Humanizing Moses

Moses: A Memoir ( New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2003)
Is there not a proper place for modern man to “fictionalize” the lives of Biblical figures as an act of great belief?

By Joel Cohen
Member, New York Bar
Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, LLP.
August 2003

    In the history of mankind and religion, with the exception of Jesus in the Christian tradition, the figure Moses comes as close to perfection as possible. Moses, though, was not a god, but a man. And no man is perfect. Each is flawed or frail, weak or insecure—no matter his station or his life’s achievement. Moses, in the Bible, never gets to tell his own story. He doesn’t reveal in his voice, the voice of first person, the torture that wracked him in dealing with his God, his people, and his enemies.

    The Biblical Moses lacks complication, self-doubt, and disagreement with the decisions of God. Was Moses, notwithstanding the esteem in which he is forever held, always at ease with the Word of God?

    Would he have opted to remain Pharaoh’s fugitive rather than the Israelites’ Redeemer? Did he see himself as a “murderer,” thus paralyzed by a life-long guilty conscience? Did he conceal empathy for Pharaoh who lacked “free will” to free the slaves? Would Moses have preferred to find his brother Aaron murdered in the shadow of the Golden Calf rather than as a willing confederate in a design to build an idol? Did the Jews wander in the desert for forty years because Moses lacked faith in His Word? And did Moses see God as unfair in refusing him the Promised Land, or did he see God as obliged to deprive him of that dream?

    Do the “reflections” of Moses into the “human” Moses make him weaker or an even greater paragon for all mankind? Are his inner torments, doubts, and insecurities a failing? Or are they yet greater proof that, no matter the provocation, Moses is a man who always walked with God?

    To the writer, the Books of Moses are Divine—truly, the word of God. They comprise a history that also describes the religious principles and laws of a people—but they are not a biography. The Books are laconic—they frequently leave, or intend, detail and nuance to the individual or collective imagination.

    They identify critical events in the life of Moses, the primary figure in a people’s history and religion. Still, the narration of many of those significant events is frequently contained in but a few words or sentences—nothing more. The details, the inner thinking of the human protagonists, were left on the cutting room floor of the Creator.

    Some believe that key commentaries written hundreds or thousands of years later are part of an “oral tradition” transcendentally handed down generationally in a process initiated by Moses himself. These commentaries explain, interpret, and embellish on the people and events in the Bible, especially the leader Moses.

    Those commentators, though, never lived through the events nor interviewed Moses. They never gained direct insights from his contemporaries nor researched the writings of his day—except the Bible. Theirs is truly an oral tradition.

    The many volumes of the Bible and these commentaries explain Moses, but he never explains himself: What was Moses thinking? How did Moses perceive the events that surrounded and influenced him? Did Moses reflexively follow God’s orders, or did he inwardly have second thoughts? Thus, have these many writers allowed Moses himself to tell his own story?

    Some would feel strongly that it is mischievous, sacrilegious, or even flatly heretical to study Moses’ life while disregarding these commentators. Some would see great arrogance in a concept that largely departs from these texts and instead injects a contemporary writer’s own thoughts into Moses’ mind during the hours of the Prophet left undescribed in the Bible. It might be, to them, still worse to memorialize these thoughts in a writing that audaciously tells the reader that they were purportedly authored by Moses—even a reader who recognizes the limitations of the exercise.

    Many would see defiance in such an undertaking on either basis. Others who seek cognition without the blinders of infallibility might perceive Divinity for today in one’s capacity to use the imagination to exercise one’s belief in God.

    The latter choice might allow them to merely consider an individual author’s views as singularly unpersuasive or even vapid and substitute their own views perhaps never before uttered. They might, thus, begin to engage in a worthwhile dialogue.

* * *

    The attempt at humanization of Biblical figures such as Moses may in fact be problematic. If believers, in their formative years, for example, were to see Michelangelo’s incredible statue, Moses, including the horns (and whatever they might connote to the observer) that prominently jut out from the forehead of that Moses, it might indeed be hard for them to imagine a Moses having any other appearance.

