Moses is also the traditional author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). And while he didn’t write the Ten Commandments, Moses did bring them down from Mount Sinai, laying the foundation for the Jewish faith. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Moses is considered one of the most important prophets to have ever lived.
In this article, we’re going to give an overview of who Moses was, what he did, and some of the big questions surrounding his life. Here’s what we’re covering:
- Important roles Moses played in the Bible
- When did Moses live?
- Moses’ story in the Bible
- Was Moses a real person?
Let’s start with the basics about who he was and what he did.
Important roles Moses played in the Bible
Moses is a central figure in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Together, these four books cover Moses’ life from birth to death, allowing us to see him in a wide range of roles. Each of these roles tell us a little more about this dynamic Old Testament character.
Moses was a member of Egyptian royalty
Moses wasn’t born into a royal family—but shortly after his birth, he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and he was raised as a member of Pharaoh’s household (Exodus 2:10). This position of honor likely came with a royal education. In the Book of Acts, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, asserted that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).
Moses was a fugitive
As a member of Pharaoh’s household, Moses lived a life of privilege. But he was still a Hebrew. And when he was about 40, Moses saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews, and he killed the Egyptian.
Being brought up in Pharaoh’s household didn’t give Moses immunity for murder, and Pharaoh tried to have him killed for what he’d done.
So Moses fled to a place called Midian (Exodus 2:15), where he settled down, married a woman named Zipporah, and had a son named Gershom (Exodus 2:21–22). Exodus simply calls this “a long period” (Exodus 2:23). During that time, Pharaoh died, and Moses’ crime was forgotten or dismissed (Exodus 4:19).
Moses was a prophet … the greatest in the Old Testament
God appointed Moses to speak for him, first to Pharaoh and then to the Israelites. He spoke with God’s authority, and he taught the Israelites what God desired, most notably by delivering them the famous Ten Commandments and allegedly writing the Pentateuch.
Of all the prophets, Moses was the only one who regularly met with God face-to-face.The Pentateuch closes by remarking on how no other prophet in the Old Testament came close to Moses’ legacy:
“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For 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
Since this part comes after the death of Moses, we can assume a scribe (or Joshua) wrote this, and that Moses wasn’t just declaring “I’m the best!” before signing off.
Moses was a mediator
One of Moses’ key roles was as a mediator between God and Israel. God had a special relationship with Moses, and God frequently spoke to him directly. The Israelites were also afraid of God—so afraid that they didn’t want to speak to God directly. So they asked Moses to speak to God instead:
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” —Exodus 20:18–21
Moses often wound up serving as a negotiator between God and his people, bringing the Israelites’ desires to God, and bringing God’s desires to the Israelites. At times, Moses even stayed God’s anger, convincing him to forgive the Israelites and hold back his punishment for their disobedience (Numbers 11:2, Numbers 14:19–20, Exodus 32:14).
Moses was a judge
As a prophet, Moses was God’s representative to the people of Israel. So whenever they had disputes, they turned to Moses to learn the will of God, and he sat as judge over every case. When Moses’ father-in-law Jethro visited from Midian, he immediately saw that Moses was taking on too much responsibility—it wasn’t sustainable—and proposed a new solution:
“He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.” —Exodus 18:25–26
Moses’ direct connection to God made him invaluable as a judge, but because he knew God’s will so well, he was able to teach others to serve the Israelites in this capacity.
When did Moses live?
The Bible often gives us clues to estimate when biblical people lived. Sometimes it names people whose lives are recorded in secular histories, or events that were recorded elsewhere. Or the date of the text itself gives a clue.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of context for when Moses lived. The Pentateuch doesn’t tell us who was Pharaoh in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
Eusebius of Caesarea, the father of church history, recorded the timeline of important biblical people and events in painstaking detail in his book, Chronicon. In a translation of this work, Jerome claimed Moses was born in 1571 BC. But this is pretty unreliable. While Eusebius had access to one of the greatest ancient libraries in the world (including many works which have been lost forever), and Jerome was a gifted scholar, their calculations are pretty unscientific.
Moses’ story in the Bible
The Bible mentions Moses more than 800 times. Nearly everything that happens in the Pentateuch involves him in some way. If he’s not doing something, he’s saying something, or else God is saying something to him.
The only people whom the Bible gives more airtime than Moses are Jesus and David.
