Sunday, October 09, 2005

Could Moses' Hands Make War? (On Moses' Human Limitations)

Questions on the Mishnah

In Judaism, the “Written Law” contained in the first five books of the bible is interpreted and supplemented by the dynamic tradition of “Oral Law”. Originally, the Oral Law was in fact just that, an unwritten body of legal lore that was transmitted through speech and preserved in memory. It has long since been committed to writing, and has burgeoned into a huge and complex literature. Of course, the Oral Law can never be entirely captured by the written word simply because the collective future religious insights of the Jewish people cannot be contained in any finite library.

The Mishnah is the earliest canonical compilation of the Oral Law. It consists of six main subdivisions or “orders”, each of which contains several tractates, which are further divided into chapters. The chapters themselves are composed of a sequence of short, relatively independent paragraphs, each of which is referred to as a mishnah. Most of the Mishnah consists of laconically formulated rulings dealing with ritual, civil and criminal matters. It is therefore somewhat surprising to discover, in the third chapter of the tractate Rosh Hashana, a purely exegetical and theological statement:

Could it be that Moses' hands make war or break war? Rather [the verse's intention is] to tell you that when Israel gazed upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would prevail, and if not they would fall.

A bit of background will be necessary to make the Mishnah’s meaning clear. It refers to an incident recounted in the seventeenth chapter of the book of Exodus. Soon after leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the Children of Israel were attacked for the first time by their eternal nemesis, Amalek. The Torah tells us that in response to the attack, Moses sent forth Joshua to assemble an army to oppose the enemy. Meanwhile, Moses ascended a hill overlooking the scene of battle, taking with him Aaron, Hur and the "rod of God", which had assisted him in the performance of previous miracles. "And it came to pass", the Torah relates, "when Moses held up his hands, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed" (Exodus 17: 11). Eventually, Moses became incapable of keeping his hands up by himself, so he sat on a rock and let Aaron and Hur support his arms. With their help, Moses was able to hold up his hands until sunset and the completion of Israel's victory over the Amalekites.

The Mishnah wants us to know Moses himself was not directly responsible for the battle’s outcome. Rather, victory was dependent upon the reawakening of faith in the people who were inspired by his gesture. The Mishnah’s comment on this story raises some serious questions: Many great miracles are attributed to Moses, including several of the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and bringing forth water from the rock; why not simply add the defeat of Amalek to the list? How did the Israelites commitment to God effect their victory? What purpose is served by Moses’ miracle-working? Finally, and most pertinently to the theme of the present book, how do these issues bear upon Moses’ power and authority as a leader and prophet?

Miracles Establish Moses’ Authority

Clearly, one of the central purposes served by Moses’ performance of miracles is the establishment of his authority as a prophet of God and as the divinely chosen leader of the children of Israel. In his first encounter with God at the burning bush at Horeb, Moses is already concerned that elders of Israel will question the authenticity of his revelation and asks, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you?” God calms Moses’ worry by arming him with two convincing miracles, first, the metamorphoses of his staff into a snake, and second, the instant affliction of Moses’ hand with disfiguring leprosy and its equally sudden cure. God assures Moses, “And if they do not believe you or pay heed to the first sign, they will believe the second” (Ex. 4: 8). If, never the less, neither miracle should prove convincing, Moses “shall take some water from the Nile and pour it upon the dry ground; and the water that you have taken from the Nile will turn to blood on the dry ground” (Ex. 4: 9). Miracles continue to instill faith in Moses mission throughout the redemptive process. After witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Egypt’s charioteers, “When Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord: they had faith in the Lord, and in His servant Moses” (Ex 14: 31).

Nowhere does the bible more clearly indicate the importance of Moses’ miracle working for his prophetic authority than in his eulogy contained in the closing verses of Deuteronomy:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharoah and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.
(Deut. 34: 10-12)

These verses are of paramount theological importance for Judaism. If Moses can be proven preeminent among prophets, then the content of his prophecies (the Torah) will out-rank any possible future revelation. No prophet will ever have the authority to dismiss or contradict Moses’ teachings. Read this way, the verses seem to imply that Moses’ unequalled role as a miracle-worker underwrites the eternal validity of Torah and of Judaism itself as the religion of the Torah. Later we shall see that some Jewish thinkers, especially the great Moses Maimonides, balked at the notion that Judaism could be so directly dependent on the performance of miracles for its validation. In the meantime, a brief look at the early career of Joshua, Moses’ successor, will offer a final line of evidence for the importance of miracles for the establishment of Moses’ leadership.

