1.2. The Contradictions in Moses’ Personality

We cannot but notice a number of strange moments in Moses’ life story.

The first of those is Moses’ attempts to evade God’s order to lead the Jews out of Egypt, as first seen in the episode of the Burning Bush (Сh. 4[1]). Moses rejects the assignment five times, citing a different reason each time. In the end, Moses runs out of arguments, and he asks God simply to release him from the task (4:13). “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent” (literally, “Please, O Lord, just send whomever else You might send”). At that point the Almighty grows angry with Moses, and stops just short of using physical force to get Moses to accept the mission.

Such repeated refusals cannot be explained by Moses’ humility alone, even if Moses was indeed “more humble than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3). One might refuse once or twice because of humility, but not five times. Nor can it be explained by any lack of resoluteness on Moses’ part, insufficient self-confidence, or the like. On the contrary, we often see that Moses is prepared, with no hesitation whatsoever, to undertake weighty, highly responsible decisions.

Let us cite a number of examples. Upon seeing an Egyptian beating a Jew, Moses kills the Egyptian forthwith (2:11). Then, the very next day, he notices an altercation between two Jews, and immediately intervenes (2:13). Soon after that, Moses escapes from Egypt to a foreign country. There, he comes to the rescue of a group of girls being abused by shepherds at the well where they have come to water their sheep (2:17).

Here we have three different situations of conflict: first, between a non-Jew and a Jew, then between two Jews, and, finally, between non-Jews. But in all of those and without hesitation, Moses intervenes, doing his best to restore justice. Later we will see that Moses does not hesitate even to make critical decisions that involve actual violence – for example, when he orders the execution of all Jews who had worshipped the golden calf[2] (32:27).

It is also obvious that Moses is not suffering from low self-esteem. He is fully aware of his royal status, and it is hard to imagine that he is simply too bashful or diffident to assume the monumental leadership role that God wishes to entrust to him.

It is therefore unclear why, at first, Moses is unwilling to accept the assignment, refusing so adamantly and repeatedly that God’s anger is finally provoked.

The next oddity in the life story of Moses is the circumcision incident. Moses had not circumcised his infant son, and God wanted to punish him for this (4:24-26). Having just obtained Moses’ consent to lead the Jews out of Egypt, God suddenly wants to kill him at the inn.

What is the point of all this? And why did Moses, leader of the Jewish nation, fail to circumcise his son in the first place? Or was there perhaps no particular reason, and it was simply an innocent mistake on Moses’ part, in believing that circumcision was not obligatory[3] for a newborn while on the road? Why, then, does God want to kill Moses for this seemingly minor, unwitting oversight?

The third oddity we encounter is in God’s dialogue with Moses on Mount Sinai after the Jews had worshipped the golden calf. In this conversation, God proposes to annihilate the Jews and create an entirely new nation from Moses himself. But Moses rejects that proposal, imploring God: “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever” (32:13).

God agrees with Moses, accepts his arguments, and forgives the people. But it is no less important to note that God’s proposal is itself not clear. If God were to destroy all the Jews except Moses and then to create a new nation from him, why should we expect that the new nation will be any better than the one that already exists? To explain what Moses means by saying to God, “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the Midrash[4] comments: “If a table of three legs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is unable to stand, how will a table of only one leg (Moses) possibly stand?” That is, there is no reason to believe that a nation produced from Moses alone will be more worthy than the nation that descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why, then, does God even suggest it?

We now come to the fourth and most perplexing moment in Moses’ story. Why was Moses not allowed to enter the Land of Israel? A straightforward reading of the Torah text would seem to indicate that the reason was Moses’ disobedience. In the Book of Numbers (20:7-12) we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’

This puzzling passage is usually understood to mean that Moses’ sin consisted in his disobeying God, by smiting the rock instead of speaking to it with an order to yield its water.

The problem here is not only that the punishment seems inordinately severe. Even more incomprehensible is how and why Moses disobeyed God at all. Why did Moses strike the rock, rather than speaking to it as he had been told? We cannot explain it by suggesting that Moses was momentarily light-minded, or insufficiently attentive to the Divine word, or the like. The greatest of the prophets could not have so casually erred in such a critically decisive matter.

[1] All biblical references are to Exodus, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] In light of this, it is all the more important for us to understand those situations where Moses appears incapable of coming to any decision at all. In later volumes of this commentary we will consider a number of such instances.

[3] If circumcision could pose a danger to the life (or health) of the child – and “all journeys are presumed to entail some danger,” says the Talmud – then circumcision, which is normally performed on the eighth day following birth, must be postponed until any and all possibility of danger has been eliminated. Moses, who could not delay his return to Egypt from Midian, therefore had reasonable cause to believe that he should postpone his son’s circumcision until a later time; that is, until he and his family had arrived safely at their destination in Egypt.

[4] The Midrash is a part of the Oral Torah, transmitted through Moses and across the ages as an essential component of Jewish tradition. Like the vast majority of the Oral Torah, the Midrash was eventually committed to writing during the Talmudic era and the centuries following (first century through tenth century C.E.). We can consider the Midrash a “literary reformulation” of the ideas and philosophical concepts expressed in the Torah, and, as such, its statements in most instances need not be taken literally.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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