Moses and Machiavelli

We all know the story of Moses and his liberation of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. Hollywood, especially, loves this story. Exodus offers so many cinematic moments – the infant Moses set adrift in the river and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses attacking the Egyptian taskmaster, God addressing Moses from the burning bush, the ten plagues and Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance, the parting of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, Manna from heaven, water from a rock, the deafening trumpet blast at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, the Levites’ slaughter of the unfaithful, the construction of God’s tabernacle, and radiant Moses aglow after looking upon God. God has more spoken lines and appearances in Exodus than elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and His relationship with Moses achieves unrivaled intimacy. Despite its sensational features, Exodus is addressed to thoughtful adults and prompts us to think hard thoughts about man, God, and nations.
The Exodus story is so well known that we are likely to think we understand what goes on in it. Let’s test that notion with the following observations:
1. Moses is a strange choice as liberator. Although born a Jew, Moses was raised as an Egyptian prince and was unaware of his origins. Moses has moral defects; in a rage, he murders an Egyptian taskmaster. Exiled from Egypt and from the enslaved Israelites, Moses marries Zipporah, a Midianite. When God from a burning bush calls Moses to his mission, Moses declines: “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). When Moses shows indecision, God supplies him with magic tricks – turning a staff to a snake — still, Moses demurs. Moses reveals shocking cowardice. “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?” he whines. He pleads incompetence: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now … ” (Exodus 4:10). A hero should be made of sterner stuff.
2. And then, we must consider the demeaning portrayal of the Israelites. We would expect the Hebrew Bible to portray the “Chosen People” in a heroic light. Historical narratives usually set off from a Golden Age when people were honorable and free from the corruption of the reader’s shameful time. In Exodus, however, the Israelites are corrupt, petty, mean-spirited, fickle, cowardly, disloyal, thoughtless, dishonorable, and stubborn. How can it be that Jews, notable for venerating the past, would fill their Scriptures with such a demeaning portrait of their forebears? Why would God choose such a rabble for His project in creating “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation?” Not only are the Israelites unworthy, they are also, from a practical point of view, an unlikely choice. The Egyptians would have proved more orderly, and reliable. How backward are these Chosen People? When Moses attempts to establish a judicial system, neither he nor any of his people knows how to proceed; Jethro, his sheep-herding father-in-law, offers advice that any of us could provide. Could the Lord have made a mistake in selecting these recently enslaved people?
3. It seems also that God is a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5), a petulant being who loses his temper (Exodus 32:10) when He does not get His way. If we take the scripture literally, God worries about other gods who compete for attention from humankind:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

Is this God or the Godfather (“I wouldn’t turn against me if I were you.”)? Is He insecure, fearing being replaced by some other Creator of the Universe? Can it really be that He lacks confidence and an ethical character?
4. Worse yet, the Lord appears to be a bully. His threat to punish the innocent children of erring parents offends our sense of justice. Such a threat corresponds too well with a God who terrifies His people into submission:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us; or we will die.”(Exodus 20:18-20)
God does not reason with His people; He terrorizes them into compliance.
5. God appears so intemperate under pressure that He forgets His Covenants with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and also His historical objectives with this “Chosen People.” When the Israelites turn to worshipping the Golden Calf, God, in an apparent fury, proposes to exterminate His people. Moses, it appears, has to rescue God from a catastrophic error of judgment. If we accept the story as written, God seems to need both complete submission from His human chattel, but also the advice from Moses, his “consigliore,” who possesses a clearer head in a crisis.
6. And finally, we must make sense of Moses launching a bloody civil war in which 3,000 Israelites are massacred by their kinsmen. When Moses talks God out of His genocidal decision, the Lord decides, instead, to leave the matter in Moses’ hands. Not only does he punish the idolaters, but he convinces the faithful to slaughter those who betrayed Him. Even bolder is Moses’ claim that the Almighty requires this, citing a command that the Lord never issued. Like politicians before and since, Moses lies to accomplish what he would argue is necessary – ends justify means. No wonder that Machiavelli cites Moses as among the greatest political leaders in history.
Why Moses?
