The Life and Character of Moses
By John T. Christian (1854 - 1925)
Thomas Carlyle once said that Martin Luther was “a true great man; great intellect, in courage, affection, and integrity; one of the most lovable and precious men. Great, not as a hewn obelisk, but as an Alpine mountain, so simple, honest, spontaneous, not setting up to be great at all; there for quite another purpose than being great! Ah! yes unsubduable granite, piercing far and wide into the heavens; yet in the clefts of it fountains green, beautiful valleys and flowers! A right spiritual hero and prophet; once more, a true son of nature and fact, for whom these centuries, and many that are to come yet, will be thankful to Heaven.” All of this and more can be said of Moses. He combines the greatest service with the most disinterested feelings; the loftiest genius with the humility of a child. His actions
“Are as gentle
As zephyrs blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head; and yet as rough,
His royal blood enchafed, as the rud’st wind,
That by the top doth take the mountain pine,
And make him stoop to the vale.”
We can never separate his genius from his character, so meek, yet stern; from his appearance so gravely commanding, so spiritually severe; from his law, ‘girt with dark thunder and embroidered fires.’ A penetrating writer has said, “The true university of these days is a collection of books” but the greatness of Moses will appear when we remember that he had few or no books. Homer and Hesiod had not yet touched their harps and sung their immortal strains; and Heroditus, the father of historians, was yet unborn. The polish of Greece and the chivalry of Rome were shrouded in the dark bosom of the future, or shining in the twilight of Egypt. While all the earth was covered with the ebon pall of night the eruptive flashes of the great mind of Moses, like those of Aetna, threw a blaze of light on all around him, and have invited the attention of all these centuries
I may say of the writings of Moses what the great oriental scholar, sir William Jones, said of the Bible, They contain more sublimity, more exquisite beauty, more pure morality, more important history, and purer strains of poetry and eloquence than can be collected from all other books, except other portions of the Bible, in whatever age or language they may have been written. As John the Baptist was the harbinger of Jesus, so Moses was the forerunner of all the people, etc. His writings were the foundation stones of that wonderful temple which is called the Bible. His name will ever stand first in that
“Most wondrous book! bright candle of the Lord!
Star of eternity! the only star
By which the bark of man could navigate
The sea of life and gain the coast of bliss Securely.”
The name of Moses occupies a conspicuous place in the history of the ages. Much of his life was passed, and many of his mighty works were performed in Egypt; and it would be natural for us to look to that land of letters and civilization for some mention of him. In this we are not disappointed. The Egyptian Manetho, who wrote B. C. 300, says the leader of the Jews in the Exodus “was a priest at first named Osarhiph, but when he was gone over to these people his name was changed, and he was called Moses.” Louginus, the secretary to Queen Zenobia, of Palmyra, a celebrated critic and rhetorician, so learned that he was called a “walking library,” says, “Moses, the law-giver was no ordinary man.” Lyimarchus and Strabo also give him honorable mention; Eupolimus celebrates him as being the first wise man, and the inventor of letters.
No man can reasonably doubt that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch. It is a significant fact that many who once questioned this, upon careful investigation, have so fully expressed themselves in favor of his authorship. The learned Hase declared, “It cannot be denied that the purity of language, the eloquence of style, and the poetic imagery discovered in Genesis, betray the hand of Moses, and that the age of David presupposes the existence of the Mosaic writings.” Michaelis, whose name is equal to a host, thus writes: “That Moses is the author of the five books usually called his, is the common opinion of Christian and Jew; and I regard it as not only perfectly correct, but as certain as anything which can be known, respecting the composition of any ancient book.” Rosenmuller, in one brief and beautiful sentence, has summed up the whole argument: “All antiquity, Christian and Jewish, assigns the Pentateuch to Moses as its author, for reasons which are either drawn from the work itself or which rest on other appropriate testimonies.” We will consider Moses as
The poetry of Moses is linked with the songs of Heaven. The saints on high sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. The meaning of song goes deep. Who is there that can tell in words the effect of music upon the soul? This man leads us at once to the very edge of the infinite, and allows us to look into the awful abyss. The sentence of Longinus, that Moses was a most sublime writer, has but been echoed by every critic from his day till the present time.
