Moses is the leading human character in the Pentateuch, from the beginning of the book of Exodus onwards, and is remembered in later Old Testament books and in Judaism, especially as the giver of the Law (Torah).
His life occupies all the last four books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). His birth in Egypt is recounted in Exodus 2, and his death in the land of Moab, on the other side of the Jordan from the land promised to Israel, in Deuteronomy 34, the last chapter of Deuteronomy. In Exodus 6:20 his father’s name is given as Amram and his mother’s as Jochebed, and he is said to be the younger brother of Aaron. At Exodus 7:7 his age at the time of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt is said to be 80, and at his death in Deuteronomy 34:7 it is given as 120. According to Exodus 2:21-22 he married Zipporah the daughter of a Midianite priest, and had two sons. Another wife who was a Cushite (Nubian or less accurately Ethiopian) is mentioned in Numbers 12:1.
Roles in the story
Moses plays several roles in the story of Israel, after being called by God (YHWH) to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3-4, 6). He is the intermediary between YHWH and Israel, and YHWH declares that he is the only person able to speak with him face to face (Numbers 12:6-8; Deuteronomy 34:10). Thus he passes on God’s commands to Israel, and speaks on their behalf to God. He acts for God before Pharaoh king of Egypt, when through Moses’ agency of signs and ‘plagues’ God forces Pharaoh to release the Israelites (Exodus 5-12). Then he becomes the Israelites’ leader in their journey out of Egypt (Exodus 12-15) and through the wilderness (Exodus 16-18; Numbers 10-36). He gives instructions to them, normally at God’s direction, on many subjects: e.g., the Passover (Exodus 12), the gathering of manna (Exodus 16), censuses (Numbers 1 and 26), war (Numbers 31), his own succession (Numbers 27:12-23; Deuteronomy 31), etc.
His key service as far as later generations were concerned is that he receives YHWH’s commandments or Law, mediates the covenant on the basis of the Law (Exodus 19–24, 34; Leviticus; chapters in Numbers), and passes the Law on to Israel (Exodus 24 and especially Deuteronomy, which mainly consists of a series of speeches by him). He receives instructions from YHWH on Israel’s worship by way of tent and altar (Exodus 25-31) and directs the Israelites in carrying them out (Exodus 35-40; Leviticus 8-9). He acts as a judge in the people’s disputes (Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1). He intercedes for Israel when they rebel against YHWH, but also executes punishment on YHWH’s behalf (Exodus 32-34; Numbers 13-14).
Thus Moses acts as prophet, priest, political and military leader, lawgiver, and judge.
Moses as a character in the Pentateuch
Moses is the agent of YHWH, and displays absolute loyalty to YHWH. But he is not a mere pawn. His long-drawn-out resistance to being called to the work (Exodus 3:11-4:17) shows his strong character, which has already been displayed in the episodes of his early life related in Exodus 2. His killing of the Egyptian overseer (Exodus 2:11-14) and his defence of the daughters of Reuel (Exodus 2:17) shows that he feels for his own people, is angered by injustice and can be fierce and impulsive in the defence of the downtrodden. In key episodes of the story in Exodus and Numbers, Moses accepts YHWH’s condemnation of the Israelites, but twice opposes YHWH’s proposal to wipe them out and start again with Moses, and successfully dissuades him from it (Exodus 32:10-14; Numbers 14:11-23). He is also found complaining to YHWH about the burden of his call (Numbers 11:11-15).
Moses in the rest of the Bible
Moses is mentioned 58 times in the book of Joshua and 63 times in all the rest of the Hebrew Bible, from Judges on. In Joshua it is mainly a question of carrying out instructions which had been given to God by Moses and by Moses to Israel. Subsequently, he is referred to as YHWH’s agent in the deliverance from Egypt (e.g., 1 Samuel 12:6; Isaiah 63:11-12; Micah 6:4), as the mediator of the covenant (1 Kings 8:9), as a priest (Psalm 99:6), and in later books especially as the mediator of YHWH’s Law and commandments (e.g., 2 Kings 18:6; 23:25; 1 Chronicles 15:15; Ezra 3:2; Nehemiah 8:1; Daniel 9:11). Possibly the earliest reference to Moses does not use his name: Hosea 12:13, ‘By a prophet YHWH brought Israel up from Egypt,’ and this is the one place where he is called a prophet.
In the New Testament Moses is mentioned 54 times. WIth very few exceptions he figures as the giver of the Law.
Did Moses really exist, and if so, what did he actually do? Many scholars see him as a figure of pure legend, along with the whole of the story of the Pentateuch.
However, one piece of evidence is difficult to explain away. The name Moses (Mosheh in Hebrew) is of Egyptian origin, and does not mean anything in Hebrew (the connection made with the verb ‘meshiti,’ ‘I drew,’ in Exodus 2:10 is fanciful). The same is true of some other names in the tribe of Levi, including probably Aaron. It is possible therefore that the ancestors of the tribe of Levi had lived in Egypt and acquired Egyptian names, later settling with the Israelites in Canaan, and that a man called Moses had been prominent as a leader among them.
As it is only in later parts of the Old Testament that Moses comes to be identified especially as the giver of the Law, it is likely that this aspect of his story arises from the work of the writers of Deuteronomy, in the 7th century BCE or later, who made Moses, the well-known leader of Israel out of Egypt, the mediator of the commandments of YHWH. Most recent scholars would see the Sinai story in Exodus, with the giving of the law and the making of the covenant, as dating from that time or later, along with the part that Moses plays in it. However, there is quite likely an older core to the story, in which Israel, led by Moses, met God at the mountain of God.
The details about Moses’ parentage and age are only found in the later P strands of the Pentateuch, and afterwards in Chronicles, and his age is part of an artificial dating scheme, but the tradition of his marriage is much older, and unlikely to have been invented, seeing that the Midianites were generally seen as Israel’s enemies (Numbers 25, 31; Judges 6-8).
Coats, George W. Moses: Heroic Man, Man of God. JSOTSup 57. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988.
Coats, George W. The Moses Tradition. JSOTSup 161. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
Houston, Walter J. Pages 27, 153, 163, 177 in The Pentateuch. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press, 2013.
Wildavsky, Aaron. The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader. University, AL: University of Alabama, 1984.