Seth Sanders is a tease. JANER 2011 is not available yet, but he already points to an article in a forthcoming issue, an essay by Nadav Na’aman on the historical Moses. I await the article with interest. In the meantime, a few remarks on Moses in the Pentateuch. Sanders’ post on “P” touches on a number of other interesting topics, which I hope to get to later.
One might think that a historian would have little to say about the life of Moses in the banal sense. There is not much to go on. The biblical authors who narrate the life of Moses demonstrate no interest in reconstructing the life of a dead Moses from the traditions and collective memories at their disposal according to modern historical methods. No surprise there. The Pentateuch’s interest in the dead Moses is shallow whereas its interest in the living Moses is deep. That is, its Moses is a “hermeneutical construct” (as I put it elsewhere), whose ipsissima vox and ipsissima verba continue to mediate Torah, authorize institutions, and generate identity. Martin Noth was thus not greatly amiss when he pointed out that the only thing we know for sure about Moses is that no one knows where he was buried.1
The authors of the Pentateuch whenever they say something about Moses are not giving the results of a research project intent on reconstructing the dead Moses according to modern investigative criteria. They could not have done so if they wanted to; they lacked the means. Moreover, they had bigger fish to fry. They made over the givens of the national tradition they inherited in order to ensure that the tradition in revised form conveyed social and theological truths they knew to be generative of identity - identity that was meant to last as long as heaven and earth endure.
Details of the biography of the dead Moses were not available to the biblical narrators except as dissolved ingredients in the puree of tradition they inherited. Said tradition was bent on collapsing the deep structures of history over the long duration into a telling of the lives of the founding figures of a polity of reference. The "final" biblical narrators were also so inclined. In the narrative they produced, it is difficult if not impossible to separate out facts with a small “f” from Facts with a capital “F.”
Unless historical criticism completely misleads us, the authors of the texts describe and felt free to re-describe events which involve Moses in terms of extramural and intramural social conflicts of epic scope the historicity of which was perfectly obvious. For example, the Moses and Pharaoh and Yhwh of Ex 1-15 are terms in a power struggle the reality of which no one doubted. Unless one believes that the Exodus tradition is invented out of whole cloth – a highly unlikely scenario – a three-way power struggle has to be posited at its base. It is that struggle which occupies center stage in the biblical narrative (reflections on the matter here). Another example: the golden calf episode (Ex 32) is told in such a way as to cast a dark shadow of shame over the golden calves of King Jeroboam (1 Kgs 12). In the same chapter, there is a foreboding, fortuitous or intentional, of the blood-soaked reformation carried out during the reign of Josiah (Ex 32:25-29; see 2 Kgs 23:20), and of a calamitous punishment of Israel yet to occur (Ex 32:34).
The authors of Torah wanted to get the terms of a series of conflicts right. The number and order of the plagues (compare Ex 7-12 with Pss 78:42-51 and 105:27-36) are not as important as driving home the truth that the cost of thwarting God’s benevolent initiative on behalf of the downtrodden may well consist of the life of someone one values more than one’s own life: the life of one’s firstborn son. The ultimate cost incurred by the Pharaoh who will not let God’s people go – the suppression of every firstborn of the Egyptians, man and beast - is less onerous but still comparable to the one Pharaoh sought to inflict in the first place: the suppression of every male Hebrew child at birth (Ex 1).
וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה
וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל־בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד־בְּהֵמָה
וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים
This very night I will traverse the land of Egypt;
I will strike down every firstborn of man and beast,
and I will execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt.
