Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part 1)

My journey through the text of the Bible and an understanding of that text as it was revealed to me by and through that very text starts with the book of Deuteronomy. This one book might even best illustrate what the Bible is as a whole and how its texts—its once individual scrolls and codices—relate to one another. But enough already. Since this is a textual journey, a journey through a text, then our starting point should be with the text itself.

Deuteronomy 1-11 presents Moses renarrating events from the wilderness period as a sort of summation to what came before this book’s narrative setting, where the Israelites are now assembled on the plains of Moab some 40 years after the wilderness period began. It is here that Moses addresses the people:

    Yahweh our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and make your way to the Amorite hill country and to all its neighboring places. . . Go, take possession of the land that Yahweh swore to your fathers.
    And I said to you at that time: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. Yahweh your God has multiplied you, and here today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky. . . How can I bear your troubles, your burden, and your quarrels by myself? Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads.” And you answered me and said: “What you propose to do is good.”
    So I took your tribal leaders, wise and knowledgeable men, and I appointed them heads over you. . . And I charged your judges at that time, saying: “Hear out your fellow men and decide justly between any man, a fellow Israelite or a resident alien. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. . .”
    Thus I instructed you at that time about all the things you should do. And we set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness. (Deut 1:9-19)

So in Moses’ first speech to the assembled Israelites on the plains of Moab, Moses renarrates to them what happened right before they left Horeb. “At that time,” Moses reminds them, he had selected judges from among the tribes, “wise, discerning, and knowledgeable men” to judge their cases and relieve Moses from this burden himself. Fair enough. But I knew that this event had already been narrated early, “at that time” of which Moses speaks. So I decided to take a look at it.

First, I had trouble finding it. For it didn’t happen where Moses said it happened—at Horeb right before the Israelites were to depart! Rather the selection of judges happened even before the Israelites arrived at Horeb, while they were still at Rephidim! This is narrated in Exodus 18:13-27.

Ok, I thought. It’s been a long and difficult 40 years to say the least, and granted, Moses’ memory and stamina have undoubtedly taken a toll. Perhaps he just misremembered when and where he came up with this brilliant plan to chose judges from among the tribes. Nevertheless, I was still a bit perplexed given the fact that Moses himself had just emphatically stated twice “at that time” as if he was in total command of his memory. But it didn’t happen “at that time”—at least not according to Exodus 18.

At any rate, as I read through Exodus 18:13-27 I noticed something more disturbing. Moses had gotten a couple of other details wrong. Most strikingly, it wasn’t even his plan to begin with!

What happened to Jethro?

What happened according to Exodus 18 was that one day—specifically during the 2nd month after the Exodus from Egypt en route to Horeb—Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, saw Moses burdening himself with the task of judging all the people’s cases by himself. And apparently there was a long line too! From morning until evening the people—my God all 600,000 of them!?—stood waiting for Moses to judge their cases. At this point, Jethro intervenes and basically says: “This thing that you’re doing is not such a good idea. You and the people will both be worn out! Here, I’ll advise you, and God willing let it be so: ‘Choose among the people worthy men, God-fearing men, men of truth who hate bribery, and appoint them as judges for the people, and they shall judge the people’s cases’” (vv. 17-22). “And Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did everything that he had said” (v. 24).

So originally it was Jethro’s idea and plan. Why would Moses, in renarrating this event 40 years later, forget to mention that it was Jethro who came up with the plan to select judges from among the people and that it was he who advised him on this matter? Why would Moses claim “And I said to you at this time, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. . .” when in fact it was Jethro who acknowledged this point and relayed it to Moses?

Ok, I thought. A lot has happened during the last 40 years, and particularly a rather brutal confrontation with the Midianites themselves that occurred just a few months earlier, and which left no Midianite male nor non-virgin female alive (Num 31)! I wondered if that included Moses’ wife as well? So if what were once friendly relations with the Midianites had turned sour by the end of the wilderness period, then this might explain why Moses had avoided mentioning Jethro’s role in establishing Israel’s judiciary. Moses would have certainly wanted to expunge that from the historical record. But this line of reasoning meant that Moses consciously suppressed Jethro from his retelling, that he consciously suppressed an historical detail! This couldn’t be right I asked?

Interestingly, with Jethro now out of the picture, Moses was free to take full credit for the establishment of the judiciary, an idea that God’s prophet ought to have thought up on his own in the first place! Besides, I thought, Moses’ omission of Jethro doesn’t really contest what he claims. He could have both been advised by Jethro and “at that time” have said to the people what he says he said. But even here, he still makes a conscious choice to omit Jethro from his retelling. Or did he? Perhaps Moses felt outwitted by this Midianite priest. Who knows?

As I read further, I noticed that this wasn’t the only detail that Moses changed in his retelling of the event. Perhaps a minor point, but curiously the criteria by which these judges were to be chosen were also altered. While Moses claims that he told the people to select “wise, discerning, and knowledgeable men,” what really happened, according to Exodus 18, was that Jethro told Moses to choose “God-fearing men, men of truth, men who hate bribery.” Did Moses not agree with these criteria and therefore implemented his own: wise, discerning, and knowledgeable? Jethro’s criteria are religious in nature. After all he was a priest. While Moses’, on the other hand, seemed more objective and centered on one’s intellectual abilities. At any rate, it was clear again that Jethro had told Moses one thing, and Moses told the people another thing. Perhaps he just didn’t like taking advice from his non-Jewish father-in-law! I mean, who would?

What kept gnawing at me, nonetheless, was whether Moses knew he was changing the details or whether this was on account of say a failing memory? He was after all approaching his 120th birthday! But his whole ‘apparent’ precision of the matter in his recollection and renarration of the event—“I said to you at that time” and “you answered me” and “thus I instructed you at that time”—made me think that it wasn’t so much an issue of his memory, or of old age. I mean, how can you forget when and where such an event occurred? And being God’s prophet and all, wouldn’t Yahweh have helped him out here by aiding his failing memory? No, I thought, something else must be going on here.

At any rate, I chalked these discrepancies up to minor points. No big deal. Such a thing could happen to the best of us I thought, even God’s prophet. And I read on. . .

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2 Responses to Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part 1)

  1. Dominique D Boer says:

    Impressive.

  2. Ken Anderson says:

    A better question: isn’t really God Himself the ultimate liar here? Isn’t this His Word, after all, and isn’t Moses his puppet er, ah-ahem (excuse me, cough) I mean profit?

    I know Steve. C.S. Lewis knew the Steves of this life and outlook too. “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight”.

    Steve, the most insightful thing you said here was, “who knows?”.

    You got to get Hebrew under your belt! Without it you are just a fool if you think you can fool everyone with your agit-prompt axe to grind. Without it you are just poor history based on poor methodology driven by Hegelian philosophical assumptions.

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