Moses is a very unlikely hero of the Pentateuch. In usual fictional tales, the hero is some sort of chosen individual, endowed with special powers, who is born into royalty but is subsequently disenfranchised. This is before they return to power and overcome all odds. In the Greek myth of Oedipus, Oedipus is born into royalty. His father attempts to kill him, but the child ends up being raised by peasants. Oedipus rises to rule through a series of challenges and claims his rightful rule.
Moses, in contrast, is born into obscurity. Moses is abandoned and then raised by nobility. In a fit of rage (when Moses is 40 years of age), Moses murders a man and flees. Moses spends an additional 40 years as a shepherd. When God calls Moses (at around age 80) to be His prophet, Moses resists. Moses does not want to talk to pharaoh and Moses wants to live his own life. In Exodus 4, Moses thinks the people will reject him and has no confidence in God’s plans. God is even angered as Moses invents excuses to withdraw from being God’s messenger. Moses is depicted as cowardly and highly resistant. God is forced to call on Aaron to right Moses’ objections.
Every interaction that Moses has with God is plagued with resistance, disbelief, and insecurity. Moses even undermines God at times. In Exodus 3, the reader sees their first interaction between Moses and God:
Exo 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
In Exodus 3:11, Moses hints to God that God may have chosen the wrong man. If this text is not clear, the narrative reinforces that Moses believed this.
Exo 3:13 Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
In Exodus 3:13, Moses questions if he will be received by Israel. Moses wonders how he can talk to Israel and what power name to offer. Perhaps annoyed, God offers Moses the name “I AM WHO I AM.” This might not be a satisfactory answer to Moses. Moses and Israel had not known God by the name of “I AM WHO I AM” before this point (Exo 6:3), so it may not of held any reverence. Moses’ question reveals his lack of confidence in the entire affair.
In Chapter 4, Moses continues his resistance:
Exo 4:1 Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.’ ”
Moses again tries to poke holes in God’s plan. Moses wonders how he will convince Israel that he is acting as God’s prophet. God offers Moses power signs. God has Moses cast his rod on the ground:
Exo 4:3 And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.
Moses runs away. The picture is of a timid and untrusting prophet. Although now able to work power acts, Moses still continues in objection:
Exo 4:10 Then Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
First Moses objects that he does not know what to say. Then Moses objects that he does not have Yahweh’s name. Then Moses objects that the people will not listen. Now Moses objects that he is a poor speaker. Moses then point-blank asks for someone else to be sent instead of him:
Exo 4:13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.”
God becomes furious. God will not allow Moses to undo his appointment.
Exo 4:14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.
God solves this problem too. God offers Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece. Aaron becomes the official communicator:
Exo 4:30 And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people.
While Moses was the prophet, Aaron continued in the official capacity as mouthpiece:
Exo 7:2 You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land.
In Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh about letting Israel out of bondage. Pharaoh responds by increasing Israel’s workload. The people blame Moses and Moses blames God:
Exo 5:22 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me?
Exo 5:23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.”
Moses then again attempts to be dismissed from being God’s prophet:
Exo 6:12 And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying, “The children of Israel have not heeded me. How then shall Pharaoh heed me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?”
Exo 6:30 But Moses said before the LORD, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh heed me?”
Moses does not want to approach Pharaoh again. It did not work the first time and Moses only sees Pharaoh rejecting him. God responds by pointing out that Aaron will be doing the talking. God will also multiply signs in the land of Egypt. God also points out that God does not want Pharaoh to respond. If Pharaoh does not listen to Moses (as Moses knows will happen) then Pharaoh will be playing into God’s plan.
Over the next 13 chapters, there is not really dialogue between Moses and God. Moses performs per God’s commands and leads Israel out of Egypt. Moses is learning to accept God’s tasks and Moses is performing. Once out of Egypt, Moses starts to gain confidence and courage. But in spite of this, Moses is stubborn and confrontational towards God at times.
In Exodus 19, Moses has led Israel out of Egypt and Israel is camped at the base of Mount Sinai. God believes that Moses needs to warn the people not to look at God. Moses does not think this is necessary:
Exo 19:21 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the LORD, and many of them perish.
Exo 19:22 Also let the priests who come near the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.”
Exo 19:23 But Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it.’ ”
Exo 19:24 Then the LORD said to him, “Away! Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them.”
In verse 21-22, God tells Moses to warn the people not to look upon God, lest they die. But Moses thinks God’s warning is redundant. Moses thinks the barriers that were set up are enough to contain the people. Lord is not impressed by Moses’ speculation and then tells Moses to seriously warn the people. In this exchange Moses is undermining God’s expectations. Moses is differing to his own judgment over God’s.
As a side note: it is interesting that Moses is contending with God on possible future states. Moses believes that he can inform God on the future probabilities. Moses does not think God has future omniscience.
In Exodus 32, Moses confronts God on God’s plans to destroy Israel. Moses ignores God’s commands to leave Him alone. Moses then argues that God should not destroy Israel on the basis that it would look bad to pagan nations. Although this is not an example of Moses undermining God (God takes Moses’ console in the end), it shows tension between God and Moses. In Exodus 33, God is said to have shown favor to Moses, and God then exposes His own backside to Moses on request.
In Numbers, there are several conversations between God and Moses that show complaint, tension, and irreverence. In Numbers 11, the people complain and God begins killing them in anger as a result. Moses intercedes and the killing stops. The people then complain again about not having meat, although food is plentiful. Moses embarks on a tirade against God:
Num 11:10 Then Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased.
Num 11:11 So Moses said to the LORD, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me?
Num 11:12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers?
Num 11:13 Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’
Num 11:14 I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me.
Num 11:15 If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!”
Moses’ monologue asks why God is punishing him. Moses wonders why he is the one that must lead the people. He wonders what connection he has to the people that make them his responsibility. The implicit point is that the people are God’s and God should be providing for their complaints. Moses asks to die rather than have to deal with the complaining people anymore.
God’s response is almost mocking: God will feed Israel with meat until they are sick with meat. God then kills some of Israel with plague while they eat. Moses’ tensions are high. God’s tensions are high. This is not the joyous and pious Exodus which one would expect. The people of Israel are wearying Moses and wearying God. Both are ready to quit.
Moses’ final major affront to God is disobedience. God tells Moses to “speak to the rock” in order to work God’s power, but Moses strikes it instead (showing a lack in faith):
Num 20:7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
Num 20:8 “Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.”
Num 20:9 So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him.
Num 20:10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock; and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?”
Num 20:11 Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank.
Num 20:12 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”
In short, Moses is an unlikely hero of the Exodus. Moses is an anti-hero. Moses (who is an old man at the time) complains, is cowardly, undermines God, and generally holds little confidence in God’s plans. Practically every dialogue between Moses and God does not look favorably on Moses. Moses is not the strong and confident leader that is depicted in modern portrayals the Exodus. But God favors Moses, nonetheless. God listens to Moses and elevates Moses to stature. God communes with Moses “face to face” (Exo 33:11). It is Moses who goes down in history as one of God’s closest friends. It is Moses, the antihero, that God choses to save Israel.