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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE FOUNDING OF THE HEBREW NATION
We have two sources from which to draw material for the life of Moses. We have, first, the Biblical account of the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and their sojourn in the Wilderness, and, second, the narrative of the same events given by Josephus. The chief authority of Josephus was the Bible itself, and, accordingly, his narrative agrees in the main with that given in the Pentateuch. In his account of the early life of Moses, however, Josephus followed an extra-scriptural tradition, but apparently an old one, since it seems to throw light on an otherwise obscure passage in the Book of Numbers. The story given by Josephus of the youth of Moses, briefly told, is this:
Pharaoh had been warned by one of the sacred scribes of Egypt that a child was about to be born to the Hebrews, who, if reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and he therefore issued orders to the midwives to put to death every Hebrew male child, as is related in the first chapter of Exodus. The story of the birth of Moses and his preservation in an ark committed to the waters of the Nile is, in the main, the same as that given in the Bible. Now Moses' understanding, Josephus goes on to say, was above his age, and his height when he was but three years old was wonderful, and as for his beauty, there was no one but did greatly marvel at it. So Therrnuthis this was the name of Pharaoh's daughter adopted him for het son. And on one occasion she took Moses to see her father and showed him to him, and said she thought to make the boy her heir and his successor. Then she put him into her father's hands. And Pharaoh took the child and hugged him, and, to please his daughter, placed his diadem upon his head. But Moses threw it down to the ground and trod upon it with his feet. And the priests who witnessed the act were horrified, and they said : "Surely this is the Hebrew child of whom we have been forewarned," and they counseled Pharaoh to slay him. But Thermuthis snatched the child away, and the King was loth to do him harm, for God himself protected Moses and inclined the King to spare his life.
Now, when Moses had come to maturity it so happened that the Ethiopians made-an inroad into Egypt, and plundered and carried off the goods of the Egyptians, who, in their rage, marched against them; but being overcome in a great battle, some of them were slain and the rest ran away in a shameful manner. And the Ethiopians followed after them in hot pursuit, and ravaged the country far and wide, and proceeded as far as Memphis and the sea, not one of the cities being able to hold out against them. In this extremity the Egyptians had recourse to their oracles; and when God had counseled them to call upon the Hebrew for aid, the King commanded his daughter to produce Moses, that he might be their General.
So Moses, at the entreaty of Thermuthis, undertook the business. He assumed the command of the Egyptian army, and having come upon the enemy unawares, he defeated them in a great battle, nor did he slacken his vigor until he had driven them out of Egypt, and had forced them to retire into Saba, the royal city of Ethiopia. This city was well-nigh impregnable, being surrounded by the Nile and two other rivers, and being besides encompassed by a strong wall. And while Moses was besieging the city and was unable to take it, Tharbis, the daughter of the King of the Ethiopians, chanced to see him as he approached near the wall, and she fell deeply in love with him. She sent to him a faithful servant to propose marriage, and he accepted the offer on condition that she would procure the surrender of the city. The condition was agreed to, the city was delivered up, and Moses kept his word and married Tharbis.
The legend here abridged from that given by Josephus would be of little interest did it not seem to throw light on the passage in Numbers xii : I, "And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman."
Moses was now obliged to flee from Egypt. According to the Scriptural account he had slain an Egyptian, whom he had come upon maltreating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. Josephus says that the cause of his flight was his discovery that the Egyptians, envious of the great reputation he had gained in the Ethiopian War, and fearing that he would stir up a revolution in Egypt, were plotting against his life. But, whatever the cause, Moses fled beyond the Red Sea into the desert, to the city of Midian. Here he found favor with Raguel, the high priest of Midian known also as Jethro who gave Moses one of his seven daughters, Zipporah, in marriage. (Ex. ii :16-21.)
It was while Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law at the foot of Mount Sinai that the Lord appeared to him in a burning bush (Ex. iii :2), and commissioned him to be the deliverer of his brethren out of their bondage to Egypt. At the same time, to mark the beginning of a new era in the religious life of the Israelites, a new name by which henceforward they should know the God of their forefathers was revealed to Moses a name which eventually came to be regarded as too sacred for utterance.* And when Moses hesitated to undertake so difficult a task, the Lord associated with him his brother Aaron, who could speak well, and who might serve as his spokesman before the people. Moreover, Moses was given the power of working miracles with his rod, to prove before the people his divine commission.
We may pass over the story of Moses' return to Egypt, his revealing himself to the elders of the Hebrews, his long contest with Pharaoh not the same Pharaoh from whom he had fled, but his successor to obtain from him permission for the Hebrews to go a three-days' journey into the wilderness to hold a feast to their God, his final success, after the Lord had grievously afflicted Egypt with divers plagues, because of the obstinacy of her King, and we will take up the story after the miraculous passage of the Red Sea. One thing, however, should be previously noted the institution of the Passover.
