To the Editor:
In the last paragraph of her article, “The Uses of Exodus” [June], Fernanda Eberstadt observes that a Bible devoid of divine revelation is just another book competing with other great books for recognition and acclaim.
Is open competition an unfair burden to place upon the author(s) of the Torah? Does the invoking of God, or the use of His name, automatically elevate a doctrine to a level that transcends all critical analysis? Would or should the reforms of Solon have escaped opposition if he had claimed revelation on Olympus; or would the Napoleonic Code have silenced its critics if Bonaparte had spent a few hours on Mont Blanc?
The injection of divine authority into human affairs presents the sort of philosophical dilemma that Plato . . . dramatized in the dialogue Euthyphro. If we assume that God commands generosity to widows and orphans, and that such activity is perceived as just, the pivotal question then becomes: does God command it because it is just, or is it just because God commands it?
If we respond positively to the first of these alternatives, we have indicated the existence of ethical values independent of God, and conceivably discoverable through rational inquiry; if we embrace the second alternative, then the arbitrary will of God becomes the source of moral preferences. The enforcement of a moral decree solely by virtue of divine imperative requires no rational insight whatsoever, and is no indication of either humanitarianism or ethical understanding. . . .
Even apart from the obvious question-begging, it would appear that the presumption of divine moral revelation within Scripture generates more ethical problems than it solves.
Morton D. Kogut
Las Vegas, Nevada
To the Editor:
I found Fernanda Eberstadt’s article interesting and informative. However, she passes a remark about Moses which should not remain unchallenged.
Miss Eberstadt describes Moses as a person “whose first act on the biblical scene is to murder an Egyptian overseer for smiting a Hebrew.” This charge of murder against Moses, “the most humble of men,” cannot be supported by the facts as described in the biblical story.
To begin with, murder is an act that by definition entails premeditation, a prior intention to kill. In Moses’s case this is obviously absent, for his . . . action was taken on the spur of the moment, emerging out of the swift pace of events. As described in Exodus II, 11-12:
He went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. . . .
Now the sense of the term “smite” can be inferred from other biblical contexts as referring to a blow capable of killing. Thus, Moses chances upon an Egyptian, obviously an overseer, “smiting” a Hebrew who is in imminent danger of being killed: moved by the sight, he looks about for a “man.” Was Moses, the great lawgiver and man of justice, concerned for his own hide, looking about like a common criminal to learn if he could evade just punishment in case he acted? Not a chance! The term “man” (ish) refers to a cultivated man, a man above the brutish level. Accordingly, from the context it becomes apparent that Moses was looking for someone above the brute level of the persecutor with authority to intercede. Failing to find a “man,” Moses takes responsibility, . . . and intercedes—he “smote” the Egyptian.
Moses, we assume, struck with the timeliness and force necessary to save the victim’s life which hung in the balance. In both cases of the infliction of blows, the Egyptian’s and Moses’s, the same Hebrew word for smite is used. The words tell us that Moses, the just man, meted out what turned out to be measure for measure—a blow of the same kind was given back to the Egyptian—a just response. But as it is with a blow capable of killing, sometimes it finds its mark and other times it fails. As it happened, Moses’s blow was a fatal one. Finding the deed done, he hides the body rather than submit to what he knows is surely an unforgiving, tyrannical system. In sum, confronting a brutal overseer in danger of killing his charge, Moses’s sense of justice leads him to intervene with a fitting response, hardly the act of a murderer.
The incident discussed is one of three incidents described in Exodus that occur before Moses’s divine election to lead Israel out of bondage. As I learned from a fine discussion by Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman of Brandeis University, the events progressively reveal Moses’s character as that of a feeling man who cannot stand aside when confronted with oppression, irrespective of whether it involved a Hebrew or otherwise. I can see no way that the narrative supports the view that Moses is a “murderer.” Not only is premeditation absent, but it would distort the events and negate completely the thrust of what the three incidents tell of the reasons for Moses’s election.
I urge Miss Eberstadt either to justify her charge or retract it. . . .
West Hartford, Connecticut
To the Editor:
I read Fernanda Eberstadt’s excellent article with great interest. May I add for her information that there is one more book on the same subject which Miss Eberstadt did not mention: Understanding Exodus, by Moshe Greenberg (published by Behrman House in 1969)? This omission does not, however, diminish the value of Miss Eberstadt’s essay.
