Westminster Theological Journal, 53 (1991) 241-261.

Copyright © 1991 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission;

   digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]   



                                         THE MOSAIC LAW




                                         JOHN H. SAILHAMER



                                                I. Introduction

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 (Berlin: Walter de

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

(1982) 170-89.




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 14:31, "And

they [the people] believed in b Nymxh] the Lord and in Moses his servant"; Num 14:11, "How

long will they [the people] not believe in b Nymxh] me"; Num 20:12, "And the Lord said to

Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in b Nymxh] me.' " See also Deut 1:32 and 9:23.

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-

tory of Israel, as is commonly supposed in biblical scholarship, but rather

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 Israel.

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

it to Israel. Thus it is possible to argue that the laws in the Pentateuch are not there to

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 [1976]


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; New York: Anchor, 1958] 3).

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 3:14 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 [1917] 8, quoted in R. E Kraus, "Ein zentrales Problem des altmesopotamischen

Rechtes: Was It der Codex Hammu-rabi?" Genava 8 [1960] 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

sub lege.

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 10:11-36:13) 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 20:12 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 [Edinburgh: T. & T.

Clark, 1888] 137ff.). C. F. Keil also recognized that these same terms were later used to

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

[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971] 270). Cf. Benno Jacob, "Aber diese Ausdrucke besagen, dass er auf den

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

Mosaic Law.



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

biblical narratives.27

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

[hvc] him."

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. Godschmidt; Berlin:

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 [ed. J. Pearson et al.; Amsterdam, 1698] 1.616. Munster explicitly

cites Ibn Ezra's commentary on this passage).

30 E.g., Sefomo, Hn ynb vvFcnw (Torat Chaim Chumash [Jerusalem: Mossad Harav

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 [Rotterdam, 1651] 1.457). According to the Kab-

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 Mo-

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 [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society

of America, 1968] 1.292). Rivetus held that "praeter naturae legem, habuisse patres multas

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 hbqh 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.

37 Midrash Rabbah (New York: KTAV, n.d.) 135. The purpose of this explanation was

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

father's idolatry.

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

King; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979] 60]. Henry Ainsworth also appears to follow this line of

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 [London: M. Parsons, 1639] 99).

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 Ur of the

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-

pretation of Israel's relationship to God in terms of obedience to the law


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 (Freiburg: J. C. B. ;Mohr [Paul Siebeck],

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

Gunkel, Genesis [Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977] 300).

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-

tional seams.


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

Lover and His Lass,"in Untersuchungen in Texttheorie (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,

1977) 132-75.

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 20:12). 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.

Then Moses, saying to Israel, "You rebellious ones" (Myrmh, 20:10), struck

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" (20:12). 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 (20:11), (2) his (harsh) words to the people

(20:10), 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 1:37; 3:26; and 4:21, 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 20:24; 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.

See below.

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 (20:14) 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 [Utrecht: Leusden, 1684] 1.689).

56 Franziscus Junius, 1587, quoted in Pol, Synopsis 1.689, "At florida illa virga Aaronis non

erat ad percutiendum vel imperata, vel commoda." Also Johannes Drusius (1550-1616), "Sed

si verba educenda erat aqua, cur jussus est accipere virgam? Nam ea nihil opus, si sermone

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 20:10) 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 21:18. 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

land."72 Munster suggested that the people wanted to receive water from

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 Canaan."74

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 Canaan is

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

Narrative [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985] 186).

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 (Gottingen: Van

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

Hexateuch [Freiburg: J. C. B. Mohr, 1893] app. 1, Quellenscheidung von Genesis bis Josua, 9).

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

concerned with Israel's rebellion:" The centrality of the idea of rebellion in the narrative can

be seen "in the fact that at the close of the chapter (20:24), 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 20:24, it was not their lack of faith that disqualified them from

entering into the land, as in 20:12, but rather their rebellion (Mtyrm). Furthermore, the refer-

ence to their rebellion (Mtyrm) in 20:24 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 (20:12). 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 20:12. 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, 20:24),

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,

20:12). 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


IV. Conclusion

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 Egypt the

Israelites lived by faith (Exod 4), they came out of Egypt by faith (Exod

14:31) and they approached Mount Sinai by faith (Exod 19:9). However,

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

(20:12) and wdqyv (20:13). 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;

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 119-42.

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 14:11, 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, Israel believed and so on. After the giving of the law,

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 Israel's faith are all

negative, that is, after Sinai, Israel (Num 14:11) and Moses and Aaron (Num 20:12) "did not

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 11:29, as the writer rehearses the examples of faith in the Pentateuch,

he ends his examples from the Pentateuch with the crossing of the Red Sea and moves

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.;

Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961] 1.77).



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            2960 W. Church Rd.

            Glenside, PA  19038


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu