By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Prophets

  • Both of Moses' parents (Amram and Jochebed) were of the house of Levi, son of Jacob. Levi had three sons: Gerson, Kohath and Merari. Kohath had four sons, of which Amram was the eldest. Amram married Jochebed (his father's sister). (Ex. 6:16, 18, 20)

This suggests that Moses is merely three generations removed from the Patriarchs and the original settlement in the Promised Land. However, Exodus 12:40 states that the children of Israel remained in Egypt for 430 years. Scholars offer no explanation for this discrepancy.

  • Though it is not mentioned in the beginning, Moses had an older brother (Aaron) (Ex 7:7) and an older sister (Miriam) (Ex 15:20).
  • Other heroes had amazing birth stories as well. Sargon I was also rescued from a basket in the water. There are as many as 20 such narratives in ancient literature. It was intended to show how important and special Moses was from the beginning.
  • The word for "basket" is the same word used for "ark" in the Noah story.
  • Pharaoh's daughter is not named, but she had enough influence to save the baby, even though she knew he was born of Hebrew parents.
    • The great irony is that in deciding to keep the baby, she agrees to pay Moses' mom to raise it for her.
  • Moses had both an adoptive and a biological mom!
  • Moses' name means "to draw out", even though Pharaoh's daughter states it means, "I drew out." At least that's the Hebrew etymology of it.

Did Pharaoh's daughter speak Hebrew? Probably not. In Egyptian, it means "child" or "son". Perhaps, son of an unknown father. Others see it as an abbreviation of Ra - mes - su. In that case, it would mean: "Ra (a sun god) begot him." Some have even made the connection with "Rameses." More likely it is a combination of Mosheh, meaning, water, as in "child of the Nile."

