Moses Retells His Story (Part 1)

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Instead of posting contradictions for the book of Deuteronomy in my usual manner, I’ve decided first to post excerpts from a new project I’m working on that specifically treats the book of Deuteronomy, and then in my usual fashion to discuss the contradictions exhibited between Moses’ renarrations of past events/stories in Deuteronomy 1-11 and the earlier narrations of these same events/stories as found in Exodus and Numbers.

This new book project is tentatively entitled, How Moses Falsified History and Perverted God’s Word. . . and Got Away with It. The title is certainly meant to provoke and to be honest a bit misleading as well (for a number of reasons). After reading a few of my forthcoming posts you will understand why I’ve chosen that title.

How Moses Falsified History and Perverted God’s Word. . . and Got Away with It is a textual journey through the book of Deuteronomy that offers two different readings of the text, in two different chapters.

CHAPTER 1, “Moses Retells His Story,” is presented as a 1st person narrative from the perspective of a believer with a fundamentalist penchant who reads Moses’ renarrations in Deuteronomy and compares them with the original narrations in Exodus and Numbers. It is a narrative of discovery for this reader since he approaches the Bible with all the usual handed-down traditional beliefs about this text which he is forced to grapple with given what he discovers through his comparative readings.

CHAPTER 2, “The Deuteronomist Rewrites History,” is a reading of the text of Deuteronomy from the perspective of modern biblical scholarship. It demonstrates that the particular problems that arose and the conclusions that were drawn (reflected in the book’s title) through Chapter 1’s reading of the text actually disappear when one reads the text of Deuteronomy critically and on its own terms—not those brought to the text by traditional reader-imposed beliefs about the Bible. It shows how knowledge about the text of Deuteronomy, who wrote it, why, to whom, to address what historical concerns, etc. actually illuminates the text and the aims of its author, who willingly modified, rewrote, and even contradicted an earlier version of the telling of Israel’s past and the giving of its laws (the version now preserved in Exodus and Numbers) so that the past, and its laws, now conformed to this author’s beliefs and ideological program. Moreover, the Deuteronomist’s rewriting of earlier tradition is merely one example out of dozens displaying how the texts of this anthology of literature we call the Bible interact with one another. The Bible is a series of later and later rewritings, alterations, and counter-histories of earlier texts and traditions, all of which were preserved by later editors. In the end, there is no Moses, no history, and no God’s word to speak of. There is but a text, and these are all literary devices used by the author of Deuteronomy to authenticate a new—and contradictory—telling of an earlier authoritative tradition.

OK, here is the first of Moses’ renarrations as presented in Chapter 1 of this new project:
Moses Retells His Story

Deuteronomy 1-11 presents Moses renarrating events from the wilderness period as a survey of what came before this book’s narrative setting, where the Israelites are now assembled on the plains of Moab some 40 years after the wilderness period began. It is here that Moses addresses the people, reminding them (and us) of what had already transpired before their arrival on the plains of Moab in the 11th month of the 40th year.

          Yahweh our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and start your journey and go to the Amorite hill country and to all its neighboring places. . . Go and take possession of the land that Yahweh swore to your fathers.”
          And I said to you at that time: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. Yahweh your God has multiplied you, and here today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky. . . How can I bear your troubles, your burden, and your quarrels by myself? Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads.” And you answered me and said: “What you propose to do is good.”
          So I took your tribal leaders, wise and knowledgeable men, and I appointed them heads over you. . . And I charged your judges at that time, saying: “Hear out your fellow men and decide justly between any man, a fellow Israelite or a resident alien. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. . .”
          Thus I instructed you at that time about all the things you should do. And we set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness. (Deut 1:6-19)

So in Moses’ first speech to the assembled Israelites on the plains of Moab, Moses renarrates to them what happened right before they left Horeb. “At that time,” Moses reminds them, he had selected judges from among the tribes, “wise, discerning, and knowledgeable men” to judge their cases and relieve Moses from this burden himself. Fair enough. But I knew that this event had already been narrated early, “at that time” of which Moses speaks. So I decided to take a look at it.

First, I had trouble finding it. For it didn’t happen where Moses said it happened—“at Horeb” right before the Israelites were to depart! Rather the selection of judges happened before the Israelites even arrived at Horeb, while they were still at Rephidim! This is narrated in Exodus 18:13-27.

Ok, I thought. It’s been a long and difficult 40 years to say the least, and granted, Moses’ memory and stamina have undoubtedly taken a toll. Perhaps he just misremembered when and where he came up with this brilliant plan to chose judges from among the tribes. Nevertheless, I was still a bit perplexed given the fact that Moses himself had just emphatically stated twice “at that time” as if he was in total command of his memory. But it didn’t happen “at that time”—at least not according to the account now at Exodus 18.