Moses trembles at the beginning and commands at the end; Exodus tells us how God educated a leader for His Chosen People. Exodus fits a familiar pattern; God selects His heroes from among the least (Jacob, Joseph, David, etc.), and He frequently finds them initially reluctant (Samuel, Isaiah). The case of Moses is somewhat different, however. Raised in Pharaoh’s court, Moses has a sense of entitlement. As an infant he was cared for by his Hebrew birth mother. So he acquires the strength of his royal upbringing and sympathy for the enslaved Israelites. When Moses, outrage by injustice, attacks and kills the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses settles into a placid life, a shepherd among the Midianites, content with obscurity and a simple life, with his wife Zipporah, their children, and his excellent mentor and father-in-law, Jethro.
From this lowly station, God molds Moses into a great leader. At first, Moses is reluctant. God supplies him magical powers and enlists Aaron, his more articulate brother, to help him. Even so, Moses feels overmatched. Nonetheless, soon Moses is standing strong against the god-like Pharaoh’s hard-hearted defiance. In time, Moses parts the Red Sea, invoking the Lord’s might; he turns the tide of battles with his staff; and later boldly requests to look upon God Himself. At a climactic moment, Moses assumes from God the reins of command and takes upon himself a desperate political decision. Exodus recounts the story of a hero’s creation, from modest shepherd to steel-girded leader of a nation selected by God for greatness. Facing mighty Pharaoh and parting seas, however, prove simpler than leading the wayward and rebellious Israelites.
Why the Israelites?
According to Exodus, the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt fifteen generations, long enough to have lost all sense of self-direction. Slavery is political, but it is also moral. In the wilderness, the Israelites demonstrate their childishness and confusion. They have seen the Lord’s power to free them from Pharaoh’s grasp — the tenth plague, killing all first born but their own and drowning Pharaoh’s mighty host — still, faced with hunger, the Israelites complain bitterly, telling Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
One can sympathize with their distress, but their complaint is dishonorable. The Israelites prefer the crude stew to their freedom. They are expert at whining. How could it be otherwise, after generations as slaves? The Israelites are least likely to become a holy nation. Why choose them? First, their miraculous transformation will testify to God’s grandeur; what is changing staffs into serpents compared with turning a slavish mob into a mighty nation? Second, the Israelites are helpless without God’s protection and more likely to accept God’s guidance whole-heartedly. The Egyptians are more civilized but less likely to cling to a demanding religious devotion. The oppressed and down-trodden embrace their path to freedom fervently. And, last, the Israelites’ rescue represents a model for all of humankind. Their resistance, ingratitude, and stubbornness characterizes our struggle, in all times and places, to accept God’s truth.
In story-books the Israelites would be noble in their suffering – as if suffering ennobles. Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments (1956) appeals to its democratic audience, wishing to venerate biblical ancestors and blame their troubles on unscrupulous politicians rather than on their own lack of discipline and courage. [1] Exodus, however, accepts neither the basic goodness of people, the ennobling effect of suffering, nor democratic values. The Israelites are crude and need to be addressed through threats and intimidation, to do what is necessary to save them from themselves. As the 23rd Psalm insists, we need a stern shepherd, ready to employ his “rod and his staff” because we are wayward and silly sheep.
All but overwhelmed by these “stiff-necked” (stubborn) people, Moses complains to God. How is he to lead such a rabble? When they beg for food, God provides Manna but also exacting rules limiting their Sabbath gathering. God provides, but the people’s self-discipline is feeble. Soon after, wracked by thirst, the Israelites again confront Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst.” In exasperation Moses complains to God: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Exodus 17: 3-4). Time and again, the people fail the test of faith, and Moses is discouraged by their disloyalty.
A Jealous God?
The Israelites could not have succeeded unassisted. God intervenes at Sinai to rescue this incipient nation. The Lord presents Himself in an unappealing way, but God knows how to be God better than we do. If God ran for office, few would vote for Him. His Commandments presume that people are ungrateful and enslaved to animal appetites, and that they require dire threats to listen to Him. We should not imagine, however, that God’s presentations of Himself reveal His nature. Instead, Exodus reveals only how God addresses this particular audience in order to rescue them from their confusion. The scene is rhetorical and not mystical. God’s appearance is stage-crafted to address the needs of these refugees of Egyptian slavery in ways they can grasp and respond to as He wishes. The Israelites are not capable of participating in a sensible discussion; they must be driven to freedom, like dumb and reluctant beasts.
