Who Was Moses? - Story & History

Instructor: Jonathan Reich
Moses is one of the main characters of the Hebrew Bible. A historical figure of great importance, his personality and actions helped set the tone for the three great religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

There are some historical figures who, through the force of their personality and actions, managed to leave an imprint on the thought and outlook of our culture. Moses is one of these figures. Born to an enslaved people but raised by their oppressors, running from judgment and claiming to be appointed by God, Moses oversaw the transformation of the Hebrew people from slaves to a mighty nation. According to Judeo-Christian religions, he received revelation from God, and this revelation arguably forms the bases of the morality in Western civilization.

Moses in the Bible

The most complete record of Moses' life is found in the Bible (Tanakh in the Jewish tradition), in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. These books tell the story of Moses' life, detail his messages received from God, and tell the story of his people.

We first meet Moses when he is born into an Israelite family living in Egypt. The Israelites, descendants of the Hebrew Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, originally settled in Egypt due to famine in their own homeland of Israel. Concerned about the growing number of Israelites in his country, the Pharaoh orders that all the baby Hebrew boys be killed. Even as an infant, Moses is in jeopardy. In order to save their baby's life, Moses' parents put him in a basket and set it adrift on the Nile river. The basket is quickly found by one of Pharaoh's daughters, who decides to adopt the foundling. According to the Bible, the child is named Moses based on the Hebrew word meaning 'drawn out,' because he was drawn out of the water. Modern Biblical scholars disagree, relating it instead to an Egyptian name meaning 'born.'

A 3rd century fresco from the Dura Europos synagogue; it shows the infant Moses being rescued
A 3rd century fresco from the Dura Europos synagogue, showing the infant Moses being rescued.

We don't know anything about Moses' upbringing. Despite a host of legends and the imaginations of modern filmmakers, as seen in movies like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, the Bible tells us nothing about how Moses grew up in Egypt. Even though this period is pivotal to Moses' life, we simply don't have any information about it.

When we next encounter Moses, he is an adult. He knows about his Hebrew heritage and identifies with the enslaved Israelites, though he himself is not a slave. The first independent action we see him take is one that typifies both his virtues and faults; strong moral standards which impel him to action, extreme loyalty to his people, and, unfortunately, rage and violence.

Seeing an Egyptian overseer cruelly beating an Israelite slave, Moses loses his temper and murders the Egyptian. Despite his precautions of hiding the body, the killing becomes known, and Moses is forced to flee as a fugitive, leaving Egypt for the land of Midian. There, Moses becomes a shepherd, the traditional Israelite occupation. He also marries the daughter of a local chieftain named Jethro and settles in as one of Jethro's retinue.

One day while out with his flocks, Moses sees an unusual sight - a bush on fire, but not actually burning up. When he approaches to investigate, Moses is addressed by the voice of God. God commissions Moses as a prophet, telling him to relay messages from God to his people. Moses is instructed to return to Egypt where, reunited with his biological siblings Aaron and Miriam, he is to assume leadership of the Israelites. He is to confront Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed from their slavery, so that they can worship God properly.

Moses obeys the divine directives, but Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites. Moses (with God's help) brings down a series of terrible plagues on Egypt, destroying its legendary fertility and culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian child. When Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to leave, he quickly relents and takes off with his army after the fleeing Hebrews.

With the Egyptians in pursuit, the Israelites reach the shore of the Red Sea. Moses performs a miracle, splitting the sea so that the Israelites can walk through on dry ground. The Egyptians pursue, but the waves close back up over them, drowning Pharaoh and his army.

Moses then has the task of leading the Hebrews through the wilderness and back to their ancestral land. This is not an easy task! The Hebrews have been slaves for generations and are ill-suited to life as a free people in a hostile environment. Moses is constantly challenged, despite the miracles already performed through him. The Israelites complain to Moses regarding the lack of food and water, both of which are then miraculously provided for them.

Leading the Israelites through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and remains there for 40 days without eating or drinking. God appears to him, revealing the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (sometimes called the five books of Moses), as well as specific interpretations and explanations of the text which form the basis of the Jewish oral tradition. Most famously, Moses receives two stone tablets engraved by God with the Ten Commandments, also known as the decalogue. Moses is changed physically by this experience; having beheld God so closely, his face now shines, emitting rays of light. An error in translation caused many readers of Latin Bibles to understand Moses as having horns rather than rays of light, and he is often depicted this way in Medieval and Renaissance art.

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