Through Moses, God laid the foundation for pretty much everything else that happens in the Bible. He defined the Law, which helped the Israelites understand every aspect of their daily lives in terms of their relationship with God. He outlined religious rituals and practices which set the Israelites apart from other nations, which Orthodox Jews still follow today.
We’re not going to cover every mention of Moses in the Bible, but here are the big ones.
Moses’ origins: a fugitive from Pharaoh
Moses was born at an unfortunate time. The Israelites had been living peacefully among the Egyptians during the time of Joseph (one of Jacob’s sons who was favored by Pharaoh), but after Joseph’s death, a new Pharaoh saw the Israelites as a threat. He forced the Israelites to work as slaves, and eventually commanded his people:
“Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” —Exodus 1:22
And then Moses was born.
His mother hid him for three months, and when she couldn’t hide him anymore, she put him in a basket and hid it among the reeds in the Nile.
Ironically, Moses became Pharaoh’s adopted grandson. After his mother hid him in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him:
“Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’ she said.
Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?’
‘Yes, go,’ she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.’ So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” —Exodus 2:5–10
Exodus doesn’t specify how long Moses lived in Pharaoh’s household, but in the Book of Acts, Stephen (the first Christian martyr) tells us there were forty years between Exodus 2:10 and Exodus 2:11 (Acts 7:23). Stephen also makes a point of telling us that Moses “was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).
If Stephen’s account is correct, then Moses spent the first third of his life living as royalty.
Moses’ privileged lifestyle came to a grinding halt when he murdered an Egyptian taskmaster who he’d seen abusing a Jewish slave.
Those of you familiar with Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt may be tempted to assume this was all just an accident, because Moses is the good guy, right? Well, it wasn’t an accident. At all. Exodus says Moses checked to make sure no one was looking, then killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2:11–12).
You don’t accidentally bury the body.
While Moses apparently thought he was pretty discreet about all of this, I guess he forgot that there was a pretty obvious witness: the person he saved. Rather than seeing Moses as some sort of savior from the Egyptians, the Hebrews questioned if he might be willing to kill them as well (Exodus 2:13–14).
Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-22)
When he fled to Midian, Moses settled down, got married, and started a family. Then one day as he was tending his flock, “the angel of the Lord”—an ambiguous biblical figure some argue is Jesus—appears to him in a bush which “was on fire but it did not burn up” (Exodus 3:2).
This is the moment when God first calls Moses to save the Israelites and lead the exodus out of Egypt. God tells Moses his plan to humble Pharaoh and rescue his people, and Moses continually makes excuses for why he shouldn’t be part of that plan.
During this exchange, Moses asks God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3:13).
The question seems innocent enough, but it was pretty sly—because up until that point no one had ever heard God’s name.
So God told him. He famously replied, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
Eventually Moses sort of suggests that his poor public speaking skills will ruin God’s plan, then outright asks him to send someone else, so God decides to send Moses’ brother Aaron with him:
“Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’
The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’
But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.’
Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.’”
In this passage, God identifies himself and then outlines his plan. And from this moment on, Moses and Aaron spoke and acted on God’s behalf, executing his plan.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt
Ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful nations in the world. And the people of Egypt worshipped their own pantheon of gods—including Pharaoh himself. Like many powerful monarchs throughout history, Pharaoh was treated not just as royalty, but divinity.
Before Moses could lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he had to convince Pharaoh to let them go. But God didn’t just want to use Moses and Aaron to make a compelling argument. Moses’ appeal to Pharaoh was always meant to be a divine showdown, with the gods and powers of Egypt on one side, and the God of Israel on the other.
God told Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart, which gave him more opportunities to humble one of the most powerful rulers in the world and demonstrate his superiority over the gods of Egypt.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt is one of the more well-known Bible stories, and Moses played a key part in it. He was the primary messenger God used to administer his wrath upon Egypt for persecuting his people.
Some suggest that each of the Ten Plagues correlates to a specific Egyptian god and their domain. Each time Moses threatened Pharaoh with a plague, Pharaoh and the Egyptians had a god or gods they would’ve trusted to protect or oversee that aspect of Egyptian life.
Regardless of whether or not the plagues were that targeted, they demonstrated God’s power and authority over the gods of Egypt.
As the plagues went on, God began making a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and between the land of the Egyptians (and therefore the domain of their gods) and the land of the Israelites. The Israelites and Goshen (the land they dwelled within) were unaffected by the later plagues.
Here are each of the plagues:
- The Plague of Blood (Exodus 7:14–24)
The Egyptians depended on the flooding of the Nile to spread minerals and keep the land fertile. God told Moses to have Aaron strike the Nile with his staff, and the water turned into blood, which killed all the fish and made the water undrinkable.
