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The Book of Genesis and the four following books of the Bible form the Pentateuch, the fivefold scroll. These books are the Torah, the religious law of Israel.

Genesis is the story of the creation of the universe. The book tells the lives of the first patriarchs, the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Genesis ends with the settlement of the Hebrews in Egypt after a famine in Canaan. The four books called Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are all dedicated to the life of Moses. After the first generations of peaceful co-existence with the Hebrews, the Egyptian Pharaohs came to fear Israel as a menace to their state. The Pharaohs oppressed the Hebrews then. Moses led Israel out of the oppression in Egypt. Whereas only one book bundles the lives of the first ancestors, four books recall the life of Moses. The main reason is that Moses gave the religious law to the people of Israel and most of the texts of the four books enumerate, explain and repeat in other sentences the rules by which the Hebrew community was to live for the next centuries.

Moses has been shown in films and novels as the powerful leader of the people that left Egypt for Canaan. After their successful escape from Egypt the Hebrews passed many hardships and won many battles against the most powerful states of the region. Moses is depicted as a towering character, a war hero and general, leading his people and his warriors. But the Bible does not describe him as a genius leader. Moses is merely an intermediate, the mediator of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh was the God of one people. The Bible cites the existence of other gods for other peoples. But Yahweh told that he was to be the God of the Hebrews and the Hebrews could have only one God, Yahweh. All other gods would be idols for Israel. There is no demand in the Bible for the conversion of other religions to the religion of Yahweh, but whenever the Hebrews encountered other Gods on a territory they could control, they would have to smash the idols. Yahweh was all-powerful, but he remained the God of one people, of Israel, of the people with the name given by God to the descendants of Jacob.

The Book of Exodus tells of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt under the direction of Moses. It tells about the re-affirmation of the covenant between Israel and Yahweh and about the gift of the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue. The tablets of stone on which the law was inscribed by the finger of God were given on Mount Sinai. Exodus ends with the instructions on the building of the sanctuary and of its ministers. The ministers will be Moses’ brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons.

Leviticus is a book of the law and the rules. It talks primarily of the investiture of the priests of Israel. Exodus says explicitly that Moses was born a Levi, from a father and mother both of the tribe of Levi. The Levites are appointed to function as the tribe of priests in Leviticus. The first priests will be Aaron and his sons, then the whole tribe of Levi. The Levites will be the guardians of the law of holiness. These were the orders that Yahweh gave to Moses. Leviticus is thus the book of the installation of the Levites as the priests of Israel. The book adds rules to the law, but not to the story of the life of Moses.

The Book of Numbers starts with the census of the whole community of Israelites, their clans and families. We feel the beginning of an organisation, the firm establishment of the formal tissue of a society. The census officials are called and named in the Book of Numbers. Then the census itself is enumerated. After the census the book contains various other rules of the law, the installation of the feast of Passover as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and the final departure to Canaan away from Yahweh's mountain. The Book of Numbers furthermore tells how Moses gave the laws concerning sacrifices and again about the powers of the Levite priests. The last part of Numbers recalls the passage of the desert and the travels of Israel from Kadesh to Moab. Finally, the Israelites fight a war against the Midianites and the people arrive at the borders of Canaan.

The book of Deuteronomy is an addition to the three other books of Moses, that is to Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy is a copy of the basic but now complete law of Israel, probably written in a later period than the other books of the Pentateuch. It contains two discourses of Moses as introduction, in which Moses recounts the travels of Israel. Then follows the Deuteronomic code, the rules of law and customs to be kept in the country that Yahweh gave to the Israelites. Deuteronomy ends with a third discourse of Moses and a tale of his last actions and death.

The four books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy form a unity by the figure of Moses, the mediator. Exodus talks of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt. Leviticus tells of Moses providing the investiture of the priests and the Levites. Numbers recalls the census organised by Moses, while Deuteronomy are discourses of Moses providing for a clear text of the law of Israel and finally the book gives an account of Moses’ last actions and of his death. Four books of the Bible are on Moses alone. Moses’ importance was in his function as a mediator of Yahweh at a moment when the numbers of the Hebrews had grown to the point where a religious and secular organisation was needed. The Hebrews had been fertile in Egypt. They had profited from an easy life without major famines or deprivations. Until the persecutions began they had grown rapidly in numbers. Too rapidly.

One understands from the Bible that the attitude of the Egyptians towards the Hebrews had become a dilemma. On the one hand the Egyptians sensed that the Hebrews could become a danger for the Egyptian nature, for Egyptian religion and Egyptian conceptions of society. On the other hand the Egyptians needed the Hebrews as artisans and architects and they needed their intellect. The only solution out of the dilemma that the Egyptians could think of was to keep the Hebrews but to reduce their number. That meant harsh persecution. No people can accept having its children killed. Israel needed to leave. Moses was the one to propose that indeed the Israelites should do so. But he did not take up the actual management of the Exodus. The towering, forceful chiefs were Aaron and Joshua. Moses himself pleaded with Yahweh to have others talk and lead, for he found himself to weakly endowed with these qualities. The image that most comes to mind when one reflects on Moses is that of a teacher, of a wise man, of the leader, of the strategist, of a priest who proposes and who finds solutions and inspires courage.

