Moses biography looks for 'proof' but misses the man

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MOSES: A LIFE By Jonathan Kirsch Ballantine 415 pp., $27.50

Moses is in the public eye these days.

While the American impeachment drama unfolded, Time magazine put him on their cover (Dec. 14), asking, "Who was Moses?" DreamWorks has animated him into epic grandeur for their feature-length film "The Prince of Egypt." Several new books about him are on bookstore shelves.

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Why all the attention to this towering figure of monotheism who gave humanity the Ten Commandments?

Time's David Van Biema says it's "in our nature to search for heroes, and Moses, rebel and saint, is as relevant today as he ever was."

Moses, like other major Bible characters and events, has come under historical scrutiny. Biblical scholars and archaeologists feel they must respond to new demands for "proof."

On his own quest for the truth about Moses, Jonathan Kirsch, attorney, book critic, and author of bestselling "The Harlot by the Side of the Road," has written "Moses: A Life." In this biography, which was a primary source for the Time article, Kirsch has pieced together hundreds of quotes and fragments of information about Moses from various ancient and modern sources. He has employed them to explain discrepancies in the biblical account, fill gaps and omissions, sketch in best guesses about the multiple authorship of the five books attributed to Moses, and confront what he sees as the more troublesome features of Moses' personality and relationship with God.

"To discern the real Moses," Kirsch writes, "we will need to excavate the layers of elaboration under which the figure of Moses has been buried, dust off the oldest relics of his life and work, and hold them up to the light." The results of his search, rather than enlightening, are, frankly, disappointing. Kirsch presents Moses as a reluctant "magic-worker rather than a strict monotheist" - complex, flawed, temperamental, even murderous - acting in grudging but steadfast obedience to a man-like, magical, demanding, vengeful tribal deity.

Kirsch seems to relish telling the story minus its profounder meanings. It is only "centuries of pious commentary," he writes, that would have us see "the hand of God" in the infant Moses' rescue from the Nile. The writers of the Talmud and Midrash are "rabbinical spin doctors," who were "anxious to pretty up the picture of how Moses behaved" when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster.

Kirsch speaks of Moses as "a sorcerer with as many tricks up his sleeve as a lounge-act magician in Las Vegas." Kirsch deeply questions acts of aggression, especially Moses' or God's. "[T]he smearing of blood on the door-posts; the slaying of the firstborn [of Egypt]," he writes, "is hardly the stuff of the 'ethical monotheism' for which Moses is celebrated."

A raft of interesting conjectures and facts fill these pages, but Moses' presence, humanity, and essential identity aren't to be found. The final product is uninspired. Much of the writing falls flat, and the humor, laced with modern vernacular ("Moses spoke up boldly - and suggested that God ought to send someone else to do the job."), doesn't come off.

Kirsch's final chapter, "The Search for the Historical Moses," contains his most thoughtful contribution. In it, he reminds us, "Today, more than ever before, the Bible must stand or fall as a source of moral and spiritual instruction rather than as a work of history ... By struggling to prove or disprove the historicity of Moses - or any other biblical figure, for that matter - we may succeed in informing and amusing ourselves ... but we are in danger of missing the whole point of Holy Writ."

* Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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