Fernanda Eberstadt writes:
Morton D. Kogut takes me to task for a supposed reluctance to place the Bible on the open market, in competition with “other great books for recognition and acclaim.” But my point was that the Bible needs first to be understood on its own terms, as a sacred work chronicling God’s relation to man; in that field it wipes the floor with all contenders. I would add that the Hebrew Bible also holds its own quite nicely as political theory, as law, and as a species of literary art; but to approach Scripture exclusively in such terms is to mistake its character and make pale its meaning. It is no less skewed or incomplete an undertaking than, in secular terms, studying Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ solely as an exercise in perspective, or William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book as a masterpiece of early English prose.
As for Mr. Kogut’s unwillingness to credit the Bible as revelation, lest latter-day Moseses try to render their own opinions unassailable by claiming divine inspiration, the common judgment of later generations has proved pretty sparing in giving assent to such claims. Though Moses in his own time was reviled by skeptics, rebels, and rivals, he is one of only three men in human history whose ideas of the One God have gained the acceptance of the ages, and formed the way we think and live today. Napoleon and Solon should be so lucky (not that they had any such aims in mind).
Mr. Kogut strays or leaps into territory well beyond the scope of my article when he wonders, with Plato, about the relation between religious morality and rational morality. “Does God command it because it is just, or is it just because God commands it?” Let me just note that much of the Torah conforms with human reason, as that commodity is nowadays understood; some doesn’t. The sacrifice of the red heifer in Numbers 15 seemed so outlandish that the rabbis speculated that God had ordained it on purpose to humble the Jews by making them look silly before the Gentiles. But God is not a man, as the Prophets remind us, and His ways are not always knowable.
Finally, Mr. Kogut suggests that a just deed performed under divine duress is less worthy than one arrived at freely and by the light of reason. Biblical and rabbinic Judaism is of a different opinion from Mr. Kogut’s, stating explicitly on more than one occasion that the highest good consists in performing a commandment precisely because we are commanded to do so, not simply because we prefer to. The history of human experience does not persuade me that this system of morality is so patently defective as Mr. Kogut seems to think.
David Basch draws attention once again to Moses’s slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster, a complex and revealing incident which he interprets as an act not of murder but of just retribution. Mr. Basch quotes the biblical description, “[Moses] looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian.” Clearly, however, there must have been plenty of Israelites moping about. For what sort of man was Moses looking? An avenging angel who would punish the Egyptian in his stead, or another overseer who might report his deed to Pharaoh? Some commentators have read Moses’s glance to the right and the left as an appeal to a higher authority, although (contrary to Mr. Basch’s assertion) the word ish (“man”) is used to describe both the sought-for onlooker and the brute Egyptian. But in the biblical context the primary explanation must simply be that Moses looked “this way and that” to make sure that his contemplated deed would go unobserved. Hence his burying of the body in the sand, and his fear and astonishment on learning the next day that “the thing is known.”
The question remains as to whether smiting the Egyptian was an act of murder or of “measure for measure.” Mr. Basch is quite right that in this tightly compressed tale of violence, the same Hebrew verb “smite,” which will later be used to describe God’s visiting of plagues on Egypt, characterizes both the Egyptian’s beating of the Israelite and Moses’s return blow. “Smite” is also used to describe a beating administered by one slave to another on the next day; this becomes the occasion for Moses’s second intervention on behalf of his brothers, and here the verb signals how violence and oppression breed violence in the oppressed. On one later occasion in his life is Moses said to smite: at Meribah, when he strikes the rock in anger, a fateful blow which bars him from the promised land. If Moses strikes the Egyptian out of love for his people, and is thereby made their leader, he strikes the rock at Meribah out of impatience with them, and is thereby deprived of that leadership. Thus in one man are anger and national loyalty, impetuousness and caution, combined, and a single verb draws the connection between one of the first and one of the final acts of a sacred career.
Is Moses’s deed “murder”? Elsewhere in the Bible (Deuteronomy 4:42, for instance) the words “murder” and “murderer” are used by Moses himself to describe the act of a man who kills another even “without knowing it” and in the absence of prior malice. Despite such warrant, however, I understand Mr. Basch’s displeasure and concur in the spirit of his correction.