Strange Fire, or, the Terror of Moses
“The sacred aspect of leadership involves […] ‘setting apart’—the division between the holy and the profane […]; ‘sacrifice’—the act which makes something holy; and ‘silencing’ […] of both followers’ fears and dissent”
(Grint, p. 92).
And there never arose again in Israel a prophet like Moses, who knew Yahweh face to face. For all the signs and wonders which Yahweh sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land. And for all the feats of strength, and for the great terror which Moses wrought for the eyes of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).
The final words of the tale mislead in two ways. First, they imply its protagonist, Moses the Prophet, was a creature endowed with attributes beyond the reach of mere mortals, not really a human being but something more, a midpoint between the human and the divine. Second, they qualify him as a follower, a conduit in the events the tale recounts, rather than the agitator and instigator it shows him to be. By the time this panegyric conclusion was written, base humanity had been molded into divinity over hundreds of years of recollections and retellings among which, later still, a handful of fortunate versions would wind into each other like the strands of a braided loaf to form the core of Scripture. But the terror lays bare the humanity and counters the impulse to idealize and ennoble. The great terror which Moses wrought.
The phrase is not mysterious. For knowers of the tale in its endless iterations on page and canvas and stage and screen it effortlessly conjures up familiar images, of a blood-red river, of Egyptians by the millions suffering from agonizing ailments supposedly commensurate with their iniquity, of frogs and lice and locusts, of ice and fire and darkness and death – dead women and men, dead beasts, dead youngsters, dead babies – of soldiers and horse-drawn chariots drowned under sea, and also of Israelite rebels and dissenters, sinners all, shoved off cliffs, cut down, stoned to death, burned alive. The great terror which Moses wrought.
Consider the silence of Aaron the Priest.
It seems incomprehensible, that Aaron was silent at that horrific moment, all the worse for being unexpected (or was it?), on what was supposed to be the most joyous day of his life. Transparent, on the other hand, a sign as unequivocal as the full moon presaging the harvest, that silence must have been to those present there to witness it, to the congregation whose wonder was always mingled with terror, and to him, the Prophet, the leader, the brother.
In the tale it was a spring day, just over a year after their Exodus from Egypt. The sky was surely blue, as cloud cover rarely forms over the Sinai and rain falls only on a handful of lucky winter days. The morning sun must have been welcome nevertheless, for chasing away the chill of the desert night, for bathing with golden rays the Israelite host, encamped on the outskirts of the Mountain of God, and the blooming flowers that decorated its slope, golden rabil, violet sakraan, crimson homath, which would thrive for a short season before disappearing and revealing underneath the arid wilderness, perennially littered with boulders great and small, as if the earth itself had shattered into countless fragments of its own yellow and purple and red.
“And you will stay by the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night. And you will stand guard for Yahweh. Otherwise you will die” (Leviticus 8:35).
The seven days of purification were past and the Day of Consecration had come. Seven days Aaron and his four sons – Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar – had stayed put, guarding by order of Moses the Tent of the Sanctuary of Yahweh, the place where man met God. Moses had washed their bodies, and clothed them in the priestly vestments. He had sacrificed a bullock and used its blood to purify the altar. He had sacrificed a ram, removed its innards and chopped its body into pieces and burnt them as an offering to Yahweh. He had slaughtered a second ram, the offering of consecration, and with its blood purified the bodies of Aaron and his sons, dabbing red the lobes of their right ears and their right thumbs and the big toes of their right feet, so they would be worthy to become priests of Yahweh, they and their progeny down the generations forever.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given you an altar to atone for your souls. For with blood will the soul be atoned (Leviticus 17:11).
The tale does not see fit to describe how the men looked after their seven-day ordeal. It specifies that they ate certain sections of the butchered carcasses and the sacramental bread of offering. It implies that they still wore their priestly clothing, their linen tunics, their caps, their sashes, and that Aaron bore the accouterments of the High Priest, the jeweled breast piece and the Urim and Tumim that could foretell the future, all of which Moses had sprinkled with oil and blood for their consecration. It does not tell where or how the men slept, how they coped with the frigid desert nights, whether they prayed or spoke or were joyful or apprehensive, where they went to relieve their bodies. It does not deem it important to tell what the rest of the people were doing during those days, what Elisheva, wife of Aaron and mother of his sons, was thinking, or hoping for, or dreading, what Moses their leader was scheming to do.
But now, finally, the time had come.
And on the eight day. Moses called forth Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. (Leviticus 9:1)
Aaron, tells the tale, was an old man, so his legs must have been stiff, his lips dry and broken. Perhaps his joints ached as he walked up the ramp to the altar that dominated the Tabernacle courtyard. Perhaps he paused to consider the calf he was about to slaughter, its legs bound together to prevent kicking, its nostrils flaring with panicked huffs, its ears pricked, sensing the approaching doom. Perhaps Aaron doubted his own strength as he placed his hand on the calf’s side, below the jawline, before ramming the knife deep into the creature’s neck, and then pulling, cutting, hard, to insure slicing both the artery and the vein, to bleed out the body as quickly as possible. Perhaps he flinched as the calf convulsed in the throes of death, as the torrent of warm blood soaked his tunic and flowed down his legs. Next, Aaron slaughtered the ram, to atone for his sons’ blood, and then the animals for the burnt offering and the peace offering, to purify the people. Each carcass was hollowed and skinned and carved.
“What are they to me, all your sacrifices” said Yahweh “I am sated of the burnt offerings and the fat of beasts” (Isaiah 1:11).
Thus far, it seemed, Moses, and by extension Yahweh, was pleased with the ritual.
Moses said “This is what Yahweh has commanded you to do, and the glory of Yahweh will be shown to you” (Leviticus 9:6).
Aaron blessed the people and then, with Moses, walked into the Tent. The tale does not tell what Moses and Aaron said or did inside, nor what, or whom, they saw there. It says that a miracle happened, that the Children of Israel were once again given proof that the God of Moses was real, and that He approved of their actions, their rituals, their sacrifices, that their faith and devotion were welcome, and sufficient.
And they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of Yahweh was shown to all the people. And fire came forth from Yahweh and it consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat portions. And all the people saw it, and they were joyful and fell upon their faces (Leviticus 9:23-24).
The promise was fulfilled. Aaron and his line were consecrated. Perhaps Miriam the Prophetess began leading the people in a song of praise. Perhaps the Children of Israel forgot for the moment the dread they felt about their uncertain future and turned their eyes to the blue sky and were thankful for the good fortune of being Yahweh’s Chosen People.
And then came the terror.
And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers and lit them on fire. And they put incense in them and sacrificed before Yahweh a strange fire that Yahweh did not command. And fire came forth from Yahweh, and it consumed them, and they died before Yahweh (Leviticus 10:1-2).
They died, tells the tale, within sight of Moses their uncle and Aaron their father, and Elazar and Itamar their brothers, and the elders of Israel, and the whole congregation, including Elisheva their mother, who was presumably barred from approaching the ruin of her sons after the roaring jet of fire came and then the screams of the dying men and then the acrid-sweet smell of their burning skin. And at that moment, surely the most harrowing, the most heartbreaking of his life, Aaron said nothing.
And Moses said to Aaron “this is what Yahweh has spoken: those who are near me I will sanctify, and I shall honor all the people.” And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:3).
Within sight of the charred remains of his two eldest sons, he was silent.
Rabbi Akiva says [. . .] “Silence is an enclosure for wisdom” (Pirkei Avot 3:13).
The devout see in the Torah of Moses a text of transcendental value, a peephole into the mind of God. Yahweh, they hold, an incomprehensibly powerful being, omniscient and omnipotent and ever present, the Creator of the universe and the One True God, selected from among the vastness of His creation, among all the beings to ever be, one Sumerian man some four thousand years ago, the Patriarch Abraham, for a Sacred Pact that would bind this man and his progeny to the Deity, the King of the Universe, for all eternity. The Divine Plan for the fulfillment of this Promise involved Abraham leaving his ancestral home in Mesopotamia and journeying west to the land of Canaan by the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It dictated that Abraham’s descendant Jacob, known as Israel, should take his family and his people south away from Canaan into the great Egyptian realm, where his son Joseph had acquired, by Divine Providence, a position of high importance in the Pharaonic court. It dictated that the Sons of Israel, His Chosen People, should settle in Egypt in comfort until, after the deaths of Jacob and Joseph and the Pharaoh who welcomed them into his kingdom, they should be enslaved and forced to do hard labor and to suffer great misery for hundreds of years. It dictated that a savior would arise among the Israelites who would lead them out of bondage and back to the Promised Land of Abraham.
