Did Moses Write the First Five Books?

Lots of folks think Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. Probably not.

  • When did Moses live? Probably around the 13th century BCE. But this assumes Moses was a real person. Scholars still debate whether he was real or a symbolic character. Or whether he may even have been the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, who ‘found him in the water.’ 
  • When were the first five books written? It’s hard to say exactly. They were assembled over multiple centuries, first as oral traditions and later committed to writing. The most aggressive guesses for the first drafts are somewhere around the 900 BCE range. 
  • So then Moses could have been the oral originator? Maybe. But there are several sections that make that seem unlikely:
    • There is an account of the death of Moses, and lots of stories afterward. For example, there is an account in Judges of how the Israelites came under subjugation after they settled in Canaan (this all happened after Moses died).
    • There’s a verse in Numbers describing Moses as ‘the most humble man on the face of the earth.’ The world’s most humble man probably would not have written that. 
    • Camels were not domesticated in the region in the time of Moses, despite being mentioned multiple times in Genesis.

If we were to get into it (for more than three bullets), there are a lot of inconsistencies throughout the first five books. Writing styles are different. Stories contradict each other (e.g. two different creation stories). And descriptions of the Jewish relationship to God differs — sometimes God is described as an angry, jealous God and sometimes God is more of an intangible spirit that sends messages through dreams. Most Biblical scholars think that ultimately three or four main writers took quill to parchment. Moses was not one of them.

Last week’s question. The interns are still working on that zombie apocalypse at the end of Matthew that we mentioned last week.

Tip of the hat to Bart Ehrman and James Tabor for their great (and readable) work on the Old Testament.

Moses, Leavening, and Free Will

Let’s get back to Moses. Did you ever notice how the Bible (especially the Old Testament) repeats a lot of the same things? Part of it is because the Chief Editor of the OT had to piece together multiple, overlapping sources. Part of it is just bad editing. But here we go with more on Moses and the upcoming exodus:

  • What are the Israelites doing to prepare? Soooo Moses has called down nine plagues on the Egyptians, and Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go. But Moses thinks the release is coming soon, so he advises his people to borrow jewelry and other stuff from their neighbors to … you know … take with them on the way out. Yep, it’s right here:

Exodus 3:22, NIV: Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.

  • Whose responsibility? Exodus says several times that ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.’ And that’s why he continued to stonewall Moses and refused to let the Israelites go, even after multiple demonstrations of God’s power. If this is so, how can we label Pharaoh as an evil ruler since God determined Pharaoh’s decisions? What happened to free will? 
  • Leaven and sin. In the chapters leading up to the actual departure, God spends a lot of energy focusing on unleavened bread. The 3BT research team reports that leavening (i.e. yeast) is used throughout the Bible as the symbol for … you guessed it … sin.  Soooo, in a totally symbolic (and ironic) literary moment, Exodus focuses on eliminating sin from the Jewish nation, while God is sending plagues onto the Egyptians, their animals, and their first-born sons. Plus, we also find out that the Israelites have their own slaves, which they take with them on their way out of town. Along with their neighbors’ valuables. 

So many enigmas here that were not covered in Mrs. Wilson’s Sunday school class. What are the authors of Exodus trying to demonstrate?

Moses Negotiates with Pharaoh — Kinda

When we left Moses the last time, he was busy wrestling with God in a tent but had not done a lot to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Now we get into some good drama.

  • Early negotiations. Moses (and his brother Aaron who does most of the talking) go to Pharaoh several times over the course of Chapters 7-13.  First they try to influence Pharaoh using tricks with the magic staff (Moses and Aaron are both in their 80s, so picture talent night at the Senior Center). This does not work too well, largely because Pharaoh’s magicians can go toe to toe with Moses. Then they go back and forth with Pharaoh, calling down one plague after another. Pharaoh capitulates and then reneges over and over again. Ultimately, we get 10 plagues.

                       1. Nile turns into blood.
                       2. Frogs appear; then die. Think of the stench.
                       3. Lice.
                       4. Flies.
                       5. Pestilence from fire ash.
                       6. Boils caused by the pestilence.
                       7. Hailstorm destroying crops and livestock. More stench.
                       8. Locusts destroying more crops.
                       9. Darkness for 3 days.
                     10. Death to first born Egyptian sons.

  • Natural phenomena?  The 3BT research staffers consulted with the Biblical Archeology Society (BAS) archives. The BAS people had some interesting observations. Some researchers have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A Libyan dust storm could have caused the three days of darkness.
  • Literary devices. Both the BAS people and various religious sources posited that the 10 plagues were each directed at a specific Egyptian God, essentially proving the the Israelite God was better than theirs. And then there’s the metaphysical interpretations, which are always fun because no one can really argue against them. We found these two from the TruthUnity.net site to be the most interesting
    • Pharaoh’s reluctance and fluctuations about letting the people go illustrate the position our personal ego takes when spiritual growth offers a threat to its domination in our lives. Materialistic and sensual self-interest (Pharaoh) is not easily convinced to make way for spiritual commitment
    • The various plagues are broad, general references to painful manifestations caused by negative thinking and emotions. The plagues are symbolic of useless, unnecessary suffering caused by ignorance and selfishness.

See? Can’t argue.

Is God Spirit, Anthropomorphic, or Both?

This week we digress from the main story of Moses to address how God appears in different formats in the Old Testament. Here’s what we mean:

  • Spirit or Man-like? Genesis 1 describes God as omniscient and omnipresent when he creates the universe. But Genesis 2 (i.e. Adam & Eve) describes God as an anthropomorphic being who forms Adam out of mud and wanders around the Garden of Eden looking for A&E. 
  • Anthropomorphic examples. Most of the memorable God-events in the Old Testament come when God appears either as an angel or as an earthly being.
    • God wrestles with Jacob and actually breaks a thigh bone during the tussle.
    • God (and two other angels) eat dinner with Abraham in his tent one night.  
    • God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush.
    • And just last week we described an altercation between Moses and God, leading to an emergency circumcision and a creepy verse about what happened to the foreskin. So there’s that.

So which is it? Is God the omnipresent ephemeral being ‘out there’ someplace? Or does God regularly appear in the form of angels and human-like beings? 

  • Different authors; different time periods.Part of the confusions is because  there were multiple authors for the Old Testament. (The books were not written by Moses.) Most biblical scholars think that Genesis 1 (which portrays God as an amorphous being), and all the Old Testament stories that describe God more akin to a spirit, were written by some guy in around 500 BCE. Genesis 2, with the anthropomorphic God who wrestles with people, gets mad, gets jealous, and does all kinds of human stuff, was written around 1,000 BCE.

You’ve got to have a lot of time (and several interns) to comb through the Old Testament to figure who wrote which verses. But that’s what biblical scholars … and their grad students …  do. And we are grateful to Professor Bart Ehrman and his grad students for that fine work.

More Moses Drama

This week we continue with the Moses drama. He’s heard from God through a burning bush that he needs to return to Egypt (where there are likely plenty of people still mad at him for killing that Egyptian over-seer a few years earlier). 

  • But God wants Moses in Egypt to free the Israelites … so they can go take back to Canaan … and enter into a big war with the people who have been occupying the land for the last 400 years. For this and other good reasons, Moses wants none of that. But God proves to Moses that this time he’s going to protect everyone (in comparison to the last time when they all got forced into slavery). God shows Moses several miracles, including turning a staff into a snake and water into blood. So there’s that. In theory, it would have been more efficient for God to appear to the Jews and to Pharaoh in a burning bush. But God is outsourcing.
  • And then things get weird. A few years (!!?) after the burning bush experience, Moses sets out with his family to return to Egypt. According to Exodus, things got weird one night in the tent when God tries to kill Moses. Zipporah (Moses’ wife and the answer to the question of the week), believes that God is angry that their son isn’t circumcised. So she grabs a flint knife and performs an emergency circumcision on the spot.  Then she flings the bloody foreskin at Moses’ feet (we should point out that the term “feet” is likely a euphemism for genitals, which makes this whole story even more disturbing). Then she says: “Surely, a bridegroom of blood thou art to me.”
  • Really, she says that.  To this day, no one is quite sure what Zipporah meant, but it did the trick (the second part of the answer to the Q of the W). She saved Moses, and he went on to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. However, despite her bravery and quick thinking, Moses doesn’t act particularly grateful. Moses sends her and the children away before the Exodus from Egypt. Later, they reunite, but by that time Moses has taken a second wife, a “Cushite” or Ethiopian woman.

Several mysteries in this tale leave experts baffled. Why did Zipporah, a woman, perform the circumcision? Which son was involved? Was God himself the attacker, or did he send one of his minions? Why did Zipporah and Moses separate?

Acknowledgement to the people over at TheFriendlyAtheist.com for providing help with this week’s observations on the usually-boring story in Exodus.

What Did God Mean With That Confusing Statement From The Bush?

Two weeks ago we left Moses fleeing Egypt after killing an Egyptian slave overseer (but looking around first to see if anyone was watching). We also digressed into speculating about whether he was somehow the illegitimate grandson of Pharaoh.

In any case, Moses is in no hurry to return to Egypt. He’s met a nice girl near a well in the desert and has started a family. Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the Jewish people are still slaving away under Pharaoh. Remember, this is 400 years after Joseph and the family came over from Canaan during the famine.

Now the story gets interesting. God realizes something is amiss and speaks to Moses from a burning bush. In the ensuing dialogue, God informs Moses that his name is, “I Am.” The Chief Editor has heard several metaphysical explanations for this confusing phrase, none of which have been satisfying. But we ran across a theory this week in Quora that has some appeal.

  • The Jews may have been more like Egyptians. The Jews have been in Egypt for 400+ years. Despite their best efforts at keeping themselves separate, after 400 years they have probably adopted a lot of Egyptian religious beliefs in multiple gods and the accompanying rituals.
  • What’s God been doing? Meanwhile, the God who spoke from the burning bush was the same Jewish God that they worshipped 400 years earlier. He/She/It never really had a name other than God. So maybe God was miffed at Moses for even asking about the name thing. 
  • New world view. But this mono-God idea is going to be a hard sell to the Jewish people back in Egypt. Moses is going to have to first convince them on the idea of a God who calls himself “I Am” before approaching Pharaoh with the combination of miracles that we know is coming.

Fun genealogy fact:  In another interesting genealogy twist in the Bible, we find out that Moses’ father (Amram) married his own aunt. That’s pretty creepy, and not brought up often in Sunday School class. But we suppose those things could happen when you live to be 130+.

Question of the week:  Who was Moses’ first wife (she actually has a name), and what role did she play in the keeping God from killing Moses on the way back to Egypt? 

Exodus Begins — Moses Kills an Egyptian?

When we left Joseph at the end of Genesis, the dysfunctional family had all come to Egypt, Jacob finally died but not before cursing two of his sons, and the story ends. In Exodus, we pick up the story several years — around 1400 BCE vs 1600 BCE for Joseph.

  • There’s a new Pharaoh in town. This guy has never heard of Joseph, has no need for dream interpretation, and has not been told what a great family Joseph had. What the new Pharaoh knows is that after multiple generations, the Israelites have been … how should we say … fruitful. If you are Pharaoh, and you have a tribe of people who continue to propagate to the point of being a threat to your own livelihood, what do you do? You enslave them, of course. Maybe it was a karma thing — you remember … all that stuff about Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.
  • Moses is born. Since the Israelites continued to proliferate, the next thing Pharaoh did was issue an order to kill all the male Jewish babies. Here’s where the story of Moses begins. And it is strange from the beginning:
    • Moses’ mother first hides him from the authorities for three months.
    • Then she puts him in a basket in the water. That is when Pharaoh’s daughter ‘finds’ him in the basket. This is where all the rumors originate that maybe Moses was really the illegitimate son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 
    • Then Pharaoh’s daughter pays Moses’ mother to nurse him until Pharaoh’s daughter ‘kidnaps’ him back to be her son.
    • And suddenly Moses is an adult. All in a single chapter.
  • Moses kills a man. And just as soon as Moses becomes an adult, Exodus says he kills an Egyptian. The Bible is unclear on why. But it is clear that Moses did this only after he looked around first to see if anyone was watching. The commandment on killing evidently was still in the future. To add to the illegitimate son rumors, Moses (a Jewish slave killing an Egyptian) somehow escapes and eludes the authorities for several years before returning to lead his people out of Egypt. 


And we have not even got into the cool stuff we all know is coming.

And a shout out to Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist YouTube channel for his insightful and amusing observations on the Old Testament.

Tamar — Not in my Sunday School class

This week we are going to switch it up a little and look at the Old Testament. In particular, Chapter 38 in Genesis. The chapter is about one of Jacob’s 12 sons — Judah. You remember those sons — the ones who sent Joseph off to Egypt. Let’s see if we can condense the first part of the story. 

  • Judah has three sons. He hooks up Son #1 with a woman named Tamar. Son #1 dies. He hooks up Son #2 with Tamar. Son #2 dies (there’s an embedded story in there about coitus interruptus as birth control). There is still Son #3, but neither he nor Judah are feeling real good about the pattern going on here. So while Judah is thinking about it, he takes off on a buddy’s trip to “shear the sheep.” Really. That’s what they called it in Genesis. It was a thing. And while he goes off with the sheep, he tells Tamar to go live with her father … indefinitely. 
  • But Tamar is having none of that. She sees where this is going. So here’s the plan:  She dresses up like a prostitute with a veil, and positions herself along the road she knows Judah will take on his way back from “sheep shearing.” They negotiate a deal (this must not have been Judah’s first rodeo). where she comes away with his signet, cord, and staff. Tamar becomes pregnant. And Judah accuses her of being a prostitute (she must have kept the veil on). As Judah is about to burn her at the stake, she pulls out the signet, cord, and staff. Oooops. 
  • What makes this more interesting. Tamar goes on to have two sons, and is listed in the direct genealogy line of Jesus in Matthew’s first chapter. The 3BT interns searched for possible Christian interpretations for this story. The best we got was this metaphysical interpretation:  In the journey from sense to Spirit the soul passes through many phases, misdirects its faculties, and practices multitudinous forms of dissipation or waste.

