Throughout the Bible, Moses has been portrayed as the deliverer, leader, lawgiver, and prophet of Israel. He is the Hebrew prophet who delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and was their leader and lawgiver during their years of wandering in the wilderness. The name in Hebrew is Mosheh, meaning drawn out, but the original meaning is derived from the Egyptian language meaning child or son. The Egyptian translation reflects that Pharaoh’s daughter simply named him “child” when Moses was found. Moses belonged to the tribe of Levi, and was the son of Amram by his wife Jochebed. The other members of the family were Aaron and Miriam, his elder brother and sister.
The life of Moses is divided into three equal portions of forty years each, consisting of his life in Egypt, exile in Arabia, and government of Israel. Moses was a leader so inspired by God that he was able to build a nation from a race of oppressed and weary slaves. In the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given, he founded the religious community known as Israel. As the interpreter of these covenant laws, he was the organizer of the community’s religious and civil traditions. His story is told in the Old Testament, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. He was a child of the captive Hebrews, but one whom the Lord would use to deliver Israel from her oppressors.
Moses was born about 1520 B.C. In Egypt took place his birth, adoption, and the avenging of his countrymen. At the time of Moses’ birth the order commanding the slaying of all male children was in force, (Exodus 1:10,16), but his mother was by some means able to conceal him and hid him away for three months. When disguise was no longer possible she placed him in a small basket of papyrus, possibly from an Egyptian belief that the plant is a protection from crocodiles. She placed him among the reeds of the Nile and left his sister to watch the result. The daughter of Pharaoh came to the river to bathe, saw the basket, and had it brought to her. It was opened, and the cry of the child moved the princess to compassion. She insisted to raise it as her own (Exodus 2:1-9). At the same time the Lord determined that Moses should be taught in his earliest years by his own mother. This meant that he was founded in the faith of the Lord even though he was to be raised as an Egyptian. The king¡¯s daughter adopted the child, and for many years Moses was considered as an Egyptian (Exodus 2:10).
In the Pentateuch this period is a blank, but in the New Testament he is represented as “educated in all the learning of the Egyptians” and as “a man of power in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). The discovery of the tablets of el-Amarna shows how extensive were the knowledge and use of writing throughout the East in the time of Moses and that the young prince could write, most likely hieroglyphics, Akkad. Cuneiform, and in alphabetic cuneiform such as Ugaritic.
Seeing an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian, and thinking that they were alone, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried the corpse in the sand. The next day he tried to act as peacemaker between two quarrelling Hebrews, but his services were refused and he became aware that his act of the past day was known. It became clear to him that safety was to be found only in departure from Egypt (Exodus 2:11-15).
Moses¡¯ exile took place in the middle years of his life, bringing him close to his return to Egypt as a prophet of God. Moses fled, about 1480 B.C into Midian, near the peninsula of Sinai, and rested himself by a well, where he helped some young women with their sheep. Because of this, they returned to their home, and when they told their father, Jethro, he had Moses called in, and Moses approved to live with him, later taking his daughter Zipporah as his wife (Exodus 2:16-21; 3:1).
During his years as a shepherd, Moses became familiar with the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, learning much about survival in the desert. He also learned patience and much about leading sheep. All of these skills prepared him to be the shepherd of the Israelites in later years when he led them out of Egypt and through the Wilderness of Sinai.
In the isolation of this shepherd¡¯s life, Moses received his call as a prophet. The scene of this event is in the valley of Shoeib. Upon a mountain was the thorn tree of the desert, spreading out its tangled branches, solid with white thorns, over the rocky ground. The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire in the midst of the bush, the dry branches of which would naturally have burned in a moment, but that remained still in tact. The revelation was made to Moses of the eternal self-existence of the one God and of his mission to deliver his own people. The Lord assured Moses that he would be with him, and that by God’s presence, he would be able to lead the people out.
Two signs proved to him that he should go on this divine mission, the staff that turned into a serpent, and the hand of Moses made leprous cleansed. If the people should not believe him a third was promised. The third was that the waters of the Nile would be turned into blood. He then returned to the home of his father-in-law and received permission to visit his brethren. God appeared to him and assured him of the death of all those in Egypt who sought his life. Moses then set out upon his journey with his wife and sons. On the way Moses, threatened with death by Jehovah, was spared upon the circumcision of his son. Then after he received a token of divine favor in the arrival of Aaron, who met him at the mountain of God. Aaron went with him to Egypt, and communicated to the people of Israel the words of Jehovah.