To the many fundamentalists among the devout, the Torah and the tale it contains is a transcription of the words of Yahweh by the hand of Moses. They believe that Moses, as is told in the tale, was a descendant of Levi son of Jacob, that his mother set him adrift on the River Nile after the Pharaoh of the Oppression decreed that all Israelite male newborns were to be murdered. By Divine Providence, Moses was found by a daughter of Pharaoh and raised inside the royal palace, while his people suffered under the yoke of slavery. Having reached adulthood Moses learned of the plight of Israel. In an impetuous show of anger, he killed an Egyptian slavemaster and fled for his life to the desert land of Midian, where he was adopted by the pagan priest Jethro and married to Jethro’s daughter Zephora. It was in the wilderness that the God Yahweh revealed Himself to Moses and ordered him to join his brother Aaron and together liberate Israel from Egypt. It was in the wilderness that Moses became the Chosen Prophet of Yahweh.
To the devout, the tale, the narrative portions of the Torah, testifies to the supreme power and benevolence of Yahweh, who with great miracles and wonders delivered the Israelites to freedom and destroyed their oppressors and protected them in the perilous wilderness of Sinai and brought them to the Sacred Mountain and delivered unto them the Divine Law of the Torah and brought them to the edge of the Promised Land, and all this by the hand of His servant Moses, the general, the lawgiver, the leader of men, wisest and most courageous, the greatest man to ever live.
The fundamentalist sees the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as historical facts that certainly took place, as everything else in the tale, though they are no cause for distress. By definition they are explicable and justifiable, part of the Divine Plan, and the task of the faithful is to scrutinize, as much as is possible for fallible mortal creatures, the reasoning behind Yahweh’s swift and terrible decrees. To the fundamentalist Nadav and Avihu are so much Biblical collateral damage, their terrible ends, though fodder for speculation, of small importance in the grand scheme.
To the fundamentalist the silence of Aaron is less significant as a response to the death of his children than as a coded insight into the personality of a pious and holy man, beloved of Yahweh.
Others among the devout, the modern devout if you will, assimilated into the secular world, who proclaim a belief in the God of Israel, Creator of the Universe, while moving about their daily lives in an environment that all but precludes Him, concede that the tale of the Torah is not a Divine text written on top of a desert mountain thirty-three centuries ago by the hand of a prophet transcribing the dictation of an all-powerful being, but a much later amalgamation of many texts, many worldviews, many stories, which were preserved, then canonized, then pored over and discussed and interpreted and reinterpreted by generation after generation of ‘sages,’ most of whom, regrettably, never doubted its Divine origin nor its inherent perfection.
These perplexing devout-yet-modern, spiritual-yet-rationalistic hybrids take the Biblical tale essentially as literature, even as they find it particularly admirable or insightful or worth extensive study. To them the tale is a useful fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. To them, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and thousands and thousands of others at the hand of Moses/Yahweh are no more than intellectual puzzles, their implications easily brushed away in the service of upholding the absurd conviction that the Torah is, despite its mundane-yet-convoluted origins, despite its horrific contents, The Good Book.
Secular scholars of the Torah, on the other hand, unhindered by vestigial superstitions, approach the tale from the much more judicious starting point that Yahweh does not exist, that there is no such thing as miracles, that prophecy and visions were, at best, cultural artifacts that only made sense within their specific temporal contexts, that the Torah is an edited document composed of various sources – such as J and E, presumed to have been written in the 8th or 9th century BCE, a Priestly, or P, source of the Book of Leviticus, and the author(s) of the Book of Deuteronomy, generally considered to have lived centuries later.
Critical scholars see the Torah not as the source of Judaism but as its product, and its stories as literary, of course, but also infused with theological and political agendas, often at odds with each other. The terror which Moses wrought to them is important in what it has to say about those who concocted it, not in how it affected those who witnessed it since, in all probability, it never actually happened and they never actually existed. These scholars spend much of their time, therefore, categorizing the various sources of the text and spare little thought for the fate and the agony of the humans in the tale.
Yet, even though the secular critical view, supported as it is by factual evidence (and informed by the concomitant dearth of evidence), is almost certainly correct, there are plenty of nonfundamentalists, some devout, some not, who resolutely refuse to accept it.
Driven more by wishful thinking than by intellectual rigor, these stubborn insurgents concede that much of the devout view relies on myth and fancy, but nevertheless cling to the hope that the tale holds a kernel of historical truth, of the real stories of actual people and the lives they led.
Engaging the tale in this way, as history, secular history, even though it clearly is not history, yields no findings of any use to historians or archeologists (in fact, it hinders their scholarly labor), but it is satisfying on the narrative level, for those who care for the Torah not as a source of revelation or lessons in virtue but as a source of story. This attitude, for better or worse, is quite different from mythmaking and much closer in spirit and practice to speculative fiction.
Not too different, say, from what Wolfgang Petersen was aiming for in Troy, the 2004 sword-and-sandal film retelling of Homer’s Iliad. Consider this scene towards the end: Troy burns, having been sacked by the Achaean Greeks after the successful ruse of the Trojan Horse. Achilles (portrayed by Brad Pitt), the greatest of the invading Greek warriors, scours the city in search of Briseis (Rose Byrne), the beautiful Trojan maiden who, during the course of the narrative, has evolved from virginal priestess of Apollo to Achilles’ captive and sex slave to his beloved. Achilles finds Briseis in the hands of two marauding Greek invaders. With nary a thought, Achilles kills his own compatriots and takes Briseis into his arms. At that moment they are spotted by the Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom). Paris, who stands no chance against Achilles in close combat, is far enough away that he can shoot his arrows at the enemy from a safe distance. The first bolt pierces Achilles’ heel, hardly a mortal blow. The mighty warrior roars in pain, but rises and aims to charge at Paris. A second arrow catches him square in the chest. Then another, and another. Even Achilles cannot withstand such a barrage. He is beaten and dying. Still, his rage and might are such that he breaks the three shafts protruding from his torso, meaning to rise one last time. But he cannot. He collapses onto Briseis’ arms and dies. As Briseis and Paris make their escape, Achilles’ body rolls onto its stomach. When it is found by the looting Greek soldiers only the arrow through the heel remains visible. Here, Petersen suggests, is the source of the legend of Achilles, whose divine mother dipped him in the River Styx, rendering him invulnerable everywhere except from the heel she used to hold him. In Troy, Achilles was a flesh-and-blood man living in a world much like our own. The myth of his divinity grew out of the real facts of his life, over time and in ever-expanding layers, like calcite around a tiny speck of dust grows into a pearl.
So it is, goes the speculativist view, with Moses. And with Aaron too, and their sister Miriam the Prophetess, and the rest of the characters of the tale. They may not have lived, but perhaps they did. And if they did, it is certain that they were human beings and not just religious archetypes or pedagogical tools, and not puppets of Almighty Yahweh, who, it is always important to keep in mind, does not exist. Then come the questions, and the multiplicity of competing, incommensurable answers.
Who were “the Children of Israel”?
When did they sojourn in Egypt, and when did the Exodus occur?
What was the origin of the worship of Yahweh?
Who was Moses?
And Yahweh spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who came too close to Yahweh and died (Leviticus 16:1).
A speculativist engagement regards the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the silence of Aaron much like the arrow protruding out of Achilles’ lifeless heel: the impulse is to fill in the blanks of the tale, to turn mythical superhumans into humans. The tales as they come down to us – Achilles was invincible because he was dipped in the river Styx; the sons of Aaron died because the Almighty Yahweh annihilated them by miraculous means – are inspired fantasies, outlandish, preposterous. What is the kernel of the story? What events inspired the tale?
