Mosheh Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People. Leadership and Crisis for the Exodus to the Plains of Moab
(Translated by Perry Zamak; Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2008). Pp. xviii + 286. Hardcover, US$35.00. ISBN 978-1-60280-012-0.
Reviewed by Garrett Galvin
Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, CA

Lichtenstein uses a midrashic methodology in Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People. Leadership and Crisis for the Exodus to the Plains of Moab so that he can gain a better understanding of the personality and character of Moses. Rather than focusing on specific passages or analyzing them in isolation, he “examines a whole topic in toto, following its various appearances over the course of many sections and chapters” (xiv). This leads to a highly literary methodology that allows the reader to track both the development of Moses’ personality and character as well as his increasing struggles throughout the Pentateuch. At times, I failed to grasp some of Lichtenstein’s nuances because the midrashic methodology that he employs is premised upon a knowledge of rabbinic literature that is inaccessible to scholars trained in the standard methods of Hebrew Scripture scholarship taught in most seminaries and universities. His emphasis upon things like the “19th century school of Lithuanian thought” will leave many readers in the dark. Readers should also be warned that he uses the Hebrew names of biblical books like Bamidbar instead of Numbers as well as many other Hebrew terms.

The achievements of this book include a deep and sustained insight into the character of Moses. Since this literary methodology does not concern itself with source problems, Lichtenstein can offer unique and compelling explanations for a number of important narratives within the Pentateuch. Another strength of this study is Lichtenstein’s willingness to engage difficult texts. These texts lead to close and creative readings that offer deeper insights into the character of Moses. For example, he demonstrates how Moses comes to Midian as an Egyptian (Exod 2:19), but returns to his Israelite brothers and sisters in Egypt (Exod 4:18) (33). Lichtenstein offers a cogent explanation for the episode at Shittim in Numbers 25: “First, Moshe does not initiate an immediate response on his own authority, as he did in the case of the Golden Calf, but acts only in response to a command from God. Second, even after this command, Moshe does not lead the battle against the worshippers of Ba’al Pe’or, as he would have in the past; instead, he passes the command to the lower echelons, the judges of Israel. . . . It is impossible not to feel that Moshe’s leadership is in a deep paralysis throughout this episode.” Although this paralysis is real, we also see Moses developing as he pays more attention to younger figures like Medad, Eldad, and Joshua.

An important subtext in the books is the development of the Israelites. Just as Moses’ character develops, we also see development in the Israelites. Lichtenstein chronicles how the people were both unable to take the initiative and were totally reliant on Moses’ leadership initially (64), but a new generation emerges with new leaders (Joshua and Caleb). Much of this book demonstrates the emergence of new leadership and how it confronts the Israelites in new and different ways than Moses did.

Lichtenstein uses the crisis episodes in Moses’ relationship with the people to best discern his character. We find him at his strongest when he is dealing with his own generation and their infidelity during the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32. Here, Lichtenstein shows the power of his spontaneous prayer. He is at his weakest when his anger takes over in his dealings with the next generation at Meribah. Lichtenstein shows that he fails to sanctify the name of the Lord here. “Moshe’s spirit is broken. He tells God that he no longer has the strength to lead the people. In the midst of a crisis, and without warning, Moshe declares that he can no longer bear the burden of the people” (88). Rather than confront the people, he leaves the scene (Num 20:6).

My difficulties with the book may stem from the midrashic methodology. Lichtenstein’s concluding chapter on “The Midrash and The Text” helps explain the methodology, but it would be helpful if he also gave us some criteria like Neusner does as to why he prefers Rashi over Rashbam (58) in particular instances. As I have not read enough of this type of literature, I do not know if the problem is Lichtenstein’s or is endemic to the literature. He claims that midrash “is based on an analysis of the motivating factors that underlie the text, ranging from the psychological and sociological to the metaphysical and theological, and is firmly rooted in the darshan’s analytical skills and understanding of life” (224). I still wonder how much access this methodology gives us into Moses’ inner life. Lichtenstein makes many sweeping statements about Moses’ intentions that go well beyond the text as when he comments on Moses going out after slaying the Egyptian in Exodus 2: “Moshe determines to return the next day to this world of oppression – to confront it, to understand it, and to redeem it” (11). Another difficulty in this book is that it can appear overly concerned with other midrashic commentators (71). I also wonder about his definition of a נביא‎ as one who foretells the future rather than as “a religious intermediary ... whose function is to carry messages back a forth between human beings and a deity (citation from Thomas Overholt, “Prophet, Prophecy,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible [ed. David Noel Freedman; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 1086-88).

Although the literary methodology employed by this book claims to use sociological insights (224), this does not seem to be very apparent. Lichtenstein believes the human element ties us today very easily to Moses. I would argue that if he took sociological insights seriously, he would have to deal more with differences in material culture between now and the Iron Age. Lichtenstein usefully cites the materialistic impulses that drove the spies in Numbers and the excesses at Shittim, but can they really be compared to the desire for “a villa plus a Volvo” (104) in the modern Israel that he speaks of? Can the Kenites and Midianites really be compared to “the Swiss during the Second World War?” I also believe that the texts continue to speak to us, but the differences in material culture and day-to-day subsistence do seem to be profoundly different and are never acknowledged.