- The Plague of Frogs (Exodus 7:25–8:15)
God had Moses tell Aaron (the plagues were basically like a game of telephone) to stretch out his hand, and so many frogs came out of the waters of Egypt that they “covered the land” (Exodus 8:6). The magicians replicated this, but only Moses was able to make the frogs leave, by praying to God.
- The Plague of Gnats (Exodus 8:16–19)
This time, Moses had Aaron stretch out his hand, strike the dust, and turn it into gnats. The magicians couldn’t copy the miracle (or curse?), and they told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).
- The Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:20–32)
In the fourth plague, God made a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Flies swarmed the Egyptians and ruin the land, but they left the Israelites and their land (Goshen) untouched.
- The Plague on Livestock (Exodus 9:1–7)
The fifth plague killed all the livestock of the Egyptians, but left the Israelites’ livestock untouched.
- The Plague of Boils (Exodus 9:8–12)
This plague struck the Egyptians with boils, and the magicians couldn’t even stand before Moses as a result (Exodus 9:11).
- The Plague of Hail (Exodus 9:13–35)
In the seventh plague, God gave a warning to bring people and animals indoors, giving the Egyptians a chance to listen to him. Then he called down “the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation” (Exodus 9:24). Hail devastated the land and killed every person and animal that had been left out in the open—except for in Goshen.
- The Plague of Locusts (Exodus 10:1–20)
The eighth plague filled the Egyptians’ houses with locusts and finished off any crops that hadn’t been destroyed by the hail.
- The Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21–29)
The ninth plague brought total darkness on the land for three days. Interestingly, the Israelites apparently still had light in Goshen (Exodus 10:23).
- The Plague on the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1–10)
The final plague was likely a judgment of Pharaoh himself, who the Egyptians believed to be a god. In Exodus 1, a different Pharaoh ordered Egyptian midwives to kill the sons of Israel. In Exodus 11, God’s final plague killed the firstborn son of every Egyptian family—human or animal—including Pharaoh’s.
This was the breaking point for Pharaoh, where he finally gave in to Moses’ demands and let the Israelites go.
Moses Parts the Red Sea (Exodus 13:17–14:31)
As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (with the help of a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire), Pharaoh changed his mind (classic Pharaoh) and sent out his chariots to slaughter them. The angel of God stalled Pharaoh and his army along with the pillar of cloud, and meanwhile, Moses held out his staff over the Red Sea, and God sent a strong wind to part it.
God wanted to demonstrate his power again, this time delivering the Israelites from an entire army:
“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.’ Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” —Exodus 14:21–31
This miracle solidified Moses’ position as the leader of God’s people, and showed the Israelites that they had nothing to fear so long as God was with them. Unfortunately, even after all this, the Pentateuch records numerous instances where the Israelites failed to trust Moses, and by extension, God.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–21)
The Ten Commandments are one of the most widely-recognized parts of the entire Bible. These ten “you shall” and “you shall not” rules laid the foundation for Jewish life, culture, and law, and for many people today, they’re still believed to be at the heart of all morality.
In Exodus, Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, and there, God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, along with all the laws of the covenant he formed with Israel (Exodus 31:18, Exodus 32:15–16). He gave these tablets to Moses, and Moses brought them down to the Israelites.
But, oops, the Israelites broke the very first commandment before God was even done writing, and Moses broke the tablets in a fit of rage (Exodus 32:19). After he had a chance to calm down—and *cough* commanded the Levites to slaughter 3,000 of the Israelites (Exodus 32:27–29)—he remade the tablets.
Interestingly, Exodus 34:1 seems to indicate God would write the tablets as he had before, but then Exodus 34:27–28 tells us that Moses wrote the Ten Commandments himself.
In any case, here are the Ten Commandments in the order they appear in Exodus 20:1–17:
- You shall not have any other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
- You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
- Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
In writing (or at least handing off) the Ten Commandments, Moses had an immeasurable influence on the morality of not just the Jewish people, but the world. And the Ten Commandments still influence the way many people think about right and wrong today.
The Golden Calf (Exodus 32)
Moses was on Mount Sinai for a long time. Long enough that the Israelites weren’t even sure if he was coming back down. They told his brother Aaron:
“Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” —Exodus 32:1
Having carried out several of God’s signs and wonders himself in Egypt, spoken to Pharaoh on behalf of God, and directly witnessed Moses perform numerous other miracles, Aaron naturally obliged. He told them to bring all the gold jewelry (most of which they’d probably plundered from Egypt), and melted it into a golden calf.
That alone would’ve made God pretty mad. He was literally in the middle of telling Moses to tell the Israelites not to do this. But then here’s the kicker: when the calf was finished, Aaron said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
It was a big no-no.
But what happens next still feels like a pretty extreme reaction. Moses comes down from the mountain, smashes the tablets which God himself wrote on, and then melts the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water, makes the Israelites drink it, and commanded the faithful to slaughter everyone else (which wound up being about 3,000 people).
Interestingly, Moses says God said to kill these people, but the Bible doesn’t actually record that God said this. And all through Exodus the Bible is constantly telling us, “God said ___ to Moses. Then Moses said ___ to ___.”
But here we just have:
“Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”” —Exodus 32:27
Just before this, Moses talked God out of pushing the reset button and wiping out all the Israelites (Exodus 32:10-14). It’s possible that this violence was part of the negotiation that we didn’t see, or else perhaps Moses believed that sparing those who were not “for the Lord” (Exodus 32:26) would ultimately lead to a repeat of the mistake, which God may not be as willing to overlook.
Either way, this puts Moses at the center of one of the more gruesome passages in the Bible.
Let’s look at some other stuff he did in the Bible.
Israel rebelled against Moses (Numbers 14)
Nearly everything Moses did was met with grumbling, resistance, or outright rebellion from the Israelites. They complained about Moses’ leadership decisions. They complained about their circumstances. And their frustrations with God were often brought to Moses’ feet.
Every step of the way on their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites groaned that they had been better off as slaves. (This was one of their favorite lines of complaint.) With every new obstacle, there was some faction that wanted to throw in the towel and give up. Even after regularly witnessing the miracle of God’s provision in the desert and seeing his power displayed against Pharaoh, they still didn’t trust Moses to lead them, and they didn’t trust God’s ability or desire to deliver them.
This serial grumbling culminates in the book of Numbers, when Moses leads Israel right to the edge of the promised land. Shortly after scouting out the land God had promised them, the Israelites decided conquering the promised land looked so hard that they really should just turn around and head for Egypt. They even went so far as to propose selecting a new leader to take them back (since Moses was obviously committed to going to the promised land), and they prepared to stone Moses and Aaron.
This was the last straw. It was the tenth time they’d disobeyed and tested God (Numbers 14:21–23). God wanted to wipe them all out and start a new nation with Moses, but Moses persuaded him to forgive the Israelites instead. Still, as a consequence for this act of rebellion, the Israelites were forced to wander the desert for 40 years—until those who rebelled grew old and died. They rejected the land, so it would be given to their children instead (Numbers 14:31).
Moses Strikes the Rock (Numbers 20:10–13)
During the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, God provided food, water, and protection. Still, the Israelites constantly doubted if God would give them what they needed to survive—often grumbling that they would’ve preferred to just stay slaves in Egypt.
In one such instance, Moses made a grave mistake. But scholars disagree about what exactly that mistake was, and the Bible doesn’t make it very clear to us. The Israelites complained that there was no water, so Moses and Aaron turned to God.
“Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.’
So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’” —Numbers 20:6–12
Some argue that Moses publicly disobeyed God’s instruction. He told Moses to speak to the rock, and he decided to hit it instead. Speaking to the rock would’ve created an opportunity to show that even the stones obey God’s word.
Others focus on the fact that Moses said, “must we bring you water out of this rock?” He framed it as though he and Aaron would be the ones to provide for the Israelites, not God himself.
Another explanation is that Moses was angry with the Israelites for being thirsty, and that was his sin. Or that he struck the rock twice when he should’ve struck it once.
Whatever Moses did, the mistake had devastating consequences: he and Aaron weren’t allowed to enter the promised land. It probably felt as though Moses’ life’s work was swept out from under him, and his goal was placed forever out of his reach.
Interestingly, Moses repeatedly blamed Israel for what happened here (Deuteronomy 1:37, Deuteronomy 3:26).
The Death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1–12)
God let Moses lead the Israelites to the edge of the promised land, where he could see but not experience the fulfillment of the promise. And then, at 120 years old, Moses died.
But the book doesn’t end there. Despite the fact that Moses is the traditional author of the Pentateuch, it records his death and what happened afterward.
“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms,as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not crossover into it.”
And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.
Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” —Deuteronomy 34:1–12
Many people assume that Joshua took over the writing here, since he was Moses’ aide (Exodus 33:11) and took over as leader of the Israelites after Moses’ death (Joshua 1:1–2). But that begs the question: when did Joshua start writing? And how much did he write, anyways?
Many scholars argue that these notes were added to the Torah centuries after Moses and Joshua died. So did other people write parts of the Pentateuch, too? Was it all a collaborative process?
Was Moses even real?!
Was Moses a real person?
Aside from the Pentateuch, which Moses allegedly wrote, there’s no record of his existence. In fact, there’s very little evidence to support many of the events involving Moses—most notably, the Exodus itself. The Egyptians were certainly capable of giving us a record of what happened during this period, even if it was tainted by their bias against Israel or even ignored any spiritual or cultural conflict.
But they didn’t say anything about any of it. And unfortunately, neither did anyone else.
There’s almost no historical or archaeological evidence of Moses or the things he allegedly did. 600,000 men accompanied Moses out of Egypt, plus women and children (Exodus 12:37), but their journey through the desert left no trace. Some scholars estimate there could’ve been as many as two or three million Israelites in the exodus.
We don’t even know when these events supposedly took place or who Pharaoh was. The Bible often gives us names of important rulers, but here we just have a title.
That said, the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean something didn’t happen, and the fact that we haven’t uncovered evidence doesn’t mean evidence doesn’t exist. And some argue that Mount Sinai hasn’t been excavated enough for the lack of evidence to be particularly concerning—especially if we’re looking for evidence in a desert from more than three millennia ago.
It’s also possible that some details, such as the scope of the exodus and number of people, were added by a much later source. Some scholars of various traditions assume the exodus did take place—and that a person named Moses played a role—but on a much smaller scale. William Dever, an archaeology professor at Lycoming College, argues:
“When it comes to Moses, again, you have a really larger-than-life portrait. I doubt that the miracles attributed to him ever took place. I don’t think he led three million Israelites out of Egypt in an exodus across the Sinai. I don’t think he was the founder of Israelite religion, but I think there was a Moses. I argue, and I think some other archaeologists will, too, there was a small exodus group—not millions of people, but perhaps a few thousand—who did escape from slavery in Egypt.”
In Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Bible scholar Dewey Beegle suggests:
“. . . the evaluation of the evidence and counterclaims in the scholarly debate about Moses seems to favor, as the most probable conclusion, a modified form of the Moses story. In response to Yahweh’s call in Midian, Moses—the Hebrew with the Egyptian name—led his people out of Egypt, constituted them as a people of God by mediating the covenant at Mt. Sinai, interceded for them during the desert wanderings, and brought them to Moab where he died.”
But others find the personality of Moses—with his glaring flaws and believable aversion to leadership—to be too compelling to be myth or legend. In A History of Israel, J. Bright argues Moses had to have been a real person:
“Over all these events there towers the figure of Moses. Though we know nothing of his career save what the Bible tells us, the details of which we have no means of testing, there can be no doubt that he was, as the Bible portrays him, the great founder of Israel’s faith. Attempts to reduce him are extremely unconvincing. The events of exodus and Sinai require a great personality behind them. And a faith as unique as Israel’s demands a founder as surely as does Christianity—or Islam, for that matter. To deny that role of Moses would force us to posit another person of the same name!”
The bottom line: at this time, we can’t definitively prove or disprove his existence as a real, historical figure. For some, it doesn’t matter—even if he wasn’t real, the end result (the formation of Israel, God’s covenant with the Jews, and the Law) is what’s important.
It’s a pretty big question mark. But unfortunately, we may never know if Moses was a real person, a legend, or a blend of the two.
However, the Old and New Testament authors (and Jesus himself) talk about the Jewish religion as though it came from a figure named Moses—and for many people of faith, that’s all the evidence necessary. And even if you’re skeptical about whether or not the man described in the Bible was “real,” the legacy of Moses remains.
The greatest prophet who ever may have lived
Regardless of if Moses was a man or a myth, the words attributed to him have had an immeasurable impact on the world. Three major world religions—including the two largest ones (Christianity and Islam) trace their roots back to Moses.
And even if Moses himself wasn’t a real, living, breathing human being, the Law he allegedly recorded is very real—and it’s the foundation of the rest of the Old Testament. And like other prominent biblical figures, Moses serves as a reminder that God will use whomever he wishes to accomplish his goals.