Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Reluctant Rise of Moses

Posted by foryourfaith on September 21, 2011


In the story of their exodus, their departure out of Egypt to freedom, the people of Israel found the heart of their faith. It was the one story above all others in their rich tradition that told them who they were and how they had come to be. It dramatically portrayed their responsibilities to God and embodied their continuing covenant and law.



When an Israelite brought the offering of first fruits to the Temple each year, he recites a confession that some scholars consider to be one of the most ancient in the Hebrew language. It is an encapsulation of the story of Exodus: “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there few in number; and there he became a nation great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this pace and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The strange wonder and mystery of that story has grasped and held the heart of Israel and its descendants to this day. It told them that their God, the creator who revealed himself by giving freedom to an enslaved people, was different from the gods of other nations. And because their God was different, Israel was also different.



Exodus begins by scanning the centuries of Israelite prosperity in Egypt: “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.”

However, a new presence loomed that threatened their prosperity. “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Exodus 1:8-9). The new pharaoh, whom some scholars identify as Seti I (1308 – 1290 BC), feared that the unity and fruitfulness of the Israelites threatened the safety of his nation and that the Israelites would “join our enemies and fight against us” (Exodus 1:10).

The Pharaoh’s solution was to conscript the Hebrews into labor brigades. He had an ambitious building program, and by forcing the Hebrews to construct new cities for him, he hoped to gradually kill off their young men and thus reduce their numbers. When this failed and the Hebrew population continued to grow, Pharaoh ordered that their work include “all kinds of work in the field.” And even though their lives were “bitter with hard service,” this too did nothing to stem the tide of their numbers.

Pharaoh decided on more direct measures to limit the Hebrew birthrate. He called in the two midwives who attended Hebrew births and ordered them to kill all male Hebrew babies. “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” With considerable boldness, the told Pharaoh that, until Egyptian women, Hebrew women were so vigorous that they delivered before the midwife arrived (Exodus 1:17-19). In frustration, Pharaoh commanded all his people to cast any son born to a Hebrew into the Nile. The slave nation was forced to struggle for the survival of its people.



Hebrew families lived in fear of having their babies drowned. One family from the tribe of Levi hid their newborn son for three months. Finally, in desperation, the baby’s mother “took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink. And his sister stood at a distance, to know what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:3-4).

Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the water, and she saw the basket. Peering into it, she saw the crying babe and took pity. “This is one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. The baby’s sister offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him, and she brought their mother to look after him.

Not only was the child saved, but his mother was paid wages by Pharaoh’s house to nurse her own baby. After he was weaned, the child was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter, who called him Moses. The name is related to the Egyptian word for “child” or “be born,” found in such royal names as Rameses or Thutmose. However, in Hebrew, the word can refer to the fact that Moses was “drawn out” (from the Hebrew mashah) of the water.

Exodus says nothing of Moses’ education, but later tradition filled the void. The Jewish historian Josephus told of his precociousness and his exploits as an Egyptian general. The philosopher Philo told how Moses quickly surpassed teachers brought in from all parts of the world and mastered every branch of knowledge. In later stories the young Moses was credited with many achievements, from inventing hieroglyphics, to teaching philosophy to the Greeks, to engineering irrigation machinery.

Despite his Egyptian upbringing, Moses knew of his Hebrew origins. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and he killed the aggressor. The next day he saw two Hebrews fighting and tired to pacify them. One of them asked, “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Realizing that his attack on the Egyptian was now a matter of common knowledge, Moses fled Egypt, and his life was completely changed. He became a shepherd among the nomadic Midianites of the Arabian Peninsula. There he married Zipporah, the daughters of the priest called Jethro.

During Moses’ years away as a desert nomad, a new Pharaoh arose. The ruler Seti I died, and Rameses II succeeded him, the plight of Israel worsened. However, a crucial event occurred. Israel’s “cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exodus 2:23-24). The exodus began with God’s response to cries of suffering.



One day as Moses came to a place called “Horeb, the mountain of God” (elsewhere identified with Mount Sinai), he saw flames in the center of a bush (in tradition, a blossoming green thorn bush). But as he watched, “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).

One later theory about this miracle proposes that the burning bush as a desert plant named fraxinella. This plant contains an oil so volatile that it can be ignited by the sun. The oil quickly burns off, and the bush itself is not damaged.

However, from the point of view of the narrative, what is most significant is that this was the first of a series of marvelous theophanies – appearances of God to humans – that occur throughout the book of Exodus. The presence of God had made the spot into “holy ground,” a place of power and danger for humans. In the presence of the palpable power, Moses had to keep his distance and remove his shoes.



Yahweh addressed Moses: “’I am the god of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Yahweh told Moses how he had heard the cries of suffering Israel. “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians,’” he said “’Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.’”

One might have expected Israel’s greatest hero, who had long ago struck a blow against the Egyptians, to rise eagerly to the mighty task of deliverance. But the decisiveness of God contrasts sharply with the reticence and resistance of Moses: “’Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’” he asked (Exodus 3:11). Moses made excuses and raised objection after objection until it had become clear that the power for delivering the Israelites from bondage lay not with its human leader but with God.

For each of Moses’ weaknesses, God added strength. He gave him marvelous signs to prove his commission: his rod became a serpent; his hand became leprous and then clear; he could pour Nile water on the ground and it would turn to blood. To compensate for Moses’ lack of eloquence. God commissioned his brother Aaron to speak for him (Exodus 4:1-17).

First and foremost God assured Moses of his presence. In an elusive phrase that is variously translated “I am who I am” or “I shall be what I shall be,” God interpreted his Hebrew name “Yahweh” to Moses. “’This is my name for ever,’” he said, “’and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’” (Exodus 3:15).

Moses returned to Egypt with his family. On the way, Yahweh met Moses and “sought to kill him.” But Zipporah circumcised their son with a flint knife and thereby saved Moses’ life, saying, “’You are a bridegroom of blood to me!’” (Exodus 4:24-26). Many have proposed that the incident referred to a long-forgotten rite. Indeed this strange incident has baffled scholars. However, the story served to reinforce the importance of the covenant of circumcision that God had made with Abraham.



When Moses and Aaron reached Egypt, the battle with Pharaoh began. They challenged the king with powerful prophetic voice, “Thus says the Lord (Yahweh), the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go’” (Exodus 5:1). But Pharaoh proved a hard enemy. He had never heard of this Yahweh they spoke of and saw no reason to obey him. Further, if the slaves had time to worship, they must need more work, and Pharaoh ordered that their labor loads be increased.

The Israelites who initially welcomed Moses and Aaron now accused them of putting a sword into Pharaoh’s hand to kill them (Exodus 5:21). But the hard struggle was just beginning. “’Now you shall see,’” Yahweh told Moses, “’what I will do to Pharaoh . . . yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.’”



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