The following is an essay I wrote for a university course on power and corruption in the Old Testament. As it’s relevant to the theme of this blog I thought I’d share it.
Hero, murderer, revolutionary. All of these may aptly describe Moses. A reading of the stories in Exodus suggest a man who is quick to anger, violent, and irrational. Further, examination of his actions, however, paints the picture of a much more complex character. One who’s goals are justifiable, but who’s means were questionable. Moses sought change for his people. He would go to extreme lengths to bring about this change and yet, he is not a typical leader as they might be thought of today.
Moses first action when he leaves the palace in Exodus (Exodus 2:11) is the killing of the Egyptian man (Exodus 2:12). The first actions of Moses raises the question of whether he is a murderer or perhaps, a hero. Although it could be argued that he has committed a cold-blooded murder, upon further examination of the event another argument surfaces; Moses may have been standing up for what he saw as an injustice – albeit in an aggressive manner – but he is reluctant to have anyone know about his actions. This may be inferred from the fact that Moses looks around to ensure that no one is watching (Exodus 2:12). However, the argument that he was acting in a cold-blooded manner would point to this action as Moses ensuring that no one witnessed his crime. Visotzky (1998) makes the argument that Moses was not looking around out of fear but because he simply wanted to take matters into his own hands. Although Moses’ act of murder may be viewed by some scholars as a justifiable reaction to the hardships brought upon the Israelites by the Egyptians, it raises a slew of questions as to whether or not deliberate homicide is justifiable in an ethical context as an act of revenge. On the other hand those in favour of the reluctant hero view would paint Moses as acting in a manner that is in line with such a person. Although his actions may have been criminal, it’s not enough to view him as unethical. An ethical criminal, is an apt term for those taking the reluctant hero stance.
Moses reluctance to be known as the hero is atypical of a political leader. Even the Hebrews reject him as a leader after the killing of the Egyptian becomes known (Exodus 2:14). It seems unlikely that those living in modern times would give leeway to a politician for committing a murder. The Hebrews appear to share this attitude. Moses may have been acting to free an oppressed people, in which case the murder may be an acceptable political action, but, if it was done out of fear, anger, or guilt, then the action becomes less justifiable. In further contrast to the characteristics of a politician Moses is said to be “heavy of mouth”. In Hebrew this becomes “respect or stature”. This is contradictory to the negative opinion held of the modern day politician, who is hardly viewed as a person of respect by the public. Moses is a man who knows no compromise. The case has been made that politics is about compromise, however, this is not always reflective of partisan politicians who hold dogmatically to their views and refuse to act in any manner that goes against their ideals, in this respect Moses does demonstrate the characteristics of a politician, albeit an unpopular one. With the exception of Moses’ dogmatism, the Bible seems to argue that leaders not need to have the typical traits of a leader, as society views them today. (Diamond, 2011) argues that the Bible is suggesting that leaders need not be masters of rhetoric, yet another idea that runs in contradiction to the image of politicians who are rhetorical masters but do not back up their grand words with actions to match.
Moses’ reaction to the Golden Calf incident does suggest theocratic tendencies found in some political leaders. He invokes the name of the Lord when committing the purge (Exodus 32:27) though no such commandment ever came from God (Walzer, 1986). Here Moses has behaved in a manner similar to leaders today who attempt to proclaim that their actions are justified by divine will. In of itself, such spiritual motivation is not immediately harmful. Coupled with military might and legions of pious, however, and the result is much more deadly. The secularization of society will look upon those who look for divine inspiration with some level of uncertainty. Yet, even as a man able to invoke divine authority, Moses displays characteristics of a democratic leader who “does not always get his way” (Walzer, 1986) to Moses the will of the people does matter, at times. The nature of humans is a desire for freedom and transgression, they cannot be expected to follow a rigid set of laws and face destruction if they happen to break it (Wildvasky, 1984) Moses does not wish to rule by fear and control, he understands that the want for freedom makes this impossible. Even if Moses wished to establish absolute rule over the people, his power is restricted by holy texts (Deut. 17:16 – 20). Moses, who is presumably bound by the laws as is everyone else, will never be able to accumulate power in a manner similar to today’s heads of state
In his article The Fugitive author (Visotzky, 1998) infers from a reading of Exodus that Moses stood up against the suffering of his brethren, not for heroic purposes, but for the guilt he felt from his luxurious existence. Even if his actions are driven by his guilt we can still say that Moses was acting as a revolutionary leader, a man with power standing up for the oppressed and enslaved.
Visotzky (1998) argues that Moses’ addressing of the two Israelites fighting indicates that he understands that the people will not be free until they unite. Like the notion that Moses was standing up for the oppressed, we see further espousing of revolutionary tendencies. To overthrow the oppressors and be free, the people must first unite under a common banner with a leader to carry the flag. Moses chose his place among the slaves (Visotzky, 1998). He is making himself comfortable as a leader of the revolution that is to come, standing alongside the oppressed people in preparation to overthrow the regime that currently rules them.
Moses though is a man of contradiction, revolutionary may not be an apt description. Wildvasky (1984) notes how Moses does not “engage in a permanent purge” as may be characteristic of a revolutionary leader seeking to weed out the last remnants of the old regime. While the killing of 3,000 (Exodus 32:28) is certainly excessive and would be immediately condemned in today’s political and ethical context, the avoidance of a full-out purge suggests some level of restraint by a man who could easily be characterized as angry and quick to temper. Wildvasky (1984) notes the argument that the purging of 3,000 (Exodus 32:28) was necessary, a cleansing in order to weed out the sinful. Judged by the standards of today, Moses would be condemned and charged with crimes against humanity.
If Moses is the revolutionary leader then Aaron stands as the opportunist, waiting to seize on any opportunity to take power but backing down when the heat rises. After commanding the people to build the Golden Calf, Aaron backs down from his “responsibility as a leader” trying to absolve his own guilt in the incident (Wildvasky, 1984). Compare and contrast this to Moses who upon learning that the news of the Egyptian’s murder has spread, makes no effort to deny it. Yes, he does flee, but it was apparent that his life was at stake (Exodus 2:15). Aaron, did not face any such peril and given the fate of the worshippers he could be labelled a coward for not owning up and dying with those he attempted to lead. Furthermore, Aaron does not seek to change “the tendencies of the people” he is a leader comfortable with the status quo. Moses, however, has been seeking to change the old ways of the people since leading them out of Egypt. (Wildvasky, 1984) Aaron is the political system that is content with taking advantage of people for its own gain. Moses is the revolution seeking to change the system.
Moses would be condemned for many of his actions if judged by the standards of the current time. However, to fully dismiss him would be erroneous. He was a revolutionary, a man standing up to free an oppressed people. Yes, a purging is never acceptable, but, taken in context it is possible to understand why it happened. Moses was not a self-serving political leader, seeking to eliminate everyone who opposed him. He sought to change a system that had worked against his people.
Diamond, J. (2011). Lecture given January 18th, 2011.
Walzer, M. (1986). “Murmurings: Slaves in the Wilderness” from Exodus and Revolution. Basic
Wildavsky, A. (1984). “A dialogue against death” from The nursing father: Moses as a political l
leader. U Alabama Press.
Visotzky, B. (1998). “The Fugitive” from the Road to Redemption. Crown Publishing Group.