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Moses: A Life Paperback – November 2, 1999

3.5 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Moses: A Life is Jonathan Kirsch's attempt to depict the historical Moses. There is not one whit of archeological evidence that the great lawgiver ever lived, but Kirsch, a California lawyer, combs through the Scripture and its cultural remains with forensic zeal in his efforts to uncover the man he calls "the most haunted and haunting figure in the Bible." Although his thirst for empirical evidence remains, at the end, unsated, Kirsch's imagination is given new life by his quest. Moses emerges, in this fascinating, wide-ranging, and somewhat frustratingly logical book, as a person both necessary and nebulous. Kirsch concludes that Moses' existence cannot be proven, even though his influence is as great as that of any man who ever lived. --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Kirsch's treatment is less a biography of Moses than a meticulous distillation of the considerable secondary literature that has grown up around the sparse biblical material. Kirsch (The Harlot By the Side of the Road) draws extensively on the various theories elaborated by biblical scholars over the past centuries to explain multiple accounts of Moses' life. He also draws extensively on myths, legends and midrashim that have been woven around the figure of Moses, who figures, in various interpretations, as warrior, magician, shepherd, God's favorite, sorcerer's apprentice and reluctant prophet. Kirsch offers interesting speculation on Moses's identity, including the depth of his connection to Egypt, and on the power struggles that he believes underlie the patchwork narrative of Hebrew scripture. He also notes the succession of strong women who intervene on Moses's behalf, and he pays careful attention to the struggle between Miriam (who was a priestess in her own right) and Moses. Ultimately, Kirsch's Moses emerges less as a presence than an absenceAbut an absence that determines the structure of the whole narrative around him.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (November 2, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345412702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345412706
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #382,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There's a flippancy and glibness to Jonathan Kirsch's Moses that detracts from what one must assume "A Life" would seek to achieve. Kirsch's title implies a biography, but it's the rare biography that denies the historicity of its subject. Citing a bevy of bible scholars, Kirsch presents each view in a manner couched to suit a poorly disguised agenda. Thus, Martin Buber (cited repeatedly) "sniffs", "snaps", and "huffs" when it behooves the author to portray him as foolish, but merely "writes" and matter-of-factly "points out" when his views suit Kirsch's needs.

Though the Pentateuch serves as his main source, Kirsch fairly delights in Talmudic and Midrashic elaborations that push the Torah further toward the fantastic. While this might prove entertaining, it is no different than dismissing Moses because Cecil B. DeMille was over the top. Indeed, given the foundational arguement created by the multiplicity of Torah authors proposed and, therefore, the legitimate contradictions of the text itself, one wonders why Kirsch feels the need to stretch for additional ammunition.

Though I found Kirsch's Torah narrative a decent refresher, the endless parade of revisionist scholars - Sigmund Freud not least among them - whose outlandish theories test the bounds of credulity, (not to mention the wise application of time), ultimately becomes annoying. Indeed, Kirsch's scholars present suppositions to deny the historicity of Moses far more fanciful than anything that might affirm it. The intent here is not to present a life, but to deny one, and the touchy-feely, "embrace the concept" message at its end does nothing to dissuade the reader that Moses: A Fairy Tale was presented despite the "Life" that was proclaimed. 3 stars.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Kirsch's book is basically a line-by-line reading of Exodus. He operates from the presumption that the books of the Torah were written by several different people over a period of centuries, and, in looking at the text line-by-line, attempts to resolve certain contradictions that he sees in that book's portrayal of Moses. Kirsch also supplements his reading of the Torah with reference to the Midrash and other rabbinical lore from hundreds or thousands of years ago. In so doing, he finds that there are several different distinct and contradictory versions of Moses to be found throughout what we now think of as the Bible, with even the facts of his life story (his siblings, his wife's country of origin, his number of children, and his father-in-law's name) varying from chapter to chapter, if not verse to verse. Think of his book as secular Bible study.

"Moses" is, in that sense, an exhilirating read, an effort to figure out just who Moses might really have been. The book is basically a mystery without a solution: the author notes that there is no archaeological proof of Moses' existence, or of the Exodus from Egypt (note that I chose to read this book during Passover). By looking at the life of Moses, and the story of the Exodus and the wandering of the Israelites through the Sinai Peninsula over a 40-year-period, through the prism of the different strands of Bible authorship, and of the different rabbinic traditions that have sprung up around the life of Moses, Kirsch tells a story that does not move in a straight line, that does not arrive at a single conclusion.
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Format: Paperback
Since there is no archeological evidence that Moses ever existed, author Jonathan Kirsch uses the words of the bible,together with modern biblical scholarship to re-create the great prophet who exists between the lines of scripture. Kirsch goes through each chapter of the bible beginning with the book of Exodus and ending with the book of Deuteronomy and shows where various traditions and counter-traditions might have intersected. He shows the Moses who is portrayed as a great hero by the "Deuteronomist" and the Moses whose role is diminished by the "Priestly source." He discusses virtually every theory including the theory that their were two Moses and the first was murdered! This is surely not the book to read if you are a bible literalist (or an Orthodox Jew) and I certainly don't agree with all his points, being partial to the biblical story myself. But Kirsch is a lively writer and it is an interesting read nonetheless, as is Kirsch's "King David".
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Format: Hardcover
At this time of year, many of us will dust off our video copy of DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, prop our children in front of the tube, and bask in the glorious figure of Moses a la Hollywood.
But perhaps our time would be better spent getting to know the enigmatic figure presented in the Bible.
Jonathan Kirsch's book MOSES: A LIFE helps us to do just that. In clear prose, Kirsch attempts to knit together a portrait of one of the most influential figures in Western Culture...a figure who may not have even existed.
In so doing, Kirsch draws not only upon the Bible but also on other records related to the man credited with delivering God's Law. These sources include rabbinical literature as well as the writings of philosophers (Philo, Freud). While the result is not without its puzzles, the overall effect is that of understanding. It is perhaps fitting that Yahweh, the enigmatic God of the Hebrews, should pick as his messenger a man as complex and contradictory as himself.
Kirsch does not flinch from recounting these contradictions (nor does he allow sympathy for his subject to cloud the fact that no contemporary record of Moses--outside of the Bible--exists). Further, he is not above explaining some of the darker passages of Holy Writ--including God's attempted murder of the messenger he had just chosen to deliver his people (a truly bizarre and difficult passage). As a result, the popular myths about Moses fall. But what remains is a figure far more interesting.
Kirsch does assume that the reader is somewhat familiar with the J, E, P, D composition of the Pentatuch (a theory now widely accepted and explained very well in Friedman's WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?), and, at times, his examinations of rabbinical special pleading are tedious. But, overall, MOSES: A LIFE is a highly readable and interesting work, with much to offer for non-fundamentalist believers and non-believers alike.
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