At any rate, as I read through Exodus 18:13-27 I noticed something more disturbing. Moses had gotten a couple of other details wrong. Most strikingly, it wasn’t even his plan to begin with!

What happened to Jethro?

What happened according to Exodus 18 was that one day—specifically during the 2nd month after the Exodus from Egypt en route to Horeb—Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, saw Moses burdening himself with the task of judging all the people’s cases by himself. And apparently there was a long line too! From morning until evening the people—my God all 600,000 of them!?—stood waiting for Moses to judge their cases. Indeed, I pondered, what cases would they have had having just left Egypt one month ago? At any rate, Jethro intervenes at this point and basically says: “This thing that you’re doing is not such a good idea. You and the people will both be worn out! Here, I’ll advise you, and God willing let it be so: ‘Choose among the people worthy men, God-fearing men, men of truth who hate bribery, and appoint them as judges for the people, and they shall judge the people’s cases’” (vv. 17-22). And then we are informed that “Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said” (v. 24).

So originally it was Jethro’s idea and plan, which we are told Moses did indeed implement: He did everything that Jethro had said! So why would Moses, in renarrating this event 40 years later, forget to mention that it was Jethro who came up with the plan to select judges from among the people and that it was he who advised him on this matter? Why would Moses claim “And I said to you at this time, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself’” when in fact it was Jethro who acknowledged this point and relayed it to Moses?

Ok, I thought. A lot has happened during the last 40 years, and particularly a rather brutal confrontation with the Midianites themselves that had occurred just a month or two earlier and which left no Midianite male nor non-virgin female alive (Num 31)! I wondered if that included Moses’ wife as well? So if what were once friendly relations with the Midianites had turned sour by the end of the wilderness period, then this might explain why Moses had avoided mentioning Jethro’s role in establishing Israel’s judiciary. Moses would have certainly wanted to expunge that from the historical record. But this line of reasoning meant that Moses consciously suppressed Jethro from his retelling, and therefore consciously suppressed an historical detail! This couldn’t be right I asked?

Interestingly, with Jethro now out of the picture, Moses was free to take full credit for the establishment of the judiciary, an idea that God’s prophet ought to have thought up on his own in the first place! Besides, I thought, Moses’ omission of Jethro doesn’t really contest what he claims. He could have both been advised by Jethro and “at that time” have said to the people what he says he said. But even here, he still makes a conscious choice to omit Jethro from his retelling, and apparently completely forgets that “at that time” was not in fact the time, nor the place, that Moses here recalls.

As I read further, however, I noticed that this wasn’t the only detail that Moses changed in his retelling of the event. Perhaps a minor point, but curiously the criteria by which these judges were to be chosen were also altered. While Moses claims that he told the people to select “wise, discerning, and knowledgeable men,” what really happened, according to Exodus 18, was that Jethro told Moses to choose “God-fearing men, men of truth, men who hate bribery.” Did Moses not agree with these criteria and therefore implemented his own: wise, discerning, and knowledgeable? Jethro’s criteria are religious in nature. After all he was a priest. While Moses’, on the other hand, seemed more objective and centered on one’s intellectual abilities. At any rate, it was clear again that Jethro had told Moses one thing, and Moses told the people another thing. Perhaps he just didn’t like taking advice from his non-Jewish father-in-law! I mean, who would?

What kept gnawing at me, nonetheless, was whether Moses knew he was changing the details or whether this was on account of say a failing memory? He was after all approaching his 120th birthday! But his whole ‘apparent’ precision of the matter in his recollection and renarration of the event—“I said to you at that time” and “you answered me” and “thus I instructed you at that time”—made me think that it wasn’t so much an issue of his memory, or of old age. I mean, how can you forget when and where such an event occurred? And being God’s prophet and all, wouldn’t Yahweh have helped him out here by aiding his failing memory? No, I thought, something else must be going on here. Yet for the life of me I could not fully grasp why the text of Exodus 18:24 claimed that Moses did indeed listen to his father-in-law and “did do everything that he had said,” while on the other hand Moses himself in his renarration of this event explicitly reveals that he did not in fact listen to Jethro, nor put into practice the things that he had said to him. Something was not right. Either the account of Exodus 18:13-27 was inaccurate, or Moses was renarrating the event incorrectly. But why?

At any rate, I convinced myself that these discrepancies were minor points and decided to read on. Such a thing, I told myself, could happen to the best of us, even to God’s prophet.

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