Abraham, a descendant of Shem, one of the sons of Noah, was the father and founder of the great Israelitish, or Hebrew, nation. God chose him from all the people living on the earth at that time, for this purpose, promising that He would make his name great and that his descendants should have for their own the land of Canaan, a country in Palestine lying west of the river Jordan and the Dead Sea.
Abraham had a son named Isaac, who became the father of Jacob, and Jacob was the father of twelve sons, among whom was Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers when but a boy. Joseph was taken to Egypt and in time rose from a slave to be the governor of that country under Pharaoh, its king.
Jacob, with his eleven sons and their families, settled in Egypt at the invitation of Pharaoh, and after the death of their father his sons continued to live there, and became prosperous. After the death of Joseph they increased rapidly in numbers, and from shepherds and herders of flocks became masters of various crafts and occupations. At this time they began to be called “The Children of Israel.”
They lived in towns and villages in the land of Goshen, on the eastern border of Egypt, industrious and contented. The king who had been so friendly to Joseph was now dead, and another Pharaoh ruled the land. He watched with much distrust the growing wealth and greatness of the children of Israel and determined to prevent any possible harm they might do him by making them work for him instead of for themselves.
So Pharaoh began to treat the Israelites like slaves. Under the direction of his officers he set them at work making bricks and then had them build two cities to hold his treasures. From a prosperous people they were now reduced to the condition of common laborers, working without pay day after day in the burning heat of that country.
But in spite of their hardships the Israelites increased in numbers, and, to further crush them, Pharaoh ordered that all their boys should be destroyed as soon as they were born. But the people would not obey this order, and then Pharaoh commanded that all boys should be flung into the Nile, the sacred river of Egypt, immediately after their birth.
At this time a child was born among the Israelites whose life was to be one of the most remarkable that history has recorded for us. His father’s name was Amram and his mother’s Jochebed, and they belonged to the tribe of Levi, the third son of Jacob. They had two older children, a son named Aaron and a daughter named Miriam.
The mother of this little boy managed to keep him out of sight for three months, and then she made a little boat of the water-reeds called papyrus, fastening them together with clay and pitch. It was not much more than a basket, but she put the baby into it and placed it among the rushes at the edge of the river Nile, leaving her daughter Miriam to see what became of her baby brother.
The Egyptians had many beliefs which appear very strange to us now. One of them was that anything surrounded by papyrus would be safe from the crocodiles which infested the river. Possibly Jochebed had some faith in this superstition, for during the time when the Israelites were living contentedly in the land of Goshen, many of them had fallen into the customs of the Egyptians, worshipping Ra, the sun-god, Apis, the sacred calf, and others of their national deities.
While Miriam was watching the little boat and its precious burden, the daughter of Pharaoh, with her attendants, came to the river to bathe. She saw the little boat floating among the rushes and ordered it to be brought to her. As she looked down at the baby it cried, and, while she must have known that it was the child of Israelitish parents, her heart went out to it in pity, and she declared that she would bring it up as if it had been her own child.
Miriam then came forward and asked if she might find a nurse for the child. The princess sent her on this errand and the little girl hastened to bring her mother. Then the princess gave the baby into the charge of its own mother, and promised her that she should be paid for taking good care of the child.
When the baby had grown to be quite a boy the princess took him to her palace and treated him as if he had been a son of her own. She named him Moses, which means “drawn out,” because she had taken him from the water.
Then the princess had him trained and taught as though he were really to be a prince. He was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and became learned and powerful. All the pleasures and honors of Pharaoh’s court were open to him, and from them he could have selected what pleased him most.
But the misery and degradation of his own people appealed to him more strongly than the splendor and preferments of the Egyptian court. His spirit was especially stirred one day when he saw an Egyptian overseer abusing an Israelite in the fields where that oppressed people were still making bricks.
In his anger at this sight he killed the Egyptian and buried the body in the sand. The next day he interfered in another quarrel—this time between two of his own people, but all he received for his efforts as peacemaker was the knowledge that they knew he had killed the Egyptian the day before.
For this reason, and also because Pharaoh suspected him of scheming to deliver the Israelites from their bondage, Moses felt that his life was not safe in Egypt, so he left the court and went to the land of Midian. He was then forty years old.
One day when he was resting by the side of a well, the seven daughters of Jethro, the chief and priest of Midian, came there to water their father’s sheep. Some shepherds, who also wanted to use the well, drove them away, but Moses took the part of the maidens and watered their flocks for them.
