Author urges Moses fans: Let your interpretations go

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It's lurid. It's controversial. It's the biography of Moses — killer, magician, the best friend of God and the man God sought to kill.

Sound like a story for the tabloids?

Not according to Jonathan Kirsch, author of "Moses: A Life." His new book delves into the darker side of Moses' story, which, he said, "most rabbis and teachers skip over."

Released last month, the book is coincidentally just in time for the Dec. 18 opening of Dreamworks' animated film "Prince of Egypt."

If Moses is on the cusp of breaking into the spotlight of American pop culture, Kirsch is happy to be part of the scene.

"If there is a little Moses mania, I won't object," the Los Angeles author said recently while promoting his book in the Bay Area.

Though Kirsch has not previewed the movie, he "suspects we are getting a bland, child-safe Moses. I would remind the readers of my book that Moses was not bland and not child-safe; he was a very intense and scary figure. There's nothing bland about him."

Kirsch, a Los Angeles Times book reviewer, looks into the complex nooks and crannies of the Bible to explore the history and psychology of Moses.

Some of the details he finds may shock the mild-mannered Jew: One of Moses' first significant acts is the cold-blooded murder of an Egyptian. Just before Moses demands that Pharoah release the Jews, God tries to kill Moses. And in several instances, Moses proves to be what Kirsch calls an adept sorcerer who wins people's hearts through wondrous spectacles, not with the law and reason.

But that's not all. Moses, who we know had a speech impediment, also used a veil for the last 40 years of his life to cover what Kirsch asserts is a disfigured face. Finally, the book notes that it is hotly debated among biblical scholars whether Moses existed at all.

So, is any of this true? That depends on which Moses people want to find in the Bible, Kirsch answers.

"All I'm asking is for people to look at the Bible with open eyes and see what is really there. There is room in the Bible for divergent views," he said.

His last book, "The Harlot by the Side of the Road," expressed a similar message. That work focused on little-known — and lurid — stories from the Bible.

In his research, Kirsch has found that there are conflicting values within the Bible. Those values can contradict what we today consider to be a moral standard, he said.

Within the world of the Bible, it's not atypical to find that Moses sometimes is "timid and meek and in other places ruthless and bloodthirsty," Kirsch said.

Likewise, Moses at times calls for "wars of genocide against anyone not an Israelite" and elsewhere presents laws which "define the essence of civilization and social justice."

So how does one ultimately interpret this Jewish leader? It's up to the reader to decide, Kirsch said.

Yet, he adds, there is one definite lesson to be learned. That comes in Moses' farewell speech to the Israelites before he dies.

Moses states: "I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed."

Kirsch argues that Moses wants to be remembered as a prodding and pushing prophet who commanded the Jews to do something meaningful in their new land.

"Moses presents us with choices, then says to us, `You must choose,'" he said. "It is a value-neutral statement — you can choose one way or the other. That's the moral dilemma of free choice. That's the cutting edge of Jewish values."

But Moses' speech ends up bitterly ironic, since he is locked out of Israel by God. The apparent reason: Some years before, Moses struck a rock rather than speaking to it, thus — Kirsch said — denying credit to God for the miraculous appearance of water. In Kirsch's eyes, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

"This is an appalling cruelty on God's part," he said. "It's such a minor and meaningless infraction, yet brings such a terrible punishment. It leaves us wondering what you have to do to please God if what Moses did was not enough."

Rabbis throughout the ages, Kirsch said, have argued about the meaning of Moses' exclusion from Israel. Moses, it turns out, is barely mentioned at all following his death in Deuteronomy, and his name is completely excluded from the Passover Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jews leaving Egypt.

For Kirsch, it means that the Moses of ancient times "was not a comic book superhero. He has a human aspect, and that makes him more interesting than is usually presented in pop culture."