A series on ‘Great Characters of the Bible‘ must include Moses. Archbishop Mark Coleridge discusses the life and legacy of the man whose remarkable life is still relevant today.
Episode 2 – Moses – is available here:
- Episode 2: Moses - Transcript
Episode 2: Moses - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome back as we explore together our family Tree of Faith. I often say to my students with the Bible in my hand, which I don’t have at the moment, but nonetheless, imagine that I do. Waving the Bible at my students, I’ve often said, this is your life. It’s not once upon a time. And in these characters from the Bible whom we meet in these podcasts, again, I have to say, this is you, this is me, this is our life. So, in learning more of who they are, we learn more of who we are, in fact. Certainly, who we are within the story of God, which is also our story. Again, the Bible is not just a message, it’s a story. Keep that in mind. And it’s an intensely human so, it’s a story about God.
It’s a story about God and the human being and how the two interact in history. But although it is in that sense of divine story, it’s an intensely human story. And there are no heroes in the Bible. Anyone who has pretensions to heroism or heroic status is systematically deflated by means of what we call irony. And we will see this in some of the great characters whom we meet in these podcasts.
We’ve already met in the first podcast, Abraham. Today we meet Moses, and they might seem like heroic figures, but in fact, that’s not the way they’re presented in the Bible. They are flesh and blood, recognisably identifiably human. And that’s the way the Bible wants it. In many ways too the way God is portrayed in the Bible is a fascinating combination of the divine and the human.
I mean, the Bible is almost obsessed with God’s transcendence, the otherness, the mysteriousness of God. And yet, the portrayal of God is in some ways intensely human as well. And this is the God who will take flesh. We say, we Christians say in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, so intensely divine but intensely human. That’s the way the Bible works.
So they are not individuals in that modern sense, but they are vivid characters who also bear large theological weight. And they’re not just Old Testament characters, but they’re also New Testament characters, because the two testaments, as we call them, are part of the One Bible and interact in all kinds of ways. Now in this podcast, we meet Moshe, as he’s known in Hebrew.
We call him Moses. Who is revered, of course, in Judaism as the founder of Israel. Judaism is a later term. But the father of Israel is this fascinating and mysterious figure called Moshe, Moses. Just by the way, the Bible itself says that the name means drawn out. In other words, of the water, of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter as the story is told.
In fact, the name is an Egyptian name, not surprisingly. And it seems to mean son, and you find it in various Egyptian names, some of the names of the pharaohs have various forms of Mose or Moshe, as part of the name, Thutmose is one of the pharaohs and so on. So, the Egyptian name would have been given to him by those who brought him up.
Now, as the Bible tells us the story, he was born of Hebrew parents. At a time when the Hebrews were coming under pressure. I mean, how did the Hebrews get to Egypt? Well, Egypt, again, was the place where you could always go for a job and a feed. When there was famine elsewhere or what we would call unemployment. or you just couldn’t survive. Egypt was always a place where you could survive.
So, they had migrated there over time and had become it seems some kind of underclass. Every empire depends upon a slave class for its prosperity. Egypt was no different. It was a great empire and a mighty economic power. But it needed its underclass, its slave class and the Hebrews, Hebraeus, they were they were part of those who did the heavy lifting that made the empire, built the cities of the pharaohs and so on.
So, Moshe is therefore born of Hebrew parents at a time when we are told in the Bible. That the Pharaoh begins to think the increasing and multiplying in a way that makes them a risk to the state, it’s hard for us to trace exactly the historical detail, in fact, impossible.
But that’s the way the story is told, and therefore the order goes out that Hebrew children are to be killed at the time of birth. But the mother of Moshe, Moses is determined she’ll do all she can to save her son. Therefore, we are told he’s placed in a basket that is covered with pitch to make sure that it floats and therefore set upon the waters of the Nile.
And then there he is, found by one of Pharaoh’s probably many daughters who came down to the river to bathe with all her companions. And then they hear the sound of the baby crying and they find the basket and they open the basket. And there we are told, is a beautiful child who catches the eye pharaoh’s daughter and takes him home as her own.
Now we have to presume, therefore, that in some way Moses was raised in the Royal Court of Egypt. So, he wasn’t just one of your underclass, one of your country bumpkins, as it were. He was raised in the Royal Court. Some accounts would say that he was raised as a scribe. It’s impossible to know that. But he bears an Egyptian name and in some way he would have been raised in the royal court.
However, he has come to or never lost a sense of who he really was. Again, we’re not told how. Because he has a sense of his Hebrew identity, even though he’s been raised as an Egyptian. And he would have looked Egyptian with all of that meant. He wouldn’t have looked like one of his own. But one day we find him coming among the Hebrews and he sees an Egyptian abusing and being violent towards one of the Hebrews.
And at this point, Moses strikes the Egyptian in a way that kills him, and he buries the corpse, hoping that no one has noticed. Immediately after that, he finds two Hebrews fighting among each other. He says to them, well how can you fight each other? You’re under enough pressure from the Egyptians. Why are you fighting each other? And one of the two Hebrews who’s fighting says, you going to do to me or him what you did to the Egyptian. So, he knows the news is out and he’s in trouble.
Eventually the news of what he’s done, the murder that he has committed of an Egyptian reaches the ears of pharaoh. So, Pharaoh is now determined to claim the life of Moses. Even though he has been brought up in the royal court. He has committed a capital offense, according to Egyptian law, and Moses must die.
At this point, Moses realised that his life is on the line, and he escapes to a far flung place called Midian over near in the Sinai Desert, near Mount Horeb, as it will become, the Holy Mountain. And there he becomes part of a nomadic clan. And there he meets his first wife, Zipporah. And it’s really there while he is looking after his father in laws flock. That he has this extraordinary encounter.
And again, it just comes out of nowhere. And it’s deeply mysterious because it’s the story of the burning bush. Now, you know, the fire that doesn’t consume doesn’t make any sense according to the logic of nature. But this is the way with a lot of these moments of divine revelation. God appearing and speaking to human beings in the biblical stories. They defy the logic of convention or of nature.
So, from the heart of the fire. The voice speaks to Moses and says, I have heard the voice of my people crying out. Given the persecution and pressure that they are facing. I have heard, the God who listens. I have heard their cry. And I want you. Even though your life is on the line, I want you Moses, to go to Pharaoh and say, let my people go. And I will be with you.
Now, Moses having heard this, says first of all, who are you? Because again, the God who erupts out of nowhere and speaks from the heart of a burning bush. The fire not consuming the bush doesn’t say who he is. And this was a world that had all kinds of gods, Osiris and Egypt was full of gods.
So, Moses’ question, tell me who you are so that when I go to Pharaoh, I can say this God or that God has sent me. And the reply that comes back is as baffling as the burning bush. God says, you go to pharaoh, and you say, ‘I am’ sent you. Well, then Moses at that point was entitled to say, well, that’s not much help at all.
That’s not a name. I mean, this is the name sometimes we give as ‘Yahweh’. It’s some part of the verb to be. And it can mean, when you look at it in Hebrew, it could be either ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I was who I was’, or ‘I will be who I will be’. We don’t know the tense. But it’s something to do with the verb ‘to be’. Hebrew, of course never writes the divine name and never speaks it either. So, this is why to have this sort of strange form Yahweh as something we write or say is in fact very odd. And is something that is now discouraged, in fact. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, he says, but look, I’m not much of a speaker. He must have been a good writer, but he wasn’t much of a speaker. And God says, don’t worry about that, because just by the way, here’s your brother Aaron. Now he is a good speaker, isn’t he? Yes, he’s quite good. So he’ll do the speaking.
You’ll have another function. You’ll be the leader. And how true that is as the story unfolds. But he’ll do the speaking. So, they go to Pharaoh. And they say, let my people go. Now, this is an extraordinary moment of encounter, again. Pharaoh was entitled to say, what are you talking about? Who are you to be asking this of me? And why on earth would I do it?
So, at this point, the power of the God who called Moses and Aaron. Moves through Moses in an extraordinary way because you get the story of the plagues. The ten plagues that each of them adding to the pressure upon Pharaoh. And having a devastating effect upon the Egyptian economy just by the way.
So, at the end of this extraordinary procession of the plagues. Which are the work of God, the punishment on Pharaoh and his people. For a resistance to the call of God. It’s this that leads to Pharaoh’s decision to let them go. He didn’t have much choice. At least that’s the way he saw it. And this is where we get the central story of the exodus.
The going out, the leaving of Egypt. It’s really here that the Bible begins. As we have the Bible now, it begins with the creation, but that came later. The Bible really begins with the story of the liberation of the underclass or the slaves from Egypt. So, when Pharaoh says go, you really have the beginning of biblical religion.
Initially, they’re told to go and sacrifice to God out in the desert, but it will become much more than that because it will become the journey to the promised land. So, they set forth, we’re told, and again, the Bible tells the story in great detail with the Passover meal and so on. But that they set out the numbers given in the Bible are extraordinarily high and hard to believe, but numbers are notoriously rubbery in the Bible.
But whoever they were and however many they were, they set out under the leadership of Moses. And they set out towards, leaving the land of Egypt with its fertile parts around the Nile. They set out into the desert, and they come to the Red Sea, we’re told, although it might be the Sea of Reeds, it may not be the Red Sea. But let’s not get into that too closely.
Pharaoh, in the meantime, has had a change of mind. Get them back. The imperial economy needs them. Get them back. So, the army, the Egyptian army sets out to get them back. So here they are following the call of God, supposedly the liberating God caught between the devil and the deep Red Sea.
They’ve been betrayed, so it seems. But then, against all the odds, you know the story, the waters open, whether it be the Sea of Reeds or the Red Sea doesn’t matter. The waters open, the Hebrews pass through, led by Moses and Pharaoh and his army come through and are, we’re told, swamped by the returning waters. So, this is the great moment of liberation against all the odds.
So, at this stage, Moses’ stocks with the people are sky high. He is the man to follow. However, once they get out beyond the Red Sea into the wilderness, that’s when the whingeing starts and Moses has to deal with whingeing all the time. In other words. Okay, that was great getting through the Red Sea like that, fantastic performance by God.
But now we’ve been let out into the wilderness, the desert. We’ve been led not up the garden path, but up the desert path. We’ve got nothing to eat, we’ve got no water to drink. This God has led us into the desert to betray us. We should never have left Egypt. They start dreaming of leeks and cucumbers and pans of meat that they had.
You could always get a feed in Egypt, but out here they say there’s nothing. Why did we ever leave Egypt? And even when Moses goes up the mountain for his encounters with God. They get sick of waiting for him too. So not only whingeing, but this chronic impatience. And that’s when they decide not to wait on the God who’s in the darkness talking to Moses, but to build the golden calf.
You know, this is fertility religion. Where the calf was regarded as a kind of divine emblem. This is, you know, this is the way to go. This is the God to trust, not this God who leads us out into the desert, which is the land of death. But a God who will give us what we want, what we need, something to eat and something to drink.
Well, of course, Moses has received at this point from God, the Ten Commandments in the encounter on the mountain. And what are the Ten Commandments? Well, they resemble in many ways, the conditions for entry that you find at the entrance to Egyptian temples. There were certain conditions that were set forth to enter the great temples of ancient Egypt. To qualify as ritually pure, to come before the God. You had to have obeyed these conditions.
And that may well be part of the background of the Ten Commandments, or they’re called in Hebrew, the ten words, the Eseret Ha-devarim. Words, that’s how God created in the beginning, God said. So, the words are Gods’, words of power that bring light out of darkness. God said light, and there was light.
So, the Ten Commandments, as we call them. For the Bible, are the ten words, which again, are words of power that bring light out of darkness or slaves out of Egypt, out of slavery. So that’s just worth keeping in mind, that Moses comes down from the Holy Mountain, having received from God the ten words, which will become the basis of the life and identity of the chosen people.
Beyond the great moment at Sinai, which is recounted in the most extraordinary way. Where there was lightning and fire on the mountain, I mean, it’s a tremendous story that is told. They again, set forth out into the desert beyond the drama of the mountain. And they wander in the wilderness for many years, for 40 years, we’re told, we don’t know how many.
But this whole theme of wandering is very important in the Bible, because at the end of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis Chapter 4, which is the first story of the human being outside the Garden of Eden. We are told at the end of that that Cain, having murdered his brother, goes off to live in the land of Nod East of Eden.
Now, the word ‘Nod’ in Hebrew has nothing to do with having a snooze. It means wandering. So, Cain goes off into the land of wandering, and at that point, the summons to him into the human being is to turn all our wandering into journeying. And this will be the same call and challenge to the chosen people out in the desert.
They can wander as the explorers in early Australia did, Burke and Wills, for instance, they wandered around. They thought they were going somewhere, but they were going nowhere. They were just going around in circles. And eventually they died. And that wandering always leads to that kind of death. Whereas journeying for the chosen people, will become a journey to the promised land.
And in the Christian Bible, it’s the journey home to paradise. And in the wandering again, they feel betrayed. There’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to drink. God then provides the manna and the quail. You want a banquet in the desert? Here it is. ‘Manna’ is a Hebrew word, two words really, ‘Ma’ ‘Na’? Which simply means, what’s that?
This white substance appears on the earth, and they look at it, and that’s what they say, Manna, what’s that? And it’s a kind of a paste that can be made into like a pita bread of some kind. And you can eat it with a quail. A lot of bones in quails, but they’re not bad.
And then water’s a problem, too. And always is. And Moses time and time again, Moses has to go into the tent of meeting. Where he talks face to face with God as a man, talks to his friend, we’re told in the Bible. And he says, what am I to do with this mob? There are pack of whingers that keep whingeing day in, day out, saying you’ve led them into a trap.
So have I. Help me. So, God says, go and tap the rock with the star. And he does. He taps it once, nothing happens, no surprise there. So, Moses waits a bit. But then again impatiently, he decides to tap the rock a second time instead of waiting. And with the second tap there comes from the rock. Surprise, surprise, water, from which they all drink. But because of this impatience and a reluctance or an inability to trust God, Moses is told he will never enter the promised land, which is now the destination. Eventually, at the end of all this wandering, they come to the mountains of Moab, which are on the east side of the Dead Sea, it’s modern-day Jordan. And we’re told Moses sees the promised land from the mountains of Moab, even though he will never enter the promised land.
He said he’s a dying man. So, from those mountains on the east side of the Dead Sea, he looks across and he sees the destination, the promised land. Well, I can tell you now, having stood on those same mountains, what he saw looks like a moonscape. And he must have thought, well, if this is the promised land, I’m out of it. I’m glad I’m not going there.
I mean, the first glimpse of the promised land was anything but enticing. It’s only when you get further into the land, that you discover its true fertility and why it is the promised land. So, Moses sees a very unpromisingly, the promised land, but he never enters. We’re told he dies on the mountains of Moab.
But there’s never been any sense of his tomb being found. And again, it’s one of the great mysteries. No one doubts that Moses existed. But where was he buried? And why was the tomb not a place of pilgrimage and great devotion is one of the questions. We may not have found his tomb, but Moses, in fact, is everywhere in the Bible.
Eventually, all the sacred institutions of ancient Israel will identify with Moses. The prophets, the kings. All will be identified with and tied to the figure of Moses. Why? Because Moses is presented as the sole mediator of the Law of God, to all the people. In other words, the law came from God, not from the King.
In all the other cultures of the ancient areas. The law came from the King. In ancient Israel, the law came from God, not even through the King. The law came from God through Moses to all the people who were slaves, said free the King every bit as much as anyone else in the community of ancient Israel. The counter-society of God, a community of slaves, set free in a world that says once a slave, always a slave. Abandoned hope all you ever here.
Ancient Israel is God’s way of saying, no, slaves do come free. And the law of God is a liberating law. The law that is given to us through Moses. Now, when you get into the New Testament, one of the many ways in which Jesus is presented is precisely the new Moses. That’s why Matthew has him, for instance, going up onto a mountain to give the Beatitudes, which is the new law.
So again, Moses isn’t just someone to be confined to the Old Testament. He is also a crucial figure in the New Testament, and he is part of our DNA. So welcome to the one who is the founder of ancient Israel and the father of Israel, therefore. But who is also in many ways part of our DNA. Dangling from our family tree.