After the Israelite deity, Yahweh, Moses is the most prominent character in the Torah. According to the biblical account, at Yahweh’s command, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and guides them to the edge of Canaan, the land that Yahweh promised to their ancestors. Moses also mediates to the Israelites the laws that Yahweh reveals at Mount Sinai (also called Horeb) and throughout the wilderness trek. Moses likewise intercedes on Israel’s behalf with Yahweh. Though he is a richly described and compelling character, there is no external evidence from antiquity confirming that Moses was a real, historical person; the biblical texts that describe him date from hundreds of years after the time in which they claim that he lived.
Why is the story of Moses so confusing?
There is not just one Moses in the Torah. There are actually four, each belonging to one of four literary sources that were combined to create the Torah. The existence of these sources explains the conflicting historical claims peppered throughout the Moses story. For example, is it Moses who strikes the Nile River to enact the blood plague in Egypt (Exod 7:20, second half of the verse), or does he simply stand by as his brother, Aaron, holds out his hand over Egypt’s waters (Exod 7:19 and the first half of verse 20)? Does Moses turn his rod into a serpent before the Israelites (Exod 4:3-4, Exod 4:30), or is it Aaron who performs this wonder—and before the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, not the Israelites (Exod 7:10)? Does Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the middle of the night (Exod 12:29-34), or do they wait until morning to go (Exod 12:22)? Upon descending from Mount Horeb, does Moses immediately deliver to the Israelites the laws that Yahweh gave him there (Exod 24:3-8), or does he wait until the end of the wilderness period to deliver Yahweh’s laws (Deut 1:5, Deut 5:1, Deut 6:1)? Does Moses teach the Israelites that they may eat meat from animals found dead (Lev 17:15), or does he insist that they may not (Deut 14:21)?
These inconsistencies become comprehensible once we recognize that different authors preserved different traditions and told different stories about Moses and that these different stories are now combined and arranged as a single story in the Torah. This arrangement could be accomplished in part because the sources had significant similarities in addition to their marked differences. Because the compiler of these sources was conservative, saving as much of his sources as possible and making changes to them infrequently, it is possible to reverse the process of compilation and differentiate the sources from each other. The compilation of the Torah demonstrates that there were many different traditions about Moses in ancient Israel and Judah. It is likely that only a fraction of them are preserved in the Hebrew Bible.
Is Moses a prophet?
In the midst of the diversity that characterizes the biblical depiction of Moses, each of the four Torah sources presents Moses as a prophet. Like other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, Moses is at first reluctant to deliver Yahweh’s message to the Israelites. He fears that the people will not believe him (Exod 4:1). He also complains that he is a poor speaker. Yahweh responds by appointing Moses’s brother, Aaron, to be his spokesman (Exod 4:10, Exod 6:30-7:2). The prophet Moses needs a prophet himself!
Yahweh also takes pains to make Moses a legitimate prophet to the Israelites. He thus gives Moses signs to perform to persuade the Israelites to believe him (Exod 4:30-31). In another effort to secure the Israelites’ confidence, Yahweh once allows the Israelites to listen in when he gives a prophetic message to Moses (Exod 19:9, Exod 20:20).
Moses is also depicted in many of the biblical accounts as the standard against which all future prophets should be judged. Although other prophets may be dismissed, a prophet “like Moses” must be heeded (Deut 18:15). In the end, however, Moses, whose access to Yahweh is unparalleled (Num 12:8), proves incomparable (Deut 34:10). Both the requirement that future prophets be “like Moses” and the assertion that none ever measured up to him are attempts by the Torah’s authors to purchase enduring authority for the laws in their compositions, laws that they present as given to Israel through Moses. Yet there is also a limit to Moses’s esteem: Deut 34:6 carefully notes that Moses’s burial place is unknown, a clarification likely meant to prevent any kind of inappropriate veneration of him at his tomb.
Jeffrey Stackert, "Moses", n.p. [cited 22 Jul 2019]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/moses
Jeffrey Stackert, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Divinity School, University of Chicago, is the author of Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007). He is currently writing a book on the different portrayals of Moses and Mosaic prophecy in the Torah.
The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
20Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all ... View more
19The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all ... View more
3And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it.4Then the Lord said to Moses, “R ... View more
30Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people.
10So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.
The Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn
29At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his ... View more
22Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go ... View more
3Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the ... View more
5Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows:
The Ten Commandments
1Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall lear ... View more
The Great Commandment
1Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that yo ... View more
15All persons, citizens or aliens, who eat what dies of itself or what has been torn by wild animals, shall wash their clothes, and bathe themselves in water, a ... View more
21You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you a ... View more
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Moses' Miraculous Power
1Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ ”
10But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of sp ... View more
30But Moses said in the Lord's presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”Chapter 71The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you lik ... View more
30Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people.31The people believed; and when they heard tha ... View more
9Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” ... View more
20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
A New Prophet Like Moses
15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
8With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
10Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.