Moses: In the Bible & Beyond

The greatest of Jewish leaders and prophets.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The biblical character of Moses is the most important figure in Judaism, the leader of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage and particularly, the great teacher of the Torah he received from God; hence the Torah is often called the "Torah of Moses." 

The Biblical Story

As told in the Pentatuech from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, the story of Moses begins with his birth to Amram and Jochebed in Egypt. When his mother had hidden him in the reeds of the Nile in order to save his life, because he was threatened by Pharaoh's decree that every Hebrew male be put to death, Pharaoh's daughter took pity on the infant and adopted him as her son. When Moses grew to manhood he went out of the royal palace, where he had been brought up as an Egyptian prince, to see the afflictions of his Hebrew brethren toiling under the lash of the Egyptian taskmasters.

painting of mosesWitnessing an Egyptian seeking to kill an Israelite, Moses slew the Egyptian, as a result of which he was obliged to flee for his life. Escaping to Midian, Moses served as a shepherd to Jethro, the priest of Midian, whose daughter, Zipporah, he married. During his stay in Midian, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and ordered him to go to Pharaoh to demand that the people be released from their bondage; eventually, God said, Moses would lead them to the land of Canaan, the land of their fathers.

When, after the ten plagues, Pharaoh finally let the people go, the Egyptians pursued the escaping Israelites but were drowned in the waters of the sea, whereupon Moses led the people in a song of victory. Arriving at Mount Sinai, the people received the Decalogue and, during his forty days stay on the mountain, where he neither ate nor drank, Moses received further laws and instructions which he taught to the people. Moses led the Israelites through the Wilderness for forty years until they came to the borders of the Promised Land. There Moses died at the age of 120 and there he was buried.

This is the bare outline of the Moses saga as told in much greater detail in the Pentateuch, and the whole is elaborated on in numerous Midrashic legends. According to the traditional view the Moses story, and, indeed, the whole of the Pentateuch, was compiled by Moses himself at the direct "dictation" of God, a view that is still accepted in Orthodox Judaism despite the fact that it has been heavily assailed by biblical criticism, in which discipline the Pentateuch is seen as a composite work produced in different periods of Israel's history.

The question of the historical Moses has exercised the minds of biblical scholars, very few of whom, however, go so far as to deny completely that Moses is a historical figure. What requires to be discussed is not so much the question of the historical Moses but rather the role this towering figure occupies in the life and thought of the Jewish religion.

Later Jewish Tradition

A marked ambivalence is to be observed in the Jewish tradition with regard to the personality of Moses. On the one hand, Moses is hailed as the intermediary between God and man, as the instrument of God's revelation of the Torah and the teacher of the Torah to Israel, as the father of all the prophets, with whom God spoke "face to face" (Exodus 33:11). On the other hand, strenuous efforts were made to reject any notion that Moses is divine or semi-divine.

Even in the Pentateuch, Moses is described as a human being with human failings. He is reluctant to be God's messenger (Exodus 3:11); he loses his temper (Numbers 20:9-11); he marries and has children (Exodus 18:2-4); and eventually, like all human beings, he dies and is buried (Deuteronomy 34). For all his role as the intermediary, it is not Moses but God who gives the Torah to Israel. There is a rabbinic saying that if God had not given the Torah to Moses, He could have given it, with the same effect, to Ezra. Judaism is in no way "Mosaism." It is the religion of the Jewish people.

In the Middle Ages, there were a number of Jewish thinkers who, evidently in response to the claims made for Jesus by Christians and for Muhammad by Muslims, so elevated the role of Moses that the Jewish religion was made to center on him.

Moses Maimonides on Moses

But the opposite tendency is also clearly to be observed. Precisely because Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam, center on an individual, these thinkers declared that Judaism, on the contrary, singles out no individual, not even a Moses, as belonging to the heart of the faith. The stresses in the matter vary in proportion to the particular challenge in the period in which the role of Moses is considered. Throughout, the tension exists between an affirmation that Moses is supremely significant and the need to play down the role of Moses. Maimonides is extraordinary in laying down, as a principle of the faith, that the Jew is obliged to believe that Moses is the greatest man who ever lived and, even, that his status is of the angels. But, as with his other principles, Maimonides is reacting, in a particularly strong emphasis, to the challenges to Judaism in his day and a careful reading of Maimonides' formulation shows that he hedges round his statement with a number of reservations.

bible quizIn his formulation of the seventh principle in the commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin10:1) Maimonides writes:

"The seventh principle of faith. The prophecy of Moses our Teacher. This implies that we must believe he was the father of all the prophets before him and that those who came after him were all beneath him in rank. He was chosen by God from the whole human kind. He comprehended more of God than any man in the past or future ever comprehended or will comprehend. And we must believe that he reached a state of exaltedness beyond the sphere of humanity, so that he attained to the angelic rank and became included in the order of the angels. There was no veil which he did not pierce. No material hindrance stood in his way, and no defect whether small or great mingled itself with him. The imaginative and sensual powers of his perceptive faculty were stripped from him. His desiderative power was still and he remained pure intellect only. It is in this significance that it is remarked of him that he discoursed with God without any angelic intermediary."

It has to be appreciated that, in addition to the reservations Maimonides goes on to express, he is thinking only of Moses' perception of God through which he received the divine communication. It is only in this that Moses is greater than any other human being, and it is not to be thought that Moses in himself was faultless.

The Considerate Teacher

From Talmudic times the usual appellation of Moses is Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses our Teacher." A passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 49b) states that the difference between Moses and all the other prophets is that they saw through a dim glass while Moses saw through a clear glass. Moses was chosen to be Israel's leader because he was so considerate, to his flock when shepherding for Jethro (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2). In another passage (Nedarim 38a) Moses is said to have been wealthy, strong, and meek since the Holy One, blessed be He, only causes His spirit to rest on a person who has these endowments.

Moses and his brother Aaron are frequently mentioned together as the leaders of the people, Moses being the stern man of law, brooking no compromise, while Aaron is the leader who loves peace and pursues it. Moses died through a kiss of God (Bava Batra 17a) and God Himself buried him (Sotah 14a) in a cave that had been prepared for him since the eve of the Sabbath of creation (Pesahim 54a).

There is no official Jewish attitude to Moses. What matters for Judaism is the role Moses plays in bringing the Torah to Israel and in interpreting the Torah for them. In this sense every teacher of the Torah follows in Moses' footsteps and adds something to the Torah of Moses. This appears to be the idea behind the oft-quoted Talmudic legend (Menahot 29b) that when Moses was miraculously transported into the school of Rabbi Akiba he was at first dismayed that he was unable to understand what Rabbi Akiba was teaching. But when a disciple asked Akiba how he knew something and Akiba replied: "It is tradition from Moses our teacher," Moses' mind was set at rest.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.