Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss





 Moses is the foremost of all prophets of Israel, and the outstanding personality of the Bible. God calls upon him to take on "the role of God" (Ex. 4:16; 7:1). He is known as Moshe Rabbenu [Moses our Teacher], as "the Man of Faith," as "The Servant of God," and as "The Man of God." He is God's lawgiver, and God declares him to be the one to whom "My household is entrusted" (Num. 12:8). He is warrior, a statesman, prophet and a mystic – a truly remarkable personality.


      Moses is the ultimate "Spiritual Man," and his repute in biblical time and after is awesome. A midrash goes so far as to say that while the Israelites in Egypt and the desert were at almost the lowest possible level of impurity (49 out of 50), Moses was at almost the highest possible level of purity (49 out of 50). Presumably, 50 would be for a perfect man.


      For the children of Israel, who feared to speak to God directly, Moses is their mediator, to whom they say  "'Do not let God speak to us or we shall die" (20:19). Moses, however, can speak to God face to face: 'Since then there has never been such a prophet in Israel as Moses, the man whom God knew face to face (Deut. 34:10). In Hebrew usage, "knew" connotes a level of intimacy beyond speaking face to face. In the Kabbalah, where "wisdom" mean secret knowledge of God, Moses is called Father of Wisdom.  (1) At his end, "the Servant of the Lord died ... on the mouth of the Lord" (34:5); that is, with the kiss of God who buried him and alone knows where he is buried (34:6).

   It is notable that Moses was both nurtured and protected by women. This, I would suggest, contributed greatly -- perhaps even essentially -- to his unique greatness. In the narratives of Genesis the families of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are dysfunctional, with a high level of sibling rivalry. In contrast, Moses and his brother and sister act together in concert and all three are blessed by God; Moses as the supreme prophet, Aaron as High Priest, and Miriam as pprophetess. They are not perfect; in fact each sins at different times (Aaron in the Golden Calf incident, Moses in Num. 7-12) and Miriam in Num. 12:1-16) but they do act together and function as a family.

   In the order of the text, the first mention of Moses is when a man and a woman of the tribe of Levi are married and he is born to them (Ex. 2:1-2). Only in a later passage does it appear that he had an older brother and sister (2:4; 4:14). It is as though he were both a firstborn and a youngest child. A Midrash explains it this way: Balaam, the pagan prophet in the Book of Numbers (chapter 22-24) predicted to the Pharaoh that a Hebrew boy would be born in Egypt who would overthrow the kingdom. Therefore, the Pharaoh ordered that all the male children of the Hebrew be drowned at birth; a rather irrational edict, since the Hebrew males supplied his slave labor. Amram, a leader of the Hebrews, declared that all the men should divorce their wives and cease begetting children. His daughter Miriam argued that her father's decree was worse than Pharaoh’s, since Pharaoh wanted to kill the boys while Amram would eliminate both boys and girls. Persuaded by this reasoning, Amram remarried his wife Jochebed and Moses was the first child of the remarriage. (2)

   The Pharaoh's plan to cut off the male Hebrews was frustrated by the midwives Shifrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15-19), who would not obey his orders to kill the boys that they delivered. It may be, though it is not stated, that Shiprah or Puah helped Jochebed preserve the life of her newborn son. We also are not told that they are Hebrews. We are however told they ‘God-fearing women and did not obey the orders of the King of Egypt, but allowed the boys to live’ (Ex. 1:17).

After hiding him for three months, Jochebed placed him in an ark and set it upon the waters of the River Nile. There the child was found by an Egyptian Princess, whom midrash identifies with the name Batya meaning Daughter of God (1 Ch. 4:18). She realized that this was one of the Hebrew babies condemned by her father, but chose to save him. (The Hebrews were racially different than Egyptians.) Miriam, who had been keeping secret watch on her brother, then came forth and offered to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the foundling. Just as Miriam had argued with her father she aggressively foresaw that the princess would need a Hebrew wet nurse to protect the infant. The princess agreed, perhaps not trusting an Egyptian nurse who might betray her charge. And thus Jochebed was engaged and paid to nurse her own child.

Thus at the beginning of his life Moses is protected by Shifrah and Puah. Yochebed and Miriam and Batya. All of these women have compassion on this child and as such choose to rebel despite the danger against their society.

We are told of Moses’ birth in ten verses (Ex. 2:1-10) which end when the daughter of Pharaoh names him. Prior to that no proper names are used; not his birth mother, his birth father, his sister nor the Princess. After his mother completes nursing him the ‘child grew’ (2:10) and was returned to his adoptive mother, the Princess. Weaning in ancient times took from two to three years and thus the child was a toddler by the time he was named by the Princess. He was certainly named by his birth parents although that name is unknown to us – they knew the Princess would give him what would become his known name. Moses was almost certainly circumcised by his parents.  He must have known he was a Hebrew boy condemned by the Egyptian Pharaoh. And that he was protected by several women.   

It was the princess who gave the boy the Egyptian name Moses, and raised him at the royal court.

The young Moses, who may have learned justice and righteousness from the example of his own adopted mother, grew up to take action when he came upon injustice. But this action took the form of killing an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. When he learned that the action was known and talked about, he feared that Pharaoh would take his own life, and fled from Egypt.

   Moses made his way as far as Midian, on the opposite side of the Sinai, and there he encountered the seven daughters of the priest Reuel (also called Jethro). Once again, he acted to protect the weak; this time by helping the sisters against rough shepherds trying to keep them from watering their flocks. Reuel then offered him hospitality and his daughter Zipporah in marriage. This father-in-law, who was not Hebrew, became a surrogate father to Moses, and his only male role model.

   After the epiphany at the Burning Bush and God's announcement of his mission to save the children of Israel, Moses sets out for Egypt with Zipporah and their two sons. Then come three very strange verses in Exodus 4:24-26.

“On the journey, at the place they lodged, God approached him and preferred that he should die. Then Zipporah took up a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his feet and said 'you are my bridegroom of blood'. So it withdrew from him; and she said 'a bridegroom of blood for circumcisions”. Whatever the meaning of these verses, Zipporah (to be discussed in a separate article, is the only woman known to circumcise her son, and consequently saved Moses from God's vengeance.

When Zelophehad died his five daughters asked why their father’s name should be lost, and requested ‘give us his property’ (Num. 27:1-4). Moses asked a ruling from God, and God confirmed the justice of the daughters' position. Moses who had received the Law from God, did not at any other time seek a confirmation of it. Perhaps he thought his primarily male audience needed a ruling from God to persuade his male oriented audience that males and females were equal under the Law. Is this because Moses had a feeling for women different from that of other men? It was women who nurtured and protected him, and perhaps that is why he is perfect male model for the Hebrews.


(1) Philo, the great Jewish leader of Alexandria wrote a biography of Moses. Philo suggests that Moses was the 'greatest and most perfect of men' in his introduction.  Philo, De Vita Moyesis, trans. F.H. Coulen, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1935) Pg. 1:1. He also calls Moses `the most excellent king' and the `the most perfect ruler'. He believed that Moses was destined to be the next Pharaoh, a theme that we found in Midrashim. There are other interpretations of Moses where he is a 'Majestic Man'. In the third century BCE book called 'Aegyptiaca', a Greek biography of Moses he is a General. As noted  in Silver, D.J. Images of Moses, (Basic Books, Inc. N.Y., 1982 numerous books written apparently in the first century BCE are entitled 'The Secret Book of Moses', 'Key of Moses', 'The Chemistry of Moses', 'The Maza of Moses' and 'The Diptosis of Moses', all suggesting Moses as a wizard and magician. See, chapter on Moses.

(2) Midrash Exodus quoted in Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Bible JPS, Philadelphia, 1973) pgs.287 –288.