The Biblical Moses

Get to know the real Moses in a BAS Library special collection of articles

Rembrandt, Moses with the Tablets of the Law, public domain
Moses, pictured here in a painting by 17th-century Baroque artist Guido Reni, is one of the most iconic figures in the Hebrew Bible. Despite Moses’ obvious Semitic heritage, the name “Moses” is actually Egyptian, like that of other Biblical figures (Phinehas, Hophni, Hur, Merari). All of them are referred to in the Bible’s Levite sources (E, P and D of the Documentary Hypothesis). Levites like Moses fled Egypt to form a new nation of Israelites who were to “love your neighbor.”

Who was the real Moses?

This is one of the most interesting questions a Biblical scholar can explore, mostly because so much study has been done on Moses’ public life as a leader of the Israelites.

The Moses we know goes from floating in a basket among the reeds along the Nile as an infant to murdering an Egyptian to becoming the majestic tribal leader parting the Red Sea.

That’s why it’s fascinating to dig deeper into the Hebrew Bible commentary on Moses for clues to his personal life. Was he deeply religious as a young man? Was he a natural shepherd of men? Are these the reasons that YHWH chose him to lead His people?

In fact, the answers are murky, but Professor H. Daniel Hays gives us the best possible understanding of the mysteries of Moses in the Hebrew Bible in “Moses: The Private Man Behind the Public Leader.”

Hays delivers a close reading of the Biblical passages related to the inner Moses: His violent streak. His identity as an Egyptian, not an Israelite, when he arrives in Midian. His marriage into another pagan community. This is not YHWH’s Moses that Hays has unearthed in Exodus!

That Moses emerges, of course, as he encounters his God in the burning bush, and departs Midian on God’s command to return to Egypt to rescue his people. Yet even then, Moses does a strange thing, Hays notes: He asks his father-in-law permission to go, even creating an excuse that he must “go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.”

Until this moment, Moses was anything but a devout Jew. And in following Hays’s reading of Exodus, it can certainly be startling to realize this about one of the Bible’s most heroic leaders!

Getting to know Moses better

Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

There is so much more to understand about Moses, it’s almost overwhelming. But the Biblical Archaeology Society leads you forward: Learn how Moses’ name, rather than being a Hebrew name related to his being drawn out of the Nile, was more likely an Egyptian name meaning “Son of God”—and an indicator of the new personal piety that was beginning to take shape in the Egypt of Ramesses the Great.

Or consider the reasoning of Professor William H.C. Propp when he reveals why Moses was condemned to die in the wilderness, instead of leading his people into Canaan. Perhaps you would also be intrigued by Moses’ death scene, contrasted with those of his sister, Miriam, and brother, Aaron. Writes Erica S. Brown of Moses’ final moments, when he tries to resist his impending death:

“He fought God in defense of the people and the people in the defense of God.”

Moses’ fighting nature is a common theme among Mosaic scholars, exemplified by a title to another article by Professor Propp: “Moses: From Vigilante to Lawgiver.” No wonder the actor Charlton Heston was so successful at portraying Moses in that 1950s Hollywood extravaganza movie we’re all familiar with: He was equally skilled at playing both fighter and noble Jew, both of which roles lived in Moses himself.

And with the Biblical Archaeology Society, there’s no shrinking from surprising or even unwelcome interpretations of Moses’ character. Leading intellects explore the great and tragic man in detail, truly a curious Biblical scholar’s dream.

That’s why BAS has compiled the remarkable Special Collection The Biblical Moses. Follow the great scholars’ reasoning in all these articles:

But there is a catch in learning more about the Biblical Moses: You must join the Biblical Archaeology Society as an All-Access Pass member! When you join, you’ll gain access to an incredible library that covers everything from Adam and Eve, to Moses, to deep dives into modern beliefs about Easter and the death of Jesus.

Join the BAS Library today.


First published on April 22, 2019

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