Copyright © 1991 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission;
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THE MOSAIC LAW
AND THE THEOLOGY OF THE PENTATEUCH
JOHN H. SAILHAMER
THE purpose of this article is to raise the question of the role of the
Mosaic Law in the theology of the Pentateuch. By "theology of the
Pentateuch," I mean the major themes and purposes that lie behind its final
1. The Final Composition of the Pentateuch
Much has been written in recent years about the final composition of the
Pentateuch.1 In an earlier paper, I attempted to demonstrate the influence
of prophetic hope and eschatology in its composition.2 The Pentateuch, I
argued, represents an attempt to point to the same hope as the later proph-
ets, namely, the New Covenant.3 "The narrative texts of past events are
presented as pointers to events that lie yet in the future. Past events fore-
shadow the future."4 Along similar lines, though working from quite differ-
ent assumptions, Hans-Christoph Schmitt has argued that the Pentateuch
is the product of a unified compositional strategy that lays great emphasis
on faith.5 According to Schmitt, the same theme is found within the com-
position of the prophetic books, like Isaiah, and ultimately can be traced
into the NT, e.g., the Book of Hebrews.
Schmitt's approach differs from many critical approaches in that he
treats the Pentateuch as one would the later historical books, that is, as the
1 Erhard Blum, Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch (
Gruyter, 1990); Rolf E Knierim, "The Composition of the Pentateuch," in SBLSP 1985,
395-415; Erhard Blum, Die Komposition der Vatergeschichte (Neukirchen-Vluyn:
Neukirchener Verlag, 1984); RolfRendtorff, Das Uberlieferungs-geschichtliche
Problem des Pentateuch (BZAW 147; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977).
2 John H. Sailhamer, "The Canonical Approach to the OT: Its Effect on Understanding
Prophecy," JETS 30 (1987) 307-15.
3 This does not necessarily imply that the final composition of the Pentateuch is later than
that of the prophetic books. On the contrary, if the composition of the Pentateuch were dated
before that of the prophetic books, it would help explain the origin of the message of those
books. In the discussion which follows, the date of the final composition of the Pentateuch as
such is taken to be Mosaic.
4 Sailhamer, "The Canonical Approach," 311.
5 Hans-Christoph Schmitt, "Redaktion des Pentateuch im Geiste der Prophetie," VT 32
product of an intentional theological redaction or composition. One must
start from the final form of the book and ask what each part of the whole
contributes to its theological intention. Schmitt argues that each major
unit6 of narrative in the Pentateuch shows signs of a homogeneous theo-
logical redaction. A characteristic feature of this redaction is the recurrence
of the terminology of "faith" (e.g. b Nymxh).7 At crucial compositional seams
throughout the Pentateuch, Schmitt is able to find convincing evidence of
a "faith theme," that is, a consistent assessment of the narrative events in
light of the rule of "faith" (b Nymxh).8 According to Schmitt, this redaction
represents the final stages in the composition of the Pentateuch--later even
than the so-called priestly redaction. According to Schmitt, it does not
reflect an emphasis on keeping the priestly law codes (viz., the Mosaic Law)
but rather on preserving a sense of trust in God and an expectation of his
work in the future. It is in light of this eschatological expectation of God's
future work that the redaction lays great stress on "faith."9
Schmitt's study goes a long way in demonstrating an important part of
the theological intention and orientation of the Pentateuch as a narrative text.
Put simply, Schmitt shows that the Pentateuch is intended to teach "faith" in God.10
An important question raised by Schmitt's study is whether the concept
of "faith" in the Pentateuch is intended to stand in opposition to the
6 The largest literary units (grosseren Einheiten) which are linked in the final redaction of
the Pentateuch, according to Schmitt, are the Primeval History, the Patriarchal Narratives,
the Exodus Narratives, the Sinai Narratives, and the Wilderness Narratives. See Rendtorff,
Das Uberlieferungs-geschichtliche Problem, 19ff.
7 It is important to note that, according to Schmitt, the terminology of "faith" (b Nymxh)
occurs only at the redactional seams. See n. 8.
8 The key texts of that redaction are Gen 15:6, "And Abraham believed in [b Nymxh] the
Lord and he reckoned it to him for righteousness"; Exod 4:5, "In order that they might believe
[vnymxy] that the Lord, the God of their fathers. . . has appeared to you"; Exod , "And
they [the people] believed in b Nymxh] the Lord and in Moses his servant"; Num , "How
long will they [the people] not believe in b Nymxh] me"; Num , "And the Lord said to
Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in b Nymxh] me.' " See also Deut and .
Schmitt has not discussed Gen 45:26, the only occurrence of the term for "faith" outside of
Schmitt's redactional seams, because it does not show other signs of belonging to the
9 "So steht am Ende der Pentateuchentstehung nicht die Abschliessung in ein Ordnungs-
denken theokratischen Charakters. Vielmehr geht es hier darum, in prophetischem Geiste die
Offenheit fur ein neues Handeln Gottes zu wahren und in diesem Zusammenhang mit dem
aus der prophetischen Tradition entnommenen Begriff des “Glaubens" eine Haltung heraus-
zustellen, die spater auch das Neue Testament als fur das Gottesverhaltnis zentral ansieht"
(Schmitt, "Redaktion des Pentateuch," 188-89).
10 It is important to note that such a reading of the Pentateuch, as a lesson on faith, can
be found throughout the subsequent canonical literature. Pss 78 and 106, two psalms that look
at the meaning of the whole of the Pentateuch, both read the events of the Pentateuch as
evidence of the Israelites' faith or faithlessness (cf. Ps 78:22, 32, 37; 106:12, 24). A similar
reading is found in Nehemiah 9, which is a rehearsal of the pentateuchal narrative in its
present form (cf. Neh 9:8). The example of Hebrews 11 has already been pointed out.
THE MOSAIC LAW 243
Mosaic Law or whether this faith is to be understood simply as "keeping
the law."11 To say it another way, can we find evidence in the composition
of the Pentateuch that the author is concerned with the question of "faith
versus works of the law"?
It is well known that this issue surfaces a number of times in other OT
texts. In Ps 51:18-19 (English vv. 16-17), for example, David says, "For
thou hast no delight in sacrifice. . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a
broken spirit" and in Mic 6:6-8 it says, "With what shall I come before the
Lord. . . Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? He has showed you,
O man, what is good . . . to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk
humbly with your God?" Since such texts do, in fact, exist within the OT,
we may, with some justification, look for similar ideas within the theological
macrostructure of the Pentateuch.
In the present article, we will attempt to show that the issue of "faith
versus works of the law" was, indeed, central to the theological purpose of
the Pentateuch. Specifically, we will argue that, among other things, the
Pentateuch is an attempt to contrast the lives of two individuals, Abraham
and Moses. Abraham, who lived before the law (ante legem), is portrayed as
one who kept the law, whereas Moses, who lived under the law (sub lege),
is portrayed as one who died in the wilderness because he did not believe.
If such a contrast between faith and works is, in fact, a part of the com-
positional strategy of the Pentateuch, then we may rightfully conclude that
part of the purpose of the book was to show not merely the way of faith, but
also the weakness of the law.
2. The Genre of the Pentateuch
In a recent article, Rolf Knierim has focused attention on the question of
the genre of the Pentateuch as a whole.12 Knierim has argued that the
Pentateuch consists of two major generic sections: Genesis and Exodus-
Deuteronomy. According to him, Genesis is to be taken as an introduction
to the whole of the Pentateuch. The genre of the central section of the
Pentateuch, Exodus-Deuteronomy, is not so much that of a narrative his-
its genre is that of a biography, specifically, a biography of Moses.