The book of Genesis is a prose poem from beginning to end. The author is boundless in his thought; he launches in upon an
“Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth and height,
And time, and place are lost.”
He sails over the dark waters of Chaos, and walks upon the archway of the skies. Inspired by the Spirit of God, he dares things before unattempted, and in brief but unequalled words he accomplishes his task. A bright star, no less effulgent than the stars of the firmament which he describes in such matchless terms, had arisen upon the dreary wilderness of Time. With more than a diamond brightness of Canopus he does, and will continue to cast, his heavenly light far into the region of eternity. In the modified language of another, his words were the music of sweet sounds and anon the roar of the elements. Thoughts bubble up and pour themselves forth like springs in a gushing fountain, which murmur and leap awhile amid mountain rocks, then run smooth and clear through green and flowery valleys, until at length, swollen into mighty rivers, they roll onward to the ocean.
Who has not read his psalm of praise upon the banks of the sea when God had delivered the children of Israel? And there is that soul-subduing prayer uttered for all ages: “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” Much of his last address to his beloved, but erring Israel, took the lyric form:
“Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak;
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
My doctrine shall drop as the rain;
My speech shall distill as the dew;
As the small rain upon the tender herb,
And as the shower upon the grass;
Because I will publish the name of the Lord,
Ascribe ye greatness to our God.”
It is with something like awe that I turn from these Lyrics to the drama of Job which critics say was written by Moses. I know not how to express my opinion of this book better than in the sublime words of Carlyle. “I call that book,” says he, “apart from all theories about it, one of the grandest things ever written with pen. One feels, indeed, as if it were not Hebrew; such a noble universality, different from noble patriotism or sectarianism, reign in it. A noble book; all men’s book! It is our first, oldest statement of the never-ending problem, - man’s destiny, and God’s ways with him in the earth. And all in such free-flowing outlines; grand in its sincerity, in its simplicity; in its epic melody, and repose of reconcilement. There is the seeing eye, the mildly understanding heart. So true every way; true eye sight and vision for all things; material things no less than spiritual! The horse, - ‘hast thou clothed his neck with thunder’ - he ‘laughs at the shaking of the spear!’ Such living likenesses were never since drawn. Sublime sorrow, sublime reconciliation; oldest choral melody as of the heart of mankind, - so soft, and great; as the summer midnight, as the world with its seas and stars! There is nothing written, I think in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit.”
From what I have said you are not to suppose that the historical writings of Moses are ornate or rhetorical; indeed they are quite otherwise. “His language may be called,” says an observing critic, “the mere transparent window through which the ‘immeasurable calm’ - the blue of immensity - looks in. Certainly it is the least figurative of all the Scripture styles. Its simplicity is deeper than that of age’s unmoved narratives; it is rather that of infancy, telling some dreadful tale in an undertone, and with upcast looks of awe. It is as if Moses, at the feet of that simulacrum of Deity which he saw on the Mount, had become a child; as if the glory, which might have maddened others, had only sunk him down into the ark of bulrushes again. And, from that hour, dropping all the learning of the Egyptians, the mystic folds of which he had wrapped around him, he is content to be the mere instrument in the Divine hand, and becomes, that meekest man - a boy repeating with quivering voice and heart the lesson his father has taught him. Hence the Fall is recorded without a word of comment or regret; the sight of an ocean world starts up but one expression which looks like a metaphor - the ‘windows of heaven’; the journey of Abraham going forth, not knowing whither he went, in search of a far country - the most momentous journey in the history of man - is told as succinctly and quietly, as are afterwards the delinquencies of Er and Judah; through a naked narrative, bursts the deep pathos involved in the story of Joseph; and how telescopic, in its clear calmness, his view of the Ten Plagues, sweeping in their course between the Nile of raging blood and the cry which proclaimed the findings of that fearful morning, when there was not a house but there was one dead - the whole a dread circle of desolation, mourning, and woe. And even when he brings us in sight of Sinai - the proud point in his life - the centre of his system - the scene, too, of his sublime agony, for then did he not exceedingly fear and quake? - his description is no more than the bare transcript of its terrors.” Yet his language is not bald or common place. “His manner of speech,” as Lord Bacon said of the king, “was indeed prince-like, flowing as from a fountain, and yet streaming and branching itself into nature’s order, full of facility and felicity, imitating none, and inimitable by any.” Perhaps rare Ben Johnson has more fully expressed it: No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered.”