If Moses was the Achilles of Israel (the two men after all shared outsized personalities and a predisposition for withering, all-consuming fury) it was not as warrior but as leader. That much is clear, though the tendency, especially but not exclusively among the devout, has been to emphasize the (to us) positive and laudable aspects of that leadership, while downplaying the more troubling ones.
What kind of man must he have been, what kind of leader, to do what he did, to persuade a multitude, perhaps several thousand people, to abandon Egypt against the wishes of the highest authorities and set out into the unknown, to live under his complete command for years, possibly decades, while preparing for a massive military invasion of a land crawling with enemies? What kind of things must he have done, to be remembered as the wielder of signs and wonders and of terror as well?
He who led you in the great and terrible wilderness, with burning snakes and scorpions and thirst for there was no water (Deuteronomy 8:15).
The suggestion, made in sporadic moments of the tale, that Moses’s defining quality was his humility, since he after all was serving as a conduit for the Will of Yahweh, can be promptly discarded (all the more so if, like the devout, one believes that Moses himself wrote the tale). A meek and humble man would not have killed an Egyptian overseer barehanded. A meek and humble man would not have returned from the relative comfort of Jethro’s household and marched into danger to entice open rebellion upon the Pharaoh, whatever the Israelites’ status may have been in Egypt at the time.
Much more extrusive in the narrative is the contrary assessment: Moses was an outsize personality, strong of will and proud of character. Absent Yahweh, Moses was the initiator of the story. He must have thought of himself as the savior, the liberator, the lawmaker and lawgiver, and, most crucially, he must have possessed the talents and intelligence and charisma necessary to carry through his decades-long mission.
Moses, who was the prodigal son of an Israelite tribe now returned as his people’s savior, or perhaps a disgruntled Egyptian nobleman seeking better fortunes elsewhere, or a renegade priest who dreamed of reviving the monotheistic cult of Akhenaten, or a desert holy man who preached the worship of the fearsome deity Yahweh, who, whoever he was, accomplished (according, of course, to the tale) the daring escape of the People from bondage, maintained his host from panicking and possibly won a military victory against its Egyptian pursuers, proved himself capable of keeping the multitude hydrated and fed even in the most inhospitable surroundings, established a sacrificial cult and a strict order of ritual that solidified his utter control over social life, built from scratch a formidable fighting force complete with ultra-loyal praetorian guard, directed the host’s movements around the Sinai, and all this while dealing with near constant resistance, challenges to his authority, and occasionally outright mutiny, this Moses, whoever he was, became the first successful charismatic leader in the recorded lore of any people, the first who ruled as an iron-fisted holy man yet throughout his life worked to build a system of bureaucratic authority, and ultimately left behind the seed of one of the most intricate systems of religious observance, of traditional authority, in the history of the world.
The consecration of Aaron and his sons as Priests of Yahweh should be seen within the context of Moses’ slow, deliberate strategy of replacing the irrational, capricious, sometimes desperate style of charismatic leadership he displayed before, during, and immediately after the Exodus with a bureaucratic system, always under his complete command of course, that relied on clearly defined secondary authority figures and rules of comportment in both the religious and secular realms.
Indeed, the tale provides numerous examples of Moses recruiting men into his inner circle, their entry into his confidence always signified by Divine approval: Yahweh speaks directly with Moses’ would-be deputy, or Yahweh’s spirit is said to enter into that person’s soul, or Yahweh orders Moses to appoint them.
But there is no denying, if any adherence at all to the tale is to be retained, that the basis of Moses’ authority was the conviction among both Egyptians and Israelites that he was the possessor of supernatural knowledge and abilities. Here the inference that Moses was an educated man, beneficiary of both the knowledge imparted in Pharaoh’s best schools but also of the magical desert arts as practiced by Jethro of Midian, is helpful to understand how he might have gained such a reputation. There may not have been Ten Plagues of Egypt, say, but some kind of natural calamity, predicted by Moses, must have persuaded the Egyptians to allow his host of followers to leave, as well as persuaded the Israelites that Moses enjoyed Divine favor and assistance.
Speculativists love nothing better than to conjecture on the ‘real’ source of the miraculous stories and on how Moses may have employed his knowledge and inventiveness to construct a cult around himself and the Divine Order he purportedly embodied.
And Yahweh said to Moses “why do you call to Me. Tell the Children of Israel to march. Lift your staff and put your hand over the water and they will part and the Children of Israel will pass through the sea on dry land. And I will harden the hearts of Egypt and they will come after you and I will gain honor through Pharaoh and his soldiers and his horses and his chariots. And Egypt will know that I am Yahweh” (Exodus 14:15-18).
When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter […] Then Moses cried out to Yahweh and Yahweh showed him a tree. And he threw it in the water and the water became sweet (Exodus 15:22-25).
And Moses struck the rock twice with his staff and water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank (Numbers 20:11).
And it was that in the evening quails flew up and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. And the layer of dew rose up and there upon the face of the wilderness there was something thin as a scale, thin as frost, on the ground. And when the Children of Israel saw it they said, each man to his brother, “what is it?” […] And Moses said to them “It is the bread which Yahweh has given you to eat” (Exodus 16: 13-15).
Surprisingly, though, they have come up with no compelling theory to explain one of the most pervasive and fascinating supernatural features in the tale: the Divine fire of Yahweh.
Indeed, fire is Yahweh’s preferred method of revealing His presence to the people
And the sight of the Glory of Yahweh was like a consuming fire on the top of the Mountain for the eyes of all Israel (Exodus 24:17).
of protecting them from foes,
And Yahweh went before them as a pillar of cloud to guide their way, and by night as a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:20-21).
of punishing those among them who resisted Moses’ leadership
And the people complained and it was evil to the Ears of Yahweh, and Yahweh heard and He was angry. And the fire of Yahweh burned and consumed the edge of the camp. And the people called on Moses and Moses prayed to Yahweh to quench the fire. And that place was called Taberah [The Burning], for there burned the fire of Yahweh (Numbers 11:1-3).
or the authority of Aaron and the consecrated priests over ritual sacrifices,
And there came a fire from Yahweh and it consumed the two hundred and fifty men who had sacrificed incense […] And Elazar the Priest took the brazen censers from where the burning offerings had been made and they were fashioned into plates for covering the altar, to be a memorial for the children of Israel that no stranger who is not of Aaron’s seed come near to offer incense before Yahweh, that he not be as Korach and his company (Numbers 16: 35-40).
and, of course, during the fateful Day of the Consecration of the Priests themselves, Aaron and his sons.
In aggregate these instances belie the lazy suggestion, advanced by some speculativists, that the fire of Yahweh could be explained by appealing to natural causes. Fire was too crucial to Moses’ success, too conveniently present for Moses to have relied on unpredictable forces. No. Fire was the core of the terror of Moses.
A more persuasive, and vastly more compelling, possibility is that Moses made the fire, that he was an alchemist, a pyromaster, with skills advanced beyond the capacity or imagination of any of his contemporaries.
What if the jet of fire that emerged from the Tabernacle to consume the carcasses of Aaron’s sacrifices on the Day of Consecration, to incinerate Nadav and Avihu, to punish the unruly mob at Taberah and the rebellious followers of Korach, was a flame-throwing weapon invented by Moses, or perhaps one or more of his close associates, say, the ingenious Bezalel and Aholiab, who had built the Tabernacle and could have assembled the contraption within?
This is plausible given existing knowledge of the technology available in New Kingdom Egypt. If the Byzantines could create Greek Fire, there is no technical reason why Ancient Egyptians could not have arrived, employing the same principles, to the same nefarious device.
