“Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. And they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.” Exodus 2:16-17
When we last looked at the life of Moses he was sitting by a well in the land of Midian. What must have been going through his mind? He was the biological son of Hebrew slaves, raised as the adopted son of a daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. As Stephen recited in Acts 7:22 – “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.” How quickly things changed. At the age of 40 (Acts 7:23) Moses fled Egypt for a new life in Midian. What would he do there? How would he live? What would become of him?
I had my own questions about Moses in 1971. I had been content to be an atheist until three Christians presented evidence in answer to my questions about truth claims concerning Christianity. I wasn’t used to Christians having answers to my questions, so as a journalist I was curious to see where their evidence would go.
I looked at the Bible’s information about Moses from a journalistic perspective. I had investigated old stories before, but nothing this old. What was the evidence for Moses’ existence? Was the evidence testable? What about extra-biblical testimony? Did the information about Moses in the Bible read like history or mythology? Lots of questions, but what were the answers? And where would those answers lead me in my investigation? Would I find enough evidence to warrant continuing or would the story of Moses end my search for the truth about the existence of God?
As an atheist I did not believe in the supernatural, so I looked at the ancient document called Exodus to see whether anything about the life of Moses was naturally possible. What the Bible described as the first 40 years of Moses’ life in Egypt was possible based on a naturalistic worldview. Here’s what the Bible described as the next 40 years of Moses’ life in Midian.
- Moses sat next to a well.
- The seven daughters of a Midian priest came to the well to draw water and filled troughs to water their father’s flock.
- Shepherds came to the well and drove away the women, but Moses stood up and helped them to water their flock.
- The daughters returned to their father and he asked them how they had finished so early
- The daughters told their father that “an Egyptian” delivered them from the hand of the shepherds and helped them draw enough water to give to their flock.
- Their father told his daughters to get the Egyptian and invite him to eat with them.
- Moses ended up living with the man and his family and eventually married one of the man’s daughters and had two sons with her.
So far everything about Moses’ life was possible. However …
The next part of the story was not so easy to believe.
“Now it happened in the process of time that the king of Egypt died. Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.” Exodus 2:23-25
In my way of thinking at the time, the story moved from possible history to mythology whenever “God” was mentioned. That’s normal for an atheist. As I continued to ask questions about what was written about Moses in the Book of Exodus, I looked at the interaction between Moses, who appeared to be a normal human being of his time, and God.
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.’ So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’ Moreover He said, ‘I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” Exodus 3:1-6
It’s not easy to be an atheist and take the Bible seriously because many of the stories in it seem so impossible. However, I was challenged to look at the stories in the Bible from the perspective of a journalist investigating whether something could be true or not. I had thought of Bible stories as fanciful tales for the uninitiated minds of children, but did my best to be objective and not bring presuppositional thinking to bear on the ancient document.
What I saw in a less biased light was a seemingly rational conversation between Moses and another being identified by the writer as “Lord” and “God.” I found that to be true throughout the early chapters of Exodus. Even as Moses talked with and eventually obeyed the requests of this supernatural character, the language never became fanciful. After God identified Himself and told Moses to take the sandals off of his feet because the place where he was standing was holy ground, Moses hid his face, “for he was afraid to look upon God.”
I thought about what I might do and say if I was in a similar situation and what Moses said and did seemed rational. Moses saw a bush on fire, but not burning up. A rational human response would be to know that what you were seeing was not naturally possible. So, Moses stopped what he was doing and walked toward the burning bush to “see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.” That’s when, according to the Exodus text, Moses heard God’s voice. The character of God seemed almost human in communicating with Moses about what He (God) wanted Moses to do.
“And the Lord said: ‘I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:7-10
The character of God expressed a deep love and loyalty to the Hebrew people- both reasonable emotions. He wanted to free them from slavery in Egypt and return them to the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As I had seen previously from archaeological discoveries, the people groups identified as Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites and Perizzites existed at the time of Moses in regions north of Egypt (we’ll learn more about them in later posts).
Moses was not the typical mythical hero who jumped at the chance to slay dragons and save the fair maiden in distress. His reaction to what God asked him to do was realistic under the circumstances. Look at Moses’ side of the discussion and see if you don’t agree that his reaction to what God asked him to do is anti-hero.
- “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Exodus 3:11
- “Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” Exodus 3:13
- “Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.” Exodus 4:1
- “Then Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Exodus 4:10
- “But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.” Exodus :13
What the Bible describes about Moses’ speech and behavior in Exodus might lead the reader to think he was no mere mortal, but mere and mortal is just what he was. That certainly made Moses a more believable character because he exhibited real human traits rather than mythical/legendary traits.
In the next part of our investigation, we’ll see what archaeology might tell us about whether Moses may have been the prophet of God who worked miracles in Egypt.