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The redemption of Moses.

BROUGHT UP AS HE WAS FROM EARLY childhood in the household of Pharaoh, what vestige of his true identity was retained by Moses? Did he, reared as an Egyptian prince, know or consider the Israelite slaves to be his kinsmen? If he did, when and how did he learn of the relationship, and how could he have transcended the acculturative influences to which he was subject in the Egyptian court?

Contrary to the views of commentators generally that Moses somehow knew that he was a Hebrew while he was growing up in Pharaoh's palace,(1) there is no indisputable evidence in the Bible that Moses was aware of his Hebrew identity until God revealed Himself to him in the burning bush.

The Bible devotes but a few sentences relevant to the subject of Moses' sense of his identity, and they are indirect. We are informed that Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born male Hebrew children be drowned. When Moses was three months old, his mother placed him in a basket, which she left among the reeds of the Nile. He was found there by Pharaoh's daughter, and was brought up in the royal palace from the time he was weaned (Ex. 1:22;2:3-10). We learn that:

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their toil. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting, so he said to the offender, "Why do you strike your fellow?" (Ex. 2:11-13)(*)

These three verses have served as the basis for the thesis that Moses somehow acquired and retained a sense of identity as a Hebrew, and that his formative years spent in Pharaoh's court were unable to blot it out of his consciousness. The keystone sentence is, "He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen." The problem lies in determining whether we are seeing the scene with Moses' eyes, as the formulation of the verse would seem to indicate, or through the narrator's eyes. Commentators generally have been of the opinion that the first interpretation is correct. To answer the question of how Moses could have kept a sense of his identity as a Hebrew, they provide unsubstantiated explanations, such as that his adoptive mother told him; he found out who his parents were and went to visit them, and thus knew not only that the Hebrews were enslaved but he was instilled with a feeling for his people as a result; or, it is simply asserted as a fact that Moses knew and retained his true identity in spite of his acculturation.(2)

After Pharaoh's daughter rescued Moses, she unwittingly entrusted him to his own mother to be nursed. When the child grew, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who "made him her son" (Ex. 2:6-10). Evidently, from the text (9-10), this occurred when the child was weaned, so he could not have been more than two or three years old. Hence, whatever Hebrew influences he was exposed to as a babe could not have had a lasting effect, and, in any case, would have been deeply submerged under the weight of his Egyptian upbringing.

There is no direct evidence that Moses was informed or learned directly or indirectly of his kinship with the Hebrews. In the absence of such evidence, the conclusion that Moses did not know is as tenable as that he did know -- indeed, even more likely. Undoubtedly, he could have known that there were Hebrews in Goshen, enslaved and forced to labor at erecting garrison cities for Pharaoh (Ex. 1:11). However, it does not follow that he would know from this, or through other means, that they were related to him.

The narrator relates that when Moses had grown up, "he went out among his brethren and witnessed their toil" (2:11) and the intimation drawn from that has been that Moses consequently must have known that they were his brethren, that being the reason why he went out to see their travail. In other words, the deduction results from the perception that the picture is presented from Moses' subjective point of view. However, I believe that the correct reading is that we are being informed objectively, through the narrator's eyes and understanding, that they were Moses' brethren. This is supported by the rest of the sentence, where we are told that the person being struck was a Hebrew and, further, that we should be aware that he was a kinsman of Moses. But, if the first part of the sentence means that Moses knew all along that the Hebrews were related to him, why should the narrator inject the information that the victim was Moses' kinsman? Indeed, one commentator observes that Moses "went out to see his kinsfolk" is "either an objective (not a subjective) statement, or his mother had taught him his true identity."(3) It is noteworthy that he finds the verse ambiguous, and provides an alternative basis for concluding that Moses knew, if the statement is not objective.

Assuming, as we have shown is most likely, that Moses' mother did not instill it in him, perhaps his adoptive mother, Pharaoh's daughter, told him that his parents were Hebrews. Incredible. Why should or would she? To foster ambivalent feelings toward herself and perhaps alienate him from the Egyptians?

Another hypothesis has been that Pharaoh told Moses. Why would he? Why would Pharaoh, who viewed the increase of the Israelites in Egypt as a threat to his regime, and who had indulged his daughter by exempting from death a condemned Jewish child, want to inform that child, his grandson by adoption, that he belongs to an enslaved people whom he had determined to exterminate (Ex. 1:8-16, 22)?

Still another theory would have it that the Hebrew slaves told Moses who his parents were, and so he would visit them. The deduction of such visits depends on the supposition that the Hebrew slaves informed him. Would the Egyptian taskmasters have permitted any of the toiling Hebrews to approach a prince, no doubt clad as a prince of the royal house, and talk to him; or, if Moses approached them, would any Hebrew dare tell an Egyptian prince that he was no better than himself, a Hebrew slave? And if he had dared, would Moses have believed him?