  • Moses' childhood is passed over in silence. Presumably after three years of age, he was returned to Pharaoh's daughter and raised and educated as an Egyptian, though he seems to have known of his Hebrew origin (maybe from his mom?)
  • When he was grown, he intervened on behalf of one of his fellow Israelites, who was being beaten by an Egyptian. He killed the Egyptian. This story suggests that, at the least, Moses had a great deal of empathy for his people. He also had a strong sense of justice, but he might have been a bit of a hothead (or maybe he just didn't know his own strength!)
  • The Israelites were not happy to have Moses killing Egyptians for them. They knew retribution would be fast and furious. They ask Moses, "Who made you a prince and a judge over us?" (Ex. 2:14)
  • Moses fled to Midian, to the SSE of Canaan.
  • Upon arriving, he sits at a well, only to observe shepherds harassing seven young women who've come to draw water. He intervenes, this time without killing anyone, and waters their whole flock.
  • The girls run to tell their father (Reuel/Jethro), who invites Moses to stay and provides a wife for him (Zipporah). Moses' father-in-law is called a priest of Midian. Later he is said to belong to the Kenites (Judges 1:16). Some scholars believe that the Kenites were the original worshipers of God and that, in fact, Moses learned about God from Jethro. However, this is not well attested.
  • For forty years Moses lived quietly in Midian, tending sheep. One day when he had taken the sheep to the backside of Horeb, his world was forever changed.
    • People have yet to pinpoint with any certainty exactly where Horeb is located. Some think it's in a mountain range on the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula; others think it's in northern Arabia. Most agree that Horeb and Sinai are the same place.
  • Moses' interest was piqued by the bush that burned, but was not consumed. The visual jolt was immediately followed by God calling out to him.
  • When God told Moses of his plan, Moses resisted. But God insisted. The exchange went back and forth 7 times! Finally, Moses agreed: He will go back to Egypt.
  • The great "I AM" cannot be easily translated. It means something like "I shall be who I shall be". Or "I am who I am." Or "I will be whom I will be." Or "I am who I am becoming." Scholars don't know how to translate it. The Hebrew letters mean the essence of life itself.
  • Moses asked permission from his father-in-law before he left Midian. With Jethro's blessing, he took his wife and son and headed back to Egypt.
  • Before he ever goes forth, however, God tells Moses that Pharaoh will resist and that he will lose his firstborn son. This is not going to be a cakewalk.
  • Moses' return to the Israelite elders in Egypt was well received; Moses' initial meeting with Pharaoh was not. Pharaoh, thinking the Israelites had too much time on their hands, decided not to provide any more straw for them. The Israelites, in turn, took it out on Moses. Moses took it out on God. God was not dissuaded and merely repeated his orders to Moses. Moses was then given a charge: "Bring my people out of Egypt." There would be no more whining, no more equivocating. The time had come.
  • The word for plague in the original Hebrew is either translated as "signs, wonders, or miracles." The Latin Vulgate is the one who translated it plaga, meaning "blow or affliction."
  • There is a theological purpose behind the plagues.
    • All involved had major lessons to learn:
      • MOSES -- needed to learn to be a leader
      • PHARAOH -- needed to learn the God of Israel was more powerful than anything Egypt had to offer. Egyptian gods were impotent next to Yahweh
      • ISRAELITES -- God had come into their lives in a practical way and they needed to learn to trust Him. They were His chosen people and no one could thwart that.
  • Two of the Egyptian fertility gods, Hapi and Heqt, were represented by a frog's head. The plague of frogs was a direct challenge to their ability to sustain life.
  • Several Egyptian gods were represented by bulls or calves. The fatal plague on the livestock was another affront against Apis, Ptah, and Ra. They were unable to protect the Egyptian animals, though the Israelites' cattle were unharmed.
  • Hail and locusts were a direct attack on the food supply. Egypt faced a return to chaos. Her gods were powerless to help her.
  • Just prior to the 8th plague, Moses turned on his heel and left Pharaoh. That would have been perceived as a huge insult, since only Pharaoh had the right to terminate an interview. When cued by Pharaoh, the speaker was to bow and back out.
  • The "darkness that can be felt" challenged the sun god, Amen-Ra. For three days it was shut out of the land it had supposedly created, totally impotent and under the control of Yahweh.
  • "Borrowing" silver and gold from the Egyptians had great symbolic value. It was not intended to be payment for their work done as slaves; it symbolized the spoils of victory. Egypt was paying tribute to the Israelites. This money would be used in the wilderness to outfit the tabernacle.
  • Passover probably existed as a spring festival long before the Israelites entered Egypt, but it was forever imbued with new meaning after this. Passover translates the Hebrew word, pesah, meaning to limp or be lame, signifying that the Lord "limped" over or "skipped" over the firstborn of the Israelites.
    • Having the Israelites put blood on their doorposts was the first request made of them throughout this whole process. It was a statement of faith, made individually, house by house.
    • The purpose of the death of the firstborn was not to kill innocents, but to once and for all show the absolute power and control of Yahweh. It was effective.
  • "About six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children" left the country. (Ex. 12:37) Some scholars think this is an impossible number in that the entire group would then be 2-3 million people. Arguments are made whether the land could possibly sustain that many people, which is exactly the point. Regardless of the number, ALL the people were sustained by God and God alone.
  • The escape from Egypt signifies the birth of the Israelite nation. It is the beginning of salvation history. It is THE main faith event in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Moses fulfills the deathbed request of Joseph and takes his bones along.
  • The "Red Sea" (Septuagint) is better translated the "Sea of Reeds," and its precise location remains unresolved.
  • The thrill of victory faded as the Israelites saw the swirling dust from Pharaoh's chariots in the distance. The agony of defeat set in as they realized they were trapped by the sea on the south, mountains to the east and west, and Pharaoh's approaching army from the north.
  • The people cried out against Moses and against God. "Oh, if only they could be slaves again." (Ex. 14:12)
  • This time Moses did not falter. He told them to "Stand firm! The Lord will deliver you today!" The sea, of course, parted and they all walked through on dry land. When the Egyptians tried to follow, the sea flowed back and they were destroyed. There were no survivors.
  • The Song of the Sea (Song of Moses) and Miriam's response is probably one of the oldest passages in the Bible. It celebrates Yahweh's victory. The Israelites take no credit for what has transpired. The work is all God's. They are now God's people and full credit is given to their Creator.

The Exodus story, then, ends on a high note. Of course, many more adventures -- good and bad -- await this motley group. This is really only the beginning of their journey and of their story. Their main task over the next few months (and the next 40 years) is to learn to trust the leader they can see as well as the leader they can't see. Moses will act as intermediary between them and God, not because he volunteered, but because God chose him. He will rise to the occasion. Next month we will follow the children of Israel, with Moses as their leader, as they begin to experience life in the wilderness.

Moses in the Wilderness

  • Moses' problems with the children of Israel started less than three days after the parting of the Sea of Reeds? They were in the desert without water and grumbling about it. Moses cried out to God who told him to throw a piece of wood into bitter water and it became sweet.
  • The second time the Israelites grumbled (about the lack of food) God responded before Moses even had a chance to ask -- resulting in bread from heaven (manna) every morning and meat (quail) at night.

To this day scholars struggle with this concept of "manna". They've identified a sticky substance that grows in Sinai, but it is only available during a few months in the summer. It could never have fed so many people for such an extended period of time. Nor does that explain the phenomenon of having a double portion prior to the Sabbath, or having it rot overnight if too much was gathered. Most scholars agree that the lack of awe on the part of the Israelites testifies to the naturalness of the manna. We just don't know what it was. Manna meant "what" or "what is it." Regardless of its origin, the manna was a gift from God.

  • Soon they were without water again, grumbling against Moses. Moses cried out to God. God replied by having Moses strike a rock with his staff. Water came out of the rock.
  • During the battle with the Amalekites Moses became fatigued in holding up his arms to encourage the Israelites. In helping him Aaron and Hur give us a wonderful example of "nursing" or caring for those who are in need. (Ex. 17:8-13)
  • Like many of us, Moses had a problem with delegating and asking for help. Fortunately his father-in-law (Jethro) helped him see the light in getting helpers to manage some of the disputes among the people.

The result was the people got answers quicker and they didn't have to wait in the hot sun all day. Moses was free to work on the really tough problems. A win-win situation all around. (Ex. 18:13-27)

  • Moses led the people to the base of Mount Sinai, arriving three months to the day after walking through the Sea of Reeds.
  • Within the space of one chapter Moses climbs up and down the mountain three times -- quite a feat for someone 80 years old! It highlights his role as mediator or negotiator between God and His people. In truth, God had only put forth a proposal; the people could have rejected it outright.
  • After receiving the Ten Commandments, the people agreed to everything. Moses and Aaron and 70 elders were invited up to worship the Lord. Moses built an altar and sacrificed upon it, throwing the blood upon the people -- that made it binding. It was called the "blood of the Covenant."
  • Then elders went up and shared a covenant meal. They "saw" the Lord, using words for the senses to describe their experience of Him.
  • Then Moses was called up into the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights to receive additional laws and instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle.

In the meantime, of course, the golden calf incident takes place down below. Did you ever wonder how this could happen, given they have just agreed not to have any other gods or to make any graven images? (Thereby breaking Commandments #1 and 2) Well....forty days is a long time. No doubt the people down below thought that Moses had perished on the mountaintop. He had been the visible sign of the Lord among the people; they needed a replacement. What better vehicle to use than the image of a bull, an image of strength and power! Some scholars think the bull was meant to indicate the throne of the Lord, showing that the Lord had power over the bull by sitting on his throne. Perhaps, but the golden calf also contrasts sharply with the conversation God has just had with Moses. The instructions regarding the tabernacle, including the painstaking detail and offerings meant to safeguard the holy presence of God, are undercut by the people's initiative. If having God in their presence was their goal, they blew it. Unbeknownst to them God was already instructing Moses on this very subject.

  • God's anger at the events down below and His resolve to destroy those people brings Moses to his finest hour. This same person who whined in Midian that he was not eloquent becomes very eloquent as he explores the depths of God's character. Moses realizes that God saved these people for a reason and that He would not destroy what He has just saved. As a result, God "repents" and changes His mind.
  • Moses goes down the mountain, and his temper shows again as he slams down the tablets, breaking them. He grinds up the golden calf, making the people drink it, which leads to a plague.
  • Blood sacrifice again restores the covenant -- only this time it is the blood of the unfaithful, which are slain by the tribe of Levi.
  • Moses again prays for the people and returns to the mountain for a second set of tablets. This time he comes down in glory with his face radiant, shining with light. The people are frightened just to look at him, so he covers his face except for the times he talks with the Lord in the tent of meeting. This represents a whole new covenant with a gracious God, "slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." (Ex. 34:4-7) The Lord agrees to accompany His people on their journey.
  • They stayed at Mount Sinai for 14 months. During this time, Moses often spoke with God and received instructions necessary to turn this motley group into a people obedient and grateful to God for His saving acts. First and foremost, Moses was obedient, passing along God's instructions and commands.
  • The people were hyped and oh, so ready.
  • But almost immediately the people were grumbling again. This time they were "tired and bored" with the manna. They pine for the variety of food that had been available to them in Egypt.

God gets angry and Moses loses his temper as well. He asks why God has given him this burden, claiming that God is ultimately responsible for these people having given "birth" to them. Moses did not choose this work; he had been chosen. If God doesn't help in tangible ways, he might as well put Moses to death right now.