The history of the Jewish Passover is a complicated one. It has been the subject of much controversy among the Jews themselves. It is held to commemorate an occurrence which took place on the eve of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt, and which is related in the twelfth chapter of Exodus. The Lord had declared to Moses, when Pharaoh had remained stubborn under all of the many evils that had been brought upon his country, that he would inflict upon Egypt yet one other calamity, and that then Pharaoh's heart would be softened and he would let the Hebrews depart. At midnight the Angel of Death should go through the land and should smite all the first-born in the land, from the first-born of Pharaoh himself to the first-born of the maid-servant behind the mill and the first-born of beasts; but that the Hebrews should be left unscathed. They had only to seta mark upon their dwellings, and to perform certain rites in which they were instructed, and to stay within doors, and the angel would pass them over so that none of them should die. On the tenth day of the month every head of a family should choose a lamb without spot or blemish, a male of the first year, and should keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, when the whole assembly of the congregation should kill it in the evening. And with a branch of hyssop dipped in the blood of the lamb they should mark the lintels of the door of the house wherein the sacrifice should be eaten. They should eat the flesh roasted, and not raw nor boiled, and they should eat it with bitter herbs and with unleavened bread; and they should leave none of the flesh until morning, but all that was not eaten should be consumed with fire. The Israelites did as Moses had commanded, following these and sundry other directions which were given them; and that night, as had been fore-told would happen, the Lord smote all the first-born of the Egyptians, but passed over the houses of which the doors were marked with the blood of the paschal lamb. Then Pharaoh arose in the night and sent for Moses and Aaron, and bade them lead forth their brethren without delay, and to take their flocks with them, and to go and serve the Lord, as they had asked leave to do. This event happened in the spring of the year, in the month Nisan, and this became henceforward the first month of the Jewish year.
After their passage of the Red Sea the Israelites journeyed into the desert of Arabia, and in the third month after setting out from Egypt they came into the wilderness of Sinai. This had been from the first the objective point of Moses, and here he now set to work to organize his people to give them those peculiar civil, religious, and military institutions which were to distinguish them from all other nationalities for all time. He began by appointing judges for the people, selecting from among them able men, "such as feared God, men of truth, hating covetousness," and appointing them to be "rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." (Ex. xviii :21.) Hitherto he himself had been the sole judge, as well as the leader of the host. By this simple organization of justice he relieved himself of a great part of its labor, though still retaining in his own hands the supreme authority. "All the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged them-selves."
And now was made by the people, through the medium of Moses, a solemn covenant with the Lord, which settled for all time the singularly religious character of the He-brew polity. For the Lord directed Moses to say unto the people, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bear you on eagle's wings and brought you unto myself. Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, ye shall be a peculiar treasure to me above all people; for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." And when Moses had laid these words before the people, they answered together and said, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do."
Whether this account of the covenant is understood literally, or is taken rather as the formal expression of a traditional belief, it contains an undeniable truth. It sets forth in forcible language a characteristic of the Hebrew-nationality, a fundamental article of the Hebrew faith. That which distinguished the ancient Hebrew Nation from all other Nations was not so much its monotheism as the attendant belief that it stood in a peculiar relation to the Deity. It was a chosen people, separated from among the Nations as an object of the peculiar care of the Deity, and hence bound to him by a special tie. The creed of the Nation may be summed up in the simple formula, "Jehovah is the God of Israel, and Israel is the people of Jehovah." In a Nation which existed under this firm conviction, everything centered in religion. Laws, customs, ceremonials, even minute directions respecting the habiliments of the priests, were received directly from a divine source, through the medium of Moses, amid the awful thunderings and flames of Mount Sinai.
Ten of these laws were of so fundamental an importance, and therefore so peculiarly sacred, that the tables on which they were written, and which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, were believed to have been inscribed by the very finger of the Most High. Other Nations have similarly had fundamental laws, which were held in peculiar veneration the Twelve Tables, for example, on which were inscribed the laws of the Roman Decemvirs but in no other case has a divine source been claimed for these laws, or, if claimed, been given such prominence as in this of the Hebrew Decalogue.
A year was spent by Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai in establishing his ordinances of religion in building a movable sanctuary, with all its paraphernalia and utensils, and in making ready the vestments of his priests. On the first day of the first month in the second year after the Israelites had left Egypt the tabernacle was erected, the ark, the mercy-seat, the altar, and all of the sacred emblems were placed in position and were duly consecrated by Moses, and Aaron and his sons were invested with their sacerdotal robes and were solemnly ordained for the service for which they had been appointed. Henceforward the tabernacle, and not Sinai, was to be the place whence the Lord made manifest his will, through his high priests, to the people.
Moses' next care, after having provided for civil administration and for religious observances, was to effect a military organization among his people. Assisted by Aaron and by twelve men, chosen one from each of the twelve tribes, he took a census of all who were able to bear military service. Over each tribe he appointed a captain, and to each tribe he assigned the position it should occupy with reference to the tabernacle, when they were in camp, and likewise its position in the line of march. But from this military organization the Levites, the tribe to which he and Aaron belonged, were excepted. To them was as-signed the care of the tabernacle, and their place in camp was in its immediate neighborhood, and on the march they formed its body-guard.
