Before we begin, one thing must be definitively understood: This is not your average study on the life of Moses! It’s not even close. You will not be reading about the ten plagues of Egypt; the pharaoh’s repeat refusals; the theology of whether each of the ten plagues were a judgment upon a specific god of the Egyptian pantheon; the parting of the “Red” Sea (by the way, this really should be “Reed Sea,” named for the reeds that grew in and around it, not for Moses/God turning the water into blood, because that happened at the Nile River, roughly four hundred and fifty miles away as a bird flies); the delivery of the Ten Commandments on stone tablets at Mt. Sinai; the worshipping of a golden calf that angered Moses and made him break said stone tablets; the ironic grumbling of slaves who wanted to return to slavery because they didn’t fancy Canaan; the forty years of wandering to make a trip that should have taken a few weeks; or any other major Moses-ism celebrated in our culture. In fact, our character study here will start from the beginning and carry through only to the Burning Bush.
It’s not because these other subjects are exhausted or unimportant. It’s because they are well-covered by many other qualified authors, and frankly, these are parts of the story that almost everyone in the Church already knows.
What we have written here is probably nothing like anything you will ever see in another series. Using Moses as merely one example (and a powerful one), we are attempting to debunk a few misconceptions about the lives and identities of Bible characters. (Wait, did we say a few? Sorry… We meant a ton!)
One thing we have found to be tragic in the Church, the Body of Christ, is that very few believers actually know the truth behind what is documented in the Word regarding the men and women whose life stories help lead us in being faithful Christians today. And it’s great that we do find help in their example! For instance, we have experience a blip of doubt in our walk with God and feel terrible about ourselves as a result, and then we recall Apostle Peter and think, Well, he denied Christ three times on the night of His arrest, so I guess I’m alright for having those thoughts and feelings the other day… We draw strength from these real-life people who made real-life mistakes, and whose real-life attitudes showed that they, too, self-identified as misfits, unworthy of the call of God. When we see them rise above their own self-doubt, it encourages us, and that’s one of the main benefits their stories are there to provide.
But how many people in the Church can say they really understand who these people were? This side of eternity, before we’re allowed to break bread with them ourselves and get to know them, that’s always going to remain a challenge to some extent, certainly. However, we think it’s our duty to try to understand Scripture to the best of our abilities, including comprehension of the lives that were lived to establish that Living Book in the first place.
And unfortunately, the Church is becoming more and more used to “Xerox theology.” If you’ve read some of Donna Howell’s works, you will understand what that means. For those of you who haven’t, think about making a copy of an original picture. Now, take the copy, and make another copy. Take the most recent copy, and make another from that. Eventually, so many copies later, the clarity of the original is lost forever, unless someone finds the original image and insists that everyone looks at only the first, genuine portrayal. Likewise, at some point throughout history, every story gets “Xeroxed” one too many times and the truth is lost until someone finds the original and insists that everyone hear only the first, genuine version recorded. (Oh, dear Lord! Have you read the original fairy tales we tell our kids? They were gruesome and bloody! These authors prefer them over the Disney-ized versions, in the same way we prefer the actual Bible over cartoons about Bible stories, but wow! Reading what was first written can be a trip sometimes…)
In the case of Bible characters, the closer we can get to what was really recorded about them—not our “cartoon” variety characters whose depth only goes to the bottom of a peanut shell—the more we can absorb, apply, and relate to who they really were. And since “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), the examples set by the people in the Pages are there to instruct us how to live, not just entertaining stories. Yet, if we are to live our lives in a way that reflects our knowledge of these men and women, then we need to know them. For reals; not for fakes.
Our goal in this character study is therefore to strip away “Xerox Moses” and replace him with the real guy, whose life probably looks nothing like the movies you’ve seen, the books you’ve read, or the way his story is typically (mis)interpreted… Keep in mind as you go that, although we have chosen Moses to make a powerful point, he is only one of many misfits of the Bible whose stories we absolutely could have featured to this degree. Had we chosen to do that, our book would be longer than the Bible, but we want you to carry this thought with you: For every moment that you feel encouraged or motivated by seeing that God used an oddball like Moses, of all people, to do the amazing things he did (trust us, we truly believe you will have those thoughts when you begin to see his real situation), there are tons of other examples throughout the Word of God using surprising people in surprising ways…
We’ve Been Through the Desert with a Man of No Name?
Now here’s a character who, from the beginning, flies off the paper like a man doomed to failure and never-ending oddball-isms. If you recall, he was never even supposed to be born.
Hopper met his end when one of Flik’s now-genius inventions [a fully operational bird fashioned from leaves and twigs] tricked him into provoking a real bird, who retaliated by offering Hopper as baby food for her nest of fluffy, yellow hatchlings. As it turned out, the eccentricity that had ostracized Flik from his community early on was the very quirk that saved his people…er, colony, rather. Are you readers starting to see the recurring theme here? The misfits who break the mold have valuable gifts and ideas that, within the right timing and circumstances, save the day. Just another, quick little plug there for the misfits. Back to Moses…)
In the very first chapter of Exodus, we see a new king rise to the throne over Egypt. At least as far as the biblical narrative follows, the first move the new ruler makes is to pull A Bug’s Life-style, Hopper-istic, oppress-the-ants stunt, drawing up enormous blueprints for the cities Pithom and Raamses, establishing Israelite labor camps with a sea of slaves, and appointing cruel Egyptian slave drivers over them:
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt…And he said unto his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.”
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.
But the more they [Egyptians] afflicted them, the more they [Israelites] multiplied and grew.… And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour. (Exodus 1:8–14)
As it’s relevant to a later, crucial moment in the story of Moses (and therefore important to have in the back of your mind from the beginning), we will take a moment to look at what a “taskmaster” is here, as it could be slightly misleading to a modern reader (especially if he or she is newer to Bible reading or sticks to only one translation). This word just doesn’t mean what it used to.
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DO YOU FEEL LIKE A MISFIT? PERFECT! GOD HAS BIG PLANS FOR YOU!
At times, “slavery” in the Bible refers to a more peaceful and mutual agreement between “slave” and master, resembling concepts of indentured servitude from recent Western history. It’s more of a “Butler Jeeves” thing in certain ancient cultures, despite the translations favoring “slave” over a more accurate depiction in today’s world (like that which the word “servant” might imply). For example, this voluntary arrangement is present in the Deuteronomic passages dealing with how an Israelite slave-owner is to treat his slave, and which heavy consequences will befall the slave-owner if he were ever to be found mistreating his slave. (Look to chapters 15–21 for a wider and more accurate context here folks… This section of Scripture has been mangled by aggressive nonbelievers who, in light of recent social and political shifts, have started referring to these laws as “God’s instructions on how to beat your slave.” They pluck single verses and even partial verses out and away from their fuller context, completely missing the point that, when read altogether, this section of the Bible is “God’s instructions on how much and what kind of punishment will be enacted upon the slave owner if he beats his slave”—and the “slave,” of course, in this context, is a Jew of the same race who has taken a paid position to work under a housemaster voluntarily as his full-time job…) This Deuteronomic demand of kindness cancels out the idea that every instance of the word “slave” in the Bible is going to point to harsh treatment, so the language-barrier line is sometimes blurred between a “Jeeves” concept and the reality of intensely oppressed men and women being beaten into submission with whips. That is why it begs clarification here that what we are talking about in Exodus is the latter of these two ideas.
More accurately within the context of Exodus, “taskmaster” should read “slave drivers,” if it is to have the correct effect. One commentary explains that “mas (translated ‘task’) was a technical term in Israel for ‘forced labour,’” and notes that “such taskmasters were hated [as] can be seen from the stoning of Adoram later (1 Kgs 12:18).”[i] Another shows that the purpose of the ancient Egyptian taskmaster over the Israelite was to “enslave and maltreat them…[with] whips—to punish the indolent, or spur on the too languid.”[ii] So, yes, we are literally talking about God’s people being whipped and beaten, to the point of open sores festering under the hot sun, if they didn’t build the pagan king’s supply centers fast enough.
A third commentary helps understand the king’s otherwise ambiguous logic: “It was hoped that severe labour under the lash would produce so much suffering that the number of the Israelites would be thinned, and their multiplication stopped.”[iii] In today’s backdrop, with cushy air conditioning and fluffy couches waiting to greet most in the West after a long day, it’s even more difficult to imagine that hard labor would be a national ruler’s bright idea of population deterrence, but it’s more conceivable when we imagine what the Israelites were up against in that day. Alas, the guy was daft enough to try it…
As a result, because God was ultimately in control, Israel increased all the more.
When the king’s first attempt at intimidating, demoralizing, or depopulating the Israelites was met with dismal failure, he traded in his Disney grasshopper role for an eerie Hitler impression—Plan B was pure, unadulterated genocide: “And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives…And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the [child-birthing] stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him” (Exodus 1:15–16).
Moses wasn’t even supposed to live beyond the birthing stool. If not for the intervention of the power of God through the suddenly emboldened midwives, the “story of Moses” would have been, “Moses was born to a Hebrew woman named Jochebed. Then he died.” But the midwives couldn’t bear following through with the evil pharaoh’s plans to destroy the life that God created, so he was slipped back into his mother’s arms where he stayed in secret for three months.
Though the Word does not describe it, we know from the desperation Jochebed showed in keeping Moses alive, that she was driven by a maternal nature to care for her baby boy. We can therefore safely assume that Moses was given a Hebrew name…and don’t dismiss how significant this is! Hopefully by now, most Christian readers are aware of how important genealogy was to the Jews, even from the very beginning with Adam and Eve; the people of God always kept painstaking records of who was whose child (as it now shows in those “son of…son of…son of” sections of Scripture). Likewise, most genealogical documentation focuses on the males in the family tree, and the name of that male would live on forever, so it was an important detail. In the earliest of known Jewish traditions, “A person’s name is thought to define and control his or her soul and destiny (Ber[achot] 7b). Therefore, the selection of an appropriate name is a critical decision.”[iv]
“Moses,” Hebrew Moshe, means “drawn from the water” (literally “pulling out”), but it was Bithiah, the pharaoh’s daughter, that named Moses (Exodus 2:10), not his mother, Jochebed. (For accuracy’s sake: Bithiah’s name was actually Tharmuth according the apocryphal accounts, but most know her by this alternative name, so we will continue using it for familiarity.) As a result, there is a hole in time here where we don’t know Moses’ true Hebrew name. It would make sense, with as often as the Hebrew women named their babies in relation to a circumstance at the time of birth, that Jochebed might have originally named her little one something that responded to the context of the genocidal baby-hiding conditions surrounding this birth. Knowing a bit of background in how the Israelites typically went about naming their children (it was most often a deeply spiritual affair, wherein the name bestowed was a sort of promissory note or covenant between man and God), Moses’ first name might have been Azariah, meaning “one whom Jehovah aids,” or something to that effect. But apart from historically unverifiable traditions/legends and a few ancient, obscure, and likely unreliable commentators who proclaim to have the answer (none of which are in agreement with the other, by the way), the world will never know what moniker had originally been the promise over Moses’ head.
Immediately, from even this early on in his tale, Mr. Misfit can’t even be known by his true, covenantal name—the title that would have best defined his identity to the very people he would later lead to freedom. It’s not the most poetic of beginnings, all things considered. To a Jew of his time, no Egyptian nicknames, or second names given by daughters of royalty, speaks to the destiny of a child of Yahweh than that first title. In the case of our main character, he will only ever be known by what Bithiah—a pagan who probably wasn’t led by Yahweh in her decision—casually chose as his forever identity: Mr. Drawn from the Water.
In any case, Jochebed had no choice but to place her son’s fate in the hands of Jehovah, so into a waterproof basket goes our tiny misfit-in-training.
UP NEXT: In the Beginning, God…Carried Baskets?
[i] Cole, R. A., Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1973), 60.
[ii] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible: Volume 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.; 1997), 48.
[iii] Rawlinson, George, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, “Exodus 1,” last accessed on BibleHub July 12, 2021, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/exodus/1.htm.
[iv] Dr. Eisenberg, R. L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society; 1st ed., 2004), 14.