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(mō`zĭs), Hebrew lawgiver, probably b. Egypt. The prototype of the prophets, he led his people in the 13th cent. B.C. out of bondage in Egypt to the edge of Canaan. The narrative in the Bible is the chief source of information on his life. His historical existence has been questioned, although there is nothing improbable about the general outline of the narrative after allowances for distortion over time are made. According to the biblical account, Moses was divinely protected as an infant, and as a young man he received a special calling at the burning bush. He lived in constant touch with God, who guided him in leading all Israel out of Egypt and across the desert. Through him God promulgated the Law, including the Ten Commandments, the criminal code, and the whole liturgical law. In his old age, when the Hebrews were at the Jordan River ready to cross, God gave Moses a view of the Promised Land from Mt. Pisgah; but he did not enter it, for he died and was buried in Moab. All this is recounted in the books of ExodusExodus
, book of the Bible, 2d of the 5 books of the Law (the Pentateuch or Torah) ascribed by tradition to Moses. The book continues the story of the ancestors of Israel in Egypt, now grown in number to a large landless population enslaved by the pharaoh.
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, LeviticusLeviticus
, book of the Bible, 3d of the five books of the Law (the Pentateuch or Torah) ascribed by tradition to Moses. It is in essence a collection of liturgical legislation with special reference to regulations for the levitical priests, introduced in the canonical sequence
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, NumbersNumbers,
book of the Bible, fourth of the five books of the Law (the Pentateuch or Torah) ascribed by tradition to Moses. Numbers begins at Sinai and ends in Moab on the eve of the Hebrews' entry into Palestine.
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, and DeuteronomyDeuteronomy
, book of the Bible, literally meaning "second law," last of the five books (the Pentateuch or Torah) ascribed by tradition to Moses. Deuteronomy purports to be the final words of Moses to the people of Israel on the eve of their crossing the Jordan to take
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. The authorship of these and Genesis (collectively called the Pentateuch) has been ascribed to Moses since earliest times; hence they are called the Books of Moses. The Law he promulgated is called the Mosaic law, the Torah. Few critics would argue that Moses actually authored the Pentateuch. Moses, one of the great names of Hebrew history, is referred to repeatedly in the Jewish, Christian, amd Muslim scriptures. In the Qur'an, Moses is a precursor of Muhammad, confirming God's revelation to Abraham. Among the PseudepigraphaPseudepigrapha
[Gr.,=things falsely ascribed], a collection of early Jewish and some Jewish-Christian writings composed between c.200 B.C. and c.A.D. 200, not found in the Bible or rabbinic writings.
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 is a Testament of MosesTestament of Moses,
an early Jewish apocalypse discovered in 1861 and extant only in an incomplete 6th cent. A.D. Latin manuscript. The original work was probably written in Hebrew in the early 1st cent. A.D.
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See E. Auerbach, Moses (1975); G. W. Coats, Moses (1988).

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Engraving, by Dore, of Moses breaking the Tables of the Law. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

According to biblical tradition, the extended Jewish family began with Abraham. But the religion of Judaism began with Mosheh Rabbenu, which translates as "Moses, our teacher." Moses was the lawgiver, the great liberator and reluctant servant of God. He is the most prominent figure, some say the author, of the Torah. Lists of the top ten most influential people of history are unanimous in recognizing his importance. Scholars may not be able to decide whether or not he really existed, but all are in agreement as to his importance.

The problem with discovering the historical Moses is one common to religious heroes. All we really know about him comes from the Bible and nowhere else. He appears first in the book of Exodus, wrapped in a wonderful story about his birth and upbringing. A king, or pharaoh, had arisen in Egypt "who knew not Joseph," a Hebrew whose influence in Egypt had encouraged peace between the peoples (see Joseph). The Hebrews, so blessed at the end of Genesis, had, four hundred years later, fallen on hard times. Forced to serve as slaves living in the Egyptian ghetto town known as Goshen, they were punished severely if their daily quota of brick-making fell short.