When Jethro heard of this he invited Moses to be his shepherd and to live in his house. Moses accepted the home offered him, and in time married Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters. They had two sons, one named Gershom, a word which means “stranger,” and Eliezer, or “God is my help.”
For the next forty years Moses led the life of a shepherd in the land of Midian, in gradual preparation for the great work he was to do later. He certainly learned patience and must have become familiar with the country through which he was to lead the children of Israel when the time of their deliverance from Egypt came. During this time the afflictions of the Israelites had been increased. Another Pharaoh ruled the land, but his reign brought no relief to the nation toiling under cruel taskmasters.
One day Moses was feeding his flocks on a mountain called Horeb, when he saw a bush of wild thorn, or acacia, apparently on fire. He looked more closely but could see no smoke, neither were the leaves and twigs blackened or consumed.
Then a Voice which seemed to come from the bush called, “Moses, Moses.” Understanding that it was the Voice of God, Moses answered, “Here am I.” Then God told him to come no nearer, and to take off his shoes and stand with bare feet, for His presence made the spot holy ground.
Moses tremblingly obeyed and stood with covered face while God told him that He had heard the cries and seen the affliction of the children of Israel, and that He would set them free from their bondage in Egypt. He told Moses that He had chosen him to be the deliverer of His people and their leader to the land of Canaan, which He had promised to Abraham.
Moses felt unequal to this great undertaking and tried to excuse himself on various grounds. He said that the Israelites would not listen to him unless he could, by means of signs and wonders, convince them that he was the divinely appointed leader, and he also said that he was not a ready speaker.
But God told him just what he had to do and that his brother Aaron should be his spokesman. He bestowed upon him the power to do wonderful things and promised His own protection and help. Moses could refuse no longer, and accepted the divine commission. Then the Voice ceased, the vision of the burning bush faded away, and Moses was alone again with his flocks.
When Moses returned to his home he told Jethro that he wished to go to Egypt, and in the speech of those days Jethro replied, “Go in peace.” So Moses set out on his journey and on the way met his brother Aaron, whom God had sent to meet him.
Then Moses related to Aaron all that God had said to him from the burning bush, told him the part he was to take in God’s plan, and showed him the rod which he was to use in performing the wonderful things by which the Israelites were to be convinced that he was their divinely appointed deliverer from the land of Egypt. Then the two brothers went on their way together.
As soon as Moses and Aaron arrived in Egypt, they called the people together and told them that God was going to deliver them from their bondage and give them the land of Canaan. At first the Israelites were very thankful for the message, but after the first failure of Moses to get Pharaoh’s consent to let them go they began to doubt it, especially as from that time the King imposed harder tasks than ever upon them.
Then Moses and Aaron went a second time to Pharaoh. Aaron threw down his rod and it became a serpent. The magicians of the court did the same thing, and threw down their rods, which became serpents, but Aaron’s rod swallowed theirs. Then the King once more refused to let the people go.
Then, one after another, God sent terrible plagues upon the Egyptian people to show Pharaoh that He was the one Living and True God and that the children of Israel must be allowed to go to the land He had promised them.
The first of these plagues was the changing of the waters of the Nile into blood. The Egyptians were a very cleanly people, paying great attention to their bodies, and were generally dressed in white. They were accustomed to bathe in the Nile, and its appearance at this time must have filled them with loathing. But Pharaoh again refused to let the people go.
Then one after another eight more plagues were sent upon the land. They were equally disgusting to such a people and gave them the greatest discomfort possible, but, while Pharaoh relented from time to time, he persisted in his refusal to let the children of Israel depart from his kingdom.
During all this time the land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, was exempt from these inflictions. Pharaoh must have known this and he must have begun to understand that their God punished those who refused to do as He told them, but he was obstinate and still refused his consent. It required another and a more severe judgment before Pharaoh consented to let the children of Israel go.
It was now the month of Nisan or Abib, which means the “month of green ears,” and in consequence of what occurred at that time Abib has ever since been the first month of the Hebrew sacred year. By God’s command the blood of a lamb was to be sprinkled upon the sides and top of the doorway to every Israelitish home. The lamb itself was to be roasted and eaten by the family, who were to be dressed for a journey and ready to start on it at a moment’s notice.
At midnight the tenth and last judgment fell on the Egyptians. A wail of anguish rose from every home in the land, for the first-born child in every home lay dead. The angel of death had entered the palace of the King and the hovel of his poorest subject alike, sparing only the homes where the blood- sprinkled doorways told of God’s protection.
Convinced at last that he could not successfully combat the God of the Israelites, Pharaoh now begged Moses to hasten their departure, and the Egyptian people were so anxious to have them out of the land that they gave them jewels and clothing to induce them to go quickly.
So the whole Israelitish nation—some six hundred thousand men without counting the women and children—set forth, on foot and in the night, under the leadership of Moses, for the land of Canaan. With them they took the coffin containing the embalmed body of Joseph, which had been carefully kept in Egypt since his death. And God showed them the way they were to go by having a cloud move before them in the daytime, and gave it the appearance of fire at night.
The shortest way to the Promised Land, which lay along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, led through the country of the Philistines, a warlike people who afterwards became the inveterate enemies of the Israelites, but with whom they were not now able to contend. So they traveled in a southeasterly direction until they came to that part of the Red Sea which is now called the Gulf of Suez.
Pharaoh in the meanwhile had recovered from his terror and remorse, and with a mighty army was pursuing the Israelites, intending to take them back to Egypt. He first came in sight of them encamped upon the African border of the Gulf. When the Israelites knew that they were pursued they turned angrily upon Moses and Aaron for taking them away from Egypt. But Moses told them to trust God for He would not let Pharaoh overtake them.
Then Moses lifted his rod and stretched it out over the waters, and God sent a strong east wind which forced them back and left a passage for the wandering people to cross to the other shore. So on they marched in the fury of the storm, while Pharaoh and his host were overwhelmed by the waters, which rushed back again after the children of Israel had reached the further side.
Then the Israelites broke out into songs of praise and thanksgiving to God, who had so marvelously preserved them from Pharaoh’s anger, led by Miriam, the sister of Moses, the one who had watched him as a baby in his little papyrus boat among the rushes on the bank of the Nile.
During the next three days of their journey no water was found. Then they came to a well, but the water was not fit to drink. Again they found fault with Moses, but he threw a tree which God showed him into the well and the water at once became sweet and good.
Before long they were traveling in a desert country and their stock of food gave out. As before, the Israelites accused Moses of having led them from Egypt to die in the wilderness. But God sent them great flocks of quails, upon which they fed, and covered the ground every morning with a curious substance, round and white, which was good to eat. In wonder the Israelites exclaimed “Man-hu?” which meant “What is it?” and so this mysterious food began to be called manna.
Then they got out of the desert and camped at a place called Rephidim. But here there was no water, and the people became so angry with Moses that they were ready to kill him. Then God told Moses to strike one of the rocks with his rod and water poured out in abundance.
Then a new trouble came upon the wandering nation. A people called the Amalekites attacked them, and for the first time since leaving Egypt they were obliged to defend themselves by fighting.
Moses chose a young man named Joshua to be the leader of a selected band and sent him to do battle for the children of Israel, while he held up his hands in prayer to God to help His people. So long as Moses’ hands were uplifted Joshua was victorious, but when from weariness he let them fall then the Amalekites prevailed. So Aaron on one side and Hur on the other supported his weary arms and at sunset Joshua had won the battle.
Shortly after this Moses was visited by Jethro, his father-in-law, who brought with him Moses’ wife and two sons, who had remained with him in Midian for safety. Moses welcomed them and told Jethro all the wonderful things God had done for His people. Then Jethro said, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.”
From Rephidim the Israelites passed into the desert of Sinai and from the top of Mount Sinai God gave Moses a message for them. Among clouds from which lightning gleamed and thunder muttered, Moses was given the Ten Commandments, which were to be kept by the Israelites and their children, and laws which they were to observe.
A second time Moses was called to communion with God on Mount Sinai, and Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of the children of Israel were permitted to accompany him a part of the way, while he and Joshua, the young leader of the Israelites in their first battle, went on further.
After waiting for six days Moses went alone nearer to the top of the mountain and staid there forty days and forty nights while God disclosed to him His purposes regarding the children of Israel, and delivered into his hands two tables or tablets of stone upon which He had graven the Ten Commandments.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai a strange sight met his eyes. In his absence the fickle Israelites had persuaded Aaron to make them an idol such as they had seen in Egypt and which they could worship. They had given Aaron their jewels of gold and he had made of them a golden calf, to which they were now bowing down and offering sacrifices. In his anger Moses cast the tablets of stone from him and in their fall they were broken.
Then after reproaching Aaron for what he had done, Moses destroyed the golden calf by fire and by grinding it to powder, and strewed the ashes and powder upon water, which he made the Israelites drink.
Then he stood at the gate of the camp and called for all those who were on the Lord’s side to come and stand beside him. The children of Levi, the third son of Jacob, answered this call, and Moses told them to go through the camp and slay every man they met. This they did, and three thousand Israelites fell at that time.
After this God told Moses to make two tablets of stone like those he had broken, and with them come alone to Him on Mount Sinai, where He would engrave upon them the words which were on the first tablets. Moses did this, and when he came down from the mountain his face shone so that Aaron and the people were afraid to speak to him until he had put a veil over it.
For more than a year the Israelites remained near Mount Sinai, and during that time Moses told them, among other things which God had imparted to him, how the Tabernacle was to be made, who its priests were to be, and how the services were to be conducted. The people brought him all the material they had that was suitable for those purposes, and skilful men built the beautiful and costly Tabernacle, in which was placed the Ark of the Covenant, which they were also instructed to make.
Aaron was appointed high priest and his four sons were made priests to assist him in the services. The Sabbath or seventh day was to be strictly kept, and various feasts and ceremonies were instituted. Particularly the feast of the Passover was enjoined upon the Israelites to commemorate God’s mercy in passing over their homes when the first-born of the Egyptians were slain.
Then the pillar of cloud, which, with the pillar of fire, had never ceased to show the Israelites the way they were to go in their journeys, rested over the Tabernacle, and at this sign that they were to resume their march to the land of Canaan, the children of Israel marched forth once more and in time came to Kadesh-barnea, near the borders of the promised land.
Then a man was chosen from each of the twelve tribes to see what the land of Canaan was like and to find the best way of entering it. They were gone for forty days, and when they returned their accounts differed. All agreed as to the exceeding fruitfulness of the land, in proof of which they brought back a bunch of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it. But only two advised an immediate advance into the land. These were Joshua, the young general, and a man named Caleb.
The ten remaining messengers frightened the people by their account of the giants and warlike tribes they would have to encounter and the many dangers that would have to be met, and the people, fickle as ever, believed these reports and again reproached their faithful leader.
But their punishment was swift and severe. The ten messengers of evil died on the spot, and God commanded Moses to tell the people that, for their doubting and faultfinding, not one of them over twenty years old except Joshua and Caleb should enter the land of Canaan. Their children might do so, but they could never set foot in it. They were to wander in the desert until they died.
After thirty-eight years the wandering nation, which during this time had been fed with manna and so cared for by God that they were neither footsore, neither did their clothes wear out, was again encamped at Kadesh-barnea. In the interval great numbers of the people had died, and here Miriam, the sister of Moses and of Aaron, died and was buried. Water was again scarce, and the people, as formerly, heaped reproaches upon Moses and Aaron, who asked God what to do.
God told them to speak to one of the rocks and it would produce water in plenty. Instead of doing exactly what they were told, Moses and Aaron first rebuked the people and then Moses struck the rock with his rod. An abundant supply of water followed, but for this act of disobedience and this display of irritation, both of the brothers were forbidden to enter the land of Canaan.
Before long Aaron died at the age of one hundred and twenty-three years and was buried in Mount Hor. After mourning him for thirty days, the people again broke out into discontent and in punishment were bitten by venomous serpents, which were sent among them for that purpose. Many died in this way, and then the people turned to Moses, who prayed to God in their behalf. God told Moses to make a serpent of brass and raise it upon a pole high above the heads of the people, and every one who looked upon this serpent, although he had been bitten, was healed at once.
At last the Israelites came within sight of their inheritance and Moses’ work was nearly done. He appointed Joshua to succeed him and lead the children of Israel into the land of Canaan. Then he gathered the people together and made them an affectionate farewell address. He wrote down for them all the words of the laws which God had given him for them and gave them to the priest.
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab onto a mountain from which he could look over the land of Canaan, which he was not to enter, and there he died. He was one hundred and twenty years old, yet we are told that his eyesight was undimmed. Where he was buried no one knows. The Bible says, “The Lord buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor.”