Okay, so back in Exodus 2:11, Moses is all grown up at the age of forty, and well-educated in “all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22–23). Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say so, a running assumption for many scholars and theologians in this area is that Moses had the same upbringing and training in the pharaoh’s court as any of his princelings, making him one hundred percent equal as a potential future pharaoh. Whether the Egyptian leaders would have given him the opportunity to take the throne or not—based not only on his wisdom, education, and governance skills but also how the culture felt about his race as a Jew by blood—is not recorded. Also, we remain completely in the dark regarding what the Hebrew slaves were hoping and praying for or expecting God to do with Moses on their behalf. For this reason, many academics have attempted (and some impressively so) to fill in the blanks. One possible scenario involves the idea that the Hebrews believed God saved Moses specifically to become the next pharaoh.
That politics in that region and time would have allowed a Hebrew to rule as king of the Egyptians doesn’t appear to be too hard to believe, considering Joseph, another Hebrew, had already arisen as viceroy (second only to the pharaoh in power) somewhere between approximately one and three centuries prior. However, since this is centuries after Joseph was prominent in the land, it could be that all the current Egyptians have only ever thought of their foreigners as worthy of being slaves while one lucky one was adopted into the palace, and maybe a Hebrew pharaoh isn’t as likely. (Also note that there isn’t any proof supporting the idea that the crown would descend through a daughter [Bithiah] of the pharaoh before it would a son, which is a consideration for the ancient world that makes Moses’ connection to the crown less likely as well.) But “likely” is not the box that the God of the Israelites lived in, so nothing political really mattered. It’s probable, all things considered, that the Hebrews saw the adoption of Moses by Bithiah as the beginning of their promise of delivery…and that this deliverance would come to them through Moses as pharaoh (or at least as advisor just under him). At this point in the story, he’s forty years old, and we do not know how much talk was occurring behind closed doors of the palace regarding whether this Israelite would be promoted soon, or how far up the ladder that promotion might reach.
What we do know, is that he is filthy rich, extremely powerful, well-educated, well-cultured, and walking tall when a sudden tragedy occurs.
This next part is stated in Scripture so quickly that it tends to create many questions. However, it’s a turning point in Moses’ entire existence, so we will take a minute to visit what’s actually happening. Let’s look at it in both Exodus, as remembered and documented by Moses, and later in Acts, as reiterated by Stephen in his bold address to the council that led to his stoning and the diaspora of the New-Covenant Jews:
And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11–12)
And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian: For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not. (Acts 7:23–25)
Let’s look at these last two verses again in the modern ESV (a translation that these authors find very reliable): “And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.” Right away, the motive is clear: Moses thought, when he was spotted killing a violent slave-driver, that his people would know he was driven by the responsibility of defending and freeing them from oppression. To reiterate: He thought it was obvious that this was his duty, and believed the people would’ve known that by now. Moses’ intent, his nature, according to everything in the language of the narrative up to this point, is not one of a murderer. In fact, Numbers 12:3 declares that, more than every other man upon the earth, he was known to be “meek” (gentle). We needn’t look further or deeper than this to see that Moses’ motive was not born out of anything devious, wicked, or vengeful. Discussions of premeditation are irrelevant since he just stumbled upon the scenario seconds before he reacted. Today’s court lingo has us all swirling a number of different death-related terms in our heads—“murder,” “manslaughter,” “homicide,” “first degree,” “second degree,” “felony” vs. “capital”—some of which have been historically applied to Moses because of the accusation in verse 14 (we’re getting to that).
Was the act, itself, the right thing to do? Certainly some scholars have taken that position, defending Moses and believing that even this death of the Egyptian was all a part of God’s plan (in part because that led to his fleeing to Midian for the next forty years of spiritual training). Others say that Moses’ heart was in the right place, but he acted impulsively, and therefore, this Egyptian’s death would not have been a part of God’s initial plan, though He was able to use Moses’ mistake. Still others call this a “murder,” believing that, although Moses was eventually rehabilitated and redeemed from it, he was guilty of a rage-kill. But as highly debated as this one moment is in Moses’ life for modern scholars, and for as clear as his “deliverer” motive is in Scripture, we are still left with a dramatic misfitism: Moses, by the time he would become known as the one who brought down the Ten Commandments with “Thou shalt not kill” right there on the tablets, will have already been known as the one who killed a man. Come on. Is that God using His anointed, got-it-together, textbook-perfection superhero? Or is that the picture of a misfit stumbling through trying to figure out how to even carry out what he feels God has asked for?
