statue of moses

Who Was Moses in the Bible?

The greatest Jewish prophet led the Israelites out of Egypt and received the Torah at Sinai, but he never entered the promised land.

Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) was the most important leader of the Jewish people, the greatest of the Jewish prophets and, according to the Torah, the only person who ever spoke to God face-to-face. He led the Israelites out of slavery and then to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. From there, he led them on their journey of 40 years through the wilderness until his death just before they entered the land of Israel.

Moses is traditionally regarded as the author of the Torah, which is consequently sometimes called the Five Books of Moses. In his statement of the 13 articles of Jewish faith, a poetic version of which is sung as the hymn Yigdal on Friday nights in synagogue, Maimonides asserts: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”

The Life of Moses

What we know of Moses’ life comes from the narratives of the Hebrew Bible. Born in Egypt at a time when the Pharaoh had ordered all newborn Israelite boys to be murdered, Moses was hidden by his mother and then, once he became too old to hide, sent floating down the Nile River in a basket. With his sister Miriam stationed on the banks of the river to watch over him, Moses was drawn from the water by Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. She gave him the name Moses, which comes from an Egyptian word that means “drawn from” or “born of,” signifying the manner in which she found him. 

Moses grew up in the royal household but his keen sense of justice got him into trouble one day when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite and was so incensed he slew the Egyptian and buried the body in the sand. To escape punishment, he fled to Midian, where he married Zipporah, the daughter of a local chieftain, and lived as a shepherd until God appeared to him in the form of a burning bush, ordering him to return to Egypt to secure the freedom of the Israelites. Moses, famously modest, repeatedly declined to take on the mission.

Eventually Moses agreed and, teaming up with his brother Aaron, who did much of the public speaking because Moses had a speech impediment, appealed to the Pharaoh to free the Israelites. His heart hardened by God, Pharaoh repeatedly refused, even as God rained down increasingly horrific plagues. Eventually, the infamous tenth plague, the killing of the first born, changed Pharaoh’s mind. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt the following morning to the shores of the Reed Sea. As Pharaoh (who had changed his mind once again) bore down on the Israelites, Moses raised his staff and God parted the waters, allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land. 

Moses next guided the Israelites to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Moses spent 40 days and nights atop the mountain, while the Israelites, distraught by his long absence, constructed a golden calf. For this sin, God almost destroyed the entire people, but Moses convinced God to reconsider. In this and many other moments, the unparalleled closeness between Moses and God — who spoke to one another panim-el-panim, face-to-face — made it possible for Moses to act as an intercessor on behalf of the people and save them from destruction.

Moses remained the leader of the Israelites for another 40 years until his death, during which time he became an able administrator (coached in part by his father-in-law Jethro, who taught him to delegate), guided them through the wilderness, staved off challenges to his authority and taught the Israelites what God expected of them. In the final chapters of the Torah, his extraordinary death is recounted. At God’s behest, Moses ascends Mount Nebo and surveys the land he will not enter. He dies on the mountain and God buries him in a secret grave so that his burial site will not become an object of worship. Moses’ hand-picked successor, Joshua, becomes the new leader who will bring the Israelites into the land of Israel. 

Rabbinic Legends About Moses

In the Talmud, Moses is often referred to as Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our Teacher.” The rabbis of the Talmud wrote a great many legends about Moses — likely more than about any other biblical figure. One of the most famous (Exodus Rabbah 1:26) explains the origins of his speech impediment. According to this tradition, while bouncing on the knee of the Pharaoh, the baby Moses grabbed the monarch’s crown and placed it on his own head. This was seen as a dangerous omen, a sign that Moses would grow up to take power from the ruler of Egypt, and the magicians of Egypt urged his execution. But Jethro spoke up, reminding them that Moses was just a tot. To prove Moses was no real threat, Jethro invited the court to set a jewel-encrusted crown and a bowl of glowing coals before the child to see which he would reach for. Baby Moses did indeed move his hand out toward the crown, but the angel Gabriel redirected him to the coals. As most any baby would, Moses then stuck the hot coal in his mouth and burned his tongue, causing his speech impediment.

Other legends about Moses highlight his modesty which, according to Numbers 12:3, was unequaled: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” In one particularly famous story, Moses is taken by God into the classroom of Rabbi Akiva, who would live some 1,000 years after him. Moses is overwhelmed by Rabbi Akiva’s Torah teaching and cannot understand it. Once God has reassured Moses that this is indeed the same Torah that Moses received on Sinai, Moses says to God: “Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as this and yet You still choose to give the Torah through me?” (Menachot 29b) 

There are also legends that expound on Moses’ righteousness. For example, one explains that while the Israelites were “borrowing” silver and gold from their neighbors to take on their way out of Egypt, Moses sought out the remains of Joseph. God was impressed that Moses took on the obligation to relocate Joseph’s remains, even though Joseph was not his direct ancestor, God promised to bury Moses. (Exodus Rabbah 20:19) Indeed, Moses’ death is a source of much speculation, not only because his burial site was chosen by God and unknown to humans, but also because the Torah says that he died by God’s word (literally: God’s mouth). One tradition (Yalkut Shimoni 940) holds that when it was time for him to die, God administered a kiss. Then, God wept.

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