The Two Faces of Moses

The Two Faces of Moses


Howard Adelman

In the Book of Esther, when the heroine is chosen by the Persian King to become a member of his harem of wives, Mordechai tells Esther not to tell anyone that she is an Israelite. Her identity remains hidden for years. When Joseph once again meets his brothers face to face, the same brothers who sold him into slavery, but now is the Vizier or Prime Minister of Israel, he is not recognized. He remains hidden. Years later when the sojourn of the Israelites comes to an end in Egypt, the exodus is led by a man with an Egyptian name raised as a prince of Egypt but born a Levite but saved from the death the Pharaoh ordered for all Hebrew male infants. He is first saved by being hidden for three months and then floated down the Nile in an ark of reeds to be saved by an Egyptian princess, Jochebed, who found and raised him as her own and, unknown to his adoptive mother, is nursed by his own mother. Thus, the political leader of Israel, the one who leads the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom and forges the people as a nation, was hidden to survive, and then hidden in the very midst of the royal family. Moses had a dual identity. He was both Egyptian and Israelite, Moses, one who is from the water delivered or drawn (“mo” in Egyptian from “uses”, water– Exodus 2:10), and Moshe, one who is drawn (משה “to draw”). Whether in Egyptian or Hebrew, he is passive and not an active agent of his own making. He is drawn out.

Exodus not only starts with this strange tale of Moses’ origins but shows modern narrative patterns that boast of succinctness with absolutely no extraneous matter for the story literally leaps from the birth story to a story of murder. The one who was saved from being murdered becomes a murderer of an Egyptian overseer ostensibly because that overseer was treating an Israelite worker cruelly. Instead of standing by his royal prerogatives or pleading for the favour of the Pharaoh who is, after all, his grandfather, he flees.  But only when he realizes that there were witnesses to the murder, two quarreling Israelites. When he tried to intrude in their quarrel, they scoffed at him, treated his intervention as if he wanted to join the quarrel and told him to mind his own business or they would tell the Pharaoh that he was a murderer. Moses was neither capable of covering up his rash deed nor countering the Israelite argumentative temper.  

So the guy who is to become a political leader, a giver of laws, the Jews’ greatest prophet, starts out as a total failure at conflict resolution. It is as if Barack Obama started out as a failed community organizer. But Moses tries a third time when some young women were minding their sheep and watering them at a well, he intervened once again and drove off some males sexually harassing them. Success at last! So he is adopted by the father of one of the girls, Jethro, a Midianite and he is given his daughter, Zipporah, to marry and made head shepherd. He has a son, Gershon, with Zipporah. Then, after the requisite forty years, God calls him, draws him forth from amidst the Midianites, to save his people.

Since when were the Israelites his people? Presumably he was also brought up secretly knowing he was a Hebrew. But why call on Moses, a guy living the life of a quiet shepherd who had exhibited a quality of rashness as a young man to save the Israelites? He was hardly the model of a warrior prince as often portrayed in hagiographical cartoons. He, himself, is almost killed by God enraged when He, God, discovers Gershon had not been circumcised. God clearly did not do his due diligence. Luckily, once again, Moses is saved by a woman, his wife, Zipporah who stays the hand of a wrathful God by the mark of blood and had Gershon circumcised. Would you not say that God had chosen a loser, one who was so uncommitted to the continuity of his own people that he did not have his own son circumcised, one who needed to have his wife intercede for him with God and initiate the action to save him? Moses, more than anyone in the Torah, owes his life to women, to his mother who bore and hid him, to his sister Miriam who helped persuade the Egyptian princess to both adopt him and have her mother raise him, and to a Midianite, Zipporah, who made sure his son was recognized as an Israelite.

Which raises the question of whether Moses himself was circumcised and, if he was, how was that hidden from his adoptive mother or from his Egyptian family and friends? How could he remain hidden from his buddies in the bathhouse if he had been circumcised?

In any case, this “nebish” meets up with his older brother, Aaron – how did Aaron survive? – and the two go to see Pharaoh after they perform a few magic tricks to convince the tribe that they are acting as God’s messengers. When they see Pharaoh, do they say, “Let my people go.” No. They say let my people feast together in the wilderness in celebration of their God. And who says it? Not Moses who presumably knows all the ways of the royal court. Aaron talks because Moses was a stutterer. It is not clear that Moses had even mastered Hebrew or Aramaic. A great pick for a political leader! He wasn’t even a rhetorician.

However, there is no religious freedom in Egypt. The Pharaoh says, “Are you guys crazy? Get outta here.”  They don’t give up. They do get credit for persistence. They return a second time and then perform a number of magic tricks, tricks which Pharaoh’s own shamans can also perform. This failure is repeated a third time. Neither Moses nor Aaron had learned the first art of statecraft – don’t carry a big stick or try to turn the bloody water into wine unless the trick works to awe the opponent. Your credibility just drops.  Unless, of course, you instigate a guerrilla war. For then the goal is not military victory on the battlefield, but the willingness to both deliver and absorb punishment over time. The object is to tire the opposition, not to defeat the Pharaoh’s army in a direct conflict.

Because they exhibited stamina, because they could draw forth and exhaust the might of Egypt, they eventually succeed. But only to a point. Moses’ split character would dog him for the rest of his career. His fits of rage would betray him when the people were found worshiping the golden calf and he smashed the tablets of the laws that God had given him as His gift to the people. Further, he ordered the men of his Levite tribe to wrack revenge on the people and they ravaged the camp killing 3000 men, women and children. This is the Moses, this man clearly guilty of war crimes, who Jews revere as their greatest leader and lawgiver and prophet! Moses certainly had a sense of injustice. He does deliver the laws. But he is too rash. And too ruthless. He lacks the cool solemnity and rational consideration required of a judge to interpret the law – his father-in-law, Jethro, was the one who convinced him to appoint judges to adjudicate disputes under the law. He also lacked the tact and trust of the people to make a good political leader.

As we indicated above, he wasn’t even a warrior leader. Joshua is the commander of the Jewish forces. Moses is the politician behind the scenes to boost the morale of the Israelites. But he is no Churchill. Moses is not a tireless leader. When the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, Aaron and Hur had to hold up his arms to signal that Moses still held the rod of freedom aloft, the rod that drew forth water from the rock just as he himself was drawn forth from the waters of the Nile. But he was a good lawgiver. He did deliver constitution of the Israelites in the form of their initial fundamental laws even though he himself was definitely not the exemplar upholding those laws, especially the law commanding: “Thou shalt not kill”.

Let me zero in on Moses’ duality that helps explain how such an incompetent came to be revered as Israel’s greatest lawgiver and prophet. In Exodus 34:30, the skin on Moses’ face is described as sending forth beams, beams which frightened the people as well as himself. So Moses donned a mask, first before Aaron and the Elders, and then before all the Israelites. He wore a veil (masweh) (Exodus 34:33), a hajib, precisely a form of dress Pauline Maurois would ban from any office holder in government from wearing. When Moses finished speaking with the Israelites, he put a veil on his face. Presumably, he took off his mask first or the mask and the veil are just twp words for referring to the same disguise.

Well, is not that akin top our comic book heroes who all wear masks or veil their faces? The New Testament have an explanation for wearing the mask. “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendour.” (2 Corinthians 3:12-13 RSV) The mask is there to hide the old Jew who no longer had the visage to lead. It may be a useful way to put down the Jews and uplift the Christians, but it plays fast and loose with the story. It’s a lousy explanation because Moses never had that splendour to begin with. For many Christians, the mask or veil is necessary for covenantal Jews because they could not get rid of the law and rely on hope and faith in Jesus who had come to save them. Moses and his mask belonged to the old order of the rule of law; Christians belonged to the new order and the rule of pure faith, of surrendering oneself to Jesus.

Though a poor and circular argument, the account is even worse as an exercise in hermeneutics. For the point is used to score points not to understand the text. There is nothing in the text to suggest Moses wore a mask to cover up his fading glory. For one, Moses is not presented as having a great deal of glory in the first place. Secondly, where is there any evidence that Moses was a proponent of transparency? It may be considered a political virtue in our day, but surely the biblical text suggests that inscrutability was then more important.

I suggest that Moses is telling the people all along that he has worn a mask, that he is a cover-up artist, that they should not be fooled by his artistry, by the face he wore. For Moses only was a pretender to the leadership of the Israelites and pretense had, literally, become his second nature. Hypocrisy, playing a part, acting a role for which one does not have a natural gift, was Moses forte. Moses was only a mouthpiece. Moses was then coming out of the closet. Moses wore a mask to tell everyone that he had always worn a mask. Further (Exodus 34:34), Moses put on the mask or veil only after he had delivered the words that God had told him to deliver to the people. Moses donned the mask to tell the people that he was not A GOD, but merely God’s poor and ineffectual messenger.

The explanation is not that he was saving the Israelites from a face that would scare them or, from the opposite perspective, to hide his glory that was fading, to hide from them the transience of his glory period. Rather, Moses wore a veil now because he was finally coming clean. No more magical tricks. This is the true me, an insecure and very inadequate leader of the Jewish people and not a golden calf. Moses could no longer hide behind his wife, his brother, or Joshua. He had been born in hiding and lived through hiding. He was tired of hiding. He had to reveal the truth about himself. What better way than by donning a mask.

I wish all political leaders had the same degree of honesty.  

One comment on “The Two Faces of Moses

  1. Michael Kigel says:

    Hi Howard,

    It’s so wonderful to read your voice wrestling with the Torah text – the way we used to in our long hevruta sessions !!

    Although, as you might guess, I cannot follow your reading on all points, the core point regarding Moses as a “failure,” a failure ready to admit that he is a failure, is well taken. Is this not the celebrated “humility” of Moses? I myself always loved the way he falls on his face – literally – when his leadership is challenged by Korach.

    Now I don’t know whether you will agree with this but: I take his congenital incapacity to lead, his utter catatonia in the face of the original divine call at the burning bush, as the very “excellence” required by God of a genuine Jewish leader. Unlike later prophets, through whom the Divine light shines as through stained glass windows, the light taking on various colours lent to it by the personalities of the prophets, Moses is more like a well-windexed glass pane. A man with almost zero personality.

    Of course, my reading – which is hardly my own – is burdened with a lot of traditional assumptions. But I wonder whether, the differences notwithstanding, we aren’t still on the same page.

    Lots of warm hassidic hugs from Vienna!

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