As mentioned earlier, this account in Acts seems clear on the fact that Moses only acted in righteous defense of his brethren…but if that were true, why did Moses look both ways before he killed the guy, proceed to bury the body in the sand, and then freak out and flee the territory when he knew he was going to get caught (Exodus 2:13–15)?
There appears to be a little wrinkle on the page here. Let’s iron it out.
As a quick disclaimer, we want to explain that these authors are not against admitting that Moses or any other Bible character may be guilty of murder. We have been referring to it up to this point as “murder,” and we have no quarrel with acknowledging biblical misfits who have committed crimes of this magnitude and still been used by God. In fact, what David was guilty of in the story of Bathsheba and Uriah was worse, because it documented a lengthy season of premeditation. We all know that God punished David for his crimes. Yet, don’t we also know that it wasn’t the end of David’s story and his use for God? Similarly, these authors don’t fear calling the kettle black. If Moses murdered a man, then he did, and we allow for that possibility. But Moses’ “misfitable” traits are frequently tied to this event, and in this particular book, we believe it’s important to break that down just a little so we can “see into and feel” the real man.
Rewinding the story to just before this happened, there is much that isn’t clear about the hours leading up to this death. For instance: Had there been other visits by Moses out and about to his people before this moment? The famous commentator, Albert Barnes, was pretty confident in his assessment of this: “The Egyptian princess had not concealed from him the fact of his belonging to the oppressed race, nor is it likely that she had debarred him from contact with his…mother and her family, whether or not she became aware of the true relationship.”[i] If Barnes’ take on the situation is accurate, Moses might have visited his family and friends tons of times. (This theory is also supported by the fact that Moses goes out to visit them two days in a row in this passage.) Somehow, though he most likely had some exposure to the oppression of Israel, he hadn’t ever been fully informed of the dramatic extent of it all before now. (Maybe the Hebrews would have acted as if they were in the presence of royalty and restrained themselves from bum rushing Moses with their woes? We don’t know for certain. We only know that it’s a) probable that he had some regular or semi-regular interaction with his people prior to this day, and b) he didn’t know just how bad their situation was.)
On this particular occasion, something happens that shows him the magnitude of the Hebrews’ oppression, as is captured by the somewhat vague string of words, “and looked on their burdens.” Some scholars say that this wording suggests a specific and intentional assessment of his people, whether he had visited casually before or not. This is the stance of Jamieson-Fausset-Brown: “[Moses] purposed to make a full and systematic inspection of their condition in the various parts of the country where they were dispersed…and he adopted this proceeding in pursuance of the patriotic purpose that the faith which is of the operation of God was even then forming in his heart.”[ii] Others have a simpler position, interpreting “looked on their burdens” to mean that he was out for a stroll when he inadvertently happened to see something he didn’t before and it affected him internally: “This phrase means more than ‘to see’. It means ‘to see with emotion,’”[iii] one commentary states.
Whatever this moment in Scripture is truly describing, Moses fully comprehends for the first time what his brothers and sisters of God are faced with, and then sees the Egyptian in the act of killing one of his brethren with a weapon that was probably the standard taskmasters’ “long heavy scourges, made of a tough pliant wood imported from Syria.”[iv] These two major shocks in a row plainly cause Moses to snap and intervene, and the result is the death of one of the pharaoh’s soldiers. But, might there be a clue in the Hebrew as to whether we should be referring to this today as “murder”?
The Hebrew naka is present several times in a row in these three verses. In Exodus 2:11, it’s translated “smiting” in the KJV; in 2:12, “slew”; and “smitest” in 2:13. The issue is that any one of these instances could refer to not only the act of killing, but also the act of striking or beating someone—cruel, perhaps, but not necessarily grammatically married to the premeditated intent to snuff out a life. Probably the most damning evidence that this kill was a murder and not accidental is what one man says to Moses the next day when Moses intervenes on two Hebrew men having a fight.
The day after he killed the slave-driver, Moses is apparently out and about nearby the Hebrews, and he happens upon a physical altercation. “Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?” Moses says, which can be reworded today to say, “Why are you beating up your friend?” The one who had started the fight responds, “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:13–14). Right here, in Scripture, in text that is supposed to be infallible, Moses is accused of “murder.” The Hebrew harag—here translated as “kill” and “killedst”—means “to murder,” and, well…that’s pretty clear, isn’t it?
But remember that this is not the text itself, the voice of God as Author, directly communicating to the reader that “murder” or “homicide” is what Moses is guilty of. It’s the text directly reporting one character’s accusation of another. If a Bible character were to say to another, “You’re ugly and your mama dresses you funny,” then the principle of the infallibility of Scripture requires that we believe the first person did say that to the other just as reported. We are not, however, required to believe that the second person was, in fact, ugly and his mother dressed him funny. Similarly, though an angry Hebrew man accuses Moses of murder, “murder” is not the verb that appeared in the story prior, when the Narrator’s voice, the Author’s voice, was explaining the events directly to the reader. As far as what the text of the Word did directly tell the reader regarding Moses’ guilt, it’s worthy of note that it uses naka—leaving the window open for interpreting all of this as an accident—instead of the less ambiguous harag.
In simpler terms, it could be that the Bible describes the following scenario: Moses had no intent to hurt anyone, and only wanted to rescue. He ran into the scene and initially struck a man in a righteous, noble act of brethren-defense, and, though it was unintentional, the Egyptian died as a result. Then, Moses was unfairly accused of murder by a disgruntled Hebrew (who probably isn’t impressed by their resident deliverer because he hasn’t yet rose up to lead them to freedom, or because he’s jaded by the fact that Moses would question him on beating up a man after killing one himself the previous day). This is a fair reading of Scripture, and for the most part has the most support in the academic world.
As to why he looked both ways first, it is only in the most modern translations that it says, “Moses looked around to make sure nobody was watching him” or, “Moses first made sure there were no witnesses.” In the Hebrew, the literal translation is, word for word, that Moses “turned thus thus, saw that no man, smite Egyptian,” or, Moses “turned thus and thus and saw no man, so he slew the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:12). The fact that his intent in looking both ways is even involved in the modern translations is a grievance. (One curious thought that garners almost no coverage in the academic world is why it can’t be interpreted as, “Moses looked around to see if anyone else was present who might intervene, and seeing that there was no man around who would, he killed the Egyptian in self-defense of his fellow Jew.” Despite this being a reasonable possibility in our opinion, not enough scholarly voices have addressed this interpretation to validate it here.) Antique commentaries are fairly unanimous that Moses wasn’t looking around to make sure there were no witnesses. Puritan theologian and world-famous commentator, Mathew Poole, said Moses’ glance back and forth was “not from conscience of guilt in what he intended, but from human and warrantable prudence.”[v] In other words, he was just being careful before he rushed in, and no further analysis is necessary. Poole’s faithful take on the entire murder incident is that this level of intervention was Moses’ right as it was his “Divine and special vocation to be the ruler and deliverer of Israel,” and that this death wasn’t even intended to be a secret in the first place, but instead as “a signal to make it evident to the people” that he was self-aware in this calling.[vi] In response to why Moses was described as being afraid when he found out he had been seen, Poole (and most others) believe this nervousness is linked to his punishment if the pharaoh found out, not in any shame over a perceived criminal act.[vii]
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Gill’s Exposition takes a similar stance as Poole’s, insisting that Moses’ looking around “did not arise from any consciousness of any evil he was about to commit, but for his own preservation, lest if seen he should be accused to Pharaoh, and suffer for it.”[viii] In other words, Moses believed that some higher moral law excused him of guilt, while he also knew that the law of the land (perhaps the Hammurabi’s Code) did not.
If this is the correct interpretation, then Moses looked side to side to make sure there weren’t any witnesses because he knew what he was about to do was considered murder on a purely secular level, though he internally felt no conviction about whether he had done right or wrong in the eyes of God as Israel’s deliverer. He then buried the body so he would not have to answer to a secular authority when he was, in his heart, acting on a justifiable higher moral authority. Assuming the body wasn’t found or the death wasn’t witnessed, Moses could secretly claim he had defended a Hebrew, as was his “vocation,” and nobody would be any the wiser. Now, he could sit and wait (still…) to be in line for the throne, upon which he would free his people. But later, when he was found out, he began to fear that he would have to answer to the secular authorities…and he had a lot to lose if pharaoh then took his life—including having to answer for why God’s prized deliverer was executed before any deliverance took place. This would make any normal human man, no matter how emotionally strong, worry to the point of fleeing the land; it was not just capital punishment that he feared, but the realization that the justice he dealt the Egyptian backfired because it was enacted prematurely (or somehow out of the timing or method God planned). As such, he would not only answer to God for the deliverance he failed to bring to the people, he would also answer to his people! Yeah…he was absolutely going to “fear” and say, “Oh no…Surely they know about my deed!” whether or not his deed felt morally wrong to him or not.
So there you have it: the most likely (and widest accepted) explanation behind Moses’ “murder” charge… But before we move on, we want to show you one last important (and fascinating!) thing…
Although the “life for a life” law (Exodus 21:24) hadn’t been written yet, the starkly similar law from the “Hammurabi’s Code” was in effect and had extreme influence over the Egyptian culture for about two centuries prior. Moses no doubt had familiarity with the idea that his life was forfeit if he was ever to be found guilty of murdering another Egyptian, and, for reasons just addressed, he wouldn’t have been inclined to put that to the test frivolously. This is enough to explain any potential “guilty maneuvers” or “suspicious activity” around this. But still, was this mere internal conviction? Or was there actually another pre-Mosaic Law binding the Hebrews to certain, absolute, and tangible moral regulation?
That depends… How much do you believe in Talmudic traditions?
For those who aren’t familiar with some of these Jewish terms, the Mishnah is the Jewish “compendium, largely legal, containing regulations and beliefs foundational of rabbinic Judaism and thus of all later Jewish thought.”[ix] This is the early collection of the “Oral Tradition” or the “Oral Torah” that served as a companion to the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—same as ours—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Talmud is sort of what “commentaries” are to us in the Christian world, except instead of being focused on the sixty-six canonical books of the Holy Bible as we know it, it’s a commentary of what is stated in the Mishnah.
According to Talmudic tradition, well before Moses was ever born, the “Noahide Law” was given to Noah by God in an act of Divine intervention around the time of the flood to ensure that there would be some basis of morality to govern the hearts of men for the soon-to-be repopulated human race. These laws are:
- Do not murder.
- Do not steal.
- Do not worship false gods.
- Do not practice sexual immorality.
- Do not eat the limb of an animal before it is killed.
- Do not curse God.
- Establish courts and brings offenders to justice.[x]
As it is believed that these laws were given to Noah (and also Adam before him), they are binding upon all humanity. Influenced by these laws, the writers of the Talmud acknowledge that “Do not murder” doesn’t sufficiently address what must be done in the case of an accident kill or something done in self-defense, so those issues were addressed as well, and oftentimes appear nearly identical to the same situations in the Mosaic Law. However, going a step further, we stumble upon a rodef, a late-Hebrew word with roots in Aramaic, describing a person who is in pursuit of another person with intent to murder.[xi] In other words, a person in the act of killing an innocent, but who has not yet succeeded…like the Egyptian slave driver in our story.
The Jewish law in this case does not just deal with self-defense. It states that if a rodef is carrying out a murder and a friend or bystander happens to witness it and intervene, just like Moses, he is exempt from punishment, even if the rodef dies in the process of defense. But actually, the Talmudic instruction doesn’t simply end there. According to the Babylonian Talmud in the “Sanhedrin” section, under subsection 72a–73a, a person in Moses’ position is obligated to save the innocent, even to the death of the rodef, if such a thing proves necessary. In other words, Moses would have been found guilty of criminal negligence if he had stood by and done nothing for his Hebrew brother… This would be a tricky situation, because the Egyptian was within his legal right to punish the slave, even unto death, while Moses was only protected by the law of the slaves—which would have required utmost adherence and obedience as unto God, while it didn’t dictate anything as far as pharaoh was concerned. If this is the position Moses was placed in, then he wouldn’t have had a choice but to rescue and flee, just as he did.
So the question then becomes whether the Talmudic traditions, tracing back to Adam, is acceptable enough to you readers to exemplify Moses from a “murder” charge according to the higher moral law of God. One argument against it is that many traditions could be synonymously titled “legends,” with origin stories that are simply unverifiable. There is never going to be any solid, irrefutable proof to back it up.
One argument for this Noahide Law tradition, however, is that something—be it through Adam, Noah, or someone else—existed that communicated to Israel at least the very basics of moral standards, and how to recognize what sin was, before this point. We believe this because, at this point in the Bible (and even well before tracing back to Adam), there is an attitude of recognition for at least a fundamental law or moral code. The acknowledgment of “sin” is proof enough that a set of rules exists to keep that sin accountable; i.e., the existence of sin implies the existence of law. A popular assumption is that after Adam, and until Mt. Sinai, there was no written law or code that the people could follow. But since sin angered God and people were held accountable to the wrath that would occur if they didn’t follow some kind of moral standard, survey says “something” was there from the time of Adam that helped the otherwise helpless human recognize sin and avoid God’s wrath. If not, then a lot of people incurred God’s wrath and they couldn’t have done a thing about it because they didn’t know any better (which is unfair and out of God’s character). And, since the Israelites couldn’t send out a text-blast or viral video at that time, the most reliable way to “spread the word” on whatever rules they had to live by was to make sure that their fundamental laws were written down.
It can’t be proven, but it’s a believable theory that there was some kind of law in place before the Mosaic Law. Could that document have been the Noahide Law with the “justifiable homicide” clause called the din rodef?
(We will let you draw your own conclusions on this one. This is a fascinating subject that could go on for thousands of pages, but we don’t want to overwhelm you. We hope that this was enough information to give you the “other side of the story,” as well as to provide you with some earlier cultural concepts of how the Jews would have felt in reading Moses’ story.)
Regardless of what ancient law, deliverance expectations, or internal conscience impulse that Moses may have been acting upon when he killed the Egyptian, we have looked at enough facts to conclude a responsible answer to our question of whether it was a justifiable act of defense, or murder. The verdict?
It was both…
(Geez… This guy is even a misfit in court! He just doesn’t belong anywhere!)
To the Egyptian courts, Moses would be seen as a traitorous killer. To the Jews, Moses would have been justified, if they only had known what it was exactly that took place. He might have even been viewed as a hero to Israel if they could have only understood his motive, which they didn’t (Acts 7:25)…and this part is tragic: There is at least one witness within the Hebrew people who accused Moses of murder, and for all we know, the majority of Israel would have been fed an inaccurate version of the story that paints Moses out as a cold-blooded, calculated killer.
To his people, he had failed.
The rumors and gossip on both sides likely built an insurmountably grave reputation about Mr. Murder, Mr. Thou Shalt Not Kill, the defunct deliverer who says one thing with his mouth and does another with his blood-covered hands. The disappointment who might have been, and then wasn’t, the man who would lead Israel to freedom.
Moses, Israel’s hope and Egypt’s pride, here donned the most ostentatious and brazen “misfit robe” to date in his life: Mr. Coward Fugitive…
UP NEXT: Courageously, He… Ran Away?
[i] Barnes, Albert, Barnes, Kindle locations 9494–9495.
[ii] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary, 282.
[iii] Cole, R. A., Exodus, 66.
[iv] Barnes, Albert, Barnes, Kindle locations 9497–9498.
[v] Poole, Matthew, Matthew Poole’s Commentary, “Exodus 2,” last accessed on BibleHub July 20, 2021, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/poole/exodus/2.htm.
[viii] Gill, John, Gill’s Exposition, “Exodus 2,” last accessed on BibleHub July 20, 2021, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/gill/exodus/2.htm.
[ix] Brooks, R., “Mishnah.” In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: Volume 4 (New York: Doubleday; 1992), 871.
[x] Eisenberg, R. L., The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (1st ed.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society; 2004), 637.
[xi] Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A., Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1977), 922.