Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split. The Children of Israel came within the sea on dry land...
God said to Moses, 'stretch out your hand over the sea, and the water will go back upon Egypt, upon its chariots and upon its horsemen.' Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and toward morning the water came back and covered the chariots and horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were coming behind them in the sea – there remained not one of them.
The miracle-worker with the staff, Moses is one of the most enduring figures of Biblical account. Archaeology has provided only an ambiguous patchwork of evidence for the events that surround the Exodus, and none at all for the man himself. Leaving the realities of his existence for historians to debate, the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and Midrash paint a vivid portrait of a humble man, doing his duty and serving his people.
Midrash is the umbrella title for narrative exegesis1 of the events described in the Torah. Midrash explains grammatical anomalies, fills gaps in the narrative and draws character-building and moral lessons from the text. Midrash is part of the oral law, a tradition of exegesis passed down from teacher to student for generations before having been compiled and written down during the Roman occupation of Palestine. Because Midrash was written in predominantly metaphorical language, the meaning of each Midrash can be ambiguous; for example, when it states that Moses was 15 feet tall, this could be taken as an implausible statement of literal fact, or more likely, a statement that Moses towered above his contemporaries in moral character. In general,
He who believes all Midrash is a fool; he who believes none of it is an idiot2. For the sake of clarity, only Midrash known to be specifically non-metaphoric will be cited in this piece.
During a famine, the Israelites migrated down to Egypt and were invited to settle. They integrated into Egyptian society, were successful and proliferated to the extent that the Pharaoh was afraid they would take over the country. To protect his country from these (unfortunately legal) aliens, the Pharaoh initiated a voluntary civil public works project, invited all citizens to join, and then allowed all but the Israelites to drop out. Thus, the Israelites became veritable slaves to the Egyptian government.
Egypt enjoyed the free labour for over half a century before the Pharaoh's astrologers foresaw the birth of an Israelite leader who would end the slavery. Terrified at the economic ramifications of this news, the Pharaoh ordered that all male babies born to Israelite families be drowned in the Nile River. When two leaders of the Israelites, Amram and his wife Yokheved (Yohebed), heard the news they decided to separate, rather than continue to bring babies into the world to a certain death. Many Israelite couples followed their lead and divorced as well. Amram and Yokheved already had two children: a younger boy named Aharon (Aaron), and an older girl named Miriam. Miriam vocally opposed the separation, informing her parents that while Pharaoh was merely preventing the propagation of male progeny, Amram and Yokheved were preventing the propagation of any progeny – male or female. Miriam's parents listened to their daughter and remarried; the divorced Israelite couples followed their lead. Just over six months later, Yokheved gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The year was 2368 after creation, or 1527 BC.
Amram and Yokheved named the boy Tuvya, and successfully hid him for three months – they knew the Egyptian police wouldn't show up until nine months after their remarriage. After three months, Yokheved placed Tuvya in a reed basket and hid him among the reeds along the edge of the Nile. Worried about her baby brother, Miriam hid nearby and kept watch.
It wasn't long before Basya, one of Pharaoh's daughters, came down to the Nile to bathe. Hearing a baby crying, she sent a maid to fetch the basket. Tuvya charmed her, and she called him Mosheh, or Moses. The name derives from an Egyptian word that means to 'draw out'. Basya considered it apt for a baby drawn out of a river.
Moses cried implacably, yet wouldn't nurse from the Egyptian nursemaids that Basya provided. At that opportune moment Miriam popped up and informed Basya that her mother was a wet-nurse and would be glad to avail the princess of her services. Thus, for part of his young life Moses had his mother as his nanny.
Pharaoh was not particularly pleased to have an Israelite baby growing up in his palace, but his astrologers assured him that the future upstart had already been deposited into the Nile, so there was no need to worry.
One day while Pharaoh was dandling toddler Moses on his lap, the young boy reached for the ruler's crown. The astrologers immediately translated this as a sign that the child intended to usurp the throne, and recommended that he be killed. Other advisors suggested that the boy just liked shiny, glowing things. As a test, they placed the crown and some bright glowing coals in front of Moses. Not fooled, Moses went for the crown again. An angel quickly wrapped the boy's fingers around a burning coal. The boy instinctively shoved his scorching hand into his mouth and burnt his mouth as well. The burn healed, but Moses's mouth was scarred and he lisped for the rest of his life.
Aware that he was an Israelite by birth, Moses tried to ease the labour requirements of his brethren. This did not make him beloved in Pharaoh's court. One morning, while wandering near the work-site, he came across an Egyptian taskmaster nearly beating a worker to death. After a brief glance around to make sure he was unobserved, Moses made quick work of the taskmaster. Murder was a capital crime, so he hastily buried the Egyptian and left the scene.
