The story of Moses

Revered for thousands of years, he was a liberator, leader and prophet. But now he's had the ultimate accolade. Paul Vallely looks at the life of the man who gave his name to Gwyneth Paltrow's child
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The Independent Culture

It could just have been a quirk inspired by the name of the place the child was born, the Mount Sinai hospital in New York. Or it could be that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin assume that their child's friends will treat him with the same reverence with which the world treats them. (The pair did call their first child Apple, a name which suggests that fear of playground ridicule is not high on their list of concerns). Or it may be that they are still so lovey-dovey that they wanted to choose a name for their second child which echoed the sloppy love-song Martin wrote for his wife.

Whatever the explanation, the pair have decided to call their newborn son Moses. There aren't many of them about. The song, by the way, goes: "Like Moses has power over sea so you've got power over me... You're a refuge, somewhere I can go. You're air that I can breathe, 'cause you're my golden opportunity." Hmmm.

But it may be that the celebrity couple have another reason for the unusual name. Though Ms Paltrow's mother was a Quaker, her father, the film director Bruce Paltrow, was Jewish - a descendant of the 17th-century Krakow patriarch, David HaLevi Segal, and part of a dynasty which produced no fewer than 33 rabbis. In an interview last year Martin said in an aside that he was now an "honorary Jew" who had just had his first Passover.

The annual feast of Passover, which Jews across the world will be celebrating tonight, commemorates the pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people - when Moses led his people out of slavery and, in 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, forged them into a nation ready to enter their Promised Land. It was in this time that the people of Israel forged a unique covenant with God, which gave them the divine right to occupy the land of Canaan. In this, Moses - liberator, leader, law-giver and prophet - was the central figure, who mediated between God and people bringing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone from the top of Mount Sinai.

The scriptures in which all this is recorded - the five books of Moses - are accepted as holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. (Moses, known in Islam as Musa, features more prominently in the Koran than any of the prophets before Mohamed). What Moses represents is the moment that the world turned from many gods to a single God. The commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain have, for two-thirds of the planet, been the basis of morality for the last 3,000 years.

Historians have debated as to whether Moses ever existed, or whether he was an invention and the story of the Exodus is merely a myth. But to ask that is to miss the point. The story of Moses is a treasury of some of the Bible's classic iconic images and most resonant epithets: the basket in the bulrushes ... the burning bush ... "Remove your shoes for you tread on holy ground" ... the ten plagues ... "Let my people go" ... the killing of the first born ... the unleavened bread of affliction ... the Passover lamb ... the parting of the Red Sea ... the years in the wilderness ... manna in the desert ... the golden calf ... the mountain of God ... the Ten Commandments ... the Ark of the Covenant ... the land of milk and honey.

Recent scientific hypotheses - that the Red Sea may have been parted by a tsunami; that the plagues were the result of a particular pollution; that manna may have been the secretion of the hammada shrub; or that a massive volcanic explanation may explain it all - only diminish, rather than enhance, the power the story has exercised over the human imagination.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, went some way to explaining why yesterday in his Thought for the Day on Radio 4. "The story of how our ancestors, 33 centuries ago, were freed from slavery and began what Nelson Mandela called 'the long walk to freedom'," he said, "is one of the great narratives of hope." For though this is a Jewish story, it has been throughout history adopted by others as their own.

In the 16th century the leaders of the English Reformation believed that the mantle of God's chosen people (which the Church had inherited from the Jews) now passed from the Church of Rome to the Church of England. When America fought for freedom from the British, Thomas Jefferson compared his people's struggle to the Exodus. When, in the new America, blacks later fought for their freedom from white prejudice, they sang the words of Moses: "Let my people go." Most recently the story inspired the liberation theologians of Latin America to shift the Catholic Church from the side of the rich to that of the poor - just as Moses, the adopted son of the Pharoah, had switched sides.

It was Moses who turned religion from oppressor to liberator. "It was the first time religion entered the human situation as a revolutionary voice," said Jonathan Sacks. "The religions of the ancient world, like their secular substitutes today, were justifications of the status quo. They explained why the rich and powerful had to be rich and powerful. Exodus said the opposite. The supreme power enters history to rescue the powerless."

The trouble is, of course, that the oppressed all too easily become the oppressors once they get the upper hand. That is the case in modern Israel, but, as the black political theologian Dr Robert Beckford points out, there was also a downside to the story even in Moses' own time. The great man did not himself get to enter the Promised Land, though God allowed him to see it from his deathbed on Mount Nebo. The task of leading the Israelites into the place of milk and honey - which unfortunately happened to be occupied by someone else at the time - fell to Moses' successor, Joshua.

As a black theologian, Beckford is anxious to read the Bible against its dominant narrative. "When I read about Joshua going into the Promised Land I read it from the perspective of the Canaanite - to look for the stories and individuals who are made almost invisible by the dominant traditions that have glorified some and forgotten others."

But it is not just the religious who have used Moses for their own ends. His history on film shows that.

The classic movie portrait is that of Charlton Heston in the 1956 Cecil B DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments. Heston's was an imperial Moses, heroic and impenetrable, who grew out of a post-war era in which the purity of the American mission to protect the world was unchallenged. By 1996 Moses had become a more introverted, anguished figure in a world that was out of his control; Ben Kingsley's stuttering Moses felt inferior and was laughed at by the court of the Pharaoh for not being a "true" Egyptian.

Two years later, DreamWorks' animated version, The Prince of Egypt, which featured the voices of Ralph Fiennes and Michelle Pfeiffer, was "a story of hate, power, pain, anger and love" - and was bewilderingly turned into a musical. This year we have director Robert Dornhelm, whose four-hour TV mini-series The Ten Commandments features Dougray Scott as a gaunt, dour, dyspeptic Old Testament anti-hero "with a streak of self-doubt as wide as the Red Sea". It is a Moses for our time, a charisma-free, tortured breast-beater whom Scott describes as "slightly unhinged, as you would be if you heard a voice from God to lead a people that you've had no connection to for years - you promised them the world and you don't know if you can deliver. He's lonely, paranoid, violent, forgiving, forever doubtful." Not quite what you get from the Torah.

All of which tells you more about the preoccupations and inadequacies of the film-makers than it does about Moses. In recent times only Bob Marley got it right. "Exodus, movement of jah people!" he sang. ("Jah" being the term most commonly used for God among Rastafarians.) "Send us another Brother Moses/ From across the Red Sea/ Movement of jah people!/ Come to break down 'pression/ Rule equality/ Wipe away transgression/ Set the captives free/ Movement of jah people!/ Movement of jah people!"

Perhaps this message was what Paltrow and Martin, consciously or unconsciously, understood.