  • God sees that Moses needs help. He chooses seventy elders to help and once again sends "quail" every evening.

To some degree these incidents parallel events on the trek toward Mount Sinai. Then, however, these people were like newly adopted children who didn't know any of the rules or what was expected of them. Now, they've been given the Ten Commandments and know what some of their responsibilities are. They've already rejected God once; because of that He nearly abandoned them, changing His mind when Moses interceded for the people. This, then, sets up a scenario that will be repeated many times: people grumble, God's gets angry, Moses intercedes on their behalf, and the punishment stops.

  • Grateful though they were for Moses' intercessions, Miriam and Aaron (his sister and brother) had issues with the primacy of their younger brother. Bolstered by the possibility of joint leadership, they grumbled against Moses for marrying a Cushite and asked, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?"
  • Because Moses "was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth" (Num 12:3), God came to His defense saying that He speaks with Moses "face to face," highlighting the intimate relationship that exists between God and Moses.
  • With the leadership issue temporarily settled, it is time to send out spies to assess the Promised Land. Their report strikes fear into the hearts of the Israelites and once again the people turn on Moses (and Aaron). Despite Moses' best pleas to rely upon God, the people are ready to kill him and find someone else to lead them back to Egypt. (Num 13-14)
  • This, then, becomes another pivotal decision. The people said "no" when they should have said "yes." It turns into a mob scene with Moses remaining silent - maybe there were just no words adequate to express his disappointment.
  • Suddenly they all feel the presence of God. There is quiet. Still, it takes a long time for this one to be resolved. (Some liken this to the Golden Calf episode in Exodus.) God offers to start over with Moses; Moses pleads for the people. Finally, God relents and says only Caleb and Joshua will enter the Promised Land. The remaining generation will perish in the wilderness.
  • Presumably many years pass. Miriam dies. The people are again without water and grumbling. Moses loses his temper (again). God tells him to strike the rock and he does. But he adds a few extra words, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" Water gushed forth as it had so many times before, but God is not pleased. He says to Moses, "You did not trust in me; and you did not honor me as holy." (Num. 20:13) Bottom line: Moses and Aaron won't go into the Promised Land either.
  • The next time the people start complaining about lack of water and boring food (manna), God sends fiery serpents. When the people repented, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and raise it up for all to see.

Perhaps this was one way to get these people to really think about their confession of sin and their commitment to God. The threat of being bitten remained, but so did the cure. Those who were bitten needed only raise their eyes, and "look at it and live." (Num 21:8) And it wasn't just a glance either. They had to fix their eyes upon it and pay attention to it. Each person had to make his or her own decision. God provided for healing, but it required some effort and motivation on their parts. It also required some personal involvement with God. This called for a response from the community and each individual as well.

  • But this was the beginning of the end for the old generation. After a final plague, due to their worshipping of false gods, the old generation is gone.
  • The new generation is more respectful, listening to Moses' instructions and accepting of his authority.
  • Case in point, is when Reuben and Gad prefer to stay outside the Promised Land because the pasture is better on the east side. Moses worries that their refusal threatens the safety of the whole group (Much like the spy story of Chaps 13-14), but they come up with a compromise plan that averts the danger.
  • Moses' last job, then, is to pass the mantle of leadership from himself to Joshua.
  • Necessary though this is, Joshua will never be a carbon copy of Moses. He does not speak with God "face to face" and he will need to rely on the Torah for his guidebook. But the foundation is there.
  • Moses' death is recorded in Deut 34:5 where it says, "Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord."

The legacy of Moses is over, but the next generation is primed and ready to carry forward as heirs of the promises given by God to their fathers. Their story is, in a sense, just beginning and it will continue as they work on trying to understand what it means to be a people of God.


Ashby, Godfrey. "Go Out and Meet God," Exodus, International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998.

Ashley, Timothy. "The Book of Numbers," The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1993.

Beegle, Dewey. Moses, The Servant of Yahweh. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1972.

Daiches, David. Moses: The Man and His Vision. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975.

Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 1998.

Gispen, WH. Exodus, The Bible Student's Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982.

McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Meier, Rabbi Levi. Moses: The Prince, the Prophet. Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Olson, Dennis. Numbers, Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989.

Noordtzij, A. Numbers, Bible Student's Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983.

Sakenfeld, Katharine. "Numbers, Journeying with God." The International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.

Bible Characters