Moses, Hebrew prophet and lawgiver and founder of Israel, or the Jewish people. The story of his life is set forth principally in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. According to this account, he was born in Goshen, a part of ancient Egypt. At that time the Hebrews lived in Egypt and were oppressed by the Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh. Just before the birth of Moses, Pharaoh had ordered that all Hebrew male infants be put to death. To save her child, Moses’s mother placed him in a basket made of papyrus and set it floating on the Nile River in the view of his sister, Miriam (see Exodus 2:4; Numbers 26:59). He was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, who brought the infant up as her own child. When an adult, Moses killed an Egyptian who had murdered a Hebrew; he then fled from Egypt. Moses was a shepherd until he was 80 years of age. At this time the god of the Hebrews, Yahweh, or Jehovah, appeared to him in a burning bush and commanded him to go back to Egypt and deliver his people from their bondage; he was to lead them out of Egypt to the land of Canaan, in what was later Palestine, where they were to settle permanently. To assist him in this project Yahweh gave Moses the power to perform miracles.
II THE EXODUS
Moses went to Pharaoh with his brother Aaron, but in spite of the miracles he worked, such as changing the water of the Nile to blood and bringing plagues upon the Egyptians, Pharaoh would not release the Hebrew people. At last, he consented, and Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt toward Canaan. As they neared the Red Sea, a hostile Egyptian army, dispatched by Pharaoh, came upon them from the rear. Moses stretched out his arm, whereupon the Red Sea rose up in two walls, leaving dry land between them. The Hebrews crossed on the land, but when the Egyptians tried to pursue them, the walls of water broke upon them, and they drowned. When the Hebrews reached Sinai, on the Sinai Peninsula, Moses ascended the mountain to speak with Yahweh. He spent 40 days and nights with Yahweh, from whom he received two tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, which thereafter constituted the fundamental laws of the Hebrews. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and desert under Moses’s leadership and the endurance of many hardships, such as earthquakes, plagues, fires, thirst, and wars with the native people of Palestine, the Hebrews at last came to Canaan. Moses was permitted by Yahweh to see Canaan, the Promised land, from the top of Mount Pisgah (now in Jordan), and then he died. Before he died, however, he turned the leadership of the people over to Joshua. Although the dates of Moses’s birth and death are hard to establish, many contemporary authorities believe that the exodus took place in the 13th century bc.
III THE PENTATEUCH
Besides being one of the most famous national leaders and lawgivers in history, Moses was reputedly the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, known collectively as the Pentateuch, and also of other parts of the Old Testament, including possibly the Book of Job. Scholars agree almost unanimously, however, that these books are the interwoven work of many authors.
IV IN CHRISTIANITY
Moses is also well known to Christians; he is mentioned frequently in the New Testament. At Christ’s transfiguration, he represents the Law (see Matthew 17:3), and the role he plays in the Old Testament is pointed out in the Epistle to the Hebrews, so as to offer a comparison with that of Christ (see Hebrews 3:1-6). He is also mentioned in the Gospel of John, again to underscore the role of Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures (see John 1:17).