(moh' ssihss) A personal name meaning, “drawn out of the water.” The Old Testament depicts Moses as the leader of the Israelites in their Exodus from Egyptian slavery and oppression, their journey through the wilderness with its threats in the form of hunger, thirst, and unpredictable enemies, and finally in their audience with God at Mount Sinai/Horeb where the distinctive covenant bonding Israel and God in a special treaty became a reality. Nothing is known about Moses from sources outside the Old Testament. To be sure, the name Moses doubtlessly appears in Egyptian dress in compound names such as Tuthmoses III, but none of these references gives information about the Moses of Israel.
The Old Testament describes Moses as a heroic leader of the people and as a man of God who brought the people into their special relationship with God. The story about Moses in the Old Testament, found in the extensive narratives from
Exodus 1:1 through
Deuteronomy 34:1, can be described as a heroic saga. It is more than simply a biography of Moses, an historical document that records the events of his life. It is a special kind of ancient art form. To understand its content, the reader must appreciate its special brand of truth as beauty in the story itself.
The artistic narrative begins in
Exodus 1:1, not with data about Moses, but with an account of events in Egypt that affected Moses' people. Since the Israelites had grown to be a large people, the Egyptian Pharaoh feared their power. To control them, he launched an official policy of oppression against them. When the oppression failed to curb the population growth of the Israelites, the Pharoah announced a new policy for limiting that growth. “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live” (Exodus 1:22, NRSV). The very next line announces the birth of Moses. Moses' life began under the Pharoah's judgment of death.
The mother, however, acted to protect the baby Moses from the Pharaoh's death decree. When the baby could no longer be hidden, the mother constructed an ark, a basket of bulrushes made waterproof with bitumen and pitch. She placed the child in the basket and the basket in the river. A sister stood watch over the basket to know what might happen. She witnessed an apparently terrible twist of fate, however, when the Pharaoh's own daughter came to the river. She found the ark, opened it, and recognized the child as a Hebrew. Rather than killing the child as her father had commanded, however, the woman showed compassion on the child, made the proper preparations, and, with the help of the baby's sister, established a procedure for adopting the baby as her own child. As a part of that process, the princess committed the child to a wet nurse suggested by the girl watching the ark. Of course, the wet nurse was the child's own mother.
After the baby had been weaned, the mother delivered the child to the princess. As a part of the adoption procedure, the princess named the child Moses. The young hero grew to maturity in the palace of the king who had sought to kill him. The mature Moses became concerned about the oppression of his people. The storyteller emphasized the identity between the oppressed people and Moses. “He went out to his people. . ., and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk” (Exodus 2:11 NRSV, author's italics). Moses responded to the particular act of oppression against his people by killing the Egyptian.
In the wake of his violent act against the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses fled from Egypt and from his own people to the land of Midian. Again he intervened in the face of oppression, inviting danger and risk. Sitting at a well, the typical meeting place for the culture (see also
Genesis 29:2), Moses witnessed the violent aggression of male shepherds against female shepherds who had already drawn water for their sheep. Moses saved the oppressed shepherds, whose father, the priest of Midian, invited him to live and work under the protection of the Midianite's hospitality. Eventually one of the Midianite's daughters became—Moses' wife. In the idyllic peace of the Midianite's hospitality, Moses took care of Jethro's sheep, fathered a child, and lived at a distance from his own people.
The event at the burning bush while Moses worked as a shepherd introduced him to the critical character of his heroic work. The burning bush caught Moses' attention. There Moses met the God of the fathers who offered Moses a distinctive name as the essential key for Moses' authority—”I am who I am.” This strange formulation played on God's promise to Moses to be present with him in his special commission. God sent Moses back to the Pharaoh to secure the release of his people from their oppression. The divine speech of commission has a double character. (1) As the heroic leader of Israel, he would initiate events that would lead to Israel's Exodus from Egypt. (2) As the man of God, he would represent God in delivering the people from their Egyptian slavery. With the authority of that double commission, Moses returned to the Pharaoh to negotiate the freedom of his people.
The negotiation narratives depict Moses, the hero, in one scene of failure after the other. Moses posed his demands to the Pharaoh, announced a sign that undergirded the demand, secured some concession from the Pharaoh on the basis of the negotiations, but failed to win the release of the people. The final scene is hardly a new stage in the negotiations. To the contrary, God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian family, passing over the Israelite families. In the agony of this death scene, the Egyptians drove the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 12:30-36). Behind this dominant scene of violence and death lies a different interpretation of the Exodus event. The Pharaoh closed negotiations with Moses by refusing permission for the Israelites to leave in accordance with—Moses' proposition (Exodus 10:28). In the wake of this failure, Moses returned to the people with a plan for escaping Egypt without the knowledge of the Pharaoh. The people borrowed silver, gold, and clothing from the Egyptians in preparation for the event. When they escaped, they took the silver, gold, and clothing with them. They despoiled the Egyptians, a sign of victory over the Egyptians. Thus in leaving Egypt, Israel robbed the most powerful nation of their time of its firstborn sons and of it wealth.
Moses led the people into the wilderness, where the pursuing Egyptians trapped the Israelites at the Red Sea. God who had promised divine presence for the people defeated the enemy at the Sea. The God proved His presence with His people. He met their needs for food and water in the hostile wilderness. Even the fiery serpents and the Amalekites failed to thwart the wilderness journey of the Israelites under Moses' leadership.
Exodus 17:8-13 shows Moses to be faithful in the execution of his leadership responsibilities.
Numbers 12:1-16 shows Moses to be meek, a leader of integrity who fulfilled the duties of his office despite opposition from members of his own family.
The center of the Moses traditions emerges with clarity in the events at Mount Sinai/Horeb. The law at Sinai/Horeb constitutes God's gift for Israel. The law showed Israel how to respond to God's saving act in the Exodus. The law at Sinai/Horeb showed each new generation how to follow Moses' teaching in a new setting in the life of the people. The laws carried the name of Moses as an affirmation of their authority. The law of Moses became a model for Israelite society. Indeed, Israel's historians told the entire story of Israel under the influence of the Moses model and suggested that the Davidic kings should have constructed their leadership for Israel under the influence of the Moses model (Joshua—Kings). Only the good king Josiah and, to a lesser extent, Hezekiah matched that model.
The death of Moses is marked by tragic loneliness, yet graced with God's presence. Because of Moses' sin (Numbers 20:1), God denied Moses the privilege of entering the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy 34:1 reports the death scene. Central to the report is the presence of God with Moses at the time of his death. Moses left his people to climb another mountain. Atop that mountain, away from the people whom he served so long, Moses died. God attended this servant at his death. Indeed, God buried him. Only God knows where the burial place is.
The Moses saga serves as a model for subsequent leaders in Israel. Jeroboam I created a new kingdom, distinct from the Davidic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. The sign of his kingship included the golden calves of Aaron. Josiah modeled a reformation in Jerusalem on the basis of the Mosaic model. As the new Moses, he almost succeeded in uniting the people of the south with the people of the north. Perhaps the most important Old testament figure that must be interpreted as a new Moses is the servant of the
Isaiah 40-66, the model for understanding Jesus in the New Testament.
George W. Coats