Moses, then, beat the Greeks by two thousand years. This charismatic leader who sought to solidify his own authority and felt no qualms while ruthlessly eliminating those who stood in his way, persuaded followers and foes alike that the Divine fire would appear when his authority was challenged, all the while he was the source of the fire of Yahweh. Initially, perhaps, he had at his disposal some fire-starting technology, which he used to create the column of fire while on the run from Egypt and which he conceivably weaponized to use against his pursuers by the shores of the Sea. He then employed it to spectacular effect during the Revelation of Mount Sinai. Eventually, with the aid of Bezalel and Aholiab, maybe even as Aaron and his sons stood guard by the entrance of the Tent, he placed a flame-thrower within the Tabernacle and used it at least thrice – during the Day of Consecration, at Taberah, and to quash the Korach rebellion – to eliminate his opponents and, for good measure, terrify the congregation.
And it was that on the third day, as morning came, there were rumblings and thunder and a heavy cloud upon the Mountain and the sound of a trumpet, very loud. And the people on the encampment were terrified. And Moses brought the people out of the camp and towards the God and they stood beneath the mountain. And the face of Mount Sinai smoked for Yahweh came down as fire. And his smoke was as the smoke from a furnace and the mountain trembled mightily (Exodus 19:16-18).
The seed of Moses’ rule of terror by fire was planted during the time of the Revelation at Sinai. Following the initial, fiery introduction of Yahweh to the congregation at the foot of the Mountain, tells the tale, Moses ascended to the summit, from where he would retrieve the Words of the Law. And so he did, but he tarried to return. Did he miscalculate? Did he encounter unforeseen difficulties? Perhaps he used his blazing incendiary tools to forge the Tablets of the Law themselves, and this took longer than he anticipated. Whatever the reason, the Children of Israel grew restless.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves over Aaron and told him “Rise! Make us gods to stand before us, because we do not know what has become of this man Moses who took us out of the land of Egypt.” […] And Aaron fashioned the likeness of a calf. And he said “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:1-4).
Not only did the people turn away from Moses in its impatience, they turned towards Aaron to lead them instead. And Aaron, it seems, was happy to comply. Except that Moses returned, and with him came the terror.
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the Tablets out of his hands, and he broke them to pieces by the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire. And he ground it to powder and scattered it on the water, and he made the Children of Israel drink it (Exodus 32:19-20).
And Moses saw the people turn wild, for Aaron had allowed them to turn wild. And Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and said “whoever is with Yahweh come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them “thus says Yahweh, God of Israel: let each man take his sword by his side, and go to and fro from one gate of the camp to the other, and let each man kill his brother, and each man kill his relative, and each man kill his kin.” And the sons of Levi did as Moses had spoken, and on that day three thousand men were felled from the people (Exodus 32: 25-28).
The devout, as is their inclination, hold that Aaron did not truly want to rebel against Moses but felt compelled to respond to the people’s despair. They see the lack of punishment for Aaron’s protagonist role in the Sin of the Golden Calf as support for this assessment, in addition to the fact that Moses opted to once more climb the Mountain, reforge the Tablets, and give the People of Israel a second chance.
And he said to Aaron “What has this people done to you that you have brought it to such a great sin.” And Aaron said “Do not be angry, my lord. You know this people, and its evil” (Exodus 32:21-22).
When Moses descended from Sinai and beheld Israel engaged in that unspeakable act, he looked at Aaron, who was beating [the Golden Calf] with a hammer. The intention of Aaron was to restrain the people until Moses came down, but Moses thought that Aaron was a partner in the crime and he was incensed against him. Then God said to Moses, “I know that Aaron’s intention was good” […] When Moses was about to appoint a High Priest, God said “It shall be your brother Aaron” (Midrash Exodus 37:2).
A speculativist, by contrast, is drawn to the puzzling aftermath of this second ascent. Where the devout see the Glory of Yahweh glistening off of Moses’ face, where Michelangelo saw horns that have bedeviled the People of Moses up to the present day, a speculativist might envision the chemical burns, and subsequent facial scarring, that would compel the Prophet to keep his face covered for the rest of his life.
And it was that when Moses came down Mount Sinai, and the two Tablets of the Covenant were in his hands as he descended, Moses did not know that rays of light shone from his face. And Aaron and the Children of Israel saw Moses and there were rays of light shining from his face and they were afraid to come meet him […] And when Moses was done speaking to them, he put a veil on his face (Exodus 34:29-33).
The Moses of the tale could not have let Aaron’s colossal betrayal go unpunished, all the more so if one of its outcomes was the Prophet’s permanent disfigurement. Moses must have sought retribution, which of course had to be enacted in public, for the eyes of all Israel. Yet Moses was in a troublesome position. His alliance with Aaron was one of necessity. The elder ‘brother’ presumably occupied a position of importance among the Israelites before Moses came into the scene. Moreover, devout and speculativists agree, Moses’ legitimacy was tenuous and ever threatened. As any proper right-hand man must do, Aaron often stood between Moses and the anger of the people. He was, in short, too valuable to kill. Yet punishment there would be.
Did Aaron expect it to come? Did he suspect that the mass murder of sinners at the foot of the Mountain was not the end of the Prophet’s sentence? Did Aaron mull, during his seven days standing guard by the entrance of the Tent, what his fate had in store? Did he share his misgivings with his sons? Was he aware of the terrible weapon Moses had at his disposal, hidden in the bowels of the Tabernacle of Yahweh?
He must have been. He must have known, or at least suspected. Remember the words of Moses – “whoever is with Yahweh come to me”, “those who are near me I will sanctify.” There is no leadership without loyalty. Loyalty must be burnt into the follower’s soul like a brand is on skin. In a godless world, disloyalty to the God Man is the worst sin of all.
Perhaps Aaron prayed for a good outcome, to El, or Yahweh, or both, or some other ethereal force. Perhaps he hoped for mercy. But Moses was a fearsome Prophet consumed by his mission. Where was there room for mercy? And perhaps, because he was Moses’ brother after all, because he had stood beside the leader from the start, Aaron agreed that he deserved to be punished for his sin, for doubting the Prophet and leading his people astray. Perhaps Aaron’s faith and trust wavered by the foot of the Mountain, even though he truly believed in the mission of Moses to bring the Israelites to freedom and lead them into the future. Or perhaps he was simply afraid of Moses’ terrible fire. Or perhaps, in his way, Aaron was as calculating as Moses, willing to sacrifice his oldest sons so that his youngest, Elazar and Itamar, would remain within the graces of Moses/Yahweh. Perhaps Aaron faced the terror of Moses and submitted, knowing he stood to gain, he and his surviving kin, and that is why he was silent.
For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, and I shall punish the children for the sins of the fathers (Exodus 20:5).
Unlike the devout, the speculativist has no obligation to circle back to the touchstone of Moses’ goodness. Neither is there a need to waste time on tiresome and anachronistic complaints about Moses’ evil. The suggestion that Moses murdered Nadav and Avihu to punish Aaron, to silence him and insure his future loyalty, is not controversial because it depicts Moses as a cold-blooded killer. The tale provides more than enough evidence that the Prophet was all too ready to order summary executions, mass murder, and outright genocide, often with Aaron the Priest (or, later, Elazar) standing by his side, yet only a reader utterly ignorant of human history could find these attitude to be overly ghastly when compared to that of saviors and prophets and kings at plenty of other times and places.
The tale insists throughout that the Children of Israel were a rebellious, ‘stiff-necked’ people, who required constant herding and managing, who always refused the carrot and had to periodically face the stick. Perhaps they were, but the tale speaks too little of the terror in their hearts, the life-long peril of treading on the minefield of Mosaic Law and Mosaic anger, where the most minor sin was punished with finality, where a moment of despair, or a call for fairness, were sufficient to turn one into an enemy of God. Is there anything in such a condition to cherish? Only if the terror is found to be worthwhile, an acceptable price to pay, the means justified by the end. This is, the tale teaches, what Moses and Aaron determined, the one with his terrible actions, the other with his terrible silence.
There is little use in denying that they did it together, the two brothers, that Aaron owns a share, for better or worse, of everything that befell after he acquiesced to the murder of his sons.
Even thousands of years of transmission and commentary and mythmaking and canonization have been unsuccessful in erasing the complex and often painful quality of the entanglement between the two brothers. In its frustratingly sparse way, the tale retains some inklings of their relationship, beginning with the immediate aftermath of that cataclysmic day.
