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The Bible depicts Moses as the prophetic leader who delivered the Israelites from Egypt and who mediated the divine laws in the wilderness to them.

Guido Reni
Guido Reni

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.

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 (Exod 7:20, second half of the verse), or does he simply stand by as his brother, Aaron, holds out his hand over Egypt’s waters (Exod 7:19 and the first half of verse 20)? Does Moses turn his rod into a serpent before the Israelites (Exod 4:3-4, Exod 4:30), or is it Aaron who performs this wonder—and before the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, not the Israelites (Exod 7:10)? Does Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt in the middle of the night (Exod 12:29-34), or do they wait until morning to go (Exod 12:22)? Upon descending from Mount Horeb, does Moses immediately deliver to the Israelites the laws that Yahweh gave him there (Exod 24:3-8), or does he wait until the end of the wilderness period to deliver Yahweh’s laws (Deut 1:5, Deut 5:1, Deut 6:1)? Does Moses teach the Israelites that they may eat meat from animals found dead (Lev 17:15), or does he insist that they may not (Deut 14:21)?

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 (Exod 4:1). He also complains that he is a poor speaker. Yahweh responds by appointing Moses’s brother, Aaron, to be his spokesman (Exod 4:10, Exod 6:30-7:2). The prophet Moses needs a prophet himself!

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 (Exod 4:30-31). In another effort to secure the Israelites’ confidence, Yahweh once allows the Israelites to listen in when he gives a prophetic message to Moses (Exod 19:9, Exod 20:20).

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 (Deut 18:15). In the end, however, Moses, whose access to Yahweh is unparalleled (Num 12:8), proves incomparable (Deut 34:10). Both the requirement that future prophets be “like Moses” and the assertion that none ever measured up to him are attempts by the Torah’s authors to purchase enduring authority for the laws in their compositions, laws that they present as given to Israel through Moses. Yet there is also a limit to Moses’s esteem: Deut 34:6 carefully notes that Moses’s burial place is unknown, a clarification likely meant to prevent any kind of inappropriate veneration of him at his tomb.

  • Jeffrey Stackert

    Jeffrey Stackert, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the Divinity School, University of Chicago, is the author of Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007). He is currently writing a book on the different portrayals of Moses and Mosaic prophecy in the Torah.