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Moses, (Hebrew: Moshe) , son of Amram and his wife Jochebed, a Levite. Legendary Hebrew liberator, leader, lawgiver, prophet, and historian. If he is a historical figure, he may have lived between the 13th century BC and the early part of the 12th century BC.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. He received the will of God on Mount Sinai, which he then wrote down. The Torah also contains the life story of Moses and his people till his death at the age of 120 years old. It has been traditionally assumed that Moses wrote all, or almost all, of the Torah, and this is stll the view of much of Christianity and most of Orthodox Judaism. However, advances in higher criticism have convinced several Bible scholars that this work, in the form we know it today, was edited together from several earlier sources. This idea is discussed in the entry on the documentary hypothesis.

Moses in the Hebrew Bible

The birth of Moses occurred at a time when Pharaoh had commanded that all male children born to Hebrew captives should be killed. Jochebed, the wife of the Levite Amram, bore a son, and kept him concealed for three months. When she could keep him hidden no longer, rather than deliver him to be killed, she set him adrift on the Nile river in an ark of bulrushes. The daughter of Pharaoh discovered the baby and adopted him as her son, and named him "Moses."

When Moses was grown to manhood, he went one day to see how it fared with his brethren, bondmen to the Egyptians. Seeing an Egyptian maltreating a Hebrew, he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand, supposing that no one who would be disposed to reveal the matter knew of it. The next day, seeing two Hebrews quarreling, he endeavored to separate them, whereupon the Hebrew who was wronging his brother taunted Moses with slaying the Egyptian. Moses soon discovered from a higher source that the affair was known, and that Pharaoh was likely to put him to death for it; he therefore made his escape to the Sinaitic Peninsula and settled with Hobab, or Jethro, priest of Midian, whose daughter Zipporah he in due time married. There he sojourned forty years, following the occupation of a shepherd, during which time his son Gershom was born (Ex. ii., 11-22).

Mission from God

One day, as Moses led his flock to Mount Horeb, he saw a bush burning without being consumed. When he turned aside to look more closely at the marvel, God spoke to him from the bush revealing his Name YHVH to Moses. God also commissioned him to return to Egypt and deliver his brethren from their bondage. He then returned to Egypt (Ex. 4. 1-9, 20). Moses was met on his arrival in Egypt by his elder brother, Aaron, and gained a hearing with his oppressed brethren (Ex. 4. 27-31). It was a more difficult matter, however, to persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrews depart. This was not accomplished until God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians. These plagues culminated in the slaying of the Egyptian first-born (Ex. 12. 29), whereupon such terror seized the Egyptians that they urged the Hebrews to leave.

In the Wilderness

The children of Israel, with their flocks and herds, started toward the eastern border at the southern part of the Isthmus of Suez. The long procession moved slowly, and found it necessary to encamp three times before passing the Egyptian frontier at the Bitter Lakes. Meanwhile Pharaoh had repented and was in pursuit of them with a large army (Ex. 14. 5-9). Shut in between this army and the Red Sea, or the Bitter Lakes, which were then connected with it, the Israelites despaired, but YHVH (the LORD) divided the waters of the sea so that they passed safely across; when the Egyptians attempted to follow, He permitted the waters to return upon them and drown them (Ex. xiv. 10-31). Moses led the Hebrews to Sinai, or Horeb, where Jethro celebrated their coming by a great sacrifice in the presence of Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Ex. 18). At Horeb, or Sinai, YHVH welcomed Moses upon the sacred mountain and talked with him face to face (Ex. 19). He gave him the Ten Commandments and the Law and entered into a covenant with Israel through him. This covenant bound God to be Israel's God, if Israel would keep God's commandments.

Moses and the Israelites sojourned at Sinai about a year (cf. Num. 10. 11), and Moses had frequent communications from God. As a result of these the Tabernacle, according to the last chapters of Exodus, was constructed, the priestly law ordained, the plan of encampment arranged both for the Levites and the non-priestly tribes (cf. Num. 1. 50 - 2. 34), and the Tabernacle consecrated. While at Sinai Joshua had become general of the armies of Israel and the special minister, or assistant, of Moses (Ex. 17. 9). From Sinai Moses led the people to Kadesh, whence the spies were sent to Canaan. Upon the return of the spies the people were so discouraged by their report that they refused to go forward, and were condemned to remain in the wilderness until that generation had passed away.

