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- (See also Exodus)
Moses or Móshe (מֹשֶׁה "Drawn", Standard Hebrew Móše, Tiberian Hebrew Mōšeh, Arabic موسى), son of Amram and his wife, Jochebed, a Levite. Legendary Hebrew liberator, leader, lawgiver, prophet, and historian. If he is a historical figure, he may have lived between the 18th century BC and the 13th century BC.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. He received the Torah Of Judaism from God on Mount Sinai. The Torah contains the life story of Moses and his people until his death at the age of 120 years.
Moses's greatest legacy was probably expounding the doctrine of monotheism, which was not widely accepted at the time, codifying it in Jewish religion with the 1st (and most important) Commandment, and punishing polytheists. He is revered as a prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Moses in the Hebrew Bible
The birth of Moses occurred at a time when Pharaoh had commanded that all male children born to Hebrew captives should be killed. The Torah leaves the identity of this Pharaoh unstated, but he is widely believed to be Ramses II; other, earlier pharaohs have also been suggested including a Hyksos pharaoh or one shortly after the Hyksos had been expelled.
Jochebed, the wife of the Levite Amram, bore a son, and kept him concealed for three months. When she could keep him hidden no longer, rather than deliver him to be killed she set him adrift on the Nile river in an ark of bulrushes. The daughter of Pharaoh discovered the baby and adopted him as her son, and named him “Moses.”
When Moses was grown to manhood, he went one day to see how it fared with his brethren, bondmen to the Egyptians. Seeing an Egyptian maltreating a Hebrew, he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand, supposing that no one who would be disposed to reveal the matter knew of it. The next day, seeing two Hebrews quarreling, he endeavored to separate them, whereupon the Hebrew who was wronging his brother taunted Moses with slaying the Egyptian. Moses soon discovered from a higher source that the affair was known, and that Pharaoh was likely to put him to death for it; he therefore made his escape to the Sinaitic Peninsula and settled with Hobab, or Jethro, priest of Midian, whose daughter Zipporah he in due time married. There he sojourned forty years, following the occupation of a shepherd, during which time his son Gershom was born (Exodus 2:11-22).
Mission from God
One day, as Moses led his flock to Mount Horeb, he saw a bush burning without being consumed. When he turned aside to look more closely at the marvel, God spoke to him from the bush revealing his name, YHWH, to Moses.
God also commissioned him to Egypt and deliver his brethren from their bondage. He then returned to Egypt (Exodus 4:1-9, 20). Moses was met on his arrival in Egypt by his elder brother, Aaron, and gained a hearing with his oppressed brethren (Exodus 4:27-31). It was a more difficult matter, however, to persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrews depart. This was not accomplished until God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians. These plagues culminated in the slaying of the Egyptian first-born (Exodus 12:29), whereupon such terror seized the Egyptians that they ordered the Hebrews to leave.
In the wilderness
The children of Israel started toward the eastern border at the southern part of the Isthmus of Suez. The long procession moved slowly, and found it necessary to encamp three times before passing the Egyptian frontier, some believe at the Bitter Lakes while others propose as far south as the northern tip of the Red Sea. Meanwhile Pharaoh had a change of heart and was in pursuit of them with a large army (Exodus 14:5-9). Shut in between this army and the Red Sea, the Israelites despaired, but God divided the waters of the sea so that they passed safely across on dry ground. When the Egyptians attempted to follow, God permitted the waters to return upon them and drown them (Exodus 14:10-31).
Moses led the Hebrews to Sinai, or Horeb, where Jethro celebrated their coming by a great sacrifice in the presence of Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exodus 18). At Horeb, or Sinai, God welcomed Moses upon the sacred mountain and talked with him face to face (Exodus 19). God gave him two tablets upon which was written the “Ten Commandments”.
Moses and the Israelites sojourned at Sinai about a year (cf. Numbers 10:11), and Moses had frequent communications from God. As a result of these the Tabernacle, according to the last chapters of Exodus, was constructed, the priestly law ordained, the plan of encampment arranged both for the Levites and the non-priestly tribes (cf. Numbers 1:50 - 2:34), and the Tabernacle consecrated.