And Moses demanded the sin offering. And when he saw that it had been burned he was angry at Elazar and Itamar, the remaining sons of Aaron. “Why did you not eat the sin offering in the Sacred Place?” […] And Aaron spoke to Moses […] “Would Yahweh have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” And Moses listened, and it was good in his eyes (Leviticus 10:16-20).
How enticing is that moment to the speculativist, how foreboding the words “the remaining sons of Aaron,” how compelling the fact that Moses, this time, decided to relent and allow the bereaved father the upper hand. Not so much in the next moment of crisis:
And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses […] And they said “has Yahweh spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us?” […] And Yahweh came down in a pillar of cloud and at the entrance of the Tent called to Miriam and Aaron. When the two of them came, He said “Listen to my words. If there be a prophet of Yahweh I speak t him in a vision, and show Myself in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses, who is most loyal among those of My House. I speak to him mouth to mouth, not with visions nor with riddles. And he has seen the image of Yahweh” (Numbers 12: 1-8).
or during their very final encounter, rendered so mercurially in the tale:
And they went up Hor, the mountain, in view of the entire congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Elazar. And Aaron died there, at the top of the mountain. And Moses and Elazar came down the mountain. And the congregation saw that Aaron was gone, and they cried for Aaron, and the entire House of Israel mourned him for thirty days (Numbers 20:27-29).
What words were spoken between Moses and Aaron on the mountaintop, the speculativist yearns to know? Was there reconciliation or was there violence? Was Moses relieved when Aaron died? How about Elazar, his son and heir? Did he blame his father for the deaths of his brothers? The questions flow endlessly, the answers innumerable, the brick and mortar of story.
From our present vantage point the terror of Moses is judged to have come to good, though this surely serves as small consolation to those who were cut down and stoned and burned to achieve its ends. Is it a little selfish, callous, even inhuman to celebrate the triumphs while passing over the suffering? The contribution of the speculativist is to point out that Moses and Aaron cannot be judged to have been good or evil, because they were not gods nor demons nor archetypes, but human beings who, like all others, are neither fully good nor fully evil, that, likewise, neither can Nadav and Avihu, nor the Egyptian Pharaoh, nor Korach and his rebels, nor the desperate ones who demanded the Golden Calf be so judged, that the beneficiaries of authority are no more worthy of remembrance than its victims. The insights of the speculativist may not yield verifiable historical facts, nor any useful theological doctrine, but nevertheless uncover their own sort of essential truth.
“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason. Were we spirits, we could dwell in that region of ideas over which our souls hover, seeking the solution. But we are earth-born beings, and can only guess at the Idea — not grasp it by all sides at once. The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost center of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart. Thought is born in the soul. Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire” (Dostoyevsky, p. 6).
All quotations from Biblical or Rabbinic sources are my own renderings of the original Hebrew, though I consulted several existing Jewish, Christian, and secular translations. I do not claim mine to be better or more exact or more faithful to the original than those of scholars and/or professional translators, but chose instead the words that best fit the purpose of this essay.
Assmann, Jan Moses the Egyptian (Harvard, 1997)
Auerbach, Elias Moses (Wayne State, 1975)
Barton, George A. Religions of the World (1919)
Beegle, Dewey M. Moses, The Servant of Yahweh (Eerdmans, 1972)
Berman, Joshua “Was there an Exodus?” (Mosaic Magazine, 3/2/2016, http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2015/03/was-there-an-exodus/)
Black, James Rogues of the Bible (Harper, 1930)
Breasted, James The Dawn of Conscience (University of Chicago, 1933)
Burkert, Walter Homo Necans (University of California, 1983)
Campbell, Joseph “Myths from West to East” in Myths A. Eliot (ed.) (McGraw-Hill, 1976)
Cassuto, Umberto The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Magnes, 1961)
Coats, George W. Moses (JSOT Press, 1988)
Cohen, Simon “Aaron” in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia Vol. 1 (U.J.E., 1939)
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor M. Letters to His Family and Friends (Macmillan 1917)
Durant, Will The Story of Civilization. Part I: Our Oriental Heritage (Simon and Schuster, 1954)
Fox, Robin L. The Unauthorized Version (A.A. Knopf, 1992)
Frei, Hans The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale, 1974)
Freud, Sigmund Moses and Monotheism (Martino, 2010)
Friedman, Richard E. The Bible with Sources Revealed (Harper Collins, 2003)
Friedman, Richard E. The Exodus (Harper Collins, 2017)
Gabriel, Richard A. The Military History of Ancient Israel (Praeger, 2003)
Ginzberg, Louis Legends of the Bible (Jewish Publication Society, 1972)
Gordon, Cyrus H. and Gary A. Rendsburg The Bible and the Ancient Near East (Norton, 1997)
Grint, Keith “The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice and Silence,” Organization
Studies 31(1), pp. 89–107
Herrmann, Siegfired A History of Israel in Old Testament Times (Fortress, 1975)
Hirsch, Emil G. “Sacrifice” in The Jewish Encyclopedia Vol. 10 (Funk and Wagnall’s, 1905)
Hobbs, Joseph J. Mount Sinai (University of Texas, 2014)
Hurston, Zora N. Moses, Man of the Mountain in Novels & Stories (Library of America, 1995)
James, Fleming Personalities of the Old Testament (Scribner, 1951)
Josephus, Flavius Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988)
Keller, Werner The Bible as History (William Morrow, 1981)
Kellner, Esther The Background of the Old Testament (Doubleday, 1963)
Kirsch, Jonathan Moses: A Life (Ballantine Books, 1998)
Kittle, Rudolph Great Men and Movements in Israel (MacMillan, 1929)
Lasor, William S. David A. Hubbard, Frederic W.M. Bush Old Testament Survey (W. B. Eerdmans, 1982)
Leibowitz, Nehama Studies in Shemot (World Zionist Organization, 1986)
Levinas, Emmanuel Difficult Freedom (Johns Hopkins University, 1990)
Marr, John S. and Curtis D. Malloy “An Epidemiologic Analysis of the Ten Plagues of Egypt,” Caduceus 12(1), 1996, pp. 7-24
Maspero, Gaston The Struggle of the Nations (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1896)
Maus, Cynthia P. The Old Testament in the Fine Arts (Harper, 1934)
Murphy, Cullen God’s Jury (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)
Nohrnberg, James Like Unto Moses (Indiana University, 1995)
Orwell, George Animal Farm (Brawtley Press, 2012)
Partington, J.R. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (Johns Hopkins University, 1999)
Philo Life of Moses (Harvard, 1929)
Plaut, Gunther “Exodus” in The Torah. A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981)
Provan, Iain A Biblical History of Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2015)
Rendtorff, Rolf Men of the Old Testament (Bloomsbury, 1968)
Rops, Daniel Israel and the Ancient World (Eyre & Sopitswoode, 1945)
Rowley, H.H. Israel’s Sojourn in Egypt (Manchester University, 1938)
Schmid, Konrad Genesis and the Moses Story (Eisenbrauns, 2010)
Spong, John S. Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World (Harper Collins, 2011)
Strabo Geography H.L. Jones (ed.) (Harvard, 1936)
Tacitus Annals and Histories R.L. Fox (ed.) (Everyman’s Library, 2009)
Terry, Milton S. and Fales H. Newhall Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 1 (Phillips and Hunt, 1889)
Usher, Abbott P. A History of Mechanical Inventions (Dover, 2011)
Von Rad, Gerhard Moses (Cascade Books, 2011)
Weber, Max Economy and Society Vol. 2 (University of California, 1978)
Wegener, Gunther 6,000 Years of the Bible (Harper and Row, 1968)
Wildavsky, Aaron Moses as Political Leader (Shalem Press, 2005)
Ziolkowski, Theodore Uses and Abuses of Moses (Notre Dame, 2016)
 “Moses’ role in history may be compared to that of light in the world of nature” (Leibowitz, p. 17).
 “[T]he bloodthirsty and ruthless nature of Moses is almost never spoken out loud […]. The purges and massacres are explained away as the harsh but just punishment that God decrees for sinners and seducers” (Kirsch, p. 10).
 “The Yahweh of Moses had a storming, blazing, thunderous, blasting aspect which differentiates Him sharply from the more placid God of the Genesis tradition […]. Such was Moses himself, and so he thought of God” (James, pp. 30-31).
 “The Sinai Peninsula appears from space as one of Earth’s most distinctive landmarks […]. The three bodies of water that define the peninsula advertise it, their deep blue framing a triangle of bright desert light” (Hobbs, p. 4).
 “The Tabernacle was an ornate portable temple whose overall dimensions were 45 x 15 x 15 feet, [consisting] of ten embroidered linen curtains, covered by layers of dyed animal skins and supported by a series of forty-eight frames made of acacia wood. The final covering was dyed in unusual red. Inside, the tabernacle was partitioned into two rooms, an outer and an inner chamber. The latter was known as the Holy of Holies and was separated from the former by a thick veil. In the outer chamber stood the Table of Presence and the golden lampstand. The inner sanctuary held the Ark of the Covenant” (Gabriel, p. 84).
 “No critical scholar accepts the account in Exodus of the desert shrine […] rather, the tabernacle account may reflect idealized versions of later tent shrines” (Provan, p. 134).
 “The Torah is not a psychological novel and is not concerned with satisfying biographical curiosity” (Leibowitz, p. 39).
 “The story in Genesis proceeds on the theory that wherever the opportunity was presented for sacrifice, there it was to be offered […] Under Moses, this freedom to offer sacrifices anywhere and without the ministrations of the appointed sacerdotal agents disappears” (Hirsch, p. 615).
 “[T]his is the act of piety: bloodshed, slaughter – and eating […]. The worshiper experiences the god most powerfully not just in pious conduct, or in prayer, song, and dance, but in the deadly blow of the axe, the gush of blood and the burning of thigh pieces” (Burkert p. 3).
 “The happiest of women on that day was Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav, for beside the general rejoicing at the dedication of the Sanctuary, five particular joys fell to her lot: her husband, Aaron, was high priest; her brother in law, Moses, king; her son Eleazar, head of the priests; her grandson, Pinhas, priest of war; and her brother, Nahshon, prince of his tribe. But how soon was her joy turned to grief!” (Ginzberg, p. 419).
 Two streams of fire emerged from the Holy of Holies, branching off into four, and two entered into each of their nostrils and burned them (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 52a).
 On being burned alive by the Spanish Inquisition: “The intense heat would take some people before any lick of flame: the simple fact of breathing, often reflexively in gulps, could sear the trachea, causing edema and asphyxiation. Asphyxiation might also occur because combustion had exhausted the available oxygen at the core of the blaze. On the other hand, if the fire burned slowly, the victim would experience the fullest possible torment, the flames causing catastrophic damage to nerves and tissue. In these instances, death occurred when loss of blood and fluids brought on hypovolemic shock and pulmonary failure” (Murphy, p. 68).
 This was the bravest warrior
That ever buckled sword;
This the most gifted poet
That ever breathed a word;
And never earth's philosopher
Traced, with his golden pen,
On the deathless page,
truths half so sage
As he wrote down for men
(Cecil F. Alexander “The Burial of Moses”).
 “When Moses died, a voice resounded from heaven throughout all the camp of Israel […] ‘Woe!, Moses is dead.’ […] But Israel were not the only mourners for Moses. God Himself wept for Moses, saying ‘Who will rise for Me against the evildoers?’” (Ginzberg, p. 503).
 “Every religion aspires to the absolute. Its claims, when seen from within, make it self-sufficient. It establishes and explains, but needs no explanation. […] Any discussion about religion will almost automatically become a religious pronouncement” (Burkert p. xx).
 Because of four things did the sons of Aaron die: For drawing near, for sacrificing, for the strange fire, and for not consulting each other (Vayikra Rabba 20:8).
 “The death of these priests was not unmerited, for in spite of their piety they had committed many a sin. Even at Sinai they had not conducted themselves properly, for instead of following the example of Moses, who had turned his face away from the Divine vision in the burning bush, they basked in the Divine vision of Mount Sinai” (Ginzberg, p. 419-420).
 Rabbi Hillel says “Be among the students of Aaron, lover of peace and pursuer of peace” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).
 “The biblical account of Moses is not history as we understand it: it represents the coming together of a variety of traditions, many at first handed down orally, relating to the sense of their own past and of their special relationship to God and to their land developed and solemnly remembered by the people of Israel. […] It includes elements of myth and ritual, symbolic situations, the repetition of the same or similar incidents in an attempt not to discard any of the traditions which testified to them, conflation of different incidents into one in order to emphasize the clear pattern of Israel’s history, the placing of the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt as part of an unfolding of a divinely appointed destiny going back to God’s promise to the Patriarchs, passages of ancient poetry celebrating and glorifying moments in Israel’s history, and numerous other features that no historian could accept as legitimate” (Daiches p. 9).
 “Much has been made of the presence of history in Hebrew scripture, but the Jewish faith is not dependent on whether its contents happened or not. The narrative may be a story, but there could still be a God for the people of Israel” (Fox, p. 360).
 “Like dreams, myths are productions of the human imagination. Their images, consequently though derived from the material world and its supposed history, are, like dreams, revelations of the deeper hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts, of the human will […] [They] are to be read, therefore, not literally but as metaphors” (Campbell, p. 31).
 “When they are studied for themselves, do [the Biblical texts] not bear witness to the divine value of their inspiration and the purely spiritual miracle of their union? This miracle is all the more miraculous because it consists of numerous and disparate fragments, and all the more marvelous for the way in which rabbinism develops a form of teaching that tallies with it” (Levinas, p. 107).
 “The fundamentalists who quote the Bible as their final authority clearly know little about how the Bible came into being and, thus, why that approach is so totally incompetent” (Spong, p. 15).
 “The student who approaches the texts with the methods of historical scrutiny must necessarily hesitate to regard this colossal picture of Moses simply as a biographical account of the life of one man. For it is a well-known phenomenon in the traditions about the beginning of the history of many nations, that a later viewpoint brings events closer together, that incidents, originally unconnected, are joined one with another, and that tradition concentrates more and more on a few central figures” (Rendtorff, pp. 19-20).
 “The author of P traced the Aaronid priesthood through Aaron’s son Elazar, but the received tradition (still retained in E) was that Aaron’s sons were Nadav and Avihu. P therefore included the story of how Nadav and Avihu came to be replaced by the next two sons” (Friedman 2003, p. 204).
 “The case against the historicity of the exodus is straightforward, and its essence can be stated in five words: a sustained lack of evidence. Nowhere in the written record of ancient Egypt is there any explicit mention of Hebrew or Israelite slaves, let alone a figure named Moses. There is no mention of the Nile waters turning into blood, or of any series of plagues matching those in the Bible, or of the defeat of any pharaoh on the scale suggested by the Torah’s narrative of the mass drowning of Egyptian forces at the sea. Furthermore, the Torah states that 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty left Egypt; adding women, children, and the elderly, we arrive at a population in the vicinity of two million souls. There is no archaeological or other evidence of an ancient encampment that size anywhere in the Sinai desert. Nor is there any evidence of so great a subsequent influx into the land of Israel, at any time” (Berman).
 “To remove Moses from the traditions, regarding him as unhistorical or a later secondary addition, renders inexplicable the religion and even the very existence of Israel” (Lasor et al, p. 132).
“It is true enough that these records do not contain clear and unambiguous reference to ‘Hebrews’ or ‘Israelites.’ But that is hardly surprising. The Egyptians referred to all of their West-Semitic slaves simply as ‘Asiatics,’ with no distinction among groups—just as slave-holders in the New World never identified their black slaves by their specific provenance in Africa. […] More generally, there is a limit to what we can expect from the written record of ancient Egypt. Ninety-nine percent of the papyri produced there during the period in question have been lost, and none whatsoever has survived from the eastern Nile delta, the region where the Torah claims the Hebrew slaves resided. Instead, we have to rely on monumental inscriptions, which, being mainly reports to the gods about royal achievements. […] In fact, many major events reported in various ancient writings are archaeologically invisible. The migrations of Celts in Asia Minor, Slavs into Greece, Arameans across the Levant—all described in written sources—have left no archeological trace” (Berman).
