Moses is the most prominent figure in the Hebrew Bible, or Pentateuch. He is noted for receiving the law from God and for leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the promised land. Being such a pivotal figure, Moses plays an important role in later Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Through the centuries, Moses has been a prominent subject in art, literature, and, in modern times, film; even, most recently, as a toy action figure based on the young Moses as depicted in an animated movie.
Moses’s life as described in the Bible is fairly straightforward. He was a Hebrew born in Egypt, raised by the pharaoh’s daughter, and trained in the Egyptian court. Following an incident in which he killed an Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew slave, Moses fled for his life toward Midian, where he lived 40 years. Moses received a calling to deliver the enslaved Israelites when he encountered God at a burning bush at Mt. Sinai. Upon returning to Egypt, he had several confrontations with an unnamed pharaoh accompanied by a series of Iconic figure of Moses holding tablets with the Ten Commandments and a short staff.
divine signs and increasingly severe plagues. Finally, after the deaths of Egypt’s first born, the pharaoh allowed Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt. After a few setbacks, these people reached Mt. Sinai, where Moses met God on the mountain and received the law. Moses spent the rest of his life (about 40 years) wandering in the wilderness with the Israelites, dealing with their stubbornness and sins. After appointing Joshua to succeed him, Moses died on Mt. Horeb at the edge of the Promised Land.
Postbiblical Jewish sources depict Moses as lawgiver, prophet, priest, inventor, philosopher, holy man, and paradigm of a king. Both Philo and Josephus use the exploits of Moses to convince their audience of the viability of the history of the Jews. Artapanus, a 2nd-century BCE Jewish writer, claims Moses led an Egyptian military campaign against Ethiopia, where he won many great battles. Further, he says, Moses introduced the custom of circumcision to Egypt. Other Jewish writers wrote books containing Mosaic legends, such as the Testament of Moses and the Assumption of Moses. The book of Jubilees recounts the events of Genesis 1 to Exodus 12 and adds additional revelations of God to Moses.
Christian sources emphasize Moses’s role as lawgiver and as a significant historical figure. He appears at the transfiguration of Jesus along with Elijah (Matt. 17:3ff.) representing the most significant persons in Jewish history. The writer of Jude adds to the Mosaic tradition by telling of a dispute between the Archangel Michael and Satan over the body of Moses after his death (Jude 9). Islamic sources treat Moses in a manner similar to that of the Hebrew Bible; however, it is in his role as a prophet that he is most often mentioned.
The portrayal of Moses in Roman sources is mixed. Generally, he is rendered as the Jewish lawgiver; however, writers like Manetho, Tacitus, and Quintilian blame Moses for teaching practices that go against civilization. Strabo wrote that Moses taught against making any kind of image of God, asserting that Moses left Egypt because the Egyptians made images of their gods.
Moses has been the frequent subject of western art, appearing in many paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows. In 1515, Michelangelo completed a marble statue of a seated Moses wearing horns, a pictorial convention now understood to be based on a mistranslation from the Hebrew phrase meaning “radiated light.” This statue is the centerpiece for the tomb of Julius II. Moses has been the subject of several modern biographies and scholarly works, most notably Sigmund Freud’s 1937 study Moses and Monotheism. Interestingly, Freud acknowledges that he was strongly influenced by Michelangelo’s statue, which he viewed with fascination during a visit in Rome. In popular culture, Moses has been depicted in several movies, from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments to the 1998 animated feature Prince of Egypt. In the public imagination, however, the character of Moses is perhaps best known from the actor Charlton Heston’s stoic and commanding portrayal in DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments.
Terry W. Eddinger
See also Bible and Time; Egypt, Ancient; Genesis, Book of; Judaism; Michelangelo Buonarroti; Noah
Britt, B. (2004). Rethinking Moses: The narrative eclipse of the text. New York: T & T Clark.
Chavalas, M. W. (2003). Moses. In D. Alexander & D. W. Baker (Eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.