While at Sinai Joshua had become general of the armies of Israel and the special minister, or assistant, of Moses (Exodus 17:9). From Sinai, Moses led the people to Kadesh, whence the spies were sent to Canaan. Upon the return of the spies the people were so discouraged by their report that they refused to go forward, and were condemned to remain in the wilderness until that generation had passed away.
After the lapse of thirty-eight years, Moses led the people eastward. Having been denied permission to pass through the territory of the Edomites, descendants of Esau (Numbers 20:14 - 21), and through the land of Moab (Numbers 21:4), they detoured around those two kingdoms. But being unable to detour around the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites, whose capital was at Heshbon, who also refused permission to travel through his land, Israel conquered him and allotted his territory to the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Og, King of Bashan, was similarly overthrown, and his territory assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh.
The Death of Moses
After all this was accomplished Moses was warned that he would not be permitted to lead Israel across the Jordan, but would die on the eastern side (Numbers 20:12). He assembled the tribes and delivered to them a parting address. When this was finished, and he had pronounced a blessing upon the people, he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, looked over the country spread out before him, and died, at the age of one hundred and twenty. God Himself buried him in an unknown grave (Deuteronomy 34).
Moses in Jewish thought
There is a wealth of stories and additional information about Moses in the Jewish genre of rabbinical exegesis known as Midrash, as well as in the primary works of the Jewish oral law, the Mishna and the Talmud.
Moses in Christian thought
For Christians, Moses -- mentioned more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament figure -- is often a symbol of the contrast between traditional Judaism and the teachings of Jesus. New Testament writers often made comparison of Jesus' words and deeds with Moses' in order to explain Jesus' mission. In the book of Acts, for example, the rejection of Moses by the Jews when they worshipped the golden calf is likened to the rejection of Jesus, also by the Jews.
Moses also figures into several of Jesus' messages. When he met the Pharisee Nicodemus at night in the third chapter of John, he compares Moses' lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness, which any Israelite could look upon and be healed, to his own lifting up (by his death and resurrection) for the people to look upon and be healed. In the sixth chapter, Jesus responds to the people's claim that Moses provided them manna in the wilderness by saying that it was not Moses, but God, who provided. Calling himself the "bread of life", Jesus states that he is now provided to feed God's people.
Moses in Islamic thought
The story of Moses is retold and embellished in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. In the Quran Moses is known as Musa; a separate entry exists on the Islamic teachings about Musa. See Musa (prophet)
Textual origin of the Torah
It has been traditionally assumed that Moses wrote all, or almost all, of the Torah, and this is still the view of much of Christianity and most of Orthodox Judaism. However, advances in higher criticism have convinced many Bible scholars and historians that this work, in the form we know it today, was edited together from several earlier sources. This idea is discussed in the entry on the documentary hypothesis. Others, especially biblical literalists, still hold the traditional viewpoint that it is authored by Moses.
Moses in history
The school of skeptics called Biblical minimalism, whose views are commonplace among academics, suggest Moses never actually existed as a historical figure, and the events of Exodus, uncorroborated, are the products of pure myth. There is no extra-biblical evidence that Moses existed as a historical person. See the article on The Bible and history.
On the other hand, historical records are so fragmentory that extrabiblical records of Moses may have been long lost. For example, if the Exodus occurred during the end of the Hyksos era in Egypt, as some scholars believe, then those Hyksos records of Moses would have been deliberately destroyed by victorious Egyptians as they drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. The only known historical record that survives mentioning Moses is the Bible.
If Moses is accepted as a historical figure, various aspects of the Biblical tale can be re-interpreted. It is quite likely, for example, that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman or prince influenced by the religion of Aten (see below), since Moses is an Egyptian name meaning "son" and was often used in pharaohs' names. The Hebrews might have fabricated the "bulrushes" story along the lines of the tales of Sargon of Agade (Mesopotamian) or Oedipus (Greek) to legitimize his position. On the other hand, infants were often abandoned by the lower classes in ancient times, and "Moshe" is a Hebrew word.
Dating the Exodus has also proved challenging. Three views include:
- it occurred around the end of the Hyksos era, as expressed above;
- it occurred about 1420 BC, since records exist of "Habiru" invasions of Canaan forty years later;
- or it occurred during the 13th century BC, as the pharaoh during most of that time, Ramesses II, is commonly considered the pharaoh Moses squabbled with.
- A more recent and controversial view places Moses as a noble in the court of the Pharoah Akhenaton [See below]. Many scholars from Sigmund Freud to Joseph Campbell suggest that Moses may have fled Egypt after Akhenaton's death (c. 1358 B.C.E.) when much of the pharoah's monotheistic reforms were being violently reversed. The principle ideas behind this theory are: the monotheistic religion of Akhenaton being a possible predecessor to Moses' monotheism, and a contemporaneous collection of "Amarna Letters" written by nobles to Akhenaton (Amarna was Akhenaton's capital city) which describe raiding bands of "Habiru" attacking the Egyptian territories in Mesopotamia. ( Transformations of Myth Through Time, Joseph Campbell, p. 87-90, Harper & Row)
Finally, there is the challenge of interpreting the many miracles in the Moses story. Most of them are simply dismissed by scholars as legends, but some can be explained. For example, some of the plagues strongly resemble exaggerated versions of actual pestilences common in the ancient world (see The Ten Plagues), the famous Red Sea crossing may have been a marsh (the "Reed Sea") through which the Egyptian chariots could not penetrate, the manna which God bestowed on the hungry Israelites may have been the secretion of the hammada shrub, and the swallowing of Korah (Numbers 16) could have been an earthquake.
There is also a psychoanalytical interpretation of Moses' life, put forward by Sigmund Freud in his last book, "Moses and Monotheism ," in 1937. Freud postulated that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman who adhered to the monotheism of Akhenaton. Freud also believed that Moses was murdered in the wilderness, producing a collective sense of patricidal guilt which has been at the heart of Judaism ever since. "Judaism had been a religion of the father, Christianity became a religion of the son," he wrote.
Several professors of archeology claim that many stories in the Old Testament, including important chronicles about Moses, Solomon, and others, were actually made up for the first time by scribes hired by King Josiah (7th century BC) in order to rationalize monotheistic belief in Yahweh. Evidently, the neighboring countries that kept many written records, such as Egypt, Assyria, etc., have no writings about the stories of the Bible or its main characters before 650 BC. Such claims are detailed in "Who Were the Early Israelites?" by William G Dever, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI (2003). Another such book by Neil A Silberman and colleagues is "The Bible Unearthed", Simon and Schuster, New York (2001).
Many traditionalists point out that many of the details of the Pentateuch are consistent with the time period, such as the price of a slave (30 shekels as opposed to around 60 at the time of the Babylonian captivity), the practice of Blood covenants and the discovery of what appear to be chariot wheels on the bottom of the Red Sea. Skeptics view most of these as inconclusive or otherwise consequential.
It is important to note that to date there is no historical mention of the enslavement of Jews by Egypt or of their rescue in any capacity by any person outside of The Bible. There is no archeological evidence that any group of people, much less one of about 600.000 people, wandered a desert for 40 years. Biblical purists chalk this up to the fact that Egypt eliminated any type of failures from their history and did not make records of such events, and surely the loss of a group of slaves would have been viewed as a failure.
If the Bible is literally describing an accurate description of Moses' views, then by "modern standards" some of his commands might amount to calls for murder, war crimes or slavery. For instance, according to Numbers 31:15-18, he called for the enslavelment of young Midianite female children to Israelite veterans of the Midian war. ("but all the... women children... keep alive for yourselves"). It is important to note, however, that such ethical dilemmas can be cited with very little examination into historical context for the purpose of dismissing the reliability of a text. Religion's proponents can use assumptions to discourage exploration. But religion's opponents can also discourage further exploration by making debatable assumptions about a text, classifying the intent of the text as immoral, and thereby dismissing the text as unreliable. In the above example some readers may infer an implied equality between slavery under Mosaic law and "slavery" as understood in the New World. An apparent ethical contradiction should not be casually dismissed, but neither should it be casually assumed.
For both Jews and Christians, the five books of Moses are holy books revealed by God, and the message within them is eternal. For Unitarian-Universalists, it is regarded as a sacred text, but not as a divinely revealed work. Adherents of all these faiths understand the serious ethical dilemmas that arise when reading certain parts of the Bible. As such, Jews and Christians have developed a number of responses to understanding such texts. There are two basic positions that one can assume when approaching such texts, both of which offer a variety of responses.
One using the traditional approach was originally called a fundamentalist. The fundamentalist term has evolved to reflect other meanings however, including that of "a person with an unthinking devotion to an agenda without regard to reason." The traditional approach assumes that Biblical characters, the situations described, and the words said took place as the Bible says. The Bible is believed to be divinely revealed truth, unique among historical texts. This view does not exempt humans from a carefully reasoned examination of the scriptures, however, and in fact requires it. Translation, historical context and assumptions, and the definition and applicability of terms used in the original text not only affect what the Bible "says," they define it.
A fundamentalist may believe there is one valid source (organization, person, etc.) for the interpretation of the "truths" of the Bible. The traditional Christian view implies however that a "literal interpretation of the Bible" is an oxymoron. The important characteristic of the traditional Christian view comes from the Bible itself--that scripture is useful in the context of personal applicability (1 Timothy 3:16-17). Thus, blind adherence to an organization's or one's own static interpretation is rejected in this view, as devotion to the "living" God prohibits devotion to a static ideology. The traditional Christian view implies that the Bible is unique among texts in its truthful nature (lack of falsehood), while simultaneously implying that truth is meaningful only in living application through a personal relationship to God - attempting to adhere to a static set of moral laws is believed to lead to death (see, ie, Romans 7). The traditional Christian believes one arrives at this view by "answering the call of God," who speaks to all mankind through revelation, where revelation is never contradictory and consists of both the Bible and experience gained through life. When faced with an ethical dilemna in Moses's writings, a traditional Christian might employ critical examination of available historical context, critical examination of how the writing should be translated, and critical examination of his or her understanding of God's nature to determine what the passage means, all the while believing the Bible contains no falsehood. For an example of this process applied to the Midian war, see this exploration of Moses's writing from a traditional Christian point of view: Moses and the Midianites. Moses, in the traditional Christian view, was considered a good man not because of his ethics, but because of his trust in God. In this view, only Jesus was a good man for what he did, the rest of mankind (including Moses and his contemporaries) can only become good by believing and trusting God. Traditional Christianity believes that one who honestly looks for God will find God, as this is stated in the Bible, and that honest, rational exploration yields the Bible as the most rational explanation for human experience.
Liberal Christian denominations and congregations reject this view. They hold that the texts of the Bible were edited together from a number of sources over a long period of time, and the authorship and timing of the Torah is debated. In this view, the situations described in the Bible do not necessarily represent divinely inspired truth but instead represent the views of the editors of the Bible.
The Horned Moses
Due to a statement towards the end of the book of Exodus (at 34:29 - 35), in which Moses is depicted as having been disfigured due to his direct encounter with God, various traditions grew up as to what the disfigurement was. Jonathan Kirsch , in his book Moses: A Life, thought that, since Moses subsequently had to wear a veil to hide it, the disfigurement was a sort of "divine radiation burn".
There is one longstanding early tradition that Moses grew horns , derived from a mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase "karnu panav" קרנו פניו. The root קרן may be read as either "horn" or "ray", as in "ray of light". "Panav" פניו translates as "his face". If interpreted correctly those two words form an expression which means that he was enlightened, and many rabbinical studies explain that the knowledge that was revealed to him made his face metaphorically shine with enlightenment, and not that it suddenly sported a pair of horns. The Septuagint properly translates the Hebrew word קרן as δεδοξασται, 'was glorified', but Jerome translated it as cornuta, 'horned', and it was the latter image that became the more popular. This tradition survived from the first centuries AD well into the Renaissance. Many artists, including Michelangelo in a famed sculpture, depicted Moses with horns.
- Teaching Troubling Texts: Study Session of Textual Reasoning at the annual meeting of the AAR 1999
- "Difficult Texts" by Bonna Devora Haberman. How do we study difficult Jewish texts without apologizing for, justifying, or historicizing them?
- Unitarian Universalist approach to reading the Bible
- Prof. E.Anati: Archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom
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