    This is not to mention the even greater challenge to the psyche of an individual who, for example, saw, particularly as an impressionable youth, the portrayal of Moses by Cecile B. DeMille/Charleton Heston in the epic movie, The Ten Commandments. So indelible might be the impression that was left by the handsome/Hollywood heroic figure cut by Heston that well into the viewer’s life his mindset might not yet be able to conjure up Moses as anything other than “Heston’s Moses,” dressed up with the extreme Biblical liberties that DeMille took in creating the Moses depicted there.

    Nonetheless, one should not expect artists to stop painting, sculptors to stop sculpting, and writers to stop writing about Biblical figures with artistic designs intended to breathe life into the characteristics and characters of Biblical figures simply because such works of art, designed to honor the lives of great figures, may somehow irreversibly stunt the minds of particular observers or readers with a particular “take” on the Biblical figure?

    Stated differently, would believers be better off if organized religions frowned on imaginative and, in many respects, fictional depictions of Biblical figures for fear that contemporary writers who think “outside the box” will simply ignore the “box” altogether and create too many impediments to Biblical reality? Will people subliminally and irretrievably merge the Bible’s contents with artistic fiction more palatable in modern terms?

* * *

    The question “Does Moses Live?” might seem, at first blush, to be a silly question. Indeed, in the moving, perhaps the saddest, episode in the Old Testament, Moses is not only told by God that his death is coming, but he is commanded to walk alone to the site of his death where he is buried by God Himself.

    It would be artistically acceptable and consistent, surely, with the First Amendment for a writer to posit that Moses never actually died, that God wanted his solitary “burial” to enable Moses to reemerge in another form or as another human being. Such a work might even suggest that Moses never really died at all in the conventional sense—as in the case of Enoch (Genesis 5:24) or the Prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) -- or was immediately “resurrected” or scheduled to be resurrected, as, for example, Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Such a work would be flatly dismissed, particularly by true believers, as pure fiction—and rightly so. It might, too, be viewed as sacrilegious as was the case of Martin Scorcese’s movie drawn from the work of Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ. (The Catholic Church publicly condemned the work, reviving memories of the Index.)

    Suppose, though, instead, a writer argues, using “Moses’ voice,” that Moses, in his solitary moments on the way to his death, complained that he was, indeed, slated for death despite his unvacillating commitment to God. Even though such an interpretation defies the common conception of Moses’ ready resignation to God’s decree, it would not be inconsistent with text.

    Or suppose, in a modern work, Abraham, with his son—the soon-to-be-sacrificed Isaac—in tow, inwardly quarrels with himself or with God Himself on the road to Mount Moriah over the impending “unwarranted” death of his “only son.” This is in direct disagreement, for example, with Kierkegaard’s somewhat unorthodox argument that Abraham told Isaac that the sacrifice was his own idea as an effort to distance, or outright remove, God from the plan to slaughter Isaac lest Isaac become a doubter. It might defy the conventional view of Abraham’s unyielding commitment to God but would not necessarily be inconsistent with the Bible’s textual account.

    Or, finally, what if a writer argues, in the voice of Joseph, son of Jacob, that Joseph’s laxity for many years in not telling Jacob, who had given Joseph up for dead, that he was “alive and well” and a great success in Egypt was deliberately designed by Joseph to “punish” his father for having fooled the Patriarch Isaac and stolen his brother Esau’s blessing?

    These three hypotheticals depart from traditionally held beliefs about the three paradigms of “good conduct”: Moses, Abraham, and Joseph. They are unorthodox, to say the least. Still, doesn’t one’s ruminations—employing the voice of “unauthorized autobiography”—on the timeless moments in the arable interludes in the lives of great Prophets left unaccounted for in the Bible pay them greater honor and enable them to be truly Living Prophets who walked—and still walk—with God? In short, is there not a proper place for modern man to “fictionalize” the lives of Biblical figures as an act of great belief?

    My book Moses: A Memoir, just published by Paulist Press, represents such an exercise on the life of Moses. My goal was to remain not inconsistent with Biblical text, but, nonetheless, with a concerted effort to breathe life into Moses’ undescribed “thoughts” concerning significant events in his life. Time will tell the value and meaningfulness of the venture and whether the question “Does Moses Live?” is, in fact, not a silly question after all.

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