Moses in Egypt

When Pharaoh ordered that the first-born sons of the Jewish slaves be killed, Moses' father and mother, Amram and Jochebed, gave him up to the hands of either fate or God. In the hope that someone would find the baby Moses and raise him, they wrapped him in swaddling clothes, placed him in a basket, and set him adrift on the Nile River.

Moses' sister kept careful watch on his progress downstream. It happened that Pharaoh's daughter was bathing at that moment and noticed the basket floating on the current. She did what many people do when picking up a helpless baby. She fell in love. She must have known that it was a Hebrew baby. And she must have suspected something was up when Moses' sister showed up just in time to tell her she knew of someone—Moses' mother—who was both willing and able to nurse the baby until he was old enough to move into Pharaoh's house.

Whatever happened—and the Bible characteristically leaves us free to decide for ourselves, thus guaranteeing endless centuries of people sitting around tables studying scripture—Moses was raised in the court of the king and grew to be one of the most important men in Egypt.

Therein lies one of the problems concerning Moses and the historical record. Egyptians have always been very good about recording history, especially the history of their kings. But there is no mention of Moses or the Hebrew people. None at all. Anywhere. Not even a defaced statue or a stray cuneiform tablet. Some explain Moses' absence by surmising that Egypt wasn't likely to record for posterity the humiliation of a Pharaoh who raised a very ungrateful Moses as his own. Others point out that one would at least expect to find that someone rewrote the story, slanting it in a way that would defend Pharaoh and cast aspersions on "Moses the ingrate," especially in light of what happens next in the story.

So far, all we have to go on is an account written possibly years, and more probably centuries, after the event. And any lawyer could persuade a jury that the testimony of the scriptures, written perhaps by Moses and certainly by Jewish authors, was biased toward the Hebrew point of view. But the tradition is so strong it refuses to go away. So it becomes, like so many other religious points of view, a matter of faith.

At any rate, Moses grew to adulthood thinking himself a very important person. But blood is thicker than Egyptian privilege. When Moses was about forty years old, he underwent a severe mid-life crisis. Seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he was outraged and killed the Egyptian. Burying the body in the sands of the desert, he hoped the incident would pass unnoticed.

Of course, it didn't. A day later he became the talk of Goshen. Everyone knew what he had done. Moses was forced to flee for his life. In those days, you simply didn't defend Hebrew slaves. The thinking was that it tended to set a bad example.

Moses in Midian

So Moses went "home"—to the place where his ancestors had lived. He fled to Midian, where he spent another forty years tending the sheep of Jethro, the man whose daughter, Zipporah, became Moses' wife. Jethro is called "a priest of Midian," and here we find ourselves treading on some pretty believable historical ground. Given the subsequent warlike history between Israel and Midian, it's a fairly safe bet that later scribes wouldn't have invented a Midianite period for their beloved Moses unless such a story was widely believed to have been true. So if Moses really existed, chances are he stayed for a while in Midian.

Forty years, to be exact. We now have two periods consisting of one of the Bible's favorite symbolic numbers. Forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian. But all quiet times come to an end in heroes' stories. And Moses was about to begin another forty-year period, the most important of his life.

Someone once said that Moses spent forty years thinking he was a somebody, forty years learning he was a nobody, and forty years discovering what God could do with a nobody. And it began in the most unlikely of places. If you were inventing this story, how could you ever think up a scenario in which Moses hears the voice of God coming out of a bush that "burned, but was not consumed" (see Burning Bush)? This is a real sticking point for Moses' detractors. The idea, which is so far-fetched it seems as though it must be a human invention, defies critical analysis just because it is so radical. Who would make up something like this if they wanted the story to appear believable?

But the Bible insists that it was by means of a burning bush that God gave Moses his marching orders, instructing Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God's people go. Moses was reluctant at first and full of excuses, pointing out that he was not a good speaker. God told him to bring his brother, Aaron, as his spokesperson. Moses finally agreed.

The Exodus

And so it began—the story retold every year by Jewish families celebrating Passover, perhaps the most famous liberation story ever told. It's called the Exodus (see Passover).

