Moses: A Human Life

  • Review
By – September 8, 2016

The Hebrew Bible is large­ly silent on the inner life of its char­ac­ters, leav­ing their actions to speak for them. In con­struct­ing a human life of Moses, promi­nent Bible schol­ar Avi­vah Got­tlieb Zorn­berg turns to a far-reach­ing range of sources.

Mi anochi—Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” responds Moses when God sum­mons him at the burn­ing bush. Mi anochi? Zorn­berg takes these words as one of the keys to Moses’ com­plex and con­flict­ed iden­ti­ty and his painful and per­son­al rela­tion with God. Who is he, son of both an Israelite moth­er — the moth­er who bears and suck­les him — and an Egypt­ian princess — the moth­er who rears him? Who is he, slow of speech and slow of tongue,” to con­front Pharaoh and ral­ly the Israelites? Who is he, prophet, leader, most human of men, prone to anger, bit­ter­ness, dis­ap­point­ment; cho­sen to lead the peo­ple for forty years but not allowed to enter the land with them?

To address and explore Moses’s core ques­tion, Zorn­berg opens a trove of sources. The rich nar­ra­tives of midrash see Moses in many lights, but ulti­mate­ly he remains an eva­sive fig­ure. Zorn­berg calls into play lit­er­a­ture and psy­chol­o­gy, psy­cho­analy­sis and lit­er­ary the­o­ry, try­ing to feel the oth­er­ness of this man unique­ly cho­sen to speak on God’s behalf to a peo­ple whose sens­es are often blocked, who do not com­pre­hend their place in God’s plan. In many ways the read­er sens­es that God, Moses, and the Israelites are caught in hide-and-seek with one anoth­er, alter­nate­ly find­ing and los­ing their connection.

Moses: A Human Life chal­lenges read­ers to see Moses in an orig­i­nal and thought-pro­vok­ing way — not as a leader or a prophet, but as a man whose dis­abil­i­ties and con­flicts make him unique­ly qual­i­fied to speak for God and to achieve God’s pur­pose. Only when his nation’s long jour­ney is almost fin­ished does Moses speak to them in his own voice, recall­ing his mem­o­ry of the Exo­dus and jour­ney through the desert. Zorn­berg illus­trates a touch­ing pic­ture of a man whose speech is lim­it­ed but reach­es not only his peo­ple — God’s cho­sen peo­ple — but the hopes and future of all human­i­ty. Index, notes.

Relat­ed Reads:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions