Prophet in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, of whom there is no form of historical evidence. Calculated from references to contemporary rulers of Egypt (who are unnamed in the Bible) and to other contemporary kingdoms, Moses is believed to have been born around the middle of the 14th century and died sometime in the 13th century BCE.
Moses is an important figure in Judaism through being the leader of the exodus from Egypt, and thereby the founder of Israel, and being the person receiving the law of the Jewish people. His importance in Christianity is less important than in Judaism, as Jesus introduced a second covenant for the Christians. But still, the rules of the Ten Commandments has been central to Christianity all through the existence of this religion.
Moses is important to Islam as being one of Muhammad‘s forerunners, bringing the same message to humans as Muhammad would be doing 2000 years later. Hence, Muslims consider Moses as a confirmation of the authenticity of the revelations received by and transmitted from Muhammad. But theologically, Moses is not important, as there is no specific learning ascribed to him alone.
Historical or legendary?
The task of reconstructing the life of Moses according to modern historical science is not easy. There is nothing in the religious sources that clearly contradict a historical Moses, but the time between his lifetime the first written versions of his life is several centuries.
And over such a time span, there is ample space for the creation of legends, amalgamation of myths, and distortion of facts.
And there is a clear example that these things have happened to the stories of Moses. One well known mythical element is clearly imported: the story about him being in a basket and put on the river Nile by his mother and saved by Pharaoh‘s daughter (this story is found in both the Bible and in the Koran). This myth is parallel to older myths in Mesopotamian religions.
Another part of the stories which is best understood as mainly mythological are the plagues that Yahweh inflicted upon Egypt when Pharaoh denied the Israelis the right to leave the country. First, there is no independent historical evidence of this (and the plagues were so hard that they never would have come unrecorded).
Secondly, Pharaoh would not have let Moses move around freely and unpunished at times when he through miracles put one natural disaster after another upon the country.
This, however, doesn’t root out that this period had natural disasters, but not to the extent we hear about in Exodus 5-12 and certainly not inflicted by an opponent standing in the royal court starting it all without being caught, or tried to stop.
In presenting the history of the exodus, the transmitters of the story can have invented a character to whom many of the roles of others, and forgotten, characters have been attributed. The hero character is a better and clearer figure than the complexity of the will of the people and the different leaders, as well as clearer than the complexity of economic, political, and sociological factors.
But the framework of his life story can be proven on most points. It is clear that there was some sort of exodus of the Hebrews.
And the peoples and rulers that the Bible tells about did exist within the same time period, and it is fairly easy to give acceptable explanations on how some of the plagues came along.
Also, it is quite easy to explain the changes in religion happening at this period of time: the emphasis on monotheism (as inspired by the monotheism of Akhenaten) and the covenant (as inspired by agreements between strong and weaker rulers of the time (like between the Hittite king and his vassals)).
But better proofs to the historical Moses are all the compromising facts: His name was Egyptian (coming from Egyptian for mose meaning “is born”), he was married to a woman of Midyan and he dies in a foreign country. Moreover, we hear many times about his character flaws.
He kills a man under circumstances unacceptable to any justice system, he is a bad speaker (a stammerer), and not always a strong leader figure. If Moses had been created as a legendary figure, these elements would most likely have become adjusted.
In conclusion, we must say that we do not know if Moses is historical or not. There are good arguments for both stances.
Judaism and Christianity
Moses is of great importance in Judaism and Christianity, and even if the two religions share the same stories, they emphasize slightly different aspects of him.
In Judaism he is the one leading the Hebrews (they were at his time not yet called Jews) to the promised land, he is the greatest prophet and teacher. In Christianity, the march to the promised land is of relatively little importance compared to the Ten Commandments.
The accounts on Moses fill the 4 latter of the books that often are referred to as the 5 Books of Moses: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, filing up as much as 15% of the entire Christian Bible, and 20% of the Old Testament.
From Exodus and Deuteronomy, we hear that Moses was from the tribe of Levi born in Goshen, in Ancient Egypt. Around the time of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh shall have ordered that all Hebrew boy children should be killed.
Moses (we hear nothing about any original name) was saved by his mother when she put him into a basket on the river Nile. The infant child was rescued by no other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses, or more probably a name combined of a god’s name and -mose.
In the royal court Moses was raised by his mother (who had been picked by Pharaoh’s daughter), and there are no accounts of injustice or cruelty with the court.
As a young man Moses kills an Egyptian after he has beaten a Hebrew. Moses believes that nobody saw him, and hides the body in the sand, but there were witnesses after all. He has to flee from justice and settles in the land of Midyan (which was Hijaz, while it is possible that Midyan tribes had moved into Sinai). Here he marries Zipporah, daughter of Jethro.
It is in the land of Midyan that Moses experiences for the first time that God contacts him, through a burning bush.
This is also the place and time where God reveals his name, Yahweh, in contradiction to the names used on him before El Elyon or El Shaddai. Yahweh can be translated to “to be”, and points probably more to a quality of God, and must not be confused with a name.
Yahweh appointed Moses to return to Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of their hard life in Egypt. Moses was reluctant due to his speech impediment, so his brother Aaron should lead the word for him.
But Yahweh also told Moses that he would make Pharaoh’s heart hard so that he wouldn’t let the Israelites leave (Exodus 4:21). Exodus 4 contains one more strange account, where Yahweh tried to kill Moses’ son but was saved when Zipporah cut off his foreskin.
The next stage in the story of Moses fills Exodus 5 to 12 and deals with Moses and Aaron’s unsuccessful attempts to make Pharaoh let the Israelis go, and the punishments Yahweh puts on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. Pharaoh is warned in front of all the punishments about what will happen.
The first miracle of Moses is not a punishment, as Moses threw his rod to the ground, and it became a snake. But Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do the very same.
Then the first punishment comes, as Yahweh makes the water of the Nile into the blood so that the fish dies, and nobody could drink the water. But Egyptian sorcerers manage to do the same, so Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind. Yahweh then sends swarms of frogs, mosquitos, and flies over Egypt, but it doesn’t produce much more, even if the sorcerers now were forced to admit that this was beyond human power.
This was followed by a plague that kills all the cattle of the civilian Egyptians. Then by abscess attacking both people and animals, then hail showers, then locusts, and then thick darkness.
In Exodus 11:3 we find the largest logical breach in the story of Moses, as it says that “Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people”. It is clear that nothing could be further from the truth, after all the disasters he by Yahweh had put on the innocent Egyptian population.
Yahweh concluded the punishments with the killing of all firstborn Egyptians, including Pharaoh’s son. This happened at the same time as Yahweh instituted the rituals for easter, Pesach, with instructions on slaughtering a lamb, how to eat it, and that every family shall paint blood from it on their doorpost.
The moral about these plagues and killings is ambiguous to say the least, as we learn from Exodus 11:10 that it was Yahweh who directed the sentiments and will of Pharaoh (as had already been indicated up front (see above)), which in the next round was what he then set forth to punish.
The outcome of the punishments was that the Jews could leave. It appears from Exodus 13:17 that Pharaoh let them leave, but this could also be interpreted that the Jews were able to escape in the situation of weakness with the Pharaoh.
How many were allowed to leave Egypt is a question of speculation. Some Jewish traditions run as high up as 2 million, while modern interpretations put the number as low as 15,000.
But Pharaoh soon changed his mind about letting the Jews leave (by the will of Yahweh (Exodus 12:4 and 12:8)), and sent his forces after the Israelis, and cornered them at the Sea of Reeds. The Israelis were saved when Yahweh blew the water away from the sea through the night, at the same time as an angel protected the Israelis from the advancing Egyptian troops.
Still, at night, the Israelis could pass the sea in safety between water walls, but when the Egyptians followed Moses made the walls fell in.
Even in modern translations “Sea of Reed” is interpreted as the Red Sea, but this is not correct. Reed, which is papyrus, does not grow in saltwater, which the Red Sea is. More likely it must be one of the lakes near where today’s Suez Canal lies.
Seeing the dead bodies float up on the shores of the lake, the Israelis started to believe in Yahweh and his servant Moses (Exodus 14:31) and started to sing unto the Lord.
In the following period, Yahweh made sure that the Israelis didn’t lack what they needed, and he gives them water and food. It is important to notice that these provisions were given after the Israelis murmured against Moses expressing their needs.
The Israelis then organize a law system, where the people were organized into groups, with leaders.
When the people came to Sinai Mountain, Yahweh descended to the mountain and met with Moses. From the text we learn that God appears in a manner that could be seen by man, but nothing about any shape.
God then gives Moses the Ten commandments. This part of the story has been frequently discussed: Did the Israelis receive these regulations while on the journey between Egypt and Canaan, or did they get it in Canaan? Both theories have their followers, but there is no crucial evidence from the content of or the language of the commandments pointing in any of the directions.
Were the commandments the start of a true monotheism of Judaism or not? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” from Exodus 20:2 indicates that the Israeli’s religion accepted that it existed in a world of other beliefs and gods. But these gods were to be discarded by the believers, and in this sense, the Israelis had a practical monotheism, if not the absolute monotheism we see in later theology.
Upon leaving Sinai, Moses and his followers were not welcomed by local rulers and ended up fighting the Amorites and Bashan, giving room for some of the Israelis.
The last we hear about Moses is that he walks off to a mountain in Jordan with a grand view of Canaan, but never returns.
It is correct to say that Moses was the same messenger of his time, as Muhammad became in his. And just as Muhammad used to do, Moses refers to earlier prophets, of which Adam was the very first. Also we see that the presentation of him has many parallels to the one of Abraham – there are more parallels than what is found in the Jewish/Christian tradition.
Moses was the messenger of a Koran, in the Arabic tongue (a piece of information which is strange considering that his people did not understand Arabic, and in the Jewish traditions there are no indications of a holy book written in a language nobody could read or understand).
All in all the Koranic presentation of Moses’ life is similar to the Biblical one. There are differences, but these are limited to less important details. But the Biblical stories are more detailed and contain far more regulations for social and religious rituals.
The Koran tells that Moses was put into a casket and placed on the river by direct command of God to his mother. The intent was to bring him into the house of God’s enemies. But he is suckled by his mother, as the infant Moses refuses any other nurse.
Also in the Koran we learn that he kills an Egyptian, an act which in the Koran is represented as unjust, Moses was misguided by Satan, and repents. And just like as in the Bible stories, Moses seeks refuge in Midyan. He is first called upon by God through the burning bush in Tuwa, and he is ordered to take God’s message to Pharaoh.
Facing the Pharaoh and his sorcerers, Moses proves with the help of God, that he possesses the strongest power. The sorcerers are converted on the spot, but not Pharaoh. All in all, Moses performs 9 miracles: 1. The rod and the snake. 2.
The white hand. 3. Deluge. 4. Locusts. 5. Lice. 6. Frogs. 7. Blood. 8. Darkness. 9. Dividing of the sea (after the start of the Exodus from Egypt).
Following the first 8 miracles, and by the will of God, Moses then sets out with his people, called Israelites. Equal to the Bible the Pharaoh tries to prevent this and sends out his army which is overwhelmed by the ocean, which became the 9th miracle.
Soon, disagreements occur among the Israelites. Equal to the Bible, they melt their golden jewelry, in order to create a golden calf — apparently representing the main god of the people before God. T
his act was instigated either by a Samaritan, it is believed, the Arabic word used in the Koran is “sāmarī” (which also simply could be a proper name). This happens at the same time as Moses receives instructions and admonition on tablets from God.
At his return to the Israelis, Moses reacts with anger over their infidelity and commands them to change their ways immediately. The Israelis end up wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years.