With the hand of a Master, Moses writes his history. Briefly describing in a few bold pen pictures the creation of the world and its emerging from chaos, man comes forward in the order of events. He was made in the image and likeness of his God, elevated a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor. Often in our eagerness to prove that man is a sinner and that he has come short of God’s glory, we forget the royal blood of Heaven flows in his veins. “You have heard,” says a celebrated and eloquent writer free from all bias but that of genius, Chrysostom’s celebrated saying in reference to the Shekinah, or ark of testimony, visible revelation of God among the Hebrews: ‘The true Shekinah is man.’ Yes, it is even so! This is no vain phrase; it is veritably so. The essence of our being is a breath of Heaven. This body, this life of ours, these faculties, are they not all a vesture for that unnamed? We touch Heaven when we lay our hand on a human being. We are the miracle of miracles. This is scientific fact. God’s creation - it is the Almighty God’s.”
Says some observer all history is a series of biographies. The lives of individuals are rapidly traced by our author, and their destiny linked not only with his people but with the renovated centuries. In this manner, sometimes smoothly flowing as a river, and then with the rush of the mighty torrent, are we carried forward to the death of this man of God.
Almost every point in the Mosaic narrative has been called in question; yet after the most rigid examination not one error has been shown. It has stood the test and braved the storms of the thousand years. The learned Adrein Balbi when he made the following remark said no more than the facts will substantiate: “No monument either historical or astronomical, has yet been able to prove the books of Moses false! but, on the contrary, with these books agree, in the most remarkable manner, the results obtained by the most learned philologues and the profoundest geometricians.” If we turn to Egypt there are miracles in stone. The very brick the children of Israel made, with the names of the cities they built, have been discovered. Only lately one of the Pharoahs, and the princess who adopted Moses, have been exhumed, and their mummies are now on exhibition. Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by the wrath of Heaven, have given their testimony. Leut. Lynch, in his ample exploration made on the Dead Sea, says, “The inference from the Bible that this entire chasm was a plain sunk and ‘overwhelmed’ by the wrath of God, seems to be sustained by the extraordinary character of our surroundings.” Again he says, “Upon ourselves the result is a decided one. We entered upon this sea with conflicting opinions. One of the party was skeptical, and another, I think a professed unbeliever of the Mosaic account. After twenty-two days of investigation, if I am not mistaken, we are unanimous in the conviction of the truth of the scriptural account of the destruction of the cities of the plain. I record with diffidence, the conclusions we have reached, simply as a protest against the shallow deductions of would-be unbelievers.” Even now the tidings have just come over the waters of a wonderful discovery on the banks of the Tigris. The records of the world before the flood, buried by Xisuthrus, and those of two of the most ancient cities of Chaldae have been brought to light by the learned savant, Hermuza Rassam. The tradition of the Fall and of the Deluge are handed down by every nation of earth. Thus the most learned research of modern times only goes to confirm the oldest records of the world.
MOSES THE PHILOSOPHER
In that period that may be called the childhood of the world, Moses knew more of philosophy than has been discovered with all of the advancement and learning of the nineteenth century. I call Moses a great thinker. This means something if we take it in the higher sense of Carlyle: “Not one in a thousand has the smallest time for thinking; only for passive dreaming, and hear-saying, and active babbling by note. “Of the eyes men glare withal, so few can see.” Or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge very pertinently asks, “If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?” Moses thought deep and dived for wisdom’s pearl far beneath the current of life. He is thoroughly posted on all scientific subjects. M. Henri, a candid and erudite French writer, says: “The cosmogony of Moses, simple, clear, and natural is evidently the result of learned research. The author of this system, respecting the origin of the earth and the heavens, must necessarily have devoted himself to profound meditations on the history of the globe; and it is certain, that geology must, in his day, have reached an extraordinary point of perfection, for the historian to follow, as Moses has done, step by step, all the mysteries of that creation.” M. Saintis remarks in his history of Rationalism in Germany, “So many things would prove Moses to be a wise geologist of our own age, if he did not learn the facts which he related, from some other source than the study of the formation of the globe, that it is only a mind in which great frivolity of character is joined to deplorable ignorance, that can perceive any flagrant contradiction between Holy Scripture and the profane sciences.” And in another passage referring to Genesis, he remarks, “The sciences, in our days, display in their teachings, notwithstanding the assertions to the contrary, more and more harmony with biblical facts.”
Moses places the creation of man last in the order of Genesis, and this is wonderfully corroborated by Geology. In the beautiful words of Mr. Richardson we will say, “The whole vast series of aqueous deposits, are crowded with organic remains, with fragments of the weeds, plants, corals, shells, crustaceae, fish, reptiles, birds and mammalian, relics of the vegetable and animal existence of the ancient earth; but no fossil remains of the human form have yet discovered in the solid rocks themselves, or in any, since the accumulations of silt or mud, which date from the most modern era, the yesterday, as it were, in the infinite history of the past. It is only in these accumulations of the historic period that we discover the remains of even the most ancient families of mankind; that in the British Isles, we meet with the implements or utensils of the ancient Britons, or the coins and weapons of their Roman invaders; that in Italy we find the Cyclopean structures and works of the Etruscans, a nation who appeared to have preceded the Romans in occupation of Italy, and to have excelled them in civilization and the arts of life; while vestiges of the Pelasgi are alike discovered in similar deposits of Greece; and in the New World, traces exist of the Talteques, a people who seem to have been the predecessors of the Mexicans, and their superiors in knowledge and improvement. In the solid repeat, no traces of man are discernible.”
Look at the clear views Moses had of God, of the brotherhood of man, and the unity of the human race. On these subjects scientists are still lingering in the border land, but Moses had gone up and possessed the country.
The Bible has ruled the world; all the beneficent laws which have governed the nations have directly or indirectly been derived from the Bible. Blackstone, that eminent writer on common law, has fully admitted this. “As God,” says he, “when he created matter and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the direction of that motion, so, when he created man, and endued him with free will, to conduct himself in all part[s] of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of good and evil, to which God himself always conforms, and which, as applicable to man, reason can discover; and which are so admirably ordered of God, as always to promote the substantial and permanent happiness of men; such, e. q., as that we should live honorably, hurt nobody, and render to every one his due. Indeed, to these three precepts Justinian has reduced the whole doctrine of law. This is the law of nature. But further, in comparison to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, God hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce his laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found, only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found, upon comparison, to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend, in all their consequences, to man’s felicity; but, though agreeable to right reason, reason, unaided and alone, could not make them known. Upon these two foundations, the law of nature, and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should contradict them.”
Jurisprudence is indebted to no portion of the Word of God more than to the books of Moses. It is not to the stern laws of Solon, or the wisdom of Confucius that the world has turned, but to Moses. Not the Forum, not the Areopagus, but the lone granite mountain of Sinai has become the judicial centre of the world. I here use the words of Chief Justice Hornblower of New Jersey: “When these giants of human intellect can tell me whence Moses derived his science in legislation, without admitting the supernatural and divine authority of the Ten Commandments, I shall begin to listen with more reverence to the teachers of human perfectibility. In that short and comprehensive code, we find given to us a perfect rule of action, covering the whole ground of man’s existence; a rule, not only prescribing our duty to God and man, in our external behavior, but reaching to the secret thoughts and feelings of our hearts in every possible condition of life, and in all our relations to our maker and to our fellow beings. The wisdom of ages, the learning and philosophy of the schools, have never discovered a single defect in that code. Not a virtue which is not there inculcated. Not a vice, in its most doubtful and shadowy form, which is not there prohibited. Whence, then, I ask, did the great Jewish lawgiver derive his spirit of legislation? If that code was written by the finger of the Almighty, let us bow in it with holy reverence, and seek no better rule of life, nor any wiser principles of action. But if it emanated only from the capacious mind, and was the capacious mind, and was dictated by the wisdom of Moses - then Moses was a wiser, a more learned man, than any of our new teachers; and I had rather be under his jurisdiction and keep his commandments, than learn new rules of civil polity and social intercourse from the most learned and wise of the present day.”
We boast of our liberty and free institutions, but all of these were learned from Moses. His system of society was for the people and not to elevate the few in rank or power; it was one of equality, not the circumstances, but the civil institutions were contrived with that end in view.
Josephus tells us that Moses at the head of the Egyptian army gained great victories over the Aethiopians and captured Saba. However this may be we know he was a warrior of great powers. Pharaoh had a well organized army and successful generals; the Israelites had no arms, no provisions, for years they had been in slavery, and yet he successfully led them out of Egypt. In the wilderness there were many enemies who would have been only too glad to overcome them. By his skillful generalship he defeated Sihon and Og; and by not following his advice the battle of Hormah was lost. It is true that he did not sweep over the entire East as a mighty tornado, as did Alexander; he did not fight the bloody Marengo, or Austeritz, as did Napoleon, but he conquered under more adverse circumstances than any general who ever lived.
THE PREACHER AND THE MAN OF GOD
His doctrine distilled as the dew, and his speech dropped like the rain. It was with Moses as Coleridge said in his tribute to his friend Thomas Poole. The mere abstract argument was almost lost sight of “in the life, freshness, and practical value of his remarks and notices; truths, plucked as they are growing, and delivered to you with the dew on them; the faith earnings of a deserving eye, armed and kept on the watch by thought and meditation.” In all of his manifold duties he forgot not the coming Christ. He esteemed “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” It was his pleasure to know that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; then shall come a star out of Jacob; and a scepter shall come out of Israel; and he was wont to admonish his brethren that, “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren like unto me; him shall you hear.” He had sincere love to his God, and “respect unto the recompense of the reward.” This is the loveliest part of his character. A mind of the greatest stature without love “is like the huge pyramid of Egypt - chill and cheerless in all its dark halls and passages. A mind with love is as a king’s palace lighted for a royal festival.”
He was slow of speech; but it was always noted that he meant something. “A man rather taciturn in speech; silent when there was nothing to be said; but pertinent, wise, sincere, when he did speak; always throwing light on the matter. This is the only sort of speech worth speaking.”
He was a man of prayer and loyally submissive to his God; only small, mean souls are otherwise. He was ever ready to put his shoes from off his feet when he was on holy ground and he has left one of the most beautiful prayers on record. To him prayer was the shining of heaven’s own splendor in the waste howling wilderness, the pillar of fire by night, that was to guide him on his desolate, perilous way.
He was a man of meekness and humility; perhaps this is the test of a true great man. But I very readily agree with John Ruskin in his Modern Painters when he says, “I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power, or hesitation of speaking his opinion; but a right understanding of the relation between what he can do and say, and the rest of the world’s doings and sayings. All great men not only know their business, but usually know that they know it; and are not only right in their main opinions, but they usually know that they are right in them; only they do not think much of themselves on that account.”
He did what God commanded in the face of every danger. He could stand before the angry Pharoah, or his own treacherous people. He would drop his actions as an ostrich does its young and hasten on without caring where they fell. He dared to
“Do all that may become a man,
Who dares do more is none.”
Thus we have seen Moses as the poet, historian, philosopher, warrior, and preacher. In either of these capacities he would have left a name that eternity will not forget; but consider all of these combined in one man and you have a faint conception of the comprehensive mind of Moses. He was
“The noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of time.”
He was no less honored in death than in life. Enoch was translated that he should not see death; Elijah was carried away in his chariot of fire; but God Himself, with the angels for pall bearers, performed the sepulchral rites for this man.
“By Nebo’s lonely mountain,
By cool Beth-Peor’s wave,
In the beautiful land of Moab,
There lies a lonely grave,
And no man knoweth his sepulcher,
And no man saw it o’er,
For the hand of God upturned the sod,
and laid the dead man there.”
God sent forth His angels to guard that tomb; and when long afterwards Satan wished his body, it was defended by no less a person than the archangel Michael. Here we leave the sleeping dust of Moses but his memory lives on.
“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”
[From Editor: Christopher Cockrell, The Berea Baptist Banner, November & December, 2002, via On-line edition. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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