Sure. That pretty much sums up a great story about patriarchy, misogyny, and human frailties. And we’re pretty sure that Mrs. Wilson, our 6th grade Sunday School teacher, would never have touched it.

We got inspired to tackle this story when we ran across a YouTube lecture on Genesis 38 over on the Patheos website. It was entertaining and thought-provoking; two concepts we embrace here at 3BT. Here’s the link if you want to hear about it first-hand (with even more sarcasm than here).

Joseph and Egypt Continued

Let’s continue with Joseph and his tenure in Egypt. In earlier posts we talked about Joseph’s experience with an Egyptian Mrs. Robinson, and how he avoided a long prison sentence through some nifty dream interpretations. 

  • One of these dream interpretations is done for the Pharaoh himself. It’s about having seven good harvest years followed by seven years of famine. And while he’s on a roll, Joseph plants the seed that he would be just the right guy to be put in charge of this food distribution. Because … y’know … he’s great at interpreting dreams.
  • The seven good years happen. Things are pretty easy. Joseph gets to ride around in Pharaoh’s chariot. He’s given a wife (nameless as usual, but the father’s name is suspiciously close to Potiphar). And pretty much does nothing else. Then the famine happens. Joseph gets a side hustle going selling the excess grain back to the Egyptian people. He makes a ton of money. And apparently has no conscience. 
  • Let’s go metaphysical here. We can see the obvious parallels between Joseph’s comeback from being sold into slavery and Jesus’ resurrection. But 3BT Staff looked into some of the other metaphysical interpretations of the Joseph story. One article said that Joseph’s prediction of the famine is equivalent to Christ “taking pity on the hungers of the world by opening the granaries of divine mysteries that would nourish mankind.” OK, sure. But why leave out the symbolism of Joseph working the cash register selling grain back to the people who had produced the surplus in the first place?

    This is a fun story to examine when we can step back from the sanitized summary we got back in Sunday School. There’s a lot more going on with Joseph than we might think. Next time we’ll bring in the brothers (including Judah — the one who went off with the sheep) and the others who sold Joseph into slavery. 

Finishing Up Joseph and the Family in Egypt

This week we wrap up the story of Joseph and the family in Egypt. In the last few chapters of Genesis Jacob finally makes his way to Egypt to join the rest of the family. Side-note: Jacob is also called Israel, and both names are used interchangeably throughout the text. Confusing? Yes. Helpful? No.

  • Joseph is still in charge of food distribution in the famine. And he’s pretty ruthless. First, the poor people of Egypt give all their money to the rich to buy food. When the money runs out, Joseph makes them give up their livestock. When that runs out Joseph makes them give up their land. Eventually Joseph arranges to provide seed to the people, but takes a 20% cut from the crop yield. Funny how we did not get that part of the story in Sunday School.
    • In case you were wondering, Joseph and the family are just fine. So are the religious leaders. 
  • Finally, it is time for Jacob to die. He is 147 years old, and the 22nd oldest person in the Bible. In chapter 49, he calls out each of his sons for a final word. Not all the sons get accolades.
    • He curses the eldest son Reuben for ‘doing it’ with one of Jacob’s concubines on Jacob’s couch. That was 40 years ago.
    • He also curses two other brothers (Simeon and Levi) for a a combination of forced circumcision followed by an immediate attack on a village back in Canaan. The other nine sons get various levels of blessing. 
    • Who are these people?
  • And an entourage of 70 people make the journey back to Canaan to bury Jacob. Pharaoh sends several representatives too. It is unclear if that was meant as a tribute to Jacob, or whether he just wanted to keep an eye on Joseph, his best government administrator.

On the way back, the brothers ‘find’ a letter from Jacob clearly instructing Joseph to forgive his brothers for any past transgressions. Evidently, Joseph bought it because that’s where Genesis ends. As an endnote to the book, God said that he would help Joseph and the family leave this place and return to “the promised land.” God is silent on how long it’s gonna take.

We acknowledge Hemant Mehta over at TheFriendlyAtheist.com for his comprehensive, pithy, and entertaining YouTube series on Joseph.