The People Test Joshua

As everyone knows, Moses did not live to enter the Promised Land. The task of its conquest and settlement fell to his protege, Joshua. The first chapter of the Book of Joshua finds him soon after Moses’ death, being instructed by God to ready the people for the entry into Canaan. Joshua’s first order of business is to require from the members of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the members of Menassah that they make good on their earlier promise to Moses. Numbers 32 relates how these tribes asked Moses to be allowed to settle outside of Canaan proper in the lands captured to the east of the Jordan river. Moses agreed to this on the condition that they joined the other tribes in the war of conquest. Now Joshua needs to be sure that he can depend on their military contribution. The two and a half tribes agree to keep their end of the bargain, but also make it clear that their continued allegiance will depend on the continuing validation of Joshua’s prophetic and political credentials:

They answered Joshua, “We will do everything you have commanded us and we will go wherever you send us. We will obey you just as we obeyed Moses; let but the Lord your God be with you as He was with Moses!”
(Josh. 1: 16-17)

It would seem that Joshua is in for some trouble. The people require that he prove to be no less close to God than was his predecessor, but Deuteronomy has stated that no other prophet will enjoy Moses’ miracle-working abilities and intimate relationship with God. Indeed, their demand is a bit unfair. After all, Joshua is merely carrying out a program whose details had already been announced in some detail by Moses himself. In any case, something must be done to secure Joshua’s standing, and once again the testimony of a miracle serves this purpose. Eventually, God speaks to Joshua reassuringly, “This day, for the first time, I will exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they shall know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Josh 3:7). If Israel came to believe in Moses after crossing the Red Sea on the dry land of the sea bed, Joshua’s authority is confirmed by Israel crossing the dry river bed of the Jordan, whose flow is miraculously cut off for their convenience. The significance of the event is clearly underlined by scripture, “On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, so that they revered him all his days as they had revered Moses” (Josh. 4: 14). The point of the story seems to be that similarly impressive miracles produce similarly effective authority.

Miracles Invite Idolatry

If Moses’ miracle-working is crucial for the establishment of his authority, and by implication, the authority of the Torah itself, why is the Mishnah wary of attributing to him yet another miracle, i.e. the victory over Amalek? The beginning of an answer may be found in the very next statement of the Mishnah itself, which reads in its entirety as follows:

Could it be that Moses' hands make war or break war? Rather [the verse's intention is] to tell you that when Israel gazed upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would prevail, and if not they would fall. Similarly, you say, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover” (Num. 21: 8). Could it be that the snake kills or the snake revives? Rather, when Israel gaze upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven they would be healed, and if not, they would waste away.

Once again, some background should help clarify the Mishnah’s message. Numbers 21: 4-9 tells of one of the incidents of mutiny which occurred during Israel’s forty year journey through the desert. The people complain that they are tired and hungry and sorry they had left Egypt. God sends out poisonous seraph snakes to punish them, killing many. When the people plead with Moses that he intercede for them, God instructs Moses to make a copper figure of a snake which effects a cure in any victim of snake bite who simply looks at it. Once again the Mishnah insists that supernatural powers not be attributed to something or someone which appears to perform miracles. However, the radical nature of the Mishnah’s point can only be understood if we take into account further historical developments. Centuries after its creation, the copper snake would be destroyed by Hezekiah, the great reforming king of Judah:

He did what was pleasing to the Lord, just as his father David had done. He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the copper serpent which Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted only in the Lord the God of Israel…
(II Kings 18: 3-5)

From the Second Book of Kings we learn that the earthly emblems or conduits of divine power, even when instituted by God, can eventually be mistaken as being themselves divine. The copper snake made by Moses under God’s direct instruction came to be worshipped as a god. From the perspective of a king who “trusted only in the Lord God of Israel”, it had to be destroyed as would any other idol. If Hezekiah robbed the copper snake of its physical presence, the Mishnah undermines Nehushtan’s magical presence. The once powerful fetish is reduced to a mere sign post pointing towards heaven, God’s metaphorical home.

By comparing Moses with the copper snake, the Mishnah suggests that human conduits of divine power, such as great prophets and miracle-workers, can also become objects of idolatrous worship. The faithful might forget that the ultimate role of such religious leaders is merely to direct attention towards God himself. More radically, we might wonder whether Moses’ death might, under certain circumstances, become as necessary as Nehushtan’s destruction. That is a question which will be addressed later in this chapter.

