Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Moses: The Failed Prophet

To many people, Moses was the first and the greatest of the biblical prophets. According to Deuteronomy 34:10, "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses." (KJV)

Skeptics have argued that Moses could not have written about his own death and burial (Deut 34:5-8). The traditional response is that Moses could write about future events because he was a prophet. Let us now consider Moses' record as a prophet.

There are two stories about quail, the first in the Book of Exodus, the second in Numbers. The first story couples the quail to the story of manna:

Exodus 16:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
12 I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God.
13 And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.
14 And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.
15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.

Later on in the Book of Numbers a very different story is told:

Numbers 11:31 And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.
34 And he called the name of that place Kibrothhattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.

This passage portrays God as a mean-spirited tyrant. He sends food to a hungry people, then punishes them for eating it. The traditional explanation is that the people were to eat only manna while they were in the wilderness. They were punished because they didn't trust that God would provide them with enough manna.

Why are there two conflicting stories about quail? In the first the quail can be eaten, but in the second it is forbidden.

Now let us ask this question: What prophetic act did Moses perform in this crisis? The answer: He did nothing! An important function of the biblical prophets is to warn the people of impending danger. What warning did Moses give? No warning at all! The prophet Moses let his people down.

How could the people know that the quail were bad? They needed to be told. Otherwise they would easily conclude that the quail were a gift from a benevolent god to save them from starvation. But instead God entices the people with food, then punishes them. (In law enforcement that is called entrapment. The case is thrown out of court.) Then God kills the people before they even knew that they had offended this god. No wonder the people were terrified of God.

In this modern age we have a different explanation for this incident. The quail were sick and dying. Healthy quail would not let themselves be caught so easily. There are several bird diseases that can infect humans. In this year, 2006, the world is concerned with bird flu. This disease infects people who handle and eat diseased birds. Bird flu has killed over half of the people diagnosed with the disease. An ancient strain of bird flu could have been responsible for the plague described in Numbers 11. In that case, Moses was probably surprised by the tragic outcome. He had to concoct an explanation, for he could not afford to be seen as a false prophet.

Another prophetic failure of Moses comes in the story of the battle with the Amalekites:

Exodus 17:8 Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.
9 And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand.
10 So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.

The attack of the Amalekites seems to have been a surprise attack. Why didn't the prophet Moses forsee the attack? Deuteronomy offers some details of the attack:

Deuteronomy 25:17 Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt;
18 How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.
19 Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.

Verse 19 comes out differently in Exodus.17:14;

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

These two passages indicate that the Amalekites made a surprise attack on the stragglers. But the Israelites did not respond until the following day. Clearly, Moses did not forsee this attack. There is a clear failure to take precautions to protect the Israelites from attack. Thus Moses failed as a prophet and as a military leader.

The unique feature of these two passages is that a genocidal curse is pronounced only against the Amalekites. This may be the first historical record of an intent to commit genocide. The Israelites would go on to commit many acts of genocide against the people of Canaan. But the battle against the Amalekites seems to be the only situation where a curse is involved.

There are many ancient treaties that involved genocidal curses. One example is the treaty that King Esarhaddon of Assyria imposed upon nine of his vassals in 672 BC. The treaty required that after the king died the vassals would help put the king's son Ashurbanipal on his father's throne. The treaty is loaded with curses to be applied on any vassal who violated the treaty. The curses called upon the gods to inflict diseases on the people and their livestock, to withhold the rains and dry up springs and rivers, to make the women barren, to make water taste like sheep's urine, to make food taste like hot dry dust, and so forth. The curses culminate with the provision that one thousand tents be reduced to one tent and one thousand men be reduced to one man. In other words the curses provide that the vassal and his people be completely destroyed.

We now have two examples of genocidal curses. The difference between the two is that treaty curses are conditional. They are only applied if the treaty is violated. In the other case, when God says "I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven," it seems that God is enforcing a treaty curse.

The idea of a treaty between Moses and the Amalekites may sound cockeyed to most people, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility. The Israelites and the Amalekites were both descended from Abraham and Isaac. The Amalekites may have believed that they were heirs to promise of land given to Abraham. Then Moses spent many years tending sheep for his father-in-law, Jethro. He would have become acquainted with many of the tribes of the wilderness. Moses could have had close and friendly relations with the Amalekites. All of this, so far, seems very reasonable.

Now I shall go way out on a limb with pure speculation. Moses might have made an agreement with the king of the Amalekites before he went back to Egypt. At the very least, the king would agree to sell food and water to the Israelites after they left Egypt. He would allow free passage through his land into Canaan. Similar demands were made by Moses on other kings. Another possibility would be that Israelites and the Amalekites would join forces and jointly conquer Canaan.

Then perhaps some of the Canaanite kings got wind of the this plot and tried to put a stop to it. The easy way to stop it would be to assassinate Moses. That could account for the bizarre passage where God suppossedly tries to kill Moses. But when that fails, the kings of Canaan lean on the Amalekite king to break the treaty with Moses.

Noiw I note that there is no hint of any such agreement in the Scriptures. But that is not conclusive. Many things are not explained in the Scriptures. And future generations would have good reason for deleting any reference to a treaty between Moses and the Amalekites. It would prove that Moses was not just a lousy prophet, but a fool as well. But a treaty would explain a lot of things in the Scriptures that seem pouzzling. It would explain the angry curse leveled against the Amalekites -- Moses was betrayed. It would explain why the people complained about the lack of food and water -- they expected the Amalekites to provide that. It would explain why people complained about being brought into the wilderness to die -- they were promised quick passage through the land of the Amalekites into Canaan. It would explain why they had to go to the very barren and desolate region around Mount Sinai. It could explain the anger that many people had against Moses -- he had led them into a trap. It could explain why Moses had to resort to mass murder in order to maintain control of the people. (Ex.32:26-28, Nu. 16, Nu.25) It would explain the viscereal hatred that the Israelites had for the Amalekites -- they had been betrayed.

I believe that the battle with the Amalekites had a profound effect on the Exodus that is not described in the Scriptures. With the cooperation of the Amalekites, they could have been in Canaan in less than forty days. But after the battle with the Amalekites, it took them forty years.

Let's listen what Moses himself says about prophets. Actually, it is the deuteronomist who puts these words into Moses' mouth:

Deut. 18:17 And the LORD said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken.
18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.
19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.
20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?
22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

The acid test of a prophet is whether he can fortell the future accurately. He has to be correct every single time or he is a false prophets. And false prophets should be put to death. Now let us ask: How does Moses himself measure up to this standard? In Exodus 3 god commands Moses with these words:

Exodus 3:16 Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt:
17 And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.

This command was carried out when Moses returned to Egypt.

Exodus 4:29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:
30 And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.
31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.

Thus the elders were told they were going to go to Canaan. But that is not what happened. Not one of the elders got to the promised land. They all died in the wilderness. Of all of the adults only two, Joshua and Caleb, made it to the promised land. And they were probably to young to be elders. Thus the last two passages quoted above make it clear that the Israelites were victims of false prophecy. Thus Moses was a false prophet and according to Deuteronomy 18:20 he should have been put to death.

Now the reader might think that my thesis here ia absurd. Wouldn't the plagues in Egypt prove that Moses was a true prophet. Not at all say I. Deuteronomy 8:20-22 tells us that a prophet is to be judged not by a hundred successes, but by a single failure. In two cases above, Moses failed to make a prophecy -- and these failures cost many lives. And in the third case, not only was Moses shown to be a false prophet -- but so was God!


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