This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of Knierim's descrip-
tion of the genre of the Pentateuch. It is enough to say that his general
observations about the Pentateuch are convincing. The Pentateuch devotes
11 There are indications in Schmitt's study that the notion of faith in the Pentateuch is put
in opposition to that of "obedience to the law." Schmitt has argued, for example, that the
"faith" seams overlay and reinterpret the narratives which have stressed obedience to the law
(cf. comments below on Num 20:12).
12 Knierim, "The Composition of the Pentateuch," 395-415.
its attention more to the individual Moses than to
the nation of
Hence its overall purpose in all likelihood should be understood in relation-
ship more to the life of Moses, per se, than to the history of the nation. As
such it is reasonable to conclude that the Pentateuch reads much like and
apparently aims to be a biography.
Since the purpose of a biography is the presentation or conceptualization
of the work or life of an individual person, the Pentateuch can well be
viewed generically as a presentation (conceptualization) of the work of
Moses. The events of the life of Moses (Vita Mosis) are not told entirely for
their own sake but are intended as a narrative explication of the nature of
a life lived within the context of the call of God and the covenant at Sinai.
The Pentateuch seeks to answer the question of how well Moses carried out
his calling, that is, his work under the Sinai covenant. It seeks to tell how
well he performed his task.
There is room for doubt, however, whether Knierim's description of the
whole of the Pentateuch as a biography of Moses is entirely adequate. In the
first place, the whole of the collections of laws which make up a major part
of the final composition of the Pentateuch do not fit within the narrow limits
of a biography. However, according to Knierim's reckoning, these laws,
e.g., the Sinai-pericope and Deuteronomy, make up 68.5 percent of the
total text of the Pentateuch. Although Knierim treats these legal sections
as part of the Moses texts, they clearly are not part of the Moses narratives
per se. The course of the narratives is distinctively broken into and sus-
pended until these large collections of laws are exhausted. It appears that
in the final stage of the composition, the focus on Moses, the individual
lawgiver, has been intentionally expanded to include a substantial portion
of the law itself. This state of affairs raises the question of why, in light of
the genre of the Pentateuch, these laws were placed in the midst of the
The traditional answer to this question has been that they were put there
simply as legislation, that is, as laws which were to be kept--thus the
Pentateuch's reputation as a "Book of the law." In this view the Pentateuch
is read as if it were a collection of laws intended to guide the daily living
of its readers. This view of the purpose of the laws in the Pentateuch is so
pervasive that it is often, if not always, merely assumed in works dealing
with the problem of the law.
However, it is also possible that the Pentateuch has intentionally in-
cluded this selection of laws for another purpose, that is, to give the reader an
understanding of the nature of the Mosaic Law and God's purpose in giving
tell the reader how to live but rather to tell the reader how Moses was to live
under the law. To use an example from the Pentateuch itself, it is clear to
all that the detailed instructions on the building of the ark in Genesis 6 were
not given to the reader so he or she could build an ark and load it with
animals, but those detailed instructions were given to show what Noah was
THE MOSAIC LAW 245
to do in response to God's command. Competent readers of the Pentateuch
easily understand that God's instructions to Noah in the narrative is di-
rected only to Noah and not to the readers. These instructions are included
as narrative information for the reader. The message of the Pentateuch in
other words, is not that its readers should build an ark like Noah.
The same may be true for the legal instructions found in the Mosaic Law.
Though the nature of the instructions to Noah and those to Moses (the
building of the tabernacle in Exodus 25ff., for example) are similar in form
and narrative function, we often read them entirely differently. We read the
instructions to Noah as given for the reader, and those to Moses as given to
the reader.13 It is possible, however, that the two sets of instructions within
the Pentateuch are intended to be read in the same way. In other words,
to put it in the terms introduced into OT studies by Mendenhall, the
inclusion of the selection of laws (viz., the Mosaic Law) in the Pentateuch
was not so much intended to be a source for legal action (technique) as
rather a statement of legal policy.14
This understanding of the purpose of the laws in the Pentateuch is sup-
ported by the observation that the collections of laws in the Pentateuch
appear to be incomplete and selective. The Pentateuch as such is not de-
signed as a source of legal action. That the laws in the Pentateuch are
incomplete is suggested by the fact that many aspects of ordinary commu-
nity life are not covered in these laws. Moreover, there is at least one
example in the Pentateuch where a "statute given to Moses by the Lord"
is mentioned but not actually recorded in the Pentateuch.15 The selective
13 "From the earliest days of the church Christians have asked about the commands of the
Old Testament: do they apply to us? The question, however, is ambiguous. It may be a
question about authority, or it may be a question about prescriptive claim. A prescription, we
said, instructs somebody to do, or not to do, something. We may ask in each case who is
instructed and who instructs. If, as I walk down the street, somebody in a blue coat says,
'Stop!', I shall have to ask, first, 'Is he speaking to me?’--the question of claim--and, then, 'Is
he a policeman?'--the question of authority. And so it is with the commands of the Old
Testament: we must ask, 'Do they purport to include people like us in their scope?'--the
question of claim--and, 'If so, ought we to heed them?’--the question of authority. In the
patristic church, after the rejection of the Gnostic temptation, especially in its Marcionite
form, the question of authority was not really open for discussion; Old Testament commands
were evaluated entirely in terms of their claim. Our own age, conversely, has been so dom-
inated by the question of authority that the question of claim has been obscured and forgotten"
(O. M. T. O'Donovan, "Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics," TynBul 27 
14 "That common body of what might be called the sense of justice in a community we
shall call 'policy'. What happens in a law court, however, is usually much more directly related to
the technical corpus of specialized legal acts and tradition. These are 'techniques' " (George
E. Mendenhall, "Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law," The Biblical Archaeologist Reader 3 [ed.
E. E Campbell and D. N. Freedman;
15 The "statute of the law that the Lord gave Moses," referred to by Eleazar in Num 31:21,
is not found elsewhere in the Pentateuch, though a part of what Eleazar commands (the water of
cleansing) was given in Numbers 19. This shows either that the laws included in the
Pentateuch are selective, that is, not every law given to Moses was included, or that any law
nature of the laws included in the Pentateuch is further illustrated both by
the fact that the number of laws (611) is the same as the numerical equiv-
alent of the Hebrew title of the Pentateuch, "Torah" (hrvt),16 and by the
fact that within the structure of the collections of laws the number seven
and multiples of seven predominate. The listing of 42 (7 x 6) laws in the
Covenant Code (Exod 21:1-23:12), for example, equals the numerical value
of the title of that section "And these (are the judgments)." This is not to
suggest that secret numerical codes were intended to conceal mysteries
within these texts. The use of the numerical values of titles and catch
phrases was a common literary device at the time of the composition of
Scripture. The same principle of numerical selectivity may also be seen
within the Book of Proverbs, where the total number of proverbs in chaps.
10:1-22:16 (375) equals the numerical value of the name "Solomon."17
This suggests that, just as in the publication of law in the ancient Near
Eastern world in general,18 the laws in the Pentateuch were not intended
to be used in the administration of justice as a collection of laws to be
In his study of law codes in the ancient world, F. R. Kraus19 has provided
a helpful analogy to the nature and purpose of the laws included in the final
composition of the Pentateuch. According to Kraus, literary works such as
the Code of Hammurapi were not intended to be used in the actual adminis-
tration of law. They were not, in fact, associated with the systems of justice
in the ancient world. According to Kraus, they were rather intended to tell
us something about the lawgiver, viz., important people like Hammurapi
himself.20 For example, when the whole of the present shape of the docu-
given by a priest could have been called a "statute of the law that the Lord gave Moses"
(cf. Deut 33:10). The former alternative appears more likely because the text expressly says "the
Lord gave [it] to Moses," The omission of “to Moses" in the Samaritan Pentateuch is evidence
that at an early period there was already a tendency to read the laws of the Pentateuch as
16 The traditional number of laws in the Pentateuch (613) is obtained by treating both
Deut 6:4 (the "Shema") and Exod 20:2 ("I am the Lord your God") as "laws,"
17 Barry J. Beitzel, "Exodus and the Divine Name: A Case of Biblical Paronomasia,"
Trinity Journal 1 NS (1980) 6. See also J. M. Sasson, "Wordplay in the OT," IDBSup, 968-70,
18 "Das grosse Gesetzgebungswerk des Konigs our Representation geblieben und niemals
Rechtswirklichkeit geworden sei" (W. Eilers, Rechtsvergleichende Studien zur Gesetzgebung
Hammurapis  8, quoted in R. E Kraus, "Ein zentrales Problem des altmesopotamischen
Rechtes: Was It der Codex Hammu-rabi?" Genava 8  283-96).
