This godly man towers above all other persons in the Old Testament period because he was God's instrument for the introduction of covenant law in Israel. In his long life he also acted on behalf of God to bring into being an enduring nation, while functioning as a prophet, judge, recorder of God's pronouncements, intercessor, military leader, worker of miracles, and tireless shepherd of the unruly Israelite tribes. By the time of his death he had welded his people into a highly efficient military force that would occupy the land promised by God to Abraham ( Gen 12:7 ).
All that is known about Moses is found in the Bible. There are no surviving monuments to him, although some may have existed prior to his abrupt departure from Egypt ( Exod 2:15 ). It is therefore impossible to prove that he ever lived, as far as evidence from statues and inscriptions is concerned. But his existence cannot be disproved, either, since other prominent Old Testament figures have neither names nor monuments, as, for example, the Pharaoh with whom Moses contended, and the Egyptian princess who rescued the infant Moses from the Nile.
Moses is so strongly interwoven with the religious tradition involving God's plan for human salvation through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and ultimately the Davidic Messiah, and attested to as an authoritative figure for Hebrew culture even in the New Testament period, that he could not possibly have been an invention or a fictional character used as an object of religious or social propaganda. Unquestionably he stood head and shoulders above all other Hebrews, and was for the Old Testament period what Paul was for the New.
Perhaps out of deference to his stature there was nobody else in the Old Testament named Moses. There has been some debate about the meaning of his name, with some scholars relating it to a root "to bear, " and found in such Egyptian names as Ahmose and Thutmose. In Exodus 2:10, the name given to him by the princess is connected with a Hebrew verb meaning "to draw out" (cf. 2 Sam 22:17 ), but it could also have come from an Egyptian term meaning "son."
The Book of Exodus divides Moses' life into three periods of forty years each. The first of these deals with his birth in Egypt and his education as a prince of the royal harem (cf. Acts 7:21-22 ). The second phase occurs in Midian, where he fled for refuge after murdering an Egyptian ( Exod 2:15 ). The final stage involves him liberating the enslaved Hebrews, establishing God's covenant with them in the Sinai desert and leading them to the borders of the promised land. The Scriptures indicate that two-thirds of Moses' life served as a preparation for the crucial final third, which was so important for the divine plan of salvation. Accordingly we will focus on Moses' ministry as a mediator and teacher of God's revealed Word, since theology was henceforth to be the basis of Israelite life ( Exod 19:6 ).
While Moses may have learned about his ancestral God from Jethro, his father-in-law, the "priest of Midian" ( Exod 3:1 ), his first encounter with the Lord is at Mount Horeb, where he observes a bush burning with fire, and hears God's announcement that he is the God of Moses' ancestors. Moses is given a commission to return to Egypt and lead out the captive Hebrew people. God reveals to him the new name by which God will become known: "I am who I am." Moses is to say to the Hebrews that "I am" had sent him, and this name is to empower all subsequent pronouncements. Not surprisingly it has also been a matter of debate, and many explanations of its meaning have been advanced. It certainly points to God's eternal existence, self-sufficiency, and continued activity in human history. Intensely dynamic in nature, it transcends and fulfills all other forms of being.
This description of the divine name is supplemented by an additional revelation of his name as Yahweh ( Exod 6:3 ). So sacred is this designation that its pronunciation has not survived; the Hebrew consonants have been vocalized from another word, "lord, " to produce the classic "Jehovah." Modern attempts to vocalize the original consonants are uncertain at best. Nevertheless, this mysterious Name and its power sustain Moses as he struggles with Pharaoh for the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. The conflict ends with the first Passover celebration, which coincides with the death of Egypt's firstborn ( Exod 12:29 ).
Dramatic though the crossing of the Re(e)d Sea is for the destiny of the Hebrews, the peak of Moses' career is attained on Mount Sinai, when God appears to him and delivers the celebrated Ten Commandments as the basis of Israel's covenant law. In conjunction with this revelation, God enters into a binding agreement with the twelve tribes that in effect welds them into one nation. God promises to provide for all their needs and give them the land promised long ago to Abraham if they, for their part, worship him as their one and only true God.
God's purpose for his newly created nation is that the Israelites should be visible among their contemporaries as a priestly kingdom and a holy people ( Exod 19:6 ; Lev 11:44 ). Every man in Israel is to live as though he has been consecrated to the high and sacred office of a priest in God's service, and be holy and pure in all his doings. He is to abstain from the iniquitous ways of pagan neighboring nations, and be to them an example of what God himself is by nature ( Exod 34:6-7 ). Moses Acts on behalf of God at the covenant ratification ceremony ( Exod 24:6-8 ) and thereafter is the recipient of instructions concerning the building of a sacred national shrine known as the tabernacle.
Of high theological significance for the Israelites, this structure was rectangular in shape and contained a tent where the cultic structure known as the covenant ark was housed. God's presence rested upon the ark, which was so sacred that the Israelites were prohibited from even seeing it. When the Israelite tribes were camped in order around the tabernacle, God's presence was indeed in their midst.
During the wilderness period Moses receives from God other laws dealing with sacrifices and offerings, rules governing social behavior, prohibitions against idolatry and immorality, and positive promises of God's blessings upon the Israelites, provided always that they keep the covenant obligations that they had assumed under oath.
From what has been said already it will be clear that Israelite life under Moses and his successors was grounded upon divine revelation and its accompanying theology. Distinctiveness in society as God's people, strictness of living in obedience to his laws, and unswerving trust in his power to save and keep were to be the hallmarks of Hebrew life. God's people were to be holy as he is holy ( Lev 11:44 ), and any deviations from these requirements would result in severe punishment. In mediating this theology and setting an example of it in his own life of dedication to God and fellowship with him, Moses serves as the exemplar of spirituality for all Israel to observe.
In dealing with the chosen people, Moses periodically Acts as an intercessor with God, so as to avert divine displeasure with Israel ( Exod 33:12-16 ; Num 12:13 ). The call that he had received from God involves his acting in the capacity of prophet to the nation, wherein he serves as God's spokesperson to Israel. So effective is he in this function that God promises to raise up other prophets after his death who will also serve as spokespersons ( Deut 18:15-18 ), thus indicating that God regards Moses as the standard by which his successors will be judged.
Yet despite his deeply spiritual life and his sense of commitment to covenantal ideals, Moses is still a human being. The task of organizing community living among people of a seminomadic disposition is formidable. In the wilderness he bears the brunt of complaints ( Num 11:1-25 ) and feels the crushing weight of his responsibilities ( Num 11:14 ). When he is overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming to him for legal decisions ( Exod 18:13 ), he willingly follows the advice of Jethro as to how he should conduct his judicial responsibilities ( Exod 18:24-26 ). Under obvious stress he goes beyond God's instructions in dealing with the complaining Israelites ( Num 20:10-12 ), and is forbidden to lead the conquering Israelites into the promised land. Yet he is recognized as being "a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth" ( Num 12:3 ), which has been urged commonly as a testimony to his humility in the service of Israel's most holy God. It is probable, however, that the term rendered "meek" actually means "more long-suffering than, " "more tolerant than, " which places a rather different construction upon the explanatory phrase.
In New Testament times the law of Moses constituted the standard of faith and conduct for the Christian church, which was commanded to observe Old Testament obligations of holiness ( 1 Peter 1:16 ). At the transfiguration of Christ, Moses appears with Elijah and converses with Jesus, signifying the harmony of law, prophecy, and the gospel ( Mark 9:4 ). The sermon of Stephen before the Sanhedrin quotes Moses several times ( Acts 7:20-44 ). Moses is referred to authoritatively in the Epistles, and is celebrated as a man who lived by faith ( Heb 11:23-29 ). In Revelation, the victorious saints chant the song of Moses ( Exod 15:1-19 ).
R. K. Harrison
Bibliography. O. T. Allis, God Spake by Moses; M. Buber, Moses; R. A. Cole, Exodus; R. K. Harrison, Numbers; F. B. Meyer, Moses the Servant of God.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[H] indicates this entry was also found in Hitchcock's Bible Names
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Moses'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".