 1353 to 1336 B.C.? Closing the temples of the powerful priesthood of Amon, this royal Egyptian heretic established the state cult of a godhead embodied in the sun disk, or Aton. In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud speculated that Moses was actually an Egyptian who passed single-deity worship derived from Akhenaton to the Jews. (Was there not, he asked, an echo of Aton in Adonai?) Other scholars, like German academic Jan Assmann, author of Moses the Egyptian, believe Moses and Hebrew monotheism are a memory of Akhenaton, whose name was purged from all lists of rulers when the priests of Amon retook power.Other assessments of Akhenaton's religion render the Aton-Adonai connection less convincing. In his new book, The Lost Tomb, Kent Weeks, the Egyptologist who in 1995 discovered the tomb of Rameses II's sons, describes Akhenaton's monotheism as full of grotesque images and semidivine, yet vaguely sexual earthbound relationships. It appears an odd ancestor to the austere religion of YHWH.  |  2  |    |    |  
Let my people go.The Pharaoh refuses. And so, at Moses' direction, Moses' brother Aaron touches the Nile with his staff, and it turns to blood. Egypt is then infested successively by frogs, gnats, flies, a pestilence on livestock, boils on people and beasts, hail, locusts and a darkness that can be touched. Scientific skeptics have assigned them myriad natural explanations, including a comet and a volcanic eruption on the Mediterranean island of Santorini. The most ingenious effort is an ecological domino theory proposed in the 1950s by a scholar named Greta Hort: the Nile's many tributaries flood, infesting the great river with blood-red soil from the high plateaus and reddish micro-organisms usually confined to up-country lakes. These micro-organisms poison the fish, whose rotting bodies pollute the frogs' habitats, forcing them to hop onto dry land. Insects (gnats, flies) feeding on the dead fish proliferate and convey the anthrax that eventually infects livestock (pestilence) and humans (boils).After the ninth plague, God warns Moses that the Israelites should sacrifice a lamb and paint their doorways with its blood. And that midnight, in a scene equally eerie in the Bible, live-action movie or animated cartoon, God kills the Egyptian firstborn males. A great cry goes up in Egypt. Is there archaeological evidence of this disaster? Weeks' discovery of the tomb of the sons of Rameses II at first led to much excitement. Could it provide evidence of the final plague? Weeks says there is no way to know whether one of the sons in the tomb was Pharaoh's firstborn.And the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.Like Mount Sinai, the Sea of Reeds (mistranslated as the Red Sea) has been located at various sites all over the Middle East. A current scholarly favorite is Lake Sirbonis (now called Sabkhet el Bardowil), a Mediterranean lagoon on the northeastern shore of the Sinai separated from the sea by a narrow land barrier. Critics claim to discern several different accounts within the Bible, depending on which of four ancient versions of the story has been woven into the existing Scripture text. A fragment attributed to the writer called E notes a fairly minor miracle, the providential bogging down of the Egyptian chariot wheels in the mud of the seabed. The fragment called J ignores Moses and Aaron, crediting the Lord, who straightforwardly drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground, and the Israelites don't even cross the sea; they just watch as the Egyptians are overwhelmed by it. The strand called P bolsters the priestly role, providing the familiar image of Moses parting the waters and bringing them back together in a deadly rush with his outstretched arm. Before the miracle, as the Israelites saw Pharaoh's warriors bearing down on them, they had asked Moses, Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? But now they broke into what Jack Miles, in his book God: A Biography, calls one of the great, exultant victory songs in all literature, the Song of the Sea, in the 15th chapter of Exodus. An ancient rabbinical commentary elaborated, Even the sucklings dropped their mothers' breasts to join in singing, yea, even the embryos in the womb joined the melody, and the angels' voice swelled the song.If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!At the early going, God responds to the Israelites' want with a string of gifts. When the waters at Marah are bitter, Moses throws in a piece of wood and they become magically sweet. A similar shortage at Meribah is solved when God directs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water pours forth. When food runs out in the wilderness, he promises to rain down bread for you from the sky. Of all the biblical wonders, manna may admit to the most exact scientific explanation. (Its name is derived from the Israelites' reaction and may best be translated, Whatta?) Scripture describes manna as a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, which falls with the dew but melts when the sun grows hot. In June in the Sinai peninsula, a plant louse that feeds on the fruit of the tamarisk tree secretes a yellow honey-like substance that congeals in the cool of the evening but melts in the day. The similarity is not lost on the locals: for at least 500 years they have peddled it to religious pilgrims, most recently under the brand name Mannite.Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently ... As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.One modern Torah commentary provides a map listing eight possible locations for Mount Sinai, two of which are not even in the Sinai peninsula. Wherever it was, however, God called to Moses from it, restating his ancient promise that Israel shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples. Moses leads his followers to the foot of the mountain where God begins to speak to them. They tremble. You speak to us and we will obey, they tell Moses, but let not God speak to us, lest we die. God complies, Moses ascends and verbally receives what the ancient rabbis called the 10 pearls, which he reports to the Israelites. In a ritual similar to contemporary Hittite and Assyrian treaties between a King and his vassals, the Israelites then swear their loyalty to the Lord. God bids Moses to ascend again, this time for 40 days, to receive the stone tablets written by God's very finger.In The Hidden Book in the Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman notes that there may have been two separate versions of the commandments: one ritual and one ethical. The ethical list is the one that we have become familiar with. The ritual version includes such commandments as You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice on anything leavened and You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.  |    |  3  |    |  
