At Faith-Promoting Rumor, we are inagurating a new series entitled “Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament.” In this series, our goal is to make the insights of secular scholarship regarding the Old Testament available to the you, our loyal readers. There is some discussion within church society regarding the relative worth of secular training; we are not seeking to replace revealed truth, but rather we are trying to provide a summary of current scholarly thought regarding the Bible and its history (both the history of the text and the history depicted within). As we are reading the Old Testament in Sunday School this year, we decided to relate these posts to the weekly readings from the Old Testament and the Pearl of Great Price that the church will be encountering this year. We’re calling it “Secular Sam’s Guide” because it sounded better than anything else we could come up with. We hope that you will find this helpful.
As modern scholarship has yet to seriously address Moses 1 from a literary-historical standpoint, I have decided to focus my discussion on some of the figures involved, rather than on the text itself.
The current historical status of Moses is mixed. Very few people are convinced that the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses, represents history as it actually happened; at the same time, the majority of scholars feel that it would be unwise to consider Moses and all the stories around him entirely fictional. There have been some vocal proponents of these two extremes and, as a result of their extremity, they tend to get all of the press but most scholarship works under the assumption that there is a kernel of truth that can be uncovered through careful study.
Most of the argument revolves around what elements of Pentateuchal narrative are critical to understanding the formation of Israel. M. Noth famously suggested that references to Moses occurs “with striking infrequency” outside of the Pentateuch, ultimately theorizing that Moses himself was an editorial invention used to bracket together the various traditions about the foundation of Israel. This represents an extreme explanation of Moses’s role.
The reason that this position is considered an extremity is that there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to posit Moses’s non-existence. For instance, Moses’s name carries a meaning that is unknown to the Biblical author, leading him posit a definition based upon the Hebrew root masa, meaning “to draw forth”. However, it appears that Moses’s name implies a good Egyptian root, msy, meaning “to give birth”. It is the same root that is found in Rameses and Thotmosis. So, it appears to be a perfectly good Egyptian name, lending credence to the narrative of Moses’s origin. Furthermore, it remains mysterious why an ancestor would have to be invented to explain the formation of Israel when there would have been any number of actual ancestors to choose from.
Further arguments against the historicity of Moses tend to focus on the literary sources that have been wound together into the Pentateuchal narrative. Some scholars believe that the fact that certain sources have slightly differing depictions of Moses (as deliverer, cultic leader, or lawgiver, for instance) than this indicates that Moses was a figure whose history (assuming that there is some) is completely obscured by the ways in which his history has been narrativized. However, it appears again that the more reasonable approach is to assume that there is an actual historical figure behind these depictions. Since we are dealing with the reality of the foundation of a new, powerful religious movement, it behooves us to posit someone driving the religious movement. One must ask, as does G. W. Coats in his 1988 monograph Moses, Heroic Man, Man of God,
“whether a standing office has influenced the shape of the Moses traditions. Is the cultic office of covenant mediator the proper Sitz im Leben for this facet of the Moses tradition? Or was the tradition shaped basically by a popular literary process as a narrative convention for depicting the leader with at best only tangential contacts with the cult?” (138).
Since we know that other religious traditions are founded in the acts of charismatic leaders, it is not at all unreasonable to assume the same here. The story of Moses makes sense.
Now regarding Satan, let’s set aside all that we know for a moment and focus on what we can discern from the text. The primary meaning of the root stn is, as far as we can tell, “to accuse”, “to slander”, or “to be an adversary”. It is used 6 times as a verb in the Old Testament, mostly in the Psalms (38:21/Eng 38:20; 71:13; 109:4, 20, 29) and once in Zechariah (3:1). There is no clear way to judge between these meanings in these contexts and there is a great deal of overlap in the meanings in any case. Although its usage as a verb might suggest that “to accuse” or “to slander” is a better primary meaning, when used as a noun, the picture becomes more ambiguous. For instance, David’s Philistine allies worry that he will become their adversary (satan) in 1st Samuel 29:4. Abishai, a member of David’s court, pushes for the execution of a man who has been disloyal and Abishai is branded an adversary for so doing. Perhaps most compelling is the case of the angel sent to stop the prophet Balaam from pronouncing prophecy regarding Israel in Numbers 22: 22,32. Here the angel, sent by God, is a satan. He isn’t sent to accuse or slander, but rather to obstruct.
The noun satan occurs 26 times in the OT. Seven times it refers to humans in this manner; the remainder refer to supernatural beings. Of those 19, all but three make use of a definite article (“the satan”). The one case where it appears to be used as a proper name is in 1st Chronicles 21:1, where Satan is said to inspire David to take a census. This is a repetition of a story found in 2nd Kings 24, where the inspiration for the census comes from Yahweh himself. The shift is interesting. Perhaps earlier there was a belief in Yahweh as the prime cause behind everything, good and bad, but later theological shifts resulted in the need for a secondary cause for evil. In the Job passages, the satan is present in the assembly of the sons of God and engages in a conversation regarding the relative worth of Job’s piety. There is no internal implication of God’s disfavor toward the satan here, merely an acknowledgement of the satan’s role as an accuser and tester of men. In Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan stands by the right hand of the high priest, Joshua in order to accuse him. However, he is rebuked by Yahweh, with a reminder that God has chosen Jerusalem and its people. The satan in these cases is clearly associated with sin, in tempting people with sin or in accusing others of sinning. Finally, it is interesting to note that the association of the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan appears to be a rabbinic innovation. There is nothing in the Old Testament that makes this connection directly.
I should also say that in writing the above, I have been paraphrasing, quoting, and probably plagiarizing the Anchor Bible Dictionary entries on Moses and Satan. Please feel free to assume that anything you find useful or interesting comes from that source, as that is likely the case.