Something Greater Than the Treasures of Egypt
MOSES is among the greatest of all historical figures. Four Bible books—from Exodus to Deuteronomy—almost exclusively recount God’s dealings with Israel under Moses’ leadership. He directed their Exodus from Egypt, mediated the Law covenant, and guided Israel to the border of the Promised Land. Moses had been raised in Pharaoh’s household, but he became the authorized commander of God’s people, as well as a prophet, judge, and divinely inspired writer. Yet, he was ‘by far the meekest of all men.’—Numbers 12:3.
Most of what the Bible details about Moses involves the last 40 years of his life, covering the period from Israel’s release from slavery to Moses’ death at the age of 120. From age 40 to 80, he was a shepherd in Midian. But, says one source, “perhaps the most intriguing part of his life, and yet one that is most obscure,” is his first 40 years, from his birth to his flight from Egypt. Just what can we discern about this period? How could the circumstances of Moses’ upbringing have affected the man he turned out to be? To what influences would he have been subject? What challenges would he have had to face? And what can all of this teach us?
Slavery in Egypt
The book of Exodus relates that a Pharaoh began to fear Israelite settlers in Egypt because of their proliferation. Believing that he was acting “shrewdly,” he attempted to reduce their numbers by subjecting them to tyrannical slave labor under the lash of taskmasters—bearing burdens, making clay mortar, and meeting daily quotas of bricks.—Exodus 1:8-14; 5:6-18.
This picture of the Egypt into which Moses was born well matches historical evidence. Ancient papyri and at least one tomb painting describe the manufacture of mud bricks by slaves in the second millennium B.C.E. or earlier. Officials responsible for supplying bricks marshaled hundreds of slaves grouped into gangs of 6 to 18 under a foreman or crew leader. Brick clay had to be dug and straw ferried to the brickyard. Workers of different nationalities drew water, and using hoes they mixed it with clay and straw. Row upon row of bricks were turned out of rectangular molds. Laborers then carried yoke loads of sun-dried bricks to the construction site, sometimes reached by a ramp. Egyptian overseers, armed with batons, sat or strolled as they kept vigil over the work.
One ancient accounting sheet refers to 39,118 bricks made by 602 laborers, which works out to an average of 65 bricks a man per shift. And a document from the 13th century B.C.E. says: “The men are making . . . their quota of bricks daily.” All of this is strongly reminiscent of the labor demanded of the Israelites as described in the book of Exodus.
Oppression failed to reduce the Hebrew population. Rather, “the more [the Egyptians] would oppress them, the more they would multiply . . . , so that they felt a sickening dread as a result of the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 1:10, 12) Hence, Pharaoh ordered first the Hebrew midwives then all his people to slay every newborn male Israelite. Under these terrifying circumstances, a beautiful baby boy, Moses, was born to Jochebed and Amram.—Exodus 1:15-22; 6:20; Acts 7:20.
Hidden, Found, and Adopted
Moses’ parents defied Pharaoh’s murderous command and hid their little boy. Did they do so despite spies and inspectors making rounds to search out infants? We cannot be certain. At any rate, after three months Moses’ parents could no longer conceal him. So his desperate mother made a papyrus basket, coated it with pitch to make it watertight, and laid her child inside it. In a sense, Jochebed obeyed the letter, if not the spirit, of Pharaoh’s order to cast every newborn Hebrew male into the Nile. Miriam, Moses’ elder sister, then stationed herself nearby to keep watch.—Exodus 1:22–2:4.
Whether Jochebed meant for Moses to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter when she came to the river to bathe, we do not know, but that is what happened. The princess realized that this was a child of the Hebrews. What would she do? Would she, in obedience to her father, order its death? No, she reacted as most women normally would. She acted compassionately.
Miriam was soon by her side. ‘Shall I call a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?’ she asked. Some find great irony in this passage. Moses’ sister is set in contrast with Pharaoh, who schemed with his counselors to deal “shrewdly” with the Hebrews. Of course, Moses’ well-being was confirmed only when the princess agreed to his sister’s plan. “Go!” responded Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam at once summoned her mother. In a remarkable bargain, Jochebed was then hired to raise her own child with royal protection.—Exodus 2:5-9.
The compassion of the princess certainly contrasts with the cruelty of her father. She was neither ignorant nor deceived about the child. Warmhearted pity moved her to adopt him, and her agreeing to the idea of a Hebrew wet nurse reveals that she did not share her father’s prejudices.
Upbringing and Education
Jochebed “took the child and nursed him. And the child grew up. Then she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, so that he became a son to her.” (Exodus 2:9, 10) The Bible does not say how long Moses lived with his natural parents. Some think it must have been at least until he was weaned—two or three years—but it may have been longer. Exodus simply states that he “grew up” with his parents, which can signify reaching any age. In any case, Amram and Jochebed doubtless used the time to make their son aware of his Hebrew origin and to teach him about Jehovah. How well they succeeded in instilling a faith and love for righteousness in Moses’ heart, only time would tell.
On being returned to Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was educated “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” (Acts 7:22) That would imply training designed to fit Moses for government office. The vast learning of Egypt included mathematics, geometry, architecture, construction, and other arts and sciences. Presumably, the royal family would have wanted him to receive instruction in Egyptian religion.
Moses may have received his privileged education along with other royal offspring. Among those who benefited from such elite education were “children of foreign rulers who were sent or taken as hostages to Egypt to be ‘civilized’ and then returned to rule as vassals” faithful to Pharaoh. (The Reign of Thutmose IV, by Betsy M. Bryan) Nurseries connected to royal palaces seem to have prepared youths to serve as court officials. * Inscriptions dating to the Egyptian Middle and New Kingdom periods reveal that several of Pharaoh’s personal attendants and high-ranking government officers retained the honorable title “Child of the Nursery” even as adults.
Court life would test Moses. It offered wealth, luxury, and power. It also presented moral dangers. How would Moses react? Where would his loyalties be? Was he at heart a worshiper of Jehovah, a brother of the oppressed Hebrews, or did he prefer all that pagan Egypt could offer?
A Momentous Decision
At age 40, by which time Moses could have become thoroughly Egyptian, he ‘went out to look at the burdens his brothers were bearing.’ His subsequent actions showed that this was no idle curiosity; he yearned to help them. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he intervened, killing the oppressor. That act showed that Moses’ heart was with his brothers. The dead man was likely an official, killed as he carried out his duties. In the eyes of the Egyptians, Moses had every reason to be loyal to Pharaoh. Yet, what moved Moses was also love of justice, a quality further manifested when the next day he remonstrated with a Hebrew who was unjustly beating his companion. Moses desired to liberate the Hebrews from bitter slavery, but when Pharaoh learned of his defection and tried to kill him, Moses was forced to flee to Midian.—Exodus 2:11-15; Acts 7:23-29. *
Moses’ timing in wanting to liberate God’s people did not match Jehovah’s. Still, his actions revealed faith. Says Hebrews 11:24-26: “By faith Moses, when grown up, refused to be called the son of the daughter of Pharaoh, choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God rather than to have the temporary enjoyment of sin.” Why? “Because he esteemed the reproach of the Christ as riches greater than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked intently toward the payment of the reward.” This exceptional use of the expression “the Christ,” meaning “anointed one,” fits Moses in the sense that he later received a special commission directly from Jehovah.
Just think! Moses had an upbringing that only an Egyptian aristocrat could receive. His position offered a brilliant career and every pleasure imaginable, yet he rejected it all. He could not reconcile life at the court of Pharaoh, the oppressor, with love for Jehovah and for justice. Knowledge of and meditation on God’s promises to his forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob led Moses to prefer divine favor. As a result, Jehovah was able to use Moses in the most privileged of roles to accomplish His purposes.
All of us face choices about what things are most important. Like Moses, perhaps you face a difficult decision. Should you give up certain practices or apparent advantages, no matter what the cost? If that is the choice before you, remember that Moses considered Jehovah’s friendship more valuable than all the treasures of Egypt, and he did not regret it.
^ par. 17 This education may have resembled that received by Daniel and his companions to serve as state functionaries in Babylon. (Daniel 1:3-7) Compare Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy!, chapter 3, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Mothers normally suckled their own infants. However, says scholar Brevard Childs in Journal of Biblical Literature, “in certain instances among aristocratic [near Eastern] families a wet nurse was hired. This practice was also common where the mother was unable to nourish her child or where the mother was unknown. The nurse assumed responsibility of raising the child as well as suckling it during the stipulated period.” Several papyrus wet-nursing contracts have survived from Near Eastern antiquity. These documents attest to what was a widespread practice from the Sumerian period down to the late Hellenistic period in Egypt. Common features of these documents are a statement of the individuals involved, the time covered by the contract, conditions of work, specifications concerning nourishment, fines for breach of contract, wages, and how wages would be paid. Typically, “nursing extended over a period of two to three years,” explains Childs. “The wet nurse raised the child in her home, but at times was required to return the child to its owner for inspection.”
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Brickmaking in Egypt has changed little since Moses’ day, as shown by an ancient painting
Above: Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.; below: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY