Category: “What should we learn from the life of Moses?”


The Bible does not say much about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. We know that she was the daughter of a man called Jethro (or Reuel), who was a priest in the land of Midian (Exodus 3:1; cf. 2:18). The Bible does not explicitly say that Moses had more than one wife. However, Numbers 12:1 leads many to surmise another wife: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.” The question of the number of Moses’ wives hinges on the identity of this Cushite (or Ethiopian) woman. Is this a reference to Zipporah? Or is this another woman?

First, some background. While he was still in Egypt, Moses killed an Egyptian guard who was assaulting a Hebrew slave, and he hid the body. Soon, Moses got word that Pharaoh knew what he had done and was going to kill him, so he fled from Egypt to the land of Midian to avoid prosecution. When he got to Midian, he sat down by a well, and there he encountered a family living in that area. The priest of Midian had seven daughters, shepherdesses who came to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds tried to drive the women away, but Moses fought the shepherds off and helped the women, even drawing water for their animals. The seven reported this heroic action to their father, and he asked Moses to come and eat with his family. Sometime later, Moses was married to Zipporah, the daughter of Reuel, the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16–22).

In later chapters Reuel is called Jethro. There is no explanation for this name change, but the title “priest of Midian” accompanies both names, and he is called Moses’ father-in-law, so it is safe to assume this was the same man. The only other possibility is that there were two priests of Midian, one called Jethro and one called Reuel and that Moses had married a daughter from each family—but that would be very unlikely.

More evidence that Moses only had one wife is found in Exodus 4:20: “Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt.” Wife is singular, and there is no mention of any other wife or wives that Moses had. On the way to Egypt, Zipporah circumcised their son and thus saved her husband’s life—Moses had neglected to obey the Lord in this matter, and the Lord would have killed Moses had not Zipporah intervened (Exodus 4:24–26). After this event, it seems that Moses sent Zipporah and his sons back home to stay with Jethro. We don’t encounter Zipporah again until after the exodus when she returns to Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 18).

That brings us to Numbers 12:1 and the reference to Moses’ marriage to the Cushite, or Ethiopian. It is possible, though not probable, that the Cushite is Zipporah. Arguing against that possibility are two facts: 1) the link between Midianites and Ethiopians is very difficult to trace convincingly; and 2) the objection to the marriage raised by Miriam and Aaron seems to indicate a recent event. Moses and Zipporah would have been married for over 40 years by this time, and it is unlikely that Moses’ siblings would just then be protesting. Much more likely is that Zipporah had died (although her death is not recorded in Scripture) and that Moses had remarried.

Some see in Moses’ marriages to two Gentiles as prefiguring the gospel message going into all the world, blessing even the Gentiles (see Acts 1:8). Zipporah the Midianite was related to the Israelites but only through Abraham’s son by a concubine (Genesis 25:1–2); the Cushite was farther removed from the lineage of Israel. Moses’ marriages expanded in a widening circle into the Gentile world, helping to show that in Abraham’s seed all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

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Moses’ mother, Jochebed, was a Hebrew woman living in slavery in Egypt before the exodus. She was the daughter of a Levite, and she married Amram, another Levite (Exodus 2:1). According to Exodus 6:20, Jochebed married her nephew; thus, she was Amram’s aunt as well as his wife. We know that Moses was born several years after their marriage because she already had a daughter, who was old enough at the time of Moses’ infancy to act as a lookout (Exodus 2:4). This was likely Moses’ sister, Miriam the prophetess, who is mentioned by name in Exodus 15:20. Along with Moses and Miriam, Jochebed had at least one other sibling, Moses’ brother Aaron (Exodus 6:20).