Moses traveled to Egypt to appear before the family that had raised him. Standing before Pharaoh, he declared God's intention to free the Israelites. Ten times Moses said, "Let my people go." Ten times Pharaoh refused. Ten times God sent plagues upon Egypt—the plagues that are recounted at every contemporary Passover celebration. The Nile was turned into blood. Frogs, gnats, and flies infested the land. Livestock died; boils broke out upon the people. Hail and locusts took their toll. Darkness covered the land. And still Pharaoh refused to release his slave laborers.

Finally the terrible tenth plague reaped its harvest. The firstborn of Egypt were killed by the angel of death. The Hebrew people had been warned, and those that heeded the word of God were prepared. They had carefully followed instructions that are, to this very day, remembered in symbol and story each Passover. A lamb had been slaughtered and roasted. Its blood had been sprinkled on the door posts and lintels of every Jewish house. The people were dressed for travel and had baked desert bread, unleavened bread, so they would be sustained on their journey into the wilderness.

Finally the moment of death was upon Egypt. Not even Pharaoh's firstborn son was spared. But as the Hebrew people listened to the eerie sounds of death spread from house to house throughout the land, they were spared when the angel of death, seeing the blood of the sacrificed lamb, "passed over" each Jewish home (hence the name of the Passover holiday) and went on to reap its deadly harvest.

Morning brought the glad news. They were free. They headed out toward the rising sun.

Upon reaching the Red Sea, however, they looked back to see that Pharaoh had changed his mind. The Egyptian soldiers in their chariots were in hot pursuit. The waters lay before the fleeing Jews. The armies were closing in from behind. Trapped between hammer and anvil, what could they do?

Moses showed them what to do, now and forever. "Trust in God!" was the message. "Have faith!" was the theme of the sermon. This moment was to be indelibly stamped upon their national memory and remembered when they later faced Assryian hoards, Babylonian armies, Roman butchers, and Nazi murderers.

"Remember this moment," said God.

And the impossible happened. With no hope in sight, they were forced to trust God. What they saw that day cemented them forever as the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the chosen people of God. Moses stepped forward all alone and held up his staff. That's all. No incantations. No rituals. No elaborate preparations. Just acknowledge God and step back. Watch him go to work.

And the waters parted. Impossibly, the people found a path where a moment before there had been none. They crossed through on dry land. And with no human effort, with no human intervention at all, they were saved while Pharaoh and his armies drowned.

"Remember this moment," said God. And they did. Every year at Passover they still remember.

The story grew with the retelling. And therein lies the problem, at least for the literal minded. Did it ever happen? And if it did, did it happen like this?

Scholars are skeptical. The earliest account of the Exodus, they point out, doesn't mention Moses at all:

Sing to Yahveh, for he has triumphed gloriously; The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)

And the ancient creed of Israel is similarly silent concerning the presence of Moses:

The Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. (Deuteronomy 26:5-8)

Conservatives point out that since Moses wrote both those passages, it stands to reason that he, a humble man, would decline to play up his own part in the drama. Liberals counter that Moses didn't write those passages, that they are examples of the earliest texts, woven into the fabric of the story much later by unknown scribes. In the end, some wonder, does it really matter? The story has inspired so many people and given hope to so many Jewish generations, let alone those of African slaves and Central American downtrodden masses, that its historical accuracy doesn't enter into the picture anymore. It has taken on a life of its own. In the end, the Exodus is a true story, whether or not it ever happened.

When literary criticism (see Literary Criticism/Historical Critical Method) began to filter down into Christian churches, it is said that a preacher tried to teach his congregation that the children of Israel really didn't cross through the Red Sea—it was the Sea of Reeds, only about a foot or so deep. The Hebrew people could go through because they were on foot. Pharaoh's armies bogged down because they were riding in heavy chariots.

"Hallelujah!" shouted one old saint from the back row. "That's an even bigger miracle. God drowned Pharaoh's whole army in only a foot of water!"

The story, like Moses, has a life of its own. And no one will ever disprove it.

