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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 4

The Pentateuch.

In the foregoing chapters, I have endeavored to show the plausibility as least, first, of Moses's right to be acknowledged the author of the Pentateuch, and secondly, of the claims of this book to be considered the true history of his time. — But how did Moses know what happened before his days? — To this, I answer, that he was not only the narrator of his own observations, but also the compiler or transcriber of existing historical materials. We have no means to prove positively, that the Israelites had any writings before Moses; but we can give various reasons, which seem to leave hardly any doubt resting upon the matter.

In the first place, the greater part of the events in Genesis are so circumstantially narrated, that it appears that those, who were immediately concerned in them, were the historians of their times.

A second reason may be discovered in the peculiar phraseology of at least two passages in Exodus. We read in Exo. xvii. v. 14: "And the Eternal said unto Moses, write this (the attack of Amalek upon Israel) for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it before Joshua." — The Hebrew words are the following: כתב זאת זכרון בתורה (Ketove zot zikharone basayfer.) The word, basayfer, signifies, in the book, whereas in a book (Eng. Version) ought to have been besayfer; or, to make it more intelligible to an English reader, the Hebrew syllable ba is the preposition in followed by the definite article the (in the), and the syllable be is the preposition in with the indefinite article a (in a). If the passage, of which we are now treating, is rendered correctly, and which no Hebrew scholar can dispute, it is pretty evident, that, as God ordered Moses to write the attack of Amalek in the book, it must follow, (as no particular book is mentioned, either here or elsewhere,) that this expression must relate to a book well known to the then Israelites, and which book, moreover, must have been a record of their history previous to the promulgation of the law, as the battle with Amalek took place before that event, the most remarkable since the creation. The second passage is found in Exodus xxiv. v.7, and is in the following words: "And he (Moses) took the book of the covenant and read it within hearing of the people, &c." This passage, however, is not so explicit as the preceding one, as it may refer also to the occurrences between the Exodus and the promulgation of the law on Sinai exclusively; though many are of the opinion, that the book of the covenant here spoken of is that in which the covenants with the Patriarchs are recorded, meaning the book of Genesis; and this book must have contained the history of the world from the creation to the death of Joseph, and further, the first nineteen chapters of Exodus (the passage quoted being a part of the recapitulation of what occurred before the promulgation of the Decalogue). But as this cannot be well established, and as it is mere conjecture, though highly probable, I shall not insist upon it as a convincing argument.

But I have not to adduce reasons to show, that independently of every consideration of inspiration or prophecy, we have cause to prefer Moses's history to any profane history extant, and it may be added, that ever was or will be written. — For every historian, if he relates the history of an enemy, will delight to dwell upon his crimes, and place his misdeeds before the world in the boldest relief, and use every means to make him odious, and only put a limit to his acrimony, for the sake of his own reputation for veracity, and that he may not be charged with giving his picture too deep a coloring. If he speaks of a friend, or one whom he pretends to admire, he will always endeavor to gloss over the faults of the hero of his tale, or omit them altogether, if he possibly can. And if any man writes his own life, he never relates a fault of his own, except it be to gain applause for his sincerity, or he strives hard to excuse that to the world, which he, in his conscience, cannot justify. Is this true or not?

Not so Moses. From the commencement of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, he merely relates the facts, as they occurred, without at any time commenting upon them. He relates the history of Jacob and Joseph, those two prominent and exalted patriarchs, with the most bewitching simplicity; both are represented to us as they really were, without addition, without diminution. In some parts of their lives, any profane historian, had he been their biographer, would have attempted to justify their actions, and at least would have tried to prove them virtuous, though their actions might to some appear equivocal. But Moses does not do so; he gives us facts, lets us draw our own inferences, and justify or condemn actions according to the standard which he was the instrument of making known to the world; well knowing that the intelligent part of mankind would be indulgent to the few faults and occasional errors of these good men; particularly when he, at the same time, leads us to the mortifying reflection, that no one is entirely free from fault, and that the best occasionally transgresses; and if any one should now be disposed to vent his spleen against the bible characters, because they were not altogether perfect, he may be referred to reflect upon himself, and told to see if all is so pure within him, that he cannot err, before he can be permitted to be too severe upon the sins of otherwise good men.

We thus find him never giving a false or overcharged coloring to any thing he relates. In the affecting interview between Joseph and Benjamin every thing is told in so simple a style, that we are at a loss which most to admire, the delicacy of Joseph's feelings towards Benjamin, when he first sees him, or the sublime brevity in which the whole is presented to us. — That part, where Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, is in the same style of simple sublimity, if I may use the expression; "I am Joseph! Lives my father yet?" These few words seem to proceed, so spontaneously, and so naturally, from a surcharged heart, and feelings raised to the highest pitch, that it is not probable that any passage can be found, either in ancient classics or in any modern production, that will in any degree equal the idea expressed by — I am Joseph! Lives my father yet!

If we have seen Moses act and write so in matters where he was not himself concerned, we shall find him equally sincere, and equally regardful of truth, when he has occasion to speak of himself or his nearest relations. Though he had often opportunities to praise himself, or to sketch his own character in the most exalted manner, yet does he ever remain the simple narrator of facts, and speaks only once in his own praise, and that in a trait for which alone few men would think of praising themselves, namely the absence of all pride. (Numb.xii. v.3 "And the man Moses was the meekest of all men upon the face of the earth.") What, the greatest of mortals to suffer himself to be slandered, and not resent the affront? What, does he suffer rebellion against his authority, without wishing the ringleaders even to be punished, save only then, when the well-being of Israel absolutely demanded this painful sacrifice? — Yes, it is even so. The man who was destined and appointed to be the leader of the Israelites shared all their toils, all their sufferings, and once only was sedition against his authority punished, and even then not through his agency; and his version of that event must needs be believed, since it is so circumstantially told, and it occurred before the whole nation of Israel.

Though he had undoubtedly acquired a great stock of knowledge in the sciences and the mechanic arts, yet do we not hear him boast of any of his acquirements; he only tells us in one part that his bodily strength remained unimpaired to his dying day, and in another he informs us, that he had an impediment in his speech, and this is all we know of the greatest of men! — About his own actions he is very explicit, he throws no veil over them to hide their defects, and he has even the frankness to tell us, (Deut. ch. iii v.23-26,) that his earnest prayer to be permitted to enter "and see the good land, which was (to him) on the other side of the Jordan, the good mountain and the Lebanon," was not accepted, for the well known reasons several times recorded in the book of Numbers.

If we even search all books of antiquity, or modern times, we shall probably meet with none which is so impartially written as the Pentateuch; which presents both sides of a picture with the same faithfulness, as the Hebrew canon does; and where we have facts so simply given, and our judgment is more left at liberty to judge for itself.

This very carelessness of Moses about amplifications and excuses, proves to the candid mind, that his subject must have been a good one, and the cause he advocated righteous. For would any man, ushering a fable into the world as truth, take so little trouble to persuade the world to receive it, as Moses has done? Would he not rather try to produce ingenious arguments, and well devised artifices, to make his laws palatable? Did not the celebrated Lycurgus, I may say, cheat the Spartans into an acceptance of his code, (if any credit can be given to the Greek writers,) which otherwise would probably never have been tolerated, as the supreme laws of the land?

But as there may perhaps be some other objections, of which I am, however, altogether ignorant, I will just state one instance of the great disinterestedness of Moses. The honor of priesthood was the greatest dignity among us, for under certain circumstances, the priest was even higher than the chief magistrate of the nation; independently of religious distinctions and other privileges attached to that order. — If Moses now had been ambitious, or eager after power and glory, he would certainly, (all along supposing he was not inspired,) have assumed to himself and his descendants the highest honor. But did he do so? No, he elevates his brother and his four sons, whilst he submits himself and his own children to Aaron's superintendence (see several passages in Numbers, particularly chap.viii. v.5-26). No other conqueror, no other legislator ever acted in this manner. I will not say, that they did assume all honors and power, but it may be boldly asserted that no one conqueror or legislator ever excluded himself and descendants from honor, power, and riches! — It is well known, that the Levites had neither sovereign power, nor immediate property like the other tribes, since all their property was dispersed among all the tribes of Israel, and even then their possessions were limited within a mile on each side of their cities. Why then did Moses exercise this forbearance unless directed by a superior power, a power superior to his will, and to whose unlimited sway Moses, no less than every other member of the human family, was obliged to submit? Indeed, it was his word Moses wrote, by his command Moses acted, and his almighty name was the watchword of Moses!

We have thus seen Moses proved to be the writer of the Pentateuch, seen him entitled to credibility as a historian in general, and also seen him proved equal, if not superior, to any historian of ancient or modern times. I will then pause here and in the succeeding chapters endeavor to establish the truth of revelation, not alone by Moses's history, but also by our national existence as Jews, and as the representatives of the Israelites to whom the law was originally given, and the fulfillment of prophecies pronounced by Moses and his successors, the prophets and seers of Israel. — I must here also beg every one who reads these pages, to consult the passages in the Bible, to which I may refer, and take them in connection with the preceding and following verses, to see that the interpretation I may have to give, is consonant with the context, as I do not wish any thing to be taken upon my bare assertion. Should he in the succeeding part of this little volume find any thing startling at first sight, he will do well to reflect before he condemns my conclusion; at all events I hope to receive a fair hearing, not alone from Jews, but also from Christians and free-thinkers.

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