Moses After the Bulrushes
by Philip Trower
As I am sure the majority of my readers know, one of the most hotly debated subjects among Scripture scholars over the last two hundred years or so has been the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. How much if any of it did Moses write? And how much, if any, dates from his time? Outside the Catholic Church, as discussion and debate proceeded so did scepticism until it reached a high point with the theories of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1914).
The Church tackled the situation in two stages. The first culminated in the decrees of the Pontifical Commission of 1906 which concentrated on repudiating the more negative propositions in current critical thinking. The second, which took a less hardline view of the subject and allowed Catholic biblical scholars more freedom of debate came to a climax with the Commission’s letter to Card. Suhard of Paris in January 1948. Balanced criticism and the results of allied sciences, it said, will establish beyond doubt ‘the large part and profound influence of Moses as author and legislator.’ Elsewhere it predicted that further study would no doubt demonstrate in the Pentateuch ‘the large contribution and profound influence of Moses as author and as legislator.’
For a good summary of the current situation I recommend the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (editor Dom Bernard Orchard 1949) which reads as follows. “It has long been recognised that the Pentateuch has not come down to us precisely as it left the hands of Moses and that apart from the errors of copyists it has received additions and modifications…… So when Mosaic authorship is spoken of it must be borne in mind that the authorship meant is that of the work as a whole with allowances for subsequent modifications.”
To supplement this we have the opinion of the reknowned Protestant biblical archaeologist, W.F. Albright. “It is sheer hypercriticism to deny the substantial Mosaic character of the Mosaic tradition.”
Recently all this had been revolving in my mind when it suddenly occurred to me that if we consider what we know about Moses’ upbringing and early manhood it is almost a matter of common sense that he should be considered the major or ‘substantial’ author of the five Pentateucal books.
What do we know? Chapter 2 of Exodus tells us that after he was found in the bulrushes by Pharaoh’s daughter, she gave him to his mother, without knowing she was his mother, to nurse and care for him until he was weaned or was old enough for the princess to adopt him. We are not told how old this was. All the text say is “And the child grew, and she (the mother) brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses,‘ because’ she said ‘I drew him out of the water.’” (Ex 2. v 10)
In addition we have what St Stephen tells us in his speech before the Sanhedrin in the Acts of the Apostles. Here the inspired text tells us that “he was brought up for three months in his father’s house; and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians… was mighty in words and deeds…. and when he was forty years old it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel’.
When doing so, it will be remembered, he sees an Egyptian ill-treating a Hebrew, in a fit of anger kills the Egyptian, and flees to the land of Midian to escape punishment. Here he marries and lives with his father-in-law Jethro until summoned by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the People of Israel to freedom. The Midianite tribes at that time occupied the east side of the Sinai peninsula.
Meanwhile there is so much we would love to know about his years of boyhood, youth and manhood at the Egyptian court. With all the necessary reservations, his position would have been not unlike that of a poor Indian boy adopted by a daughter of Queen Victoria, brought up at Buckingham Palace, educated at Eton and Oxford and ending up a member of the Royal Society.
How much if any contact did he have with his natural family? Was his surrogate mother unmarried, or married but childless? What did the ‘wisdom of the Egyptians’ consist of? In what way did he show himself mighty in words and deeds? Did he also at times — as would have been natural for a boy and young man in his position — feel embarrassed about his origins? Steeped as he was in Egyptian culture, it seems likely. Did he also at times over-hear mocking tittle-tattle about his origins? While the princess, his surrogate mother, was alive, probably not. But were she, as seems likely, to have died before he fled things could well have become different. The fact that he was forty when he slew the Egyptian for ill-treating the Hebrew suggests that he had only recently become interested in his Hebrew origins. He must often have seen Hebrews being ill-treated before without being roused to anger.
In the following period when he worked for his father-in-law Jethro we can see the hand of providence preparing him for the third and final period of his life. From being a ‘man about court’, he learns to live in the desert, be a herdsman and look after cattle and sheep. It is in this capacity that he visits Sinai for the first time and has his first recorded encounter with God in the Burning Bush.
So here we have a man of exceptional abilities, civilised, literate, highly educated, and launched on one of the greatest careers in human history with, as far as we know, only one defect — a speech impediment which caused him when necessary to use his brother Aaron as his spokesman. It would surely have been extraordinary if such a man had not left behind a whole mass of writings and that, in so far as possible, they would have been carefully preserved, or as carefully as possible in the circumstances of the time.
Leaving aside the fact that, as he tells us, God directly ordered him to write down certain things, how was such a man going to occupy his evenings for the forty years during which he slowly led his people from Sinai towards the eastern borders of the Holy Land. The majority of his fellow Israelites would have had completely different tastes. A proportion must have been literate — there was already a written Hebrew language for him to use. But the majority living in the land of Goschen would, until forced to become brick-makers, have been the equivalent of peasant farmers and shepherds.
Coming to the subject matter of the Pentateuch’s five books, writing Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and writing Genesis would have been like the difference between business and pleasure. In the former he was dealing with ‘current affairs’. He was laying down the rules and regulations which would transform the Israelites from wandering tribes into a settled people with a unique vocation; the worship and service of the one true living God for the benefit of the whole human race. In Genesis on the other hand he would be recording his ancestral traditions which would have been all the more fascinating seeing that he would have been unlikely to have known much about them until he rejoined his people after the years in Midian.
We do not apparently know how many of these traditions, if any, already existed in written form or whether they were still being passed down orally. There are even, it seems, scholars who think they may originally have been transmitted in verse and sung form like the Homeric epics seeing that it is easier to remember large quantities of text that way.
So much for Moses as author and legislator.
I would like to end with a few more words about Holy Scripture and critical scholarship or rather about how and why the latter can be reconciled the Church’s teaching about divine inspiration and biblical inerrancy in so far as it involves calling in question the veracity or authenticity of certain passages.
Basically it is because God does not intervene to prevent the manuscripts through which his Word has come down to us from suffering the same hazards as the manuscripts of other ancient works of literature, the principal ones being mistakes by copyists and interpolations by later authors. Only the words which came from the hands of the original authors are inspired. Had God done otherwise, had the texts of Holy Scripture, alone among all the other works of ancient literature which have come down to us been identical and error free, it would so obviously be miraculous that it would compel belief and faith would cease to be a free act.
In a sense the Presence of the Holy Spirit in Holy Scripture resembles the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. In the latter non-believers can only see bread and wine; in the former what looks like a collection of records and legends no different from those of other ancient peoples. You cannot recognize either Presence without the gift of faith.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2017
Version: 23rd March 2017