Let us assume for the moment that Moses did not know that he was a Hebrew at the time when he witnessed the two incidents involving Hebrew slaves and proceeded to intervene. In that case, he would have been motivated only by an outraged sense of justice and empathy for the victim because he was the victim, and not because he was a kinsman. Such a reaction, uncolored by any taint of bias, would have been all the more remarkable in both situations, revealing a profound feeling for, and a commitment to, justice, and a character resolute and ready to come to its defense.

The text sheds no light in the aftermath of the fights in which Moses involved himself, as to his sense of self-identification at the time, but a clue exists in the way he acted when he observed another instance of injustice. Having fled Egypt after he learned that it was known that he had killed the Egyptian who beat the Hebrew, Moses arrived in Midian. The daughters of Jethro, priest of Midian, had filled the troughs at the well to water their flocks, but, as Moses approached, other shepherds drove off the women's flocks. The people involved were not Hebrews. Without hesitation, Moses came to the aid of the women, and watered their animals (Ex. 2:16-17). When their father learned how Moses had behaved, his reaction shows that he at once recognized the qualities of the rescuer. He was concerned that the Egyptian, as the girls had described him, be invited as a guest to his table, asked him to stay, and, judging by the rapid pace of the narrative, lost no time in arranging for the marriage of his daughter, Zipporah, to Moses (Ex. 2:18-21).

Here is an instance in which all the participants were non-Hebrews, but Moses needed no self-identification with them in order to help the defenseless, convincingly demonstrating that he well might have acted similarly in the case of the Hebrews in Egypt, out of feelings of common humanity.

We have noted that Zipporah and her sisters took Moses for an Egyptian. Was he under that impression, too? Their conclusion was certainly based either on his clothing or the way he represented himself to them, probably both. Not until after God has revealed Himself to him and bidden him to return to Egypt to liberate His people, do we get direct evidence that Moses knew his true identity. It is the first time that the text cites him as speaking of the Hebrews as his kinsmen. He does so in asking Jethro to let him go back "to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring" (Ex. 4:18).

It would have been quite natural that Moses was unaware of his Hebrew descent until God revealed it to him. He had lived in Pharaoh's palace until he was an adult, had been brought up as a prince, and so educated. According to the Midrash, his adoptive mother and Pharaoh chose the wisest teachers to instruct him, and soon he excelled them in knowledge.(4) It is hard to see how he could have retained a sense of his true identity after so many years of assimilative influences. Whatever ember of his Hebrew self existed in his subconscious had to be stirred, not only by God's revelation of Himself to him, but, also, by His revelation of Moses to himself (Ex. 3:2 ff). This revelation was all the more overwhelming and poignant because of Moses' recent intervention in behalf of Hebrews who, he now discovered, were his kinsmen. How startling an impact this revelation must have had on Moses, to discover in a theophany who he was and, in a flash, to begin to discern the wellspring of his empathy for the Hebrews back in Egypt!

In connection with the problem of Moses' self-identification, we must also consider the immediate consequence of his slaying of the Egyptian. When Pharaoh learned of it, "he sought to have Moses killed" (Ex. 2:15). Why should Pharaoh want to have him killed without even bringing him before him? After all, Moses was a prince, an adopted grandson of Pharaoh! It does not seem possible that an Egyptian prince would be condemned to death out of hand for killing a commoner. Then what moved Pharaoh to want to kill Moses without delay?

Pharaoh knew from the beginning that Moses was a Hebrew child whom his daughter had saved despite Pharaoh's decree of extermination, and he could hardly have considered him a true Egyptian. Thus, he knew what Moses may well not have. He knew that Moses, by slaying the Egyptian, had committed himself, whether he knew it or not, to the cause of the Israelites. His life, forfeit at birth because of Pharaoh's edict that all male Israelites be killed in infancy, but spared out of consideration for his daughter, was forfeit without remission, for in the eyes of Pharaoh he was a Hebrew now.

This is a crucial point. By killing the Egyptian, Moses, knowingly or unknowingly, had already taken the Israelite side. Hence, when God tells him in Midian that he has chosen him as His emissary to Pharaoh, Moses in a sense had already irrevocably espoused his kinfolk's cause, though the text gives no indication that he comprehended the implications of his act in this respect. On the contrary, his objections to being selected to free the Israelites, betoken otherwise. Such obliviousness on Moses' part to the full significance of his homicide of the Egyptian, further demonstrates that he did not conceive of himself as an Israelite prior to the revelation from God.

At this point it is well to review in detail the theophany at the burning bush. The scene unfolds as Moses was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, and came to the mountain of Horeb, the mountain of God.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight. Why is the bush not burnt?" When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses?" He answered, "Here I am." And He said, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am," He said, "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (3:1-6).