An Alternative Foundation for Moses’ Authority

Moses, like Nehushtan, is reduced by the Mishnah into a mere pointer indicating God’s heavenly abode. However, we must recall that there remains a crucial difference between Moses and the copper snake. There is hardly any theological price to pay for demoting Nehushtan, a ritual object which was never granted an important place in the canonical rites of biblical Judaism. Moses, however, is the greatest of prophets, and his Torah is the ultimate revelation. His miracles are the guarantors of the Torah’s legitimacy. The inherent conflict between the need to establish Moses’ authority through his miracle working and the need to play down Moses’ supernatural powers in order to avoid his deification will not easily be resolved.

One obvious solution to our dilemma is to propose a different foundation for Moses’ authority. Some writers have tried to do this by pointing to the unique conditions surrounding Moses’ crucial revelatory moment, the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. For instance, the great medieval legal scholar and philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that:

Israel did not believe in Moses our Master because of the signs he performed, since one who believes because of signs is uncertain of heart, for it is possible that the sign was performed through trickery or magic. Rather, all of the signs which Moses performed in the desert were done as needed, not in order to bring evidence for [the validity of] his prophecy. It was necessary to sink the Egyptians - he split the sea and drowned them in it. They needed food – he brought down the manna. They thirsted – he split the rock [and out flowed water]. Korah’s congregation rejected him – the earth swallowed them up. And so forth with all the other signs. And what made them believe in him? The assembly at Mount Sinai. For our own eyes saw – and not some stranger’s and our own ears heard – and not some other’s, the fire and the thunder and the torches, and he approached the mist and the voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them such and such.” And so it is written, “face to face the Lord spoke to you (Deut. 5:4). And it is said, “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, [but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today]” (Deut. 5:3). And from whence [do we know] that the assembly at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of his prophecy, without any blemish? That it is said, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and trust you forever” (Ex. 19: 9). From this it may be inferred that previous to this event [the assembly at Mount Sinai] they did not trust him with an eternal faith, but rather with a faith which leaves room for consideration and thought.
(Yesodei HaTorah 8:1)

While the last verses of Deuteronomy may create the impression that Moses’ unmatched success as a miracle-worker underwrite his prophet credentials, Maimonides plays down the importance of miracles and instead insists on the self-evident validity of the prophetic experience itself. Someone who experiences prophecy will be sure of its authenticity. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides learns this principle from the story of the binding of Isaac. According to Genesis 22, God instructed Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys, and Isaac’s slaughter is cancelled at the very last moment by the command of an angelic voice. While this story has generated a whole literature of theological reflection, one point at least is clear; Abraham had no doubt about the validity of his prophetic experience. In the words of Maimonides’ Guide:

All that is seen by a prophet in a vision of prophecy is, in the opinion of the prophet, a certain truth, that the prophet has no doubts in any way concerning anything in it, and that in his opinion its status is the same as that of all existent things that are apprehended through the senses or through the intellect. A proof for this is the fact that [Abraham] hastened to slaughter, as he had been commanded, his son, his only son, whom he loved, even though this command came to him in a dream or in a vision. For if a dream of prophecy had been obscure for the prophets, or if they had doubts or incertitude concerning what they apprehended in a vision of prophecy, they would not have hastened to do that which is repugnant to nature, and [Abraham’s] soul would not have consented to accomplish an act of so great an importance if there had been a doubt about it.
(Guide III: 24)

So, according to Maimonides, the experience of revelation is so powerful and convincing that no prophet could ever doubt its reality and validity. While people may always wonder if a miracle was performed through some sort of trick, the authenticity of personal revelation is undeniable. At Mount Sinai, the entire Jewish people became privy to Moses’ prophetic experience, they shared with him a moment of revelation. For each member of the Israelite nation, Moses’ divine message possessed the unimpeachable authority of a personal encounter with God. The indelible impression made by this experience is foretold by God himself. Before the epiphany at Sinai, God says to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and trust you forever” (Ex. 19: 9). By allowing the people to "eavesdrop" on Moses' prophetic experience, God gives them the ultimate, unimpeachable demonstration of the validity of Moses' prophecy.

