Moses: In the Bible & Beyond

The greatest of Jewish leaders and prophets.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The biblical character of Moses is the most important figure in Judaism, the leader of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage and particularly, the great teacher of the Torah he received from God; hence the Torah is often called the "Torah of Moses." 

The Biblical Story

As told in the Pentatuech from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, the story of Moses begins with his birth to Amram and Jochebed in Egypt. When his mother had hidden him in the reeds of the Nile in order to save his life, because he was threatened by Pharaoh's decree that every Hebrew male be put to death, Pharaoh's daughter took pity on the infant and adopted him as her son. When Moses grew to manhood he went out of the royal palace, where he had been brought up as an Egyptian prince, to see the afflictions of his Hebrew brethren toiling under the lash of the Egyptian taskmasters.

painting of mosesWitnessing an Egyptian seeking to kill an Israelite, Moses slew the Egyptian, as a result of which he was obliged to flee for his life. Escaping to Midian, Moses served as a shepherd to Jethro, the priest of Midian, whose daughter, Zipporah, he married. During his stay in Midian, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and ordered him to go to Pharaoh to demand that the people be released from their bondage; eventually, God said, Moses would lead them to the land of Canaan, the land of their fathers.

When, after the ten plagues, Pharaoh finally let the people go, the Egyptians pursued the escaping Israelites but were drowned in the waters of the sea, whereupon Moses led the people in a song of victory. Arriving at Mount Sinai, the people received the Decalogue and, during his forty days stay on the mountain, where he neither ate nor drank, Moses received further laws and instructions which he taught to the people. Moses led the Israelites through the Wilderness for forty years until they came to the borders of the Promised Land. There Moses died at the age of 120 and there he was buried.

This is the bare outline of the Moses saga as told in much greater detail in the Pentateuch, and the whole is elaborated on in numerous Midrashic legends. According to the traditional view the Moses story, and, indeed, the whole of the Pentateuch, was compiled by Moses himself at the direct "dictation" of God, a view that is still accepted in Orthodox Judaism despite the fact that it has been heavily assailed by biblical criticism, in which discipline the Pentateuch is seen as a composite work produced in different periods of Israel's history.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.