One of my favorite traditions is watching The Ten Commandments on TV — the story as told by Cecil B. DeMille is a grand piece of cinematic achievement. Now, after having read Moses: A Life, I appreciate the story of the freeing of the Hebrew slaves and the following forty years of wandering in a wholly new way.
Jonathan Kirsch is not a new author to me. I have previously read The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, which I thought was superb. He brings the same spirit to this book, explaining Biblical accounts that can, at times, be confusing, contradictory, and inscrutable. His writing is clear and without an obvious bias; the reader doesn’t know whether Kirsch is a religious man or an atheist. He is respectful while being intellectually honest about the historical and contemporary thoughts on Moses and his story.
One of the big surprises to me with the story of Moses is really how little is known about the man. The Bible, apparently, isn’t clear as to whether Aaron and Miriam were his siblings. Nor do we know what he did with his time between childhood and the time he started on his quest to free the Hebrews from slavery. It isn’t even known whether he was an Israelite — it’s possible he was a rogue Egyptian prince! A lot of what we think we know of Moses cannot be found in the Bible. Tales and traditions about him can be found in the Midrash as well as other traditional Jewish writings.
Another intriguing part of Moses’ story is his complicated relationship with God. The common view is of Moses as a servant of God, performing as a go-between for God with the Israelites. He strikes down polytheism, provides his people with a set of laws to live by, knows how to lead his people and bring them to their eventual homeland — even if he does take forty years to do what should have taken a few weeks.
Moses does do these things. But he also cajoles God, complains to God, and, at a couple of points, threatens him. He does tell the Israelites that Yahweh is their one God, but doesn’t actually rule out the idea that there are other gods. He himself creates some objects that might be considered idols or religious objects with a pagan past, reflecting the cultural flux of the time. He brings us the Law of God, that’s true, but it’s a set of laws that no one person can completely follow. He often is cowardly and seeks to avoid conflict unless he is assured of having the upper hand. He brings the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, but cannot go himself, and faces almost constant grumbling, threats, and attempted mutiny by the very people he is supposed to be delivering to freedom. Truly, his life was a hard one.
According to tradition, Moses was the author of the Torah (or Pentateuch). Kirsch painstakingly explains about the various actual authors of the first five books of the Bible: the Yahwehist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P), and the Deuterotomist (D), plus the Redactionists (R), who pulled the books together from the varied sources. This explains the confusing and contradictory stories, and why Moses appears to be marginalized or displayed in an unflattering light in some of the text — certainly one man would not write about himself being a secondary figure in some pretty crucial points of the overall story.
The one drawback to this book is that it isn’t structured like The Harlot By the Side of the Road does. That book has a narrative story, followed by the Biblical scholarship that explains why the story is thought to be that way. This one has the story and scholarship interspersed, and I think that it might be easier for the reader to have the story and then the research and thought that makes that depiction the one the Bible most likely intends to put forth.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot about a central figure of Western religion. He is no longer, in my eyes, a one-dimensional hero-figure. He is a man with problems and with flaws. But he is also a man who can teach us to have a more personal spirituality, and to be truthful to our faith.