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+/-1392 -1272 BC

The Old Testament prophet Moses was the emancipator of Israel. He created Israel's nationhood and founded its religion.


Moses was the son of Amram and Yochebed of the tribe of Levi. He was born in Egypt during the period in which the Pharaoh had ordered that all newborn male Hebrew children be cast into the Nile. Rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh, he was brought up in the splendor of the Egyptian court as her adopted son. Grown to manhood, aware of his Hebraic origin, and with deep compassion for his enslaved brethren, he became enraged while witnessing an Egyptian taskmaster brutally beating a Hebrew slave. Impulsively he killed the Egyptian. Fearing the Pharaoh's wrath and punishment, he fled into the desert of Midian, becoming a shepherd for Jethro, a Midianite priest whose daughter Zipporah he later married. While tending the flocks on Mt. Horeb far in the wilderness, he beheld a bush burning that was not consumed. In the revelation that followed, he was informed that he had been chosen to serve as the liberator of the children of Israel. He was also told to proclaim the unity of God to his entire people, which doctrine heretofore had been known only to certain individuals.

The tremendous responsibility of his task, his innate humility, and his own feeling of unworthiness evoked a hesitancy and lack of confidence in Moses. He was assured, however, that Aaron, his more fluent brother, would serve as his spokesman both to the children of Israel and to the Pharaoh.

Moses returned to Egypt and persuaded the Hebrews to organize for a hasty departure from the land of bondage. Together with Aaron, he informed the Pharaoh that the God of the Hebrews demanded that he free His people. The Pharaoh refused to obey, bringing upon himself and his people nine terrible plagues that Moses wrought upon Egypt by using the miraculous staff he had received as a sign of his authority. The tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, broke the Pharaoh's resistance and compelled him to grant the Hebrews permission to depart immediately. Moses thus found himself the leader of an undisciplined collection of slaves, Hebrew as well as non-Hebrew, escaping from Egyptian territory to freedom.

Moses' immediate goal was Mt. Horeb, called Mt. Sinai, where God had first revealed Himself to him. The Hebrews came to the sacred mountain fired by the inspiration of their prophetic leader. Summoned by God, Moses ascended the mountain and received the tablets of stone while the children of Israel heard the thundering forth of the Ten Commandments. Inspired, the people agreed to the conditions of the Covenant.

Through 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai, overcoming tremendous obstacles, Moses led the horde of former slaves, shaping them into a nation. He selected and set them apart for a divine purpose and consecrated them to the highest ethical and moral laws. Only a man with tremendous will, patience, compassion, humility, and great faith could have forged the bickering and scheming factions who constantly challenged his wisdom and authority into an entity.

Moses supplemented the Ten Commandments by a code of law regulating the social and religious life of the people. This collection of instructions, read to and ratified by the people, was called the Book of the Covenant.

Under his leadership, most of the land east of the Jordan was conquered and given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and to half of the tribe of Menashe. Moses, however, was not permitted to lead the children of Israel into Canaan, the Promised Land, because he had been disobedient to God during the period of wandering in the desert. When the people were in need of water, God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would spring from it. Instead he had struck the rock with his staff. From the heights of Nebo he surveyed the land promised to his forefathers, which would be given to their children. Moses, 120 years old, died in the land of Moab and was buried opposite Bet Peor.


Prophet, lawgiver, leader of his people out of Egypt and to the borders of the Promised Land, and the outstanding figure in the emergence and formulation of the Jewish religion. According to the Bible, the name Moses (Mosheh in Hebrew) is derived from the phrase "From the water I drew him" (meshitihu) (Ex. 2:10). However, this is generally regarded as ancient homiletic name derivation, and various other suggestions have been propounded. Moses was born in Egypt, the son of Amram and Jochebed, both of the tribe of Levi. At the time of his birth, Pharaoh had issued the decree: "Every boy that is born you shall throw into the river" (Ex. 1:22). For the first three months of his life, the infant was hidden in his parents' home. Then Jochebed placed him in a wicker basket on the Nile River, where he was discovered by Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him as her son. Moses grew up as an Egyptian prince; but when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was persecuting the Israelite slaves, Moses was forced to flee from Egypt and reached Midian. There he married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian. Moses tended Jethro's sheep and arrived at Mount Horeb, where God appeared to him from the midst of a Burning Bush that was not consumed in the flames. God commanded him to return to Egypt to redeem his brothers from Egyptian bondage. After much hesitation, Moses accepted the mission, provided that his brother Aaron would be the spokesman, because he himself had a speech impediment.

At the age of 80, Moses appeared before Pharaoh, but Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites, even for a brief period. God then afflicted Pharaoh and Egypt with ten plagues. Only the last and the most severe, in which all the Egyptian firstborn were killed, persuaded Pharaoh to release the Israelites (see Exodus). When the Israelites arrived at the shore of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea), with the Egyptians in pursuit, Moses raised his staff and the sea divided so that the Jews crossed it in the middle on dry land. Pharaoh and the Egyptians who were following drowned when the sea came crashing down on them.

Moses and the Israelites then sang a song of praise and thanks to God. After a short period of wandering in the Sinai desert, the Israelites reached Mount Sinai (also known as the Mountain of God and traditionally identified with Mount Horeb). Here God appeared to them and gave them, through Moses, the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). Moses went up to Mount Sinai, where he remained for 40 days and nights without eating or drinking, in order to receive the Tablets of the Covenant. While Moses was on the mountain, the people forced Aaron to fashion a Golden Calf to serve them as a god. When Moses came down, he broke the tablets in his anger, burned the calf, ground the gold to powder and scattered it on water, which he then forced the sinners to drink. However, he pleaded with God not to destroy His nation as a result of the sin, and God consented not to. Moses then went up to the mountain a second time, and remained an additional 40 days and 40 nights in order to receive a second set of tablets. He also received the entire legal code laid out in the Pentateuch (Written Law). According to Jewish tradition, he also received on this occasion an oral tradition (Shab. 93b) (see Oral Law.

Moses was ordered by God to build the Sanctuary and its vessels, appointing Bezalel to carry out the command. When he came down from the mountain, Moses' face shone; to enable the Israelites to speak to him, he put on a veil. Moses was punished, along with Aaron, for disobeying God's command at Marah and smiting a rock to obtain water instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded. His punishment was that he was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. Moses pleaded unsuccessfully with God to annul the decree; when he and the people reached the borders of the Promised Land, he went up to Mount Nebo to die, and from there God showed him the entire land. Moses died at the age of 120 "and his eyes were undimmed and his vigour unabated." Prior to that, Moses gathered the people to hear a summary of the Sinaitic legislation and his farewell address (see Deuteronomy). His burial place remains unknown to this day. The Bible depicts him as the greatest prophet the Jewish people ever had (Deut. 34:10): "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord singled out, face to face." As a leader, Moses faced frequent problems. At first, he assumed all the judicial duties for the entire nation. Later, on his father-in-law's suggestion, he appointed other judges to help him (Ex. 18:13-23). The Israelites in the wilderness turned to him with their problems, frequently demanding that he take them back to Egypt. There was an attempted rebellion against him within his own tribe of Levi, when Korah, his cousin, gathered 250 prominent members of the nation to revolt against their leader (Num. 16:1-19). His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, claimed that they were equal to Moses in prophecy and criticized him for marrying a Cushite woman (Num. 12:1-15). Moses was also revealed as a military leader in the battles against Amalek (Ex. 17:8-13), against Sihon, the Amorite king of Heshbon (Deut. 2:31-33), and against Og, king of Bashan (Deut. 3:1-4). Before he died, Moses blessed the tribes of Israel (Deut. 33), without criticizing or vexing them. Moses is referred to as "the servant of God" (Deut. 34:5) and as "a very humble man, more so than any other man on the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3). According to the rabbis, the entire Pentateuch was dictated by God and written down by Moses.

The usual epithet applied by the sages to Moses is Moshe Rabbenu---"Moses our Master." A certain tension emerges in the sayings of the sages between the depiction of Moses as the outstanding individual among all mankind, the only one whom God addressed "face to face," and the fear of having the people ascribe any measure of divinity to him. According to Jewish tradition, he was born on 7 Adar and died on his 120th birthday. Subsequently, this day was set aside as a general memorial day for people whose place of burial is unknown, just as Moses' burial place is unknown. The sages describe Moses' status as that of a king, or absolute ruler, although his sons did not inherit this position from their father. Moses' life is divided into three parts: 40 years in Egypt, 40 years in Midian, and 40 years when he led the Israelites. His wisdom is described as being close to the most that it is possible to attain: "50 levels of wisdom were created in the world, and all but one were given to Moses" (Zohar).

There was a substantive difference between Moses' prophecy and that of the other prophets: "All the prophets saw through a murky glass, but Moses saw through a clear glass" (Lev. R. 1:14), namely, while the other prophets had visions that were blurred and unclear, Moses had clear and precise visions. Moses' greatness finds expression in the statement, "The heavens and the earth were only created because of the merit of Moses" (Lev. R. 36:4). Moses, as a true leader, wanted to share in the distress of his people. In Israel's war against Amalek, Moses stood and raised his hands and when he became tired, a rock was brought, upon which he sat down. "Didn't Moses then have a cushion that he could sit on? Rather, [he said], 'As Israel are in distress, I will be in distress with them'" (Ta'an. 11b). According to legend, Moses' holiness was already manifest at the time of his birth. He was born circumcised, began to speak at birth, and began to prophesy at the age of three months. He also refused to suckle from the breasts of an Egyptian woman, because he did not want to defile the lips with which he would ultimately speak to God. Moses was chosen as a leader of the Israelites after God saw how Moses the shepherd treated his flock with compassion (Ex. R. 2:12). He received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, thereby initiating the "chain of tradition" (Avot 1:1). The fundamental Jewish belief in Moses as the supreme prophet was encapsulated by Maimonides in the seventh of his 13 Principles of Faith, which states: "I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our master was true, and that he was the chief of all the prophets---both those who preceded him and those who followed."










This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008