Saturday, August 28, 2010

Holy Moses Wash

Passing south of Kingman Arizona on I-40, one passes a sign that identifies Holy Moses Wash. The name has a certain flare. There is a gully and an apparent stream bed bordered by rocky buttes and mountains to the north and east. Holy Moses Wash is a watershed, a natural barrier that hinders rain water from reaching the desert to the west. The sign triggers for some a nostalgic long ago glimpse into a similar desert and the watershed biblical character of Moses.

The Book of Exodus recites the history of this man and his people and their divinely orchestrated rescue from a 400 year bondage in Egypt. This formative act, the exodus, spawned the Hebrew faith (religion) with Moses as the visible spokesperson for the One True God. The books of Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy record the progress toward a formative religion and the trauma of this people as they attempt to return to the promised land of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The context for our discussion is the place of Moses in a relevant biblical theology. Is the moniker of “Holy Moses” appropriate? This view of Scripture is less than scholarly and admittedly formulated by an amateur theologian. Please accept this exercise with the appropriate grain of salt. That being said, allow this attempt to speak to the divide between the Old and New testament understandings of God. The contrast between the aggressor Moses and the passivist Jesus is the problem that most non believing commentators use to discredit all Scripture and all biblical faith. The Church refuses to address the disparity because to do so would force a biblical honesty. An honesty that would upset the immature Church choir.

The first five books of the Bible document that Moses was both a man led by God and a terrorist. He was both the right arm of God and the left arm of hell. For a responsible theologian not to acknowledge this fact and only emphasize his hero status, is to make God a genocidal maniac. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and finally ordered the hacking death of three thousand of his family, he was acting as a terrorist. It was an act repeating the slaying of the Egyptian slaver in his youth. Death was the weapon of choice.

Wait just one minute you say, the Word maintains that Moses was authorized to kill at the behest of the Almighty! Really, what does that divine death order say about the One True God? If the reader has questions at this point, please read the blog piece, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”(, 2/4/10). Let’s assume for this discussion that Moses may not have correctly heard from above at this point. Please allow a voice to those of us who believe that death used to advance any cause, no matter the self righteous motive, is terrorism.

The problem gets worse for Moses and the people as they move northward toward the promised land. The homeward bound organize themselves into a formidable fighting force. The peoples they encounter are understandably threatened by this large tribe of wandering Semites. Numbers chapter’s 21 and 22 record the first of the confrontations. Moses asks permission from the King of Edom to pass through his land. The Edomite King says no and brings his army out to meet Moses, who retreats to find another way.

The Canaanite king Arad attacked as the Israelites approached. Some Israelites were captured and their brothers mounted a counteroffensive, asking the Lord for assistance. God was said to bless them with the utter defeat of the Canaanite king. The author uses the Hebrew word is “hesem”(21:3), meaning “to devote to the ban”. The ban meant utter destruction and the death of men , women and children. The Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 874, states, “ this action was determined, not just by the rugged spirit of the age, but from a sense that the people were engaging in Holy War, where the extermination, not just the subjugation of her enemies was the spiritual goal for the people in their conquest of Caanan”.

The biblical and theological problem is that the Israelites somehow believed that the One true God designed this battle plan. Self defense can be understood but what of these Attila the Hun battle tactic’s, the scorched earth, take no quarter battle plan advanced for all the campaigns to take the Promised Land. More modern and similar battle plans are employed to this day, all in the name of God. Is there really any difference between the tactics of the fundamentalist Moslem and those of the Israelites in the conquest of the promised land? Was “hesem” God speak or man speak, human bloodletting or divine judgment.?

This is where the choir gets testy. The Almighty God ordering men to kill in God’s name seems a little much, but the first priority is to hold to an extremist literal reading of the Word. The Church will not tell the whole truth. The Pentateuch is a compilation of many sources beginning with Moses. His life experiences in verbal narratives preserved the events of his time. The generations passed without radio and TV, they listened to these narratives around the family fires, a multitude of faith stories telling of what God had done for their own people. Gradually the verbal “tellings” began to be documented in written form.

A second possible influence was that of the temple workers descended from the tribe of Levi and the emerging priestly class. These folks needed to document this new religion and their own centrality within this new community, thereby cementing their place in the hierarchy. They may also have needed to excuse their own violence by blaming it on Moses and his God. This conclusion cannot be avoided in any casual reading the Pentateuch with it‘s piecemeal approach. For at least a hundred years scholarship has identified numerous literary sources in the Pentateuch, these two seem to be primary. Within it’s pages is both a story to be told and a new religion of this world to be grounded in the Scriptures for the succeeding generations.

Let us engage in a “what if scenario”. No one can say for sure how these words were put together. Possibly, the Mosaic model of leadership that depended on the timely intervention of their God in the desperate situations of life was gradually interspersed by the words and deeds of mere men using violent means to secure the promises of God. The peoples of the promised land are the bad guys and our enemies because they have what we are entitled to by God. Whatever means that are necessary to secure this God given entitlement have been sanctioned from above, or so it is reckoned, including the slaughter of men, women and children. Even today, some believe that God is in the killing.

Please allow me to take issue with anyone who so believes. God is never in the killing, then or now! It is difficult to appreciate their time and circumstances, but has Christianity not moved beyond such a primitive religion? Jesus surely did for he said to love even your enemies. The Pentateuch preserves, through the Spirit, all the happenings and priorities of that time for every succeeding generation to evaluate. Godly or primitive, they are all kept for us to consider within it’s pages. Jesus discarded the God of the religionists, calling his followers to a God of Love. This is so difficult even today.

Personally, I would like to have sat and talked to the historical Holy Moses. Was he a divided personality as the Scriptures want us to believe? Is the God of Scripture a Love Hate God? We are all entitled to our own opinion and no one has the authority to claim that they know “the truth” and put down the spiritual integrity others.