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He was a murderer, a sorcerer, a slave owner. He betrayed his adopted family and led a rebellion against them. He was a charismatic firebrand, an oracle, and a misfit. He fluctuated between fits of rage and periods of meekness. He led his forces to commit what today we’d call war crimes and acts of genocide. He gave out laws and yet he ruled autocratically.
He was disfigured and wore a mask to cover his face for the latter part of his life. He brought down biological warfare on his enemies, and battled among them in a duel of magic. He had dissenters among his own people buried alive or hacked down by his armed supporters. He disappeared from history for 40 years, his whereabouts unknown, only to reappear in time to die within sight of his life’s goal.
We never even learn his father and mother’s names, nor those of his older brother and sister, until long after we’ve been told about his birth and abandonment. Yet we were earlier led to believe he was the firstborn. It’s a life filled with opposites and contradictions.
Pretty interesting character, Moses. Not at all like the heroic, troubled character played by Charlton Heston in the 1956 movie, itself a dramatic whitewash of the actual tale.
Full of contradictions, Moses’s story is replete with drama and passion, tragedy and pathos, murder, divine intervention and magic. And this troubled, driven man changed the world.
Or so the story goes.
It’s an anachronism to call him a Shakespearean character because the biblical Moses lived – according to the legend in the Torah – about 2,800 years before Shakespeare. But as far as literary characters go, Moses is up there with Othello, Lear and Coriolanus in his dramatic potential. But what do we really know about Moses? Not much; there is no historical record to prove his existence; almost everything comes from four books of the Pentateuch, or post-biblical material like the Talmud, or from later writers, including Philo, Josephus and others.
Using these antique sources (but oddly not the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi material), Jonathan Kirsch builds a biography of Moses (Ballantine Books, New York, 1998) that, regardless of the many unknowns and contradictions, is highly entertaining and readable.
Readable that is for anyone with an interest in theology, biblical history, literary scholarship, Jewish studies, political biographies and the like. But Kirsch tells it for the lay reader, tying in all his bits and pieces most of us don’t have easy access to.
Yes, political biographies. Religion aside, the story is one of the world’s great political tales. Shifting allegiances, uprising, rebellion… stripped of the supernatural Moses comes across like the ancient world’s Che Guevara, at least for some of the time. Other times, well, he’s dictatorial, menacing and intolerant as he leads his people in exile.
Larger than life he appears. But Moses as presented wasn’t a real person; he was either a fiction or a conflation of several historical characters and events. Probably a combination of them, and added to over the centuries (mostly between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE).
There is no historical or archaeological source to verify any of the events or persons in these books; even the Egyptians – obsessively anal about their record keeping – have no records of these people or events. Not even the Exodus that would have rocked their society to its core. Like Noah, these characters and events were probably created to teach lessons, shore up theologies, establish divine approval, explain history, and set examples for later generations.
Not that many haven’t tried to associate various records and sites with Moses and his Mount Sinai. Today it is most commonly identified with Serabit El-Khadim, a mountainous site in the western Sinai, home of an ancient Egyptian turquoise mine that was worked by slaves. It’s also the site of an Egyptian temple to the god Hathor, which is sometimes claimed as the site of the “golden calf” mentioned in Exodus. The ruined mine contains what has been called the world’s oldest writing; some proto-Sinaitic graffiti that was most likely an early Phoenician or Canaanite script (there were several commonly associated and similar dialects in the region in the Iron Age, all related to early Semitic and eventually later Hebrew which doesn’t really start to gel into its own language until the 10th century BCE).
However tantalizing the site is for religious buffs, it remains unproven as anything more than a mine operated by Egyptians. But people keep looking and make unsupported and unprovable claims.
Kirsch suggests that later editors likely fleshed out the details, possibly a series of editors each adding to the tale in subsequent editions. Some stories were rewritten to make a contemporary event seem like the result of an ancient prophecy, thus confirming its divine nature, post facto.
Perhaps there was a real person, even more than one, who were the source of the tales, someone or ones whose memory was built on with every generation as the stories were handed down, but who he or they were has long been lost.
Our modern art of biography is quite different from that of the ancient world; their stories were not meant to be factual as much as exemplary. Divine intervention, divine favour or rejection were all part of the telling. It wasn’t a big leap to throwing in miracles, making up events and other people to flesh out the tales and add drama. Embroidery was the method of the time.
Authors and later editors had no legal compunctions about copyright or plagiarism: whole sections of myths and tales from other cultures and religions were cut and pasted into their own works. Kirsch mentions (p.47) the similarity between the story of Moses’s birth and the Akkadian king, Sargon’s. These are unlikely to be coincidental, parallel tales. We cannot really appreciate these stories without having such comparisons. They help us understand the reason behind some sections, and the genesis (pardon the pun…) of them.
Only the later prohibition from adding to scripture kept the stories from being further embellished. But if scripture became fossilized, peripheral works like the Talmud and Midrash continued to add filigree and swashes, throwing in events, conversations, explanations and, of course, divine intercession. Plus there were other, non-scriptural authors like Philo and Josephus who crafted their own additions. Many of which Kirsch includes, with only mild skepticism reserved for some of the more baroque embellishments.
(The story of who wrote the stories and who edited the Bible, when and why, is to me equally intriguing, but that’s not the subject of Kirsch’s book.)
But fictional doesn’t make him any less interesting or worthy of study. It doesn’t make the story any less compelling or entertaining. Had Shakespeare dreamt him up, Moses would be the focus of a brilliant tragedy still performed onstage today.
It’s unfortunate that in the past few centuries, much in faith has fossilized too, and we don’t get the same sort of reflection, analysis and examination of these characters as we do of Shakespearean characters. Too many people of faith – especially, it seems, in the USA where blind obedience to fundamentalism is a political force – are frozen in their glacier of biblical literalism, unable to appreciate the allegorical and metaphorical nature of these stories.
What makes Moses fascinating, at least to me is the breadth of the tale; national in scale. It involves pharaohs and armies and plagues and mass exodus and clashes of faith and false gods and prophecies and natural disasters and politics… sweeping, rollicking stuff. If, that is, you were wondering what a non-believer was doing reading something like this.
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