Moses: A Human Life, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Robert A. Segal on a exploration of the interior life of the leader who led the Jews out of the desert

March 9, 2017
Source: Alamy

The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is as much about personalities as about events and laws. The grandest figures are Abraham, Moses and David. Abraham was the founder of the Jewish people, and the first Jew. Moses led the Jews, or Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt, across the desert, and almost into the Promised Land. He also gave the people the Ten Commandments. David was his people’s greatest king and general.

One conventional question about these figures is whether they actually lived. A century or so ago, the tendency was to deny their historicity. These figures were instead deemed “mythic” – to use a term that I myself would not use negatively. But then more and more of the Hebrew Bible has come to be seen as possibly historical. It is not that evidence of Moses himself has appeared. (For the record, there are those who deny that Jesus ever lived.) It is, rather, that a figure like Moses might have lived.

In this exceptionally well-written book, which has the elegance of literature, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg sidesteps the historical question. She treats Moses as a fictional character – not because she rejects his possible historicity but rather because she focuses on him as a personality. She strives to go beyond the external facts of Moses’ life, itself extraordinary, to his inner life.

What was Moses really like? What was going through his mind when he faced the turbulence of being a Jew raised as an Egyptian, of being chosen by God to lead his people to the land promised to Abraham, of trying to placate both God and his people, and of finally being denied entry into the Promised Land?

Zornberg stresses conflict. Moses, for her, was continually torn between one inclination and another. Was he a Jew or an Egyptian? “Or perhaps, more accurately, we may say that he exists in a metonymic relation to the people who are, at first, both his and not his.” Were he and his brother Aaron allies or rivals? Of Moses and his sister, Miriam, the same is asked. Was he masculine or feminine? “In rabbinic parable, his assertiveness, his unceremonious behaviour, his girding of his loins in prayer – these constitute precisely the persona of the wife making demands of her husband.” And above all, was Moses merely human or ultimately divine?

For Zornberg, Moses is always “both and” rather than “either or”. She revels in calling his status a “paradox” – although she misuses the term, as a paradox is meant to be resolved.

Zornberg teases out Moses’ ambivalent feelings from the text itself, which means from Exodus through Deuteronomy. She seeks to go beyond the text to Moses’ state of mind. Yet she never ventures that far into Moses’ mind. While she occasionally uses the word “unconscious” and now and again cites Freud, for Zornberg, Moses’ motivations are almost wholly conscious. And some of the tensions that she attributes to him are obvious, not least his insecurities.

Scores of authorities of all stripes, from philosophers to literary critics to novelists, are enlisted in Zornberg’s arguments. She also relies on mainstream rabbinic commentators through the ages, Rashi most of all. The result is a thoughtful and highly literate read.

Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies, University of Aberdeen, and author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2015).


Moses: A Human Life
By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Yale University, Press, 240pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780300209624
Published 7 March 2017

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