After the Israelite deity, Yahweh, Moses is the most prominent character in the Torah. According to the biblical account, at Yahweh’s command, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and guides them to the edge of Canaan, the land that Yahweh promised to their ancestors. Moses also mediates to the Israelites the laws that Yahweh reveals at Mount Sinai (also called Horeb) and throughout the wilderness trek. Moses likewise intercedes on Israel’s behalf with Yahweh. Though he is a richly described and compelling character, there is no external evidence from antiquity confirming that Moses was a real, historical person; the biblical texts that describe him date from hundreds of years after the time in which they claim that he lived.
Did you know…?
- Though he was a major character in the four compositions now combined in the Pentateuch, there is no extrabiblical evidence to confirm that Moses was a real, historical person.
- Moses was depicted as a foundling reared in the Egyptian court; like other important figures in antiquity, his ill-fated start proved auspicious.
- Moses was characterized as a monarchic figure, a priest, a prophet, a wonderworker, a hero, and the humblest man on earth.
- Portrayed as the mediator of Israel’s laws, Moses spoke with God “face to face, like one speaks with a neighbor.”
- Described both as a prophet who himself needed a prophet, Moses became the measure against which all future prophets should be judged.
Why is the story of Moses so confusing?
There is not just one Moses in the Torah. There are actually four, each belonging to one of four %%literary sources that were combined to create the Torah. The existence of these sources explains the conflicting historical claims peppered throughout the Moses story. For example, is it Moses who strikes the Nile River to enact the blood plague in Egypt (
These inconsistencies become comprehensible once we recognize that different authors preserved different traditions and told different stories about Moses and that these different stories are now combined and arranged as a single story in the Torah. This arrangement could be accomplished in part because the sources had significant similarities in addition to their marked differences. Because the compiler of these sources was conservative, saving as much of his sources as possible and making changes to them infrequently, it is possible to reverse the process of compilation and differentiate the sources from each other. The compilation of the Torah demonstrates that there were many different traditions about Moses in ancient Israel and Judah. It is likely that only a fraction of them are preserved in the Hebrew Bible.
Is Moses a prophet?
In the midst of the diversity that characterizes the biblical depiction of Moses, each of the four Torah sources presents Moses as a prophet. Like other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, Moses is at first reluctant to deliver Yahweh’s message to the Israelites. He fears that the people will not believe him (
Yahweh also takes pains to make Moses a legitimate prophet to the Israelites. He thus gives Moses signs to perform to persuade the Israelites to believe him (
Moses is also depicted in many of the biblical accounts as the standard against which all future prophets should be judged. Although other prophets may be dismissed, a prophet “like Moses” must be heeded (