Moses never existed … or if he did, he was only a minor historical character and most of his life was expanded by legend.
When I was an atheist I believed Moses never existed. The Jews made him up to bolster their religion. However, if someone by the name of Moses really did live he wasn’t anything like the stories about him in the Bible. No way he called down the wrath of God on the Egyptians. No way Moses raised his hands in the air and a sea of water split in two. No way.
I used the story of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt as a major proof that the Bible was full of myths and fairy tales. It was a favorite discussion on my radio talk shows in the late 1960s and early 70s. Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham leaving Ur for Canaan, Joseph in Egypt, and Moses leading Israel out of Egypt were stories I threw at Christians whenever they called about the Bible and Christianity being true. There was absolutely no evidence for any of those stories, so why should I believe anything in the Bible. Everything in the Bible was untrue.
That worked pretty well until I met some Christian apologists. They answered my mocking and skepticism with evidence … lots of evidence … so much evidence that I was no longer able to say the Bible was full of myth, fairy tales and lies. I didn’t know where the investigation would lead me, but I knew there was more to the Bible than I thought.
The archaeological finds I had already seen were impressive in supporting some of the historic nature of Genesis. What would I find in archaeology to support the historic nature of the “Exodus?”
“And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. So she called his name Moses, saying, ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’ Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.And when he went out the second day, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the one who did the wrong, ‘Why are you striking your companion?’ Then he said, ‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ So Moses feared and said, ‘Surely this thing is known!’ When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.” Exodus 2:10-15
The Book of Exodus doesn’t include much about Moses’ childhood, but what we know about him is important in being able to check the story with archaeological findings and logical reasoning.
- A man of the tribe of Levi was married to a woman who was also of the tribe of Levi.
- The woman conceived and bore a son, saw that he was a beautiful child and hid him three months.
- When the woman was no longer able to hid the child she built an ark of bulrushes and placed the child in the ark, then laid the ark in the reeds by the river’s bank.
- The child’s sister stood a distance away and waited to see what would happen to him.
- The daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe at the river, accompanied by her maidens.
- When the daughter of Pharaoh saw the ark among the reeds, she asked one of the maidens to get it for her.
- When the daughter of Pharaoh opened the ark, she saw the child and the baby cried.
- The daughter of Pharaoh had compassion on the child and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
- The child’s sister, who was waiting nearby, asked Pharaoh’s daughter if she should get a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her.
- The daughter of Pharaoh told the girl to get the Hebrew nurse.
- The daughter of Pharaoh told the Hebrew nurse (who was the child’s mother) that she would pay her wages to nurse the child.
- The Hebrew woman took the child and nursed him and the child grew.
- The Hebrew woman brought the child to the daughter of Pharaoh and the child became her son.
- The daughter of Pharaoh called the child’s name Moses, saying, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
The question I looked at in 1971 was this: was there anything about the story of Moses’ conception, birth or early years that could not have happened because of archaeological findings or logical reasoning. The answer was “no.” Everything recorded in the first several verses of Exodus 2 could have happened. The events were “naturally” possible.
The journalistic process is slow and methodical. It’s both inductive and deductive – asking questions, getting answers, weighing evidence, hearing from all sides, waiting to draw conclusions until all the evidence is in. Part of that process is looking for anything that defied logic, anything that was impossible or improbable. That was the process I used while investigating the claims of Christianity and, so far, I had found nothing in the story of Moses that was impossible or improbable. It might not be true, but that wasn’t because it ‘couldn’t’ be true. A human being named Moses could have lived the life detailed in the Bible.
Exodus 2 said little about Moses’ years growing up in Egypt other than to say, “Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown.” Nothing about his childhood, his teen years, young adult years. However, the Bible does include some information about his early years in Egypt. We learn in Acts 7 that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.” (Acts 7:22) We learn in Hebrews 11 when Moses became of age he “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.” (Hebrews 11:24-25)
That information in the New Testament is supportive of what we read in Exodus 2. Moses was adopted by one of the pharaoh’s daughters, so he would have been raised with other members of Egyptian royalty and would have received the best education and training available. The New Testament also supports what Moses did when he became of age.
“Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. And when he went out the second day, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the one who did the wrong, ‘Why are you striking your companion?’ Then he said, ‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ So Moses feared and said, ‘Surely this thing is known!’ When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.” Exodus 2:11-15
Moses knew about his Hebrew ethnicity and that knowledge and the feelings that knowledge gave him led Moses to stand up for his people. However, that did not go well. He killed an Egyptian, but it became known and Moses had to leave Egypt. He traveled to the land of Midian, located east of the Red Sea in the area east of the Gulf of Aqaba in the northwestern regions of the Arabian Desert.
Archaeologist Nelson Glueck discovered Midianite pottery (also known as Qurayya ware) during excavations in southern Jordan during the 1930s. He dated the pottery to the 13th century BC. (* Archaeological discoveries after May of 1971 are not included in this series since my decision to become a Christian occurred on May 10, 1971. Archeological discoveries since that date have added even more support for the Bible’s credibility, but that is for a future series of articles.)
It’s interesting to remember that a caravan of Midianites bought Joseph from his brothers centuries earlier and sold him to an Egyptian (Genesis 37), which eventually led Jacob and his family to move from Canaan to Egypt. The Midianites were distant relatives of the Hebrews through the marriage of Abraham with Keturah after the death of his first wife Sarah. Before he died, Abraham gave gifts to the sons of Keturah and “sent them eastward, away from Isaac his son, to the country of the east.” (Genesis 25:6) Midian was a country “east” of Canaan and Egypt.
In the next part of our study we’ll look at Moses’ life in Midian, his encounter with God, and his return to Egypt to see what archaeological evidence was available for an atheist to consider more than 40 years ago.