Moses’ Missing Repentance

Benjamin Sommer (“Reflecting on Moses,” JBL 18 [1999] 601-624) thinks that Numbers 11 weaves together two sources, with very different descriptions of Moses. In narrative A, Moses is petulant, angry, despises his role as leader of Israel, wishes for death. According to B, he is an exemplary prophet, concerned for Israel’s welfare, humble in response to rivals (Eldad and Medad) and criticism (Aaron and Miriam, ch. 12).

He suggests that Calvin harmonizes these two presentations by inserting a missing plot point:

“Discussing w. 10-13 and 22, Calvin emphasizes the excessive nature of Moses’ displeasure with the nation, his ungratefulness in response to divine election, and his grossly sinful request for death. Here Calvin (like Akiva) faithfully describes A’s Moses. Yet by the end of the story, Calvin returns to the characterization found in Β and in 12:3, for he deeply admires the humility and magnanimity Moses displays in 11:29.53 This move from A to Β is mediated by his reading of w. 16-24. He adapts the Β narrative in w. 16-17 to the A narrative, so that these verses describe a punishment meted out against Moses: the prophet’s spirit is diminished as some of it is removed from him and bequeathed to the elders. Having been chastised, Moses profited (Calvin explains) by ‘divine rebuke, for [in v. 24] he actively sets about what he was commanded. Doubt had given him a check, so that he stopped in the middle of his course; whereas he now testifies by the promptitude of his obedience that his distrust is overcome.’ In other words, Calvin suggests that Moses repented” (620).

Sommer notes that “this narrative embellishment—for the text nowhere reports Moses’ penitence—is ‘creative’ in the classic midrashic sense: Calvin weaves a new element into the story from its context. Since Calvin acknowledges that Moses is clearly selfish in some parts of the story and selfless in others, he senses a gap that must be filled by creating an additional bit of plot” (620).

Creative, yes. Persuasive, not so much. When you’ve got to insert a missing repentance to smooth out a narrative, you’re probably missing something. Not that Sommer’s own approach is any better – beginning from the presumption that the redactor has knit together two unrelated stories.

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