And What About Moses? by Robert Gorham Davis (June/July 1994)

My next-door neighbor, an observant Jew, passes on to me his copies of a weekly called Jerusalem Report. Last year, at the time of Passover, it published an article called “Did the Exodus Really Happen?”

To question the exodus is to question the very foundations of Judaism. Some thirty or so times in the Hebrew Bible God is described as the God who led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. Four or five times God, a very talkative god, identifies himself that way. He does it especially when he is in a mood to reprove the Israelites for not being more grateful to him for their rescue.

For decades, according to the article in the Jerusalem Report, archeologists and Egyptologists have sought some evidence outside the Bible for the forty years or so that the Israelites, fleeing Egypt under a leader named Moses, supposedly spent in the desert. They were kept alive by the water Moses’s rod brought forth from rocks, and by manna and quail dropped from heaven.

Of such a mass emigration–the Bible in a wild exaggeration puts the numbers at six hundred thousand males, plus women and children–the researchers found no evidence whatsoever, not a trace. The situation is similar to the Christian search for some evidence outside the New Testament for events in the life of Jesus.

Under stimulus from the article I read over again, with help from scholarly commentary, the four books of the Bible dealing with the exodus from Egypt. I had forgotten how god-dominated and improbable that story is, how clearly fictional in most of its details.

From the time he speaks to Moses from the burning bush until he buries him in a secret grave, God directs every detail of the operation. In most of it he takes a leading part. His methods are often trivial and discreditable, little in accord with any dignity or his much vaunted reputation for mercy and justice. Like his remote ancestor Abraham, Moses is not afraid on occasion to argue with God. When God descends to teaching Moses vaudeville tricks with which to impress the Pharaoh of Egypt, he hardly seems the presumably all-knowing and all-powerful deity who at the beginning of Genesis created the whole universe simply with words–words nobody heard.

The biblical romancers telling the story of Moses apparently believe that in producing fiction it is right to shoot high. Why not have Moses adopted by no less than the daughter of the Pharaoh? After all, as described at the end of Genesis, Joseph, son of the Patriarch Jacob, gained total power over Egypt through his dreams and dream interpretations.

So the narrators begin with the account of Moses in the bulrushes, plagiarized from a story told of Sargon, King of Akkad. The infant Moses in the floating basket of pitch and papyrus is seen by Pharaoh’s daughter, rescued at her insistence, adopted by her, and then–through the skillful connivance of Moses’s sister Miriam–wetnursed by his own mother. Thereafter the whole business is forgotten.

In the rest of his story Moses shows no sign of having been brought up in the Egyptian court nor does the present Pharaoh–with whom he has so many dealings–seem aware of it. Did Moses have an Egyptian stepfather, married to the Pharaoh’s daughter? Did he write in Hebrew or Egyptian? Several times the Bible uses “write” in connection with Moses. Certainly he needed writing to record all those detailed laws the Lord dictated to him. But considering the then state of written Hebrew and the difficulties of Egyptian script, it is unlikely that he could write in either language. In such practical matters the composers of the early books of the Bible had no interest.

Sometimes the God of Moses acts like a pagan sky god, like Zeus, for instance, speaking from a mountain top, his presence announced not only by thunder and lightning, but by trumpet blasts of mysterious origin. God warns that anyone approaching too close will die. Sometimes he is a cloud or a flame. Often, however, the writers imagine God as a man, with human limbs and sense organs and with a man’s inability to be in more than one place at a time.

Especially in his dealings with Pharaoh, God seems insecure, eager to impress the Egyptians with his might, presumably in rivalry with other gods. Thus his motives for helping the Israelites are hardly benevolent–though what to expect of gods depends on the imagination of their creators. The 106th Psalm, recapitulating the experience of the exodus, says that God saved the Israelites “for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.”

When Moses asks God how he can convince Pharaoh a god sent him, God instructs Moses in magic that will work because God makes it work. Much of it involves Moses’s rod (Aaron, his brother, has a magic one too), which takes on an almost Freudian character when it turns into a snake or produces water from rocks.

The rod, held upright, can determine the outcome of battles. During their desert trek, the fleeing Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites and fight back. They do well in combat if Moses, high on a hill, holds up his rod, do badly if he lowers it. When Moses’s hands grow weary, Aaron and an associate seat him on a rock. Standing on either side of him they hold up his hands with the rod in them until the battle is won.

Sometimes God does it all. In his early demonstration of the tricks he himself was capable of, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put your hand into your bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold his hand was leprous, as white as snow. Then God said, ‘Put your hand back into your bosom.’ So he put his hand back into his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh.”

The Egyptian magicians can turn snakes into rods and back again too, but when Aaron does this in contest with the Egyptians, his rod swallows up all their rods. Where the famous ten plagues are concerned, plagues designed to force Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, half the time God is totally responsible, half the time Aaron or Moses, acting as God’s instruments, call down the particular plague. Many involve small creatures, flies, gnats, locusts, frogs, or personal afflictions like boils, with which Satan, God consenting, tormented Job.

Except for the final one, the plagues are natural disasters that have occurred in Egypt–some infrequently, some often though never in such rapid sequence. And that these are not merely natural God shows by his complete control over them. When a plague killed all the cattle of the Egyptians–horses, asses, camels and food animals–the Bible asserts that “of the cattle of the people of Israel not one died.” After the plague of flies, when Pharaoh confessed to Moses and Aaron that he has sinned against their god, God obligingly summoned up a strong west wind that drove the locusts out to sea. “Not a single locust was left in all the land of Egypt,” the Bible assures us.

The next sentence, however, reads: “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.” This on-again, off-again pattern is repeated tediously for plague after plague. God plays games with Pharaoh. He brings disasters on the unfortunate Egyptian people, then, when Pharaoh seems ready to yield, hardens his heart. Some form of the phrase “hardened the heart” is repeated eleven times in formulaic fashion. What kind of god is this? The same one that Fundamentalists hold to be father to Jesus?

This god also conceives the plan of “spoiling” the Egyptians. His plan is to get ordinary Egyptians to lend jewels and clothing to the Israelites so that they can appear before their god properly attired. Afterwards they will give back the valuables–or so they say. This is when the Israelites have asked permission for what they pretend is a three-day sortie out of Egypt to worship their god privately in ceremonies which might be religiously offensive to the Egyptians.

Actually they do not intend to return but to take with them–that is, steal–the borrowed valuables lent them out of kindness. God and the people whose imaginations create him are quite conscienceless where Egyptians are concerned. To further this plan “the Lord gave the Israelites favor in the sight of the people,” that is, the Egyptian people.

If God can freely control people’s will–in this case a foreign people–to do good or evil, what remains of the doctrine of freedom of the will, of the idea that individuals are responsible and punishable by God for their actions? It knocks out the whole moral basis of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New.

The tenth plague is the final cruelty. After his remark about spoiling the Egyptians, God says through Moses “About midnight I will go forth in the midst of Egypt; and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maidservant who is behind the mill; and all the first-born of the cattle.” In a later description “the captive who was in the dungeon” is added to “the maidservant behind the mill.” Deliberately specifying such individuals underlines God’s indiscriminate cruelty, since neither of them could conceivably have influenced the policy of Pharaoh toward the Israelites.

Passover is an ancient feast of shepherds and farmers to celebrate the change of the seasons. While the Israelites dined securely behind their blood-smeared doors, God went about killing all the first-born of the Egyptians. His omniscience did not extend to recognizing Israelite houses unless marked by blood. “And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead.”

So far as I know, in the Passover celebrations then or since, no sympathy is expressed for the Egyptian families who lose their first-born child. The Bible makes it plain that the objection is not to bondage as such, but bondage for Israelites. When the Israelites plan to seize areas of Canaan, God tells them that when a town surrenders peacefully, “then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you.” What is sauce for the goose is emphatically not sauce for the gander.

During the exodus, however, God proceeds also against the Israelites when they offend him. His cruelty here too is characteristic. After the people worship the golden calf that Aaron has made, Moses in anger breaks the tablets of law, even though they were written with God’s own finger. He asks all who are on God’s side to stand beside him. The sons of Levi respond. Why only they? Why did not others come, considering how the question was phrased? Who could afford not to be on God’s side?

To the sons of Levi Moses declares, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” No due process here! In fact nowhere in the Bible do you find the idea that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, that everyone is considered innocent until proved guilty. There is plenty of law, but no lawyers.

The sons of Levi did as they were told, and killed about three thousand men. Did none of those killed resist? Moses had earlier ground the calf to powder, scattered the powder in water and made the people drink it. As if all this were not punishment enough, the Lord sent a plague. Plagues, of course, are by nature indiscriminate in the suffering they cause.

When “the people began to play the harlot” with the daughters of Moab and worship Moabite gods, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.'” God speaks of himself in the third person, since that is the way those composing his speeches think of him. In any event, Moses says to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” Nothing is said of the wives and children of men so killed. They don’t matter.

God himself often does the punishing without human agency, sometimes by having the earth open and swallow up offenders, as it did to a man named Korah, his family and his confederates in a rebellious dispute over the priesthood. When God happens to hear Miriam speak critically of her brother Moses, he turns her white as snow with leprosy, but at Moses’s plea for mercy consents to restore her after seven days of expulsion from the camp.

The character of Moses as described in these four books is–understandably–hardly clear or consistent. They were written and edited by unknown persons drawing on the legends of twelve different tribes not fully united until the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon. Each tribe had its own axe to grind where the succession to the priesthood and other controversial matters were concerned.

Then after only a century of existence, the united monarchy divided into Israel in the North and Judah in the South. A couple of hundred years later Israel fell to the Assyrians and effectively went out of existence. One hundred and fifty or so years after that Judah fell to the Babylonians. All this time the Bible was in process.

The five books of Moses were finally edited and put together after the return of Judeans from Babylonian exile, at a possible date nearly 850 years after the exodus–and by people who knew nothing of Egypt. To them one pharaoh was as good as another, like the petty kings in Grimms’ fairy tales. Their failure to name names made it impossible for scholars to fix the date of the exodus, if indeed the actuality was anything like the Bible’s description of it. Scholarly estimates of the date varied by hundreds of years

In some respects the story of Moses resembles that of Jesus, though persons who had known Jesus or known about him began writing just a few years after his death. Both Moses and Jesus as infants were threatened by a fearsome king’s commands–Pharaoh’s, then Herod’s. The formative years of both men are a blank. Usually the father is a significant influence on the son for good or bad. Not so with Moses and Jesus. In fact we do not know when Mary’s husband Joseph died or whether–as I observed earlier–the Moses in the story actually grew up in the Egyptian court, or whether the writers forgot totally that they had proposed such a thing. It is like Luke’s account of the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. The other scripture writers knew nothing of it, and Mary herself seems at times to forget.

And what about the death of Moses, in circumstances known only to God himself? Deuteronomy says that when Moses died at age 120 “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” God took him up a mountain to view from afar the promised land which he, like all Israelites born before the departure from Egypt, was not allowed to enter. Then God himself buried Moses at an undisclosed site.

If a person who may never have existed is buried by a god who never existed in an unmarked spot on one of two possible mountains tops, it is not surprising that archeologists have never been able to find the grave.

Massachusetts Foundation member Robert Gorham Davis is professor emeritus, Columbia University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation