The Biography of Moses

Ray Mayhew


Recently scholars have suggested that the best way to understand Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is to see them as the biography of Moses. And, as Exodus begins with his birth and Deuteronomy with his death, this makes a lot of sense. However, it also radically affects how we understand much of this material. Seeing them as the biography of Moses requires a fundamental shift in how most of us have read these books and understood the Law. It’s a risky journey, but one that is life-giving and full of joy.

In these books Moses is without doubt on center stage, and the chapters are punctuated by him walking with God, seeing the form of the Lord (Numb 12:8), meeting him in the tent of meeting, leading God’s people through the wilderness, and the Lord speaking to him face to face as a father speaks to his son (Deut 34:10).

In Exodus 4:22 the Lord says to Pharaoh that “Israel is my son, my firstborn” and Moses as a son with his father (representing Israel) receives what we now call the Mosaic Law. However, “the law” or the Torah can seem rigid, remote, and, at times, very harsh and brittle.

However, when we view it as being given in a father-son relationship, our whole approach to it changes. It is not abstract, it is the way the son (Moses and Israel) were to live in their father’s household and abide in his loving presence.

By way of contrast, when we come Jewish texts like the Mishnah and the Talmud, documents expounding the Mosaic Law, they are set out as a legal documents. We have a chapter dealing with seeds (what one can and cannot sow as a farmer), Festivals, Women, Damages (penalties for various crimes) and Holy Things. (Related subjects come under each category, such as the Sabbath under Festivals and sacrifices under Holy Things etc.) The Rabbis basically saw the core of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) as being legal in nature and treated it as a law code.

And there is no reason why God may not have chosen to give us the law as a legal text. However, he wisely decided not to do so. His decision was to give it as something relational and therefore it comes embedded in the life of Moses as part of his biography. And this radically changes our approach as we read and interpret this material.

As an example, a refrain that comes repeatedly in these books is “The Lord spoke to Moses” (80 times just in Numbers). And even in Leviticus, the most “legal” of the books, almost in every chapter we read again that “the Lord spoke to Moses”. In other words, as Moses walked with God the Lord would talk to him about various aspects of how Yahweh and Israel could live together in righteousness, justice, joy, and peace: how they could be a community that exhibited and promoted human flourishing in every aspect of their common life. (By the way, in Hebrew, the phrase “to walk with” often means “to be instructed by.”)

As I said, God could have simply given him a legal text to pass on to Israel. But he did not. He chose to communicate his ways in a relational context as he walked with Moses as a man walks with his friend. And this should drastically reframe how we read these “legal” books. The law was given to a people redeemed by the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12), to a people who were God’s “particular treasure” (Exodus 19:5), who were the “apple of his eye” (Deut 32:10), and his beloved firstborn son (Exodus 4:22).

And because almost everything in these books revolves around the life of Moses, it means that the law is essentially relational, it is part of the biography of Moses. And for those of us who have children, this comes as no surprise. We need to tell our children what is right and wrong, but we do it in a context of living together with them, of loving and laughing with them, of passionately loving them, and in a context where we also can say that they are our “particular treasure”, that they are of more value to us than life itself.

In a similar way, if we were to adopt a child, and, let’s say this child was twelve, we don’t bring them into our home, sit them down, hand them a five volume book, and say “here are the rules of how we live in this family”. As we all know, they absorb the rules of family life as they hear and experience them relationally as part of a loving family.

And this is exactly how we should read the Law. We don’t deny that is has its “do’s and don’ts,” but it is the context in which the “do’s and don’ts” come to us that radically determines how we relate to them. And if keeping them is seen as an expression of reciprocal love (even though we know we can only do so by a gift of grace) then we are moving in the right direction. If keeping them becomes a burdensome “working our passage,” then we have lost our way.

And we find this paralleled in the life of Jesus. All of his teachings are embedded in his biography that we call “the Gospels.” We do not simply have a list of what we should or should not do as disciples of Jesus. We have a son (Jesus) walking with his father, and as he walks with his father, the father speaks to him. And then, like Moses, he passes on what he hears (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) so we can also walk as sons with a loving Father. So when Jesus heals a leper, or opens the eye of the blind, again this is “Torah,” instruction about the love of God and the compassion of Christ. But it comes to us embedded in the biography of Jesus.

In Exodus, we read of the events in the first and second forty years of his life and in Numbers, the last forty years of his life. In Deuteronomy, Moses is about to die, and the book is made up of three farewell speeches to Israel as they are about to cross in to the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is often describes as a restatement of the law. It is that, but we come closer to the heart of the book (one that Jesus quoted from more than any other) if we read it as three passionate sermons that he gives immediately before he dies. It is material that is part of his biography. He knows he will only be with them a few more weeks. His death is just round the corner. And these sermons are the outpouring of a man who has walked with God for many decades, and before he dies wants to impart all that he has learned in walking with this God of love, so that we can do the same.

The law? Yes. But the law embedded in the life of a man. First, “dimly” in the life of Moses and, then, in all its radiance in the life of Jesus. If we read Pentateuch through this grid, rather than it becoming a heavy yoke, we will discover (from the one who kept it perfectly) that it is a yoke that its “easy” and one that is “light” and full of joy.