Mo’ses (Heb. Môsheh, “drawn,” i.e., from the water; in the Coptic it means “saved from the water”), the legislator of the Jewish people, and in a certain sense the founder of the Jewish religion. The immediate pedigree of Moses is as follows:
The history of Moses naturally divides itself into three periods of 40 years each. Moses was born at Goshen, in Egypt, b.c. 1571. The story of his birth is thoroughly Egyptian in its scene. His mother made extraordinary efforts for his preservation from the general destruction of the male children of Israel. For three months the child was concealed in the house. Then his mother placed him in a small boat or basket of papyrus, closed against the water by bitumen. This was placed among the aquatic vegetation by the side of one of the canals of the Nile. The sister lingered to watch her brother’s fate. The Egyptian princess, who, tradition says, was a childless wife, came down to bathe in the sacred river. Her attendant slaves followed her. She saw the basket in the flags, and despatched divers, who brought it. It was opened, and the cry of the child moved the princess to compassion. She determined to rear it as her own. The sister was at hand to recommend a Hebrew nurse, the child’s own mother. Here was the first part of Moses’ training—a training at home in the true religion, in faith in God, in the promises to his nation, in the life of a saint—a training which he never forgot, even amid the splendors and gilded sin of Pharaoh’s court. The child was adopted by the princess. From this time for many years Moses must be considered as an Egyptian. In the Pentateuch this period is a blank, but in the New Testament he is represented as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” and as “mighty in words and deeds.” Acts 7:22. This was the second part of Moses’ training.
The second period of Moses’ life began when he was forty years old. Seeing the sufferings of his people, Moses determined to go to them as their helper, and made his great life-choice, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” Heb. 11:25, 26. Seeing an Israelite suffering the bastinado from an Egyptian, and thinking that they were alone, he slew the Egyptian, and buried the corpse in the sand. But the people soon showed themselves unfitted as yet to obtain their freedom, nor was Moses yet fitted to be their leader. He was compelled to leave Egypt when the slaying of the Egyptian became known, and he fled to the land of Midian, in the southern and southeastern part of the Sinai peninsula. There was a famous well (“the well,” Ex. 2:15) surrounded by tanks for the watering of the flocks of the Bedouin herdsmen. By this well the fugitive seated himself and watched the gathering of the sheep. There were the Arabian shepherds, and there were also seven maidens, whom the shepherds rudely drove away from the water. The chivalrous spirit which had already broken forth in behalf of his oppressed countrymen broke forth again in behalf of the distressed maidens. They returned unusually soon to their father, Jethro, and told him of their adventure. Moses, who up to this time had been “an Egyptian,” Ex. 2:19, now became for a time an Arabian. He married Zipporah, daughter of his host, to whom he also became the slave and shepherd. Ex. 2:21; 3:1. Here for forty years Moses communed with God and with nature, escaping from the false ideas taught him in Egypt, and sifting out the truths that were there. This was the third process of his training for his work; and from this training he learned infinitely more than from Egypt. Stanley well says, after enumerating what the Israelites derived from Egypt, that the contrast was always greater than the likeness. This process was completed when God met him on Horeb, appearing in a burning bush, and, communicating with him, appointed him to be the leader and deliverer of his people.
Now begins the third period of forty years in Moses’ life. He meets Aaron, his next younger brother, whom God permitted to be the spokesman, and together they return to Goshen in Egypt. From this time the history of Moses is the history of Israel for the next forty years. Aaron spoke and acted for Moses, and was the permanent inheritor of the sacred staff of power. But Moses was the inspiring soul behind. He is incontestably the chief personage of the history, in a sense in which no one else is described before or since. He was led into a closer communion with the invisible world than was vouchsafed to any other in the Old Testament. There are two main characters in which he appears—as a leader and as a prophet. (1) As a leader, his life divides itself into the three epochs—the march to Sinai; the march from Sinai to Kadesh; and the conquest of the transjordanic kingdoms. On approaching Palestine the office of the leader becomes blended with that of the general or the conqueror. By Moses the spies were sent to explore the country. Against his advice took place the first disastrous battle at Hormah. To his guidance is ascribed the circuitous route by which the nation approached Palestine from the east, and to his generalship the two successful campaigns in which Sihon and Og were defeated. The narrative is told so briefly that we are in danger of forgetting that at this last stage of his life Moses must have been as much a conqueror and victorious soldier as was Joshua. (2) His character as a prophet is, from the nature of the case, more distinctly brought out. He is the first as he is the greatest example of a prophet in the Old Testament. His brother and sister were both endowed with prophetic gifts. The seventy elders, and Eldad and Medad also, all “prophesied.” Num. 11:25-27. But Moses rose high above all these. With him the divine revelations were made “mouth to mouth.” Num. 12:8. Of the special modes of this more direct communication, four great examples are given, corresponding to four critical epochs in his historical career. (a) The appearance of the divine presence in the flaming acacia tree. Ex. 3:2-6. (b) In the giving of the law from Mount Sinai, the outward form of the revelation was a thick darkness as of a thunder-cloud, out of which proceeded a voice. Ex. 19:19; 20:21. On two occasions he is described as having penetrated within the darkness. Ex. 24:18; 34:28. (c) It was nearly at the close of these communications in the mountains of Sinai that an especial revelation of God was made to him personally. Ex. 33:21, 22; 34:5, 6, 7. God passed before him. (d) The fourth mode of divine manifestation was that which is described as beginning at this juncture, and which was maintained with more or less continuity through the rest of his career. Ex. 33:7. It was the communication with God in the tabernacle from out the pillar of cloud and fire. There is another form of Moses’ prophetic gift, viz., the poetical form of composition which characterizes the Jewish prophecy generally. These poetical utterances are—
1. “The song which Moses and the children of Israel sung” (after the passage of the Red Sea). Ex. 15:1-19. 2. A fragment of a warsong against Amalek. Ex. 17:16. 3. A fragment of a lyrical burst of indignation. Ex. 32:18. 4. The fragments of warsongs, probably from either him or his immediate prophetic followers, in Num. 21:14, 15, 27-30, preserved in the “book of the wars of Jehovah,” Num. 21:14; and the address to the well. ch. 21:16, 17, 18. 5. The song of Moses, Deut. 32:1-43, setting forth the greatness and the failings of Israel. 6. The blessing of Moses on the tribes. Deut. 33:1-29. 7. The 90th Psalm, “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” The title, like all the titles of the psalms, is of doubtful authority, and the psalm has often been referred to a later author.
Character.—The prophetic office of Moses can only be fully considered in connection with his whole character and appearance. Hos. 12:13. He was in a sense peculiar to himself the founder and representative of his people; and in accordance with this complete identification of himself with his nation is the only strong personal trait which we are able to gather from his history. Num. 12:3. The word “meek” is hardly an adequate reading of the Hebrew term, which should be rather “much enduring.” It represents what we should now designate by the word “disinterested.” All that is told of him indicates a withdrawal of himself, a preference of the cause of his nation to his own interests, which makes him the most complete example of Jewish patriotism. (He was especially a man of prayer and of faith, of wisdom, courage, and patience.) In exact conformity with his life is the account of his end. The book of Deuteronomy describes, and is, the long last farewell of the prophet to his people. This takes place on the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year of the wanderings, in the plains of Moab. Deut. 1:3, 5. Moses is described as 120 years of age, but with his sight and his freshness of strength unabated. Deut. 34:7. Joshua is appointed his successor. The law is written out and ordered to be deposited in the ark. ch. 31. The song and the blessing of the tribes conclude the farewell. chs. 32, 33. And then comes the mysterious close. He is told that he is to see the good land beyond the Jordan, but not to possess it himself. He ascends the mount of Pisgah and stands on Nebo, one of its summits, and surveys the four great masses of Palestine west of the Jordan, so far as it can be discerned from that height. The view has passed into a proverb for all nations. “So Moses the servant of Jehovah died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Jehovah. And he buried him in a ‘ravine’ in the land of Moab, ‘before’ Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. . . . And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.” Deut. 34:5, 6, 8. This is all that is said in the sacred record. (This burial was thus hidden probably—(1) To preserve his grave from idolatrous worship or superstitious reverence; and (2) Because it may be that God did not intend to leave his body to corruption, but to prepare it, as he did the body of Elijah, so that Moses could in his spiritual body meet Christ, together with Elijah, on the mount of transfiguration.)
Moses is spoken of as a likeness of Christ; and as this is a point of view which has been almost lost in the Church, compared with the more familiar comparisons of Christ to Adam, David, Joshua, and yet has as firm a basis in fact as any of them, it may be well to draw it out in detail. (1) Moses is, as it would seem, the only character of the Old Testament to whom Christ expressly likens himself: “Moses wrote of me.” John 5:46. It suggests three main points of likeness: (a) Christ was, like Moses, the great prophet of the people—the last, as Moses was the first. (b) Christ, like Moses, is a lawgiver: “Him shall ye hear.” (c) Christ, like Moses, was a prophet out of the midst of the nation, “from their brethren.” As Moses was the entire representative of his people, feeling for them more than for himself, absorbed in their interests, hopes and fears, so, with reverence be it said, was Christ. (2) In Heb. 3:1-19; 12:24-29; Acts 7:37, Christ is described, though more obscurely, as the Moses of the new dispensation—as the apostle or messenger or mediator of God to the people—as the controller and leader of the flock or household of God. (3) The details of their lives are sometimes, though not often, compared. Acts 7:24-28, 35. In Jude 9 is an allusion to an altercation between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. It probably refers to a lost apocryphal book, mentioned by Origen, called the “Ascension” or “Assumption of Moses.” Respecting the books of Moses, see Pentateuch.