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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moses Said So

"Behold," said Moses to the children of Israel, "you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven."

This is what I read in Deuteronomy chapter one last night as I continued in my Read the Bible in a Year program. Most of Deuteronomy is a series of long speeches Moses delivered to the Israelites just before Moses died and Israel began in earnest their conquest of the Promised Land.

When I read that sentence last night, I automatically did some quick calculations. So far I've read everything in the Bible up to that point, and my razor-sharp brain reminded me that the people of Israel were actually counted twice in the book of Numbers, or at least the number of able-bodied warriors were counted. The first time there were 603,550 warriors (a number which was also mentioned in Exodus before that), and the second time there were 601,730 warriors. Commentators estimate that if you add in women, children, and men who were unable to fight, the nation of Israel at that time must have consisted of something like two million people total.

A quick Google search reveals that modern scientists, on the other hand, estimate that there are in the neighborhood of 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Seems like Moses maybe estimated things a little bit short.

Then something else caught my eye. Moses was relating story points that had occurred back in Exodus, and kept referring to the people as "you". "You" were delivered from Egypt, "you" received the Law from Sinai, "you" were too frightened to enter and take the Promised Land. In fact, in one place Moses takes pains to let them know he is talking about those in his presence as he was speaking: "Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." The only problem is that none of that had happened to the people he was addressing! All of those events had happened 40 years before, to their parents, who at this point were all dead. Again, Moses loses points for accuracy.

Or does he? Moses was giving a passionate motivational speech, alternately reminding Israel to live according to God's laws and reminding them of God's promises, and certainly Moses was alluding to God's promise to Abraham, not actually counting stars. He wanted the people he had been leading all of those years to be emotionally prepared to fearlessly do what God had called them to do: enter the land promised to them by God, and take it. Reminding them of God's promises, remembering what God had done for them as a nation, those were part of him emphasizing to them that as a nation, God had been with them. His "you" was referring to the nation of Israel. The current batch of persons had inherited the promises given to their forefathers, but they had inherited the character flaws as well, and Moses wanted to remind them of both facts.

But why did Moses choose to use untruth to do so? The fact is, the Bible is truth, and Moses' speeches were also truth, but Moses wasn't speaking as a scientist... he was speaking as a passionate encourager, as a poet. "As numerous as the stars of heaven" is hyperbole meant to indicate that they were a vast nation. "You" repeated over and over in a history lesson about parents and forefathers is meant to identify them with their own history. A scientist might say that Moses' speech had elements of fiction or exaggeration in it, and so it was not entirely true. A poet would say that his speech had elements of hyperbole and identification with history in it, and thus it was transcendent and more true than plain vanilla facts would be.

Now, let's rewind a little. Okay, let's rewind a lot. Most Bible scholars believe that Moses was the author of almost every word of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. That means that Moses wrote the book of Genesis, right? Now, we've determined that Moses was predisposed to mold the historical facts a little bit to make a spiritual point. Let's think about some of the things Moses reported in the book of Genesis that seem amazing to us today:
  1. The entire universe created in six morning-to-evening days
  2. Water covering the entire surface of the world, including the highest mountain peaks
  3. People thinking they could build a building so high that they could reach God with it (and God being nervous that they would succeed)
  4. A city destroyed by a rainstorm of fire, and a woman's body changed instantly to salt
Now, I am of the opinion that things in the Bible should be taken at face value unless there is evidence that they are intended to be taken figuratively, and in my opinion, it's entirely possible that those things could have happened exactly as reported. But knowing Moses for the poet he was, I think we should also remain open to people who think that some of his writing may have a figurative element to it. That would not make the Bible any less truth; in some ways, it would add to the truth by inspiring in us the emotional reaction to God, the sense of wonder and awe, that we should have anyway. And in a story that is ultimately about God's relationship to us, that would be an even greater truth.

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