Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll travel through portions of the book of Exodus. We will take a leisurely walk through our targeted readings, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop. “Between Discussions” pages summarize the portions of Exodus that we will pass by.
This guide provides everything you need to explore these portions of Exodus in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what the words of Exodus mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch your group into fruitful discussion, helping you to both explore Exodus for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of Exodus. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with the book of Exodus. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what the words of Exodus mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what Exodus has meant to others so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “What’s Happened” and “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. In the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the entire text of Exodus that is targeted in the weekly sessions, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95).
Israel’s Deliverance—and Ours
The book of Exodus surely ranks high on the list of most exciting pieces of literature ever written. The account has all the elements of a great drama: conflict, emotion, suspense, heroism. A ragtag group of people, under the somewhat reluctant leadership of one of their own, flees from their enslavement by a cruel oppressor. God opens a pathway through the sea, saving them from seemingly certain annihilation, while the army of their pursuers is devastated by the returning waters. Finding themselves in a bleak desert, the motley crowd of former slaves is immediately thrust into a crash course on wilderness survival. Often disgruntled at the growing pains of their newly won freedom, they enter a process of transformation, becoming a nation covenanted to God, challenged to obey the laws God writes for them on stone tablets.
Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille and DreamWorks producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who brought, respectively, The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt to the screen, were not the first to see the dramatic potential of the book of Exodus’s narrative of the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt. More than a century before Christ, a Jewish playwright named Ezekiel (not the Old Testament prophet) wrote a play based on the book in the style of the Greek tragedies. The drama included an eyewitness account of the miracle at the Red Sea by a surviving member of the Egyptian army:
God was their defense, for when they reached the farther shore a mighty wave gushed forth hard by us, so that one of us in terror cried, “Flee back before the hands of the Most High. To them he offers assistance, but to us, most wretched men, he works destruction.” The sea-path flooded, all our company was lost.
A millennium later, a Christian poet recast the story in the form of an Anglo-Saxon epic:
Then Moses spoke with a loud voice before the multitude: “Look now, dearest of people, with your eyes and behold a marvel! The waves rise up; the waters form a rampart-wall. The sea is thrust aside. . . . Well I know Almighty God has shown you mercy. Most haste is best now, so that you may escape the clutch of foes, since God has reared a rampart of the red sea-streams.”
Dramatic as it is, however, Exodus is much more than entertainment. The book’s events form the foundations of the faith of both Jews and Christians. References to God’s leading the Israelites from bondage to freedom—statements such as “God brought Israel out of Egypt with his powerful hand and outstretched arm”—occur more than seventy-five times throughout the Old Testament. The Exodus—the Greek term means “departure” or “going out”—continues to echo in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Exodus was God’s greatest act of deliverance in the Old Testament, the paradigm of salvation. Through the Exodus, God freed the Israelites from bondage, established a relationship with them, and prepared them to live together as a people. Thus the Israelites’ exodus, with their subsequent reception of a covenant and law at Mount Sinai, is the watershed in Jewish history. Jews view everything in their history from the standpoint of these saving events. From this perspective, the events of the Exodus are not merely occurrences of the distant past but living realities that remain ever present, as each generation hands down the memory to the next with the assurance that the God of the Exodus still acts today. The principal Jewish feast, Passover, commemorates Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Celebrated year after year, the Passover meal is a means of remembering and reliving these defining events.
Israel’s deliverance from Egypt holds an essential place in the history not only of Jews but of Christians as well. God’s promise to rescue humankind from the forces of sin and alienation, first recorded in the book of Genesis, unfolds in the story of the Exodus. This story of salvation is one story, and the faith of Jews and Christians alike is rooted in these saving actions of God. Thus, as Christians, we share the Passover perspective of the Jews, our elder brothers and sisters in faith. But we celebrate a further deliverance, one we recognize as the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation: Christ’s freeing all men and women from sin and death through his death and resurrection. Jesus himself linked Passover to his passing over from earthly to risen life. In a radiant vision of himself that he granted to his disciples, in which he appeared with Moses and Elijah, he conversed about “his departure,” literally his exodus, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). St. Paul also spoke of Jesus’ death and resurrection in terms of the Exodus: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Thus each Easter is a celebration of the Christian Passover. (“Paschal” comes from pascha [pas-ká], the Aramaic word for “Passover.” In many European languages, the correspondence between Passover and Jesus’ death and resurrection is reflected by using a form of this word as the name of Easter. In Slavic-speaking countries, for instance, Easter is called Pascha; in France it is called Paques.)
