Israelites, the children of Jacob, first settled in Egypt under the protection of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph. He had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and taken to Egypt where he had risen to the position of Grand Vizier through his talent in divining meaning from the dreams of the Pharaoh. He had forgiven his brothers and invited them to Egypt when famine threatened their livelihood.
Their early days were lived in liberty and prosperity, but over the centuries, as their numbers grew and their patronage faltered, the Israelites were seen as a growing threat until they were finally enslaved and set to baking bricks from the mud of the Nile.
As discontent grew, Pharaoh feared a slave revolt and ordered the killing of all baby boys born of the Israelites. To avoid such a fate, the mother of Moses laid her baby in a reed boat and let it float down the river until it ran aground where the Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing who took pity on the infant and brought him up at the court of the Pharaoh.
Although separated from his family, a clever ruse by his sister had Moses wet-nursed by his mother from whom he acquired an enduring sense of identity with his own enslaved people.
As a young man, Moses was outraged to see the indignities inflicted upon his people and one day smote a cruel slave-master and buried him in the sand. But as the deed became known, Moses was forced to flee into the desert where he found refuge at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Here, at a spring used by shepherds to water their flocks, he defended the daughters of Jethro from the abuse of passing rough-necks, and after marrying into the family, remained forty years as a shepherd until the day God called to him from out of the burning bush, announced His unconditional nature, “I am what I am”, and disclosed His fearful name, “Yahweh”. It was here that a traumatized and reluctant Moses received the command to return to Egypt and set his people free.
In the trial of strength with Pharaoh, Moses inflicted a litany of horrific plagues on Egypt. First of all, the waters of the Nile turned to blood which fouled up the ponds and wells and drinking vessels; and then frogs covered the land and hopped into the bed chambers; and then a cloud of gnats tormented man and beast; and then a swarm of flies; and then pestilence fell upon the horses and asses and camels and all the flocks; and then men were stricken with boils; and then a thunderous hail battered to death any cattle that hadn’t found shelter; and then locusts stripped the land of any vegetation; and then a darkness settled over the land which extinguished every source of light except those in the homes of the Israelites.
But whatever pestilence Moses inflicted on Egypt, the heart of Pharaoh only hardened against him, until finally God stalked the land in a night of terror and smote the first born of every family including that of the Pharaoh. Only the Israelites who had sacrificed a lamb and made a sign on their doors with the blood were spared.
Only now, did Pharaoh relent and let the Israelites go. But he soon regretted his leniency and chased after them as far as the Red Sea where the mighty waters separated to let the Israelites cross and then rolled back in a deluge to drown the pursuing armies. Safe on the other bank, the Israelite celebrated with the Song of Miriam, possibly one of the oldest recorded victory songs in history:
Sing ye to the Lord, for he is highly exalted: The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.
As the Israelites trekked across the Sinai peninsula, they were tormented with thirst and hunger. At the springs of Marah, they tasted only brackish water until Moses tossed a tree into the waters to sweeten them. As their bread ran out and they hungered, God sent quails. And every morning, manna settled on the ground like fine hoarfrost that tasted of wafers and honey.
At the oasis of Rephidim, the Israelites were attacked by a confederation of local tribes, the Amalekites, and forced to defend themselves. The battle raged all day and as Moses raised his hands to heaven, keeping them aloft till dusk, the Israelites were assured a devastating victory.
On approaching Mt Sinai, where Moses had lived so many years as a shepherd, his people once more craved water and Moses struck a rock which gave forth springs.
With the Israelites now camped round the mountain, God revealed himself to the whole nation in fire and smoke, a trumpeting of the Ram’s horn and a quaking of the mountain. And as the people trembled in dread, Moses ascended the mountain to face God and return with the Ten Commandments. And in an assembly of all the tribes of Israel, a new covenant was declared between God and His people and sealed with the blood of sacrificial animals.
Returning once more to the mountain peaks, Moses spent forty days and forty nights receiving the complete book of the law, while his people, left to themselves, lapsed back into idolatry, fashioning the golden calf that had been their supreme god before enslavement in Egypt. On hastening down, a furious Moses shattered the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments and ordered a massacre of all those who had betrayed their recent blood covenant, a terrible task performed by the tribe of Levi, later to become the priestly caste of the Hebrews.
With three thousand dead on the ground, Moses returned to the mountain to complete his dialogue with God and return with a new set of stone tablets. This time, his people were so shocked to see his face radiate a celestial light that Moses had to veil himself for the rest of his life, revealing his face only when alone with God, a story mangled in the Vulgate Latin translation to read that Moses had sprouted horns and that is how he is depicted by Michelangelo.
Now chastened and awed into submission, God’s people constructed an Ark to carry the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Law and set off to conquer the Promised Land. But on hearing reports of Canaanite strength, their faith slackened again and they flinched from the fight. In a fury, God condemned them to wander forty years in the “waste howling wilderness” until all those who had known slavery in Egypt had passed away, leaving the conquest of the Promised Land to the next generation.
As the new generation grew to manhood, they probed the lands of Edom and Moab that bordered Canaan which brought them into contact with the harlots of Moab and Midian who tried to seduce them into unchastity and idolatry. Once more, Moses responded ruthlessly with the summary execution of Midianite women and boy children and enslavement of the virgin girls.
Schooled through misfortune, tested in desert and warfare, purified in ritual and chastity, his people were now ready to conquer the Promised Land, but Moses was not to be with them. From Mt Nebo in Moab, he looked across the Jordan river as far north as the city of Dan, as far south as the Negev, and across the breadth of Canaan to the Great Sea. And Moses died there as the servant of the Lord and he was buried in the land of Moab, and to this day, no-one knows where he was lain.