As a historian, poet, philosopher, general of armies, and legislator, Moses stands without a peer. Those Jews who accept Moses as a historical figure quite unanimously ascribe to him the position of the greatest leader and legislator our world has ever known. Christians of all ages have read with great devotion the works of the man who composed a larger portion of the Bible than any other individual writer. Moses, for instance, wrote at least three times as much as Paul.
God thought so highly of Moses that He resurrected him (Jude 9), and when Christ needed great comfort and encouragement, the Lord sent Moses, along with Elijah, to the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). Perhaps the Lord selected Moses because his experience in so many ways paralleled that of Christ. During His ministry Jesus referred to Moses more often than to any other prophet, substantiating the Israelite leader's historicity and authority.
Moses was a Levite. In fact, Levi was Moses' greatgrandfather. Pharaoh had made Moses' parents an obscure Levite Amram, and his wife Jochebed slaves along with the other Hebrews. The institution was not limited to the Hebrews, however. Many Egyptians were also slaves. Their situation may have dated back at least to the days of Joseph when anyone who wanted to survive sold all of his belongings and himself to Pharaoh in exchange for food (Genesis 47:18-25).
Before Moses' birth, as with that of Christ, Satan influenced the king to establish a law to exterminate all male children, thus hoping to destroy the deliverer. In both instances he failed. Jochebed laid her baby in a basket made waterproof with tar and floated him on the river where Pharaoh's daughter would be sure to see him. The strategy worked out between the baby's mother and her daughter Miriam, proved successful. Miriam, who had been watching the infant from a distance, walked up to the princess and offered to find a Hebrew mother to nurse it for her. The princess in turn, probably rewarded the mother generously for her service during Moses' childhood and may have freed her of her slave tasks, permitting her to devote full time to the child's training.
Probably no other woman has ever taken her job of motherhood more seriously than Jochebed, and through no other woman, except Mary of Nazareth, has the world received greater blessing. The years at her disposal to implant heavenly principles in the life of her child were few. Moses, like Samuel, Joseph, and Daniel all destined to become great men for God had to early leave the influence of his godly home.
Whether the name "Moses" came from his parents or the princess is hard to tell. Meaning "son of" or "one born of," Moses was a common name or sometimes part of a name, usually having a prefix. For example, we find Ahmose, the one born of Ah (moon-god), Thutinose, the one born of Thoth (the scribal-god), and Ramose or Rameses [Ramses], the one born of Ra (sun-god). Moses' name could have had such an Egyptian origin, with the princess having planned to add the prefix later in life. Or it may already have had a prefix repulsive to Moses which he dropped when "he ... refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter" (Hebrews 11:24).
It must have been a painful experience for Amram and Jochebed to surrender their son to the princess. Whether the parents lived near the royal palace or whether the princess had just been visiting Goshen, Scripture does not say. If they lived near the palace, it would not be difficult to imagine them or his brother Aaron, or sister Miriam, occasionally going near it or its gate to catch a glimpse of Moses or to talk to him as happened centuries later with Esther and Mordecai.
Now his formal education must have begun. He no doubt received the best available in Egypt. As a member of the royal household, he learned the royal etiquette and behavior and received every opportunity to develop into a strong leader for his people. Moses, like other royal children, probably had a tutor appointed for him by the queen, whose sole duty involved the care and supervision of the growing youth.
As Moses matured we can imagine him noble in form and stature, of cultivated mind and princely bearing. He may well have earned renown as a military leader and become the nation's pride. Yet not only would his instructors teach him civil and military arts, but as a prospective sovereign, they must also train him in the mysteries of the Egyptian religion. It would have brought him into direct conflict with his own heritage. How much opposition he offered, how desperate the priests may have felt over their lack of success, we can only conjecture. His later life gives evidence that nothing easily swayed him.
We must keep in mind that in every part of Moses' life, God was preparing him for leadership of an extraordinary quality. To wrench a mob of slaves out of a nation unwilling to let them go, to bring the undisciplined, ignorant multitude together in one place, to lead them in an orderly fashion out of Egypt, to teach them the rudiments of worship, civil behavior, and public health, required a man carefully trained in leadership, eloquence, and human behavior. But above all, he needed total submission to God and full reliance on Him, for here was a divine plan dependent upon a human agent for its fulfillment.
Moses' great burden involved the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and he must have often wondered how God would accomplish it. He may have thought that God planned for him to become Egypt's Pharaoh as Joseph had been its prime minister. Scripture seems to imply that at the end of his youth in Egypt he tried to free them by force, with himself at the head of the Hebrews warring against the Egyptian armies. But like Gideon, he was not yet ready for the task. We have no information that would lead us to believe that God had clearly revealed to him that he was the man to deliver Israel, or how he was to accomplish it. The first definite commission we hear about that at the burning bush was still much in the future. He knew that God's plan involved freedom, but he did not know by whom or how.
In his own writings he stated many years later that once as he witnessed the suffering of his people in captivity, he noticed a taskmaster beating a Hebrew and he "slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Exodus 2:11,12). Moses singled out the incident, yet it may have been only one of many events and circumstances that culminated in his flight. The sorrowful plight of his kinsmen and the frustration at his inability to help them, the conditions of the power struggle in the royal court, plus the possibility of many other factors unknown to us, led Moses to the decision to leave Egypt.
Like many another, he immediately lost confidence in God and turned his back on the task of delivering his people. Then, like Jonah, he fled from a responsibility which seemed greater than he wished to bear. Moses had to realize that to take matters in his own hands would lead to inevitable failure. God spoke no approval of his act of homicide against the Egyptian. But, as one Christian writer suggested, "the Lord allowed these things that He might teach Moses the gentleness, goodness, and long-suffering that is necessary for every laborer for the Master to possess in order to be a successful worker in His cause."
We should not conclude that Moses' experience and education in Egypt proved a failure. Much of what he had received there helped him in many respects. God in His providence had placed him there where he could receive part of his education, though much of what he learned was of no use to him now. One does not easily acquire experience, maturity, and true leadership qualities, and Moses in his last murderous act in Egypt gave evidence that he did not yet possess them sufficiently for the arduous task ahead of him. He still needed to enter God's classroom to learn what the schools of Egypt did not teach meekness, gentleness, self-distrust, selflessness, love, and complete dependence upon God.
How patiently God must have waited for Moses to realize that in his own strength he could not save his people! By choosing human beings as His agents, God has limited and handicapped Himself. Exactly when Moses totally surrendered to God and said, "Lord, take over!" we don't know, but it must have been sometime during the Midian experience. There God took charge and taught Moses the traits that would make him the greatest leader our world has ever known.
Paul Bork lives in Oceanside, California. He was professor of Archeology at Pacific Union College when he wrote this article.