Moses is generally recognized as one of most important biblical figures in Jewish history. The main part of the story of Moses is told in the book of Exodus. The Hebrew people, descendents of Abraham, left Israel during a drought and settled in Egypt, where one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was well liked by the pharaoh. As time passed, and the pharaoh’s friendship with Joseph was forgotten, the Hebrew people became the slaves of the Egyptians.
Moses was born to Amram and Jochebed in Egypt during the reign of a particularly vicious pharaoh, Ramses II, who decreed that Hebrew slave children should be killed. At first, Jochebed succeeded in hiding Moses, but this eventually proved too difficult. When Moses was three months old, his mother put him in a basket and pushed him down the Nile River, hoping someone kind would find him. As it turned out, the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses and raised him as her own son.
Moses grew up and finally learned his true heritage. Shortly thereafter, he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite; in response, Moses killed the Egyptian. Having committed such a heinous crime, Moses was forced to flee Egypt and live in the Sinai Peninsula for forty years. One day, Moses saw a bush that was on fire but not burning. When Moses inspected it more closely, God commanded him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Moses then returned to Egypt and tried to persuade the pharaoh to free the Hebrews. The pharaoh refused, causing God to send ten plagues against the Egyptians. The tenth plague—the killing of the firstborn son in all Egyptian families—proved to be the breaking point, and pharaoh freed the Israelites. However, after allowing the Israelites to leave, the pharaoh pursued them. By the time the Israelites reached the Sea of Reed (Red Sea), the pharaoh’s armies had caught up to them and trapped them. In order to save them, God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, only to close it afterward, drowning the Egyptians. After passing the sea, Moses led the Hebrews through the desert to Mount Sinai, where he ascended the mountain alone and received the Ten Commandments directly from God.
Although the historical truth of Moses’s existence is debatable, as a leader and lawgiver, he is the foremost icon of Jewish history.
- Some theories claim that Moses was not Hebrew at all, but rather a renegade and sympathetic Egyptian priest.
- The anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews have horns most likely stems from a mistranslation of Moses’s description after he descended from Mount Sinai. Being so close to God allegedly changed his physical appearance, but it is said that “rays of light protruded from his face,” and not, as some mistakenly believed, that “horns protruded from his head.”