Criticism of Moses

Moses was an important figure in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur'an, and is considered a prophet by most Abrahamic faiths. His prominence in religious literature has made him a popular target for biblical critics, most of whom question his reputation as a just and compassionate leader, drawing attention to certain passages in which he appears to display a more brutal and unforgiving side. Given his holy status in the minds of Jews, Christians and Muslims, criticism of Moses' life and teachings has been by deists, agnostics and atheists.

Numbers 31:13-18

In the late eighteenth century, the deist Thomas Paine commented at length on Moses' Laws in The Age of Reason. Paine considered Moses to be a "detestable villain", and cited Numbers 31:13-18 as an example of his "unexampled atrocities".[1] In the passage, the Jewish army has returned from conquering the Midianites, and Moses has gone down to meet it:

And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.[2]

The prominent atheist Richard Dawkins also made reference to these verses in his 2006 book, The God Delusion, concluding that Moses was "not a great role model for modern moralists".[3]

However, some Jewish sources defend Moses' role. The Chasam Sofer emphasizes that this war was not fought at Moses' behest, but was commanded by God as an act of revenge against the Midianite women,[4] who, according to the Biblical account, had seduced the Israelites and led them to sin. Rabbi Joel Grossman argues that the story is a "powerful fable of lust and betrayal", and that Moses' execution of the women was a symbolic condemnation of those who seek to turn sex and desire to evil purposes.[5] Alan Levin, an educational specialist with the Reform movement, similarly suggests that the story should be taken as a cautionary tale, to "warn successive generations of Jews to watch their own idolatrous behavior".[6]

Some Mistakes of Moses

In the nineteenth century, the agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll wrote a book called Some Mistakes of Moses, which was wholly devoted to discussion of the Torah.[7] In the book, Ingersoll comments on the story of the golden calf, an idol crafted by the Israelites while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. When Moses returns, he becomes angry that his people are engaging in idol worship and orders the Levites to slaughter the sinners, who number 3,000. Ingersoll protests that the commandment forbidding idolatry had not yet been passed on by Moses to his people, and that "to inflict punishment for breaking unknown and unpublished laws is, in the last degree, cruel and unjust".[8]