Some time later, Moses came across the Israelite he had saved a few days previously, who was beating up another Israelite. He tried to stop the fight, but was informed that murderers shouldn't interfere in little internecine squabbles. Moses realised that it was only a matter of time before this ingrate reported him to the authorities - who would quite happily dispose of him in kind - so he fled the country. Midrash relates that he became embroiled in Ethiopian politics before wandering back north to Midian, believed to be located on the Sinai Peninsula.
In Midian, Moses found employment as a shepherd for Yisro (Jethro), former village priest. Yisro's popularity had decreased since he'd begun an idol-hopping spree in search of a responsive deity, and none of the locals would agree to work for him. Not being much of an idolater himself, Moses fit right in, and married Yisro's daughter Tziporah (Zippora). It was from Yisro's backyard that Moses acquired his ever-handy staff; he pulled it out of the ground, something nobody before him had been able to do.
One day while herding his sheep, Moses noticed a bush burning in the distance. Oddly, the bush neither ignited the bushes around it nor did it burn down to ash. He approached for a better look and found himself addressed by a disembodied voice. The voice introduced itself as God, and requested that Moses be the figurehead who would lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses said he'd rather not, but Aharon might be suited for the job. God disagreed. Moses pointed out that he had a speech impairment. God said not to worry. Moses found himself backed into a corner and protested that nobody would believe him anyway. So God gave him three minor miracles to impress the Egyptians. For the Israelites he gave him a code name for God – Ehekeh Asher Ehekeh – which had been passed down from Yaakov (Jacob) as the name that would be used by the redeemer3. Moses realised that he wasn't getting out of this task, so he went. His brother Aharon met him just outside of Egypt, and the two were practically inseparable in all the events that followed.
'Let My People Go!'
Moses's initial request that Pharaoh release the Israelites to serve their God in the desert was met with derision and an increased labour quota for the Israelites. This quickly lost him the grass roots support he'd culled among his people. He offered God his resignation. God refused to accept it.
God sent him back with threats, and the power to carry out the threats if Pharaoh persisted in his refusal. The first threat was for a plague where all water in Egypt would turn to blood. The second was a population explosion and invasion of unintimidated frogs. The third turned the dirt of Egypt for several feet down into lice. The fourth brought dangerous animals from around the world into the streets and homes of Egypt. The fifth killed all Egyptian livestock left in the fields. The sixth covered Egyptians with all manners of uncomfortable boils. The seventh was huge crushing blocks of hail. The eighth covered Egypt with a thick layer of vociferously hungry locusts. The ninth was six days of absolute blackness, three days of which the darkness was thick enough to cut. The tenth killed all the firstborns in Egypt, excepting Pharaoh himself.
Moses didn't actually perform the motions that brought the first three plagues himself, because they required striking the Nile and the ground with his staff. Moses felt in debt to the Nile for its aid when he was a baby, and the sands for hiding the body of the taskmaster, and let his brother do the striking4. While Moses is given credit for bringing the ten plagues on Egypt, actually three were performed exclusively by Aharon, three by Moses, three by God, and one was brought by all three in conjunction.
As the plagues progressed, the Israelites accepted Moses as God's messenger. With the tenth plague, Pharaoh did too. The next morning, the Israelites marched out of Egypt.
Parting the Red Sea
About a week after the exodus, Pharaoh experienced remorse over his decision. The Egyptian economy was now in a shambles, and slaves would provide the cheap labour necessary to put it back together. Besides, Moses had been leading the Israelites around in circles for a few days now and was probably lost. Figuring that the Israelites would welcome the guidance and security of his empire, Pharaoh set out with his army to retrieve them, and fell neatly into a trap.
When the Egyptian army stampeded across the horizon, the Israelites were camped on the shores of the Red Sea. The sight of all Egypt out in force rightfully terrified them. Moses assured them that God would help, and prayed. God told him to act, not pray, so he lifted his staff over the Red Sea and - nothing happened. Luckily, Aharon's brother-in-law Nakhshon was undaunted and waded right in. When he was up to his chest in water, the sea parted5. The Israelites passed through, the Egyptians did not.
Four weeks after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, generally thought to be located at the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula. After the Israelites heard the Ten Commandments from God, Moses climbed the small, rocky mountain6 to receive them carved on stone tablets. While he was up there he also took down the Torah7 in dictation, up to and including his death at its end.
Though he'd told the Israelites that he would be gone for 40 days, the people had started counting from the evening he ascended, when he'd meant the count to begin from the following morning. When Moses had not appeared by the 40th afternoon of their count (the 39th of his count), many Israelites began to worry. They built a replacement 'messenger of God' in the form of a golden calf. Moses was more than disconcerted to arrive back in camp and find a percentage of his people grossly disobeying the second commandment. He smashed the tablets, dramatically ending the party. Then he ground up the calf, mixed it with water and force-fed it to the entire people. God obligingly arranged for it to kill all the guilty. In fact, God was inclined to destroy the entire nation and try again, but Moses spent another 40 days on the mountain, arguing on their behalf. They were grudgingly forgiven, and Moses carved a second set of tablets for the Israelites.
It was at Mount Sinai that Moses began the tradition of the Oral Law. The Oral Law is explanation and elucidation of the scriptural laws found in the Torah. (Laws such as 'do not cook a kid in its mother's milk' and 'an eye in the place of an eye' are vague and not meant to be taken literally.) Oral Law is based on 14 methods of exegesis that extract volumes of meaning from simple phrases. Moses passed it on to Yehoshua (Joshua), who in turn bequeathed it to select sages, and so it continued until it was written down in the Talmud.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, scripture relates that his face shone. The Hebrew word for 'ray of light' is the same as the one used for 'horn', and the word was mistranslated during the Dark Ages. For this reason, Jews were frequently portrayed with horns during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Michelangelo's sculpture 'Moses' is a fine example of the error.
Though the Israelites complained copiously throughout their sojourn in the desert, only once did anyone attempt an overt rebellion. Korakh (Korah) felt slighted because, though Moses's cousin, he had not been chosen for any particular honour. Through speeches and exhortations, Korakh succeeded in convincing 251 men that Moses was depriving them of direct service of God by appointing Aharon High Priest. He was joined by the professional rabble-rousers Dasan and Aviram, who had made a habit of opposing Moses at every possible turn.
Moses's reaction is telling of his approach to leadership. His first step was to pray for guidance. That done, he suggested a logical test to determine who deserved the position of High Priest. With the masses thus satisfied, he pleaded with Korakh to be happy with his current honours and abandon his rebellion. When that failed, he sent for Dasan and Aviram, who sent his messenger back with their vitriolic refusal. He once again turned to Korakh, to no avail. The next day, when the 250 gathered for the test, he again appealed to them to abandon what was a suicidal attempt. Finally, he himself visited Dasan and Aviram's tents to plead with them to abandon the cause. Only then did he give up and allow God to punish the rebels.
For various and complicated reasons8, Moses was not allowed to lead the Israelites into the Land of Kanaan (Israel). This was not for lack of begging. After 50 individual prayers, God told Moses to stop, because He'd be forced to give in, if only to prevent libel on the effectiveness of prayer. As compensation, God led Moses to an overlook on Mount Nevo and then gave him the equivalent of a virtual tour of the land and its future.
Before his demise, Moses ensured continuity in leadership, strongly endorsing Yehoshua, and easing him into the leadership role. On the last day of his life, Moses gave his people a long speech rebuking them for past misdemeanours and encouraging them to achieve future perfection. The book of Numbers is the text of this speech.
Moses died on a bed prepared by God in a cave on Mount Nevo, with his two sons staying by him. When his sons left, they sealed the cave, and its location is unknown.
It was there in the land of Moab that God's servant Moses died at God's word. God buried him in the depression in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor. No man knows the place that he was buried, even to this day.
Though Moses's loyalty to God is demonstrated throughout the text, only rarely does it mention how God felt about Moses. One of these few but powerful statements is 'And the man Moses was the humblest of all men on the face of the earth.' Throughout his leadership, Moses never demanded anything for his own personal honour. Indeed, during Korakh's rebellion when Dasan and Aviram denied his summons, he himself visited their tent to plead that they abandon their fatal cause. Nor did he ever, in the course of his leadership, demand any compensation for his efforts. This denial of self allowed him to dedicate himself completely to the good of his nation. His humility is the central factor that enabled him to be an exemplary leader.
Moses is not classified as a patriarch, prophet, judge or king in the annals of Jewish history. He is described simply as a manhig - leader. Indeed, though Moses could easily have assumed the mantle of kingship, he refrained from doing so, and demanded nothing of his people except adherence to God's law. There are few episodes where Moses is described as being angry, and in each case it concerned a lack of faith in God. Moses also frequently used diplomacy to diffuse God's rage at the Israelites and plead for their forgiveness.
When speaking of Moses in Jewish biblical study, however, he is most often referred to as Mosheh Rabbeinu – 'Moses, our teacher.' Indeed, the code of law he presented at Mount Sinai was the guiding principles of Israelite and Jewish society for millennia, and still is for modern observant Jews. It was also the basis of the two major monotheistic religions that followed: Christianity and Islam. Moses's reputation is so impressive that Christianity, Islam and Bahai'ism also recognise Moses as one of the greatest leaders, prophets and lawgivers.