The purpose for which Moses had tarried at Mount Sinai was now attained. He had organized his people and had transformed a lawless host into a Nation. He had given it a priesthood, a ritual, a body of laws and a military organization. The young Nation was now ready to be led into the land in which it had been ordained, and promised that it should establish itself. But the children of Israel proved unworthy of the prize, quailed before the difficulties and dangers in their way, and rebelled, with the consequence of condemnation to a long wandering in the desert.
To trace the course of this forty-years' wandering of the Israelites is not easy, nor is it necessary here. Two incidents of this long sojourn in the desert may be noted, as showing that the unlimited authority which Moses had assumed over the Israelites was not tamely submitted to in all quarters, but met with strong opposition from some of the more aspiring and influential of the people. The first is the rebellion of Korah, narrated in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers. Korah was a Levite and a man of prominence in his tribe; and he seems to have voiced a wide-spread feeling of dissatisfaction against Moses for what seemed gross favoritism in appointing his own brother, Aaron, high priest. Two hundred and fifty "princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown," united with Korah in open rebellion against the pretensions of Aaron. How the rebellion was put down is told in Numbers xvi:16-38. The second of the incidents referred to is the test of the rods, by which Aaron demonstrated his divine commission, and put down the last remaining vestige of opposition to his authority as high priest. (Numbers xvii :1-8.)
In the beginning of the fortieth year of their wandering the Israelites came to Mount Hor, and here Aaron died, and Eleazar, his son, became high priest.
The term of forty years of expiation had now nearly expired. Moses therefore now began a direct movement upon Canaan, and came to the River Arnon, which, rising in the mountains of Arabia, flows westward into the Dead Sea. South of the Arnon were the Moabites ; north of it were the Amorites. It was necessary for the Israelites to pass through the country of the latter in order to reach the Jordan, and Moses asked of their King Sihon permission so to do, promising to abstain from all acts of hostility; but Sihon, instead of granting this request, led his army out to oppose the Hebrews, and was defeated in a great battle. The Israelites now entered and took possession of the whole country of the Amorites, from the River Arnon on the south to the River Jabbok on the north a tributary of the Jordan. Then followed an attack upon them by King Og, whose dominions lay north of the Jabbok, and he, too, was defeated, and his land was added to the possessions of the Israelites. Finally, a successful war upon the Midianites left them in secure possession of an extensive country eastward of the Jordan, opposite Jericho.
The great work of Moses had now been accomplished, and it remained only for him to make arrangements preparatory to his departure from his people. A second census of the people was taken by Moses, assisted by Eleazar, the high priest, and it was found that among them was not a man who had been numbered in the first census, taken at Sinai. All had perished in the wilderness, save only Caleb and Joshua.
Moses now formally ordained Joshua as his successor. He also now built, or selected, ten of the forty-eight cities which he had previously by law assigned to the Levites, and three of the ten were set apart as cities of refuge for persons who had involuntarily committed homicide.
And now came a formal and impressive farewell to his people. Gathering the congregation together at a point in the plain of Moab, near the Jordan, he delivered to them an address, in which he foretold many things which would happen to them and gave them fatherly advice as to their future conduct. He also gave them a more complete code of laws that which now forms the Book of Deuteronomy. Finally, "Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho," to view the land which he was not permitted to enter. And there, upon Pisgah, Moses died, or, as Josephus says, doubtless on the strength of some old tradition, "while he was still embracing Eleazar and Joshua, a cloud stood over him on a sudden, and he disappeared in a certain ravine." His age when he died was one hundred and twenty years. No spot was ever pointed out as his resting place.
Attempts have been made by critical students of the Scriptures to rationalize the stories of Moses and the Exodus to allegorize or otherwise to explain away their miraculous incidents. It may be questioned whether any useful result can follow from such a proceeding. The moment we begin to take freedom with tradition, whether in sacred or profane history, we enter upon an uncertain path, which may lead us we know not whither. We must either accept without question the narrative as it stands, or admit an entire ignorance of the true story of Moses, unless we can find some light in the laws which he is credited with giving.
Historical criticism may question the accuracy of the tradition as to the origin of the Mosaic laws. It may see in this code, as it does elsewhere, no more than a product of the slow development and gradual establishment of customs extending back in the history of the Nation to a time far beyond the reach of tradition. But does this necessarily destroy the historical character of Moses? Unquestionably such a supposition, if admitted, would destroy his character as a divinely commissioned law-giver, but it might still leave him his character as a wise legislator. Indeed, from the very nature of the case, it is not possible that a disconnected body of customs and practices, often conflicting with one another, should become embodied into a systematic code without the supervision of an organizer, able to bring out of a chaos of traditional practices order and harmony. This being conceded, we may discover in both the polity and the ceremonial of the Hebrews' characteristics which bear plainly the impress of a single mind. Tradition refers these characteristics to Moses, and sound criticism cannot set aside the pretension, even though it may question the accuracy of the story of Moses, as it has come down to us, just as it does that of every great figure which Iooms up in the mist of prehistoric time. Some man of a strong and commanding personality must have appeared, at some time in the history of the forming Hebrew Nation, to mold its character, give form to its religion, and to organize its laws, and who can this priest and legislator have been if not Moses?