Moses—Man or Myth?


MOSES was born under the shadow of death. His people were a group of nomadic families who had settled in Egypt with their father Jacob, or Israel, to escape starvation. For decades they had coexisted peacefully with their Egyptian neighbors. But then came an ominous change. A respected historical report says: “There arose over Egypt a new king . . . And he proceeded to say to his people: ‘Look! The people of the sons of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are. Come on! Let us deal shrewdly with them, for fear they may multiply.’” The plan? To control the Israelite population by making them “slave under tyranny” and then by ordering the Hebrew midwives to kill any male children that they delivered. (Exodus 1:8-10, 13, 14) Because of the courage of their midwives who refused to obey the order, the Israelites prospered nevertheless. Hence, Egypt’s king decreed: “Every newborn son you are to throw into the river Nile.”—Exodus 1:22.

One Israelite couple, Amram and Jochebed, “did not fear the order of the king.” (Hebrews 11:23) Jochebed gave birth to a son who would later be described as “divinely beautiful.”  (Acts 7:20) Perhaps they somehow discerned that this child was favored by God. In any event, they refused to give their child up for execution. At the risk of their own lives, they decided to conceal him.

After three months, Moses’ parents could no longer hide him. Running out of options, they took action. Jochebed placed the infant in a papyrus vessel and set him afloat on the Nile River. Unwittingly, she was launching him into history!—Exodus 2:3, 4.

Credible Events?

Many scholars today dismiss these events as fiction. “The fact is,” says Christianity Today, “that not one shred of direct archaeological evidence has been found for [the years] the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt.” While direct physical proof may be lacking, there is considerable indirect evidence that the Bible account is credible. In his book Israel in Egypt, Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier says: “Archaeological data clearly demonstrates  that Egypt was frequented by the peoples of the Levant [countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean], especially as a result of climatic problems that resulted in drought . . . Thus, for a period roughly from 1800 to 1540 B.C., Egypt was an attractive place for the Semitic-speaking people of western Asia to migrate.”

Furthermore, it has long been acknowledged that the Bible’s description of Egyptian slavery is accurate. The book Moses—A Life reports: “The biblical account of the oppression of the Israelites appears to be corroborated in one often-reproduced tomb painting from ancient Egypt in which the making of mud bricks by a gang of slaves is depicted in explicit detail.”

The Bible’s description of the tiny ark Jochebed used likewise rings true. The Bible says that it was made of papyrus, which, according to Cook’s Commentary, “was commonly used by the Egyptians for light and swift boats.”

Still, is it not hard to believe that a national leader would order the cold-blooded murder of infants? Scholar George Rawlinson reminds us: “Infanticide . . . has prevailed widely at different times and places, and been regarded as a trivial matter.” Indeed, one need not look far to find equally chilling examples of mass murder in modern times. The Bible account may be disturbing, but it is all too credible.

Moses’ Rescue—A Pagan Legend?102004242_univ_cnt_1_sm

Critics say that Moses’ rescue from the Nile River sounds suspiciously similar to the ancient legend of King Sargon of Akkad—a story that some say predates the story of Moses. It also tells of an infant in a basket who was rescued from a river.

However, history is full of coincidences. And placing an infant in a river may not have been as unusual as it might seem. Observes Biblical Archaeology Review: “We should note that Babylonia and Egypt are both riverine cultures and that putting the baby in a waterproof basket might be a slightly more satisfactory way to dispose of an infant than throwing it on the rubbish heap, which was more usual. . . . The story of the foundling rising to eminence may be a motif of folklore, but that is surely because it is a story that occurs repeatedly in real life.”

In his book Exploring Exodus, Nahum M. Sarna observes that while there are some similarities, the story of Moses’ birth departs from “The Legend of Sargon” in “many significant respects.” Claims that the Bible account was derived from a pagan legend thus ring hollow.

Adopted Into Pharaoh’s Household

The fate of Jochebed’s infant was not left to chance. She “put [the ark] among the reeds by the bank of the river Nile.” This was likely a spot where she hoped it might be discovered. Here Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe, perhaps regularly. —Exodus 2:2-4.

