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MOSES by Jonathan Kirsch

MOSES

A Life

By Jonathan Kirsch

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-345-41269-9
Publisher: Ballantine

A journalist and amateur biblical exegete proclaims as striking news what diligent readers of that ancient text have long known: that its tales include many that appear to violate its own moral teachings. Kirsch (Harlot by the Side of the Road, 1997) retells the biblical stories of Moses, from the Exodus account of his birth to Deuteronomy’s last verses on his death. But readers who expect from the misleading subtitle a historically grounded biography will be disappointed. What Kirsch achieves instead is a curious syncretism of views of Moses from sources that do not often speak to each other, including the Bible itself (and its traditional midrashic elaborators); ancient Hellenistic interpreters (principally Philo of Alexandria); modern academic exegetes (Elias Auerbach, Martin Noth, Gerhard von Rad, et al.); and Freud. To juxtapose such unlikely bedfellows casually is provocative. To do so without regard for history or interpretive context is misleading. For example, in discussing the Burning Bush episode, when Moses first meets God, Kirsch asserts that Philo (in contrast to Jewish midrash and modern exegesis) “insisted on reading the whole incident . . . as metaphorical,” as though allegory were not the stock-in-trade of Philo and his Jewish Hellenistic colleagues. Part of Kirsch’s hope in exhibiting such an array of interpretive voices is to show readers how much pietistic views of Moses owe to idealizing, post-biblical interpreters (like Philo) and how little to the actual biblical text, where Moses can come across as angry, unforgiving, and even murderous. But for whom is this newsworthy, except the audience of biblical illiterates that Kirsch must be counting on as readers for his unveiling of “the real Moses—the Moses no one knows”? Discounting its grandiose self-image, this book can serve as an undemanding introduction to biblical narrative and its diverse interpreters. (Author tour)