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BOOK REVIEW : MOSES A Life, By Jonathan Kirsch, Ballantine:
366 pp., $27

Story of Moses Offers Glimpse of Complex Teacher

November 14, 1998|DAVID DAICHES | David Daiches is the author of "Moses," "The Novel and The Modern World," "The King James Version of the English Bible" and, most recently, "Two Worlds."

There are no primary sources for a biography of Moses. The account of him given in the Bible is the only one we possess, and it is clearly a compound of many elements, few if any of which can be called genuinely historical. Nevertheless there is a figure here looming up through the mists of tradition and folk memory that is of compelling significance, complex and disturbing.

In "Moses," Jonathan Kirsch picks his way with great skill through traditions, conjectures, legends and known historical facts to produce a plausible, if in parts highly speculative, account of the life and times of the great lawgiver. He acknowledges that we know very little about him. The Bible says he was "slow of speech," which is generally taken to mean that he stammered, but says nothing about his physical appearance. Yet he is shown as moody and temperamental, a fallible man and not a deity. That the founder of a great religion should be shown in that religion's holy writ "in his moments of fear and doubt, his black spells, his childlike tantrums and dangerous fits of rage" would seem to be testimony to the historical reality of the person.

But Kirsch goes further than asserting Moses' historicity. He manages to elicit from the biblical text a picture of a complex character in whom a "brooding sense of otherness" created "a yearning for intimacy that was first expressed in his bond with Jethro and later in his difficult and sometimes dysfunctional relationship with the people of Israel, and, finally and fatefully, in his tense and troubled relationship with God himself."

Kirsch fills in the biblical account with conjectures, speculations, elements from folklore and rabbinical tradition and the views of modern scholars. The result is a lively narrative, sometimes almost embarrassingly colloquial. God "dropped in unannounced at the tent of Abraham and Sarah for an impromptu meal of cutlets and curds" and "paraded in front of Moses and allowed him a glimpse of his divine backside!" Moses "dickered with both God and Pharaoh." We are told of God punishing the Egyptians "in a display of divine flash-and-dazzle."

Kirsch takes us perhaps as far as we can go in the search for the historical Moses. Such a search may be misguided: The character of Moses may have been originally a device to bring together the historical and religious traditions of Israel.

But the urge to seek a real human figure behind the biblical account is frequently and understandably felt, and we must be grateful to a scholar who has been able to extract and skillfully present virtually all that can now be conjectured about this extraordinary figure. He is extraordinary in that in spite of being credited with the authorship of the Pentateuch and thus with being the founding father of Judaism, his name is not commemorated as that of other founders of religions are. Judaism is not Mosaism.

Yet Moses is revered in Jewish tradition as Moshe rabbenu, "Moses our teacher." He is remembered as a teacher, not as a savior. In this book he figures more as a leader than as a teacher. He is indeed presented in the Bible as a leader--and a military leader at that, but this is not how he is remembered in the religion he founded.

Moses remains a towering figure in the history of religion, and it is understandable that we should want to reach behind the biblical text to discover his human reality. All the tools of modern scholarship--linguistic, historical, anthropological, psychological--have been brought into play in that search. If the result, as in "Moses," remains in considerable degree speculative, that is inevitable in dealing with a figure so far back in time who possesses an almost mythical status.

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