Who Was Moses?

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff • 07/15/2011

In this 1928 pastel by Lesser Ury, heavenly light illuminates the promised land that Moses, the Exodus hero, has sought almost all his life but will never enter. Biblical Moses dies a strange and solitary death, part of the story of a strangely solitary man. Who was Moses, an Exodus hero? Possibly a representative of the Israelites—a people themselves apart. His character also encourages biblical readers to concentrate more on the law he gave than on the life he lived. Photo: Hans-Joachim Bartsch/Collection Jüdisches Museum Berlin.

Moses’ story is told in the Book of Exodus, but it starts in Genesis with the story of Abraham and his family with whom God makes a covenant. Generations later the Biblical Moses draws the extended family together in the form of a nation with a structure and code of law, given to him on Mount Sinai. Below, Peter Machinist explores the story of Moses, the Exodus hero, in “The Man Moses.”

Some might say that God himself was the Exodus hero, but in human terms the Biblical Moses takes center stage throughout the whole Pentateuch. Who was Moses? A rather solitary leader, one with his people but set apart, even in his childhood, when he was raised by the pharaoh’s daughter as if he were an Egyptian prince. Set apart also in that he married an alien wife—Midianite or possibly Ethiopian. Even his physical characteristics—a speech defect—set him apart from others and is accommodated by God who arranges a leadership duo with Moses and his priestly brother Aaron. His role was unique—even to receiving the Law and seeing God, as evidenced by Moses’ blinding countenance.

The Exodus hero Moses. The Biblical Moses, portrayed here as a shepherd in a print by contemporary Israeli artist Mordechai Beck, protectively clasps a sheep in his arms. Photo: Mordechai Beck.

The Biblical Moses also has an unusual death. God says he must die alone on a mountaintop outside the promised land. Who was Moses? We might say he was a man who was a son of Abraham who led the people but was not typical of them. In “The Man Moses” below, Peter Machinist proposes that our Exodus hero is a type of anti-hero, outside the stereotype of a tribal or national leader. He might represent the people of Israel themselves, biblically portrayed as being outsiders. Further, Moses’ otherness might also serve to turn the spotlight not on himself but on the message he delivers to the people: the Law. Who was Moses—the Biblical Moses? The man chosen to meet God on Sinai and receive the Law on behalf of God’s chosen people.

Below, Peter Machinist explores the character of the Exodus hero, the Biblical Moses, in “The Man Moses.”

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