Moses must have been stunned. Who is this God who announces to him that He is the God of his father and his father's ancestors? Who was his father and these ancestors? Could they be those of the Hebrew slaves? How could that be, he being an Egyptian? If Moses knew that he was Jewish, why does God now provide this information to him? Is this a valid attribution to Moses of the confused emotions that he experienced when he was instructed as to his ancestry? Let us read on.

The Lord further tells Moses that He has noted the suffering of His people, the Hebrews, and has determined to save them from the Egyptians and bring them into Canaan. He then calls on Moses to be His agent to lead them into freedom (3:7-9).

"Come, therefore," the Lord commands, "I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt" (3:10).

Moses replies, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt" (3:11)?

This question is open to two interpretations. It can be read to mean that Moses felt inadequate to the task, as his later excuses would intimate (4:1,10). But it can also be understood as, "Who am I, an Egyptian, to come to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" Was he still differentiating himself from them?

In any case, Moses' question betrays a lack of comprehension at this point of the full implications of the revelation that he has received. The Lord spoke of "My people," but, evidently, Moses did not perceive "My people," whom the Lord refers to, as his people, whether his question conveyed self-doubt or lack of identification with the Hebrews.

Even when reassured by God that He will be with him (3:12), Moses is unsure of his mission. He anticipates that the Hebrews will not believe him when he announces to them that he was sent by God to liberate them: "What if they shall say to me: 'What is His name?' What shall I say to them?" (3:13)(*)

In the state of perplexity that Moses finds himself, God tells Moses that His name is "Eheyeh-Asher-Eheyeh" ("I am that I am" -- literally, "I shall be what I shall be"), and instructs him: "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you'" (3:14).

What effect would this pronouncement, including the sententious, mysterious phrase, "I am that I am," have had on Moses? It is not a disclosure of a name but a perplexing declaration, an affirmation of the Lord's absolute existence and eternality, autonomy and unique identity, His justice and mercy, and untramelled power(5) -- this, to a Moses who still did not fully comprehend the "I am" of his own being!

That Moses was in mental turmoil, and that God recognized this, is suggested by the text, for, in the very next sentence (3:15), God starts over, Vayomer od Elokim el Moshe (and God spoke again to Moses), and this time God instructs him to tell the Israelites that His name is YHWH (this is its written form; when spoken it is translated -- except by the High Priest on Yom Kippur -- to Adonai, Lord, from the Hebrew word adon, or master). God goes further, explaining that this God, who is sending Moses to them with the promise of freedom, is the "God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

This was the moment when the revelation in all its import dawned on Moses. He now grasped that the God of his father and of his ancestors (3:6) was also the God of the fathers of the Israelites. He was seized with cognition of his true identity. He was an Israelite! He was not an Egyptian!

Moses was now ready to undertake the assignment that the Lord wanted him to assume, but he could not quite shake off the doubts that disturbed him. How was it that God, the God of his people, summoned him to their help but he still hung back?

Moses felt unsure of himself, even though the Lord sought to reassure him by a lengthy exposition of how He would free the Israelites and bring them into the land of Canaan, how the people would heed Moses' words, and how the Lord would pave the way for the liberation of His people despite the recalcitrance of Pharaoh, all of which Moses was to convey to the people (13:16-22).

"What if they do not believe me, and do not listen to me?" says the hesitant Moses, "but say, 'The Lord did not appear to you'" (4:2).

How is it that Moses felt himself so unqualified, so insecure in a role of leadership, so uncertain that he can convince the people, so lacking in faith, when the Lord had promised to be with him and was Himself coming to rescue His people?

How is it then, when it was clear that Moses must know that he was a Hebrew and was selected by the Lord to lead his fellow Israelites out of Egypt, that he dragged his feet, finding more excuses? Such reluctance at this point confutes the opinion that, back in Egypt, Moses knew that he was a Hebrew and, for that reason, intervened in the beating and fight involving Hebrews there. If he was so zealous in behalf of his Hebrew kinsmen then, why was he so irresolute now, when it comes to leading them out of bondage with the guidance and help of the Lord?

Moses has yet another obstacle which he foresees -- his speech impediment: "Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words ... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue" (4:10).

The Lord assures Moses that he need have no fear, for:

Who gives man speech? Is it not I, the Lord, Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will tell you what to say" (4:11-12).

Moses still is reluctant. He pleads that God send someone else (4:13).

And now comes another thunderclap of revelation, as the Lord loses patience. Moses is told that he has a brother, Aaron! And this brother, the Lord informs him, "speaks well." What is more, even then he is coming to meet Moses and will be his spokesman with the help of the Lord (4:14-16).

