MOSES (מֹשֶׁ֔ה; LXX, Μωυση̂ς, Vulgate Moyses). The national hero who delivered the Israel|Israelites from Egypt|Egyptian slavery, established them as an independent nation, and prepared them for entrance into Canaan.


The meaning of Moses' name is uncertain. If Hebrew, as suggested by Exodus 2:6 and by the explanation given in v. 10, the name is derived from the rare Hebrew verb mashah, which occurs only in 2 Samuel 22:17 (Ps 18:16). If Egypt|Egyptian, it may be derived from the word ms meaning “child,” or else from mw-s (“water-son”). Perhaps this is a wordplay, the word “draw forth” suggesting both the taking out of the river beside which the little ark was found and the bringing forth of a child by natural birth. While the name occurs more than 750 times in the Old Testament, no further explanation is given; and like the names of some other prominent Old Testament characters, it is given to only one person, the great leader and lawgiver of Israel.


With the word “now” the historian passes from the death of Joseph, who saved the Patriarch|patriarchs from starvation in Canaan by bringing them down into Egypt, to the time of Moses who led their descendants forth from bondage. He first lists the tribes who were in Egypt and stresses their amazing fruitfulness (Exod 1:7), the rise of a king who knew not Joseph, the fears aroused in the heart of the reigning pharaoh by their increase, the steps which he took to control it, the refusal of the midwives to obey his command to destroy the male infants, and finally the command to his own people to drown them (v. 22). Thus the stage is set for the birth of Moses, which occurred nearly 300 years after the death of Joseph. This background is sketched very briefly. Nothing is said about Egypt except what directly concerns Israel. The names of the two Hebrew Midwife|midwives and of the two City|cities which the Israelites built for pharaoh are given, but the name of the pharaoh who knew not Joseph nor of the pharaoh who oppressed Israel, nor of the princess who became the foster mother of Moses, is not mentioned.

The first forty years


Moses is introduced to the reader in a striking way. Sometimes the ancestry of a person is given in some detail; here it is stated in the broadest of terms: “a man from the house of Levi went and took to wife a daughter of Levi.” From the words which follow, “the woman conceived and bore a son,” one might infer that Moses was their first child. This inference is promptly corrected by the mention of a sister whose name is not mentioned until Exodus 15:20, but who was old enough to watch over the babe in the little ark and shrewd enough to seize upon the remark of the royal princess concerning the parentage of the babe and produce the mother of the foundling to serve as its nurse. There is a touch of irony in the result, that the Hebrew mother was paid by Pharaoh’s daughter to nurse her own child. Pharaoh aimed to destroy every male child born in Israel, with the result that his own daughter took under her protection the Hebrew baby who was to become the future deliverer of his people, and she even adopted him as her son.


“And the child grew” (literally “became large”), an indefinite statement. The mother probably kept the child for two or three years (cf. 1 Sam 1:19-24). Perhaps she kept him longer, bringing him frequently to the princess, who must not be allowed to forget him, while at the same time cultivating in his young heart a love and loyalty to the race from which he sprang. Regarding these formative years nothing is related. Moses had an older brother, Aaron, who was proposed to Moses as his spokesman (Exod 4:14) and sent to meet him at the mount of God (v. 27). Aaron was three years Moses’ senior (7:7), a statement of special interest because it implies that the command that all male children be drowned (1:22) was not given until after Aaron was born. The names of Moses’ father and mother are mentioned later (6:20). All these facts which are gradually introduced serve to show how much is omitted in the brief statement with which ch. 2 begins.

Life in Egypt

“When Moses had grown up” (2:11). Nearly forty years lie between the “grew” of v. 10 and the “grown up” of v. 11. About this period Stephen stated that Moses “was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22), which implies that Moses received an education befitting an Egyptian prince. The parents “were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Heb 11:23), which may indicate that they were willing to risk the danger of detection before the baby was hidden in the bulrushes, or else that after his adoption by the princess, they used every opportunity to instill in the heart of their child a love for his people and his God. The Biblical account devotes only 15 verses to this formative period of Moses’ life.

Five verses now suffice to describe its dramatic and unhappy conclusion, yet they are significant because of the light which they throw on the development of Moses’ character. “One day, when Moses had grown up” introduces two closely related incidents which marked the close of the first forty years of Moses’ life (Acts 7:23). Moses “went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Exod 2:11). This is the first expression of what became a master motive in Moses’ life, his love for his Israelite brethren (Heb 11:23f.). His love may have been aroused suddenly by the act of injustice which he imprudently punished too severely, but it seems more probable that it was only the sudden unleashing of a passionate desire which he had long cherished and which came to sudden expression. Probably this was not a sudden act on Moses’ part. He may often have watched the Hebrews, toiling at their burdens, and the word “people” indicates how powerfully kinship and parental teaching had influenced this adopted son of an Egyptian princess. It reveals Moses as a man of powerful emotions, impulsive in action, yet he was now a mature man of forty, to whom such a scene must have been quite familiar. He saw an Egyptian “beating” a Hebrew, “one of his people”; Moses “killed” the Egyptian (the Hebrew uses the same word to describe both acts), but Moses’ blow was deadly and he buried his victim in the sand. His act was not one of uncontrollable anger, for before he struck, “he looked this way and that, and seeing no one” (Exod 2:12), he assumed the role of deliverer. Furthermore, he endeavored to cover up his act by hiding his victim in the sand, a prudent afterthought following upon an act of sudden passion.

The flight

“He went out the next day” (v. 13). Was it to find out whether his act had been discovered? If so, he soon found out the facts. For an attempt to play the role of “peacemaker” between two of his fellow Hebrews brought upon him the accusation of murder: “Do you mean to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (v. 14). The tragedy in this charge is brought out by the words of Stephen: “He supposed that his brethren understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand,” but they did not understand (Acts 7:25). So Moses fled for his life. It may seem a little strange that Moses made no effort to excuse or justify his conduct. He was a man of princely rank among the Egyptians and his victim apparently was not a man of any prominence, possibly at most only an Egyptian “taskmaster.” It would certainly seem that he might have been able to “brazen it out” before Pharaoh. Apparently Moses did not think so; and he already may have shown his sympathy with his oppressed people too plainly for his own safety. At any rate his fear was fully justified, Pharaoh sought to slay him. So Moses “fled from Pharaoh.”

The second forty years

Moses in Midian

Forty years passed swiftly (7:23). This adopted son of an Egyptian princess sat by a well in the land of Midian, an exile from the court of Pharaoh and with a price on his head. Again the situation serves to reveal the man. While he was resting, seven maidens came to the well and he watched them draw water for their flock. Then he saw a group of Shepherd|shepherds come and drive the girls away from the troughs. Moses might well have said to himself, “This is no concern of mine. I am sitting here a wanderer and fugitive as a result of meddling with other people’s affairs. These girls and their sheep are nothing to me.” Instead Moses stood up and “helped them” from the roughness and violence of the shepherds (Exod 2:17). Moses’ act was not merely an expression of kindness and sympathy but also an evidence of high courage. It also indicates that there was something in his appearance and bold intervention which overawed the shepherds, who had courage enough to deal with seven girls, but quailed before a single unknown stranger who opposed them.

The daughters may have thanked him, but they left him. They called him “an Egyptian” and probably were wary of foreigners, so their father had to make amends for their lack of hospitality. In this incident there is not the slightest suggestion of any prior connection or contact of Moses with Jethro or the Midianites. It was as a total stranger that this Egyptian came to this locality and he was treated as such.

Moses and Jethro

“And Moses was content to dwell with the man” (2:21). “Content” renders the Hebrew adequately; content, but not altogether happy. “And he gave Moses his daughter, Zipporah,” apparently one of the seven. When the marriage took place is not stated. Her name, Zipporah, meaning “bird” or “sparrow” is no clear indication as to her character. The name given his first child, Gershom, which Moses explained with the words, “I have been a sojourner (ger) in a foreign land,” may suggest that Moses was far from happy in his new environment. This second period of forty years (Acts 7:30) concludes with a reference to the homeland from which Moses had been forced to flee: “in those many days” (as the Hebrew puts it) the king of Egypt died. The date is not given, but it was probably toward the end of the forty years since it was his death which prepared the way for Moses’ return to Egypt.

Moses at the bush

The first two forty-year periods of Moses’ life, both of which end in a startling and climactic event, have been largely covered by a single chapter of Exodus; but this second period ends with an event which introduced and determined the whole of the third period of forty years which was to follow. It begins by describing what may have been Moses’ chief occupation for forty years: “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro.” And he led them by slow stages as a shepherd leads his flock “to Horeb, the mountain of God” (3:1). Perhaps he had led them here many times before, but now something wonderful happened.

The call of Moses is perhaps the most revealing, as it was the most momentous event in his entire life. Whether the name “mountain of God” is used proleptically or not is uncertain. The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush (seneh)” called in the New Testamentbush,” (batos). Moses probably had noticed often that a thorn bush burns rapidly and with a great crackling (Eccl 7:6), so he marveled that the bush kept on burning. “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn up” (Hebrew). When he approached, God called to him and warned him that he was on sacred ground. Moses not only put off his shoes as commanded, but also hid his face “for he was afraid to look at God”—an act of reverence and awe.

Then God revealed Himself as the God of Moses’ forebears, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and told Moses that He had heard the cry of their descendants and had come to deliver them. He then made a truly amazing proposal to Moses: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod 3:10). Forty years had gone by since Moses, an important figure at Pharaoh’s court, had slain one Egyptian for mistreating one Hebrew and had tried to make peace between two of his fellow Israelites. Now suddenly he was challenged to undertake on a vast scale what he had so signally failed to achieve in a small way. Little wonder that Moses replied, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11). If Moses’ reply was exactly what one should expect from a man in Moses’ position, the answer of the Lord was quite startling: “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you.” Jehovah continues: “When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain” (3:12).

The sign was a double challenge to Moses: to his faith in the God of his fathers and to his love of his people, a people who on his first attempt to serve them had met him with hostility and rejection. Moses at first apparently parried the challenge by asking what name he should give to the God whom he was to represent to the people as their deliverer. He asked the question as if he meant to imply that he knew the name of the God of his fathers, but was not sure just how he should speak of Him to the people when they ask the name of this God who will deliver them. Perhaps he was asking the question as much for himself as for them. The answer is, “I am who I am” (3:14). The Hebrew word is ’ehyeh, which also may be rendered, “I will be what I will be.” The one translation suggests the immutable God, who is unchangeable in His being, the same yesterday, today and forever, the same as when he called Abraham to go forth from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of promise. Or it may stress rather the activity and energy of this God of the fathers, who will act sovereignly and effectively in behalf of His people in the future as He has done of old. Then the Lord at once used the well-known name, “The Lord, the God of your fathers” (3:15), and added: “This is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” Hence the Tetragrammaton (or four-letter word YHWH) is properly called the Memorial or Covenant Name of the God of Israel.

The command then was repeated that Moses go to the Israelites and announce to them God’s promise of deliverance and of entrance into the good land promised to their fathers. Moses was given the assurance that they would obey and that he would go with them to Pharaoh to request permission for a three days’ journey into the wilderness to worship the God of their fathers who had appeared to them through Moses. The request which they proposed was modest, designed to show the unreasonableness of Pharaoh’s refusal; and they were to make it as a request, not as a demand: “And now, we pray you, let us go” (v. 18). But they were to be told that Pharaoh would not let them go “unless compelled by a mighty hand.” Then God’s purpose to use force to affect the deliverance is plainly stated, and the result would be that Pharaoh would let the people go (3:20).

Moses' Objections

Moses raised the natural objection that the people would not believe that God had sent him to deliver them from Pharaoh. The Lord gave him three signs: his rod becomes a serpent, his hand becomes leprous, and the water turns into blood. There is a striking difference between these signs for the people and for Pharaoh, and the sign given Moses for himself (3:12). These signs appeal to the physical senses; they are ocular proof of the power of God; they are intended to compel belief, to certify Moses as the servant of a higher power, the God of their fathers. Moses’ sign was a challenge to faith in God and to love of man. Furthermore, these signs also represented a definite challenge to Moses. The venomous serpent terrified Moses and he “fled” from it. Yet he obeyed, apparently without demur, the command to take it by the tail; and the wriggling, hissing snake became again his familiar shepherd’s rod. Leprosy is a terrible disease. The sight of his leprous hand must have filled Moses with loathing and fear. Yet he put it again into his bosom, and it became clean. Water turned to blood was a disgusting thing, undrinkable as it was later to prove (Exod 7:20f.). Fear, courage, and obedience all were involved in these simple tests and Moses stood the test. One need not argue for the reality of these signs. They are represented as supernatural and form an integral part of that series of mighty acts by which the God of Israel delivered His people from seemingly hopeless bondage (Deut 34:11).

Moses raised still another objection: he was not qualified for the task to which God was calling him. He never had been eloquent (Hebrew “a man of words”) and this call to extraordinary service had not changed this in any way. God’s answer was that human speech is God-given, as are all man’s faculties. Despite this indisputable fact, which is supported by the promise that God will teach him what to say, Moses still resisted with the words, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person” (Exod 4:13), meaning, “send anyone but me.” So God in anger and also in compassion gave him as a spokesman his brother Aaron, who should be to him “a mouth” while Moses is to him “as God” (4:16). That is what a true prophet says in the name of God. God says (as is strikingly illustrated by Isa 7 where the “Thus says the Lord God” of v. 7 is followed in v. 10 by “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz” where obviously both messages come from the lips of Isaiah). Finally, Moses was to take the rod, the serpent rod, with him in order to perform these signs, and others far greater than he had yet performed (Exod 4:17).

Return to Jethro

Moses returned to Jethro, told him nothing of the divine commission that he had received, offered a plausible and adequate excuse (cf. 1 Sam 16:2f.) for a visit to Egypt, received Jethro’s consent, and God’s assurance that it was safe for him to return. He set out for Egypt with the rod of God in his hand; and although he was forewarned that his attempt to secure Pharaoh’s consent to his mission would fail, yet he also was told what would be God’s final word to Pharaoh—the slaying of the first-born.

Departure for Egypt

“So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt.” The fact that he mounted both wife and sons on a single donkey indicates that both children were quite young, the younger a mere babe in arms. This may mean, as already suggested, that Moses did not receive Zipporah as his wife until toward the end of the forty years, or else that like Rachel, Zipporah had to wait many years until the crown of motherhood was given her.

The bloody husband (Exodus 4:24-31)

When Moses was returning to Egypt a strange thing happened, which throws a little more light on Moses’ life in Midian and supports the view that Moses’ children were very young at that time. The incident at the inn is best understood as indicating that Moses had failed to circumcise the baby before leaving home. This may have been due partly to haste and preoccupation with the mission which had been given him. But it was more probably due to Zipporah’s objection to the performance of the rite. Whether she had objected in the case of Gershom, we do not know. Here at the inn, when she realized that Moses’ life was in danger and apparently felt that she was responsible, she performed the rite herself, but evidently with great reluctance (as is shown by her words, twice repeated, “you are a bridegroom of blood to me”). Whatever the reason, Moses had sinned in failing to perform the covenant rite which was required of every Israelite under penalty of death (Gen 17:13, 14).

The meeting with Aaron (Exod 4:14, 27)

The Lord sent Aaron (first mentioned in v. 14) to meet Moses. It is perhaps significant that they met at the mount of God. This apparently involved a considerable detour. It may mean that Moses wanted to visit again the spot where God had called and commissioned him and so to gain fresh confidence and strength in preparation for the conflict which lay ahead of him. There at the mount of God Aaron met Moses “and kissed him,” an act of affection not often mentioned in the Old Testament, and which showed the strong feeling of kinship which united these brothers who had been parted for forty years. Moses had much to tell Aaron, even “all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him, and all the signs which he had charged him to do” (v. 28).

The third forty years

If Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian and his flight from Egypt marked the close of the first period of Moses’ life, the call which he received at the mount of God may be regarded as marking the ending of the second period. If so, the third period begins with the return to Egypt and Moses’ entering upon the God-assigned task of delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage. This period then consists of two parts which somewhat overlap. The first is the conflict with Pharaoh which ends with the triumph song of Exodus 15. The second phase is the contest with Israel, which aptly is described and summarized by Moses’ own words, “You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you” (Deut 9:24). This struggle fully occupied Moses’ mind and heart from the day of his call to the day of his death.

Moses and Pharaoh

The first request

After Moses and Aaron had accredited themselves to the elders and people of Israel (Exod 4:29-31), and Aaron had performed his proper role, acting and speaking for Moses, they at once presented themselves before Pharaoh with the Lord’s demand: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” The demand is not expressed as courteously here as in 3:18. There the “now, we pray you, let us go,” is a request. It is a summary demand, and the verb which is used is in the imperative “send forth” or “send away.” The demand was at first a moderate one— “that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” It was met with disdain and flatly denied: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go?” (i.e. “send away,” as in all the cases which follow). “I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go” (5:1, 2). So send away becomes the issue, the mot de combat between the God of Israel and Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s first step was to charge the Hebrews with idleness and to make their task more arduous; they were not to be supplied with straw, but were to make just as many bricks as before. When the Israelite “officers” (i.e. scribes or tally-keepers) are thus ill-treated they complain to Moses and Aaron. Moses carries the complaint to the Lord (5:22f.), and bitterly complains that instead of the Lord helping Israel as promised they are worse off than ever. Moses lost the preliminary skirmish!

The contest with Pharaoh

“But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, yea, with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land’” (6:1). That the conflict is now to begin in earnest is indicated by the fact that, as if in answer to Pharaoh’s contemptuous words, his opponents are now carefully identified.

First is the God of Israel, with the words, “I am the Lord (Yahweh): I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name the Lord (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to them” (6:3). This statement seems clearly to imply that the God of the fathers is now to manifest His redemptive power by deeds of covenant faithfulness mightier than any which the patriarchs had known or experienced. The meaning of these words has been much debated. In 1924 Dr. R. D. Wilson, after a thorough study of this passage in the original Hebrew and in the VSS, both ancient and modern, reached the following conclusion:

“...the writer would suggest the following renderings: And God spake unto Moses and said unto him: I am Jehovah and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob in the character of the God of Might (or, mighty God), and in the character of my name Jehovah I did not make myself known unto them. Or, if the last part of the verse is to be regarded as a question, the rendering should be: And in the character of my name Jehovah did I not make myself known unto them? Either of these suggested translations will bring this verse into entire harmony with the rest of the Pentateuch. Consequently, it is unfair and illogical to use a forced translation of Exodus 6:3 in support of a theory that would destroy the unity of authorship and the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch” (PTR, XXII, p. 119).

In view of the failure of their first meeting with Pharaoh, the Lord reaffirmed His promises to the people, assuring them of His entire awareness of their distressing situation and His purpose to rescue them. When Moses gave this reassurance to the people they were too dispirited to listen to him. When Moses was again told to demand the release of Israel, he complained that it was useless to do so. For if the people would not listen to him, how could he expect Pharaoh to do so? Yet the Lord simply repeated His purpose of deliverance.

The last plague was the most terrible of all. It is introduced by the words, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt.” It would accomplish what all the others had failed to do. Not merely would Pharaoh let Israel go; “When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely” (11:1). That matters had come to a head is indicated by what had just taken place; Pharaoh had dismissed Moses and threatened him with death if he came before him again.

In the case of all the plagues which preceded, Moses and Aaron played an important but a rather impersonal role; here appear two personal touches. One is the statement that “the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people” (11:3; cf. v. 8). The other is that Moses “went out from Pharaoh in hot anger” (11:8). Moses had been greatly tried by Pharaoh’s vacillation, by his persistent refusals to yield to the demands made of him in the name of Moses’ God. Finally Moses’ wrath found vigorous expression. If Pharaoh would not yield, his people would implore Moses to leave. Pharaoh would not yield. The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order that he might not yield until the sovereign power of the God of Israel was fully manifested in the last and most terrible plague (11:9f.), the death of the first-born.

The death of all the first-born children evoked such a popular reaction that Pharaoh was compelled to release the Israelites. Under Moses’ leadership they celebrated the Passover (see Passover; Feasts), and marched out of Egypt, taking with them their children, cattle, household goods, and the bones of Joseph.

The statement that “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (13:19), throws an interesting light on the situation. The words “and Moses took,” suggest that this was an act of piety which Moses performed without receiving special instruction from God. Amid all the confusion and the many demands upon his time and leadership, Moses thought of the oath which Joseph, looking forward confidently to this event, had imposed on his brethren; now after a lapse of centuries Moses fulfilled this sacred obligation. This mention of what Moses did, apparently on his own initiative, is especially interesting and significant as affording a glimpse into his sense of personal responsibility.

The guiding cloud led the Israelite host into a situation in which they were trapped between the sea and the pursuing chariotry of Pharaoh; and when the latter drew near the Israelites were terrified and bewailed their perilous state (14:11f.; cf. 5:21; 6:9). Moses was not dismayed; he encouraged them with words of the utmost confidence: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord” (14:13). Israel’s extremity was God’s opportunity! Israel was to go forward to the sea and Moses was to open up a path through the sea, a tremendous challenge to Moses’ faith! Israel would pass through it on dry ground. The Egyptians would follow after them to their own destruction. Israel passed through the sea safely; Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the returning waters. Israel saw “the great work” of the Lord and believed in Him and in His servant Moses (14:31). Then Moses and the people sang a paean of triumphant praise to the God who had so wonderfully delivered them.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians were finally beaten; the chariotry of Egypt overwhelmed in the returning waters, never to trouble Israel again (14:13). Then began Moses’ struggle with Israel, signs of which had already plainly appeared (5:21; 14:11). This far longer struggle proved a greater testing of Moses’ patience and faith, of his love of God and for his people, than the one which preceded it.

The murmuring in the wilderness

Jethro’s visit

At this point (ch. 18) Jethro came to see Moses, bringing Moses’ wife and sons with him, having heard of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Jethro rejoiced and declared, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods; because he delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians when they dealt arrogantly with them” (18:11). Jethro’s joy in the Lord’s victory and his sharing in the communal meal with the elders of Israel does not imply, as some claim, that Jethro was a worshiper of Yahweh and that he at this time inducted Moses and the elders into the worship of his god. The advice which he gave Moses and which Moses accepted had to do entirely with secular affairs; and in following it Moses merely freed himself from the deciding of matters of minor importance. Then Jethro left Moses and returned to his home. He did not accompany Israel to Sinai. He had no part in the ratification of the covenant there.

The theophany at Sinai (ch. 20)

The tremendous and terrifying scene which accompanied the giving of the law at Sinai provides further insight into the character of Moses. The awesomeness of the spectacle is described (19:18). When the Lord called Moses to come up to the top of Sinai, he obeyed; and when he came down from the mountain he again warned the people not to draw near to it. When the Lord uttered the Ten Commandments His voice so terrified the people that they asked that God speak to them only through Moses, “lest we die.” The New Testament states that so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear” (Heb 12:21). Of this fear in Moses’ heart nothing is said in the Exodus account. It simply states that Moses calmed the people and that while they stood afar off, “Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exod 20:21).

Aaron and the seventy elders (ch. 24)

The difference between Moses and the rest of the people, even the Seventy and Aaron and his sons, is emphasized by the fact that while these representatives of the people were to come up and worship afar off, Moses alone was to come near to the Lord. This ceremony followed the solemn ratification of the covenant, which involved the reading of the book, the solemn acceptance by the people, and the sprinkling of “the blood of the covenant” (24:8). Then these representatives of the people went up into the mount. There “they beheld God” (v. 11), but all that they saw was apparently what looked like a sapphire footstool, “a pavement” under the feet of Deity; and they “ate and drank” (v. 11).

Moses then spent forty days in God’s presence and during this time he neither ate nor drank. Like his Lord, Moses had meat to eat that the people knew not of (John 4:32). The mention of Joshua in Exodus 24:13f. and in 32:17 indicates that Joshua was near Moses during the first forty days, while in the case of the second it is stated expressly that no one was to be with him or even on the mountain (34:3), during which time Joshua was left in charge of the tent (33:11).

Moses and the Tabernacle

After the tremendous scene which attended the proclaiming of the Decalogue and the sight of the glory of their God which was given to Aaron and the Seventy, the glory abode upon Mount Sinai for seven days. Then Moses was summoned to come up into the mount. He left Aaron and Hur in charge (24:14), and they apparently returned with the elders to the camp; “And Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain.” He was there forty days and forty nights (v. 18). The purpose of his long stay there was that he might receive God’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle: “According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture], so you shall make it” (25:9, 40: cf. Heb 8:5). Finally God gave Moses the tables of [[stone on which the testimony was “written with the finger of God” (Exod 31:18).

The first apostasy (ch. 32)

Later, while Moses was in the mount receiving instructions as to the conditions under which their God would dwell in their midst, the people apostatized from this God, whom they had promised to obey. “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us” (32:1). They had lived in such an environment of idolatry for centuries that it had left its mark on them. And Aaron, Moses’ brother, whose glorious apparel and sacred duties had been, or were now perhaps, being described to Moses on the mount (chs. 28-30) tamely acquiesced (32:2), and made a Golden Calf|molten calf. When they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” Aaron “made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord’” (v. 5).

In this terrible situation, it was no wonder that the Lord at once revealed to Moses what had taken place and threatened to destroy Israel. Moses at once interceded with God for the deliverance of his people. When he descended the mountain, he was filled with great anger upon seeing what had taken place, and he destroyed the tables of the Decalogue, ground the golden image to powder, scattered it on the water and forced the people to drink it. Then he turned upon Aaron himself, demanding an explanation for this “great sin” (v. 21). After hearing Aaron’s lame and fainthearted explanation, Moses called for volunteers to execute the Lord’s judgment on the idolaters, an impartial judgment which would fall upon all who had been guilty, whether Levites or non-Levites. The men of Levi responded and they slew about 3,000 men, an act of loyalty to Jehovah for which they were later praised and rewarded (Deut 33:9). That Aaron himself was spared from death was due to Moses’ special intercession for him (9:20).

Moses’ intercession

Then Moses returned to the Lord, confessed Israel’s “great sin” (Exod 32:31), and requested that if it could not be forgiven he might be blotted out along with the rest of his people. Obtaining God’s pardon for chastened Israel, he received the command to lead the people to Canaan (v. 34). In this incident there is a deeper insight into the character of Moses. Moses did not try to minimize or excuse the sin of calf worship either for Aaron or for the people. It was a “great sin.” In reply to the Lord’s amazing offer to substitute him for Israel and make of him a great nation in place of unworthy Israel (a proposal which doubtless was intended to be a test of Moses’ love for his people) he proceeded to appeal to God’s love for the nation, as shown in His earlier deliverance of Israel from Egypt in fulfillment of the promises made to the patriarchs. Next he deplored the damage which would accrue to God’s own reputation if He should destroy Israel in the desert (v. 12). As for himself, he asked only that if Israel must be blotted out, he might perish with them.

Having received the promise that the Lord would send His angel to lead the people, Moses removed the tent (or perhaps it is his own tent) to a distance from the camp and there the Lord spoke to him “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33:11). Moses secured God’s promise that His “presence” would go with Israel. Then he made a plea for himself, that the Lord would show him His glory; and when this privilege was promised to him, he hewed out two new tables of stone to replace the ones which he had broken, and ascended the mountain once more. There the Lord descended in a cloud and passed by before him and proclaimed the name of the Lord: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (34:6). During this second stay of forty days on the mount with God, Moses pleaded that the Lord would continue to accompany Israel on their journey. He received and repeated further instructions for the people, notably a renewed warning against idolatry, because “the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (34:14). It is in his conduct with regard to this terrible apostasy of the people (as well as the one narrated in Num 14) that the true greatness of Moses, his humility, his love of his people, his love of God and zeal for his honor and glory, were most severely tested and most clearly revealed.

The veil on Moses’ face

After the second stay of Moses on the mount, as he came down his face “shone,” “gave off horns,” i.e. rays (34:29-35). The KJV has misunderstood the meaning of the Hebrew The literal rendering of v. 33 should be: “and Moses finished speaking with them and he placed upon his face a veil.” The meaning is not that Moses covered his face because the people were afraid to look at him. The Apostle Paul gives us the true explanation of the use of the veil. It served to prevent the people from seeing the heavenly light gradually fade away from Moses’ face (2 Cor 3:13), since it was only when in the presence of God that the radiance of the divine presence was reflected in it (cf. Matt 17:2; Acts 9:3; Rev 1:14).

The Tabernacle and its ritual

As the proclamation of the Decalogue (Exod 20) is followed by the law of the altar, so the dedication of the Tabernacle with which Exodus concludes is followed at once in Leviticus by instructions regarding the ritual of sacrifice.

The investiture of Aaron and his sons

It is significant that nothing is said here or elsewhere about Moses’ apparel. Moses’ rod and his shining face were described, but unlike Aaron nothing is said about Moses’ vesture. The reason for this is that Aaron’s position was symbolical, ritualistic, and hereditary (6:22; 16:32). Before he died Aaron was stripped of his holy garments and they were placed on Eleazar his son (Num 20:22-28). Moses had no successor. He was the lawgiver; and the law which was given through him was not to change with the changing generations of men (Josh 1:7; Mal 4:4).

After this solemn rite, there occurred one of the most amazing events in Israel’s history, the sacrifice of Nadab and Abihu. Aaron had four sons; and he and they were all anointed, and they only, to the office of priest. Nadab and Abihu, however, “offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.” It might seem as if the wilfullness and disobedience of the nation found typical expression in this act which was so severely punished. Moses’ comment is: “This is it what the Lord has said, ‘I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (10:3). Moses was so deeply impressed with the sinfulness of the act which had been committed, that he expressed no personal sorrow at the fate of his nephews. But he gave instruction that “your brethren, the whole house of Israel, might bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled” (10:6).

The departure from Sinal

The Book of Numbers begins with the numbering of the twelve tribes, then Levi, and it then gives their “stations” in the camp with reference to the Tabernacle. Following certain laws dealing with impurity and jealousy, Moses was given the words of the beautiful “Blessing” which the priests were to pronounce upon the people and, in so doing, “put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Num 6:23-27).

The fullest statement regarding the manner in which Moses was accustomed to receive his instructions from the Lord is significantly placed after the record of the dedication of the altar (Num 7). It was when standing in the Tabernacle before the veil, that he was to hear the voice of God speaking to him, as if the voice came from one seated upon the Ark as His throne between the two cherubim (7:89). Compare Jeremiah 3:16 where the ark of the testimony is referred to as “the ark of the Covenant of the Lord.”

Chapter 9 deals with the passover celebrated a year after the Exodus, and in connection with it instructions are given regarding a second passover to be held a month after the regular one, for those providentially hindered from observing it at the proper time. When this problem first arose, Moses told those concerned to wait until he could inquire of the Lord about the matter. This shows clearly that Moses was given instructions when and as they were needed and that he constantly was seeking divine guidance (cf. Num 15:32-35). It may seem somewhat strange that in connection with the departure from Sinai (10:29f.) Moses invited Hobab to accompany Israel, urging him with the words: “Do not leave us, I pray you, for you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us” (10:31). This might seem to indicate lack of confidence on Moses’ part in the sufficiency of the divine guidance. It probably means simply that Moses, fully conscious of the difficulties and perils of the journey which lay ahead for Israel, was eager to secure any assistance which Hobab, who presumably knew these regions well, might be able to supply. It shows Moses as a sensible believer in divine guidance. He was ready to use human skill where and when it might prove helpful or necessary.

The murmuring over manna

Scarcely had the journeying resumed when the murmuring began again (11:1). The reason for it was such as to arouse the anger of the Lord and cause Him to send a fire to punish them, a burning (taberah) in the outskirts of the camp. The complaint was not because of lack of food: but rather, they were tired of eating manna, the bread from heaven (cf. Exod 16), and demanded meat (Ps 78:18-31). This situation so distressed and distracted Moses that he offered an anguished plea (Num 11:11-15) that he might die rather than continue to suffer at the hands of a mutinous people. He evidently was brokenhearted and at his wit’s end. How could he furnish “meat” to feed “600,000 footmen!” The answer of the Lord was twofold. Moses was to be given the help of the seventy elders in judging the people; and the nation was to be given quail for a whole month and in such abundance that they would gorge themselves with it and be punished by illness and death for their greed.

Miriam and Aaron

An incident occurred which Moses must have felt most keenly, a personal attack by his own sister and brother. It is significant that Miriam is mentioned first. This, and the fact that it was she who was punished, indicates that she was the prime mover; and the occasion was another woman. Who the woman was is unknown. That she was a Cushite (Ethiopian) indicates that she could not have been Zipporah. It was not long since Jethro had brought Zipporah back to Moses (Exod 18:5); and it may be assumed that she and her sons remained with him. When or why Moses married this woman, whose name is not even mentioned, is not stated. It may be that Miriam resented it as an affront to Zipporah.

It assumed great importance for Moses personally and especially for his influence as leader. “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). This parenthetical statement often has been challenged by critics as unsuitable on the lips of Moses and probably a later insertion. It is to be noted, however, that the word rendered by “meek” (KJV, following LXX and Vulgate), may also by a slight modification (the letter yodh instead of waw) represent the word for “afflicted.” To say that Moses was “greatly afflicted” would be perfectly true, in view of all his trials and sufferings, and especially of the situation described in the preceding context (11:15). Moses made no reply to his brother and sister. He did not need to. The Lord suddenly intervened and emphasized to these next of kin the unique position which their brother enjoyed. He then inflicted leprosy on Miriam, and removed it only in answer to Moses’ intercession, in response to Aaron’s agonized supplication. The fact that the Lord dealt so suddenly and severely and that Miriam was made such a public example, made it a signific ant occurrence in the eyes of the people, and turned it into a notable confirmation of the unique authority of Moses.

Rebellion and rejection

The sending of the spies into Canaan is represented as taking place by command of God, and at the request of the people, a request which Moses approved (Deut 1:21). Both statements were true, for Moses acted at the command of the Lord, but also in response to the demand of the people. The search which followed was both representative and thorough. A leader of each tribe was appointed, and the search party devoted forty days to its task. The majority report began favorably enough (Num 13:27), but soon became adverse: the land was full of enemies, the sight of whom was terrifying.

Caleb’s appeal for obedience and faith was rejected. Moses and Aaron were blamed for inept leadership and the further appeal of Joshua and Caleb was met with the threat to stone them. This rebellious reaction of the congregation provoked a threat from Jehovah to exterminate them all (cf. Exod 32:10). Once again as in Exodus 32, Moses’ love for his people was put to the test. On the previous occasion Moses pleaded for the people who had so ungratefully rejected him, but concerned only for God, he urged that the Lord’s honor would be impugned if Israel were to be wiped out. He concluded with the words: “Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance” (Exod 34:9). Jehovah’s response is to declare that “ten times” the people have tried Him by their willfulness (Num 14:22), and He swears by Himself, “as I live” (14:21, 28; cf. Heb 6:13-20), that all the earth shall be filled with His glory, and that none of the men who have seen His glory and His miracles and have provoked Him shall see the good land promised to their fathers and of which they themselves have refused to take possession. This remarkable oath is mentioned in the Pentateuch only in Deuteronomy 32:40.

The fortieth year

Failure at Kadesh-barnea

Chapter 20 reverts back to Kadesh again, where Miriam died. Again the people “chided” or contended with Moses (cf. Exod 17:2), because the region was barren and there was no water. Then occurred one of the most tragic events in the entire life of Moses. He was commanded to take the rod, gather the people, and “speak to” the rock that it might give forth water. Moses and Aaron therefore gathered the congregation together before the rock, and “he said to them” (it may be that it is Aaron who speaks, since Moses is the one who strikes the rock with the rod) and apparently he speaks for both of them: “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?”

So Aaron and Moses were both involved, and God’s sentence upon them is, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Num 20:12).

For forty years Moses and Aaron had led Israel and “suffered he their manners,” as the King James Version quaintly describes it (Acts 13:18) and now they were forbidden to enter into the fruit of their labors. Centuries later the psalmist wrote regarding Moses’ sin that the people “made his spirit bitter, and he spoke words that were rash” (Ps 106:33). It might seem that the punishment did not fit the crime. It is to be remembered that Moses and Aaron occupied a preeminent place in the life of Israel and that they had been signally favored and honored by the Lord. Their sin apparently was a sin of presumption and disobedience for which the punishment under the law was death.

Shortly afterward Aaron died on Mount Hor (Num 20:23-29). Moses, in spite of his personal grief, which is mentioned elsewhere, at once resumed the march toward Canaan. He sent a courteously worded message to the king of Edom, who nevertheless refused Israel passage through his land (21:4). So Israel journeyed to Mount Hor, where Aaron died after his high priestly vestments had been transferred to his son Eleazar (v. 28).

Defeat of Arad and the Amorites

The king of Arad attacked Israel without provocation and suffered total destruction (21:1-3). Soon after this victory Israel once again complained against God and against Moses (21:4, 5) who was commanded to make a brazen serpent, because the people were bitten by “fiery” serpents. This incident was given special significance by Jesus’ reference to it in John 3:14 as a type of His coming crucifixion. Then the great victories over the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, are described briefly. They seem to be described in this way to show how quickly God might bring about the conquest of Canaan if only Israel would trust and obey Him.

Arrival at Jordan

Finally Israel arrived in the plains of Moab opposite Jericho in full view of the land of promise, poised for conquest (Num 22:1).

The Balaam story (chs. 22-24) does not mention Moses and does not directly concern him. But it is of great interest because of its great prophecies and promises regarding Israel. It is followed (ch. 25) by the account of yet another of Israel’s long list of transgressions, the whoredom with the Midianites. This seduction was brought about by the counsel of Balaam, who was to perish later in the vengeance visited on Midian (31:8). His sin and its punishment are referred to elsewhere as a terrible example and warning (Josh 13:22; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11; Rev 2:14).

This story is in a sense a prophecy of Israel’s history in the land of promise. For the first time since leaving Egypt God’s people encountered the seductions and allurements of that licentious idolatry which they were to meet in the land of Canaan, and because of which its inhabitants were to be dispossessed by Israel. They yielded to this seduction to such a degree that their leaders were severely punished, and 24,000 of the people perished in a plague, while Phineaszeal for the Lord is commended and rewarded.

The plague was followed by the second census (ch. 26), which is recorded in a different manner from the first and which gives somewhat different figures for each of the tribes, yet a total for all of them which is only slightly less (601,730) than that for the first census and of the Levites a slight increase (23,000). The phenomenal increase of Israel in Egypt came to an end when the generation which came out of Egypt refused to go forward to possess the land of promise. These years were years of stagnation; and the covenant sign, circumcision, was not observed (Josh 5:2-9).

The case of the daughters of Zelophehad, relating to inheritance, was raised (Num 27:1-11), and a preliminary decision was rendered. Then Moses received instructions as to Joshua’s succession (27:12-23). Instructions followed regarding feasts and offerings, notably those of the seventh month (ch. 29), and vows (ch. 30).

The vengeance on the Midianites is described with minute detail concerning the disposition of the spoil, both of humans and of livestock, all of which is based on the census figures given in 26:51. The apostasy of Baalpeor was the last of the transgressions recorded of Israel during the wilderness period. Like the apostasy at Sinai, it involved licentious idolatry and it gave an ominous foreview of the situation in Canaan, when Israel would forsake Yahweh and go whoring after Baal. That such tragedy took place at the end of the journey while Moses their great leader was still with them, and in sight of the land of promise, is a final evidence of that incorrigible waywardness with which Moses contended for forty years. Specially noteworthy are the words of the Lord to Moses: “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people” (31:2). This act of retributive justice was required by the Holy God of Israel. It was in a sense the last act of Moses.

The request of the two and a half tribes that they might possess the lands East of the Jordan (ch. 32) was granted by Moses, but only after solemn warning by him, and equally solemn pledges by them, to do their full part in the task of conquering the land of Canaan to the West.

Moses’ valedictory: Deuteronomy

If the abrupt and almost trivial ending of the Book of Numbers is intended to indicate that the great story of Israel’s beginnings as a nation is not ended, the Book of Deuteronomy no less clearly forms the conclusion of this great history of deliverance. In it Moses is not merely, as in the three preceding books, the chief actor; here he is also the only speaker, and in the discourses which constitute the main part of the book, are both his summary and his application of that history for Israel. That it is Moses, the leader and lawgiver who speaks to Israel, and through her to all the Israel of God in the generations to come, is made clear by express statements to that effect, and also by the fact that the utterances themselves are so markedly and characteristically Mosaic.

Moses accepted mutely the sentence that he is not to lead the people into Canaan (Num 27:12-17). Three times in his first address (Deut 1:37; 3:23-27; 4:21-24), he expressed his poignant grief that he is deprived of this fulfillment of his heart’s desire. In all three passages he lays the blame for this disappointment on the people: the Lord was angry “for your sakes”; and he twice drew from this tragic disappointment which he has experienced, a lesson on obedience for Israel. Similarly in the case of Aaron he pointed out that it was because of his intercession that Aaron was not slain for the sin of making the golden calf (9:20).

At ch. 12 Moses begins to deal more particularly with the conquest of the land and its possession, and especially with that place in the land in which the Lord will choose to place His name (v. 5). This place, which like the Tabernacle of the wilderness journey is to be the center of worship for all Israel, is referred to nineteen times, most frequently in ch. 12. In no one of these passages is its location specified or its name given. The same is true of other great features in Israel’s life in the land, kingship (17:14-20) and prophecy (18:15-22). They lie in the future. Moses has much to say about that future and gives laws which are to govern Israel “in the land which you are going to possess.” But his great concern for Israel after his forty years’ experience in leading is that they take possession of the land of promise and worthily administer it. In his mind their continuance in the land was even more serious a matter than its conquest; and success in both cases was dependent on faithful obedience to Him who promised it to the fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.

He then expresses all his hopes and fears for Israel in a song (Deut 32:1-43). Along with Exodus 15 these two chs. (Deut 32; 33) are the only ones in the Pentateuch to which a distinctive poetic form is assigned in the Hebrew Bible, and they show how readily the eloquence of impassioned oratory which appears so often elsewhere in the Mosaic books can pass into poetic form. What may be regarded as Moses’ last words (33:26-29; cf. 2 Sam 23:1-7) find their echo in the prayer recorded in Psalm 90.

Moses, the prophet without peer in the Old Testament foresees with the anguish of a great love, all the misery and suffering which their sins of disobedience will bring on his people. Solemnly he warns: “I will call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19). With such words of counsel and admonition, this great lover of God and of the people of God passed to his reward.

The finest and truest tribute to Moses’ memory is given in the words of his epitaph: “And there was not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel” (34:10-12). Multitudes of believers both of Old Testament times and in the days of the New Covenant have accepted them as their own tribute to “Moses the servant of the Lord.”


The traditional view of the Jewish church and of the Christian church, that Moses was a person and that the narrative with which his life-story is interwoven is real history, is in the main sustained by commentators and critics of all classes.

It is needless to mention the old writers among whom these questions were hardly under discussion. Among the advocates of the current radical criticism may be mentioned Stade and Renan, who minimize the historicity of the Bible narrative at this point. Renan thinks the narrative "may be very probable." Ewald, Wellhausen, Robertson Smith, and Driver, while finding many flaws in the story, make much generally of the historicity of the narrative.

The critical analysis of the Pentateuch divides this life-story of Moses into three main parts, J, E, and the Priestly Code (P), with a fourth, D, made up mainly from the others. Also some small portions here and there are given to R, especially the account of Aaron’s part in the plagues of Egypt, where his presence in a J-document is very troublesome for the analytical theory. It is unnecessary to encumber this biography with constant cross-references to the strange story of Moses pieced together out of the rearranged fragments into which the critical analysis of the Pentateuch breaks up the narrative. It is recognized that there are difficulties in the story of Moses. In what ancient life-story are there not difficulties? If we can conceive of the ancients being obliged to ponder over a modern life-story, we can easily believe that they would have still more difficulty with it. But it seems to very many that the critical analysis creates more difficulties in the narrative than it relieves. It is a little thing to explain by such analysis some apparent discrepancy between two laws or two events or two similar incidents which we do not clearly understand. It is a far greater thing so to confuse, by rearranging, a beautiful, well-articulated biography that it becomes disconnected—indeed, in parts, scarcely makes sense.

Work and Character

So little is known of the private life of Moses that his personal character can scarcely be separated from the part which he bore in public affairs. It is the work he wrought for Israel and for mankind which fixes his place among the great ones of earth. The life which we have just sketched as the life of the leader of Israel is also the life of the author, the lawgiver, and the prophet.

The Author

It is not within the province of this article to discuss in full the great critical controversies concerning the authorship of Moses which have been summed up against him thus: "It is doubtful whether we can regard Moses as an author in the literary sense"HDB, III, 446; see Pentateuch; Deuteronomy. It will only be in place here to present a brief statement of the evidence in the case for Moses. There is no longer any question concerning the literary character of the age in which Moses lived. That Moses might have written is indisputable. But did he write, and how much? What evidence bears at these points?

Moses Wrote

Moses’ Library

There are many library marks in the Pentateuch, even in those portions which by nearly all, even the most radical, critics are allowed to be probably the writings of Moses. The Pentateuch as a whole has such library marks all over it.

On the one hand this is entirely consistent with the known literary character of the age in which Moses lived. One who was "instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" might have had in his possession Egyptian records. And the author of this article is of that class to whom Professor Clay refers, who believe "that Hebraic (or Amoraic) literature, as well as Aramaic, has a great antiquity prior to the 1st millennium BC"Clay, Amurru, 32.

On the other hand, the use of a library to the extent indicated by the abiding marks upon the Pentateuch does not in the least militate against the claim of Moses for authorship of the same. The real library marks, aside from the passages which are assigned by the critics to go with them, are far less numerous and narrower in scope than in Gibbon or in Kurtz. The use of a library no more necessarily endangers authorship in the one case than in the other.

The Moses-Tradition

A tradition from the beginning universally held, and for a long time and without inherent absurdity, has very great weight. Such has been the Moses-tradition of authorship. Since Moses is believed to have been such a person living in such an age and under such circumstances as might suitably provide the situation and the occasion for such historical records, so that common sense does not question whether he could have written "a" Pentateuch, but only whether he did write "the" Pentateuch which we have, it is easier to believe the tradition concerning his authorship than to believe that such a tradition arose with nothing so known concerning his ability and circumstances. But such a tradition did arise concerning Moses. It existed in the days of Josiah. Without it, by no possibility could the people have been persuaded to receive with authority a book purporting to be by him. The question of the truthfulness of the claim of actually finding the Book of the Law altogether aside, there must have been such a national hero as Moses known to the people and believed in by them, as well as a confident belief in an age of literature reaching back to his days, else the Book of the Law would not have been received by the people as from Moses. Archaeology does not supply actual literary material from Israel much earlier than the time of Josiah, but the material shows a method of writing and a literary advancement of the people which reaches far back for its origin, and which goes far to justify the tradition in Josiah’s day. Moreover, to the present time, there is no archaeological evidence to cast doubt upon that tradition.

The Pentateuch in the Northern Kingdom

Evidence for the Mosaic Age

Beyond the limit to which historical evidence reaches concerning the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, internal evidence for the Mosaic age as the time of its composition carries us back to the very days of Moses. Egyptian words in the Pentateuch attest its composition in the Mosaic age, not because they are Egyptian words, for it is quite supposable that later authors might have known Egyptian words, but because they are Egyptian words of such marked peculiarities in meaning and history and of such absolutely accurate use in the Pentateuch, that their employment by later authors in such a way is incredible. The list of such words is a long one. Only a few can be mentioned here.

For a complete list the authorities cited must be consulted. There is ye’or, for the streams of Egypt; achu, for the marshy pasture lands along the Nile; shesh, for the "fine white linen" of the priests; "the land of Rameses" for a local district in lower Egypt; tsaphenath pa`neach, Joseph’s Egyptian name, and acenath, the name of Joseph’s Egyptian wife, and many other Egyptian wordssee Lieblein, in PSBA, May, 1898, 202-10; also The Bible Student, 1901, 36-40.

The Obscurity of the Doctrine of the Resurrection in the Pentateuch

This obscurity has been urged against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Because of the popular belief concerning the doctrine of the resurrection among the Egyptians, this objection to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch becomes the most forcible of all the objections urged by critics. If the Pentateuch was written by Moses when Israel had just come out of Egypt, why did he leave the doctrine of the resurrection in such obscurity? The answer is very simple. The so-called Egyptian doctrine of the resurrection was not a doctrine of resurrection at all, but a doctrine of resuscitation.

The essential idea of resurrection, as it runs through Scripture from the first glimpse of it until the declaration of Paul: "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body" (1Co 15:35-45), is almost absolutely beyond the Egyptian vision of the future life. With the Egyptians the risen body was to live the same old life on "oxen, geese, bread, beer, wine and all good things"compare for abundant illustration Maspero’s Guide to Cairo Museum.

The omission of the doctrine of the resurrection from the Pentateuch at the later date assigned by criticism is very hard to account for. In view of some passages from the Psalms and the Prophets, it appears inexplicable (Job 19:25-27; Ps 16:10; 49:15; Isa 26:19; Eze 37; Da 12:2). The gross materialism of the Egyptian doctrine of the rising from the dead makes the obscurity of the doctrine of the resurrection in the Pentateuch in Moses’ day perfectly natural. Any direct mention of the subject at that time among a people just come out of Egypt would have carried at once into Israel’s religion the materialism of the Egyptian conception of the future life.

The only way by which the people could be weaned away from these Egyptian ideas was by beginning, as the Pentateuch does, with more spiritual ideas of God, of the other world and of worship. The obscurity of the doctrine of the resurrection in the Pentateuch, so far from being against the Mosaic authorship, is very cogent reason for believing the Pentateuch to have come from that age, as the only known time when such an omission is reasonably explicable. Lord, in his lectures, though not an Egyptologist, caught sight of this truth which later work of Egyptologists has made clearMoses, 45. Warburton had a less clear vision of itsee Divine Legation.

The Unity of the Pentateuch

Unity in the Pentateuch, abstractly considered, cannot be indicative of particular time for its composition. Manifestly, unity can be given a book at any time. There is indisputably a certain appearance of unity in narrative in the Pentateuch, and when this unity is examined somewhat carefully, it is found to have such peculiarity as does point to the Mosaic age for authorship. The making of books which have running through them such a narrative as is contained in the Pentateuch which, especially from the end of Genesis, is entangled and interwoven with dates and routes and topographical notes, the history of experiences, all so accurately given that in large part to this day the route and the places intended can be identified, all this, no matter when the books were written, certainly calls for special conditions of authorship. A narrative which so provides for all the exigencies of desert life and so anticipates the life to which Israel looked forward, exhibits a realism which calls for very special familiarity with all the circumstances. And when the narrative adds to all this the life of a man without breaks or repetitions adverse to the purpose of a biography, and running through from beginning to end, and not a haphazard, unsymmetrical man such as might result from the piecing together of fragments, but a colossal and symmetrical man, the foremost man of the world until a greater than Moses should appear, it demands to be written near the time and place of the events narrated.

That a work of fiction, struck off at one time by one hand, might meet all these requirements at a later date, no one can doubt, but a scrap-book, even though made up of facts, cannot do so. In fact, the scraps culled. out by the analysis of the Pentateuch do not make a connected life-story at all, but three fragmentary and disconnected stories, and turn a biography, which is the binding-thread of the books, into what is little better than nonsense.

The unity of the Law, which also can be well sustained, is to the same effect as the unity of the narrative in certifying the narrative near to the time and place of the events narrated. The discussion of the unity of the Law, which involves nearly the whole critical controversy of the day, would be too much of a digression for an article on Mosessee Law; Leviticus; DEUTERONOMY; also Green, Higher Criticism and the Pent; Orr, POT; Wiener, Biblical Sac., 1909—10.

Neither criticism nor archaeology has yet produced the kind or degree of evidence which rationalism demands for the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. No trace has yet been found either of the broken tablets at Mt. Sinai or of the autograph copy of the Law of the Lord "by the hand of Moses" brought out of the house of the Lord in the days of Josiah. Nor are these things likely to be found, nor anything else that will certify authorship like a transcription of the records in the copyright office. Such evidence is not reasonably demanded. The foregoing indications point very strongly to the production of the Pentateuch in the Mosaic age by someone as familiar with the circumstances and as near the heart of the nation as Moses was. That here and there a few slight additions may have been made and that, perhaps, a few explanations made by scribes may have slipped into the text from the margin are not unlikely (Nu 12:3; De 34), but this does not affect the general claim of authorship.

Ps 90 is also attributed to Moses, though attempts have been made to discredit his authorship here alsoDelitzsch, Commentary on the Psalms. There are those who perhaps still hold to the Mosaic authorship of the Book of Job. But that view was never more than a speculation.

The Lawgiver

The character of Moses as lawgiver is scarcely separable from that of Moses as author, but calls for some separate consideration.


The extent of the Mosaic element in the Pentateuch legislation has been so variously estimated that for any adequate idea of the discussion the reader must consult not only other articlesLAW; COVENANT, PENTATEUCH but special works on this subject. In accord with the reasons presented above for the authorship of the Pentateuch in Mosaic times, the great statesman seems most naturally the author of the laws so interwoven with his life and leadership.

Moses first gave laws concerning the Passover (Ex 13). At Sinai, after the startling revelation from the summit of the mountain, it is most reasonable that Moses should gather the people together to covenant with God, and should record that event in the short code of laws known as the Book of the Covenant (Ex 24:7). This code contains the Moral Law (Ex 20:1-17) as fundamental, the constitution of theocracy and of all ethical living. This is followed by a brief code suitable to their present condition and immediate prospects (Ex 20:24-26; 21-23). Considering the expectations of both leader and people that they would immediately proceed to the promised land and take possession, it is quite in order that there should be laws concerning vineyards and olive orchards (Ex 23:11), and harvests (Ex 23:10-16) and the first-fruits (Ex 23:19).

Upon the completion of the tabernacle, a priest-code became a necessity. Accordingly, such a code follows with great minutiae of directions. This part of the Law is composed almost entirely of "laws of procedure" intended primarily for the priests, that they might know their own duties and give oral instruction to the people, and probably was never meant for the whole people except in the most general way. When Israel was turned back into the wilderness, these two codes were quite sufficient for the simple life of the wanderings. But Israel developed. The rabble became a nation. Forty years of life under law, under the operation of the Book of the Covenant in the moralities of life, the Priestly Code in their religious exercises, and the brief statutes of Leviticus for the simple life of the desert, prepared the people for a more elaborate code as they entered the promised land with its more complex life. Accordingly, in Deuteronomy that code was recorded and left for the guidance of the people. That these various codes contain some things not now understood is not at all surprising. It would be surprising if they did not.

That some few items of law may have been added at a later time, as some items of history were added to the narrative, is not at all unreasonable, and does in no way invalidate the claim of Moses as the lawgiver, any more than later French legislation has invalidated the Corsican’s claim to the Napoleonic Code.

The essential value of the Mosaic legislation is beyond comparison. Some of the laws of Moses, relating as they did to passing problems, have themselves passed away; some of them were definitely abrogated by Christ and others explicitly fulfilled; but much of his legislation, moral, industrial, social and political, is the warp and woof of the best in the great codes of the world to this day. The morality of the Decalogue is unapproached among collections of moral precepts. Its divinity, like the divinity of the teachings of Jesus, lies not only in what it includes, but also in what it omits. The precepts of Ptah-hotep, of Confucius, of Epictetus include many things found in the Decalogue; the Decalogue omits many things found among the maxims of these moralists. Thus, in what it excludes, as in what it includes, the perfection of the Decalogue lies.

Comparison of Moses' Laws to other Historic Laws

It should be emphasized that the laws of Moses were codes, not a collection of court decisions known to lawyers as common law, but codes given abstractly, not in view of any particular concrete case, and arranged in systematic orderWiener, Biblical Sac., 1909-10. This is entirely in harmony with the archaeological indications of the Mosaic and preceding ages. The Code of Hammurabi, given at least 5 centuries before, is one of the most orderly, methodical and logical codes ever constructedLyon, JAOS, XXV, 254.

The Prophet

The career and the works and the character of Moses culminate in the prophetic office. It was as prophet that Moses was essentially leader. It was as prophet that he held the place of highest eminence in the world until a greater than Moses came.

  • The statesman-prophet framed a civil government which illustrated the kingdom of God upon earth. The theocracy did not simulate any government of earth, monarchy, republic or socialistic state. It combined the best elements in all of these and set up the most effective checks which have ever been devised against the evils of each.
  • The lawgiver-prophet inculcated maxims and laws which set the feet of the people in the way of life, so that, while failing as a law of life in a sinful world, these precepts ever remain as a rule of conduct.
  • The priest-prophet prepared and gave to Israel a ritual of worship which most completely typified the redemptive mercy of God and which is so wonderfully unfolded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as it has been more wonderfully fulfilled in the life and atoning death of Christ.
  • In all the multiform activities of the prophetic career he was a type of Christ, the type of Christ whose work was a "tutor unto Christ."
  • Moses’ revelation of God ever transcends the speculations of theologians about God as a sunrise transcends a treatise on the solar spectrum. While the speculations are cold and lifeless, the revelation is vital and glorious. As an analysis of Raphael’s painting of the transfiguration belittles its impression upon the beholder, while a sight of the picture exalts that scene in the mind and heart, so the attempts of theologians to analyze God and bring Him within the grasp of the human mind belittle the conception of God, dwarf it to the capacity of the human intellect, while such a vision of Him as Moses gives exalts and glorifies Him beyond expression. Thus, while theologians of every school from Athanasius to Ritschl come and go, Moses goes on forever; while they stand cold on library shelves, he lives warm in the hearts of men.

    Such was the Hebrew leader, lawgiver, prophet, poet; among mere men, "the foremost man of all this world."


  • M. Kline, Treaty of the Great King.
  • F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. III and IV.
  • F. E. Hoskins, From the Nile to Nebo (1912).
  • M. G. Kyle, Moses and the Monuments (1920).
  • O. T. Allis, The Five Books of Moses (1943).
  • J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (1949), 47-50.
  • J. P. Free, Archeology and Bible History (1950), 84-126.
  • J. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1950).
  • M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the OT (1954).
  • G. T. Manley, The Book of the Law (1957).
  • E. J. Young, Introduction to the OT, 2d ed. (1958).
  • J. Bright, History of Israel (1959), 115-117. 129-142.
  • G. L. Archer, Survey of O.T. Introduction (1964).
  • H. M. Buck, People of the Lord (1966), 125-149.
  • K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the O.T. (1966).
  • Martin Buber, Moses, 1944.
  • H. H. Rowley, From Moses to Qumran, 1963, ch. 2, and Men of God, 1963, ch. 1.
  • R. A. Cole, Exodus (TOTC), 1973, pp. 16-46.
  • E. H. Merrill, An Historical Survey of the Old Testament, 1966, pp. 96-129.
  • C. F. Pfeiffer, Old Testament History, 1973, pp. 125-90.
  • Lauterbach in Jewish Encyclopedia.
  • Charles, Assumption of Moses.
  • DB. Ebers, Egypten und die Bucher Mosis.
  • References