Legends: Moses and Achilles

Since mock biblical trials have come into vogue, Moses has routinely been acquitted of homicide — despite admitting at each trial to having killed an Egyptian taskmaster (the “Taskmaster”) who was striking a Hebrew slave. This week’s Parshat Shemot provides the background.

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The Bible is elegant in its simplicity: “Moses . . . went out to his brethren and observed their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man [the Taskmaster] striking a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned ‘this way and that’ and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him [indeed ‘buried him’] in the sand.”

On those facts, it should have been hard for any prosecutor to lose. Here’s a Moses who chooses to kill a man simply because he was hitting a fellow Hebrew.  Beyond that, Moses had the time to check around to see if he was likely to get caught.  And, to put it over the top, he “destroyed the evidence” to insure that there would be no reprisal against him for his utterly violent act.  Simple case!  So why have juries acquitted him?  Is there more at stake?

Better lawyering? Indeed! But maybe something more, too. Take, as an illustration, the case of Achilles.  To be certain, there is of course no comparison between the status of Moses and Achilles, a mythical Greek figure – particularly in terms of gravitas. In the Greek tradition, verbalized in Homer’s “The Illiad,” Achilles is a venerated warrior who, to classical Greek culture, was an inspirational figure, as is Moses to the three great monotheist religions of the world.  Achilles died nobly in battle during the Trojan Wars — felled by a poisonous arrow that struck his heel and killed him.

It was not enough, though, for Greek mythology to describe Achilles as a noble warrior who was “shot dead” in the heel. So the legend grew, through Homer: when Achilles was a baby, his mother Thetis dipped him into the River Styx to make him thus impervious to mortal wound.  Because she dipped his body in the river, holding him by the heel, his enemy, Paris (perhaps with the guidance of Apollo), was successful when he mortally wounded Achilles’ heel, the only place where his body was vulnerable. The legend grew and became a far more romantic telling of a fated, heroic death than a mere arrow shot to the heel – a version which might make Achilles’ death seem almost silly.

And so, what relevance to Moses? Moses at trial makes a far better case for himself than the literal text of the Bible. He saw the Taskmaster “mercilessly” beating the Hebrew within an inch of his life — the Hebrew, thus, would have been killed by the Taskmaster without Moses’ intercession.  Not only that, Moses “knew” that the Taskmaster had actually raped the Hebrew’s wife while the Hebrew was out in the field fulfilling his slave duties. Finally, when Moses looked both ways before he killed the Taskmaster, he wasn’t furtively looking to see if the coast was clear.  He was actually, his attorneys would argue consistent with “legend,” checking to see if someone else would intercede on behalf of the victim, and lo — “there was ‘no man.’”  Who in their right mind would convict Moses on these facts?

Not only that, there is authority in the “Oral Torah” that all of this defense is true — whatever “truth” really is! According to these authorities, the trial defense is exactly what happened, and Moses himself ironically reported these “facts” when he handed down the Torah in the aftermath of Sinai.  The Taskmaster was beating the Hebrew to death; the Taskmaster, indeed, had raped the Hebrew’s wife; and Moses did look around hoping someone else would intercede and save the Hebrew.  Pretty good!

So what’s the problem? The problem is that there is another, totally inconsistent, oral tradition that, presumably, also emanated directly from Moses. According to this one, Moses didn’t actually strike the Taskmaster at all; Moses, seeing the Hebrew’s beating in progress, simply cried out the ineffable Name of God and the Taskmaster dropped like a stone to his death.  Moses killed no one – not even the vicious Taskmaster, who clearly and richly got what was truly coming to him under anyone’s analysis of the facts.

Thus: two traditions — both, I suggest, designed to “better” the story told in the Bible to ensure that Moses is remembered, unflinchingly, as a romantic hero, much like Achilles. But it wouldn’t have been so “unflinching,” even for a Moses, if one had to rely solely on the Written Word in the Bible (or if those in the Greek classical tradition were required to remember the warrior Achilles simply as the victim in battle of a wayward arrow that landed at his heel). Yet both accounts — Moses responding physically to a merciless beating and, alternatively, invoking God’s name — can simply not both be true!

So what is the believer to do with the two traditions? Because they are inconsistent, does he reject them both and simply rely on the literal text of the Written Scripture, recognizing that the traditions’ inconsistency, despite their claimed authoritativeness, makes the “oral” tradition questionable altogether?  Does he accept the first and reject the second, or vice versa?  Or does he does something else with them?

Traditions, which range in the lexicon from “Oral Torah” to “Midrash” to “legends” have a definite place in our learning of the Torah — which also implicates learning the Tradition. For some, these accounts, verbalized in the names of rabbis over the course of history, are as authoritative as the Written Scripture itself.  For others, less so.  For still others, they are legends, or maybe even, with no disrespect, akin to “tales” just like the story of Achilles’ heel.  Each believer is — and must be — free to do with the accounts as he or she sees fit.

The great newspaperman and cynic, H.L. Mencken, once said that we must accept another’s religious beliefs in the same way we accept it when our neighbor says that his wife is “beautiful” and his children are “brilliant.” We may inwardly think his wife is an eyesore and his children are actually simpletons, but we hear it and let it go, even perhaps nodding in acquiescence at the remark.  Maybe that way, I add to Mencken’s comment, our neighbor will do the same when we, ourselves, hold a particular belief that he might find irrelevant or even perhaps ludicrous.

If the classical Greeks wanted to believe Homer’s account of Achilles, they should have been free to. In that same vein, religion often must deal with illogic, inconsistency or even scientific impossibility when reconciliation between opposing views is impossible.  That’s what “faith” is about.

Moses, indeed, should be acquitted — and discussion or debate about the many possibilities of what may have actually occurred at that exquisite moment in Egypt when Moses took up his brother’s battle — should only further true and meaningful belief.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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