Moses was born during a troubled time for the Israelites in Egypt. The king had decreed that midwives were to kill all Hebrew boys when they were born, leaving only the girls alive. This pogrom was Pharaoh’s attempt to control the population of the Israelites, who were strong and growing in numbers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 1:8–16). There was rebellion against this murderous decree in many quarters. The Hebrew midwives refused to participate in the infanticide and deceived Pharaoh so they could avoid killing the baby boys (Exodus 1:17–19). Moses’ mother Jochebed hid Moses in a basket of bulrushes and set him afloat on the Nile River to preserve his life (Exodus 2:3). Even Pharaoh’s own daughter disobeyed the decree when she found Moses in the basket and took pity on him, adopting him as her own child (Exodus 2:5–10). Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and it was also Pharaoh’s daughter who named him. Jochebed, in an astonishing example of God’s providence and mercy, became Moses’ nurse and was paid by the king for her service (Exodus 2:7–9).

There is no other information about Moses’ mother in the Bible. Interestingly, the Qur’an tells the story of Jochebed’s decision to hide Moses, with little variation in the particulars of the biblical story—though the Qur’an adds some details about Jochebed’s pregnancy that the Bible does not corroborate.

Miriam in the Bible is Moses’ older sister. She is called “Miriam the prophetess” in Exodus 15:20. She plays an important role in several episodes of Moses’ life and in the exodus of Israel from Egypt.

Miriam is most likely the sister who watches over her baby brother Moses among the bulrushes on the banks of the Nile. Their mother had hidden Moses in a basket on the river bank to protect him from Pharaoh’s decree to throw all Hebrew baby boys into the river (Exodus 1:22—2:4). As Miriam watches, Pharaoh’s daughter discovers and pities Moses, and Miriam quickly intervenes to ask if the Egyptian princess would like a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for her. The princess agrees, and Miriam quickly gets their mother. Pharaoh’s daughter commands Moses’ biological mother to nurse him and bring him back to her when he is older. By the grace of God, Miriam helps save the infant Moses (Exodus 2:5–10).

Miriam had another brother, Aaron. Their parents, Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20), were both from the Levite tribe of Israel (Exodus 2:1). Together, God uses Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to lead the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan (Micah 6:4). After miraculously crossing the Red Sea on dry ground and seeing the Egyptian army overthrown in the sea, Miriam leads the women with a tambourine in worshipping God with song and dance (Exodus 15:20–22). The words to Miriam’s song are recorded in verse 21: “Sing to the Lord, / for he is highly exalted. / Both horse and driver / he has hurled into the sea.” In this same passage, she is given the title “prophetess,” the first of only a handful of women in Scripture identified that way. Others called a “prophetess” are Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9).

Unfortunately, Miriam later falls into a spirit of complaining. Both Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite or Ethiopian woman, but Miriam is listed first (Numbers 12:1) so it is likely she instigated the complaint. While the complaint was ostensibly against Moses’ wife, the discontent ran deeper: “‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’” (Exodus 12:2). In her criticism, Miriam was questioning the Lord’s wisdom in choosing Moses as the leader.

God was angry that Miriam and Aaron were so willing to speak against the servant He had chosen. The Lord struck Miriam with leprosy. Aaron, realizing the foolishness of their words, repented of his sin, and Moses, ever the intercessor, prayed on behalf of his sister: “Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, God, heal her!’” (Numbers 12:13). After a week-long quarantine, Miriam was healed and rejoined the camp. As Miriam’s leprosy convicted Aaron of the foolish words they had spoken against God’s chosen servant, it should also remind us not to judge those around us or live in jealousy when God has given a specific call to someone else (see Titus 3:1–15; James 1:26; 4:11–12; Ephesians 4:31; Philippians 4:8). Miriam had an opportunity to show the people of Israel what it meant to live in love as a servant of God without complaining, and, for most of her life, she did; but she failed in the matter of Moses’ wife. We, too, have opportunities to show the grumblers and complainers around us what it is to be a servant of Jesus Christ. Let us draw them to Jesus through our love and servanthood and not be drawn away from Him ourselves.

Our next encounter with Miriam is at the end of the 40-year desert wandering. Because of their grumbling and lack of faith in God, the first generation of Israelites to leave captivity was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. This included the prophetess Miriam. Most of the older generation had already died in the wilderness when Israel comes back to Kadesh, where they had started their wanderings. It’s here that Miriam dies and is buried (Numbers 20:1). Hers was a life of responsibility and service, of God’s calling and providence, yet it also reminds us that no one is too important to receive God’s discipline for personal sin (see 1 Corinthians 10:12).