God’s approach to the Israelites assumes several voices. He is a complex character and conceals His nature behind a series of masks. In Exodus 19, God instructs Moses on how to speak to the Israelites:
… tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3-6)
These words are encouraging and poetic — words of a loving God (“you shall be my own”), with the sweet promise of God’s devotion. God instructs Moses to speak kindly, and Moses gains ready assent from the people, but God knows this contract is fragile. Still, through sugared words God has gained their formal agreement and established the principle, if not the fact of reciprocal devotion.
Is God a Bully?
God’s next appearance is terrifying – thunder and lightning, smoke, and the trumpet’s blast. The people remain behind a barrier through which only Moses and Aaron may pass. Although consecrated with ritual cleansing, the Israelites may not approach God. The Lord announces the Ten Commandments in a threatening voice. God introduces Himself to His people as follows: “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me …” (Exodus 20:5-6). God does not reason with His people; He invites no mitigations. In Hebrew, His commands are abrupt (“No Killing”; “No Adultery”; “No stealing”). God’s presence is so horrific that the people beg Moses to keep God from speaking to them directly “or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Moses explains that this voice does not convey God’s essential nature but was chosen to help them hear and obey: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
God’s next voice, no longer angry, is precise and exacting. God specifies in tedious detailed the requirements for His tabernacle. Instead of poetry and passion we have the close minutia of small print. Readers may complain at this mind-numbing detail … and presented twice. [2] Why demand these endless specifications? God knows the Israelites are careless, unused to any discipline. Like us, they would prefer petty amusements rather than to organize a thousand pantry cupboards and keep a detailed inventory. Morality requires precise habits beyond even fervent beliefs. The care God demands in the construction of His tabernacle is essential for converting these disheveled people to freedom and holiness.
Does God lose His temper?
God’s fourth voice is unexpected. Betrayed by His people in their orgiastic revelry around the Golden Calf, God appears to lose His temper. He offers to “consume” them and appears to forget (1) His ancient Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; (2) His immediate project to transform this wayward people; and (3) His plan to impress all nations by creating a Holy nation. Meanwhile, Moses remains calm and patiently reminds God of His commitments. Can God’s ineptitude be taken at face value? Can God fall apart so completely that He has to rely on the help of a “mere mortal”? Something else must be happening here, something that makes sense once we recall Exodus’ project of educating a leader.
From the Burning Bush on, God has been constructing a leader. Moses at first requires magic and Aaron’s assistance; the miracles steel his resolve with Pharaoh; time and again Moses turns in confusion to God to manage his wayward people; God scripts His delivery of the law, so that Moses has only to deliver the His lines. Whatever Moses has done, has required the Lord’s assistance. While instructing the Israelites, God has also been educating a leader who can serve His purposes effectively.
Faced with the Golden Calf betrayal, God feigns helplessness. When God appears confused, Moses must take command. After Moses reasons with Him, God relents. Can God have forgotten His covenants? Can God not understand what Moses grasps so clearly? Can God lose His mind? When Moses descends from the mountain and, without God’s direction, resolves this critical problem of law and punishment on his own, he emerges as the leader God has been educating him to be.
God, to be sure, has good reason to be displeased. He tells Moses
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10)
God refers, humorously, to the Hebrews as “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt,” as if Moses selected and liberated them from Pharaoh’s grasp. Calling them “this people” further estranges God from the Israelites. It is the speech a tyrannical CEO makes to shift responsibility for a plan gone wrong.
Even more remarkable Moses advises his unhinged Lord:
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)
If we read the Scripture in a simply literal way, we will conclude that God, omniscient and author of all Creation, has forgotten his plan and that Moses must step forward to provide God a basic lesson in geo-politics.

Moses and Politics
Urged on by God, Moses commits a stunning act of political manipulation. He gathers the faithful to him, all the sons of Levi, who are “on the Lord’s side” (Exodus 32: 26), and tells them a politically useful lie. He rallies them to arm themselves, “each of you [to] kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” Moses then lies in assuring them “that says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Exodus: 32:27). In fact, God never advised Moses to take this bloody course of action. Machiavelli will name Moses a model leader, precisely for his bold and fraudulent invoking of God’s sanction.
