Young People's Bible Dictionary
by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)
Moses, Egyptian name, meaning "a son." Leader of the Israelites in their escape from Egypt and journey to Canaan. Throughout the Bible, Moses is considered the founder of the people of God; the lawgiver, that is, the one who taught that God's people must live by his teaching; and the forerunner of the prophets. A summary of his life and work is given in Acts 7:20-44. Stories in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; see also 1 Kings 8:53; Ps. 103:7; Matt. 17:3; Luke 16:29; 1 Cor.9:9.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
Moses, the first and preeminent leader of the Israelites, who led the people out of Egypt to the threshold of the promised land; he is also the lawgiver and the archetypical prophet. He is the dominant individual character in the ot narrative from Exodus through Deuteronomy. The text speaks of him in superlatives: ‘And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ (Deut. 34:10). For all his greatness, however, Moses never loses his humanness, displaying anger, frustration, and lack of self-confidence in addition to his leadership abilities, humility, and perseverance.
Birth and Family Background: The first information readers are given about Moses concerns his birth, in secret, to an unnamed Levite couple (Exod. 2:1-10). Because of the Egyptian decree to kill all newborn Hebrew males, the child was first hidden by his mother and then cast adrift on the Nile in a watertight container. As his sister watched a short distance away, Pharaoh’s daughter found him, whereupon the sister stepped forward to suggest an appropriate nurse for the infant—none other than his natural mother. Thus the child was raised by his own mother and then returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and named him Moses (Heb. mosheh), which the Bible explains as meaning ‘Because I drew [from the root mashah, ‘to draw’] him out of the water’ (Exod. 2:10). (But the name may actually be an Egyptian one meaning ‘is born’; cf. the last component of Egyptian names like Thutmose, Ahmose, etc.)
This story resembles folktales found throughout the world of babies who averted ordained death, were hidden or raised by surrogate parents, and returned or emerged to play a major role in their societies. The closest analogy is ‘The Legend of Sargon,’ an Akkadian text that recounts the birth of Sargon of Agade. According to this text Sargon’s mother bore him in secret, placed him in a basket of rushes sealed with pitch, and floated it down the Euphrates. It was found by Akki, the drawer of water, who raised the child as his own. The goddess Ishtar protected the child and he grew up to become a great king. The existence of such a story suggests that Exod. 2:1-10 is not to be regarded as historical, but rather as a conventional motif—a story of a special birth. The Bible’s more usual special-birth motif involves a ‘barren mother,’ i.e., a woman who had difficulty conceiving but finally gave birth to a special child (cf. the birth stories of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel). But since Exodus 1-2 stresses the fertility of the Israelite women and the increase of the Israelite population, a ‘barren mother’ story would have been out of place here. So instead a different type of special-birth story occurs.
The legendary quality of the story is further emphasized by the fact that none of the characters is named (except Moses). It is from Exod. 6:20 (cf. Num. 26:59; 1 Chron. 6:3; 1 Chron. 23:13) that we know that Moses’father was Amram, his mother Jochebed. His brother Aaron, older by three years, is first mentioned in Exod. 4:14, then in Exod. 6:20, and his age is given in Exod. 7:7. Miriam, the sister, is omitted from the genealogy in Exod. 6:20 but is named in the ones in Num. 26:59 and 1 Chron. 6:3.
Nothing is known of Moses’childhood. He reemerges as a young man who identified himself with his brethren, the enslaved Israelites. In an attempt to protect one of them he killed an Egyptian and was forced to flee Egypt. He sojourned in Midian, married Zipporah, a daughter of Jethro (also called Jether, Reuel, and Hobab), a Midianite priest. Their first son was Gershom (Exod. 2:22); a second son, Eliezer, is mentioned in Exod. 18:3-4 (cf. 1 Chron. 23:15).
Moses as Prophet: It is in his role as prophet that Moses stands out above all others. The verse cited in the opening paragraph, Deut. 34:10, refers to this aspect of him, as does Num. 12:7 and others. The contact between God and Moses was closer and more direct than between God and any other prophet.
Moses’Call: Apparently unprepared for his prophetic mission, Moses’attention was caught by a burning bush. Slowly his reaction changed from curiosity to awe as he realized that he was in God’s presence (Exod. 3:1-6). Yet Moses was reluctant to accept the task of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and gave a series of excuses for which God provided retorts ranging from assurances of God’s help to the appointing of Aaron as Moses’assistant. Although initial reluctance is typical of a number of prophets, e.g., Jeremiah, and in an extreme form, Jonah, the picture we get of Moses here is a combination of humbleness and stubbornness.
Signs and Wonders: In addition to words of encouragement and the foretelling of future events, God gave Moses a sign to convince him that he was truly being commissioned (Exod. 3:12). Moses also received proofs for the Israelites and for the Egyptians that God had indeed sent him. To convince the Israelites Moses was told the name of God in the famous and difficult phrase ‘I am that I am’ (Exod. 3:14; cf. also 6:3), and shown a series of wonders he will perform for them: changing a rod into a serpent and back to a rod again; making leprosy appear and disappear from his hand; and changing water into blood. The first of these wonders was also performed before Pharaoh; the last was transformed into the first of the ten plagues.
The plagues themselves (Exod. 7-11) can be construed as signs—proof to the Egyptians of God’s superior power. They also served as a form of punishment to Pharaoh and his people for having dealt harshly with the Israelites. It is not only Moses who performed wonders; Aaron was sometimes the one to set the plague in motion through his action, as in the first, second, and third plagues. Both Moses and Aaron threw soot towards the sky, bringing the plague of boils. Moses himself brought the hail, the locusts, and the darkness by stretching his hand or rod upward. Even the Egyptian magicians were credited with some power to work wonders; they could duplicate some of the early wonders but apparently could not undo them. They could cause a rod to become a serpent, make water turn to blood, and produce frogs; but their serpent was swallowed by Aaron’s, never to revert to a rod, and they could not remove the blood or the frogs. They recognized God’s power, however, only when they were unable to duplicate his wonder—in the plague of gnats (or lice; Exod. 8:16-19).
Wonders may be harmful or beneficial. On the wilderness journey for the Israelites’ benefit Moses divided the sea (Exod. 14:21-15:21), turned brackish water into sweet water (Exod. 15:22-25), and produced water from a rock (Exod. 17:1-7). His raised hands ensured victory over the Amalekites (Exod. 17:11-12). In the book of Numbers it is recounted that Moses provided the people with meat (11:1-35) and with fresh water (20:2-11).
Many of these wonders resemble the wonders of other prophets, e.g., Elijah and Elisha. It should be stressed that in all of these cases the power to perform wonders does not originate with the individual, nor is it the result of magical manipulations (as in the case of the Egyptian magicians); the power to work wonders comes from God. It is he who causes the wonder through his human agent. Thus it is God who dictates the action and God who enables it to be accomplished. Some of the plagues and the provisioning of Israel in the wilderness are achieved by God directly, without any actions on the part of Moses or Aaron (e.g., the swarm of flies in Exod. 8:20; the quails and the manna in Exod. 16:13); others are initiated by a specific human gesture. But even in the latter case God is at work behind the scenes, as is evident from Exod. 9:23: ‘Then Moses stretched forth his rod toward heaven; and the Lord sent thunder and hail…’ (cf. also Exod. 10:13; 14:21).
Spokesman and Intercessor: A prophet functions mainly as a spokesman, a ‘forthteller.’ Ironically it is the power to speak well that Moses initially claimed to lack, so he could therefore not be effective as a spokesman before Pharaoh. As a concession, God appointed Aaron to be a spokesman for Moses, even as Moses was a spokesman for God (Exod. 4:14-16; 7:1). Yet the man who was ‘slow of speech’ is credited with the magnificent speeches of Deuteronomy as well as with all manner of discourse in the Exodus-Numbers narrative. At times it becomes difficult to distinguish between the roles of Moses and Aaron, as both speak and perform actions. We will, therefore, refer to Moses in the following discussion even though it is sometimes Aaron who actually does the talking.
Moses spoke for God to the Israelites and to Pharaoh. His first task was to persuade the Israelites that he was truly God’s representative, and it is to this end that Aaron performed the signs that God had provided to Moses. The brothers were successful; the people believed them. Yet later, after the Egyptians had increased their workload and made conditions harsher, the people lost confidence in their leader and Moses complained to God that he would never be able to convince Pharaoh to do what he requested if he could not convince even the Israelites (Exod. 6:12). Despite this weak beginning, Moses and Aaron went again and again to Pharaoh to deliver God’s message. And, since the channel of communication operated in both directions, Moses relayed Pharaoh’s wishes to God. When Pharaoh pleaded for the removal of the frog plague, Moses entreated God and the frogs were removed. The same occurred in the case of the flies, the hail, and the locusts.
It is, of course, to the Israelites that Moses was sent as prophetic spokesman, and it is to them that he continually conveyed God’s commands. These ranged from information about the journey, encouragement, and chastisement, to instructions on how to collect the manna. In fact, everything that Moses said can be viewed as emanating from God. This applies to Moses’most important discourse: the giving of the law. The giving of the law is an aspect of Moses’prophetic function.
As he did in the case of Pharaoh, Moses served as the link between the Israelites and God; he interceded with God on behalf of the people. The first occurrence is in Exod. 5:22-23 after the Israelites’ suffering had increased. A crucial intercession took place in the golden calf episode. Here Moses assuaged God’s anger by suggesting that if God punished his people it would be construed by the Egyptians as a weakness on God’s part—his inability to protect the Israelites in the wilderness. This, and a reminder of the promise made to Abraham, convinced God to withdraw his anger (Exod. 32:11-14). On another occasion when God’s anger was manifest, the people cried to Moses to plead for them. When he prayed on their behalf they were spared (Num. 11:2). Even when Moses’own position was threatened—when the people wanted to stone him and appoint a new leader—Moses still reacted to God’s anger at this by reminding him, as he had before, that the other nations would perceive the destruction of Israel as a weakness of God. Here, too, Moses was successful in obtaining at least a partial pardon (Num. 14). Other instances occur in Miriam’s leprosy (Num. 12); Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16); and the copper serpent incident (Num. 21).
Intercession is part of the prophetic aspect of Moses; he is a link between God and human beings. The most dramatic evidence of Moses as an intermediary occurred at Sinai. Moses had, already long before, been commissioned by God to represent him, but in Exod. 20:19 the people, fearing direct contact with the divine, commissioned Moses to represent them before God.
Moses indeed fulfilled his task as spokesman well, working to the benefit of God and the people. In fact, he is so often a spokesman for someone else that very often we lose sight of his own personal needs and desires. So apparently it must be with a prophet and a national leader.
Lawgiver and Judge: The law is a central feature of the Pentateuch and so the lawgiver assumes importance. It is Moses who gives the law, which originates from God, to Israel. As we have suggested above, the giving of the law need not be considered a separate function of Moses, but rather part of his prophetic function. Thus Moses brought the law engraved on tablets and proclaimed the laws and ordinances that constitute a significant part of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Even before the revelation at Sinai Moses instructed the people about the celebration of the Passover and the observance of the Sabbath.
On a more practical level, Moses served as judge and arbiter (this being a function of his role as national leader as well as interpreter of God’s law). At first he was the sole judge, but at the suggestion of his father-in-law, Jethro, he instituted a system of lower judges for lesser matters; the difficult cases were brought to Moses (Exod. 18).
One such case involved the inheritance rights of Zelophehad’s daughters. Since there was no precedent for daughters to inherit land, Moses consulted God. The response was that in the event that a man had no sons, his daughters should inherit his land so that his name and holdings might be perpetuated. God thus ruled in favor of the claim of Zelophehad’s daughters (Num. 27). But in the sequel (Num. 36) the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh (Zelophehad’s tribe) approached Moses with their concern: if the daughters were to marry men from other tribes, then the land would eventually be passed on to their children and thereby lost to the tribe of Manasseh. Thus the purpose of the original ruling would be thwarted; the land would be alienated from its original owner and tribe. Moses acknowledged the legitimacy of the concern of the Manasseh representatives and ruled that, while the daughters could inherit their father’s land, they had to marry within their own tribe. Here we see the development of legal application in action. We also get some insight into the sensitivity with which Moses dealt with all parties concerned.
National Leader: Moses was sent to lead the people out of Egypt, and there is no question that he was a successful leader. He took a mixed multitude and under his guidance they were shaped into a national entity. Moses led the people from encampment to encampment and directed them when conflicts with other nations arose. Like most leaders, he was subjected to complaints and grumblings and even rebellions (e.g., Exod. 16), and he was called upon to provide solutions to problems and psychological encouragement.
At times Moses himself appears discouraged, and this allows us to see him in a more human light. For instance, in Exod. 17:4, after complaints about water, Moses sought help from God saying, ‘What shall I do with this people?’ Even more vivid is the portrayal of Moses’frame of mind in Numbers 11. Displeased with the people’s actions and with God’s anger, Moses felt that he had been made to appear at fault, and that his burden was too heavy for him. At this point God allowed the burden of leadership to be shared by seventy elders who received a measure of God’s spirit.
It often happens that attacks on a leader come from those closest to him, and so it was with Moses. Resentment of his special bond with God was voiced by his own brother and sister (Num. 12), and a major rebellion was instigated by Korah, a member of Moses’own tribe (Num. 16). But with God’s help Moses was able to weather these attacks on his position.
Death and Burial: Ironically, although Moses must certainly be judged successful in his mission, he himself was not permitted to partake of this success; he was not granted the privilege of entering the promised land but could only glimpse it from across the Jordan. At this crucial juncture a new leader, Joshua, was appointed by God. When it was time for Moses to die, he ascended Mt. Nebo, in Moab, and, after viewing the future home of the Israelites, expired. The text records that ‘he,’ that is, God, buried Moses and that no person knows his burial place (Deut. 34:6). So, like his birth, Moses’death has a specialness attached to it. This is emphasized by the ideal lifespan, 120 years, and his lack of any signs of aging. In death, as in life, Moses was superior yet modest, singled out by God for special closeness yet never totally removed from his human context.
The Historicity of Moses: Our only source of knowledge about an individual named Moses is the Bible. Archaeology has not unearthed objects bearing his name, nor do ancient Near Eastern documents contain references to him. Therefore, judging his historicity, like the historicity of other early biblical figures, depends on one’s view of the historicity of the Bible, especially the Pentateuch where the preponderance of Mosaic references are found. The historicity of the Pentateuch is a vexed question in biblical scholarship. Based on inconsistencies and doublets, scholars have isolated separate sources dating from different periods. Because some of the Moses stories show inconsistencies (e.g., in some of the wilderness narratives) or occur in doublets (e.g., intercessions in Exodus and Numbers), it is difficult to know which material is historically authentic, if any. Most scholars think that the most reliable references to Moses come from the J and E sources, the two earliest.
Some scholars have gone further and isolated four different themes or traditions connected with Moses: the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, the wandering in the wilderness, and the entrance into the Promised Land. These themes, according to modern scholars like M. Noth and G. von Rad, originated in separate settings among various tribes and preserve different historical experiences. It would then seem doubtful that the same leader could have figured in all of them. According to this view there is a gap between the original themes/traditions and the picture presented even in the earliest sources of J and E.
This difficulty is refuted by those who suggest that even if the traditions developed independently, it is not impossible that Moses originally had a place in all of them. Each tradition developed differently, and so each developed a different view of Moses as well. Thus different aspects of the same person are preserved in different traditions.
Another problem is posed by some: in one of the earliest references to the Exodus, the poem in Exodus 15, Moses is not mentioned. By the same token, references to Moses outside of the Pentateuch (especially in prophetic and hymnic literature), even in connection with exodus or Sinai motifs, are relatively few. Thus the historicity of the man, as opposed to the events, is called into question. But this does not mean that Moses was actually a negligible or nonexistent person; it results simply from the fact that prophetic and hymnic literature is concerned with God and Israel, not with individuals, and therefore it highlights very few historical personages.
It is unlikely that a quick consensus will be reached concerning the historicity of the Pentateuch. Indeed, it might be better if this concern were replaced by concern for its literary and religious aspects. Here there is no need to rely on the hypothetical reconstruction of sources or traditions. The Pentateuch makes abundantly clear (and it is not contradicted by references elsewhere in the Bible), that there was one person who, at least from the point of view of Israel’s literary-religious tradition, played a major role at the crucial point when the nation was born and its religious norms established. The importance of Moses, like the importance of all great national heroes, transcends his historicity.
Moses in the nt: Because of the towering significance of Moses as the mediator of God’s law to the chosen people, it is not surprising that in the nt Moses is mentioned principally in connection with the law. That is true both in the Gospels (Matt. 19:7; Mark 7:10; Luke 16:31; John 1:17) and in the Letters of Paul (Rom. 9:15; 10:19; 1 Cor. 9:9; 2 Cor. 3:13). He is also citied as exemplary for his faith in God (Heb. 3:2; 11:24) and is regarded as having announced beforehand the coming of Jesus as Messiah (Acts 3:22; 26:22). Indeed, the traditions contained in the writings of the nt are unanimous in the estimation of Moses as one specially chosen by God to free God’s people and give them God’s law.
Bibliography Buber, M. Moses. Oxford: East and West Library, 1946. Childs, B. The Book of Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974. Neher, A. Moses and the Vocation of the Jewish People. New York: Harper & Row, Torchbooks, 1959. A.B.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer