He was born to slaves but raised by a princess. He murdered a man and fled punishment, but delivered perhaps the most famed set of laws in history. He liberated and led his people out of captivity, but died just short of the land they were promised. The biblical narrative of Moses spans the first five books of the Old Testament, describing the larger-than-life liberator, leader and lawgiver of the Israelites and establishing him as a revered prophet in all of the world's major monotheistic faiths. While modern scholars have found no historical evidence that Moses existed, he has inspired epic Hollywood interpretations, American civil rights efforts and countless politicians.
The story of the liberation of an oppressed people from a powerful government spoke so compellingly to America's Founding Fathers that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted an image of Moses and the Exodus on the new seal of the United States. In 1954, President Harry Truman summoned Moses in his personal writings about leadership. According to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's memoir, President Bill Clinton cited Moses and the Ten Commandments at a meeting with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in defense of a softened ban on gays in the military. "In a religious and literary sense, Moses is the most important human character in the Jewish scriptures and one of the most important characters in the Bible," says Michael Coogan, lecturer on the Old Testament at Harvard Divinity School.
The story recounts the life of a child born to enslaved Israelites in Egypt whose mother, unwilling to follow the pharaoh's order to drown every Hebrew male infant in the Nile, placed him in a basket and sent it floating down the river instead. The child was discovered by a bathing princess, daughter of the pharaoh, who saved the baby by bringing him to live in the palace. She named him Moses, meaning he was drawn out of the water. One day, Moses saw an Egyptian slave driver beating a Hebrew slave. Enraged, he killed the man and fled. Living as a shepherd in another land, Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush instructing him to go back to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of slavery to Canaan, the Promised Land.
Many modern scholars agree that if something like the Exodus described in the Bible did take place, it would have been in 13th century B.C. An Egyptian inscription dated to circa 1206 B.C. describes victory over a tribally grouped people in central Canaan called Israelites. Archaeologists have also uncovered pottery and scarabs dated to the end of the 13th century and villages dating to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.
But the character of Moses remains "problematic," says biblical archaeologist William Dever, professor emeritus in Judaic studies and Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona. In 50 years of excavating in the Middle East, Dever says, he's found no direct evidence of Moses. Egyptologists also confirm that they have found no references to anyone like Moses in the thousands of ancient Egyptian records that have been recovered. "There is no historical evidence outside of the Bible, no mention of Moses outside the Bible, and no independent confirmation that Moses ever existed," says Coogan.
In the third month after the Exodus from Egypt, the Bible places the Israelites at Mount Sinai, where Moses became an intermediary between God and the Israelites, sealing a covenant that the Israelites would obey God's law in return for what he had already done for them and for his future protection. The law, revealed to Moses on the peak of Mount Sinai (the actual location of which is unknown), included the Ten Commandments. But the books of Moses refer to several versions of the Ten Commandments, leading scholars to different conclusions.
One holds that the inconsistencies are evidence that the story of the revelation was compiled by various writers and editors. "It looks to most of us like the Ten Commandments are a late literary construct, not very important to the Israelite religion since they're not even mentioned in the prophetic literature," says Dever. "They derive from a much later period when the literature slowly is being put together." Another is that they did not remain fixed but were revised over centuries. Even the text of the Ten Commandments commonly displayed today, scholars point out, is an abbreviated version that "tends to be sanitized," says Cheryl Anderson, professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. It often leaves out references to slavery, for example, thus ignoring that the commandments accepted slavery.