Moses (Musa, in Arabic; Moshe, in Hebrew)

views updated

MOSES (Musa, in Arabic; Moshe, in Hebrew)

Hebrew prophet. His existence has been reported in three sources, corresponding to different oral traditions: the elohist tradition (the Eternal is Elohim), the Yahvist tradition (God is Yahweh), and the sacerdotal tradition of the Jewish priests. Moses is considered as the unifier of and lawgiver to the Jewish people, leading them to adopt monotheism and the worship of Yahweh, and the author of the basic elements of the Torah.

According to Biblical tradition, Moses, a descendent of Jacob, great-great grandson of Abraham, was born in Egypt around 1300 B.C.E. His father, Aram, was a son of Levi, himself the third son of Jacob. Some scholars believe Moses was the illegitimate son of the pharaoh and a young Jewish girl, Yokebed. To erase the evidence of this, pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew males to be put to death. But the child escaped from this fate, due to the intervention of Bitya, a daughter of pharaoh, who then decided to oversee his education. Come of age, Moses entered the court of pharaoh, where he became Mosi (Moses). Around the age of forty, for various reasons, obliged to become an exile, Moses sought refuge in the land of Midian, a region ruled by Jethro, situated east of Sinai. Become a shepherd, Moses married one of the daughters of Jethro, Zipporah, with whom he had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

One day, when he was watching over his flock at the foot of Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai), he noticed a bush in flames, but which was not being consumed, from which a supernatural voice arose, demanding that his people be led out of Egypt. Moses asked what name he should cite to motivate the Israelites to leave the land of pharaoh. The voice replied to him "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I am he who is)." The third person form of this was "Yahweh" (He is).

Accompanied by his brother, Aaron, Moses returned to Egypt to try to convince the Israelites to leave this country for the Promised Land, Canaan, and to persuade pharaoh (Rameses II) to allow the Hebrews to leave. The latter denied the request and even added to the backbreaking labor required of the community. A little later, the kingdom of pharaoh was assailed by a series of catastrophes (ten plagues). When darkness covered the land (ninth plague), Moses renewed his demand to pharaoh, who still refused. Then Moses announced that soon "all the firstborn would die in the land of Egypt." To protect themselves against this tenth plague, Moses asked the Jews to sacrifice a lamb and to sprinkle blood on their doors; "so, Yahweh, passing by, will recognize his own and spare the children of Israel." (This "passage" of Yahweh, preceded by a special meal, was commemorated later on as the Jewish Passover or Pesach.) After the death of a number of firstborns, pharaoh decided to let the Jews leave Egypt.

On 15 Nissan, around 1250 B.C.E., the Hebrew people set out on an exodus through the Sinai desert. One day, when his people, confronted by famine and the attacks of the Amalekites, began to doubt the existence of God and the Promised Land, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, to reflect and try to find a solution. There, after a retreat of forty days (a number that had remained symbolic), Yahweh appeared to him for the second time and transmitted the Table of the Law, inscribed in his own hand. This was an ensemble of Ten Commandments that his people were obliged to obey, renewing thereby the covenant that had passed between God and Abraham a few centuries earlier. Returning to his people, he noticed that the latter had lost their faith, and were worshipping a golden calf, a survival of the Egyptian cult of the bull, Apis. Moses broke the holy Tables. At a loss for what to do, he renewed his ties with the clan of Levites. Many of those close to him implored him to return to Yahweh to ask his forgiveness. After having ascended again to the top of Mount Sinai, Moses, "his face shining," returned with new Tables of the Law on which he himself had engraved the Ten Commandments previously inscribed by Yahweh. He proclaimed the judgment of Yahweh to his people: those who had betrayed him will not come into the Promised Land, only their children will be allowed in. Thereupon, according to Biblical texts, the Hebrews were condemned to wander for forty years, before coming within sight of the land of Canaan. On the twelfth day of the seventh month of the fortieth (symbolic number) year of wandering, having come to Mount Nebo, from which he saw Jericho, Moses showed his people "the land of milk and
honey," promised by Yahweh. A few days later, after having transferred his power to Joshua, Moses died on Mount Nebo, on the threshold of the Promised Land.

According to some scholars, the story of Moses might have been based on Mesopotamian legends. For example, the mystery that surrounds his birth and youth is very similar to the story of Sargon of Akkad, founder of Babylon (twenty-third century

B.C.E.). Many resemblances exist between the story of Abraham and that of Moses; the two personages could even have been one. On the other hand, if Moses advocated monotheism, this could be because he revived the idea of a single god, imposed by Pharaoh Amenophis IV (1350–1334 B.C.E.), who supplanted the principal Egyptian divinity, Amon-Re, in favor of Aton, the only god, symbolized by a solar disc. Many Jews having adhered to this new religion, in spite of the interdiction of the cult of Aton after the death of Amenophis, it is possible that it was maintained in the Jewish community. Finally, an error in translation of Saint Jerome, author of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible, led to an unfortunate artistic interpretation of the personage of Moses, which held sway for a period of ten centuries: Jerome confused the Hebrew word for the "shining" of the face of Moses, on his descent from Sinai, with another word meaning "horns," with the result that statues and paintings of Moses were equipped with horns, an attribute possessed by some pagan divinities!

SEE ALSO Abraham;Canaan;Covenant;Jacob (Biblical);Jericho.

About this article

Moses (Musa, in Arabic; Moshe, in Hebrew)

Updated About content Print Article