The story of Moses is a familiar one to many folks. After a threat from the Egyptians to have all Hebrew baby boys killed, he was carried down the river in a basket where he was discovered, and adopted by, Pharaoh’s daughter. Later, he moves to the desert, talks to God in a burning bush and goes to set the Hebrews free, raining plagues down on the heads of their oppressors, the Egyptians. Later, he splits the Red Sea so they can escape and receives the 10 Commandments on the top of a mountain.
That’s the condensed version, of course. There are a lot of stories about Moses found in the Torah, the Old Testament of the Bible, and in the Koran, as well as oral traditions. He’s regarded as the author of the Torah, incorporated as the first five books of the Bible, and as a great prophet for all three Abrahamic faiths. There are movies about him, probably the most famous of these being The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses, and The Prince of Egypt, where Val Kilmer lends his voice to the animated adaptation of the man.
Given the cultural history and weight Moses carries, here is a summary of religious traditions as well as what can be said historically about him.
In Judaism, Moses is preeminent of the prophets and called Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses, our teacher” to show the level of respect he is given. He led the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. He is the one who saw God face to face on Mt. Sinai and delivered the Torah to Israel.
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Moses is mentioned more than any other Old Testament figure. To Christians, Moses set the stage for Jesus and many parallels between the two have been drawn, from their lives to what they taught. He’s regarded as a saint by the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches.
For an in depth look at Moses and his life, from a Christian standpoint you might be interested in The Life of Moses, which gives an overview of his life as it’s written in the Bible and his influence on Christianity.
In Islam he is called Musa and is regarded as Prophet and Messenger, having both a message from God as well as a particular mission to carry out. Like the New Testament, Moses is mentioned more in the Quran than any other person and his life is talked about more than any other. If you’re curious to learn more about Islam, there is a free class, Islam for Busy People.
Think Like Jesus, Lead Like Moses is a class that takes the approach of looking at religious teachings and biblical background and applying them to business leadership skills.
Relying on religious tradition, we are told that Moses lived about 3000 to 4000 years ago. Jewish tradition says he lived 1391-1271 BCE and some Christian writers say he lived around 1600 BCE.
Beyond a rough timeframe, what we do know about the historical Moses pretty much comes from the Torah and the first five books of the Bible. Apart from those writings, the historical evidence of Moses’ life is scarce. There is no mention in Egyptian sources and other ancient records of a man named Moses or an event like the Exodus. Similarly, there is also no hard evidence, beyond teachings, of Socrates, one of the most influential philosophers in history.
A hard lack of evidence does not mean that there was not some historical basis for the events in the Old Testament. Egyptians did have a practice of omitting unfavorable details from records, monuments, and tombs, (like claiming the enemy Hittites were asking Egypt for peace when it was the other way around) because who wants to immortalize unflattering memories? People from ancient historians to modern scholars have tried linking the events in Exodus to the Hyksos or a group of invaders called the Habiru or an activist pharaoh. Egypt did have control over the area of Canaan, Israel’s homeland, so the idea that they were oppressed and in slavery to Egypt is not far-fetched.
Regardless of the historical context, or lack of it, as one of the founding figures of the three Abrahamic religions, the influence Moses has had on culture as a lawgiver and leader is undeniable.