The tiny ark was quickly spotted. “When Pharaoh’s daughter opened it she got to see the child, and here the boy was weeping. At that she felt compassion for him, although she said: ‘This is one of the children of the Hebrews.’” The Egyptian princess thus decided to adopt him. Whatever name his parents had originally called him is long forgotten. Today he is known the world over by the name his adoptive mother gave him—Moses. —Exodus 2:5-10.

Is it not farfetched, though, to believe that an Egyptian princess would take in such a child? No, for Egyptian religion taught that kind deeds were a requisite for entrance into heaven. As for the adoption itself, archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley observes: “Egyptian women achieved parity with Egyptian men. They enjoyed the same legal and economic rights, at least in theory, and . . . women could make adoptions.” The ancient Adoption Papyrus actually documents one Egyptian woman’s adoption of her slaves. As for the hiring of Moses’ mother as a wet nurse, The Anchor Bible Dictionary says: “The payment of Moses’ natural mother to nurse him . . . echoes identical arrangements in Mesopotamian adoption contracts.”

Now that he had been adopted, would Moses’ Hebrew heritage be kept from him as a dark secret? Some Hollywood films have made it appear that way. The Scriptures indicate otherwise. His sister, Miriam, cleverly arranged for Moses to be nursed by his own mother, Jochebed. Surely this godly woman would not have concealed the truth from her son! And since children in ancient times were often breast-fed for several years, Jochebed had ample opportunity to teach Moses about ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ (Exodus 3:6) Such a spiritual foundation served Moses well, for after being handed over to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” The claim of historian Josephus that Moses rose to the rank of general in a war with Ethiopia cannot be verified. However, the Bible does say that Moses “was powerful in his words and deeds.” —Acts 7:22.

By the age of 40, Moses was likely poised to become a prominent Egyptian leader. Power and wealth could be his if he remained  in Pharaoh’s household. Then an event took place that changed his life.

Exile in Midian

One day Moses “caught sight of a certain Egyptian striking a certain Hebrew of his brothers.” For years, Moses had enjoyed the best of both the Hebrew and Egyptian worlds. But seeing a fellow Israelite beaten—perhaps in a life-threatening manner—moved Moses to make a dramatic choice. (Exodus 2:11) He “refused to be called the son of the daughter of Pharaoh, choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God.”—Hebrews 11:24, 25.

Moses took swift and irrevocable action: “He struck the Egyptian down and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) This was not the act of someone “given to sudden outbursts of anger,” as one critic alleged. It was likely an act of faith—albeit misguided—in God’s promise that Israel would be delivered from Egypt. (Genesis 15:13, 14) Perhaps Moses naively believed that his actions would spur his people on to revolt. (Acts 7:25) To his chagrin, though, his fellow Israelites refused to acknowledge his leadership. When news of the killing reached Pharaoh, Moses was forced to flee into exile. He settled in Midian, marrying a woman named Zipporah, the daughter of a nomadic chieftain named Jethro.

For 40 long years, Moses lived as a simple shepherd, his hope of being a deliverer shattered. One day, though, he drove Jethro’s flocks to a spot near Mount Horeb. There, Jehovah’s angel appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Picture the scene: “Bring my people the sons of Israel out of Egypt,” God commands. But the Moses who replies is hesitant, diffident, unsure of himself. “Who am I,” he pleads, “that I should go to Pharaoh and that I have to bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” He even reveals a personal flaw that some moviemakers have obscured: He evidently has a speech impediment. How different Moses is from the heroes of ancient myths and legends! His 40 years of shepherding have humbled and mellowed this man. Although Moses is unsure of himself, God is confident that he is suited for leadership!—Exodus 3:1–4:20.

Deliverance From Egypt

Moses leaves Midian and appears before Pharaoh, demanding that God’s people be freed. When the stubborn monarch refuses, ten devastating plagues are unleashed. The tenth plague results in the death of the  firstborn of Egypt, and a broken Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free.—Exodus, chapters 5-13.

These events are well-known to most readers. But are any of them historical? Some argue that since the Pharaoh is not named, the account must be fiction. However, Hoffmeier, quoted earlier, notes that Egyptian scribes often deliberately omitted the names of Pharaoh’s enemies. He argues: “Surely historians would not dismiss the historicity of Thutmose III’s Megiddo campaign because the names of the kings of Kadesh and Megiddo are not recorded.” Hoffmeier suggests that Pharaoh is unnamed for “good theological reasons.” For one thing, by leaving Pharaoh unnamed, the account draws attention to God, not Pharaoh.

