Moses as Lawgiver

What is a lawgiver? In exploring this question, we turn to Moses, the earliest example of a lawgiver, and we contrast his character with others who came before him, such Abraham or King Hammurabi.

rembrandt moses
Moses Breaking the Tablets by Rembrandt in 1659

Abraham, the teacher of the Israelites, is a father of a people -of “many nations” as promised by the Lord. He is given this covenant by the Lord, who routinely tests his obedience. The promise is first as expressed to Abraham in order to ‘make Abraham a great nation’, to ‘bless him’, to ‘make his name great’, and ‘make him a blessing’. Abraham, then called Abram, follows these instructions without qualification or question. He is, throughout his travels, rigidly obedient to the Lord, El Shaddai, also called El Elyon. For this reason, and of being exposed to divine revelation, Abraham is called a “prophet” (Genesis 20) for his mahazeh, or prophetic revelations from the Lord. However, Abraham never prophesies anything found in the text. He is model for the Israelite people, an obedient servant who flings “himself down on his face” before god more than once. He cannot be a lawgiver because he does not protect his own -he is not political. Consider his obedient decision to bring his only son, Isaac, as sacrifice. With cleaver in hand, a deux ex machina appears -a divine revelation from the “messenger” of God who prevents the killing. Abraham is held in high esteem by the Israelites for his “fear” of God, to the point of sacrificing his own progeny (22:12-15).

Moses on the other hand, is born of an unknown Leviite father, possibly the chid of rape (Exodus 2:1-4). His youth is also shrouded in secrecy as a product of the Egyptian law destroy all male children among the Israelites. Like Noah he is rescued through an ark, or tevah, by the pity of Pharoh’s daughter.

As Moses grows, he conceals his unjust deeds. He kills an Egyptian man for striking down a “Hebrew brother” (2:11-13), and returns out the following day to inquire about a brawl between two Hebrew men. Moses speaks to the one in the wrong, presumably Moses has already passed judgement on their moral status. The man responds by demanding authority for Moses by asking who sent him to prince or judge over the Hebrews. He then recalls Moses’s killing of the Egyptian and burying him in the sand. It is only at this point that Moses becomes alarmed, or “afraid” -only when knowledge of his illicit deed is seen or heard does Moses begin to fear. Unlike Abraham who lives terrified of the Lord, Moses lives beyond good and evil, living beyond the reach of the Pharonic regime.

When first the “messenger” of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, and later the Lord appears in the smoke to tell him to bring the Israelites up out of Egypt, Moses asks for authority from God three times (Exodus 3-4). Moses is concerned with the political question, his authority must be justified to the people otherwise he will be laughed, at or killed. Therefore, the Lord provides three signs and wonders, miracles to persuade the people of Moses’s divine quest. For the masses are compelled by divine wonders more than anything else. However, Moses is still not satisfied and requires a speaking partner, Aaron, flaring the “wrath” of the Lord.

After the flight from Egypt, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the laws from God. The laws are masked in secrecy, their creation must be kept private from the masses. Nevertheless, the people grow impatient and, under Aaron, create a golden calf to worship the Lord. Moses pleads with the Lord and his wrath, not unlike the wrath of Achilles, to spare his people and remember the covenant He made -and this agreement works. Moses is able to persuade the Lord. However, back in the camp, he instructs the Levites to kill each of their brothers, men, and kin. Moses wants to burn a painful destructive memory into their heads, while preserving the Israelite tribe. 3,000  men are killed, and Moses rewrites the ten words on two tablets in his own hand. Moses is given the law, but not allowed the see the future city. He speaks it to the people, for law never proceeds from the bottom up, even in the most democratic regimes. The lawgiver can only give forth, like a cup that is overflowing.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

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