 “Some will say: It does not matter if it is historical or not. What matters is what it has meant, the exodus’ meaning to religion over the centuries. That is a lovely thought. I used to say it sometimes myself. But nowadays I find myself saying: Whom are we kidding? We want to know if it happened, or if what people have been believing for millennia is an illusion, an invention. It matters plenty to people whether it happened or not” (Friedman 2017, pp. 10-11).
 “Moses lived in the thirteenth century BCE, but the stories about Moses in the Torah, including the exodus from Egypt, the presumed crossing of the Red Sea and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai were not written until the tenth century BCE [or later], or some three hundred years after his death. This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed through at least fifteen generations of oral tradition before achieving the more permanent status of written form” (Spong, p. 23).
 “The stream of this tradition may be compared to a great and wide-spreading river that traverses vast distances; although in the course of its journey the river loses part of its water, which is absorbed by the ground or evaporates in the air because of the heat of the sun, and it is also increasingly augmented by the waters of the tributaries that pour into it, yet it carries with it, even after it has covered hundreds of miles, some of the waters that it held at the beginning” (Cassuto, pp. 102-103).
 “Research on the Bible was driven either by concerns for historicity or the development of systematic theology, neither of which pays close attention to biblical stories” (Frei, p. 142).
 “The details of the narratives are generally so passed over by scholars that while we read in their books much about Moses we seldom see and hear Moses himself. For the truth is that only in the concrete details of the traditions do we find a living Moses” (James, p. 2).
 “No people would freely invent [for itself] a history of slavery” (Plaut, p. 363).
 “The recollections which appear in the Pentateuch as the tradition of the entire people of Israel on its way through the wilderness after leaving Egypt have their historical roots in various places on the Sinai peninsula […] individual Aramaean groups had their experiences in these areas and later incorporated them into a comprehensive ‘wilderness tradition’ (Herrmann, p. 71).
 “Were the Habiru the Hebrews? There can be little doubt of it. […] These were certainly nomadic Semites belonging to the great Aramaic wave” (Rops, p. 81).
 “What evidence there is suggests strongly that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves at all” (Gabriel, p. 61).
 “If the Hebrews are the Habiru, […] then it is impossible to regard the biblical account of the conquest of Canaan as anything more than a romance” (Rowley, p. 12).
 “The Exodus happened around 1175BC, during the reign of Ramses III” (Gordon and Rendsburg, pp. 142).
 “The Bible story of the settling of Jacob and his clan in Egypt is a conflation or telescoping of a fairly lengthy and complex process” (Daiches, p. 24).
 “Perhaps the king who did not know Joseph was Ahmose I (c. 1550-1525 BC), the pharaoh who defeated the Hyksos, and perhaps some time later the pharaoh of the exodus was someone like Thutmose III (c. 1479-1425 BC)” (Provan, p. 132).
 “The Exodus took place under Menerptah circa 1225 BC, and the group that came out of Egypt included principally the Joseph tribes” (Rowley, p. 37).
 “Rameses II […] reigned from 1290 to 1224 BC. That is probably the time of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt” (Rendtorff, p. 18).
 “The Exodus [occurred] circa 1445 BC, which is precisely where it would best fit, if Thutmose III were the pharaoh of the oppression (Rowley, p. 12).
 “The clan of Jacob may have arrived and settled in Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos king Aphôbis, or possibly his descendant. Apôphis” (Maspero, p. 71).
 “Yahweh was the god of the Midianite-Kenites before he became the God of Israel […] There are indications that Yahweh may have been a divine name in North Arabia for a thousand years before Moses” (Barton, p. 61).
 “The Israelites under Aaron and Miriam worshipped the Canaanite god El, before Moses imposed the worship of the desert god Yahweh” (Gordon and Rendsburg, p. 145).
 “There was a precursor [of Moses’ religion] in the person of an Egyptian king who called himself Akhenaten and instituted a monotheistic religion in the fourteenth century BCE. His religion, however, spawned no tradition and was immediately forgotten after his death. Moses is a figure of memory but not of history. Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory” (Assmann, p. 2).
 “It was Jethro, not Moses, who offered the first sacrifice to Yahweh […] Jethro was a sorcerer, and Moses was his apprentice” (Kirsch, p. 9).
 “His name, Moses, was Egyptian. It is simply the Egyptian word 'mose' meaning ‘child’ and is an abridgement of a fuller form of such names as 'Amen-mose' meaning ‘Amon-a-child’ or 'Ptah-mose,’ meaning ‘Ptah-a-child.’ The abbreviation ‘child’ early became a convenient rapid form for the cumbrous full name, and the name Mose, ‘child,’ is not uncommon on Egyptian monuments" (Breasted, p. 350).
 Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son, and Moses was educated in all the wisdom of Egypt, and he was powerful in his words and actions (Acts 7:21-22).
 “Moses grew to manhood in the halls of the Pharaoh. We think of him sitting beside Jochebed, whom he believed to be his nurse, learning gentleness and wisdom from he lips. We see him riding through the streets beside Bithia, his foster mother, amid the shuts of the people. ‘Hail, Prince Moses! Hail!’ We imagine him in the palace school with the sons of royal and noble families. Here he learned ‘the wisdom of the Egyptians’ […] history, philosophy, literature, prayers and rites of worship, medicine, astrology, astronomy, magic, agriculture, the ways of government and judgment” (Kellner, p. 77).
 “Moses is an Egyptian of noble origin whom the myth transforms into a Jew” (Freud, p. 5).
 “King Boccharis [of Egypt] […] was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. The exiles […] finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, but to trust in themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery […] Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practiced by other men” (Tacitus, p. 612).
 “An Egyptian priest named Moses, who possessed a portion of the country called Lower Egypt, being dissatisfied with the established institutions there, left it and came to Judea with a large body of people who worshipped the Divinity” (Strabo p. 309).
 [Adolf Hitler on Moses and his Law:]
“The day will come when I shall hold against these commandments the tables of a new law. And history will recognize our movement as the great battle for humanity’s liberation, a liberation from the curse of Mount Sinai!” (Ziolkowski, p. 1).
 [George Orwell on Moses, the tame raven of Animal Farm:] “Moses, who was Mr. Jones's especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place” (Orwell, p. 11).
 “Moses is described as the most humble man who ever lived, which strikes us as something a truly humble man would not boast about” (Kirsch, p. 15).
 Max Weber on “charismatic authority”:] “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities […] What is alone important is how the individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his ‘followers’ or ‘disciples’” (Weber, pp. 241- 242).
 “Since it is ‘extra-ordinary,’ charismatic authority is sharply opposed to rational and particularly bureaucratic, authority, and to traditional authority, whether in its patriarchal, patrimonial, or estate variants, all of which are everyday forms of domination; while the charismatic type is the direct antithesis of this. Bureaucratic authority is specifically rational in the sense of being bound to intellectually analysable rules; while charismatic authority is specifically irrational in the sense of being foreign to all rules. Traditional authority is bound to the precedents handed down from the past and to this extent is also oriented to rules (Weber, p. 244).
 “The first thing to realize concerning [Moses] is his amazing success as a leader. […] From the first he knew how to gather leaders about him – Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Hur, Joshua, the judges he appointed, the elders who received of his spirit, the Levites who stood by him in desperate crisis” (James, p. 42).
 “His plan for the control of the people and training of the people had two aspects. On the one hand, he established Aaron, his brother, as ‘presiding priest’ over the religious life of the tribes […]. On the other hand, he himself took the personal direction of all the social, judicial, and communal concerns into his own magnificent care […] In time, chiefly through the sage advice of Jethro, his father in law (a spectator who, like others of his order, saw the whole game!) he learned to devolve authority upon others, choosing capable men for the more routine work of government, and thus setting himself free for the bigger concerns of tribal and national policy” (Black, p. 45).
