Moses was the leader of the Israelites in their departure from Egypt and plays a central role in receiving the covenant from God. He is often identified as the main lawgiver in Judaism, and also represents the law in other religions such as Islam and Christianity. Moses is the main human figure in the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible, often called the Five Books of Moses. He leads the Jews out of Egyptian slavery, directs them during their 40 years in the desert, brings the law down from Mount Sinai, and organizes the entry into the land of Canaan.
The name Moses, or Moshe in Hebrew, plays on a link with the word for drawing out of water (Exodus 2:10). He was born around the 13th century BCE to Amram and Jochabed with a sister Miriam and brother Aaron. During a time of persecution of Jewish males he was hidden in a basket and placed in the river, only to be rescued and subsequently brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter. He fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian in defense of a fellow Israelite, marrying Zipporah, and having two sons. Here he again defended the weak, resisting aggression against the daughters of his father-in-law Jethro. On Mount Sinai he experienced the presence of God through a burning bush and received the orders to lead the Hebrews from Egypt. Moses protested his inadequacy and was told to take his brother Aaron with him to help in his task. Pharaoh resisted Moses’ mission, although Moses carried on trying to change his mind, and the Egyptians were punished with the 10 plagues. With the last, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, Moses succeeded in leading the Israelites out of Egypt and evading the Egyptian attempt at recapturing them. He took them through the Red (Reed) Sea into the Sinai desert and returned to Mount Sinai, where a detailed covenant was established with God and the whole of the community. His people constantly let him down, yet he persisted in caring for them and guiding their route to the Promised Land. Moses then continued to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan, but died at Mount Nebo without himself entering.
One of the rather charming aspects of Moses is his apparent modesty. He was frightened by the presence of God in the burning bush and refused to look at him, and admitted to not knowing the divine name or being able to carry out the task he was set. When his mission to Pharaoh was at first unsuccessful and the Israelites turned against him, he complained to God for sending him (Exodus 5:22) as the Hebrews complained to him about God’s plans for them. Even when they escaped from Egypt and discovered the pursuing Egyptian army they blamed Moses. Moses followed God’s instructions throughout the exodus and served as the conduit for divine assistance for the Hebrews throughout this long period when they were threatened by enemies, both human and natural. When Moses was delayed on Mount Sinai, where he received the details of the law, the people revolted against monotheism and constructed the Golden Calf, an event that caused Moses to smash the tablets he brought down with him. Eventually, after punishing the leaders of the revolt, he returned to Mount Sinai with blank tablets and God dictated the terms of the covenant.
Moses was also involved in constructing the tabernacle that contained the tablets of the law, and continued to intercede on behalf of the Hebrews on the occasions when they were attacked and the even more frequent occasions when they turned against God and refused to trust in the eventual success of their mission. Even Moses himself at Numbers 20:10 is shown to be very human in carrying out an order by God to tell a rock to produce water, when the Israelites were yet again complaining of lack of sustenance. He struck the rock twice and water did indeed gush out, but the implication was that he had carried out the miracle, not God, and for this he is told at Numbers 20:12 that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel, although other reasons are also given in the commentatorial tradition. Even when at 120 years old he saw the land from Mount Nebo and pleaded for admittance, God did not relent. Moses gathered the Israelites and reminded them of their trials in the desert and summarized some of the basic principles of the law they received on Mount Sinai. At the end of the Bible, Moses is referred to as a unique prophet, someone whom God knew face to face, and who was engaged in performing the most remarkable events. Yet unlike many of the other major figures in Judaism, his burial place is known to no one.
Moses as Musa figures as a major character in the Koran, the most frequently mentioned human being (137 references). The account of his life and achievements is broadly in line with the Jewish Bible. He is referred to as both a prophet and a messenger in accordance with the significance of his role for the Israelites. He is also the most mentioned Old Testament character in the New Testament, often referred to as representing the law and prefiguring Jesus. He has frequently become part of modern theological debates, such as whether or not he was in fact Jewish (Freud thought he was an Egyptian) and what meaning his prophecy has for the three religions that regard him as significant.
Judaism; Sinai, Mount.
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