Moses is one of the few characters whose complete biography is described by the biblical narrative, and the early events of his life characterize him as a product of his circumstances. Born in Egypt, Moses is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on the abandoned Hebrew baby. After an impulsive murder, Moses flees west, where he begins a life as a shepherd and stumbles into God in the form of a burning bush. He reluctantly agrees to return to Egypt and demand the Israelites’ release, but agrees to little more. Each event in the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where God delivers his laws to the Israelites, propels Moses further into the roles of prophet, priest, ruler, and savior of Israel.
Moses’ most heroic virtue is his steadfast obedience, and it might be said that a passive quality permeates each of his miracles. Ten plagues strike Egypt because Moses simply appears in Pharaoh’s court to request the release of the Israelites. With the help of his rod, or divine staff, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea merely by outstretching his arms. Later, the beleaguered Israelites defeat a mighty army when two men help Moses raise his hands for the duration of the battle. The image of a stationary man bringing about overwhelming physical feats is striking. Moses himself is far from passive or reticent, yet he represents a prototype of the biblical hero whose greatness lies not in self-assertion but in obedience to God.
Moses is a compelling figure because he possesses human faults. He is passionate and impulsive. Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses knows ahead of time that the people are worshipping a golden idol, because God has warned him of this fact. Upon seeing the people, Moses angrily breaks the stone tablets inscribed with God’s laws. God seems to value this passionate quality in Moses, for Moses is an effective mediator between God and the Israelites. He prays with a sense of urgency, unafraid to ask God to refrain from divine retribution and willing to accept the blame for the people’s actions. His earnest attention to the present situation and to God’s demands earns Moses the opportunity to speak with God face to face. Yet his passion remains his weakness. God commands Moses to produce water from a rock by speaking to it, but, irritated with the people’s complaints, Moses hits the rock with his staff. This act of negligence bars Moses from entering the very promised land to which he has guided the Israelites for almost half a century.