From the Christian point of view, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt foreshadowed what God was going to accomplish through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This fits with the Church’s approach to the Old Testament. From its earliest days, the Church has viewed the Old Testament as the record of God’s unfolding the first steps of a plan of salvation fulfilled in Christ. St. Basil, for example, one of the great teachers of the Church’s early period, explained that a person, happening, or other detail in an Old Testament book may function as “a pictorial representation of things expected, an anticipatory indication of the future.”
Thus, the early Christians recognized many features of the Exodus story as having dual levels of meaning. On the first level, the events show God rescuing the Israelites so that he might draw them into a relationship with him. On the second level, the actions in Exodus point forward to God’s greatest action, accomplished through his Son, Jesus.
One ancient Christian author gave this explanation of the relationship between Passover in the Old Testament and Christ’s death and resurrection in the New Testament: “In an imperfect and transitory way, the images of the past prefigured the perfect and eternal reality which has now been revealed.” For example, God’s sparing the people of Israel from death on the night of the Passover, when he brought death on the Egyptians, is a prefigurement of God’s sparing us from eternal destruction through Jesus’ death, which reconciles us with God. The lamb eaten at Passover prefigures Christ, the Lamb of God; the Passover lamb’s blood on the doorposts of the Israelites’ houses, which brought them safety, is an image of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, which preserves us from eternal death by removing our sins.
Because of this connection between Old Testament and New Testament events, Exodus speaks to us not only about God’s actions for Israel long ago but also about God’s activity in our lives as followers of Christ. The rescue of the Israelite slaves speaks to us in a figurative way of God’s saving love for us in Christ. The means by which God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness remind us of the sacraments of the Church, through which Christ makes himself present to us. We undergo an immersion into Christ’s death and life through the water of baptism. Above all, God’s provision of manna offers us an image of the Eucharist, the heavenly bread by which we are nourished—Christ’s body and blood. Thus, as we read about how God rescued his people Israel, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us deeper insight into our own personal salvation history. We can ask ourselves how we have experienced being rescued from the grip of sin, how we have discovered the personal presence of Jesus as he lives with us in the new covenant he has made through his death and resurrection.
From before the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition held that Moses was the author of Exodus, as well as of the rest of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). For centuries this was also the general view among Christians. Now it is widely recognized that Exodus was composed over a long period of time and may not have been put into its final form until around the fifth century b.c., some eight centuries after Moses—although Moses may have written portions of it (17:14; 24:4; 34:27; all citations in this booklet refer to Exodus unless otherwise noted). The tradition of Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch does, however, reflect Moses’ central role in the formation of the Israelite people.
Over a period of several hundred years, the nucleus of the book’s narrative—the departure from Egypt, the desert journey, the covenant and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai—was communicated in oral traditions and, gradually, written documents. Successive generations modified the early accounts to express later experiences and their growing understanding of God. The process of editing has left so little direct evidence in the book that scholars can only make conjectures about who actually composed it. In any case, various traditions are interwoven in the book, reflecting different stages in Israel’s life as a nation. The work of poets, lawyers, historians, and priests is evident in the variations of literary style in Exodus.
An understanding of this editorial process helps to explain the repetitions and inconsistencies that are noticeable in the final text of Exodus. Rather than eliminating all these features, the editors retained the variations in the traditions to be faithful to the memories and accents of each. The diversity of the traditions strengthens the power and presentation of the book. Despite the varied materials that the authors drew together, the final version of Exodus achieves a masterful continuity. The story line progresses chronologically from the death of Joseph, through Israel’s oppression and deliverance, to the people’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai and the giving of the law.
An understanding of the process that produced Exodus is also helpful for dealing with questions about the historical nature of the book. The authors of Exodus did not have the kinds of written sources that modern historians can draw on. Rather, they had old, probably oral, traditions to work from. Over time, the reports of the events had assumed a form that dealt flexibly with historical details in order to highlight God’s presence in the historical events. The authors of Exodus wove together these somewhat legendary narratives with liturgical instructions, moral teaching, and other material. The resulting synthesis is quite different from anything a modern historian would produce.
Can we expect the historical details in Exodus to have the same kind of accuracy as those in modern history books? No, but that does not mean that Exodus is not true. The truth of the authors’ work has to be evaluated in terms of how and what they were trying to communicate. The authors were not trying to write a modern history book. They set out to convey the acts by which God saved the Israelites and made them into a people, thus revealing the nature of God and the kind of relationship he wishes to have with people. The authors interpreted the Exodus events as God’s intervention on behalf of the oppressed Israelites. If we ask whether this portrait of God and of his intentions for his people are true, the answer is an emphatic yes.
We may wonder, of course, exactly what historical events lie behind the narrative of Exodus. On this point, there are lively debates among scholars. Some identify the pharaoh during the time of Israel’s enforced labor and the Exodus as Rameses II, who reigned through most of the thirteenth century b.c. Archaeological excavations indicate that Rameses II undertook vast building projects in the Nile Delta using the slave labor of many resident foreigners. The Exodus may have taken place around 1200 b.c. Egyptian sources do not mention the Israelites in Egypt. But government scribes would hardly have been interested in the doings of a single group of slaves, particularly when the outcome was an embarrassment to the king.
No ancient sources outside the Bible confirm Exodus’s account of the Israelites in the wilderness. But the most fundamental evidence that a historical core lies at the heart of the narrative of Israel in the wilderness is simply the existence of Israel as a people. Some events must have occurred to bring into existence this people who believed themselves to have been invited by God into a covenant with him, with a way of life expressed in the Mosaic law. The best explanation for the existence of Israel is the account that Exodus provides: slaves who escaped from Egypt perceived their experience as an act of God; they then experienced God revealing himself to them in the wilderness of Sinai, drawing them into a relationship with him.
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 How recently did your family come to this country?
? I’m an immigrant myself.
? My grandparents were immigrants who came here and struggled to make good.
? My family has been in this country as long as any of us can remember.
? I know little about my family’s history but would like to learn more about it.
2 Have you ever lived in another country or moved to an unfamiliar city? Did you feel accepted there? How did you adapt to your new surroundings?
3 What are some of the social evils you are concerned about in the world today? Make a short list and hold on to it for later in the discussion.
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: Exodus 1:1–2:10
Good Old Days
1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7 But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
Life Gets Tough
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Hey, There’s a Baby in That Basket!
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Examine all the statements that describe Pharaoh’s attitude and actions toward the Israelites. What picture of Pharaoh would you draw from these statements? What does this indicate about the seriousness of the Israelites’ situation?
2 The Egyptians’ policies against the Hebrews develop in stages. How many stages can be distinguished in this reading? As the Egyptians’ policies become harsher, do they also become more successful?
3 In 1:17, what does the word feared mean? What was the midwives’ attitude toward God? toward Pharaoh’s decree?
4 Identify all the women who play a role in this reading. What trait(s) do they have in common?
5 Why do you think Pharaoh’s daughter defied her father’s orders?
6 What indications does this reading give that God is concerned for the Israelites?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise, go on to “Questions for Application.”
In Hebrew, the book that we call Exodus is named for its first words—“These are the names” (ve’elleh shemot). These same words occur in Genesis (Genesis 46:8). In both instances, the words introduce a list of those who came to Egypt with Jacob. This repetition serves to connect the two books, highlighting the continuity of God’s action from one period to the next. Throughout the Bible, God is unfolding a great plan for the good of men and women—a plan that ultimately comes to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Genesis describes the creation of the world and tells how the first humans refused to obey God, bringing unhappiness on themselves and their descendants. Then Genesis recounts how God initiated a plan to restore people’s relationship with him. The first phase of the plan involved a family: Abraham and Sarah, their son, Isaac, and his wife, Rebekah, followed by their son Jacob, his wives, and their twelve sons (named in 1:2–5). Genesis focused on the family circle. In Exodus this family will move out into the wider arena of world history. The great family leaders of earlier generations will now be followed by a great deliverer and lawgiver, Moses. The circumstances of his birth form the beginning of the book.
Jacob and his family originally came to Egypt to find relief from famine. God assured Jacob: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there” (Genesis 46:3). Once in Egypt, the family prospered under the protection of Jacob’s son Joseph, who had risen to high rank in the Egyptian government. Jacob’s descendants thrived and grew in the land to which they had come as refugees (1:7). Thus God kept his promise to Jacob—and his earlier promise to Abraham: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Genesis 22:17).
God had also given Abraham a hint that a shadow would fall on his descendants, along with an assurance that he would intervene on their behalf. “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13–14). The prediction of distress is also now fulfilled, as Abraham’s descendants find themselves in a brutally degrading and life-threatening situation. But knowing the rest of God’s promise, we may expect that God will hear their desperate cries and provide a solution to their situation.
“Pharaoh” was not a personal name but simply a way of referring to the kings of Egypt; in Egyptian it means “great house” or “palace.” Exodus never speaks of the Egyptian king by his personal name. This impersonal representation makes it easy to see Pharaoh in the Exodus account as a faceless symbol of oppression. Pharaoh represents the human and spiritual forces, including Satan, that enslave humankind. Indeed, the entire story that is about to unfold can be read on both a literal and a symbolic level. On the literal level, it speaks about the plight of the Israelites, who lived in Egypt as slaves under a cruel tyrant. On the symbolic level, it speaks about all of us, who, apart from God’s grace, are slaves to sin. Looking at the story from a different angle, Pharaoh’s namelessness makes it possible for us to see in him a symbol of something in ourselves, of our dark tendencies to act at times as Pharaoh did, with blindness to God’s will for us.
The book of Exodus will describe a struggle between Israel’s God and Pharaoh, who was worshiped as a god by his subjects. At the outset, Pharaoh seems far the stronger. He appears to exercise unlimited power: he imposes slavery and orders genocide. In light of his power, the Israelites’ situation seems hopeless. Their God seems powerless or absent. God, however, sets in motion a plan to raise up a liberator. The baby Moses is put in a basket—the same Hebrew word was used for Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:14). Like Noah’s boat, Moses’ basket is God’s instrument of salvation from the waters. The meaning given to Moses’ name, “drawn from the water,” speaks of God’s saving power. As we will see, it will be through Moses that the people of Israel will gain freedom and enter into a covenant with God. Through the baby in the basket, God will demonstrate who is really Lord.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 When the pressure was on, the midwives risked their lives to preserve the Israelite babies. When have you felt pressured to do wrong—for example, to cheat or lie or to close your eyes to injustice? Have you ever been able to bring justice into an unjust situation? What gives a person the motivation to make the right choices and act courageously in such situations?
2 When have you suffered from unreasonable demands by other people? Are you in such a situation right now? Do you see any sign that God knows your needs and is already at work to help you?
3 Pharaoh’s daughter rescued the baby Moses. When have you been rescued by someone?
4 When Moses’ mother and sister placed him in the basket, they could do nothing more to save him; they could only trust God to act. What situation in your life might God be asking you to place trustingly in his hands?
5 The Israelites came as strangers in need to Egypt. Who are the newcomers in your city or parish or workplace? How could you reach out to them and offer friendship and help?
6 Do you ask God to bring justice to situations where you see oppression and exploitation? Think of some ways you might act personally to improve or change some of them. How can you stir up your faith in God’s love and power as you pray for these situations?
7 For personal reflection: Like Pharaoh in his fears of the Israelites (1:8–10), are you afraid that someone else’s good fortune will hinder your own? Have such feelings tempted you to act unjustly toward that person? How can you handle these feelings constructively?
Most Bible stories tell only the bare facts. As you read a story, give it “flesh and blood” in your imagination. Picture yourself as part of the scene. Visualize what you would be seeing and hearing. Try to see and hear not only the words and actions of Bible persons, but the tone of their voices, facial expressions, bodily responses.
Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use one of these approaches—or create your own!
♦ Invite participants to briefly share a need they have for God’s help. Then let each person pray for the need of the person to their right. Close your time together with an Our Father.
♦ Let each participant pray for a social problem or evil apparent in the world today. After each concern is offered in prayer, let the whole group respond, “Come to our rescue, Lord, and save your people.” When the group has finished praying, end with an Our Father.
Saints in the Making Way Down in Egypt’s Land
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
Through the centuries, the Israelites’ oppression under their ruthless taskmasters in Egypt became a symbol of many forms of bondage and injustice suffered by human beings. Many Negro spirituals—religious songs popular among slaves in the American South—expressed African Americans’ yearning for freedom as well as their longing for heaven. To men and women familiar with backbreaking work and lashings, these songs imparted hope. “Go Down, Moses” was a particular favorite.
When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
Chorus: Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh, To let my people go.
No more shall they in bondage toil, Let my people go,
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil, Let my people go. Chorus
According to some former slaves, Harriet Tubman was the Moses of this song. Tubman made her own escape from slavery in 1849. Hiding by day and following the North Star at night, she reached the free state of Pennsylvania. “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person, now that I was free,” she recalled. “There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Once free, Tubman determined to rescue as many other slaves as possible. “To this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also,” she later said. “I would make a home for them in the North and, the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there.”
During the decade before the Civil War, Tubman made nineteen journeys back into “Egypt’s land”—the American South—and led more than three hundred slaves to freedom through the network of helpers called the Underground Railroad. By God’s grace, she declared, “I never ran my ‘train’ off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
It would be hard to write Moses’ biography with the scant information the Bible offers about his family background and education. We are told little more of his mother and father than their names—Jochebed and Amram (6:20; Numbers 26:59)—and that they belonged to the tribe of Levi and had at least two other children, Aaron and Miriam. Nothing more is told of Moses’ parents in the Bible, except that Jochebed became the paid wet nurse for her son Moses until he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (perhaps at three years of age—compare 2 Maccabees 7:27) and taken into her household (2:9–10; Acts 7:21). Ironically, Pharaoh, after ordering the extermination of Hebrew male babies, ended up with one as his adopted grandson—though we might wonder whether, in such a great household, he was even aware of the child.
Exodus gives no information about Moses’ adolescence, though St. Stephen conveys a tradition according to which Moses was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). The abilities that emerge later in Moses’ life suggest that his instruction included religious, civil, and military matters. Quite likely the education he gained at the Egyptian court contributed to his being so knowledgeable and formidable in the confrontations to come with his adoptive grandfather’s successor.
Because Moses was raised apart from his community, his awareness of his Hebrew background didn’t have a crucial effect on him until he reached midlife. “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites” (Acts 7:23). It was then that he first took action against his people’s oppression, murdering an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Consequently, he fled from Pharaoh’s wrath (2:11–15; Acts 7:24–29).
Moses settled in Midian (probably located in the Sinai Peninsula), where he married and became a shepherd (2:15–22; 3:1). We can well imagine that during these long years he matured in character. But we might also wonder whether he thought of his relatives back in Egypt. By naming his son Gershom—in Hebrew ger means “resident alien”—Moses poignantly recalled that he was “an alien residing in a foreign land” (2:22). Perhaps he daydreamed about visiting his own people and seeing how they were doing. It is not likely, however, that he envisioned himself coming to their rescue. After all, what could one man do against the strength of Egypt?
Forty years passed (Acts 7:30, not the book of Exodus, provides this timeline). Then, one day while Moses was herding his sheep, he saw a bush burning but not consumed by the flames. What did this strange sight mean? Eighty years old, Moses was about to be drawn into God’s plan for delivering his people (2:23–25).
Moses’ story anticipates the story of Jesus in many ways. Both were born into a people who were suffering under repressive rule, the Israelites oppressed by Pharaoh and the Jews of Palestine by the Roman Empire. As babies, both escaped mass infanticides intended to eliminate all the males born in their age group (Matthew 2:13–18). Exodus tells nothing of Moses’ youthful years; the Gospels tell nothing of Jesus’ boyhood, other than a single incident among the teachers in the temple (Luke 2:41–51). Moses and Jesus were each called by God for a great purpose. Each experienced a period of exile in the wilderness in preparation for his mission: Moses as a shepherd in Midian for forty years, Jesus in his forty-day fast in the Judean wilderness (Luke 4:1–2). In the course of carrying out God’s plan, both men were misunderstood by those who were closest to them: Moses by his siblings, Miriam and Aaron (Numbers 12:1–3), Jesus by his family and his disciples (John 7:5; Luke 9:45; Matthew 26:69–74). Finally, through Moses’ leadership, the people of Israel gained their freedom from bondage and were led to the land that God promised to them. Through Jesus, humankind is redeemed from sin and the way to heaven is opened.
The Bible is the sole source of historical information about Moses. Jewish lore and rabbinical literature, however, are filled with legends touching every aspect of Moses’ life and career. Such tales are purely imaginative, but they underscore the esteem in which Jewish tradition holds Moses—Israel’s liberator, leader, lawgiver, intercessor, and mediator with God. Judaism is often called the Mosaic faith. Even today Moses’ influence pervades the religious life, moral concerns, and social ethics of Western civilization.