19 Kraus, "Ein zentrales Problem."
20 "In seiner Selbstdarstellung sind Gerechtigkeit und Klugheit die Eigenschaften, die er
sich, von den ublichen Cliches abweichend, immer wieder zuschreibt, . . . emqum, 'klug', ist
ein typisches Pradikat des Schreibers. . . nur Hammu-rabi, gleichzeitig gerechter Richter
und gelehrter Autor, hat seine Rechtsspruche aufgezeichnet und der Welt zur Verfugung
gestellt genauso, wie die Autoren der Eingeweideschaukompendien ihre Erfahrungen und
Erkenntnisse zu Nutz und Frommen der Welt in ihren Werken niederlegen. Zu Nutz und
Frommen der Welt hat auch Hammu-rabi seinen Codex verfasst und offentlich aufstellen
lassen" (Kraus, "Ein zentrales Problem," 290-91).
THE MOSAIC LAW 247
ment, including the important but often overlooked prologue of Hammu-
rapi's Code, is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that a text such as
Hammurapi's was not to be used to administer justice, but was rather
intended to promote the image of Hammurapi as a wise and just king.21
What Kraus has argued for the Code of Hammurapi suits the phenomenon
of law in the Pentateuch remarkably well. It explains the existence of the
relatively large collections of laws strategically placed throughout the penta-
teuchal narratives dealing with the life of Moses. Applying the analogy of
the Code of Hammurapi helps confirm the judgment that the selection of
laws in the Pentateuch is not there as a corpus of laws as such (qua lex), but
was intended as a description of the nature of divine wisdom and justice
revealed through Moses (qua institutio).
An inter-biblical example of this is found in the Book of Proverbs, with
its prologue and selection of wise sayings of Solomon. The Book of Proverbs
was not intended to be read as an exhaustive book of right actions but as
a selective example of godly wisdom.
In the narratives of Exodus-Deuteronomy, then, we are to see not only
a picture of Moses, but we are also to catch a glimpse of the nature of the
law under which he lived and God's purpose for giving it. Along with the
narrative portrait of Moses we see a selected sample of his laws. Returning
to Knierim's thesis of the genre of the Pentateuch, what emerges from a
genre analysis of the Pentateuch in its present shape is that it is a biography
of Moses, albeit a modified one. It is a biography of Moses, which portrays
him as a man who lived under the law given at Sinai. It is a biography of Moses
A second difficulty in Knierim's assessment of the genre of the Penta-
teuch is the fact that although Knierim treats Genesis as an introduction to
the life of Moses, there are significant problems in accounting for this sec-
tion of the Pentateuch within the genre of Biography of Moses. According
to Knierim, Genesis adds the dimension of "all of human history" to the
biography of Moses. But it is self-evidently clear that not all of Genesis is
about "all of human history." It is only the first eleven chapters of the book
which have all of humanity specifically in view. Though the rest of Genesis
is, in fact, drawn into the scope of "all humanity" by means of the reit-
erated promise that in the seed of Abraham ”all the families of the land will
be blessed," the narratives in chaps. 12-50 focus specifically on the family
of Abraham. In fact, the three major sections of Genesis 12-50 appear to
consist of genres nearly identical to that of Knierim's view of the whole
21 "Eine Welt trennt diese sehr deutlich formulierte Denkweise von der ungerer heutigen
Gesetzgeber und unserer modernen Konzeption von der Geltung der Gesetze. Die Gultigkeit,
welche Hammu-rabi fur sein Werk erhofft, ist grundstzlich anderer Natur als die unserer
Gesetze, und seine Hoffnung ruht auf anderen Voraussetzungen als der Geltungsanspruch
moderner Gesetzbucher. Seine sogenannten Gesetze sind Musterentscheidungen, Vorbilder
guter Rechtsprechung" (ibid., 291).
Pentateuch, namely, biographies of Abraham (chaps. 12-26), Jacob (chaps.
27-36) and Joseph (chaps. 37-50).
Knierim rightly makes much of the fact that the whole of Genesis, cover-
ing some 2000 years, takes up only about 25 percent of the total text of the
Pentateuch, whereas Exodus-Deuteronomy, which covers only the span of
the life of Moses, takes up the other 75 percent. "The extent of material
allotted to each of the two time spans is extremely disproportionate, a factor
that must be considered programmatic."22 However, when the Moses-
narratives (Exod 1-18 and Num -36:13) are counted alone, without
the laws (Deuteronomy and the Sinai-pericope), they make up only about
20 percent of the whole of the Pentateuch. The material in Genesis devoted
to the Patriarchs (Genesis 12-50) is also about 20 percent, making the
narratives about Moses and those about the Patriarchs appear of equal
importance within the final text.
It thus is not satisfactory to group the patriarchal narratives together
with Genesis 1-11 and consider them both as the introduction to Moses'
biography. It appears more probable within the framework of the whole of
the Pentateuch that the patriarchal material in Genesis is intended on its
own to balance off the material in the Moses narratives. The biographies
of the patriarchs are set over against the biography of Moses.
The early chapters of Genesis (1-11) play their own part in providing an
introduction to the whole of the Pentateuch, stressing the context of "all
humanity" for both the patriarchal narratives and those of Moses. The
Moses material, for its part, has been expanded with voluminous selections
from the Sinai laws in order to show the reader the nature of the law under
which Moses lived.
If this is an adequate description of the Pentateuch, then its genre is not
simply that of a biography of Moses but rather it is a series of biographies
similar perhaps to those in Kings or Samuel where the life of Saul, for
example, is counterbalanced to that of David. Within this series of biog-
raphies in the Pentateuch a further textual strategy appears evident.
The chronological framework of Genesis (periodization) and the virtual
freezing of time in Exodus-Deuteronomy (a single period of time only, viz.,
the lifespan of Moses) suggests that there has been a conscious effort to
contrast the time before and leading up to the giving of the law (ante legem)
with the time of Moses under the law (sub lege).23 Abraham lived before the
giving of the law and Moses lived after it was given.
With this background to the compositional strategy of the final shape of
the Pentateuch, we can now turn to its treatment of Abraham and Moses.
22 Knierim, "The Composition of the Pentateuch," 395.
23 Though it is not part of our immediate concern, one could also note indications within
the final shape of the Pentateuch of a time "after the law" (post legem). Deuteronomy 30, for
example, looks to a future time quite distinct from that of Moses' own day. There are close
affinities between this chapter and passages in the prophetic literature which look to the time
of the New Covenant, e.g., Jer 31:31ff.; Ezek 36:22ff.
THE MOSAIC LAW 249
Specifically, we wish to raise the question of what the Pentateuch intends
to say about the lives of these two great men that contributes to our under-
standing of faith and keeping the Mosaic Law?
