As primary leader of the Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt and during their wanderings in the wilderness, and as mediator of the Law, Moses dominates the biblical traditions from Exodus through Deuteronomy. In fact, Exodus–Deuteronomy appears to have been edited as a biography of Moses, reporting his birth at the beginning and his death at the end. Between these events the Bible relates many episodes about his life and work.
Born in secret during the oppression in Egypt as the younger of the two sons of a Levite couple, Amram and Jochebed (Exod. 6.18–20), Moses was hidden away for a time to avoid slaughter at the hands of the Egyptians and then placed in a basket amid the reeds of the Nile. Discovered by a daughter of Pharaoh who had pity on the child, he was spared and, through the intervention of his older sister (Miriam: Exod. 15.20; Num. 26.59), was nursed by his own mother. Raised by Pharaoh's daughter as her son, the child received the name Moses (Hebr. mōšeh, understood as a participle of the verb māšâ, “to draw out”; the name actually appears to be a form of the Egyptian verb mšw, “to be born,” or the noun mesu, “child, son,” appearing in such names as Thut‐mose and Ah‐mose; Exod. 2.1–10). When grown up, Moses killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew and, when word of his deed spread, he fled the country to save his life (Exod. 2.11–15a). Taking refuge in Midian (2.15b–21), he married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest who is variously referred to as Reuel (2.18), Jethro (3.1; 4.18; 18.1), or Hobab (Num. 10.29; Judg. 4.11). While in Midian, she bore him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exod. 2.22; 4.20; 18.3–4).
While Moses was tending his father‐in‐law's flocks near Horeb, the mountain of God, God revealed himself in a burning bush and commissioned him to return to Egypt and, with the help of Aaron, to lead the Hebrews out of the land of oppression (Exod. 3.1–4.17). Moses returned to Egypt (4.18–31), and he and Aaron produced signs and nine plagues to persuade Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to depart Egypt, either to go on a three‐day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifice to God (3.18; 5.1; 7.16; 8.28; 10.7–11, 24–26) or to leave the land for good (6.10–11). The signs and plagues failed to convince Pharaoh, who repeatedly gave and withdrew his permission to leave (5.1–10.29). With the tenth plague, the slaughter of the firstborn, Pharaoh and his people urged the Hebrews to leave (11.1–12.36).
Moses and the people departed (Exod. 12.37–14.4) only to be pursued by Pharaoh, whose army was drowned in the returning waters of the Red Sea after the waters had parted for the Israelites to cross (14.5–15.21).
During their long stay in the wilderness and on their journey to the Promised Land (Exod. 12.22–Deut. 34.8), Moses endured the people's recurrent murmuring and complaining. He aided in securing good drinking water (Exod. 15.22–26; 17.1–7; see Num. 20.2–11), oversaw the receipt of quails and manna (Exod. 16.1–36; see Num. 11.4–5, 31–35), directed their war with the Amalekites (Exod. 17.8–16), and, at the suggestion of his father‐in‐law, established judges to hear and adjudicate the people's disputes (18.1–27; see Num. 11.16–30).
At Sinai (Exod. 19), Moses committed the people (19.3–8) to observe the commandments of God (20.1–23.33), communicated to him during a forty‐day stay on the mountain (24.18) and then addressed to the people (24.3) and subsequently written down by either Moses (24.4) or God (24.12). He received instructions for constructing the tabernacle and its accoutrements (25.1–31.17). The first tablets of the Law presented to Moses (31.18) were smashed by him (32.19) when he returned to the camp to discover that Aaron had supervised the construction of a golden calf around which the people were celebrating (32.1–35). Moses intervened with God not to destroy the people (33.1–22), and God (34.1) or Moses (34.27–28) again wrote the words of the commandments (34.17–26) during a second forty‐day period (34.28), which were again proclaimed to the people (34.29–35). Moses then supervised the construction and erection of the tabernacle (35.1–40.38), received further laws and instructions (Lev. 1–7, 11–27), and consecrated the tabernacle and ordained Aaron and his sons as priests (Lev. 8–10).
After staying at Sinai for eleven months (Exod. 19.1; Num. 1.1), a census was taken of the non‐Levitical males above the military age of twenty, totaling 603,550 (Num. 1.2–54), the Levites one month and older, totaling 22,000 (3.14–39; see 4.1–49), and the firstborn males one month and older, totaling 22,273 (3.40–43). After receiving further commandments from God (2.1–34; 5.1–6.27; 8.1–26; 19.9–14; 10.1–10), consecrating the Levites (3.5–13; 4.46–49), supervising receipt and employment of the leaders' special offerings (7.1–89), Moses and the people observed the Passover (9.1–8) and departed from Sinai on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt (10.11–36).
For the next thirty‐nine years, Moses led the people in their journeys (see the itinerary in Num. 33.1–49) in the wilderness. Kadesh (‐barnea), an oasis in the northern Sinai desert (Map 2:T2), and its vicinity are the scene of many of the episodes reported in Numbers 11.1–20.21. During this period the people continued their murmuring and complaining (11.1–6; 14.1–4; 20.2–5), were fed with manna and quails (11.4–35), and were supplied with water (20.2–13). Moses was confronted with complaints about his wife (whether Zipporah or not remains uncertain) by Miriam and Aaron (12.1–16) and with a rebellion led by Korah and his associates (16.1–17.13). Spies were sent out to make a reconnaissance of Canaan but returned with a discouraging report about the strength of the inhabitants (13.1–14.38). A belated attempt to invade the region from the south, apparently without Moses' approval, led to disaster (14.39–45). During these episodes, Moses and Aaron received further ordinances from God to be communicated to the people (15.1–41; 18.1–19.22). After the death and burial of Miriam at Kadesh (20.1), Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom to request permission to pass through his country but was refused (20.14–21).
The last phase of Moses' life (thirty‐eight years, according to Deut. 2.14) was concerned with the movement of the people into and their conquest of Transjordan. Journeying from Kadesh, they defeated the king of Arad (Num. 20.22; 21.1–3) and came to Mount Hor, where Aaron died (20.23–29). Leaving Mount Hor, Moses led the people southward to bypass the land of Edom (21.4). When God sent fiery serpents against the people because of their impatience, Moses constructed a bronze serpent as an instrument of healing (21.4–9). The people eventually arrived in the territory north of the land of Moab, where they defeated kings Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan (21.10–35). While the Israelites encamped near the Jordan across from Jericho, King Balak of Moab hired Balaam to curse Israel (22.1–24.25). After a plague ravaged the people because of their worship of the Baal of Peor (25.1–18), Moses ordered a census, which counted 601,730 males above the age of twenty fit for the military (26.1–51). After the census, Moses received instructions from God about dividing the land (26.52–65), about women's inheritance rights (27.1–11; see 36.1–12), the designation of Joshua as his successor (27.12–23), a calendar of sacrifices (28.1–29.40), and women's vows (30.1–16). A battle against the Midianites provided the occasion for divine instructions about the division of battle spoils (31.1–54). Moses allotted the captured territory in Transjordan to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh (32.1–42) and transmitted divine instructions about dividing the land west of the Jordan (34.1–29) and setting aside cities for the Levites (35.1–8) and cities of refuge for those guilty of accidental homicide (35.9–34).
On the eve of his death, the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year after the Exodus (Deut. 1.3), Moses delivered a series of farewell addresses to the people, expounding again the Law and its requirements for living in the land (1.6–4.40; 5.1–29.1; 29.2–30.20), offering a personal adieu (32.1–6), a song (31.30–32.43), and blessings on the tribes (33.1–29). With Joshua properly commissioned as his successor (31.7–8, 14–15, 23), and having inscribed his song (31.16–29) and written and given directions for the reading and safekeeping of the book of the Law (31.9–13, 24–29), at the command of God (32.48–52; see Num. 17.12–23) Moses went up Mount Nebo, viewed the Promised Land, and died at the age of 120 years, full of life and vigor. He was buried by the Lord, “but no one knows his burial place to this day” (34.1–8). God did not allow Moses to enter the land he viewed, either because of his own failure to provide proper recognition of God (Num. 20.10–13; 27.12–14; Deut. 32.48–52) or because of the sins of the people (Deut. 1.37–38; 3.18–28).
Any critical attempt to assess the historicity of the portrait of Moses presented in Exodus to Deuteronomy must take into account a number of characteristics of this literature and its presentation. First, many of the stories are legendary in character and are built on folktale motifs found in various cultures. The theme of the threatened child who eventually becomes a great figure, for example, was employed from Mesopotamia to Rome and appears in the stories about Sargon the Great, Heracles, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Cyrus, and Jesus. Second, Israel's theology located the giving of the Law and the formation of the national life outside the land it occupied and thus considered the wilderness period as its constitutional time. Hence, laws and institutions from diverse times and conditions are located in this formative era. Third, the duplications in the texts and the frequent lack of cohesion in the narratives and of consistency in details indicate that the material is composite and multilayered. Fourth, the lack of external frames of reference makes it impossible to connect any of the events depicted about Moses with the history of other cultures. The Egyptian Pharaoh of the oppression, for example, goes unnamed and no contemporary nonbiblical sources mention Moses. Finally, Moses is depicted as the archetype of several offices. Throughout he is representative not only of the good leader but also of the ideal judge and legal administrator, intercessor, cult founder, and prophet. In all of these he excelled and thus served as the standard by which others were judged.
In biblical literature outside the Pentateuch, Moses is most often mentioned in the phrases “the book of Moses,” “the law of Moses,” and “the book of the law of Moses,” indicating the development of the concept of the Torah as such and of its special authority and Mosaic authorship, themes that will become central for subsequent Jewish tradition. The same implication of the special scriptural authority of the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, is found in the New Testament, where there are repeated appeals to what Moses said (Matt. 8.4; 19.7; 22.24; Mark 7.10; John 7.22; Rom. 10.5) as well as to the “law of Moses” and the “book of Moses.”
Postbiblical tradition elaborated on Moses' biography from his birth to his death in such texts as the Testament of Moses and in haggadic literature. Details of these embellishments are also found in the New Testament in the reference to Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim. 3.8) and in the account of the dispute between Michael and the devil over Moses' body (Jude 9; cf. also Acts 7.22).
These haggadic legends were also known to such Hellenistic Jewish writers as Philo and Josephus, who added to them the Hellenistic concept of the ideal man, so that the details of Moses' life reveal him to be the consummate human being and as such the appropriate founder of the theocratic state. This may be the background for the parallels drawn in the gospel of Matthew between the lives of Moses and Jesus. Yet for Matthew, as for the author of the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is superior: Moses' presence at the transfiguration confirms Jesus' sonship (Matt. 17.1–8), and that sonship is clearly superior to Moses' status as God's servant (Heb. 3.1–6; cf. Num. 12.7; Deut. 34.5; Josh. 1.2; Ps. 105.26; Mal. 4.4).
The artistic tradition of depicting Moses with horns on his forehead arose from the understanding by some ancient translators of the Hebrew verb qāran (Exod. 34.29) as related to the noun qeren, “horn”; an alternative is to understand the verb as meaning “to shine” (so NRSV, and most earlier English translations).
John H. Hayes