Moses’ Death and Burial

Given the Mishnah’s concern over the danger of Moses’ deification, it may be theologically convenient to be able to fall back upon Maimonides’ alternate theory of Mosaic prophetic authority. Still, one might ask whether scripture itself shares the Mishnah’s anxieties. In other words, one might ask whether there is any indication that the Torah itself takes steps to combat the tendency towards making Moses into a false god. Jewish bible commentaries discover such a precaution in the story of Moses’ death. His last moments are described in final chapter of Deuteronomy:

Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole of the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain – the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him; this is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your offspring.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.
(Deut. 34: 1-6)

Here we have a remarkably poignant depiction of the aged leader who has brought his people to the verge of accomplishing their national aspirations. He may only look upon the Promised Land, but is not allowed to enter it. Several commentators point to a strange detail in the biblical text. The burial places of most other biblical heroes become well-known shrines. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are all laid to rest in the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. Each succeeding generation has no difficulty finding the cave in order to bury its dead. Although Rachel, the remaining matriarch, was buried elsewhere, her grave’s location was hardly a secret, for, “Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day” (Gen. 35: 20). Why then must the location of Moses’ grave remain a mystery, which “no one knows” “to this day” (Deut. 34: 6)?

Levi ben Gershom (known as Gersonides, d. 1344), one of the great Jewish philosophers and exegetes of the middle ages, confronts this difficulty in his commentary on Deuteronomy, relating it directly to the concerns of our mishnah. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 34:6, Gersonides explains that God did not allow the location of Moses’ grave to be known

For perhaps if the place of his grave would be known the coming generations would err and make of him a god, on account of the fame of the wonders which he performed. Do you not see that the copper snake made by Moses caused some to err on account of the station of its fashioner?

Gersonides fears that if the location of Moses’ grave would be known, it might attract inappropriate attention. Nothing is more natural for folk religion than to seek the aid of deceased prophets and saints who might intercede for the sinful before God. And nothing is more natural than the creation of new rituals and services to be performed at the graves of the great religious figures of past ages. It is a short step from beseeching the dead to pray on the behalf of the living to setting up the dead themselves as gods deserving of worship. All the more so in the case of Moses, a prophet who in life was known to be the greatest of miracle-workers. In order to avoid this danger, the place of Moses’ burial must never be known. By explicitly undermining any future attempt to set up a shrine at Moses’ grave, Deuteronomy signals its awareness of the danger of Moses’ deification.

Moses Had to Die

Earlier I mentioned that if we drew the Mishnah’s parallel between Moses and the copper snake to its ultimate and most radical conclusion, we must suppose that Moses’ death could become just as necessary as the snake’s destruction. This is, in fact, the view of Rabbi Meir Simkha of Dvinsk, one of the leading talmudic scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rabbi Meir Simkha possessed a rare mix of intellectual virtues best exemplified by his Torah commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah. That work makes striking theological and philosophical points, which are forwarded in terms of often daringly original recombinations of ideas taken from the whole breadth of rabbinic and biblical literature. Rabbi Meir Simkhah’s take on the role of Moses’ death displays all of these features.

The occasion of R. Meir Simkha’s comments on Moses’ death is somewhat surprising. By the time Moses delivered the series of farewell addresses which constitute the book of Deuteronomy, he was well aware that God did not intend to allow him to enter the promised land:

Now the Lord was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage. For I must die in this land; I shall not cross the Jordan.
(Deut. 4: 21-2)

Most commentators understand these verses against the background of the story told in the twentieth chapter of Numbers. There we read that the shortage of water in the desert drove the children of Israel towards rebellion. God told Moses that he, together with his brother Aaron, should appear before the people and speak to a rock that would then give forth water. Instead, Moses spoke harshly to the people and hit the rock with his staff. Although the water came pouring miraculously out of the rock, God was not pleased and told Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20: 12). The various biblical commentators vied with each other to best explicate the exact nature of the sin which Moses and Aaron had committed; was Moses’ wrong to scold the people so sharply, or perhaps Moses defied God’s command by striking the rock instead of speaking to it? Apparently, the proper interpretation of Deuteronomy 4: 21-2 will depend on how we explain the story in Numbers 20.

R. Meir Simkha, for his part, completely sidesteps the story in Numbers in his interpretation of the verses from Deuteronomy. Instead, he looks to their own immediate context within Moses’ address to the children of Israel. Oddly, these verses appear just after an extended warning against the dangers of idolatry, including the worship of images fashioned after the forms of animals of the land, sky or water, of images of human form, and the worship of heavenly bodies. What does the prohibition of idolatry have to do with Moses’ announcement of his impending death? R. Meir Simkha explains that with the words, “Now the Lord was angry with me on your account”, Moses meant to say that it was on account of the Israelite predilection for idolatry that God had to treat him with “anger”. After having so many miracles, there was a great danger that Moses might be deified by the people. But why must his death occur before entering the promised land? That is understandable in terms of the differences between the different generations of Israelites who had lived under Moses’ leadership.