A complete answer to this question cannot be given within the scope of
this paper. We will limit ourselves to two strategically important penta-
teuchal texts from the standpoint of its final composition, Gen 26:5 and
Num 20:12. Both texts are similar in that they offer a reflective look at the
lives of Abraham and Moses respectively and give an evaluation that stems
from the final stages of the composition of the Pentateuch. Furthermore,
both texts evaluate the lives of these two great men from the perspective of
the theology of Deuteronomy. We will see that in Gen 26:5 Abraham is
portrayed as one who "kept the law," whereas in Num Moses is
portrayed as one who "did not believe."
II. Abraham and the Mosaic Law (Gen 26:5)
In Gen 26:5, God says, "Abraham obeyed my voice [ylqb. . . fmw] and
kept my charge [ytrmwm rmwyv], my commandments [ytvcm], my statutes
[ytvqH], and my laws [ytrvt]." Though on the face of it, the meaning of this
verse is clear enough, it raises questions when viewed within the larger
context of the book. How was it possible for Abraham to obey the com-
mandments, statutes, and laws before they were given? Why is Abraham
here credited with keeping the law when in the previous narratives great
pains were taken to show him as one who lived by faith (e.g., Gen 15:6)?
There has been no mention of Abraham's having the law or keeping the law
previous to this passage. Why, now suddenly, does the text say Abraham
had kept the law?
The verse is recognized as "deuteronomic" by most biblical scholars,
both critical24 and conservative.25 Earlier biblical scholars went to great
lengths to explain the verse in view of its inherent historical and theological
difficulties. For those who saw the verse as a description of Abraham's legal
24 See Erhard Blum, Die Komposition der Vatergesckickte (Neukirchen-Vluyn:
Neukirchener Verlag, 1984) 363, for a discussion of the critical views.
25 F. Delitzsch says of the verse, for example, "Undoubtedly verse 5 in this passage
is from the hand of the Deuteronomist" (A New Commentary on Genesis [
describe the Mosaic Law: "The piety of Abraham is described in words that indicate a perfect
obedience to all the commands of God and therefore frequently recur among the legal expressions
of a later date [in der spateren Gesetzessprache ]" (Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament
verschiedensten Gebieten sein Leben ahnlich den spateren Ordnungen des Gesetzes nach den
speziellen Weisungen Gottes, wie sie ihm erteilt wurden oder er sie sich selbst erschliessen
mochte, eingerichtet hat" (Das erste Buck der Tora Genesis [Berlin: Schocken, 1934] 548). Since,
throughout the Pentateuch and especially in Deuteronomy, these terms denote the Mosaic
Law (e.g., Deut 11:1; 26:17) this passage says, in no uncertain terms, that Abraham kept the
adherence to the law, the major problem was how Abraham could have had
access to the Mosaic Law. Early rabbinical approaches, for example, at-
tempted by word associations to identify each of the terms used here with
a specific act of obedience of Abraham within the patriarchal narratives. In
that way it could be demonstrated that Abraham knew the Mosaic Law
and thus kept it.26 This approach, however, did not gain wide acceptance
because, apart from a remote link to circumcision, none of the terms in Gen
26:5 could be associated with events or actions of Abraham within the
Another, and more common, rabbinical explanation of 26:5 made use of
the Talmudic teaching of the "Noahic laws."28 This approach was also
accepted among the early Protestant scholars.29 Thus the deuteronomic
terms for the law in Gen 26:5 were identified by some as those general laws
given to all men since the time of Noah.30 However, because these specific
terms are, in fact, used later in the Pentateuch to represent the whole of the
Mosaic Law, it proved difficult to limit them only to the concept of the
Noahic laws. Thus for this particular passage (Gen 26:5) the Talmud itself
rejected the notion of Noahic laws and took the position that, in his own
lifetime, Abraham was given the whole of the Mosaic Law.31
26 The terms ytrmwm and ytvcm, for example, were related to Abraham's obedience in
circumcision since, according to Gen 17:9, Abraham was to "keep" (rmwt) God's covenant
in circumcision and 21:4 records that Abraham circumcised Isaac ''as God had commanded
27 The terms ytvqH and ytrvt, for example, could not otherwise be associated with
Abraham's piety in the patriarchal narratives and no amount of midrashic attempts to do so
proved successful. Another, but similar, attempt to demonstrate that Abraham had the law of
Moses is that of Walter Kaiser: "In spite of its marvelous succinctness, economy of words, and
comprehensive vision, it must not be thought that the Decalogue was inaugurated and promul-
gated at Sinai for the first time. All Ten Commandments had been part of the law of God
previously written on hearts instead of stone, for all ten appear, in one way or another, in Gen.
They are: The first, Gen 35:2: 'Get rid of the forbidden gods.' The second, Gen 31:39: Laban
to Jacob: 'But why did you steal my gods?' The third, Gen 24:3: 'I want you to swear by the
Lord' " (Toward Old Testament Ethics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983] 81-82).
28 The Talmud teaches that all descendants of Noah who did not follow the practices of
idolatry were given seven divine laws. See Der babylonische Talmud (ed. L.
Judischer Verlag, 1930) 2.373.
29 ". . . observantia Sabbati et Circumcisionis, esus Sanguinis, cultus unius Dei, et multa
hujusmodi" (Munster Sebastian [1489-1552], Critici sacri: annotata doctissimorum virorum in
Vetus ac Novum Testamentum
Pearson et al.;
cites Ibn Ezra's commentary on this passage).
30 E.g., Sefomo, Hn
(Torat Chaim Chumash [
Kook, 1987] 13).
31 Yoma 28b (Die babylonische Talmud 3.75). See Str-B 3.204-5 for further examples.
Jacob suggested that this Talmudic interpretation was an attempt to counter the argument of Paul
in Gal 3: 17ff. (“polemisch gegen Paulus," Das erste Buch, 549). Andreas Rivetus specifically
rejects this view as "false" (Opera theologica [
balah the laws mentioned in this verse are those of the Decalogue because the verse contains
THE MOSAIC LAW 251
As to how Abraham would have known the law, the assumption was that
God had revealed it to him.32 It was also held by many that Abraham
derived the laws of Moses from his own observations,33 or even from written
tradition, which could be traced back to Enoch.34 In Jub. 21:10, for ex-
ample, when explaining the various laws for sacrifice, Abraham says, "for
thus I have found it written in the books of my forefathers, and in the words
of Enoch, and in the words ofNoah."35 The tractate Nedarim 32a states that
Abraham was three years old when he first began to obey the law. By means
of gematria, the rule that permits deriving significance from the numerical
value of the consonants of a word, the first word, bqf, is read as the number
172 (years).36 Thus 26:5 was read as ifit said "For 172 [bqf] years Abraham
obeyed me." Since Abraham lived for 175 years, it would have been at the
age of three years that he first began to obey God's law.37
It is difficult to see in these early rabbinical attempts a convincing explana-
tion of the Genesis passage. They are rather attempts at harmonization. If, in
fact, to keep the "commandments, statutes and
laws" meant to keep the
saic Law as the rabbis had understood these terms in Deuteronomy, then what
other explanation remained? Abraham must have known the Mosaic Law.
As is always the case in the reading of a text, their understanding of the
sense of the whole determined their interpretation of this part. What was
clearly not open to these commentators was the possibility that this verse
was intended as an interpretation of the life of Abraham from another
perspective than that of the law.38
10 words and the Decalogue has 172 words, the same number as the Hebrew word bqf in Gen
26:5. See Baal Hatturim, Chumash (New York: Philipp Feldheim, 1967) 81.
32 "God disclosed to him the new teachings which He expounded daily in the heavenly
academy" (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of The Jews [
obselvationes, praesertim circa divinum cultum ex speciali Dei revelatione, et majorum qui ea
acceperant imitatione, ut de mundis animalibus offerendis et talia, praeter circumcisionem, et
alios mandatos ritus" (Opera theologica 1.457). According to rabbinic teaching God himself was
guided by the Torah in creating the world, but he hid the Torah from mankind until the time of
Abraham: "bqf rmxnw Mhrbx dmfw df hrvth tx h”bqh Npc Mlvfh xrbn xlw
ylvqb Mhrbx fmw rwx (Yalkut Shemoni [Jerusalem, 1960] 972).
