Moses as a child

Moses as a babyMoses was born to Hebrew parents in Egypt, under the rule of a Pharaoh. The Egyptians felt threatened by the fast-growing Hebrew community living in their land (see Big ideas: Slavery). In an attempt to contain them, Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be drowned at birth. Moses' mother saved him by putting him in a little basket waterproofed with pitch, among the rushes at the edge of the River Nile. He was found there by one of the Pharaoh's daughters, who decided to keep him. His sister Miriam quick-wittedly came forward and suggested fetching a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby, so he was in fact cared for by his own mother until old enough to live in the palace (Exodus 1:22 and Exodus 2:1-10).

Called by God

As a young man, Moses had to flee for his life, after killing an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew slave. He escaped through the Sinai peninsula to the far side of the desert, where he married the daughter of a Midianite. He settled there and looked after his flocks, gaining detailed knowledge of the terrain through which he would later lead the Hebrew people, who came to be known as Israelites. Some time later, Moses encountered God, who called to him from a burning bush which burned but was not consumed. God's message was:

The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt … into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-10).

Leading the exodus from Egypt

Moses was reluctant to obey God but with the support of his brother Aaron confronted the Pharaoh with Moses and the parting of the Red SeaGod's message,‘Let my people go.' Pharaoh kept refusing, in spite of a series of terrible plagues. Finally, after the tenth plague, the Israelites were told to leave at once. This is known as the exodus (Exodus 5:12-42) (see also Big ideas: Passover). When Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit of this valuable workforce, the Bible says Moses held his staff out over the waters of the Red Sea, which parted to let the Israelites through, but closed again over the chariots of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:5-31).

The Ten Commandments

The distance from the Red Sea to the Promised Land is not great, but Moses took a roundabout route via the Sinai peninsula. At Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and many detailed laws to guide the people in the way to live. These are contained in the Torah, or the books of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible).

The Israelites complained frequently and rebelled against Moses and God during their journey. They complained about hardships, especially lack of food (Exodus 16:3). In response, God provided them with miraculous food called manna (Exodus 16:4-36), flocks of quails for meat, and with water from the rock (Exodus 17:5-6).

Their most catastrophic rebellion against Moses' leadership came when he sent twelve spies into Canaan, the Promised Land, (see also Big ideas: Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism) which was their destination. The spies returned with proof of the land's fruitfulness, but all except two of them, Joshua (who would later succeed Moses as leader) and Caleb, argued that the inhabitants were too strong to attack. Swayed by the pessimism of the other ten spies, the people clamoured to return to Egypt (Numbers 13:26-33; Numbers 14:1-4).

In the wilderness

As a result, the Israelites were condemned to wander around the desert for forty years, and it was their children who finally crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses recognised that the people's rebellion was not merely against him, but also against God, and many times, he pleaded with God to forgive them (Numbers 14:10-25).

Moses is described as ‘meek', a very humble man (Numbers 12:3), but a prophet and a man with whom God talked as a friend (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). His face was said to glow with reflected glory after he had been on Mount Sinai in God's presence (Exodus 34:29-35). However, Moses was not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, but only to view it from Mount Nebo in Moab:

Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab. The Lord buried him … but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone … No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:5-12).

Related topics

Big ideas: Slavery; Passover; Ten Commandments; Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism

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