Even so, critics balk at the notion of a large-scale exodus of Jews from Egypt. Scholar Homer W. Smith argued that such a mass movement “would certainly have resounded loudly in Egyptian or Syrian history . . . It is more likely that the legend of the exodus is a garbled and fanciful account of the flight from Egypt to Palestine of a relatively few members.”

True, no Egyptian record of this event has been found. But the Egyptians were not above altering historical records when the truth proved to be embarrassing or went against their political interests. When Thutmose III came to power, he tried to obliterate the memory of his predecessor, Hatshepsut. Says Egyptologist John Ray: “Her inscriptions were erased, her obelisks surrounded by a wall, and her monuments forgotten. Her name does not appear in later annals.” Similar attempts to alter or conceal embarrassing facts have even taken place in modern times.

As for the lack of archaeological evidence for the wilderness sojourn, we must remember that the Jews were nomads. They built no cities; they planted no crops. Presumably, they left behind little more than footprints. Still, convincing evidence of that sojourn can be found within the Bible itself. Reference is made to it throughout that sacred book. (1 Samuel 4:8; Psalm 78; Psalm 95; Psalm 106; 1 Corinthians 10:1-5) Significantly, Jesus Christ also testified that the wilderness events took place.—John 3:14.

Unquestionably, then, the Bible’s account of Moses is credible, truthful. Even so, he lived a long time ago. What impact can Moses have on your life today?

Who Wrote the “Books of Moses”?

Traditionally, Moses has been credited with being the author of the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch. Moses may have drawn some of his information from earlier historical sources. Many critics believe, though, that Moses did not write the Pentateuch at all. “It is thus clearer than the sun at noonday that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses,” asserted the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza. In the latter half of the 19th century, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen popularized the “documentary” theory—that the books of Moses are an amalgam of the works of several authors or teams of authors.

Moses humbly recorded his failure to give God glory

Wellhausen said that one author consistently used the personal name of God, Jehovah, and is thus called J. Another, dubbed E, called God “Elohim.” Another, P, supposedly wrote the priestly code in Leviticus, and yet another, called D, wrote Deuteronomy. Though some scholars have embraced this theory for decades, the book The Pentateuch, by Joseph Blenkinsopp, calls Wellhausen’s hypothesis a theory “in crisis.”

The book Introduction to the Bible, by John Laux, explains: “The Documentary Theory is built up on assertions which are either arbitrary or absolutely false. . . . If the extreme Documentary Theory were true, the Israelites would have been the victims of a clumsy deception when they permitted the heavy burden of the Law to be imposed upon them. It would have been the greatest hoax ever perpetrated in the history of the world.”

Another argument is that stylistic differences in the Pentateuch are evidence of multiple authors. However, K. A. Kitchen notes in his book Ancient Orient and Old Testament: “Stylistic differences are meaningless, and reflect the differences in detailed subject-matter.” Similar style variations can also be found “in ancient texts whose literary unity is beyond all doubt.”

The argument that the use of different names and titles for God is evidence of multiple authorship is particularly weak. In just one small portion of the book of Genesis, God is called “the Most High God,” “Producer of heaven and earth,” “Sovereign Lord Jehovah,” “God of sight,” “God Almighty,” “God,” “the true God,” and “the Judge of all the earth.” (Genesis 14:18, 19; 15:2; 16:13;17:1, 3, 18; 18:25) Did different authors write each of these Bible texts? Or what about Genesis 28:13, where the terms “Elohim” (God) and “Jehovah” are used together? Did two authors collaborate to write that one verse?

The weakness of this line of reasoning becomes particularly evident when applied to a contemporary piece of writing. In one recent book about World War II, the chancellor of Germany is termed “Führer,” “Adolf Hitler,” and simply “Hitler” in the course of just a few pages. Would anyone dare claim that this is evidence of three different authors?

Nevertheless, variations on Wellhausen’s theories continue to proliferate. Among them is the theory propounded by two scholars regarding the so-called J author. They not only deny that it was Moses but also proclaim that “J was a woman.”


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