33 Str-B 3.205.
34 Ibid., 205-6.
35 APOT 2.44.
36 The number 172 is derived from f = 70; q = 100; and b = 2. See Wilhelm Bacher, Die
exegetische Temzinologie der judischen Taditionsliteratur (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1965) 127.
apparently to deal with the problem of idolatry in Terah's household (Josh 24:2.). If Abraham
had received the Mosaic Law already at age three, he could not have been influenced by his
38 Although Calvin is not clear in his comments on this passage, he appears to follow the
same line of interpretation as that reflected in the rabbis. He writes, “And although laws,
statutes, rites, precepts and ceremonies, had not yet been written [nondum erant scriptae],
Moses used these terms, that he might the more clearly show how sedulously Abraham reg-
The view of the later medieval Jewish commentaries, on the other hand,
was that these' 'laws" were merely a form of general revelation of moral
and ethical precepts.39 A similar interpretation is found in many Christian
commentaries.40 The difficulty with such an interpretation is not merely the
fact that elsewhere in the Pentateuch each of these terms is used specifically
ulated his life according to the will of God alone--how carefully he abstained from all the
impurities of the heathen" (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis [trans. John
interpretation, ". . . under these three particulars, the whole charge or custody forespoken of, is
comprehended; as afterward by Moses God gave the ten Commandements, or morall preceps,
Exod 20. Judgements, or judicial lawes for punishing transgressors, Exod. 21, &c. and statutes,
or rules, ordinances and decrees for the service of God, Lev. 3.17. and 6.18.22. Exod. 12.24. &
27.31. & 29.9. & 30.21. All which Abraham observed, and is commended of God therefore"
(Annotations upon the Five Bookes of Moses, The Booke of the Psalmes, and the Song of
Songs, or Canticles [
39 Jacob, Das erste Buck, 549. Rashi, for example, says, " 'my commandments' are those
things which even if they had not been written [in the Law] it is evident [Nyvxr] that they are
commanded [tvvFchl], such as stealing and murder" (Torat Chaim Chumask, 13). Regarding
the last two terms, however, "my statutes" and "my laws," Rashi held that they were unobtain-
able by reason alone but were given as a command from God.
40 The Belgic Confession (1561), for example, takes the tvcm here to be the moral law
(praecepta), the tvrvt as doctrine (leges) necessary to be believed, and the MyFqwm as political
law (judicia). Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) follows Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340), who
follows Rashi, "Lyra ait, ea esse, quae sunt de dictamine rationis rectae et servanda etiamsi nulla
lex esset posita" (Critici sacri, 632). Lyra, however, did not follow Rashi on the last two terms, much
to Cartwright's surprise, " . . . a quo mirum est Lyram dissentire." Lyra understood these
terms as follows: "tvqH cerimonias, seu statuta, ea esse, quae pertinent ad modum colendi Dei;
trvt leges esse ista, quae non obligant, nisi quia sunt a Deo, vel homine instituta, vel prae-
cepta" (ibid.). Ultimately the dependency on Rashi and innovations (see previous note) go
back to Lyra, "cerimonias meas, seu statuta mea, et leges meas," and the Vulgate, "praecepta
et mandata mea et caerimonias legesque." Johannes Drusius (1550-1616) defined these terms
thus: "[ytrmwm] quaecunque mandavi ut custodiret . . . [ytvcm] praecepta moralia quae post
decalogo comprehensa sunt . . . [ytrvt] forenses, sive quae ad judicia pertinent" (Critici sacri,
622). Johannes Mercerus distinguishes sharply between each of the five terms: (1) the first term
refers generally to Abraham's obedience in such cases
as the command to leave
Chaldeans and the binding of Isaac; (2) the second term refers to general religious practice
which Abraham carried out diligently as God had prescribed; (3) the third term refers to
general moral principles, such as the Decalogue, and are posited in the natural mind; (4) the
fourth term refers to rituals by which God is worshiped as well as statutes whose rationale is
not immediately obvious, such as the red heifer; and (5) the fifth term refers to documents by
which one is instructed in doctrine. "Sic Dei voluntatem partitur Moses hoc loco, ut postea
in Lege tradenda divisa est [but the Jewish view that Abraham had the whole of the Mosaic
Law is to be rejected]. . . . Non est quidem dubium quin ante Legem multa seruarint, quae
postea in Legem sunt redacta, ut de mundis animalibus immolandis, aut edendis, et alia. Sed
non sunt minutiis astringendi. . . . Sed nondum haec in legem certam abierant, ut postea sub
Mose, ubi sacerdotium certa familia, et certis ritibus est institutum, etc. . . . Cum ergo hic
Moses in Abrahamo, hac legis in suas partes distributione utitur, significat eum absolutissime
Dei voluntati paruisse, et per omnia morigerum fuisse, ut nihil omiserit eorum quae tunc
praescripserat Dominus agenda aut seruanda" (In Genesin Primum Mosis Librum, sic a Graecis
Appellatum, Commentarius [Genevae, 1598] 458).
THE MOSAIC LAW 253
to describe an aspect of the Mosaic Law, but, more importantly, elsewhere
in the Pentateuch the same list of terms denotes the whole of the Mosaic
Law.41 Thus there seems little room for doubt that this passage is referring
to the Mosaic Law.
Literary critics, on the other hand, are virtually unanimous in assigning
the verses to a "deuteronomic redaction."42 Gunkel assigned it to a later
(more legalistic) period, though he agreed that the terms are deuteronomis-
tisch.43 Westennannassociated the verse with the "post-deuteronomic" inter-
Though such responses are predictable of critical methodology, they
serve better as illustrations of the nature of the problem than they do its
solution. What critical scholarship is unanimous in affirming is that at some
point in the composition of the Pentateuch, this statement about Abra-
ham's piety was inserted to show that he kept the Mosaic Law. Critical
scholarship has also affirmed that the verse stems from the same process of
composition that resulted in the addition of Deuteronomy to the Pentateuch.45
Ultimately, we should attempt to find the meaning of this verse in the
larger strategy and purpose of the Pentateuch.46 Did the author of the
Pentateuch intend to depict Abraham as a model of faith or as a model of
obedience to the law? Curiously enough, the overwhelming majority of
biblical scholars have read this passage as if the verse intended to show
Abraham's life as an example of obedience to the law (Gesetzesgehorsam).
However, several considerations make this assumption unlikely. The first
is the fact that the final shape of the Abrahamic narratives is closely aligned
with the faith theme that forms the larger structure of the Pentateuch. This
same faith theme is also part and parcel with the "deuteronomic compo-
sition" of Gen 26:5. That being the case, it is unlikely that the same author
would want to stress "faith" at the expense of law at one point in the
composition of the Pentateuch and law at the expense of "faith" at another.
41 E.g., Deut 11:1.
42 H. Holzinger, Einleitung in den Hexateuch (
1893) 3, Tabellen uber die Quellenscheidung; Otto Procksch, Die Genesis ubersetzt und erklart
(Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1913) 151.
43 "The thought that Abraham had fulfilled so many commandments does not suit the
spirit of the ancient narratives [Sage], but betrays that of a later (legalistic) piety" (Hermann
44 Claus Westermann, Genesis (BKAT 2; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981)
45 On the “deuteronomic redaction of the Pentateuch," see Rolf Rendtorff, Das uberlieferungs
-geschichtliche Problem, 164; Erhard Blum, Die Kompositim der Vatergeschichte, 362ff.; C.