Moses confronts a crisis, and for the first time, all on his own. Moses has been unaware that the Israelites have violated the most precious Commandment. When Moses discovers the Golden Calf revelry, his reaction is what God feigned: “Moses’ anger burned hot…” (Exodus 32:19). In his rage, Moses smashes the tablets of Commandments and then, instead of consuming the people as God proposed, he has them grind their Golden Calf to powder, mix it with water, and consume their false god.
The Israelites betray their commitments. Even more embarrassing, it was Aaron, Moses’ brother, who permitted the people to violate God’s law. Aaron explains he had simply done what the people requested. Though Aaron knew that the people are “bent on evil,” he acceded to their request: “they said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us…’. So I said to them ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Aaron’s story is preposterous and recognizably human. Aaron fails because he does what the people ask him. Such complaisant leadership would condemn the Israelites to endless wandering — physical, moral, and political – and finally to extinction in the pathless and barren desert. [3]
The political solution is Moses’ own. He directs “the sons of Levi” to “kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Exodus 32: 27). The killing of “three thousand of the people” violates God’s Commandments. Worse yet, Moses tells his allies that the murders follow God’s decree – “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Exodus 32:27) when God never advised it. Moses does not mislead the people, he lies to them.
Exodus 32:25 justifies Moses’ extreme policy. The parenthesis reads “for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies.” The Israelites must display their adherence to the law to demonstrate God’s power; adopting the Golden Calf as God shows enemy nations how little control God exercises over those He cherishes. Still, their extinction would prove how deadly this God can be. Without purging the disobedient, the Israelites will be lost forever. They will destroy themselves by inviting attacks from their enemies and by endless internal dissension. Moses will not allow them to destroy themselves by disregarding God’s law. Faced with a terrible choice, Moses emerges as a fully armed political leader, ready to impose God’s will upon a people not yet capable of understanding the requirements of self-control in service to the redemptive trajectory of history. [4]
The Bible instructs alert readers concerning the dark corridors of history and challenges our happy belief about ourselves. The Israelites are devoted to their animal nature. Moses must punish that enslavement in order to commit them to higher tasks. We might wish the Bible errs in depicting human nature as debased and requiring dictatorial and devious leadership. We might want to argue that the Bible asks too much of us, and that a Holy nation is not possible, and that pain and trouble comes from asking too much of us. Exodus does not allow us to mistake the urgencies of history for a fairy tale of magical events and happy heroes – an airy romanticism of human goodness against all the evidence of history and our times.

[1] Dathan, a sly and self-seeking demagogue, portrayed by Edward G. Robinson (famous for depicting urban gangsters), plays upon the people’s fears and leads them, like the wily Communist figure of that time’s pathology, to rebel against their true leaders.
[2] Exodus 25 – 30; and again Exodus 36 — 39:16. Readers may well feel they have endured forty years in the desert, having had to read these chapters with care.
[3] The Israelites’ offense is not theft or lying or adultery but instead worshipping animal gods. This is not just defiance of the law but denial of God. Modern readers would likely rank the social commandments – against murder, theft, lying, and false swearing — first; honoring parents and against coveting next; and the Commandments directed at honoring God and the Sabbath last. The First Commandment, however, anchors all the others. Without fear and respect for God, this rebellious people could not be trusted to adhere to God’s social morality on pragmatic grounds alone. And perhaps they will discover that “other gods” means putting anything before God – making money, gaining fame, devotion to family or tribe or nation, even perhaps devotion to our own self-glorifying religiosity.
[4] Jesus points to Moses’ dilemma in teaching the laws governing divorce. In Jewish law divorce is permitted (Deut: 24 1-4), and Jesus shocks the leaders of the synagogue by teaching that divorce was never God’s law, citing Genesis 2:21-25. Jesus insists that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19: 8). Jesus notes that Moses, for political reasons, yielded to the crude needs of his followers. Their stubborn insistence on retaining the right to divorce their wives would have prevented Moses from winning their consent to the new law.


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