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Moses by Jose de Ribera (1591-1652). From Wikipedia

I realize that the tools I am equipped with for evaluating a text are woefully lacking. The things they taught me about character analysis in AP English and in my screenwriting courses during college assume certain things about why people tell stories and what an author is “trying to say” through a character that don’t exactly apply, I think, to a work of holy writ.

But, you know, I’ve been stuck here, blogging-wise, for months, and I have to press on. Just take it as read that I’m going to say something stupid, and we’ll all do fine.

So.

If Genesis was the “how people got here” part of the Bible, Exodus is specifically about how some of those people– the Hebrew people– began to become Jews. They enter into a new, sacred covenant with the God who liberated them from Egypt. And He picks a pretty interesting person through whom to work the liberation.

Moses is the most interesting person yet in the Bible. His origin story would nowadays befit a masked comic-book vigilante: born a slave, raised by royalty, he becomes a murderer, a fugitive, a shepherd, and finally, a liberator and prophet.

But the thing about him is this: it takes a really long time before he seems convinced that any of what he is doing at God’s command is going to work. He’s constantly asking questions of God. See the dialogue in Genesis 3-4, where Moses beholds God in the Burning Bush. He asks the following questions:

“You want ME to free my people? But I’m a nobody! Are you sure? What name am I supposed to give them, anyway? And what do I do if they don’t believe you sent me? I mean, the trick with the snake is pretty neat, but this sort of thing calls for an orator and I’m not much of a speaker; couldn’t you send someone else? Please?”

But God is insistent: you’re the man, Moses. So our reluctant prophet is packed off, with the help of his brother Aaron, who eventually ends up acting as spokesman. You probably know what comes next: they tell old Pharaoh to let God’s people go, repeatedly. He refuses them, repeatedly. God sends a number of disgusting and bizarre and finally bloody and vengeful afflictions to the Egyptians, sparing the Israelites. And during all of this, Moses is repeatedly asking: do you really want me to go back there again? Isn’t there a better way?

He does eventually settle into his role. He teaches the people God’s instructions for Passover. He gathers up the bones of Joseph and carries them into the wilderness. He parts the Red Sea. He explains the whole “manna” thing to people. He gets some friends to prop his arms up so he can hold up his staff in order to assure victory for the Israelites in battle. But he is, throughout, nagged by doubt. It isn’t doubt of God that’s plaguing Moses (haw haw), it’s doubt of himself.

Also, he’s an angry dude. Witness him coming down from Mount Sinai after forty days and nights of chiseling instructions about the ten commandments and cleanliness and the entire dimensions of the tabernacle only to find his brethren worshipping a golden calf:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.  (32:19-20)

Did you get all that? He makes them drink a powdered gold milkshake. That is some seriously dedicated anger.

And it gets worse:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.  And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (32:26-28)

So you see, Moses is not a peaceable shepherd of freedom. He’s more like a crotchety midwife for this nation being born in the wilderness. It’s a terrible birth with pain and war, fire and bloodshed. But instead of maintaining love and respect for the birthing process, he constantly loses patience with the entire process, and everyone involved. He second-guesses God, and himself, and his own people.

Ultimately, like a modern midwife, he is there at the start of the family but not of it. Eventually his anger and disobedience proves too much even for God (in Numbers, not Exodus), and he dies within sight, but not within the boundaries, of the Promised Land.

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We are about to get into the Ancient Greeks, so I’ve been looking for good commentary and historical works. So far I’ve been working with Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.

If you want to have a good basic overview of western civilization, you could pretty much get there with this one book. For the general reader who didn’t have a western civ course during college (or didn’t go to college at all), this book helps you understand historical contexts of different ideas in ancient philosophy and gives a more cursory, but still valuable, sketch of modern philosophy.  Now and then it’s even funny.

Marks against it: it was written during WWII, so some of the historical research will be out of date. Russell’s personality is very deeply stamped on it; it bears his own biases (particularly as regards the Catholic Church. Spoiler: he was not a fan).

Marks in favor: it’s written by a genius with a rare gift for clear, simple writing. He was also a mathematician, so mathematical and logical ideas expressed in the philosophies are illuminated in a way that shouldn’t intimidate those with a maths phobia. And Bertrand Russell was a naughty guy who looked exactly like the Mad Hatter in his old age.

If you know a better guide to philosophy that also takes history into account, let me know.

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The Books of All Time reading list has been compiled from a number of sources, which, of course, I didn’t write down. I have split my titles into groups:

  • Pre-Christian Literature (to about 50 AD)
  • Rome and the Middle Ages (to 1500)
  • The Renaissance (to 1750)
  • The Enlightenment (to 1850)
  • The Modern Era (to 1918)
  • Post-World War I (through the present day).

Although the category names are strongly biased towards the west, I have tried to include as many titles from non-European sources as possible. I am limited in my reading to the English Language only, so if you are aware of a monumental classic of, say, Japanese literature, I will only be able to include it if an English translation exists.

Probably the categories will seem overly broad to you, or improperly classified. I don’t want to waste a lot of energy arguing about taxonomy issues, but if you have a burning desire to see something reclassified, please do put it in the comments.

This list is naturally subject to change at any time, and there may need to be a meta-reading list for, say,  some of the thornier philosophical works. I will keep track of any supplemental reading I do on this page here.

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