(For a much more detailed
and slightly different perspective on Machiavelli’s view of Moses, see John H.
Geerken (1999) Journal of the History of Ideas 60:4, October, (579-595)
Reviewing the story of
Moses is helpful because Machiavelli repeatedly refers to him while, at the
same time, insisting that he need not be discussed, necessary advice if one
wants to distract the God-believing anti-Judaizers. That in itself is a lesson
in how to dodge the censorious while still communicating. However, it is quite
clear in reading Machiavelli that he held Moses in the highest esteem and used
the life of Moses and his experience in politics to distill many of the
principles he believed were key to determining good governance.
Moses starts out as an
absolutely politically naïve individual. Without Israelite and certainly not
Pharaoh’s backing, he rebels against the autocratic system of the Pharaoh that
adopted him. He kills a slave overlord who was beating an Israelite. The next
day, he interferes in a fight between two Israelites who then turn on him, asking
who is he to rebuke them. They then threaten to let Pharaoh know that he is a
murderer. Moses flees.
Though Moses lacks the
attributes yet of a good ruler, he has the advantage of being impetuous, though
this is a disadvantage when not guided by prudence. Moses demonstrates, and
Machiavelli concurs, (see the final paragraph of The Prince) that, in general, “it is better to be impetuous than
cautious,” for victory belongs to the bold rather than the cold calculator.
Moses became a shepherd
and it is difficult to know how that might teach him how to lead men who were
never and would never be sheep. However, that was his escape. It is when he is
drawn back towards the Israelites that he begins to learn the lessons of good
governance. That lesson starts when God tries to kill Moses for not
circumcising his son that he had with the Midianite, Zipporah. As is often the
case in the Bible, women save the day. Zipporah performs the circumcision for
Moses. Not a very auspicious start, perhaps for a leader. But Moses did learn a
major lesson, the importance of women in helping a hero get out of a bind.
Moses, in spite of his initial
flaws, and without any lessons from the patriarchs of the nation, becomes the
founder of a unique political, legal and ethical system in which a people is
governed by the rule of law. He starts off as a rash man prone to rely on his
strength and superior fighting skills, having been trained in the royal court.
But given his rash and impetuous character, the result is flight rather than fight.
It will take years, even decades, for him to master the art of ruling. And the
first lesson is that only God can command. Humans cannot build a secure and
solid political system by simply commanding others. They have to use
This means that Moses
sets a new tone for prophets – not as masters of the universe, but as servants,
inadequate and unworthy servants initially reluctant to don the mantle of
leadership. However, Moses learns step by step. Like his God who announces to
him that, “I shall be who I shall be,” Moses also is an open book whose
character will be filled in by his experiences, his challenges and his
One key challenge for
leaders is the need to persuade others to follow. This is very difficult for
Moses because the one Moses implores his people to follow is God, an impetuous,
jealous, demanding and commanding authoritative figure who all too frequently
changes His mind. Further, persuasion will be doubly difficult because Moses is
NOT a man of the people, but an outsider raised in privilege in the royal court
even though born a Hebrew. And he also lacks a command of rhetoric; he
However, his outsider
status also taught him some important lessons. First and foremost, at the
burning bush, Moses learned how to get others to believe as you do when they
have neither the same experiences nor the same source of elite advice.
Persuasion begins by initially convincing yourself. It also begins with
modesty, with doubt about whether your own convictions are valid and, even if
they are, whether you are worthy enough to transmit the ideas as they are
revealed. Thirdly, the ability to persuade begins by defining oneself as a
go-between, as a mediator much more than a strong leader. Such a leader is, in
the end, an interpreter of God’s will, of what history intends for the
Finally, magic helps. The
burning bush is a symbol of magic. Magic is simply the use of a tool, any tool,
that allows one to gain the confidence of others sufficiently so that they will
listen to you. In my class, I offered the example of the use of a TV when I was
the host and producer of a TV show. Holding that large TV camera gained us
entry into the most difficult places in Israel without any trouble.