 And Moses said to Yahweh […] “Did I give birth to all the people? Why do you tell me to carry them like nursing infants? […] I cannot carry all the people by myself. They are too heavy for me” […] And Yahweh said to Moses “Gather seventy men from among the elders of Israel and take them to the Tent of Meeting to present themselves with you. And I will descend and speak with you there, and I will take some of your spirit and place it on them. And they will carry with you the burden of the people and you will not carry it alone (Numbers 11:12-17).
 And Yahweh said to Aaron “Go towards Moses in the wilderness.” And he went, and met him by on the Mountain of the God, and kissed him (Exodus 4:27).
 And Yahweh said to Moses “take Joshua son of Nun, a man who has the spirit in him, and put your hand upon him. And stand him before Elazar the Priest and the whole congregation and appoint him in front of their eyes. And you will give him from your authority so that the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen to him” (Numbers 27:18)
 And two men stayed in the camp, the name of one was Eldad, the name of the other was Medad, and the spirit rested on them […] and they prophesized in the camp […] And Joshua son of Nun, one of the boys who served Moses, said “My lord, Moses, forbid them.” And Moses said to him “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that Yahweh make the whole congregation into prophets, and that Yahweh give them His spirit (Numbers 11:26-29).
 And Yahweh spoke to Moses and said “See, I have called the name of Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with intelligence and wisdom and knowledge of all crafts […] And here I have given him Aholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan […] and they will make all I have commanded (Exodus 31:1-6).
 “There are no established administrative organs. In their place are agents who have been provided with charismatic authority by their chief or who possess charisma of their own. There is no system of formal rules, of abstract legal principles, and hence no process of rational judicial decision oriented to them. But equally there is no legal wisdom oriented to judicial precedent. Formally concrete judgments are newly created from case to case and are originally regarded as divine judgments and revelations. From a substantive point of view, every charismatic authority would have to subscribe to the proposition, ‘It is written . . . but I say unto you . . .’” (Weber, p. 243).
 “Arithmetic, geometry, the lore of meter, rhythm, and harmony, and the whole subject of music […] were imparted to him by learned Egyptians. […] He had Greeks to teach him the rest of the regular school course, and the inhabitants of the neighboring countries for Assyrian literature and the Chaldean science of the heavenly bodies” (Philo 1:23).
 “The sequence of the plagues can be understood as following an epidemiological pattern, revealing what may be seen as the mechanism behind the miracle […] The plagues progressively degraded the Egyptians’ water and food supplies, limited their modes of transportation, compromised their health, and in sum made them more susceptible to the afflictions that eventually killed their first-born in the tenth plague” (Marr and Malloy, pp. 23-24).
 And Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron during the night and said “Stand and leave my land, you and the Children of Israel, and go serve Yahweh as you have said […] And the Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the land, for they said “we shall al die” (Exodus 12:31-33).
 “[The Torah] ascribes the baring of the sea bottom to the force of wind – a thing quite credible; and the bogging of the chariots, the (implied) furious assault of the Israelites, the panic of the Egyptians, their flight and overwhelming by the waters, are probable enough” (James, p. 21).
 “Bedouins [in the Sinai] have a way of purifying waters using a certain tree [that] resembles the cleansing of the bitter waters of Marah” (Maspero, p. 445).
 “A British governor of Sinai in the [1930s] describes water gushing from a rock after being struck” (Keller, p. 136).
 “[The Exodus happened] in the time of the great bird migrations […] In the early months of the year, quails, together with other birds, fly across the Red Sea, which they must cross on the eastern route. Exhausted by their long flight, they alight on its flat shores to gather fresh strength” (Keller, p. 128) and “There is a substance called manna by the Bedouins of the desert now produced in the Peninsula of Sinai, and gathered from the twigs of the tamarisk or tarfa tree, which has been supposed by many […] to be the same as the manna which was to Israel ‘bread from heaven’” (Terry and Newhall, p. 451).
 “A brilliant flame with fierce heat such as is kindled by the command of God alone” (Josephus, p. 69).
 “The fire atop Sinai] was volcanic phenomena […] [or] violent electric storms sweeping over the summit” (James, p. 30).
 “The use of incendiary mixtures of all kinds was well-known in warfare from the earliest periods. The Byzantine and Arab chroniclers agree that from the end of the seventh century A.D. a more terrible agent of destruction came into use, which was known to the Crusaders as ‘Greek fire’ […] invented by the architect Kallinikos of Heliopolis in Syria. […] Greek fire was shot from a siphon, a pipe about five feet long, attached to a leather tube through which the liquid was pumped by compressed air. […] The name Kallinikos (‘handsome winner’) is late Greek […] and it is more than likely that he was a Jew” (Partington, pp. 10-16).
 “If we compare the technical inventory of the Egyptians, it is evident that before the invention of the steam engine we scarcely excelled them in anything” (Durant, p. 159).
 “Siphons were in use in Egypt as far back as 1500BC” (Usher, p. 93).
 “Moses lit up a pillar of fire to blind the Egyptians while the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds […]
 Perhaps the tide came in and some of the Egyptian troops and horses drowned” (Gabriel, pp. 79-81).
“The columns of cloud and fire were really two poles that were used to signal to he people when to encamp and when to set off. This is both the case when the Israelites first set out of Egypt and after the Tabernacle has been built. Relief of Ramses II’s camp at the Battle of Kadesh depict two poles, one apparently for smoke and one for fire for these same purposes” (Gabriel, pp. 74-76).
 When God was about to appoint a supervisor over the work of the Tabernacle, he appointed Moses president over the judges and over everything else. And when God was about to appoint a High Priest, Moses believed that he would be made High Priest. But God said to him, “Go an appoint Me a High Priest […] It shall be Aaron your brother” (Midrash Exodus 37:1)
 “No prophet has ever regarded his quality as dependent on the attitudes of the masses toward him. No elective king or military leader has ever treated those who have resisted him or tried to ignore him otherwise than as delinquent in duty” (Weber, p. 243).
 “[At the Red Sea] the Israelites considered surrendering to the Egyptians and stoning Moses […] [At Elim they] had stones in their hands preparing to kill Moses […] [At Hatzerot] a crowd rushed together, intending to stone Moses and Aaron and then return to Egypt” (Josephus, pp. 50-68).
 “The intimacy of the strong God is won through a terrible ordeal” (Levinas, p. 144).
 While the Children of Israel were in the wilderness they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. And they apprehended him for gathering wood and brought him to Moses and Aaron. And they put him under guard for it was not clear what should be done to him. And Yahweh said to Moses “The man shall be put to death. The whole congregation should stone him outside the camp.” And they brought him outside the camp and they stoned him until he was dead, as Yahweh had ordered Moses (Numbers 15:32-36).
 They fought against Midian, as Yahweh commanded Moses, and killed every man. […] The Children of Israel captured the women of Midian and their children. […] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army […] He said “You let the women live. […] Kill all the boys, and every woman who has lain with a man, but save for yourselves the young women who have not lain with a man” (Numbers 31:7-18).
 “Even if the critical view be granted, it does not follow that Aaron was not a historical character. The picture that emerges after one removes all the references to the high priest is that of a distinct personality. Aaron was a good subordinate, a man who could accomplish much under the guidance of a stronger spirit, patient under affliction, but too gentle and yielding a character to lead the multitude” (Cohen, p. 1).
 “At first the people would not believe that he was dead, and even suspected Moses and Elazar of having killed him” (Revel, p. 2).
 “Aaron crawled to the knees of Moses and clasped them. ‘Moses, looks like the pity and mercy would…’ ‘Aaron, the future of Israel is higher than pity and mercy. And why should I spare you? I did not spare the firstborn. I did not spare Pharaoh. I did not spare myself.’ […] The knife descended and Aaron’s old limbs crumpled in the dust of the mountain. Moses looked down on him and wept. […] ‘I have made a nation, but at a price’” (Hurston, pp. 583-584).
 “Moses imposed on the people with his strong hand, laws, an organization, and dogmas. A rabble left Egypt; a nation entered Canaan” (Rops, p. 84).
Leave a Reply.