Moses is overwhelmed, tongue-tied, dumbfounded. Without another word, supported by the rod that the Lord provided to him to invoke His miracles (4:17), Moses returns to his father-in-law, Jethro, and immediately asks for his consent that he return to Egypt to see how his "kinsmen" are doing (4:18).

"Kinsmen" without further explanation, as the text indicates, by now means one thing to Moses but may well have meant another to Jethro, who still thought of Moses as an Egyptian. That Jethro still labored under this impression is evidenced by his laconic reply to Moses, "Go in peace." Jethro felt that it was but natural that Moses would want to go back to Egypt to see his kinsmen, and found no reason to question him.

We have to try to define for ourselves Moses' mental state in the moments when he learned his true identity and the identity of his God, and was called on to be His instrument for liberating the Israelites. Given the circumstances of Moses' childhood and youth, given all that he had been taught and led to believe about himself, would it not be surprising, even unreasonable, to expect him to react with other than hesitation and irresolution? Would not the sudden revelation of his true identity, entailing the complete erasure of his former self-image, leave him at least temporarily confused and indecisive? Could anyone have expected him in such distress to respond with an unequivocal, "Ready and able"?

Furthermore, the reasons that Moses advanced in proposing that God select someone else for His mission, do not fit in with the picture evoked by commentators generally that Moses, when he grew to adulthood, somehow, by some unknown means, or assumed circumstances, was conscious of being a Hebrew and devoted to their welfare. Why would he be bold in Egypt, but reluctant at Horeb? On the other hand, his reluctance is perfectly compatible with a Moses who had not identified himself with the Hebrews before the Divine revelation in the burning bush. The indecisive, hesitant, diffident Moses who voiced objections to being chosen, is not Moses as we knew him in Egypt. His hesitation to undertake God's mission is understandable in all of its aspects, even though, at this point, he knew his true identity and, perhaps, the roots of his sympathy for their suffering, if we assess it in the context of the sudden transformation of psyche that he was required to effect.

When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites, he asked "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (3:10-11). God's answer that He would be with him and give him a sign that it was He Who sent him (3:12), implies that Moses' question related solely to his feeling that he was unimportant and powerless in the eyes of mighty Pharaoh. But his question might also indicate that, as one who was once an Egyptian prince and now a shepherd in Midian, and was under a sentence of death by Pharaoh, he was hardly the best choice for the role that God wanted to assign to him. (It is not until after Moses received the call and made his series of objections that he was told by the Lord that the Pharaoh who sought to have him killed is dead) (4:19).

If this reconstruction of Moses' mental state is valid, how much more credit does he deserve for undertaking the task that God gave him? He had just learned who he was, Who his God was, who his people were, and that he had a brother, while at the same time, for all he knew, he was still threatened with death if he should return to Egypt. Yet, he acquiesced finally to God's assignment.

How ironic that a Hebrew child, the adopted grandson of Pharaoh, brought up in the Egyptian way of life in the royal court, was the one whom the God of Israel chose as His instrument to deliver His people from the hands of the god-king of Egypt! God elected Moses, not his elder brother Aaron, who was brought up as a Hebrew in his parents' house.(6) He picked Moses, a man in whom Pharaoh well might have believed that every vestige of Hebrew consciousness had been extinguished -- just as Pharaoh, by other means, was trying to extirpate the rest of the enslaved Israelites.

How ironic that Moses, who was so so quick, unhesitating, ready, and resolute in coming to the aid of two individual victims in Egypt, should have been so hesitant, irresolute, and feel so unqualified to assume the responsibility that God decided to entrust to him for freeing his thousands of kinsmen -- and yet, to have retained that ember of his identity that could be fired in their cause by God. That is the ultimate irony, the transformation of an all-but-assimilated Hebrew into an uncompromising champion and defender of his and God's chosen people, demonstrating that, ultimately, it is God whose transcendent will directs the course of history.

Thus did God redeem Moses from his bondage for the redemption of the Israelites from theirs.

ERNEST NEUFELD is retired, after a career in journalism, law, and New York City government.

1. This question is discussed by Mordecai and Miriam Roshwald in Moses: Leader, Prophet, Man (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1969), pp. 32ff. They provide a survey of the conjectures by commentators through the ages, all of whom assume that Moses knew his true identity.

* All Biblical citations are from the Jewish Publication Society translation.

2. U. Cassuto, for example, so asserts in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1987), (English translation), pp. 21-22.

3. W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jewish Publication Society, 1967), p. 389.

4. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society 1956), one volume edition, p. 254.

5. Exodus Rabbah, 3:6.

* Throughout the theophany, until God reveals His name to Moses, God refers to Himself by the general name of Elohim.

6. How Aaron escaped Pharaoh's decree is not explained in the Bible.
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Author:Neufeld, Ernest
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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