The Wilderness and the Promised Land

Before Moses could lead the people into the Promised Land, they had to undergo basic training. For forty years they wandered in the wilderness. This is really where the religion of Judaism began. Moses received the law—both the Ten Commandments and the written law of Leviticus. Some ancient rabbis taught that Moses received a secret law as well, whispered in his ear by God himself. This law was passed on through Joshua to the scholars of later generations, who interpreted it and formed the rich oral traditions of Judaism. Plans for the great Temple were given in triplicate. The book of Exodus has God telling Moses how to build it, Moses telling the people what God said, and then a description of exactly how the instructions were carried out.

Ritual sacrifice began. Lessons were learned. Through it all, Moses built his reputation as prophet, priest, judge, lawgiver, intercessor, victor, exile, fugitive, shepherd, guide, healer, miracle worker, man of God, and rebel.

One psalmist wrote:

God made known his ways unto Moses, His acts to the people of Israel. (Psalm 103:7)

One would think Moses would be given a hero's welcome into the Promised Land, carried there by ranks of heavenly hosts. But such was not the case. Moses, it seems, like all biblical heroes, had feet of clay. He never entered Canaan at all. And it wasn't a tragic accident that frustrated him. It was a punishment sent from God.

In Numbers 20, Moses had been told to give water to the people by speaking to a rock and calling forth the water. Instead, in his anger at the people for rebelling continually, he rather petulantly whacked the rock with his staff. Water came forth, all right, but Moses apparently angered God by not following directions.

"There on the mountain that you have climbed [Mount Nebo] you will die and be gathered to your people," God says to Moses. "This is because... you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites" (Deuteronomy 32:50-52).

By this time in the story, after reading four books of the Bible, most readers are definitely on Moses' side and are appalled that God could be so strict in his judgment. After all Moses had done, couldn't God cut him some slack and let him set foot in the Holy Land at least once?"

Apparently not. God is a strict judge, and holiness is as holiness does. Moses got to look at Canaan, the Promised Land, from afar, but he wasn't allowed to set foot there.

God does give him a great obituary, though.

Since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, and who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt.... No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

Moses' Influence

So what is the lesson? It's not always the arriving that's most important. Sometimes the prize is in the journey itself. Anwar Sadat once said, "He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress." Moses changed the very fabric of Jewish thought. He not only freed the people from captivity, he set them on the road to becoming the first great monotheistic religion.

Some say Moses was influenced by a religious movement that arose during his time in Egypt. There was a brief period of Egyptian monotheism under Pharaoh Akhnaton from 1365 to 1355 BCE. If Moses lived during that time, goes the argument, he might have transferred the worship of the one Sun God to that of Yahveh.

Others believe Moses was not a monotheist at all. He just believed Yahveh, the god of the Jews, was the greatest god and would triumph over all other gods.

Perhaps there is something to this thought, because Moses' influence is not limited to Hebrew theology. Christians and Muslims have adopted him as a significant figure as well.

Christians point out that his very name points the way to Christianity. Moshea (the Hebrew name for Moses) means "Messiah," or "anointed one." It's the same as the Greek Christos or the English Christ. The English Jesus comes from the Latin Jesu, the Greek Iasous, and the Hebrew Joshua. So Jesus Christ is actually derived from Joshua/Moses. According to this typology, we have the team of Moses/Joshua, "Christ Jesus," freeing the people from slavery and leading them into the Promised Land.

Christians also put a different spin on why Moses couldn't enter the Promised Land himself. Moses represents the law—the Old Testament. It leads the way but cannot save anyone, according to Christian theology. Only grace can do that. So Moses, the law, leads people to a view of heaven but is not sufficient to let them enter.

According to Muslim theologians, Moses' ministry was to save his nation from slavery, equip them with a set of rules that would govern their society, establish a systematic corporate worship, and lead the people back to their homeland. But the people refused to submit. So God had to send yet another prophet, Muhammad.

Moses is revered by all three religions. Christians even look to a future appearance, bringing him back to finish what he started. In Matthew 17 he steps out of the pages of history to council Jesus atop the Mount of Transfiguration. In Revelation 11, though not mentioned by name, he appears to duplicate the miracle of turning water into blood, preparing the way for the Second Coming of Christ.