They have made themselves a molten calf.This is Israel's appalling nadir. Yet it sets up Moses' finest hour. Seeing the calf from afar, God makes Moses a chilling offer: Now, let me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation, an echo of the murderous deal extended to Noah at the Flood. Moses, however, will not have it. He argues that such a course would render empty God's grand statement in bringing his people out of Egypt; it would also violate the compact he made long ago with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses strategically inserts in his argument an echo of the Noah story reminding God that he has sworn off this sort of thing. Astoundingly, God backs down. Moses returns to camp and, seeing the calf himself for the first time, smashes the tablets and has 3,000 of the idolatrous revelers killed. He then returns to God and shows an immense and compassionate courage: Now, if you will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written!Rather than erase him, God rewards him. At Moses' request, God agrees to reveal himself to Moses. But, you cannot see my face, he explains. But see there is a place near me. Station yourself on the rock and, as my Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand. Moses will be able to see him from behind. It is not until later that Moses realizes the full consequence of this experience. Returning to his people, he notices that they shrank from coming near him: his face has taken on a terrible radiance, an emanation that causes him to wear a veil for the rest of his life except when announcing the Lord's will.The golden-calf sequence is in many ways the high point of Moses' career. Gone is the stuttering shepherd, replaced by a mighty leader who bears some of the marks of divinity. Never again in the Hebrew Bible will any human attain the fond intimacy of being helped into place and protected by the Almighty's gentle hand.You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it--the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.It gradually becomes clear that the complaints of the Israelites are not subsiding. At one point they even whine that they are bored with manna. Ever more frequently, God culls their ungrateful ranks with fire or plague; and eventually he rules that they shall die of old age in the desert, and only their children, untainted by prior servitude, may attain the Promised Land.But why deny Moses entry? In God's own words, You disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah. In a close replay of an earlier crisis, the people run out of water and join against their now 119-year-old leader. As before, God advises Moses, telling him to gather the people with his staff and order the rock to yield its water. As he has done previously, Moses strikes the rock with his rod and out flows the water. His sin, as best as anyone can determine, is that he struck rather than spoke.It seems the most hairsplitting of technicalities. In Moses: A Life, Kirsch writes, Against the blow of a wooden staff upon a dry rock, a lifetime of struggle, hardship and faithful service counted for nothing. Some analysts think biblical editors expunged Moses' real sin, whatever it was. Others say his only sin is failure, his inability to ennoble the slave generation. Not so fast, argues Friedman: Moses has been edging toward usurping God's prerogatives for some time, and now he steps over the line. He changes a miracle. Nobody had ever done that before.But the saddest interpretation is that Moses is penalized for mourning his sister. Few figures in Exodus are as vividly drawn, if infrequently featured, as Miriam. It is she who, as a child, saw to it that Pharaoh's daughter temporarily returned Moses to his natural mother to be breast-fed; it is Miriam who danced for joy at the crossing of the Red Sea. She is one of only four women the Hebrew Bible describes as a prophetess. Moses clearly loves her. At one point, she and Aaron complain about Moses' marriage to a Cushite, which some scholars believe meant a black woman. But when the siblings challenge their brother's prophetic authority, God punishes Miriam with leprosy. Moses, however, intercedes on her behalf.The incident at Meribah begins with the stark announcement, Miriam died there and was buried there. The next sentence is, The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. This abrupt shift has fascinated scholars, including Hebrew Union College's Cohen. His need is mourning, Cohen points out. And do the people gather to comfort him? No. To complain. The same song and dance. Distraught, Moses strikes. With the blows, he takes out everything, says Cohen. He takes it out on the people, maybe on God, because he's lost his sister. And the Lord punishes him.  |    |    |  4  |  
You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin.And then one day, just before a military victory and just after settling the question of whether daughters could inherit if there were no sons (yes), God matter-of-factly instructs Moses: Ascend these heights of Abarim ... and view the land of Canaan which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. When Moses has seen the Promised Land, God says, he will perish. Moses immediately acquiesces: Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone [else] over the community. His later recollection in Deuteronomy, however, is I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying ... 'Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.' But the Lord ... said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!'Before he dies, Moses is granted a valedictory. Tradition attributes all Deuteronomy to the period before his death, and it contains a recap of Israelite history, an extraordinary catalog of law and ritual, and a near Shakespearean exhortation to the generation that will cross into Canaan. Here is an old man's blind bitterness--The Lord was wrathful with me on your account--and here his prophetic dictate: Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord is giving you.And then, at last, writes Kirsch, Moses seemed to run out of both laws and memories. The 120-year-old went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, recounts the Bible. And then, Moses the servant of the Lord died there at the command of the Lord. He [God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. There follows this spare but eloquent elegy. Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses--whom the Lord singled out, face to face.There have been attempts to find Moses' tomb. But from Scripture all we have is a chorus of complaint, a last hurrah and then nothing. The stark ending moves Kirsch to acrid eloquence. The life of Moses can be understood as an existential tragedy, he writes. He was cast adrift at birth in a hostile world, he spent a long and lonely life in constant pursuit of a goal that always eluded him, and he died a lonely death.Archaeology and scholarly speculation can take us only so far. It can be argued that even the holiest of texts cannot do Moses justice. And so, as usual, we must turn to the imagination of the ancient rabbis. They offer a version blatantly ahistoric but able to capture the yearning of the human reader, perhaps pointing the way to a greater truth.The tale takes place as Moses has gone up Mount Nebo to die. When God invites the prophet's soul out of his body, it demurs. And in the end, the Lord who has spoken through fire and water and thunder and smoke descends yet once more, and draws out the soul of Moses with a kiss.With reporting by Emily Mitchell  |    |    |    |  5