Moses’ difficulties were now all removed by the assurances of God but since he was still unwilling to undertake the mission, Aaron was allowed to be his spokesman (Exodus 3:2-4:17). Soon after his return, Moses, with Aaron¡¯s help, stirred the Hebrews to revolt and demanded of Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Pharaoh rejected the demand of this unknown God of whom Moses and Aaron spoke. In Exodus Pharaoh states, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). He showed his contempt of this God of the Hebrews by increasing the oppression of the slaves, and as a result, the people grumbled against Moses. Just because of that Moses did not end his mission. He warned Pharaoh of the consequences that would fall on his kingdom if he should refuse to let the people of Israel go. Ten terrible plagues were visited upon the land of Egypt (Exodus 7:14-12:30), the tenth plague being the worst and most horrifying.
The ultimate test of God’s power to set the people free was the slaying of the firstborn of all Egypt, on the night of the Passover feast of Israel (Exodus 11:1-12:30). That night Moses began to lead the slaves to freedom, was when God killed the firstborn of Egypt and spared the firstborn of Israel through the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover lamb. Under divine direction he did not lead the people by the nearest way to the Promised Land. After the Hebrews left, Pharaoh’s forces chased them to the Red Sea, threatening to destroy them before they could cross. A pillar of cloud and fire stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians, protecting the Israelites until they could escape. When Moses stretched his hand over the sea, the waters were divided and the Israelites passed to the other side. When the Egyptians attempted to follow, Moses again stretched his hand over the sea, and the waters closed over the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:19-31).
From the Red Sea Moses led Israel through Marah, where the bitter waters were sweetened (Exodus 15: 23), to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees (15:27), to the wilderness of Sin, where the people desired bread and were supplied with quail and manna (Exodus 16). Moses also led them to Rephidim, where the rock of Horeb gave forth water (Exodus 17:1-7), where the hands of Moses, upheld by Aaron and Hur, inspired the Israelites with courage, so that they defeated the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16).
Arriving at Sinai, Moses responded to the call of Jehovah and, going up into the mountain of God, received the message to the people to prepare for divine communications from God (Exodus 19:1-13). He led the people to the foot of the mountain on the third day, where he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:14-20:17). He then conducted the ceremony of ratifying the covenant (Exodus 24:1-8), reading all the “words of the Lord” (Exodus 24:3). In Exodus 32, the Bible gives us a dramatic description of the righteous fury of Moses at the sin of Israel in the worship of the golden calf, which led him to destroy the tablets of stone. The glory of Jehovah was revealed to him, and the tablets of the law were renewed (Exodus 34:1-4). A covenant was made with Israel (Exodus 34:10-27), and after a second stay of forty days upon the mountain Moses returned to the people. Moses then controlled the creation of the Tabernacle and its preparation for worship.
For forty years the care and burden of the Israelites had been upon the mind and heart of Moses. The people were camped in Moab, awaiting the command to pass over the Jordan into the land of promise. Moses had sinned at Meribah in not sanctifying Jehovah in the eyes of the people (Numbers 20:12) and had so given up the privilege of entering Canaan. At the command of God he blessed the people and then ascended Mt. Nebo, a peak of Pisgah, which gave a view of the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After this favor had been granted him Moses died and was buried by Jehovah. The place of his burial is stated by Deuteronomy saying “in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor,” in an unknown grave (34:1-6) around 1400 B.C.
Moses found it peculiar to himself to be the founder and representative of his people. The Hebrew people had been in slavery in Egypt for some 400 years. This was in as what God’s words were to Abraham that his descendants would be in a foreign land in affliction for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). At the end of this time, God began to set his people free from their bondage by bringing Moses to birth.
So little is known of the private life of Moses that his personal character can scarcely be separated from the part that he bore in public affairs. It is the work he wrought for Israel and for mankind, which fixes his place among the great ones of earth. The life I have just sketched as the life of the leader of Israel is also the life of the author, the lawgiver, and the prophet.
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