Perhaps these appearances are appropriate for one who died a suspicious death. All we learn from Deuteronomy is that Moses was buried by the hand of God somewhere in the mountains. In the New Testament book of Jude we read a strange passage about the archangel Michael "disputing with the devil about the body of Moses."

Ahad Ha'Am, a name used by Asher Ginzburg, an author, philosopher, and great leader of the Zionist movement, wrote these words about Moses, quoted in An Anthology of Living Religions:

In my heart I dismiss all these questions [concerning the historical Moses] with one short and simple answer. This Moses, this hoary figure whose reality and essence you are trying to clarify, is not a matter for scholars such as you. We have a different Moses, our own Moses, the one whose form is writ large on the heart of our people from generation to generation and whose influence on our national life has not ceased from ancient times to now. Moses' historic reality does not depend upon your learned treatises. For even if you managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Moses the man never lived, or that he was not as he is depicted, this would not diminish by one iota the historical reality of the Moses ideal—the one who led us not only forty years through the Sinai desert, but thousands of years, through every desert we have crossed from the Exodus from Egypt to the present.

The following words, from Psalm 90, are attributed to Moses:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. May the favor of the Lord rest upon us... and establish the work of our hands.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(ancient Hebrew, Moshe). According to biblical tradition, a leader of the tribes of Israel (13th century B.C. ?).

The legend states that Moses was saved by a miracle in his childhood and was raised by a daughter of the pharaoh of Egypt. He was subsequently forced to flee from Egypt, and he married a Midian woman (from the Arabian Peninsula). Called upon by the god Yahweh to save the tribes of Israel from slavery under the pharaoh, Moses led them out of Egypt through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). Yahweh would not allow Moses or the Israelites who “murmured” in the desert to enter into the “promised land” (Palestine), and they wandered for 40 years until Moses’ death. On Mount Sinai god gave Moses stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them.

Authorship of the Pentateuch, or Torah, has been ascribed to Moses. Actually, it dates from a later time, from the ninth to seventh centuries B.C. Among Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Moses is regarded as a prophet.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


led his people out of bondage. [O.T.: Exodus]


presents God’s ten commandments to Israelites. [O.T.: Exodus 20:1–12]


led his people to threshold of promised land but could not enter. [O.T.: Deuteronomy 34:1–4]
See: Regret


led his people out of bondage. [O.T.: Exodus]


led his people through the wilderness for forty years. [O.T.: Pentateuch]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Old Testament the Hebrew prophet who led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land and gave them divinely revealed laws
2. Ed. born 1956, US hurdler; winner of the 400 m hurdles in the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games
3. Grandma, real name Anna Mary Robertson Moses. 1860--1961, US painter of primitives, who began to paint at the age of 75


Old Testament the Hebrew prophet who led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land and gave them divinely revealed laws
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
The Lord instructed Moses what was expected of Aaron and his sons as priests, what to tell the Israelites for the Lord to bless them.
Akoto urged couples or individuals who would want to adopt the baby to follow legal procedures so young Moses can finally have a place to call home.
Moses's adventure was to confront Pharaoh, possibly the last person he wanted to see.
Perhaps what captured Moses for good was God's revelation of a name that seemed to be both a riddle and a promise: "I will be who I am/I am who I will be." God's name seemed to mean everything at once.
But Moses did mind because now everywhere the girl went, the kitten went too.
But Moses had struck the rock (Numbers 20.8-13)."Ascend to Mount Nebo and view the land of Canaan which I will give to the people, and die on the mountain you ascend.
Moses will see patients in Clinton every other Thursday.
Most recently, Dr Moses has served as chief executive officer (CEO) of Ablynx, which was acquired by Sanofi earlier this year,
Again Moses tips his hat with a Mister-like flourish.
Moses's works have a greater affinity with European art informel than with New York's Abstract Expressionism.
Moses was described as "looking like a madman" as he walked towards his partner, prompting Ashton to get between the pair, telling his father: "Leave mammy alone, she can't live like this."
Wellhausen's dichotomy between law and prophets on the canonical level is blurred by pentateuchal texts that present Moses as a prophet.