I am the LORD. (Ex 12:12)
What is the truth value of this prediction, a prediction recalled on Passover night to this day? The great abolitionist Julia Ward Howe thought she knew, Abraham Lincoln thought he knew, when they interpreted the events of the Civil War in light of the trope of “judgment for oppression” Ex 12:12 instantiates. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.” “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"
The authors of the Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers narrative wanted to lay bare the inner dynamics of struggles old and new. They wanted to authorize particular institutions and give instruction of continuing relevance such that the texts they created might serve to generate identity for a polity of reference. The Exodus-through-Numbers narrative has a double focus – (1) a commitment to “the interpretation of conflict,” and (2) the presentation of a resolution of “the conflict of interpretations” even if that meant holding conflicting interpretations in tension. That was the stuff of history and history-writing according to a shared understanding of author and those for whom the author wrote.
The question of what kind of history identity-generating texts (my term) like the Pentateuch and the Talmud relate was broached by Jacob Neusner in a classic essay.2 Neusner discusses the sense in which rabbinic texts that recount the dealings of Yohanan ben Zakkai with Vespasian are historical. Did the great sage and great general ever meet? Did the sage predict that Vespasian would become Caesar? Did the sage make the requests of Vespasian Bavli Gittin and parallels say he made? The most a historian can say: probably not.3
Nonetheless, Neusner claims that the rabbinic accounts are historical, not in terms of chronicle, but in a structural anthropological sort of way, as foundation legends typically are. They describe social conflicts which are the stuff of history over entire epochs. Interethnic and intramural social conflicts and their resolution over a long duration are the subject matter of rabbinic narratives of rabbis and their dealings with outsiders. The narratives in the Bible about Moses and his dealings with outsiders and insiders, I submit, serve a similar purpose. They describe existence as an arena in which choices are set before human beings. It is sometimes the case that human beings are foredoomed to make particular choices; think Pharaoh. More often, God is thought of as setting the stage in such a way that real freedom is given; think Moses, who even makes use of his freedom to challenge the direction of God’s plans, and with success.
In the Bible and the Talmud, the Lord of history is thought of as free to respond to human initiative, rather than immutably bound to a predetermined course. There is no conflict in either body of text between freewill and determinism. In both God determines a number of details large and small; within the limits of that predisposition a measure of freedom is granted. Moreover God allows himself the freedom to respond to initiatives of interlocutors. Therefore intercessory prayer is thought of as an effective means of altering the course of history. For examples of God’s history-altering freedom in action pursuant to Moses “standing in the breech,” see Ex 32:30-35; 34:8-26; and Num 14:11-37.
Additional Posts of Interest
An Introduction to the Primary History
Reading Genesis as if Moses wrote it in the Late Bronze Age
The Historicity of Moses
A Short Introduction to the Book of Exodus
Divine and Human Agency according to the Book of Exodus
1 Not too surprising, since God buried Moses (Deut 34:6). For references and discussion of Noth’s consideration of the tradition about Moses’ place of burial, see James Pate here. To be clear, Noth felt it was possible to say more about Moses with some probability. See Martin Noth, The History of Israel (2nd ed.; rev. trans. by P. R. Ackroyd; New York: Harper, 1960 ) 134-136. The best attempts I know of to refract the Exodus tradition through the prism of our base of knowledge of ancient Israel, Egyupt, and Canaan are those of Carol A. Redmount, “Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (Michael D. Coogan, ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 79-121; and James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
2 Jacob Neusner, “Beyond Historicism, After Structuralism: Story as History in Ancient Judaism” Henoch 3 (1981) 171-199 [ = The 1980 Harry Sindel Memorial Lecture (Bowdoin College, Brunswick Maine, 1980], reprinted in Neusner on Judaism: History (Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works: London: Ashgate, 2004) 242-266 (viewable in large part online here via Google books).
3 On the other hand, truth is often stranger than fiction. For the text of Bavli Gittin 55b-56b, to be read as a unit, it is best to consult the better manuscripts; go here. For the text in English translation, go here and here. For Jacob Neusner’s translation of the same tradition in another version, go here. For a discussion of the aggadic narrative of Bavli Gittin 55b-56b in its halakhic context, see Jeffrey Rubenstein, online here. For an historical exposition of the Yohanan ben Zakkai – Vespasian legend, see Amram Tropper, here.