After the lapse of thirty-eight years, Moses led the people eastward. Having gained friendly permission, they passed through the territory of the Edomites, descendants of Esau, and through the land of Moab. But Sihon, king of the Amorites, whose capital was at Heshbon, refused permission, and was conquered by Moses, who allotted his territory to the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Og, King of Bashan, was similarly overthrown, and his territory assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh.

The Death of Moses

After all this was accomplished Moses was warned that he would not be permitted to lead Israel across the Jordan, but would die on the eastern side (Num. 20. 12). He assembled the tribes and delivered to them a parting address. When this was finished, and he had pronounced a blessing upon the people, he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, looked over the country spread out before him, and died, at the age of one hundred and twenty. God Himself buried him in an unknown grave (Deut. 34.).

Moses in Jewish thought

There is a wealth of stories and additional information about Moses in the Jewish genre of rabbinical exegesis known as Midrash, as well as in the primary works of the Jewish oral law, the Mishna and the Talmud.

Moses in Christian thought

For Christians, Moses -- mentioned more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament figure -- is often a symbol of the contrast between traditional Judaism and the teachings of Jesus. New Testament writers often made comparison of Jesus' words and deeds with Moses' in order to explain Jesus' mission. In the book of Acts, for example, the rejection of Moses by the Jews when they worshipped the golden calf is likened to the rejection of Jesus, also by the Jews.

Moses also figures into several of Jesus' messages. When he met the Pharisee Nicodemus at night in the third chapter of John, he compares Moses' lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness, which any Israelite could look upon and be healed, to his own lifting up (by his death and resurrection) for the people to look upon and be healed. In the sixth chapter, Jesus responds to the people's claim that Moses provided them manna in the wilderness by saying that it was not Moses, but God, who provided. Calling himself the "bread of life", Jesus states that he is now provided to feed God's people.

Moses is also regarded as a symbol of the law, and so he is presented in all three Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, respectively.

Moses in Islamic thought

The story of Moses is retold and embellished in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. In the Quran Moses is known as Musa; a separate entry exists on the Islamic teachings about Musa. See Musa (prophet).

Moses in Art, Literature, Drama and Music


The Metallica song, Creeping Death, features Moses' tenth plague, The death of all the Firstborn in Egypt, from the Pharaoh's son down to the Firstborn of the cattle.

In the song, Moses is reffered to as "the chosen one."

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Moses in history

There is a school of skeptics called Bible Minimalism, whose views are commonplace among academics, have suggested Moses never actually existed as a historical figure, and the events of Exodus, uncorroborated, are the products of pure myth. There is no extra-biblical evidence that Moses existed as a historical person. See the article on The Bible and history.

Ethical dilemmas

If the Bible is literally describing an accurate description of Moses' views, then by modern standards some of his commands would amount to calls for murder, war crimes or rape. For instance, according to Numbers 31:15-18, he called for the forced marriage of Midianite women to Israelite veterans of the Midian war.

For both Jews and Christians, the five books of Moses are holy books revealed by God, and the message within them is eternal. For Unitarian-Universalists is regarded as a sacred text, but not as a divinely revealed work. Adherents of all these faiths understand the serious ethical dilemmas that arise when reading certain parts of the Bible. As such, Jews and Christians have developed a number of responses to understanding such texts. There are two basic positions that one can assume when approaching such texts, both of which offer a variety of responses.

The traditional approach is what we now call fundamentalist; it assumes that Biblical character, the situations described, and the word said took place precisely as the Bible says it happened. A more modern religious liberal approach rejects this view, and holds that the text of the Bible, especially the five books of Moses, were edited together from a number of sources over a long period of time. In this view, the situations described in the Bible do not necessarilly represent the actual words or intentions of the Biblical characters, but instead represent the view of the editors of the Bible. (more to come)

Unitarian-Universalists adopt a non-fundamentist approach: "We do not, however, hold the Bible-or any other account of human experience-to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper) - with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally." (Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions)

See also: Aaron, Biblical figures, Passage of Red Sea


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