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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 9

The Legation of Moses.

In the foregoing pages it has been proven to the conviction of any man, who feels no abhorrence against being convinced, that a revelation existed before Moses, and though the law, we now have, be the most perfect, yet could not the Syrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites excuse their gross wickedness, by pleading ignorance of the divine will; for they had ample means of acquiring a knowledge of the laws given to the patriarchs, if they had but desired it; for wherever Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob went, they taught the word of God. And even if they had not done this, their rectitude, chastity, and hospitality ought to have been admired, and not alone admired, but also imitated. Instead of this, all the horrors of murder, human sacrifice, and incest, were practiced by these nations to an almost incredible extent. Who would believe, that mothers carried their children to the valley of Moloch, and stood by while the poor innocents were roasted alive on the heated arms of the brazen image? Can it be credited, that the crocodile received the babe out of the arms of its mother? Would it be believed, if the fact were not, alas, too well authenticated, that the women were often the wives of their own sons? — I will not mention the images of incest, for the brief catalogue of crime is already revolting enough, without any further addition.

The days of happiness and tranquility for the descendants of Jacob were over; and Joseph — who before he died, had ordered his remains to be taken away from Egypt, whenever it should please God to conduct his people to the promised land — was scarcely dead, scarcely had the last clod of earth rung upon the coffin of the last of the patriarchs: when the new king of Egypt forgot the kindness of Joseph, the benefits he had heaped upon the inhabitants of the country under his dominion, in having saved them from the desolating famine. — The Israelites had greatly increased in numbers since the arrival of Jacob, and the tyrant of Egypt feared them as inimical to his government, falsely thinking of them, like many rulers in later times, and even in the present day, think of us, their descendants, that they could have no community of interest with the other inhabitants of the country, amongst whom they resided. His fear soon made him look around him for remedies, or rather, preventives, against the too rapid increase of the hateful people within his dominions, though the land on which they resided, had been given them as an inheritance, by the especial command of his predecessor. — By labor then did the new king endeavor to check the growth of the Israelites, and at the same time to break down their high-mindedness, for he thought, that as slaves they would cease to be dangerous to the state, and useful in building cities, monuments, and other public edifices, independently of other manual labor, which he compelled them to do. But the tyrant's aim was frustrated, and the more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they increased. Seeing his designs so sadly disappointed, he became furious, and ordered the midwives to murder all the male children of the Hebrews, as soon as born. But these heroic women, regardless of any mischief that might happen to them, did not obey the king's cruel mandate; and when he discovered this, he commanded his own people to throw every male child of the Israelites into the Nile.

But vain are the efforts of man against the decrees of Heaven! In the midst of this calamity was born by Yochebed, the wife of Amram, of the tribe of Levi, that child; who at the age of eighty years, rescued, under the peculiar guidance and providence of God, his fellow-believers from the yoke of slavery. — after Yochebed had concealed her infant for three months, she found it impossible to hide him any longer from Pharaoh's blood-hounds, and with sorrow she was compelled to place him in a box, and expose him amidst the reeds of the Nile, for she preferred leaving his rescue to the hand of Providence, rather than begging his life of men, whose hearts were steeled against mercy. — The box was providentially discovered by the king's daughter, who, feeling compassion for the helpless innocent, determined to save him. When the child grew up, she adopted him, and called him Mosheh (Moses,) from a Hebrew word, which denoted drawing out, as we also read in Exodus: "And she called him Mosheh משה, for (she said) I have drawn him (משייהו) out of the water.

When Moses was grown, he went out one day to see his brethren work, and he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite; Moses who perhaps found no other chance of saving the Hebrew's life, slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. Egypt was now no longer a safe residence for Moses, for soon did Pharaoh hear of what he had done, and intended to kill him; but Moses escaped. He now, who had been reared in a palace, had been the adopted son of the princess of Egypt; became the servant of the chief of Midian (a district in Arabia), and so much was Jethro pleased with him, that he gave him his daughter Zipporah for a wife, by whom he had afterwards two sons, of whom one was called Gershom, the other Eleazer.

The above mentioned king of Egypt was dead, and yet the pressure was not removed under his successor from Jacob's children, and bitterly did they groan under their heavy labor; but their Father in Heaven heard their cries and determined then to save them.

Moses, so he himself tells us, was tending the sheep of his father-in-law, and drove the flock far into the wilderness, and arrived at the mount of God in Horeb. The wonderful appearance of a thorn bush being on fire, without being consumed, attracted his attention, and he stepped forward to see "why the thorn bush was not consumed?" — But hark! His step is arrested, and a voice calls out: "Come not hither! Take thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place thou standest upon is holy ground." The Eternal then proceeded to tell Moses, that He was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God, in times of old adored by the patriarchs, with whom He had made a covenant; He had therefore resolved to redeem their descendants from their servitude in Egypt, and bring them into the promised land, and that He had destined Moses to be the messenger to Pharaoh, and to be the leader of the Israelites after their redemption.

