(flourished 14th–13th century BCE )
Moses, a Hebrew prophet, teacher, and leader, delivered his people from Egyptian slavery and founded the religious community known as Israel, based on a covenant relationship with God. As the vehicle and interpreter of the Covenant, including the Ten Commandments, he exerted a lasting influence on the religious life, moral concerns, and social ethics of Western civilization.
According to the biblical account in Exodus and Numbers, Moses—whose Hebrew name is Moshe—was a Hebrew foundling adopted and reared in the Egyptian court. Raised there, according to the biblical account, by his biological mother, who was hired to be his nanny, Moses came to know of his Hebrew lineage. As an adult, while on an inspection tour, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave.
Fearing the wrath of the pharaoh, Moses fled to Midian (mostly in northwest Arabia), where he became a shepherd and eventually the son-in-law of a Midianite priest, Jethro. While tending his flocks, he saw a burning bush that remained unconsumed by the flames and heard a call from the God—thereafter called Yahweh—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to free his people, the Hebrews, from their bondage in Egypt. Because Moses was a stammerer, his brother Aaron was to be his spokesman, but Moses would be Yahweh’s representative.
Ramses II, who reigned 1279–13 BCE, was probably the pharaoh of Egypt at the time. He rejected the demand of this unknown God and responded by increasing the oppression of the Hebrews. The biblical text states that Moses used plagues sent by Yahweh to bend Ramses’ will. Whether the Hebrews were finally permitted to leave Egypt or simply fled is not clear. According to the biblical account, the pharaoh’s forces pursued them eastward to the Sea of Reeds, a papyrus lake (not the Red Sea), which the Hebrews crossed safely but in which the Egyptians were engulfed.
Moses then led the people to Mount Sinai (Horeb), which lies at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Yahweh appeared to Moses there in a terrific storm, out of which came the Covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel, which included the Ten Commandments. Moses began issuing ordinances for specific situations and instituted a system of judges and hearings of civil cases.
After leaving Mount Sinai and continuing the journey toward Canaan, Moses faced increasing resistance and frustration from the Hebrew people and once got so angry at them that, according to tradition, Yahweh accounted it as a lack of faith and denied him entrance into Canaan. As his last official act, Moses renewed the Sinai Covenant with the survivors of the wanderings and then climbed Mount Pisgah to look over the land that he could not enter. The Hebrews never saw him again, and the circumstances of his death and burial remain shrouded in mystery.
Tradition states that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, but this is untenable. Moses did formulate the Decalogue, mediate the Covenant, and begin the process of rendering and codifying interpretations of the Covenant’s stipulations. In a general sense, therefore, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible can be described as Mosaic. Without him, there would have been no Israel and no collection known as the Torah.