Moses is one of the most prominent figures in the Old Testament. While Abraham  is called the “Father of the Faithful” and the recipient of God’s unconditional  covenant of grace to His people, Moses was the man chosen to bring redemption to  His people. God specifically chose Moses to lead the Israelites from captivity  in Egypt to salvation in the Promised Land. Moses is also recognized as the  mediator of the Old Covenant and is commonly referred to as the giver of the  Law. Finally, Moses is the principal author of the Pentateuch, the foundational  books of the entire Bible. Moses’ role in the Old Testament is a type and shadow  of the role Jesus plays in the New Testament. As such, his life is definitely  worth examining.

We first encounter Moses in the opening chapters of the  book of Exodus. In chapter 1, we learn that after the patriarch Joseph rescued  his family from the great famine and situated them in the land of Goshen (in  Egypt), the descendants of Abraham lived in peace for several generations until  there rose to power in Egypt a pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This pharaoh subjugated the Hebrew people  and used them as slaves for his massive building projects. Because God blessed  the Hebrew people with rapid numeric growth, the Egyptians began to fear the  increasing number of Jews living in their land. So pharaoh ordered the death of  all male children born to Hebrew women (Exodus  1:22).

In Exodus 2, we see Moses’ mother attempting to save her  child by placing him in a basket and putting it into the Nile. The basket was  eventually found by pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopts him as her own and raises  him in the palace of the pharaoh himself. As Moses grows into adulthood, he  begins to empathize with the plight of his people, and upon witnessing an  Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses intervenes and kills the Egyptian. In  another incident, Moses attempts to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews,  but one of the Hebrews rebukes Moses and sarcastically comments, “Are you going  to kill me as you did the Egyptian?” (Exodus  2:14). Realizing that his criminal act was made known, Moses flees to the  land of Midian where he again plays the hero—this time to the daughters of  Jethro by rescuing them from some bandits. In gratitude, Jethro grants the hand  of his daughter Zipporah to Moses.

The next major incident in Moses’  life is his encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3), where God calls  Moses to be the savior of His people. The rest of the story is fairly well known  (especially if you’ve seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments or the  animated movie The Prince of Egypt). Moses and his brother, Aaron, go to  pharaoh in God’s name and demand that he let the people go to worship their God.  Pharaoh stubbornly refuses, and ten plagues of God’s judgment fall upon the  people and the land, the final plague being the slaying of the firstborn. Prior  to this final plague, God commands Moses to institute the Passover, which is  commemorative of God’s saving act in redeeming His people from bondage in  Egypt.

After the exodus, Moses leads the people to the edge of the Red  Sea where God provides another saving miracle by parting the waters and allowing  the Hebrews to pass to the other side while drowning the Egyptian army (Exodus  14). Moses brings the people to the foot of Mount Sinai where the Law is given  and the Old Covenant established between God and the newly formed nation of  Israel (Exodus 19 – 24).

The rest of the book of Exodus and the entire  book of Leviticus take place while the Israelites are encamped at the foot of  Sinai. God gives Moses detailed instructions for the building of the  tabernacle—a traveling tent of worship that could be assembled and disassembled  for easy portability—and for making the utensils for worship, the priestly garb,  and the ark of the covenant, symbolic of God’s presence among His people as well  as the place where the high priest would perform the annual atonement. God also  gives Moses explicit instructions on how God is to be worshipped and guidelines  for maintaining purity and holiness among the people. The book of Numbers sees  the Israelites move from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land, but they refuse  to go in when ten out of twelve spies bring back a bad report about Israel’s  ability to take over the land. God condemns this generation of Jews to die in  the wilderness for their disobedience and subjects them to 40 years of wandering  in the wilderness. By the end of the book of Numbers, the next generation of  Israelites is back on the borders of the Promised Land and poised to trust God  and take it by faith.

The book of Deuteronomy shows Moses giving several  sermon-type speeches to the people, reminding them of God’s saving power and  faithfulness. He gives the second reading of the Law (Deuteronomy 5) and  prepares this generation of Israelites to receive the promises of God. Moses  himself is prohibited from entering the land because of his sin at Meribah (Numbers  20:10-13). At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ death is recorded  (Deuteronomy 34). He is taken up Mount Nebo and is allowed to look upon the  Promised Land. Moses was 120 years old when he died, and the Bible records that  his “eye was undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy  34:7).

That’s Moses’ life in a nutshell; now what can we learn from  his life? Moses’ life is generally broken down into three 40-year periods. The  first is his life in the court of pharaoh. As the adopted son of pharaoh’s  daughter, Moses would have had all the perks and privileges of a prince of  Egypt. He was instructed “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty  in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). As  the plight of the Hebrews began to gnaw at his soul, Moses takes it upon himself  to be the savior of his people. As Stephen says before the Jewish ruling  council, “[Moses] supposed that his brothers would understand that God was  giving them salvation by his hand” (Acts 7:25).  From this incident, we learn that Moses was a man of action as well as a man  possessed of a hot temper and prone to rash actions. Did God want to save His  people? Yes. Did God want to use Moses as His chosen instrument of salvation?  Yes. But Moses, whether or not he was truly cognizant of his role in the  salvation of the Hebrew people, acted rashly and impetuously. He tried to do in  his timing what God wanted done in His timing. The lesson for us is obvious: we  must be acutely aware of not only doing God’s will, but doing God’s will in His  timing, not ours. As is the case with too many other biblical examples to count,  when we attempt to do God’s will in our timing, we make a bigger mess than  originally existed.

Moses needed time to grow and mature and learn to be  meek and humble before God, and this brings us to the next chapter in Moses’  life, his 40 years in the land of Midian. During this time, Moses learned the  simple life of a shepherd, a husband, and a father. God took an impulsive and  hot-tempered young man and began the process of molding and shaping him into the  perfect instrument for God to use. What can we learn from this time in his life?  If the first lesson is to wait on God’s timing, the second lesson is to not be  idle while we wait on God’s timing. While the Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time  on the details of this part of Moses’ life, it’s not as if Moses were sitting  idly by waiting for God’s call. He spent the better part of 40 years learning  the ins and outs of being a shepherd and supporting and raising a family. These  are not trivial things! While we might long for the “mountain top” experiences  with God, 99 percent of our lives are lived in the valley doing the mundane,  day-to-day things that make up a life. We need to be living for God “in the  valley” before He will enlist us into the battle.

Another thing we see  from Moses during his time spent in Midian is that, when God finally did call  him into service, Moses was resistant. The man of action early in his life,  Moses, now 80 years old, became overly timid. When called to speak for God,  Moses said he was “slow of speech and tongue.” Some commentators believe that  Moses may have had a speech impediment. Perhaps, but then it would be odd for  Stephen to say Moses was “mighty in words and deeds.” Perhaps Moses just didn’t  want to go back into Egypt and fall flat on his face again. This isn’t an  uncommon feeling. How many of us have tried to do something (whether or not it  was for God) and failed, and then been hesitant to try again? There are two  things Moses seemed to have overlooked. One was the obvious change that had  occurred in his own life in the intervening 40 years. The other, and more  important, change was that God would be with him. Moses failed at first not so  much because he acted impulsively, but because he acted without God. Therefore,  the lesson to be learned here is that when you discern a clear call from God,  step forward in faith, knowing that God goes with you! Do not be timid, but be  strong in the Lord and in the power of his might (Ephesians  6:10).

The third and final chapter in Moses’ life is the chapter  that Scripture spends the most time chronicling, namely, his role in the  redemption of Israel. Several lessons can be gleaned from this chapter of Moses’  life as well. First is how to be an effective leader of people. Moses  essentially had responsibility over 2 million Hebrew refugees. When things began  to wear on him, his father-in-law, Jethro, suggested that he delegate  responsibility to other faithful men, a lesson that many people in authority  over others need to learn. We also see a man who was dependent on the grace of  God to help with his task. Moses was continually pleading on behalf of the  people before God. Would that all people in authority would petition God on  behalf of those over whom they are in charge! Moses’ life also teaches us the  lesson that there are certain sins that will continue to haunt us throughout our  lives. The same hot temper that got Moses into trouble in Egypt also got him  into trouble during the wilderness wanderings. In the aforementioned incident at  Meribah, Moses struck the rock in anger in order to provide water for the  people. However, he didn’t give God the glory, nor did he follow God’s precise  commands. Because of this, God forbade him from entering the Promised Land. In a  similar manner, we all succumb to certain besetting sins which plague us all our  days, sins that require us to be on constant alert.

These are just a  handful of practical lessons that we can learn from Moses’ life. However, if we  look at Moses’ life in light of the overall panoply of Scripture, we see larger  theological truths that fit into the story of redemption. The author of Hebrews  devotes ten verses of chapter 11 to Moses and the faith he exhibited. We learn  that it was by faith that Moses refused the glories of pharaoh’s palace to  identify with the plight of his people. The writer of Hebrews says, “[Moses]  considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt”  (Hebrews  11:26). Moses’ life was one of faith, and we know that without faith it is  impossible to please God (Hebrews  11:6). Likewise, it is by faith that we, looking forward to heavenly riches,  can endure temporal hardships in this lifetime (2  Corinthians 4:17-18).

As mentioned earlier, we also know that Moses’  life was typological of the life of Christ. Like Christ, Moses was the mediator  of a covenant. Again, the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to demonstrate  this point (cf. Hebrews 3, 8–10). The Apostle Paul also makes the same points in  2 Corinthians 3. The difference is that the covenant that Moses mediated was  temporal and conditional, whereas the covenant that Christ mediates is eternal  and unconditional. Like Christ, Moses provided redemption for his people. Moses  delivered the people of Israel out of slavery and bondage in Egypt and brought  them to the Promised Land of Canaan. Christ delivers His people out of bondage  and slavery to sin and condemnation and brings them to the Promised Land of  eternal life on a renewed earth when Christ returns to consummate the kingdom He  inaugurated at His first coming. Like Christ, Moses was a prophet to his people.  Moses spoke the very words of God to the Israelites just as Christ did (John 17:8). Moses predicted  that the Lord would raise up another prophet like him from among the people (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus and the early church believed  and taught that Moses was speaking of Jesus when he wrote those words (cf. John 5:46, Acts 3:22, 7:37). In so  many ways, Moses’ life is a precursor to the life of Christ. As such, we can  catch a glimpse of how God was working His plan of redemption in the lives of  faithful people throughout human history. This gives us hope that just as God  saved His people and gave them rest through the actions of Moses, so, too, will  God save us and give us an eternal Sabbath rest in Christ; both now and in the  life to come.

Finally, it is interesting to note that even though Moses  never set foot in the Promised Land during his lifetime, he was given an  opportunity to enter the Promised Land after his death. On the mount of  transfiguration, when Jesus gave His disciples a taste of His full glory, He was  accompanied by two Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, who represented the  Law and the Prophets. Moses is, this day, experiencing the true Sabbath rest in  Christ that one day all Christians will share (Hebrews  4:9).

In Numbers  20:8, the Lord told Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron  gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it  will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community  so they and their livestock can drink.” Numbers  20:9-11 records Moses’ response: “So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s  presence, just as He commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together  in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring  you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock  twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their  livestock drank.” Numbers  20:12 gives us the Lord’s response, “But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron,  “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the  Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give  them.”

What did Moses do that warranted such a severe penalty from the  Lord? First, Moses disobeyed a direct command from God. God had commanded Moses  to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff. Second,  Moses took the credit for bringing forth the water. Notice how in verse 10 Moses  said, “Must we [referring to Moses and Aaron] bring you water out of this rock?”  Moses took credit for the miracle himself, instead of attributing it to God.  Third, Moses did this in front of all the Israelites. Such a public example of  direct disobedience could not go unpunished. Moses’ punishment was that he would  not be allowed to enter the Promised Land (Numbers  20:12).