The “Generation of the Wilderness”

Although the Torah tells us of many punishments suffered by the Israelites for their repeated acts of mutiny against God and his prophet Moses, one sin in particular brought about consequences which changed the entire nature of the journey from Egypt to Canaan. Having received the Ten Commandments and built the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel were ready to enter the Promised Land. In the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers we are told that God commanded Moses to choose a representative from each of the twelve tribes to participate in a scouting expedition of Canaan in preparation for its conquest. After successfully completing their mission, something went terribly wrong when it came time for the scouts to make their report to the people. They announced that while the land “does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Num. 13: 27), it was also populated by powerful inhabitants who lived in fortified cities. The Israelite conquest of Canaan became unthinkable. In a memorable phrase, the scouts claimed that compared to the gigantic Nephilim of Canaan, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num. 13: 33). Although two of the scouts, Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua, exhorted the people to have faith that God would ensure them an easy victory, their words fell on deaf ears, “and the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones” (Num. 14: 10).

God told Moses that he would annihilate the Israelites and raise up a new nation of Moses’ progeny in their place. In response to Moses’ pleading, God lessened the punishment’s severity;

None of the men who have seen my presence shall and the signs that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried me so many times an have disobeyed me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurned me shall see it”.
(Num. 14: 22-3)

More precisely, God instructed Moses to inform the people that

In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who mutter against me, not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settlle you…Your children who, you said, would be carried off – these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected. But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wildernesss for fory years, corresponding to the number of days – forty days – that you scouted the land: a year for each day.
(Num. 14: 29 – 34)

The punishment for the “Sin of the Scouts”, as it is known in Rabbinic literature, casts a pale over the rest of the story of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. Anyone who, as an adult, experienced slavery in Egypt and the miracles of the Exodus and at Sinai would die before entering Canaan. An entire generation, which came to be known as “The Generation of the Wilderness,” would perish in the course of forty years of wandering. On the other hand, those who would enter the land would recall, if at all, only dim childhood memories of those dramatic, yet distant events that constitute the main historical narrative of the Pentateuch. Paradoxically, R. Meir Simkha argues that the rebelliousness of the Generation of the Wilderness was, in some ways, spiritually beneficial.

The Advantages of Rebelliousness

All things considered, the rebelliousness of the Generation of the Wilderness was an unfortunate spiritual shortcoming that brought much anguish to the Children of Israel. On the other hand, it also afforded them a measure of spiritual protection. People who repeatedly ignored Moses’ authority were unlikely to mistakenly worship him as a god. This was the great advantage that the Generation of the Wilderness enjoyed over their children who entered Canaan. As long as members of the rebellious older generation were around, the danger of Moses’ deification was minimal. However, only the younger, faithful generation would enter the land, creating a society that would be primed to lose sight of Moses’ humanity. R. Meir Simkha writes:

One of the reasons why God willed that Moses die in the desert was that this man Moses brought water out of a flint boulder, abstained from having relations with his wife all the time he was in the desert [according to the Talmud, b. Shabbat 87], did not eat bread or drink water [forty days on Mount Sinai] gave them bread from heaven, killed the Amorite kings, and split the Red Sea. However, all the time that people of his age were alive, who remembered him as a youth and thought of themselves as his equal or superior, who continued being jealous of him and said, “all the community are holy […why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?]” (Num. 16: 3), and who gazed after Moses to raise suspicions regarding his action [according to the Talmud, b. Kiddushin 33], the Torah was not worried at all [that Moses would be deified]. However, after that entire generation of bickering complainers ended and was cut off, there remained a new generation which from its youth remembered only Moses’ supernatural acts…and in particular during their youth it had not been inscribed upon their hearts to attribute these to God, to whose name Moses called out, and with whom he spoke always. Therefor the higher wisdom feared lest upon their entry to the Land of Israel they would relate to him as to a god…

R. Meir Simkha goes on to explain that this is the precise meaning of the verse from Deuteronomy: “Now the Lord was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage.” It was on account of God’s anxiety “on your account”, i.e. on account of the readiness of those entering Canaan to proclaim Moses’ divinity, that He was not allowed to enter the land. Moses, like the Copper Serpent, had to be removed from Israelite society in order to prevent idolatry. As long as the rebellious backsliders were around, Moses was safe. The faithfulness of those who entered the Land was his undoing. The audacity of R. Meir Simkha’s exegesis is remarkable. He has turned the biblical narrative on its head, finding a virtue in every vice of the Generation of the Wilderness.

