Why Moses defended the Israelites against destruction

Andy Oram
June 27, 2017

According to stories about Moses in the Bible, the Israelite people had a dicey time of it. Specifically, there were two moments when God was ready to throw in the towel and totally wipe out the people: after they created the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:7-10) and after they rejected the opportunity to enter the land promised to them (Numbers 14:11-12). In both instances, God consults with Moses, explicitly giving him the chance to decide on Israel’s fate, and sweetens the suggestion by promising to make a “great nation” from Moses after the Israelites are destroyed, the same promise God made to Abraham back in Genesis 12:2.

Moses would be hard put to turn down God’s offer. As the Bible now stands, Moses did not personally share the fate of the people he led. He has no genealogies like other Biblical characters, the fates of his children are lost to history, and he doesn’t even enter the land with the Israelites. Even his own origins are murky enough that Freud famously suggested he was an Egyptian. (It would be hard to square that claim with the observation that Moses’s brother was the ancestor of the Israelite priestly class. But even so, Freud’s suggestion shows that Moses’s ancestry is less secure than Barack Obama’s US citizenship.) Moses could definitely have climbed the ladder of reputation in ancient societies by claiming ancestry of his own people.

So a lot of commenters praise Moses richly for resisting the temptation to destroy the Israelites. They talk of his compassion, his great patience, his humility (attested to Numbers 12:3), and his love for the stiff-necked people he has been tasked to lead.

These character traits do not explain Moses’s reluctance to replace the Israelites with a people who call him ancestor. Rather the explanation comes in yet another incident of rebellion, where the Israelites start whining over the lack of interesting food in a place to be called Kibrot Hataavah. This time, the roles of Moses and God are reversed. Moses is furious and beside himself, and it is up to God to calm him down. But the specific words of Moses are key:

Did I conceive this entire people, or did I give birth to it, that you say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling?”

With this astonishing resort to female imagery, Moses reveals why he demurred twice from giving birth to a new people. He knows, along with God, that human beings have an irredeemable evil streak (Genesis 8:21). Moses can anticipate that a people created from him would eventually rebel and be just as deplorable as the Israelites. And he understands that, in the ancient world, the ancestor of a people is held accountable for their sins. Better to hold back from this responsibility, and bear the burden of leading a people who are not his own.

Thus, for the sake of reputation, Moses creates a barrier between himself and the Israelites, a kind of psychological veil over his face. His impassioned words at Kibrot Hataavah show why he protected the Israelites from destruction. The statement may even explain why he could not accompany them into the promised land—he has put a wall between his fate and theirs.

More Biblical commentaries

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.