Three tests, three signs
- Moses’ mission to rescue the Jewish people from slavery begins with self doubt. “Who am I,” he asks God at the burning bush, “that I should go into Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” God’s answer is to give Moses three miraculous signs to prove that God will be with him in his mission. But the signs don’t really answer Moses’ question: Why, of all people, me? Or do they?
Of Moses’ life before his encounter with God at the burning bush, we know very little. But in the space of a few verses, three key incidents are sketched out. They all deal with Moses’ involvement in disputes involving others.
- The first episode takes place when Moses leaves the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace to learn about the suffering of his Israelite brethren. He is shocked to see an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses, outraged, smites the Egyptian and he dies.
- The second episode takes place a day later. Moses again goes out to join his brethren. This time he sees two Hebrews fighting together. Moses intervenes, asking the offender “Why are you hitting your fellow?” The man turns to him and replies: “Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”
- The third incident occurs after Moses realises that the killing of the Egyptian has been discovered and that his life is in danger. He flees to Midian where he sits down by a well. Soon seven young women, daughters of Jethro, the local priest, come to water their sheep at the well, but the local shepherds drive them away. Moses rises to their defence and drives the shepherds away so the young women can water their sheep undisturbed.
As the Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz points out, these three incidents present a concise but extensive picture of Moses as a man passionately committed to justice in every context:
“Each of these episodes represents an archetype. First Moses intervenes in a clash between a Jew and non-Jews, second, between two Jews and third between two non-Jews. In all three cases Moses championed the just cause.”
Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot
Even before he encounters God at the burning bush, Moses has demonstrated his passionate commitment to justice – for Jews, among Jews, and in the wider population.
It seems that this is the message of the three miraculous signs that God shows him at the burning bush. In the first sign, a staff miraculously turns into a snake, in the second Moses’ hand become leprous, and in the third water turns to blood. A staff, a hand and water. These three symbols directly correspond to the three episodes of Moses’ youth – the staff of the Egyptian smiting the Jew, the hand of the Israelite beating his fellow, and the water of the well that Jethro’s daughters were prevented from drawing.
Who am I to fulfill this mission? asks Moses. God’s answer: You are the one who has already shown an unswerving commitment to justice. It is this commitment that marks him out for his mission, to bring freedom from slavery to the Jews, and the morality of the Bible to the world. And it is this commitment that is hallmark of the truly great leaders of Israel, from the time of Moses until the present day.
In others’ words
Yitzhak Rabin on becoming a leader: “At an age when most youngsters are struggling to unravel the secrets of mathematics and the mysteries of the Bible; at an age when first love blooms; at the tender age of sixteen, I was handed a rifle so that I could defend myself – and also, unfortunately, so that I could kill in an hour of danger. “That was not my dream. I wanted to be a water engineer. I studied in an agricultural school and I thought that being a water engineer was an important profession in the parched Middle East. I still think so today. However, I was compelled to resort to the gun.”
Speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, 1994
On a lighter note
The trial of the murder of a mafia boss by a rival mafia leader had just drawn to a close. The jury, all Jewish, deliberated for hours. Finally they came back into the courtroom. The foreman, Goldberg, stood up. “Have you reached a verdict on which you are all agreed?” asked the judge. “Yes, we have,” answered Goldberg. “What is your decision?” “We’ve decided, we don’t want to get involved.”