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  • Writer's pictureRuss Meek

Moses the Murderer?

Maybe you’ve stumbled across a small story tucked into the Moses narrative. Exodus 2:11–15 tell us that after he was rescued from certain death by the Hebrew midwives and pulled from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses killed an Egyptian man and hid him in the sand. On the surface, it seems like Moses commits murder and pretty much gets away with it (he’d have about a 50/50 chance at the same in the US). That’s how I used to understand the story. But if we look a little closer, and take note of Stephen’s retelling of Moses’s story in Acts 7, it’s clear that Moses was no murderer. But he was definitely naïve about how easy it would be to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. The passage reads:

Years later, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his own people and observed their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his people. Looking all around and seeing no one, he struck the Egyptian dead and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you attacking your neighbor?”

“Who made you a commander and judge over us? ” the man replied. “Are you planning to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? ”

Then Moses became afraid and thought, “What I did is certainly known.”

When Pharaoh heard about this, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. (Exodus 2:11–15, CSB)

Moses certainly seems guilty because he 1) looks around to make sure he’s alone before “struck the Egyptian dead”; 2) hides the body (who buries a dead body unless they’ve done something wrong?); and 3) skips town when he realizes that his furtive fisticuffs weren’t so furtive after all.

The exculpatory evidence comes in the first few sentences of the story. Moses “observed their forced labor” and “saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew.” Moses, in turn, strikes back (the “dead” part isn’t in the Hebrew text—the translators added that part, but it’s obvious since Moses buried the Egyptian’s body). Moses was acting in defense of another person. That is, he didn’t just go out and kill an Egyptian for sport. Instead, he saw physical abuse with his own eyes and intervened in that moment on behalf of his fellow Hebrew. This is the same interpretation that Stephen gives in his sermon to the men who were about to stone him to death: “When [Moses] was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. When he saw one of them being mistreated, he came to his rescue and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian” (Acts 7:23–24, CSB).

It was a long and hard road indeed, but he didn’t give up. We can’t give up either.

There are a few things we can learn from this short narrative. First, even before Yahweh appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the divine mandate to lead Israel out of slavery, Moses already identified with his enslaved people. He grew up in Egyptian luxury, yet he left the gated community to walk about with the enslaved. Like Yahweh in Exodus 1, Moses saw his people.

I first saw oppression when I read The Autobiography of Malcom X in sixth grade. Then a few months ago I read my six-year-old the book Martin’s Big Words. At the end of the book, his eyes red and rimmed with tears, Ari slammed his fist onto the bed. “They shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “They shouldn’t do that to people.” Ari and I—and you—need to see the oppressed and identify with them if we have any hope of loving our neighbors well.

Second, Moses acted. I suppose we can debate whether he acted rashly or not (the NT seems to think not), but he definitely acted. I’m not suggesting we go around beating people to death, but we should do what we can do. Acting on behalf of the oppressed may mean that you end up exiled for forty years like Moses, or get your head chopped off like John the Baptist, or get nailed to a cross like Jesus Christ. You’ll most definitely get kicked in the teeth. But that’s okay. It’s worth it.

Third, the road to deliverance was a lot longer and a lot harder than Moses could have imagined. Acts 7:25 tells us that Moses “assumed his people would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand.” That is, Moses was naïve. Nobody rose up in support of him. No revolution ensued. Maybe some folks quietly thanked him for his efforts to fight abuse and defend the weak, but no one was willing to stand next to him publicly. So Moses fled to Midian, where he spent forty years before finally returning (at 80!) to confront Pharaoh and lead God’s people out of Egypt. Even then, the trip out of Egypt only happened after ten plagues, including the horrifying plague that claimed the lives of all the firstborn in Egypt. And then Pharaoh pursued Israel even in the desert.

You’ll most definitely get kicked in the teeth. But that’s okay. It’s worth it.

It was a long and hard road indeed, but he didn’t give up. We can’t give up either.

There’s absolutely a spiritual element to all this. Everyone without Christ lives under the oppression of the evil one, and the only hope any of us have is the gospel of Jesus Christ—the prophet like Moses par excellence. We must tell people the good news that Christ died, was buried, and on the third day rose again and ascended to the Father’s right hand. But there’s also an in-this-life element to the gospel. Loving God and loving neighbor, like story in Exodus 2 shows us, means that we also fight against sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, racism, and all other efforts to harm humans created in God’s image.


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