Why the Battle with Amalek was Special

While it should now be understandable why the Mishnah would be anxious to dispel the impression that Moses was personally empowered to perform miracles, it remains unclear why of all of the miracles of Moses’ career, the victory over Amalek was seen to constitute an especially dangerous source of theological confusion. An important hint may be found in the words of R. Meir Simkha quoted above. He claims that Moses always called out God’s name and spoke with Him continuously. Indeed, the Torah portrays Moses as constantly conferring with God, praying and receiving revelation. He never works alone; the divine origin of every miracle in which Moses was involved is explicitly marked by communications with the Almighty. But not quite every miracle. Consider the biblical account of the battle with Amalek:

Amalek came forth and fought against Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
(Ex. 17: 8-11)

Moses did not pray at Rephidim, nor did he receive divine instruction. The nearest thing to a sign of heavenly intervention in this story is the “rod of God”, a physical object which could be easily thought of as some kind of magic wand. Of course, Moses is not to blame here. One can easily imagine how God's rebuke of his hesitation at the Red Sea - "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” (Exodus 14: 15) - was still fresh in Moses' mind. There is no time for standing on ceremony when the Children of Israel are in immanent danger. Never the less, Moses’ behavior does create the danger that people will attribute the miraculous victory to his own supernatural powers rather than to God. This, then, is the special difficulty that the Mishnah tries to address.

“And Moses’ Hands Were Heavy”


Considering how theologically problematic the story of Israel's battle with Amalek is for monotheistic religion, one would expect the Torah itself to make some gesture towards preventing its readers from attributing the victory to Moses' own powers. A hint, and perhaps more than a hint, of this concern may be found in a rather peculiar detail in the continuation of the Torah's narrative:

But Moses' hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword.
(Exodus 17: 12-13)

It is unusual for the Torah to tell us of someone kept from acting out their intentions by simple human frailty. When Jacob decided to roll a large stone off of the well at Haran (Genesis 29: 10), his strength did not betray him. Moses himself is not recorded as having experienced difficulties when he fasted forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai (Deut. 9: 18) to appease God's anger after the sin of the golden calf. It is my contention that the Torah deliberately mentions Moses' weakness in order to avoid any confusion about his human status. True, Moses did not consult God before assuming his vigil on the hilltop. And it is also true that when he raised his hands, Israel prevailed. But if we ask "Could Moses' hands make war or break war?”, "Was Moses some kind of divine or semi-divine being gifted with autonomous magical powers?", the Torah answers in a firm negative. Not only is it beyond Moses' ability to determine the course of battle, he does not even posses complete control of his own body. How could he bear the burden of defeating the entire Amalekite nation if he was incapable of bearing the burden of his own two hands? And so the problem addressed centuries later by the Mishnah had already been answered by the Torah itself.

Back to Joshua

Once again, the Book of Joshua offers a useful comparison to a story about Moses. Chapter eight tells us how, following a failed first attempt, God instructs Joshua to try once again to conquer the town of Ai. A clever stratagem empties the city of its defenders. At that crucial moment Joshua receives a message from God:

The Lord said to Joshua, “Hold out the javelin in your hand toward Ai, for I will deliver it into your hands.” So Joshua held out the javelin in his hand toward the city. As soon as he held out his hand, the ambush came rushing out of their station.
(Josh. 8: 18-19)

The next six verses tell the tale of the day’s bloody battle, and then we read:

Joshua did not draw back the hand with which he held out his javelin until all of the inhabitants of Ai had been destroyed.
(Josh. 8: 26)

Here we have a quite strong parallel to the story of the battle at Rephidim. While Moses spent the duration of his battle holding up the “Rod of God” in his hand, Joshua held out his Javelin towards Ai until the town’s conquest was completed. Moses’ hands became heavy, but no mention is made of Joshua experiencing any particular difficulty. If Joshua's stamina lasted the whole day, why could Moses not endure a similar test? Because Joshua had been commanded by God to hold out his javelin, leaving no question that God had granted victory to Israel, while Moses chose to hold up the “rod of God” of his own volition, and some sign was required to demonstrate that Moses’ hands alone could not “make or break war.”

© Berel Dov Lerner

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