Who Was Moses?

Prophet, Leader, and More

Michelangelo's Moses

One of the most well-known individuals in countless religious traditions, Moses overcame his own fears and insecurities to lead the Israelite nation out from Egyptian bondage and to the promised land of Israel.  He was a prophet, an intermediary for the Israelite nation struggling out of a pagan world and into a monotheistic world, and so much more. 

Name Meaning

In Hebrew, Moses is actually Moshe (משה), which comes from the verb "to pull out" or "to draw out" and refers to when he was rescued from the water in Exodus 2:5-6 by Pharaoh's daughter.

 

Major Accomplishments

There are countless major events and miracles attributed to Moses, but some of the big ones include:

  • Leading the Israelite nation away from slavery in Egypt
  • Guiding the Israelites through the wilderness and into the land of Israel
  • Writing the whole of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)
  • Being the last human to have direct, personal interactions with God

His Birth and Childhood

Moses was born into the tribe of Levi to Amram and Yocheved during a period of Egyptian oppression against the Israelite nation in the second half of the 13th century BCE. He had an older sister, Miriam, and an older brother, Aharon (Aaron). During this period, Ramses II was Pharaoh of Egypt and had decreed that all male babies born to the Hebrews were to be murdered. 

After three months of attempting to hide the baby, in an effort to save her son, Yocheved placed Moses in a basket and sent him away on the Nile river.

Down the Nile, Pharaoh's daughter discovered Moses, pulled him from the water (meshitihu, from which his name is believed to originate), and vowed to raise him in her father's palace. She hired a wet nurse from among the Israelite nation to care for the boy, and that wet nurse happened to be none other than Moses's very own mother, Yocheved.

 

Between Moses's being brought into Pharaoh's house and him reaching adulthood, the Torah doesn't say much about his childhood. In fact, Exodus 2:10-12 skips a large chunk of Moses's life leading us to the events that would paint his future as a leader of the Israelite nation. 

The child grew up, and (Yocheved) brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moses, and she said, "For I drew him from the water." Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Adulthood

This tragic incident led Moses to land in the crosshairs of the Pharaoh, who sought to kill him for murdering an Egyptian. As a result, Moses fled to the desert where he settled with the Midianites and took a wife from the tribe, Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro (Jethro). While tending Yitro's herd, Moses happened upon a burning bush at Mount Horeb that, despite being engulfed in flames, was not being consumed.

It is this moment that God engaged Moses actively for the first time, telling Moses that he had been chosen to liberate the Israelites from the tyranny and slavery they suffered in Egypt.

Moses was understandably taken aback, responding,

"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Exodus 3:11).

​God attempted to give him confidence by outlining his plan, relating that Pharaoh's heart would be hardened and the task would be difficult, but that God will perform great miracles to liberate the Israelites. But Moses again responded famously,

Moses said to the Lord, "I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue" (Exodus 4:10).

At last, God grew weary of Moses's insecurities and suggested that Aharon, Moses's older brother could be the speaker, and Moses would be the leader.

With confidence in tow, Moses returned to his father-in-law's home, took his wife and children, and headed to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. 

The Exodus

Upon their return to Egypt, Moses and Aharon told Pharaoh that God had commanded that Pharaoh release the Israelites from bondage, but Pharaoh refused. Nine plagues were miraculously brought upon Egypt, but Pharaoh continued to resist releasing the nation. The tenth plague was the death of the first-born children of Egypt, including Pharaoh's son, and, at last, Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go.

These plagues and the resultant exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commemorated every year in the Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach), and you can read more about the plagues and miracles in The Passover Story.

The Israelites quickly packed up and left Egypt, but Pharaoh changed his mind about the release and pursued them aggressively. When the Israelites reached the Reed Sea (also called the Red Sea), the waters were miraculously parted to allow the Israelites to cross safely. As the Egyptian army entered the parted waters, they closed, drowning the Egyptian army in the process. 

The Covenant

After weeks of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites, led by Moses, reach Mount Sinai, where they camped and received the Torah. While Moses is atop the mountain, the famous sin of the Golden Calf takes place, causing Moses to break the original tablets of the covenant. He returns to the top of the mountain and when he returns again, it is here that the entire nation, freed from Egyptian tyranny and led by moses, accepts the covenant. 

Upon the Israelites' acceptance of the covenant, God decides that it is not the present generation that will enter the land of Israel, but rather a future generation. The result is that the Israelites wander with Moses for 40 years, learning from some very vital mistakes and occurrences. 

His Death

Unfortunately, God commands that Moses will not, in fact, enter the land of Israel. The reason for this is that, when the people rose up against Moses and Aharon after the well that had provided them sustenance in the desert dried up, God commanded Moses as follows:

"Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink" (Numbers 20:8).

Frustrated with the nation, Moses didn't do as God commanded, but rather he struck the rock with the staff. As God says to Moses and Aharon,

"Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). 

It is bittersweet for Moses, who took on such a great and complicated task, but as God commanded, Moses dies just before the Israelites enter the promised land. 

Bonus Fact

The term in the Torah for the basket that Yocheved placed Moses in is teva (תיבה), which literally means "box," and is the same word used to refer to the ark (תיבת נח) that Noah entered to be spared from the flood. This world only appears twice in the whole of the Torah!

This is an interesting parallel as both Moses and Noah were spared imminent death by a simple box, which allowed for Noah to rebuild humankind and for Moses to bring the Israelites into the promised land. Without the teva, there would be no Jewish people today!