Moses needed again and again to repeat his messages and his advice, even though they were the commands of Yahweh. The ancestors had known Yahweh and so did Moses. But one feels that in the first books of the Bible Yahweh is still only one of the many possible gods of the tribe of Hebrew shepherds, even though he was the god of Abraham. At Deuteronomy however, the concept of one exclusive God, Yahweh, for all Israel is well established. And Yahweh is now explained in the Bible as a form of the verb ‘to be’. Yahweh is the being. All the being, the one being. This statement was and is terrible. It decided and revealed Yahweh as the being of the universe. It was a terrible statement because it did away for all people with all other beliefs and gods. And Yahweh told Moses on Mount Sinai finally that the whole world was his, he was the one and only God. Here lay the grain of one religion only for mankind.

The Hebrews had multiplied in Egypt to become a people. As long as they lived in Egypt they abided by their own religion but had to live by the law of the land. When they departed they became first outlaws, then men of a tribe without a law. The society of Israel as counted in the census of the Book of Numbers was in need for a proper law. Moses provided this with the Decalogue.

A believer in the religious message will accept that Yahweh helped Israel to leave Egypt and that Yahweh handed over the divine law. The religious law was also the secular law. There was no difference between the two. Israel had only one law and that was the Law of Moses. The strongest possible bond was thus forged between religion and state since the law of the people was a religious law. This strong bond between religion and state lasted for centuries and not just for the Hebrews. Christianity aimed for the same bonds. Only from the late eighteenth century, form the Enlightenment period on, do we see the bonds between the state and religious law weaken thoroughly. The Enlightenment ideas were slow in the making and we find embryos of Enlightenment concepts in the centuries before, but until then the rules that were defined in the law of Moses not only shaped Jewish history but also European society. Many European kings justified their reign in divine foundation. The Popes crowned kings and emperors and thereby enforced these beliefs. The Popes could give and take away this support and European history is a long tale of strive of the secular monarchs for self-justification of their divine power instead of that power needing to be dispensed by the Church. But the reigns always were founded in the belief of a divine basis.

Non-believers and agnostics will explain the giving of the law of Israel by stating the evidence. Moses led a large community out of Egypt. He was the thinker, the teacher, and the philosopher of the Hebrews. Moses and probably as much his council, his family of the tribe of Levi, saw the necessity to define the rules by which the community was to live since they had fled from the laws of Egypt. The Book of Exodus even tells before the handing over of the Ten Commandments how Jethro the Arab told Moses that the people needed judges and rules. It was thus a non-Israelite, Jethro, who first saw the practical necessity and the urgency for the community to have a law. Further on, Exodus also stated that Moses had written down the words of Yahweh. Such a statement can be in contradiction to other assertions of Exodus that the stone tablets were written with the finger of God. On the simple and crude beginnings of the Decalogue of Moses and on bribes of rules of immediate interest for the community such rules of purity, was built a basic law. The leaders of the Exodus agreed upon this law and accepted it as a new nation’s basis for living together. This law was added to. This law was refined over the ages until it was clarified in Deuteronomy. The law formed the community, and kept it together as much as the religion.

Believers and non-believers can not prove the truth of the divine origin of the Law of Israel with any scientific explanation. There is no plausible explanation for even if we give us over to the tales of the witnesses and authors of the Bible, these probably were Levites or priests and thus convinced of the religious origins of the state.

The archaeological evidence of the Hebrews’ residence in Egypt is very scarce. Very few evidences have been found so far. But the Egyptian space is vast. Evidence has been found of a town in the Eastern Nile Delta called Pir-Rameses or ‘City of Rameses’, built for a Pharaoh with that name and Exodus tells that the Israelites indeed left from this town. But practically no remains have been found of the settlement of the Hebrews. A few signs have been discovered of very ancient Hebrew settlement in the Sinai desert, signs of the Mosaic tablets, but all this gives little hard proof of the existence of Moses and of the stay of the Israelites in Egypt.

Let us hear however the words of the witnesses as recalled in the historic account of Israel, the Bible. The Hebrews wrote their history in the Bible and the authors say that Yahweh wrote the Law with his own finger. So in the four books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy the real hero is Yahweh and the real towering presence is not that of Moses but of Yahweh writing the Law with his own finger.

Painters were more pragmatic than this theological program. They were in search for narration, for images to show. They wanted to please with images so that those images would be bought. And the stories of Moses were among the best known overall, so that the pictures were already familiar to the viewers. The artists were humans living in the social context of a community with its fashions and the painters had to conform to these if they were not so great as to be able to create the fashions themselves. The abstract concepts of law could not be shown in images. But the painters could show the scenes of the life of Moses and through those pictures somehow bring something of the epic of the four books to the spectators. Like the storytellers of yore the artists borrowed certain themes and illustrated these in their own ways. Only the greatest artists looked deeper and tried to perpetuate the epic meaning of a people in the making and the spiritual union between the mediator Moses and the God Yahweh. Sometimes a painter would take up a theme and then following artists would continue and expand this theme in an attempt to compare skills and visions. In this way only a limited number of themes of the life of Moses can be found and then various paintings of these same themes.

In the following pages we will go through these themes and show some of the most remarkable pictures on the grandest figure of the Old Testament.

The chapters of the book 'Moses', which show themes handled by painters of Christian motifs, are the following:

Moses saved from the Waters
The Ordeal of the Fire
The Daughters of Jethro
Moses in the burning Bush
The Passage of the Red Sea
The Gathering of the Manna
Moses strikes Water from the Rock
The tablets with the Law
The Adoration of the Golden Calf
The Land of Canaan
The Chastisement of Korah, Dathan and Abiram
The Brazen Serpent
The Prophet Balaam
The Death of Moses
The River Jordan

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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