Biography of Moses, Leader of the Abrahamic Religions

Statue of Moses by Herman Vilhelm Bissen in Copenhagen
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Moses, if he existed, likely lived in Egypt during the dynastic New Kingdom, and he was an early leader of the Hebrews and one of the most important figures in Judaism. He is a significant patriarch of all the Abrahamic religions, those who use the Torah, Christian Old Testament, or Quran as sacred texts.

Fast Facts: Moses

  • Known For: Patriarch of the Torah, Christian Old Testament, and Quran. 
  • Born: Land of Goshen, New Kingdom, Egypt. 
  • Parents: Yocheved and Amram.
  • Died: Mount Nebo, Moab.
  • Spouse(s): Adoniah or Tharbis, an Ethiopian princess; Tzipporah the Midianite
  • Children: From Tzipporah, Gershom and Eliezer.

Early Life

If there was a historical man named Moses, he would most likely have been born in Egypt (the "Land of Goshen") during the reign of Ramses II (ruled 1279–1213 BCE), pharaoh of the New Kingdom's 19th dynasty.

According to the Torah, Moses was the youngest of three children born to Yocheved (sometimes spelled Jochebed) and Avram. Yocheved was the daughter of Levi; she married Avram, a grandson of Levi, which means Yocheved was also Avram's aunt. Moses' siblings were Aaron (the founder of the Hebraic priestly dynasty) and Miriam (an important prophetess).

Pharaoh's Curse

Not much else is available on Avram or Yocheved in the Torah itself, but Midrashim records—ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Torah—say that Yocheved was 130 years od when Moses was born, and that Avram divorced Yocheved while she was pregnant, so that their son Moses would escape the pharaoh's decree.

According to Exodus, the pharaoh of Egypt decreed that all Hebrew boy babies were to be drowned at birth. Yocheved hid her newborn son for 3 months and then placed her baby in a wicker basket in the Nile River reeds. The baby cried and was rescued by one of the pharaoh's daughters who kept the baby.

This legend is similar to one in the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh, when the Sumerian king Sargon I was placed in a reed basket and floated down the Euphrates river.

In the Court of the Pharaoh

Moses' sister the prophetess Miriam knew what would occur and was watching when the daughter of the pharaoh took the baby. Miriam came forward to ask the princess if she would like a Hebrew wet nurse for the infant. When the princess agreed, Miriam fetched Yocheved.

Moses grew up in the palace as an adopted son of the pharaoh's daughter (identified the Midrash as Queen Bithia), but he went to see his own people when he grew up, and as an adult he may have been a governor working for Ramses II. During Ramses II's reign, Ethiopia was an Egyptian province, with an Egyptian governor named Mesui, who some scholars suggest was Moses. While in Ethiopia, Moses married an Ethiopian princess named Tharbis or Adonais.

When he witnessed an overseer beating a Hebrew, Moses struck the Egyptian and killed him, with the beaten Hebrew as a witness. The pharaoh learned that Moses was the murderer and ordered his execution. Moses fled to the land of Midian, where he married Tzipporah, daughter of Jethro. Their sons were Gershom and Eliezer.

A Burning Bush

In the land of Midian, Moses was tending a flock of sheep for his father-in-law when he saw a bush that was burning, but not being consumed by the flames. He approached the bush and first an angel and then God (or more properly Yahweh) himself spoke to him, telling him that he must return to Egypt and shepherd the Israelites out to Canaan, their promised land of milk and honey. Moses was convinced when Yahweh changed his staff to a snake, then gave him a new staff with which to lead his people.

Moses returned to Egypt to seek the release of the Hebrews and to bring them to Canaan, but when he approached the pharaoh, Ramses refused to release the Hebrews. In retaliation, Yahweh imposed a series of 10 plagues, the last being the killing the firstborn of every Egyptian. Only after suffering through the beginning of the tenth plague, di the pharaoh relent, telling Moses he could take the Hebrews out of Egypt.

However, after Moses and the Hebrews left, the pharaoh reversed his decision and had his men follow them. When they reached the Red Sea, Moses used his staff to part the waters and allow the Israelites to pass through the seabed. The Egyptian soldiers also entered the dry seabed, but once the Israelites had safely crossed Moses lifted his arms: the sea closed, and the Egyptian army was drowned.

The Biblical Exodus

During the 40-year journey of the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan, Moses went to Mount Sinai to fast and commune with Yahweh for 40 days. There he received the 10 Commandments from Yahweh. While Moses was gone, his followers including Aaron became nervous that he would not return and built a golden calf. Moses told Yahweh that his followers had begun to leave, and Yahweh wanted to kill them, but Moses dissuaded him. But, when Moses saw the actual calf and altar he was so angry he hurled and shattered the two tablets holding the 10 Commandments; Moses made two more tablets and Yahweh inscribed them again.

When the people complained they needed food in the desert, Yahweh fed the Israelites with manna, a substance "white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey" that rained down from the heavens, and quail.

Death

Near the end of the forty years, Yahweh informed Moses that only the new generation of Israelites would enter Canaan, and for that reason, Moses would never see the Promised Land. Moses climbed Mt. Abarim and saw Canaan on the horizon, but that was as close as he would come.

Moses chose Joshua as the successor, and, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses climbed Mt. Nebo and died.

Who was Moses?

Much of this tale is legendary and full of miracles, the stuff of ancient religion. But the role of Moses in the Bible, to Jews, Christians, and Moslems, is rich and complex beyond the miracles. He is seen by all three as the leader of the Israelite people who shepherded them out of Egypt. He is the embodiment of Mosaic law—the one who interceded with Yahweh on behalf of his people, and the one who acted as judge on behalf of the sacred. He was a teacher and the founder of the cult and sanctuary of the ancient Hebraic religion.

The last four books of the Torah—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are primarily dedicated to the life and activities of Moses and his people. Exodus starts with the birth of Moses and Deuteronomy ends with his death and burial by Yahweh. Early interpretations of that circumstance suggested that Moses himself wrote the books of the Torah (or received them direct from Yahweh). Modern biblical scholars mostly agree that the five books were redacted from four independently written documents written long after Moses would have died.

The Ptolemaic-era Egyptian historian Manetho mentions Moses—again long after Moses's death. There are other late historical references in the writings of the Roman historians Josephus, Philo, Apion, Strabo, Tacitus, and Porphyry. His story is told in the Bible in the book of Exodus and the ancient commentaries on the biblical text known as the midrashim. As Musa, he is also is a significant prophet in the Quran.

The biblical scholar J. Van Seters, said it best, "The quest for the historical Moses is a futile exercise. He now belongs only to legend."

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