In this chapter we have three vignettes of Moses’s life: how he was saved from the genocide being perpetrated against his people; his failed attempt at delivering his people, and his flight to Midian (today in northwestern Saudi Arabia). Interestingly, when Stephen the Deacon recounts Moses’s role in redemptive history in Acts 7:17-43, he spends more time on this than on the Exodus and the forty years Moses led the people in the wilderness. This is curious, since it is a truly anti-heroic narrative: Moses is saved by women at birth, fails at leading his people in Egypt, and in fleeing Egypt is reduced to helping shepherdesses in the wilderness. The combination of these vignettes, however, highlight the glory of God in preparing Israel’s deliverer.
The Pharaoh at the time of Moses’s birth most likely was Amenhotep I, the son of Ahmose, the founder of the 18th Dynasty, and the decree to kill the male children of the Hebrews probably was in effect only for a limited time. Moses’s brother Aaron was three years older than him and was not affected, and there is no indication that the persecution either escalated or went on. Moses was probably born in 1526 BC, the last year of Amenhotep I’s reign (r. 1546-1525), and when Thutmose I (r. 1525-1512) took over he probably ended the persecution; he would have enough to deal with in securing his position as Pharaoh without provoking a large alien ethnic group within his realm.
Commentators have speculated that the daughter of Pharaoh who drew Moses from the water was Hatshepsut, who would later go on to exercise kingship in her own right (r. 1504-1483). She certainly would have had the force of personality to defy Pharaoh’s edict, but depending on how one calculates the chronology, she may not have been much older than Moses himself, and thus unlikely to have adopted him. In any event, Moses’s mother probably reared him for several years before presenting him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and in that time impressed upon him his covenantal heritage.
When he became part of the Egyptian court, he would enter a new world. In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh’s were considered nearly divine and typically were deified upon their death. To be a member of the royal family, then, would almost be tantamount to being the son or daughter of a god. In addition to being given the best education then possible, most of Moses’s mature years would be under Hatshepsut’s reign, which was marked by diplomatic embassies to Punt (modern day Somalia) and other parts of the Near East. Moses certainly would have known about these trips and may even have participated in some. That would have given him insight into how covenants functioned as treaties at time when diplomacy was beginning to flourish in the ancient Near East.
One other thing in Hatshepsut’s reign may also have shaped him, indeed, may have radicalized him: Hatshepsut boasted in her official inscriptions that she finally eliminated the Hyksos as even an external threat. Knowing that his people had flourished under the Hyksos and were now oppressed, he almost certainly had to have been disturbed by this boast. It is probably in 1486 BC, then, that he killed the Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrews. Moses’s action certainly bespeaks a righteous indignation, but there may also have been some political calculation as well: if people saw him as a judge, then he could lead them and throw off the Egyptian yoke—except the people did not follow him. Found out, his actions certainly would have been seen as treason by the royal court, which is why he fled. The Pharaoh from whom Moses fled was probably Thutmose III, the long-ruling and greatest Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (r. 1504-1450), who died just before the Exodus (Exod. 2:23).
While we can comprehend the fall from privilege that Moses experienced, the full depth of it is not readily obvious to most Western readers. When we think of shepherds, we typically think of bucolic pastoralists, gently caring for white fluffy sheep. In the ancient Near East and even to this day, however, shepherds engaged in tedious, hard labor in the heat and in the cold throughout the year, living as nomads on the edge of society. By settled peoples, they were typically seen as neither committed to one place nor one king, and often only a step or two away from open brigandage. Thus, Moses went from being almost as high as he could possibly be to being almost as low as he could go. And even then, Reuel’s daughters did not think to invite Moses to come to their family’s tent until berated by their father, despite the help he rendered to them.
Why did God have Moses go through what he did? Moses was certainly destined to lead God’s people and God had prepared him expressly for that purpose, but it was God who promised to deliver His people. For Him to receive the full glory for fulfilling His covenantal promise He needed Moses to be at a point where he was not trusting in himself or his abilities, but trusting in God. Moreover, God used Moses to prefigure Christ Himself. This is probably why Stephen spends so much time on Moses’s backstory in Acts ch. 7. After recounting Moses’s background, Stephen says, “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (Acts 7:37). The one that the Jews of Stephen’s day claimed to follow pointed them toward a deliverer better than himself. Christ was not simply like a Son of God, He was the Son of God who Himself was fully God. Ascending from the of the Father, He was humiliated in His life on earth, culminating in His death. Humiliation, however, precedes glory, and just as Moses’s humiliation preceded the glory of the Exodus, so Christ’s humiliation in death preceded the glory of His resurrection on the third day. To God alone be the glory!