Moses: the Early Years

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Moses - his name in Hebrew is מֹשֶׁה, mosheh - was a Jewish prophet and lawgiver, who probably lived in the fourteenth century BCE. He is the dominant figure in the Old Testament book of Exodus, and the following three books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, also contain information about his life. The circumstances of his death are described in the last chapter (ch. 34) of Deuteronomy.

At the time of Moses' birth the Israelites were living in Egypt, where their high birth rate was perceived as a threat by the native Egyptians. The Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh, had taken various steps to combat this threat, and when these proved ineffective, had ordered that all male children born to the Israelites should be killed at birth (Exodus, ch. 1). Moses' mother, however, concealed his birth, keeping him hidden until he was three months old. She then made a cradle (or ark) of bulrushes, waterproofed it, and left it in the reeds at the edge of a river. Moses' sister, Miriam, waited nearby to see what would become of him. Later that day the daughter of the Pharaoh came down to the river to wash herself and, seeing the cradle, sent her maid to fetch it. She immediately realised it was an Israelite child, and at this point Moses' sister approached and offered to find a nurse for the child from among the Israelite women. She went off and brought Moses' mother, who was employed by the princess as a paid nurse to look after the child. So Moses was brought up within the Egyptian royal household as the adopted son of the princess, and it was she who gave him his name: 'Moses' or 'Mosheh' comes from the Hebrew root משה m-sh-h, meaning 'to draw', and reflects the fact that the princess had 'drawn him from the water' (ibid., ch. 2, vv. 1-10).

Moses naturally became aware of, and resented, the Egyptian oppression of his fellow Israelites, and on one occasion, when he was a young man, he lost his temper and killed an Egyptian who was mistreating an Israelite. Thinking no one had observed the incident, he buried the Egyptian in the sand. However, he soon came to realise that there had been witnesses, that the Pharaoh had been informed, and that his own life was in danger (ibid., ch. 2, vv. 11-15). He therefore fled Egypt and went to the land of Midian, an area in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. While there he happened to protect a group of sisters who were attacked by other shepherds while drawing water for their father's sheep. The sisters introduced him to their father, Jethro, who took him in and gave him one of his daughters, Zipporah, as a wife (ibid., ch. 2, vv. 15-22).

Meanwhile the old Pharaoh had died but the condition of the Israelites had not improved (ibid., ch. 2, vv. 22-25). One day while looking after his father-in-law's sheep near Mount Horeb, Moses' attention was caught by a bush that was burning but was not destroyed by the fire. He went closer and as he watched this strange phenomenon, he heard God speaking to him out of the burning bush, telling him to return to Egypt and ask the Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt and go to the land of Canaan, a 'land flowing with milk and honey' (ibid., ch. , vv. 1-10). Moses was at first reluctant to obey, pleading both the difficulty of the mission and his own unsuitability to undertake it - he was, he said, 'slow of speech'. These objections were overcome, and God promised Moses that his elder brother Aaron would help him by acting as his spokesman (ibid., ch. 3, v. 11 - ch. 4, v. 17). Having obtained permission from his father-in-law, Moses set off for Egypt. On the way he was met by Aaron, to whom he explained what God had told him to do, and together they met the Israelite leaders to win their confidence and secure their approval for an approach to Pharaoh (ibid., ch. 4, vv. 18-31).

For the continuation of Moses' story see Moses: the Exodus from Egypt.

Many episodes from this part of Moses' life are the subject of well known paintings, for example, The Finding of the Infant Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Moses Before the Burning Bush by Domenico Feti (1589-1623), and God Appears to Moses in a Burning Bush, a painting by an anonymous artist in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

A Moses basket is a portable cradle for a baby: unlike the cradle of bulrushes which his mother made for Moses, a Moses basket is usually made of straw or wicker. The expression 'a land flowing with milk and honey', used in the King James Bible to describe the land of Canaan to which God promised to lead the Israelites, is still used today to refer to any place of great abundance where life for its inhabitants is easy.