The story of Moses in the Bible is not a simple superhero narrative
Moses may be the single most important human in the Hebrew Bible. His role as a powerful leader who took on the state–in this case mighty Egypt–and led his people to freedom and to the border of the promised land is that of a great, larger-than-life hero. It is a narrative that easily fits the straightforward format of a successful movie, as the Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston proved for decades. Yet, as with the story of Abraham, this simple heroic arc is not exactly the story the Bible tells. The biblical Moses is a man, flawed and struggling, who grows imperfectly into the role that God has laid out for him.
There are many reasons why the Hebrew Bible presents Moses as more complicated than the Hollywood shorthand that many of us grew up with. Among them, his upbringing as a prince in the house of the pharaoh. As Amanda Mbuvi explains in “Multicultural Moses: Reexamining an Icon”, published in the July/August/September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Moses’ “hybrid identity shapes both his reluctant response to God’s call and his eventual leadership.” She suggests we look at Moses through that lens to understand the source of much of his struggle to grow into the leadership role that God calls upon him to fulfill.
Moses is an individual born to one people, but raised by another, with different social networks, and different expectations from each. This leaves Moses somewhat isolated, not feeling fully of either the Hebrews or the Egyptians. When Moses intervenes in an argument among the Hebrews, one reacts, saying in effect, Who are you to judge us? You aren’t one of us. When the pharaoh seeks to kill Moses, it is revealed how easily his royal privilege and even his status as an Egyptian is erased. Moses is the first prominent adoptee in the Bible; the details are very different, but these conflicts share some parallels with the experiences of adopted children from ancient history to today.
In the story of the burning bush, God says, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Mbuvi explains that in biblical times the function of ancestry was social, imparting one’s place in society, not as much a question of modern genetics. So God needed to clarify. One could even read this as God staking a claim to Moses as one of the Hebrews, not an Egyptian. God then instructs Moses on appropriate behavior. As Mbuvi says, “Like a person participating in an unfamiliar tradition, Moses needs to be briefed on the protocol.” Moses reacts to God’s instructions with disbelief. He “struggles with racial imposter syndrome.”
God does not make it easy for Moses. There is no moment of easy resolution, equipping Moses to tap his superhero powers and easily lead the Hebrews to freedom and then the promised land. Instead, Mbuvi argues, Moses is called upon to utilize his outsider status, to take advantage of the distance he has from the old ways under subjugation, and lead his people to a fresh, new way of life in a different place than any of them knew.
To read further about Moses, and the implications of his complicated backstory, find Amanda Mbuvi’s Biblical Views column “Multicultural Moses: Reexamining an Icon” published in the July/August/September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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