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Psalm 90 begins (ESV):

A prayer of Moses, the man of God.

Translations seem mostly to agree about this, although I’m not sure if that’s the only way to translate it.* This has traditionally been understood to reflect Mosaic authorship. From this article at bible.org by Bob Deffinbaugh:

Those who believe in Moses’ authorship of the psalm almost universally agree that Moses wrote this during the 40 years of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.

He disagrees with this view:

I believe Moses wrote it during his 40 years exile from Egypt while tending the flocks of his father-in-law.

He acknowledges, however, that many scholars believe it to have been written much later, by someone other than Moses.

What evidence is available to help us decide whether this psalm was written by Moses? If it was, is it possible to know what period of his life this reflects?


*I imagine the options for למשה (lamed + Moses) in 90:1 would be similar to לשלמה (lamed + Solomon) in Song 1:1 that I asked about in another question, but I’m not sure about that.

  • * Or לשלמה (lamed + Solomon) in Psalm 72:1 and 127:1, or like the 80× that לדוד (lamed + David) appears in the superscriptions of the Psalms.... ;) – Dɑvïd Feb 26 '15 at 8:58
  • @Davïd Yeah, I suppose most of them are just accepted as an indication of authorship, right? When I realized that I was a little confused about why Song 1:1 would be any different as far as the intended meaning of the preposition goes, but people talk about that. So I extended that uncertainty to this. – Susan Feb 26 '15 at 9:08
  • "I suppose most of them are just accepted as an indication of authorship, right?" Not in Academia Standard; more the opposite. But in certain circles, yes. – Dɑvïd Feb 26 '15 at 11:40
  • @Davïd I think I meant “indication that whoever wrote it intended to attribute authorship to X” rather than any absolute statement about authorship, but you’re saying not that either? – Susan Feb 26 '15 at 12:42
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    Not sure I picked up the nuance, so good to clarify. And to clarify on my end: my sense is that the majority of "biblical scholars" (whatever that means) (SBL types, let's say) would not take + personal name as an attribution of authorship in the exilic period and earlier. But I could well be wrong about that. (Notes yet another question for future reference!) – Dɑvïd Feb 26 '15 at 14:55
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Psalm 90 is unique in that it is the only psalm that has a superscription that identifies it as having been written by Moses.

Mark S. Smith says in 'Taking Inspiration', published in Psalms and Practice (edited by Stephen Breck Reid), page 245, that the scholarly consensus is that the superscriptions we see on many of the psalms are prose additions to the prior written poems. He cites Brevard S. Childs, who says:

"The Psalm titles do not appear to reflect independent historical tradition but are the result of an exegetical activity which derived its material from within the text itself."

In other words, later Jewish scribes attributed psalms to the person in biblical legend whom they thought most likely to have written the psalm. Childs suggests that superscriptions are to be dated between the Book of Chronicles, which does not cite the superscriptions in citing the psalms, and the Cave 11 Psalms scroll which contains them. Smith (page 257) says that in the case of Psalm 90, the superscript is sometimes missing.

Bob Deffinbaugh, at bible.org believes that Psalm 90:13, which asks God how long will it be before he repents of punishing his servants, shows that the psalm was written during the forty years of wandering, but this is incongruous because the Book of Numbers says that after only two years, Moses already knew how long (Numbers 14:33: "And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years..."). Psalm 90:13 better suits the time of the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews really did not know how long their punishment would be.

Another objection to Moses as the author of Psalm 90 is that the Bible says he lived to the age of 120 years and that his father, Amran, lived to 137 years. Surrounded by people with lifespans well over 100 years, Moses could not have written Psalm 90:10, which places a virtual upper limit of 80 years on the human lifespan: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."

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Did Moses write Psalm 90?

The superscription of Psalm 90 calls it "a prayer of Moses, the man of the true God."

Since this psalm emphasizes the transitoriness of human life, it was likely composed after the Israelites were delivered from Egyptian bondage and during their 40-year trek in the wilderness, when thousands of deaths brought a faithless generation to its end.

God is eternal in existence, in contrast, human life is very short, the Psalmist wrote:

Psalm 90:5-6 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)

5 "You carry away [these disobedient people, doomed to die within forty years] as with a flood; they are as a sleep [vague and forgotten as soon as they are gone]. In the morning they are like grass which grows up—6 In the morning it flourishes and springs up; in the evening it is mown down and withers.

Moses saw hundreds of thousands of Israelites die in the wilderness during their wonderings: "You carry away as with a flood", on the other hand, the life span of mortal humans is only as if: " they are as asleep."

A faithless generation, twenty years old and over did not enter the promised land.

Numbers 32:9-13 (NASB)

9 "For when they went up to the [a]valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they [b]discouraged the sons of Israel so that they did not go into the land which the Lord had given them. 10 So the Lord’s anger burned in that day, and He swore, saying, 11 ‘None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, 12 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the Lord fully.’ 13 So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the Lord."

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