Brekehnans, "Die sogenannten deuteronomischen Elemente in Gen.-Num. Ein Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte
des Deuteronomiums," in Volume du Congres. Geneve 1965 (VTSupp 15; Leiden: Brill, 1966) 90-96.
46 Such an approach follows from the observation that, on most reckonings, the verse
belongs to the work of the author in shaping the final form of the Pentateuch.
The chronological setting of the patriarchal narratives offers further evi-
dence that this text (Gen 26:5) intends to teach Abraham's faith and not
his obedience to the law as such. It is well known that the early chapters
of the Pentateuch are governed by an all-embracing chronological scheme.
This scheme runs throughout the patriarchal narratives up to the time of
the giving of the law at Sinai. At that point, the linear chronology broadens
out into a literary present. Thus the events of the Pentateuch are divided
between those events before and those events during the giving of the law.
Within this scheme, then, the patriarchs are necessarily portrayed as those
who lived before the law (ante legem). They are chronologically separated47
from those who lived under the law (sub lege). Thus any statement about
Abraham would likely be intended as a contrast to life under the law. Further-
more, the very existence of such a wide range of "explanations" of Abra-
ham's "living under the law" (sub lege), so common in rabbinical and
Christian exegesis, testifies to the difficulties of reading Gen 26:5 as a state-
ment about Abraham's obedience to the Mosaic Law.48
It appears reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the importance of Gen
26:5 lies in what it tells us about the meaning of the deuteronomic terms it
uses. It is as if the author of the Pentateuch has seized on the Abrahamic
narratives as a way to explain his concept of "keeping the law." The author
uses the life of Abraham, not Moses, to illustrate that one can fulfill the
righteous requirement of the law. In choosing Abraham and not Moses, the
author shows that' 'keeping the law" means “believing in God," just as
Abraham believed God and was counted righteous (Gen 15:6). In effect the
author of the Pentateuch says, "Be like Abraham. Live a life of faith and
it can be said that you are keeping the law."
We turn now to a consideration of the Pentateuch's portrayal of Moses.
We will not attempt a survey of the whole of the life of Moses, but rather,
we will look only at the assessment of Moses that lies within the composi-
III. Moses and the Faith of Abraham (Num 20:1-13)
According to Schmitt, Numbers 20 contains an original account of the
rebellion of Moses and Aaron that has been secondarily reworked into the
47 For "change of time" as a segmentation marker in narrative, see Elisabeth Gulich and
Wolfgang Raible, "Uberlegungen zu einer makrostrukturellen Textanalyse: J. Thurber, The
and His Lass,"in Untersuchungen in
48 Moreover, the "Glaubens-Thematik," which is central to the Abrahamic narratives, is
also related to the assessment of the life of Moses. The Pentateuch tells us that at the end of
his life, Moses died in the wilderness, not entering into the good land, because he "did not
believe" God (Num ). At that point the author of the Pentateuch labeled the action of
Moses as "faithlessness." Within such a scheme it would follow that the Pentateuch would also
view Abraham's "faith" as obedience to the law.
THE MOSAIC LAW 255
faith theme. He argues that the narrative of Num 20:1-13 was originally a
self-contained unit which, apart from v. 12, formed a coherent whole. Verse
12, however, intrudes into this original narrative and gives it a specific
theological interpretation ("Glaubens-Thematic"). The original theme of
the passage was the rebellion of the people. This theme, however, was
replaced in v. 12 by a focus on faith--an idea that had not hitherto played
a part in the narrative.49 As chapter 20 opens, the Israelites were encamped
at Kadesh (20:1) but had begun to contend (bryv) with Moses on account
of the lack of food and water. When the Lord told Moses to take a rod and
speak to the rock to bring forth water, he did “as [the Lord] commanded
him" (20:9). This statement gives an initial impression that Moses and
Aaron were obediently following the Lord's commands. At least so far.
Moses, saying to
the rock twice and water came out for both the people and their animals
Though in popular exposition the nature of Moses' sin is emphasized, it
is not, in fact, immediately clear from the text why the Lord says Moses
(and Aaron) "did not believe" (). Only the bare outline50 of the events
are retained in the narrative.51 Nevertheless attempts to find the error of
Moses and Aaron and relate it to their lack of faith are numerous.52 Moses'
sin has generally been related to three aspects of the narrative, (1) his
striking the rock with the rod (), (2) his (harsh) words to the people
(), and (3) the lacunae within the narrative itself.
(1) There are those who argue that Moses' lack of faith is exhibited in his
striking the rock rather than merely speaking to it. However, as the nar-
rative presents it, the Lord certainly intended Moses to use the rod in some
way since it was the Lord who told Moses to get the rod and, according to
49 In Deut ; ; and , Moses says he could not enter the land because of the
rebellion of the people--an idea consistent with Num 20:10-11, 13. The presence of the theme
of rebellion underlying the present text is betrayed by several wordplays throughout the
narrative between the people's rebellion (e.g., bryv, Myrmh, vbr) and the place name Meribah
(hbyrm). Also, the fact that later allusions to the Meribah incident (Num ; 27:14; Deut
32:51) speak of the people's rebellion there and not the "unfaithfulness of Moses and Aaron,"
further supports Schmitt's argument that originally that was the central theme of the story.
50 The difficulty of determining the nature of Moses' sin because of the brevity of the
narrative was already acknowledged by early biblical scholars. Regarding this problem Mun-
ster said, "Et quidem verba Mose sunt tam succincta ut nemo facile ex illis advertere possit
in quo peccaverit" (Critici sacri 2.323).
51 At the conclusion of the story the place of the waters is called Meribah (hbyrm), which
is linked by means of a wordplay to the Israelite's rebellion (vbr) in 20:3. The last statement,
20: 13b, "and he was sanctified [wdqyv] among them," links the narrative to the location of the
people at the beginning of the story, Kadesh (wdq), and to the next section () where the
location is again Kadesh.
52 Drusius, "De peccato Mosis variae sunt interpretum opiniones, quas omnes recensere
longum esset" (Critici sacri 2.328).
the narrative, Moses is commended for doing ''as he commanded" (20:9).
The narrative, however, does not recount the Lord's instructions concern-
ing how or why Moses was to use the rod. Keil, like many, thus supposed
that the Lord's instructions to "speak to the rock" meant that Moses was
merely to hold the rod in his hand while he spoke to the rock.53 In this way
it is inferred from the narrative that Moses erred in striking the rock.54
That such a meaning is not likely a part of the author's intention is clear
from other narratives where Moses was explicitly commanded to strike
(hch) an object with his rod to work a sign demonstrating God's power. In
Exod 17:6, for example, the Lord told Moses, "I will stand before you there
on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike [tykhv] the rock, and water shall
come out of it, that the people may drink." Moreover this explanation has
frequently met with the additional argument that if God told them to take
the rod, what else would have been expected but to use it to strike the
stone?55 In response, some have argued that the rod was the budding rod
of Aaron and hence should not have been used for striking.56 This, for
example, was the position of Jamieson who argued that the error of Moses
consisted of his striking the rock "twice in his impetuosity, thus endangering
the blossoms of the rod."57 Some have laid stress merely on the fact that
Moses struck the rock twice.58
(2) Another line of explanation of Moses' faithlessness in Num 20:7-13
focuses on what he said when he struck the rock. The Septuagint translators
apparently attempted to resolve the problem by translating Moses' words
53 Keil, Biblical Commentary 3.130.
54 This, for example, is the interpretation of the passage given by Rashi. Rashi states,
"God did not command him to strike the rock but to speak to it."
55 "Quorsum virga sumenda erat, nisi ut percuterent (T. Malvenda, Commentaria in
sacram Scripturam una cum nova de verbo ad verbum ex hebraeo translatione, variisque
lectionibus, 1650, quoted in M.
Pol, Synopsis criticorum [
56 Franziscus Junius, 1587, quoted in Pol, Synopsis 1.689, "At
erat ad percutiendum vel imperata, vel commoda." Also Johannes Drusius (1550-1616), "Sed
si verba educenda erat aqua, cur jussus est
res transigi debebat" (Critici sacri 2.328).
57 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary Critical, Experimental
and Practical on the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945) 564. 58 Also
Ainsworth, "the doubling of his stroke shewed also the heat of his anger" (Anno-
tations, 127). Jamieson writes, "Hence some writers consider that his hasty smiting of the rock
twice was an act of distrust-that such a rebellious rabble would be relieved by a miracle; and
that as the water did not gush out immediately, his distrust rose into unbelief, a confirmed
persuasion that they would get none" (Commentary, 564). Keil turns Moses' striking the rock
into an evidence of lack of faith by suggesting that striking the rock was an exercise of human
works rather than trust in God: "He then struck the rock twice with the rod, 'as if it depended
upon human exertion, and not upon the power of God alone,' or as if the promise of God
'would not have been fulfilled without all the smiting on his part' " (Biblical Commentary, 131).
Rashi suggested that the first time Moses struck the rock only a few drops (NypF) came out
because God had told him to speak to it.
THE MOSAIC LAW 257
to the people (v. 10) by "Hear me, you faithless ones [oi[ a]peiqei?j]."59 This
was a convenient solution to the passage in Greek because it took advantage
of the semantic range of the Greek word a]peiqei?n, used elsewhere in the
Pentateuch to render the Hebrew word "to rebel" (hrm).60 The Greek
a]peiqh<j can mean either "disobedient" or "unbelieving."61
For some the sin of Moses consisted simply of his speaking to the people
rather than to the rock.62 Some have argued that the source of Moses' error
lay rather in the harsh words he spoke to the people. Rather than speaking
to the rock, as the Lord had commanded, Moses spoke harshly to the people.63
Some have read the Hebrew hrvm (Num ) as the Greek word mwro<j,64
and thus said Moses sinned in calling God's people fools.65 According to
Jamieson, "his speech conveyed the impression that it was by some power
or virtue inherent in him or in the rod that the miracle was wrought."66
Jamieson is apparently dependent on Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563) who
understood the sin of Moses and Aaron to consist of their saying “shall we
draw water?" Such words, according to Castellio, showed that they were
taking credit for doing that which only God could do.67 Others have argued
that when Moses struck the rock the first time no water came out and at
that point the people began to murmur and doubt that God would give
them water. Thus Moses called the people "you rebellious ones" and struck
the rock a second time.68 Several early biblical scholars69 have read the
interrogative in flsh Nmh in the sense of "whether" (num )70 and hence
rendered Moses' words as "Are we really able to bring water out for you?"
59 The Vulgate follows the Septuagint with the conflated rebelles et increduli.
60 Deut 1:26; 9:7, 23, 24.
61 LSJ 182. It is also possible that an attempt has been made to associate the word hrm
with hRS or RRS, which was translated with a]peiqh<j in Deut . It may also be an unintended
variant in the Vorlage of the Septuagint, but that is less likely in this case. The history of the
difficulty in interpretation in this passage argues against an unintended variant.
62 Paul Fagius, Critici sacri 2.324. According to Fagius, this was a view known inter Hebraeos.
63 "Instead of speaking to the rock with the rod of God in his hand, as God directed him,
he spoke to the congregation, and in these inconsiderate words. . . . which, if they did not
express any doubt in the help of the Lord, were certainly fitted to strengthen the people in their
unbelief, and are therefore described in Ps. cvi.33 as prating (speaking unadvisedly) with the
lips" (Keil, Biblical Commentary, 130-31).
64 Matching the Hebrew consonants m", to their Greek equivalents, m = m, v = w, and r =
r, with the nominative ending oj.
65 Critici sacri 2.323.
66 Jamieson, Commentary, 564.
67 "In eo peccatum est quod dixerunt, Eliciamus, quod Dei erat, sibi tribuentes"
(Critici sacri 2.326).
68 See Drusius, Critici sacri 2.328. Drusius was probably referring to Rashi when
he attributed this view to the antiquissimi Ebraei.
69 Fagius, Vatablus, Drusius, Grotius (Critici sacri 2.324ff.), and Cornelius a
Lapide (1567-1637). See Pol, Synopsis 1.689.
70 Following the Vulgate.
In so doing, they are able to show Moses' words to be an expression of
doubt. An equally ingenious solution noted by Drusius, though hardly
possible, was that the verb Mtrbd (rbd) in v. 8, "you shall speak [to the
rock]," was to be derived from the noun rbd, "pestilence, plague," and
hence should be translated' 'you shall destroy [the rock]."71
(3) Finally, the sparsity of the narrative itself, that is the lacunae, has
provided the occasion for various explanations of Moses' error. Jamieson,
for example, suggested that there were perhaps circumstances “unrecorded
which led to so severe a chastisement as exclusion from the promised
one particular rock and Moses wanted to give them water from a different
rock, saying, "We are not able to give water from that rock are we?" Thus,
Munster argued, Moses caused the people to think that God could give
them water from some rocks but not others.73 Lightfoot argued that the
miracle of the water from the rock, having been given already at the be-
ginning of the wilderness wanderings, implied to Moses that a still longer
time of waiting m the desert was to follow. The sin of Moses, then, lay in
“discrediting God's promise to lead the people into
Another major element of uncertainty in the story is the nature of the sin
of Aaron. Because the story itself is silent about the actions of Aaron, the
common, but implausible, explanation is that he sinned in remaining silent
and not correcting Moses.75
These many and varied attempts at explaining v. 12 illustrate that which
is already obvious from the text itself, that is, the passage does not explicitly
tell us the nature of Moses' (or Aaron’s) lack of faith.76 Judging from the
passage alone, the faithlessness of Moses does not appear to have consisted
in his striking the rock or in his harsh words but rather lies just out of reach
somewhere in the numerous "gaps"77 of the story. We should stress that this
71 Critici sacri 2.328. Drusius rejected the view because the verb did not have a direct
object with tx but rather an object with lx.
72 Jamieson, Commentary, 565.
73 Critici sacri 2.323.
74 See Jamieson, Commentary, 565.
75 Pol, Synopsis 1.689.
76 Gray's comment has merit, "The sin
which excluded Moses and Aaron from
described in v.12 as unbelief, in v.24 [and] 2714 as rebellion. But in v.8-11, as they now stand,
neither unbelief nor rebellion on the part of Moses and Aaron is recorded; either the one or
the other has often been read into the verses, but neither is there" (George Buchanan Gray,
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1903] 261).
77 "From the viewpoint of what is directly given in the language, the literary work consists
of bits and fragments to be linked and pieced together in the process of reading: it establishes a
system of gaps that must be filled in. This gap-filling ranges from simple linkages of elements,
which the reader performs automatically, to intricate networks that are figured out con-
sciously, laboriously, hesitantly, and with constant modifications in the light of additional
information disclosed in later stages of the reading" (Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical
THE MOSAIC LAW 259
is not a result of a deficiency in the story.78 It rather appears to be part of
the story's design. It is just at the point of recounting the nature of their sin
that the author abbreviates the narrative and moves on to the divine speech
(Num 20:12). Moreover, it is just this divine speech that "fills the gap” with
the word about faith, giving the story a sense far larger than that of its own
immediate concerns. Thus Schmitt concludes, the reason the exact nature
of the error of Moses is not immediately clear from the passage is because
the author has deliberately suppressed it in order to stress the divine
pronouncement of Moses' lack of faith.79 Though we may not want to follow
Schmitt's line of
78 Critical scholarship shows little patience with the story as it now stands. "The truth is,
the story is mutilated" (Gray, Numbers, 262). The classic critical study of Num 20:1-13 is that
of Hugo Gressmann in Mose und seine Zeit. Ein Kommentar zu den Mose-Sagen (
denhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913) 150-54. Gressmann divided the account into two separate
stories. One, the Elohist, is an "Ortssage" explaining the abundant oasis at Kadesh. The
other, the later Priesterkodex, is only partially preserved and attempts to explain why Moses
and Aaron did not go into the land. Cornill treated Num 20:1-13 as an original unity but saw
it largely "mutilated" (verstummelt) by a later redactor (see H. Holzinger, Einleitung in den
79 The importance of the divine word about Moses' lack of faith in Num 20:12 can be
seen all the more in the fact that it abruptly breaks into a narrative that appears to be primarily
be seen "in the fact that at the close of the chapter (), when the death of Aaron is
recounted, there is a back-reference to the earlier failure of Moses and Aaron. Surprisingly,
according to the narrative of , it was not their lack of faith that disqualified them from
entering into the land, as in , but rather their rebellion (Mtyrm). Furthermore, the refer-
ence to their rebellion (Mtyrm) in provides the basis for a wordplay on the name of the
waters, "Waters of Meribah" (hbyrm). Then again, later in the book, as the death of Moses
approached and he was reminded that he could not enter the land with the people (Num
27:14), there is another back-reference to Num 20:1-13. It is recalled that Moses could not
enter the land because, the Lord said, "You rebelled [Mtyrm] to sanctify me [ynwydqhl] . . . at
the waters of Meribah [tbyrm]." Similarly, in Deut 32:51 the Lord states that Moses (and
Aaron) "acted treacherously [Mtlfm] with me not sanctifying me [Mtwdq xl] in the midst of
the Israelites at the waters of Meribah [tbyrm]." In each case the Numbers 20 passage is read
without reference to the lack of faith of Moses and Aaron (). Mention should also be made
here of the reading in Psalm 95 which also does not make reference to their "lack of faith" at
Meribah. This, however, is probably due to the fact that the primary text for Psalm 95 was the
similar passage in Exodus 17 rather than Numbers 20. When the allusions to the Meribah passage
in Numbers 20 are compared with the text in its present state, one can see quite easily, Schmitt
argues, that the terms for rebellion (e.g., Mtyrm, 27:14; Mtlfm, Deut 32:51) have been inter-
preted by the term “faith" (Mtnmxh xl) in Num . Since, according to Schmitt, the theme
of faith forms the motif of the completed version of the Pentateuch, the account of the rebellion
of Moses and Aaron at the waters of Meribah has become an example of the theme of faith
found throughout the Pentateuch. A similar type of interpretation can be seen in the reading
of Psalm 95 in Heb 3:7-18. After an extensive quotation of the psalm, which does not make
reference to the faithlessness of Moses, the writer of Hebrews proceeds to interpret the psalm
in light of the theme of faith. The crucial statement in Psalm 95 is v. 10, "They always go
astray in their hearts" (Mh bbl yft). It is just this statement that the writer of Hebrews then
interprets as, "Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving [a]pisti<aj]
heart, leading you to fall away from the living God."
argument fully,80 we believe his analysis points the way to the central
message of the narrative. The rebellion of Moses and Aaron (Mtyrm, ),
which appears at some point to have been an important feature of the narra-
tive, has been replaced with the focus on their faithlessness (Mtnmxh xl,
). Such an interpretation has raised the actions of Moses and Aaron
in the narrative to a higher level of theological reflection--the issue of faith
versus obedience to the law.81 Their actions epitomize the negative side of
the message of faith. Moses and Aaron, who held high positions under the
law, did not enjoy God's gift of the land. They died in the wilderness
because they did not believe.82
The narrative strategy of the Pentateuch contrasts Abraham, who kept
the law, and Moses, whose faith was weakened under the law. This suggests
a conscious effort on the part of the author of the Pentateuch to distinguish
between a life of faith before the law (ante legem) and a lack of faith under
the law (sub lege). This is accomplished by showing that the life of God's
people before the giving of the law was characterized by faith and trust in
God, but after the giving of the law their lives were characterized by
faithlessness and failure. Abraham
lived by faith (Gen 15:6), in
lived by faith (Exod 4), they came out of
) and they approached
after the giving of the law, no longer was the life of God's people marked
by faith.83 Even their leaders, Moses and Aaron, failed to believe in God
after the coming of the law.
80 We need not, however, work from Schmitt's premise regarding the priestly material or
draw the same conclusion regarding the time of this redaction. Verse 12, in fact, is linked to
the rest of the narrative by means of the repetition of the notion of “sanctifying God," ynwydqhl
() and wdqyv (). Cf. D. A. Carson, "Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy and
Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool," in Scripture and Truth (ed. D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge;
81 Schmitt has argued that this "Glaubens-Thematik" can be traced to the influence of
Deuteronomy. This is not without significance for those who hold to a Mosaic authorship of
the Pentateuch. Given the fact that in Deuteronomy it is Moses who is the speaker, Schmitt's
"Glaubens-Thematik" is, narratively at least, Mosaic in origin. In Deut 9:23, for example,
Moses tells the Israelites, "And when the LORD sent you from Kadesh-barnea, . . . you
rebelled [vrmtv] against the commandment of the LORD your God and did not believe
[Mtnmxh xlv] him or obey [Mtfmw xlv] his voice." The view which Moses expresses
here in Deuteronomy is precisely that of the Glaubens-Thematik.
82 An identical interpretation can be found in Num , where the Lord says of the
rebellion (ddm, v. 9) of the people, "how long will this people despise me? And how long will
they not believe [vnymxy xl] me?"
83 This strategy of the author of the Pentateuch can be seen clearly in the vocabulary of
faith (Nymxh) which he employs in the Pentateuch. For example, throughout the Pentateuch,
each use of the word "faith" as part of the "Glaubens-Thematik" before the giving of the law
at Sinai is positive: Abraham believed,
THE MOSAIC LAW 261
If we have accurately described this aspect of the compositional strategy
of the Pentateuch, then we have uncovered an initial and clear indication
of the Pentateuch's view of the Mosaic Law. The view is, in fact, remark-
bly similar to that of Jer 31:31ff. Just as Jeremiah looked back at the failure
of the Sinai covenant and the Mosaic Law which the Israelites had failed
to keep, so the author of the Pentateuch already held little hope for blessing
sub lege. Jeremiah looked forward to a time when the Torah would be
internalized, not written on tablets of stone (cf. Ezek 36:26) but written on
their heart (Jer 31:33). In the same way the Pentateuch holds up the ex-
ample of Abraham, a model of faith, one who did not have the tablets of
stone but who nevertheless kept the law by living a life of faith. At the same
time it offers the warning of the life of Moses, who died in the wilderness
because of his lack of faith. In this respect it seems fair to conclude that the
view of the Mosaic Law found in the Pentateuch is essentially that of the
New Covenant passages in the prophets.84
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however, the positive statements of faith
disappear. The statements about
negative, that is, after
believe." Thus, standing between the narratives that stress the faith of God's people and those
that stress their faithlessness is the account of the giving of the law at Sinai. The last positive
statement of faith in the Pentateuch is Exod 19:9a, the prelude to the giving of the law. It is
significant that in Heb , as the writer rehearses the examples of faith in the Pentateuch,
he ends his examples from the Pentateuch with the
crossing of the
immediately to the Book of Joshua. He is clearly following here the line of argument of the
"Glaubens-Thematik" in the Pentateuch.
84 This view of the nature of the Pentateuch and its view of the law is similar to that of
Walther Eichrodt who argued that in the Pentateuch the law is presented in such a way that
it is "impressed on the heart and conscience. Application to individual concrete instances is
then left in many cases to a healthy feeling for justice" (Theology of the Old Testament [2 vols.;
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