Moses, hearing himself appointed to such a high station, modestly declined the honor, on account of his supposed inability. But God told him, that He would assist him; and to prove to Moses the truth of his mission, He gave him a sign; that namely, when the mission should be in part accomplished, by the liberation of the Israelites from thralldom, they then should worship God upon that mountain, (Horeb). Here our law teaches us a lesson, of which we ought never to lose sight, "that prophecy cannot be verified, but by the accomplishment of the prediction, and no miracle, however striking, can establish the truth of what any man, pretending to be inspired, says, if the event accords not with the prediction."

When Moses felt thus convinced in his own mind, he asked by what name the God of their ancestors should be announced to the Israelites? And God answered אהיה אשר אהיה, which ought to be rendered: "I am the unchangeable Eternal Being, Who ever will be;" and He commanded Moses to tell the Israelites, "The Ever-Being אהיה has sent me to you." — Moses was yet diffident, yet afraid, that the people to whom he was sent would not believe him, if he did not show them miracles, to convince their senses. And he was gratified, for God gave him power to work certain miracles. — But Moses would not yet consent, and offered his want of eloquence as an excuse; God, however, spoke to him as followed: "Who gave to man a mouth? Who maketh him dumb or deaf, or well endowed with hearing and seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Eternal?" Thus far Moses had been right, in not grasping too eagerly at power and distinction; but when he had seen that it was God's will, that he himself, and no other should be the messenger, he ought to have raised no more objections; for when he yet refused, so he himself tells us, he was rebuked by God, who then assigned him his brother Aaron as spokesman, and thus gave him a partner in the work of salvation, which otherwise, as we have every reason to believe, would have been accomplished by Moses alone. — The following moral lesson is clearly deducible from the whole narrative: "we ought never to be eager to claim honors, but when we find ourselves capable to do any thing serviceable to mankind, or to the cause of virtue and religion, or if we see things done wrong by others, which we could do better; then it becomes our duty to come forward, and offer our services; to hold back then would be false delicacy, but not modesty, and we deserve punishment if we suffer mischievous errors to exist, which we by our exertions could perhaps remove."

Moses having received his commission from his Maker, wandered back to Egypt, having previously taken leave of Jethro, and being assured, that he would expose himself to no danger by his return to a land, where he was once threatened with the scaffold. — Aaron, who was rejoiced at Moses's elevation, met him on the road, and they, after their arrival in Egypt, assembled the elders of the Israelites; Moses performed the miracles before the people, and Aaron related to them the message, with which Moses had been charged. And the people believed. — Although heavily oppressed, they yet well remembered the promise given to Abraham, and the manner of Moses's prophecy convinced them, that he was the chosen messenger of the God, whom their forefathers had worshipped. — After having made known the word of salvation to their brothers, Moses and Aaron repaired to Pharaoh, and in the name of the Eternal demanded the release of his people. Pharaoh refused and said: "Who is the Eternal, that I should obey his voice, to let Israel go? I know not the Eternal, nor will I suffer Israel to depart." The obvious meaning of this answer is, that Pharaoh said, that the Eternal was a deity unknown to him, and as such he would pay no respect to his commands. — Like this miser, who clings more firmly to his ill-gotten treasure, when he finds that his enjoyment of it will soon be over; just so did Pharaoh order, that the Hebrews should be compelled to do harder work, and their daily task not be in the least diminished, when he discovered by the determined manner of the exiled Moses, that his dominion over the children of Israel was soon to terminate; for even Pharaoh must have felt assured that no man, much less one, who had been obliged to leave the empire, would boldly step up to the king and make such a monstrous demand, if he had not the power to make his threats of vengeance good.

Pharaoh perhaps intended to stifle, by harder oppression, the incipient desire for freedom just excited in the bosom of a degraded people; he also endeavored, but in vain, to resist the power of the Most High; — but he was soon taught to know, that he himself was but a man, a weak, powerless mortal; that the gods, to whom he looked for support, were things, in which there is no power to help, and — that there is none like our God. — His rivers were turned into blood; frogs came in masses to plague him and his equally guilty people; vermin and wild beasts came to destroy them, and pestilence swept off their cattle; their own bodies were afflicted with dangerous ulcers; hail and locusts were sent to destroy every tree and every plant which grew in the field, and at last there was darkness, which lasted for three days, and was so intense that no one could see the other. — As long as the plague lasted, Pharaoh seemed to relent and willing, that the Israelites should leave the country; but no sooner had the evil been removed by Moses's praying to God for his enemies, than Pharaoh and his ministers forgot their promise, and yet kept Israel enslaved. Nine plagues had already, in this manner, passed over Egypt, many times had Pharaoh refused to keep his promise; but now his proud spirit even was to yield, and he, who but lately spoke with contempt: "I know not the Eternal," was now destined to feel the full weight of his wrath, and to acknowledge that his will must be obeyed. Pharaoh had but just forbidden Moses ever to come to him again, under pain of death; when Moses was notified, and ordered to tell him, that that very night the greatest distress should overtake all Egypt, neither king nor slave should be spared, and that not even the cattle and the idols, which the Egyptians worshipped, should escape. For Moses was ordered to announce, that just at midnight, when every one should repose in security, every first-born of each family, in the whole land of Egypt, was to die, and that even the king's first born, his presumptive successor, should perish, and that then the bereaved parent would be willing to allow the Israelites to depart, to worship God the Eternal, Who had chosen them to be His servants.

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