The Magazine

Moses Revealed

He was more than a successful manager.

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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Nietzschean lingo imported from the social sciences. The problem is clearest in his treatment of God's revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. He interprets God's utterance--"I am that I am"--as meaning that Moses' "desire to over-identify with God must be continually circumscribed" because God cannot be limited. The need to curb Moses' hubris may be one lesson. But isn't the larger question about whether and to what extent revelation can ever become a fixed political authority, given that God is beyond all natural constraints?

This difficulty is even more disturbingly evoked by the binding of Isaac, which may be God's reminder that He is never to be understood as constrained by his own covenant with man (in this case, the prohibition against human sacrifice). As the source of the gift of the law, God can never be subordinated to the law he creates. Whereas Wildavsky wishes to separate the mystery of God from the demands of political leadership, the possibility that they may conflict on the level of man's encounter with the divine is arguably the political wisdom of the Torah. But because Wildavsky is in thrall to the lingo of the social sciences, revelation comes perilously close to being an ideology to justify Moses' "struggle for identity" and "dynamic view of history."

His language is straight out of Machiavelli: "Moses re-creates a past on which to base a future for his people . . . history is re-written by selective attention."

What it comes down to, in the end, is: Do we admire Moses because he was a brilliant example of leadership? Or do we venerate him because he was God's chosen, and for this reason a brilliant leader? Wildavsky clearly embraces the first alternative, not so clearly the second. And yet it would seem as if the Torah maintains an inscrutable and even terrifying disjunction between God's call to his people's faith and how that call must be translated into the hard exigencies Moses faces in his struggle toward the Promised Land. The silent aleph that opens God's revelation may have contained the entire Torah, or the Ten Commandments--or not. There is no scriptural proof for either tradition. The divine/human conversation remains a mystery. What did God and Moses each bring to the conversation? Was God's communication silent? Of these awful and inspiring questions Wildavsky's book has little to tell us.

At bottom, Wildavsky is not really attempting to restore revelation as an alternative, or even superior, source of political reflection but is, instead, returning to an earlier, more robust and realistic modern and, indeed, secular account of leadership. Although Machiavelli and Spinoza are not mentioned, Wildavsky is returning behind the veil of more recent delusions about world peace and the nastiness of thinking about political power to their accounts of Moses, which do exactly what Wildavsky claims: By stripping Moses of his "sacerdotal" aspect, they bring to the fore his courage, prudence, and ingenuity as a ruler.

Like Machiavelli, whose wisdom he explicitly acknowledges, Spinoza gives a pragmatic, this-worldly account of Moses in order to deflate the claims of revelation. Wildavsky is entirely justified in returning to this early modern realism to combat the squeamishness of today's social sciences with regard to great leaders. But instead of, as he imagines, restoring the perspective of revelation, he is aiding Machiavelli and Spinoza in deflating it. The aim of the early modern thinkers in presenting the realistic Moses (the "armed prophet," as Machiavelli calls him) was to tame the politics of the Torah by separating them from the nonnegotiable zeal and righteousness sustained by a faith in God and God's justice.

The problem is not that our failure to appreciate Moses as a "leader" blinds us to the wisdom of revelation as a guide for just politics. The problem is that reducing Moses to a "leader" blinds us to the wisdom of revelation as a guide for politics and everything else. It takes nothing away from the considerable merits of Moses as Political Leader to conclude that it returns us to the cusp of this ongoing problem.

Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa.