The Strength of Moses

Having just addressed some basic problems in the use of the Documentary Hypothesis, or, more generally, biblical criticism (“Higher Criticism”) as a tool to dismiss Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula, I began considering in more detail some of the specific non-P content that the anonymous writer “RT” had pointed to in a blog post at Patheos.

Let me first point out that the presence of a story element or theme that is linked to P does not mean that it did not exist in Hebrew records or oral traditions before P was composed. In fact, making up major story elements that were unknown to any in its intended audience would lead to obvious difficulty in getting the story to stick. Friedman makes that point in Who Wrote the Bible? Another highly respected scholar, Joel Baden, also makes this point in The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 189:

This conclusion can be extrapolated over the entire priestly narrative. Where the priestly and nonpriestly stories diverge (and similarly where the J and E diverge), we may attribute the differences to the unique traditional bases on which the authors drew or to the unique renderings of common tradition among different schools and authors. Where the priestly and nonpriestly stories converge, we may attribute the similarities to the common elements of the tradition known to the authors. Only if it is imagined that the nonpriestly authors invented the entirety of the pentateuchal narrative out of whole cloth can it be argued that the similar narratives in P derive from non-P. If, on the other hand, we accept that J and E wrote their narratives on the basis of common Israelite traditions, then there is no reason to believe that P could not have done the same. The claim that P is a reaction to the nonpriestly text cannot be established on the grounds of its general plot outline, at least as long as we take seriously the insights of tradition criticism. The bulk of the argument for P as a reaction lies in its specific differences from non-P. Yet a striking number of these differences have no theological or ideological contents; they are simply differences in detail. The genealogy of Genesis 5 presents a variation on that of Genesis 4:17-26, but there is no obvious significance to the variation.

With that in mind, I began looking at RT’s list of P material in the Book of Mormon. As mentioned in my previous post, RT states that the “knowledge of P is reflected in 1 Ne 3:3 (Gen 46:8-27; Ex 6:14-25); 4:2 (Ex 14:21-22); 16:19-20 (Ex 16:2-3); 17:7-8 (Exodus 25:8-9); 17:14 (Ex 6:7-8); 17:20 (Ex 16:3); 17:26-27, 50 (Ex 14:21-22); 18:1-2 (Ex 35:30-33).”

I began, naturally, with 1 Nephi 3:3, which supposedly draws upon priestly material in Gen. 46:8-27 and Ex 6:14-25. Already I’m puzzled. Nephi merely states that the brass plates contained “a genealogy of my forefathers.” To claim that the brass plates contains the genealogy of Nephi’s forefathers requires P? Yes, the long genealogies listed in the OT were hypothesized by Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross, the professor and mentor of Richard Elliott Friedman, to come from a priestly source, a non-extant “Book of Generations” or “Book of Records” (see Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass., 1973)). Even if one believes priestly sources were all created out of whole cloth after the Exile, the idea of having a genealogy of one’s forefathers surely was not absent in the Hebrew world until after the Exile.

The astute reader will note that Baden in the quoted paragraph above points to two related genealogies, one priestly and one non-priestly, as an example of differences in detail. A table of sources for Genesis provided by is helpful in looking up sources (tables for all the books of the Pentateuch can be found in their Documentary Hypothesis tab). It compares assignments made by Richard E. Friedman’s in The Bible With Sources Revealed (2003) and Samuel Driver’s Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (9th ed 1913). This table shows that Genesis 4:17-26 is attributed to J by both scholars and while the genealogy in Genesis 5 is almost entirely priestly (identified as P by Driver and as from the Book of Records, a priestly source, by Friedman). So if the giving of genealogical information in Genesis 4 can be found in a non-priestly source, what is the basis for claiming that 1 Nephi 3:3 shows impossible knowledge of P in the Book of Mormon?

The second item on the list is less of a stretch. 1 Nephi 4:2 definitely refers to the Exodus, which has a lot of P influence. Here are Nephi’s words to his brethren:

Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he
truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and
thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground,
and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of
the Red Sea.

RT states that 1 Nephi 4:2 as well as 1 Nephi 17:26-27,50 draws upon priestly material in Ex. 14:21-22. The tables at, however, show that the part of the Exodus account about crossing the “dry ground” in Ex. 14:21b (the language used in both passages of 1 Nephi) comes from the J source, according to both scholars. The other parts of Ex. 14:21-22 are assigned to P. But this does not mean that the other sources are unaware of the crossing of the Red Sea. Also, Nephi’s use of “strong” to describe Moses is interesting, and made me wonder what he was quoting exactly, for the way he uses the word “strong” struck me as suggesting some deliberate allusion to something, but what? I’ll return to that later, even though it’s the main point of this post.

Continuing with the list of incriminating material, 1 Nephi 16:19-20 is said to draw upon Ex 16:2-3, and 1 Nephi 17:20 is said to be related to Ex. 16:3. The murmuring of some family members in the wilderness and the desire to have stayed in comfortable Jerusalem has a parallel to murmuring of the Israelites in Ex. 16:2-3, which is assigned to a priestly source. Again, because the version of an incident in the Torah has been taken from P does not mean that knowledge of it was absent in J or E, nor does it mean that the story was unknown to the Israelites before any of these documents were composed in final form. The parallel, possibly intended, does not require a unique priestly source. Some language is similar, which may be deliberate on Nephi’s part, or partly influenced by the translation process in which KJV phrasing appears to be deliberately and frequently used when it fits. As for the basic issue of complaining sorely on a difficult journey, these things happen. It is difficult to conceive of any significant journey across a desert that would be free of tribulation and whining from some, just as few Latter-day Saint families can drive from, say, Salt Lake to California without some bouts of overly dramatic whining.

1 Nephi 17:7-8, where the Lord reveals to Nephi the manner of making his ship, is said to draw upon Exodus 25:8-9, where the Lord shows Moses the “pattern of the tabernacle.” There may be an allusion here, but it’s not necessary. In any case, the tabernacle was an ancient physical reality, according to important investigative work from Richard Elliott Friedman discussed in his famous Who Wrote the Bible?, and not a late priestly invention. The priestly document focuses on the intricate details of how it is to be made, but the idea of an inspired or revealed tabernacle was not a late invention, and especially not a post-exilic invention. While the priestly document gets into the intricate details of how things were made, that doesn’t make the thing itself or the revelation behind it unique to the priestly source.

1 Nephi 17:14 supposedly draws upon Ex 6:7-8, both using the phrase “deliver from destruction” and “bring you out”. This may be Nephi drawing upon a P source, or a related E source, or it may be an artifact of the Book of Mormon translation, where there is a strong tendency to translate related concepts into KJV language. But again, since P probably predates the Exile, it’s not necessarily a problem.

Finally, 1 Nephi 18:1-2 is said to be linked to Ex 35:30-33. The instructions to Nephi on how to create “curious workmanship” in timber for the building of the ship is supposed to be related to the “curious works” in gold, silver, and brass that an inspired Israelite created. Something of a stretch, perhaps, and not the kind of thing that requires an ancient priestly source.

Overall, the links to priestly sources are not seriously compelling (perhaps the murmuring language is the best fit?), but are also not a problem, especially given the evidence from Friedman (also accepted generally by David Bokovoy) that P comes from the days of Hezekiah.

But what about the “strength” of Moses? A search for “strong” + “Moses” at reveals that the word strong is used with Moses to describe others, not him. The Pharaoh will use a strong hand, and he urges Joshua to be strong, but we don’t get Moses identified as strong, though of course he had great divine power. A search of “Moses” + “strength” has the same result: the sea is strong, Joshua is strong, but not Moses.

So where did Nephi come up with the concept of Moses being strong?

Last night I read an old article by Noel Reynolds about the Book of Moses, the text Joseph created/received through revelation well after the Book of Mormon was translated. In “The Brass Plates Version of Genesis,” a chapter in By Study and Also by Faith (1990), he argues that the intricate relationship in language and themes between the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses can best be explained by having the material of the Book of Moses or something similar having been present on the Brass Plates. The dependence, he argues, can be seen to be one-way: the Book of Mormon appears to be relying upon content in the Book of Moses and not the other way around. I know, critics will scoff, but he gives some arguments that have merit, and I urge you to read his article and consider what he say.

If the Book of Moses were related to what is on the Brass Plates, then I think I’ve found a possible source for the strength of Moses. In Moses 1, after Moses encounters the Lord, he is left to his own “natural strength” (Moses 1:10) and is then visited by Satan who urges Moses to worship him. Moses refuses, Satan becomes angry, and Moses fears:

19 And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me.

20 And it came to pass that Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. Nevertheless, calling upon God, he received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory.

21 And now Satan began to tremble, and the earth shook; and Moses received strength, and called upon God, saying: In the name of the Only Begotten, depart hence, Satan.

We have three references to strength and Moses in verses 10, 20, and 21 of this chapter. First, in his natural strength, he is able to be tempted by Satan. But he overcomes the temptations and power of Satan as he receives strength from the Lord (mentioned twice). This is what makes Moses strong. OK, this doesn’t occur in the context of crossing the Red Sea, but it is preparatory for his ministry and work. Moses receives strength from the Lord.

Update, Oct 23: In my haste to get this post out this morning before running, or rather, pedaling to work (both my wife and I usually go to work on our bicycles, though we are also close enough to walk–such a blessing to be able to do that in Shanghai, a sprawling city of roughly 30 million people with sorely congested traffic), I failed to look a little further in Moses 1 where the real pay dirt is. I just found it moments ago while reading from Moses 1 to my wife, late at night, and rambling about Noel Reynold’s hypothesis as she was drifting off to sleep. (She’s been losing sleep other nights as I’ve rambled about various aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis. She didn’t know she was going to be married to a blogger one day when she married me.) Take a look at Moses 1:25:

25 And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a voice, saying: Blessed art thou, Moses, for I, the Almighty, have chosen thee, and thou shalt be made stronger than many waters; for they shall obey thy command as if thou wert God.

There it is. Not just two references to Moses receiving strength from the Lord to overcome Satan (quite an appropriate form of strength for Nephi to wish for his brothers), but also a clear promise that Moses would be made strong, stronger even than the waters that would obey his command–an obvious reference to the future miracle of leading the Israelites across the waters to the promised land, as in 1 Nephi 4:2. If Moses 1 is closely related to material on the brass plates, then Nephi may very well have been alluding to that material when he urged his brethren to be strong like Moses, who led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea. From the brass plates, it may be possible that Nephi would specifically refer to the strength of Moses in the context not only of resisting the temptations of Satan, but in crossing the Red Sea.

The possible relationship between the Book of Moses and 1 Nephi 4:2 around the strength of Moses is not one of the things Reynolds identified in his essay, and while it seems interesting to me, perhaps is wishful thinking on my part. But perhaps it’s one more issue to consider in weighing the documents behind the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the alleged weakness of Book of Mormon references to stories of Moses will turn out to be a strength.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on “The Strength of Moses

  1. In Exodus 17, Moses has to hold his staff up in the air, because if he lets it fall, the Amalekites start to win against that Israelites. So the battle depends on Moses's physical strength. When his arms get tired, Aaron and Hur bring a rock for him to sit on, and help to hold up his arms. This is literally the story.

    That staff is an important prop for Moses. He uses it for some miracles in Egypt. He strikes a rock with it to make water — and it's because he does that one wrong that he dies without entering the Promised Land himself. And when God tells him to part the Red Sea, the directions are to 'raise up your staff and hold out your hand over the sea'.

    Anyway, the notion that Moses was strong is indeed there in Exodus 17. In traditional iconography, the battle with the Amalekites seems to have gotten conflated with the other stories, so that even Moses's most famous miracle of parting the Red Sea has been painted as if it were a feat of strength performed with the staff. If you Google for images of parting the Red Sea, you can really see this.

    Was the strength of Moses already a meme in Joseph Smith's day? I don't know. Maybe it was.

  2. Interesting point. Thanks, James. Something worth exploring.

    By the way, if Arnold Friberg (the artists who did many popular Book of Mormon paintings) did the paintings of Moses, you can bet Moses was rather buff.

  3. James, actually, when I first started wondering about the "strong Moses" allusion in Nephi, the image of Moses with his arms raised was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind, but as more of a counterexample. He needed other people to help hold his arms up: to me, that seemed like an example of physical weakness. The staff might be strong, God's power is certainly strong, but Moses needing physical support to keep his arms up didn't seem like the story Nephi had in mind. But it's certainly open for debate. I do like you idea of seeing how other sources (modern and ancient) treat Moses relative to terms like "strong" and "strength."

  4. I'm interested in the image of Moses, but I've realized I'm also a bit confused about the premises, here, Jeff. At first you were comparing passages in Nephi to various reconstructed 'documents' within/behind Exodus. These comparisons were interesting literarily, but also as evidence for or against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient Hebrew history. But now you seem to be making similar comparisons to the Book of Moses, from the exclusively Mormon Scriptures, and calling these correspondences 'a strength' of the Book of Mormon.

    The Documentary Hypothesis may perhaps still be somewhat speculative around the edges, but even the most revisionist theories still leave Exodus as an undoubtedly genuine ancient text. ('Undoubtedly genuine' doesn't necessarily mean 'historically accurate', of course.) The only question is precisely how ancient various parts of Exodus may be. If the Book of Mormon is under suspicion of having been invented in the 1800's, however, then the Book of Moses lies under the same suspicion. Correspondence between two Books that both came through Joseph Smith will be no surprise to any skeptics. So I'm unclear about the sense in which Nephi echoing Joseph Smith about Moses's strength can count as a strength of the Book of Mormon.

  5. How can you even teach an expound on things found in this book of so-called scripture? It's indefensible, and so very easy to refute.

  6. How can you … expound on things found in this book of so-called scripture?

    Expounding on the Book of Mormon woud be so much more meaningful if it could be done on the basis of actual ancient texts in an actual ancient language. How sad, and how convenient, that an angel would take such a treasure away from mankind and leave us only with a modern translation.

    In the absence of any material evidence to the contrary, Joseph Smith is just another of the many Christian enthusiasts of the Second Great Awakening.

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