THE BLOG
12/12/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

"Troubled" Moses or Traumatic Origins of the Bible?

The star of the new Ridley Scott movie about Moses, "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (release Dec. 12), described Moses earlier this Fall (as reported in the Hollywood Reporter) as "a very troubled and tumultuous man" who was "likely a schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life." Though these comments by Christian Bale show insensitivity to contemporary communities for whom the figure of Moses is deeply important, he has picked up on an important feature of the stories surrounding Moses: they are saturated in ancient experiences of trauma.

Of course, we have no way to ascertain whether Moses personally suffered from trauma. He lived long before history was written down in Israel and the stories about him are shrouded in centuries of later tradition. That said, we do know that the biblical books about Moses (Exodus --Deuteronomy) were completed in the wake of ancient Israel's deepest crisis, hundreds of years after Moses: when the holy and supposedly invulnerable city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, its kingship ended, and its populace sent into seeming permanent exile in Babylon.

This crisis, this experience of exile, was so intense that it qualifies as an ancient example of "trauma." Indeed the exile was so traumatic for the ancient Israelites that they rarely wrote about it directly. The histories of the Bible go up to the destruction of Jerusalem and exile, have a gap, and then pick up again fifty years later when some exiles were allowed to start returning to Israel. If an individual had such a gap in their personal story, one might suspect that they had suffered trauma that they could not remember or speak about. For ancient Israel, the loss of city, kingship and especially possession of the land was a communal "near death" experience that was virtually impossible for them to describe explicitly.

When survivors of trauma find it difficult to talk directly about their trauma, they often find indirect ways to reflect and process their unspeakable experience. The exiles in Babylon did this by retelling the Moses story in ways that reflected their experience of loss, vulnerability, and communal near-annihilation. They set Moses's birth amidst crisis. The Egyptian Pharaoh develops a genocidal scheme to have midwives murder all newborn Israelite boy babies.

When the midwives subversively undermine Pharaoh's order, he orders all Israelite babies be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 1:15-22). This is the situation when Moses is born to a couple in the Levitical tribe. Frightened at what might happen to her son, Moses' mother places her baby in a waterproofed basket and sets him adrift on the Nile River. In other words, the book of Exodus opens with slavery, infant genocide, and an individual mother's decision to let her baby son loose on a river, a form of possible infant exposure -- all related in the first chapter and a half!

As the story continues, the character of Moses develops in ways that mirror his people's vulnerability. For example, after he has been set loose, as a three-month old baby on the mighty Nile, he is rescued by an Egyptian princess and grows up in an Egyptian household. The child Moses of this story thus lives like an exile amid foreigners, even as his mother is hired as his wet nurse (Exodus 2:5-9). The princess gives him an Egyptian name, Moses, but ironically this Egyptian woman explains his name in terms of Hebrew -- as reflecting the fact that she "drew out" (Hebrew mashah) Moses from the river water (Exodus 2:10).

Here we see the cultural cross-currents that many exiles face while living as a cultural minority. They take on foreign names and/or customs while maintaining ties to their own cultures. In this exilic version of the story, Moses' mother can parent her son only secretly, and his name is a mix of the slaveowner's culture (Moses) and a Hebrew reinterpretation of it ("I drew him out of the water").

On one level this story of slavery, genocide, exposure, and secret parenting works powerfully as individual drama, but it would have resonated with exiles under forced labor in Babylon. By preserving and revising old narratives about Moses' endangerment as a baby and rescue from the Nile, these exiles could speak, from a safe distance, of their own suffering and hope.
Like much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments, the Moses story is saturated with experiences of profound suffering.

That is part of what has made these stories so compelling to diverse communities over the centuries. Characters like Moses reflect the reality of violence faced by many who cherish these texts today. Christian Bale' comments about Moses, the individual, miss the power of these biblical texts about Moses to help generations of communities, past and present, survive such suffering and make sense of it.