Moses as a leader is
successful, not primarily because he is given formal authority, not because he
is vested with coercive power, but because he relies on influence, on an
ability to persuade. And that reliance does not depend on his being a great
orator who can arouse the masses. Moses has to learn to adopt different stances
and different voices depending on his audience. Sometimes the audience is both
his enemy and his adopted grandfather – the Pharaoh. There he learns that he cannot
persuade the Pharaoh who regards him as a foreign upstart.
Moses cannot succeed by
words alone but, at times, has to fall back on using coercive force. He has to
persuade coercively while suffering a severe handicap with respect to military
forces at his command. That in itself takes a great leader, one who can start
with virtually nothing to lead an insurrection. But sometimes he also has to
use coercive force to suppress an insurrection. The it is very helpful if it is
an Other, a higher and more authoritative figure, who orders the use of force.
However, he has to lead
a variety of others with different skill sets, material benefits and
dispositions. Some seek glory. Others seek riches. Still others are circumspect
while their opposites are impetuous. Some rely on intimidation, others on
cunning. And Moses will encounter each of these types. Most of all, Moses is
adaptable, even with all his shortcomings. He responds to what the time and
circumstances allow instead of adopting a fixed and rigid posture. Moses’
leadership is not only constantly in question, but he constantly questions himself
about whether he is up to the task at hand.
Given the option of
between being impetuous and cautious, Moses begins his political career by
amply demonstrating he is impetuous and spontaneous and fits the profile Machiavelli
lays out for a leader. But that is clearly insufficient. The populist, Girolamo
Savonarola, who briefly rhetorically lead the rebellion against the aristocrats
of Florence and also claimed that he had a direct line to God, in the end
failed, not because Savonarola lacked sufficient militia strength, but because,
in the end, he was a narcissist whom his followers saw through and from whom
they withdrew their support. Savonarola depended on his popularity with his
base, but lost their support when he failed to inspire them with confidence in
spite of his overwhelming confidence in himself.
The incident of the
golden calf, a tale told in Exodus 32, is very instructive about leadership.
But to understand that tale we have to go back to Exodus 20. God in 20:20
commands that, “you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for
yourselves any gods of gold.” In contrast, the Israelite God required an altar
made just from earth, one not raised on a dais nor made of hewn stones. ‘I am
your God who lives among his people and not above you.’ Later, God will
instruct His people on how to build an ornate portable mishkan, but it is to hold the commandments, and, eventually, the
Torah, out of which God will speak.
But Moses had to travel
to the top of a mountain to obtain the basic covenantal laws for his
nation-in-the-making. When Moses was away for a while, the people became
restless and discontented, not unusual for them. Aaron, the brother of Moses,
initiated an unusual response. He requested the gold jewelry of everyone. He
melted it all down to make a golden calf to worship and credit with having
brought them out of the land of Egypt.
In my assessment, the golden calf was a preference for a “native” state
rather than a nation in the making. The Israelites and the Golden Calf did not
share any memories; no covenant bound them together. The Golden Calf was inert
and did not react to or relate with other substances. It was stable, constant
and balanced, and symbolized an emphasis on the natural, the earth-bound as the
driving force. In contrast, relations with God stress hope and promise, ethical
principles and laws, but a relationship that is very tumultuous. There is no
relating to a Golden Calf. God, on the other hand, is defined by His
Where God is made sensible through voice, the Golden Calf is made
sensible only through vision. As stated above, the calf is earth-bound and
spends most of its time with his head down. In the mishkan still to be built, cherubim have wings and can fly. “Their wings are spread like a
protective bower, not to obscure a vision of the Divine Presence, but to frame
the empty space where God’s presence is made sensible as voice.” God speaks from a space (tokh)
between the two-winged figurines.
Whereas the Golden Calf stands front
and centre before the Israelites, God lives in
the midst of the Israelites. Temples in the ancient Near
East were furnished with the statue of a god at its centre…to satisfy the need
to have a golden image of the deity at the Temple’s centre. In contrast, for
the Israelites, God is in between. God is among. God is a connector not
an occupier. “The cherubim frame an elusive presence that
cannot be fixed and are themselves rarely if ever seen.”
God belongs in this world. But the world is not God’s place. That is the
paradox. שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו. God is an in-dweller. But God
is the ultimate outsider and dwells among the Israelites as a stranger, as a
refugee from somewhere else. And this is the most profound part.
puzzle of the whole incident is not its meaning, but that Aaron, the High Priest,
never admits his error. There is no atonement, no confession, no accountability
by Aaron that he did anything wrong in making the Golden Calf. Except
indirectly. His two sons die for making a very slight error in managing the
holy fire. Aaron is a foil for Moses. More importantly, Aaron is a foil for God
who differs from both Aaron and Moses.
Unlike Moses, God does
not persuade. He orders. He commands. He even terrorizes them into compliance.
If Moses is intemperate, he is no competitor to God. The latter forgets
His Covenants with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, forgets His
historical objectives with this “Chosen People.” When the Israelites turn to
worshipping the Golden Calf, God, in an apparent fury, proposed to exterminate
His people. Moses had to rescue God from a catastrophic error of judgment. If
we accept the story as written, God seems to need both complete submission from
His human chattels, but also the advice from Moses, as one author put it, his
“consigliore,” who possesses a clearer head in a crisis. That is what it takes
to be a leader.
After all, “the
Israelites are corrupt, petty, mean-spirited, fickle, cowardly, disloyal,
thoughtless, dishonorable, and stubborn. How can it be that Jews, notable for
venerating the past, would fill their Scriptures with such a demeaning portrait
of their forebears? Why would God choose such a rabble?” After all God means
for them to become a holy nation and a witness for all other nations.
God is not jealous in the sense
of feeling resentment and rivalry because of the success of the other, but is
jealous in fear of the disloyalty of one’s betrothed. God is not governed by
the politics of resentment, but by an absolute intolerance of unfaithfulness,
not of a rival, but of a partner. And God has good cause given the propensity
of the Israelites to desert the cause of change for a quest for stability that
finds security in the reification of things, in idolatry. God is jealous in
guarding the freedom that He has bestowed upon humanity when those in whom he
has entrusted that gift so often betray it and opt for the security of dogma,
of givens, of a fixed order.
However, Machiavelli is much
more concerned with the portrait of Moses, one of the greatest political
leaders of all time. God is just a terrifying backdrop, akin to a Medici. What
does Machiavelli make of Moses initiating a civil war and massacring 3,000
Israelites? Why does Moses believe that he has to employ his virtù to use
violence and lies to achieve presumably lawful goals?
Recall that God wanted to wipe
out all the Israelites, but he is persuaded to leave the problem with Moses.
However, Moses lies to his people and insists that God commanded him to execute
his disloyal kinsmen. Presumably, both lying and murder are sometimes necessary
to assert leadership as much as such incidents turn my stomach. However, that
is more proof that I could never be a political leader. For, according to
Machiavelli, to be a true leader, one must sometimes rise to the challenge of
using both deceit and putting down an insurrection by executing your fellow
And Aaron, who did not simply
permit the rebels to take over, but initiated the move and then blamed the
people for asking him to make gods who shall go before us? Absolutely nothing
happens, at least nothing directly linked to this behaviour. But leadership is
also a matter of indirection and public relations. Moses needed Aaron’s voice,
needed Aaron’s role as a mediator. For a morally sensitive soul, that is the
But Machiavelli makes very
clear that bleeding hearts have no place in the executive offices of a nation.
For Machiavelli, moral posturing and empathetic identification are serious
weaknesses. That does not mean that you fail to recognize suffering. Rather, it
is precisely by recognizing suffering and its sources that you learn how
important good governance is. “If any reading is useful to citizens who govern
republics, it is that which shows the causes of hatreds and factional struggles
within the city, in order that such citizens, having grown wise through the
suffering of others, can keep themselves united.”