April 14th, 2014
11:44 AM ET
By Joel S. Baden, special to CNN
(CNN) - Moses: the main character of the Torah, the paradigmatic law-giver and the star of multiple motion pictures.
As Passover rolls around again and Jews the world over retell the story of Moses’s big moment, it’s worth remembering that there are aspects of Moses that haven’t made it to the big screen or into public consciousness.
For example, here are five things you probably didn’t know about the Hebrew prophet.
1. Moses was probably Egyptian.
The most important piece of evidence for this is his name.
In the Bible, it is explained that his name is derived from the Hebrew word mashah, “to draw,” as in “to draw him from the waters of the Nile,” where he had been hidden as an infant.
Unfortunately, it is awfully hard to get from that verb to the name Moses, which would probably mean something like “the one who draws," which isn’t how the story goes.
The name Moses is in fact a good Egyptian name meaning “son.” It’s a common element in the names of many pharaohs, such as Tuthmoses and, most famously, Ramesses (“son of Ra”).
That well-known narrative in which Moses’ mother hides him in the Nile until he is found and raised by the pharaoh’s daughter looks a lot like a heavy-handed attempt to explain that despite all the indications that Moses was Egyptian — especially his name — he was actually Israelite.
There’s also the little passage in Exodus that suggests that Moses was uncircumcised, as was his son — unexpected, to say the least, for a native Israelite.
2. Moses wasn’t anti-slavery.
He has a reputation as the great liberator. And it’s true, he did liberate the Israelites from Egypt.
But Moses didn’t have anything against slavery as an institution, only against the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians.
The Israelites themselves were expected to have slaves of their own: both their fellow Israelites, who were to be treated relatively well, and non-Israelites, who received no such kindness.
Moses tells the Israelites that if they hit a slave so hard that the slave dies on the spot, that’s bad. But if the slave survives for a day or two and then dies, no punishment is required, “since he is the other’s property.”
3. Moses had a black wife.
True story. And not his first wife, either; that was Tziporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest.
This is his second wife, a Cushite, Cush being the ancient name for Ethiopia.
If you’re bothered by this, you’re not alone. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ own brother and sister, think it’s a bad thing, too.
But if you think that their objections justify your discomfort, there you’re wrong.
God reprimands Aaron and gives Miriam a skin disease for speaking out against Moses.
To be fair, Aaron and Miriam are bothered by inter-ethnic marriage, not interracial marriage. Since, in all likelihood, Moses — being Egyptian and all — was probably pretty dark-skinned himself.
4. Moses didn’t come up with a single law.
Moses is the paradigmatic law-giver, not the paradigmatic law-maker.
There isn’t a single law in the Torah that Moses claims to have come up with all by himself. Every law he gives the Israelites was dictated to him by God.
The New Testament refers to the law, usually in a negative sense, as something that Moses commanded. But this is deceptive (intentionally or unintentionally).
It may be that the laws of the Old Testament were all consigned to the dustbin when Jesus came along. But they weren’t commanded by Moses; they were the word of God.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
5. Moses didn’t write the Torah.
Despite the well-established Jewish and Christian tradition, the Torah never says, or even remotely suggests, that Moses wrote it.
The Bible does refer to the Torah as “the book of Moses.” But this doesn’t mean that Moses wrote the Torah, any more than “the book of Job” was written by Job or “the book of Kings” was written by Kings. “The book of Moses” means the book in which Moses is the main character — as in Job, or Kings.
The Torah is written in the third person from start to finish. Even the great speech of Deuteronomy is a reported speech: It begins with “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel” and ends with Moses’ death.
The verse in Deuteronomy that states that “Moses wrote down this Torah” isn’t proof that he actually wrote the Torah. Again: He’s a character, and in any case he’s taking dictation, not composing anything himself.
A final note on this point. If Moses did write the Torah, then consider this verse in Numbers: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”
If Moses wrote that, he’s at worst a liar and at best a serious humblebragger. It’s probably fortunate, then, that he didn’t write that verse, or any other, for that matter.
Joel S. Baden is the author of “The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero” and an associate professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden.
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