Moses was born at a terrible time for his people, the Israelites. They had been living in Egypt for hundreds of years, having originally settled there when their ancestor, Joseph, had been governor of Egypt under a previous Pharaoh.
In stark contrast to their privileged way of life during the time of Joseph, the Israelites had been enslaved and were suffering under their Egyptian masters. To add to these troubles, the Pharaoh had ordered the slaughter of all the Israelite baby boys, because he was worried about their rapid population growth.
Moses’ family was determined to save him from death. For a time, they simply hid him but it soon became clear they needed a different approach.
Jochabed, Moses’ mother, hatched a bold plan to save her baby boy. She placed him in a woven basket that could float. She carefully hid the basket amongst the reeds of the River Nile and assigned Miriam, Moses’ older sister, to covertly watch over it.
To Miriam’s horror the Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the river, glimpsed the basket. The princess sent her slave to fetch the basket whereupon she discovered the Hebrew baby. Moved with compassion, she decided to save the child.
Moving quickly into action, Miriam approached and asked the princess if she would like a Hebrew woman to look after the baby. This was agreed and so Miriam quickly brought her mother to meet the Pharaoh’s daughter. A deal was struck enabling Jochabed to nurse Moses and she was even paid to do so!
And so it was that his own Israelite mother nursed Moses. When he was older, his mother brought him to Pharaoh's daughter and Moses became her adopted son. It was at this point that Pharaoh's daughter formally named the boy Moses, meaning "I drew him out of the water.”
Thanks to this dramatic transition, the son of an Israelite slave was brought up as a prince of Egypt. Despite his status and luxurious lifestyle, however, it would become clear that Moses remembered his roots and sympathized with his enslaved fellow Israelites.
Several years had passed and Moses was now a grown man. One day, he witnessed an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave. Enraged at this injustice and cruelty, Moses took matters into his own hands. When he thought no one was looking he killed the Egyptian and buried the victim's body in the sand to hide the evidence.
The following day, Moses was out and about again when he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting one other. When he tried to break up the fight, one of them turned to Moses and asked if he planned on killing him like he had the Egyptian. Moses realized at once that the news of his rash actions the previous day was out and he feared for his life.
It wasn't long before Pharaoh sought revenge on Moses for the murder of the Egyptian. Moses fled into the wilderness to live as a fugitive on the run from justice.
Life in the wilderness was entirely different from the pampered existence Moses had enjoyed all his life as a member of the Egyptian royal family. He eventually arrived in the land of Midian where he rested by a well.
After a while, seven daughters of a prince and priest of Midian came to the well to draw water for their father's flocks. All was well until some local shepherds turned up and drove the women away.
Moses saved the day by stepping in, chasing off the shepherds and then watering the flocks for the women. When news of his heroics reached their father, he invited Moses for a meal and rewarded him with one of his daughters, Zipporah, in marriage.
Moses reinvented himself as a shepherd and with Zipporah raised a family and lived contentedly for many years. One day, as he was tending his sheep, he noticed a mysterious burning bush. God spoke through the bush and commanded Moses to give up his quiet life in the wilderness, return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery.
Moses was very reluctant to take on this new assignment. He was afraid and also concerned about his ability to speak to the Pharaoh. God said Moses could take his brother Aaron to do the talking. So Moses went back to Egypt with his wife and sons.
Aaron joined them on the way and the two met with the elders of the Israelites in Egypt, winning their support. But the brothers had less luck when they approached Pharaoh, declaring that God wanted the Israelites to be set free. Pharaoh refused out of hand saying he neither knew nor would obey their God, nor let the people go.
In retaliation for this bold request, Pharaoh instructed his slave drivers to stop providing the Israelites with straw for the brick production. They were forced to collect the straw for themselves while keeping the quota of brick production the same as before. Unable to keep up with this workload, the Israelites turned on Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the additional burden.
Moses and Aaron did not let up. They approached Pharaoh again, this time with a miraculous sign: Moses threw his staff to the ground and it turned into a snake. Pharaoh's magicians successfully pulled off the same feat; however, Moses' snake then ate up all the other snakes. Despite this, Pharaoh still refused to allow this incident to change his mind.
A devastating succession of plagues ensued as Moses implored Pharaoh to let his people leave Egypt. The River Nile turned to blood; swarms of frogs, gnats and flies descended upon the land; the Egyptian’s livestock died; the Egyptians were inflicted with boils and struck by hailstones; a swarm of locusts decimated the crops and the land was enveloped in darkness. Pharaoh stubbornly refused to give the final go-ahead until the very last plague, the death of the firstborn child in every family who did not paint the sacrificial blood of a lamb on the doorframe of their home.
Pharaoh finally relented after his own firstborn died. He urged Moses and his people to leave and the Egyptians showered the Israelites with gifts for the journey as they departed.
Not long after the Israelites' departure from Egypt, Pharaoh had second thoughts. He assembled his forces to recapture the Israelites as they were encamped by the Red Sea. Moses held up his rod to the sea and God parted the water, allowing the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptian forces gave chase, they were destroyed as the walls of water crashed over them, drowning the Egyptian soldiers en masse. The Israelites had truly been delivered.
Moses faced several tests of his leadership in the wilderness. The Israelites could be an unruly, ungrateful bunch. They grumbled a lot despite God demonstrating over and over that He would take care of their needs.
The Israelites needed clear, effective instructions. Following a military victory over the Amalekites, they encamped at the base of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, written by His own finger on two tablets of stone.
While Moses was away up on the mountain, the Israelites made themselves a statue of a golden calf to worship. When he returned to the camp and saw the idolatrous behavior of the Israelites, Moses was infuriated and hurled the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments to the ground.
Moses climbed the mountain once more to plead with God to forgive the Israelites. Under God’s instructions, Moses had to make a replacement set of the Ten Commandments. Moses remained on the mountain fasting, praying and conversing with God for forty days. When Moses finally came back down the mountainside, the people were terrified because his face shone with the light of God’s glory.
Moses was a great leader who died while leading his people to the Promised Land of Canaan. Still today, Jews credit this biblical hero with the title, Lawgiver of Israel.