4 Completely Different Versions of the Story of Moses
The story of Moses doesn’t just show up in the Bible. In the ancient world, nearly every culture had their own version of what happened. The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans all had their own way of explaining why thousands of people left Egypt to live in Jerusalem.
The Moses you know, who performed miracles and freed the Jewish slaves from Egypt, is just one version of the story. There are others – and they paint a completely different picture from the one you’ve heard.
Detail; Moses and the tablets of law. Source: Public Domain
Manetho: Moses, Leper King and War Criminal
The Egyptians told the story of Moses, too, but in their version, he wasn’t a miracle-working hero with god-given powers. In the version passed down by the Egyptian historian Manetho, Moses is a brutal and violent monster – and he isn’t even Jewish.
Moses, according to Manetho, was an Egyptian priest named Osarsiph who tried to take over Egypt. The pharaoh had quarantined everyone with leprosy into a city called Avaris, and Osarsiph used them to stage a revolt. He made himself the ruler of the lepers, changed his named to Moses, and turned them against the pharaoh.
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Moses lifts up the brass serpent, curing the Israelites from poisonous snake bites in a painting by Benjamin West. (Public Domain)
Moses and his army of lepers created the Jewish laws purely out of spite for the Egyptians. They deliberately made their laws the exact of opposite of everything the Egyptians believed. They sacrificed bulls, for example, purely because the Egyptians worshiped one.
Moses and his leper colony formed an alliance with the people living in Jerusalem. He built up an army of 200,000 people, then invaded Egypt. They conquered Ethiopia first, where they reigned as brutal despots. According to the Egyptians, Moses and his people “abstained from no sort of wickedness nor barbarity.”
The ancient Egyptians worshiped sacred animals like Apis, who was a living bull treated as a god. Moses didn’t just kill these sacred animals – he forced the Egyptian priests who served them to do it for him. The priests were forced to burn their divine animals alive on top of a pyre made of sacred images. Then they were stripped naked and sent out into the wilderness to die.
Eventually – after about 13 years – Amenophis managed to get a big enough army together to chase Moses out of Egypt. He chased him into Syria, where Moses and his people settled in Jerusalem. According to the Egyptians, though, every Jewish law that makes the foundation of our modern society started in that leper colony as nothing more than spite against Egypt.
Moses with the Ten Commandments (1648) by Philippe de Champaigne. (Public Domain)
Strabo: Moses, Philosopher
According to the Greek historian Strabo, Moses wasn’t a miracle worker and he didn’t speak to God. He was just a philosopher who sat down, thought about it, and decided that monotheism made the most sense.
Moses, at the time, was the ruler of Lower Egypt, but he was “dissatisfied with the established institutions” in his own country. God, he believed, could not be a man or an animal, but had to be “one thing which encompasses us all”.
God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg. (1848) By Eugène Pluchart. (Public Domain)
He was so convinced of this that he gave up his position and led a group of people out of Egypt to start their own country. These people weren’t slaves, and this wasn’t a revolution. They were, according to Strabo, “right-minded people” who agreed with Moses’s philosophy, and nobody tried to stop them from leaving.
Moses and his people made it to Jerusalem, which they did not have to conquer. It was, according to Strabo, “surrounded by a barren and water territory”, so nobody else really wanted it. There, he set up a lax religion with few rules, which was so popular that the surrounding nations willingly joined his kingdom.
After Moses’s death, though, Jerusalem was taken over by “superstitious persons” who introduced the kosher diet and circumcision – ideas that, Strabo claims, went completely against everything Moses taught.
The Death of Moses, as in Deuteronomy 34:1-12, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. (Public Domain)
Atrapanus: Moses, Egyptian War Hero and Cult Leader
Even the Jews had more than one version of the story of Moses. The Jewish historian Atrapanus had his own version of the story, and even though he was Jewish, it’s completely different from the story in Exodus.
The Book of Exodus: ‘The Israelites Leaving Egypt’ by David Roberts, c. 1829 (Public Domain)
Moses, according to Atrapanus, was raised as the son of Chenephres, king of Upper of Egypt. Chenephres thought Moses was his own son – but, apparently, the bond between a father and a son wasn’t enough to keep Chenephres from trying to kill him.
Chenephres sent Moses to lead his worst soldiers into an unwinnable war against Ethiopia, hoping Moses would die in battle. Moses, however, managed to conquer Ethiopia. He became a war hero across Egypt. He also declared the ibis as the sacred animal of the city – starting, in the process, the first of three religions he would found by the end of the story.
‘Victory O Lord!’ By John Everett Millais. (Public Domain) Hur and Aaron hold up the arms of Moses during the battle with the Amalekites
He started his second religion when he made it back to Memphis, where he taught people how to use oxen in agriculture and, in the process, started the cult of Apis. He didn’t get to enjoy his new cult for long. His father started outright hiring people to assassinate him, and he had no choice but to leave Egypt.
While in exile, he started his third religion after God burst out of the earth and told him to invade Egypt. Moses obeyed and, in the process, freed the Jews – but in this version of the story, he was much more efficient. He just whispered the name of god into the pharaoh’s ears and the pharaoh became “speechless and as one dead”.
Moses before the Pharaoh, a 6th-century miniature from the Syriac Bible of Paris. (Public Domain)
Tacitus: Moses, The Exiled Atheist
When the Roman Tacitus tackled the story of Moses, he was determined to get it right. By the time he was alive, there were already a lot of different stories about him floating around. He did his best to sort out the parts that made sense to him.
“Most authorities,” Tacitus wrote, “agree on the following.” Like Manetho, his story begins with Egypt being plagued by leprosy, which he says was spread through pork. Instead of going to war, however, Moses and the other lepers were just expelled from the country altogether and sent out into the wilderness.
In the wilderness, Moses ordered his people to turn against god and man, telling them that “both had deserted them”. Instead, he taught them, they should only trust their own judgment. He led them through the desert, keeping them alive by bursting water out of the ground – but this wasn’t a miracle. Instead, Moses found underground channels of water by following patches of grass.
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Moses Striking the Rock. (Public Domain)
Once they made it to Canaan, Moses introduced a new religion – not because he believed in it, according to Tacitus, but because he believed it would “secure the allegiance of his people”.
He introduced the kosher diet because eating pork had given them leprosy. He introduced fasting as a way to commemorate their journey through the wilderness. He had them keep the seventh day holy to commemorate their journey through the desert – which, in this version, didn’t take forty years. It took seven days.
Moses and the Israelites. (Public Domain)
Through Tacitus, though, we get a beautiful little glimpse into how history is created. It’s easy to see the parts he’s taken from the Egyptian story, the parts he’s taken from the Jewish story, and he’s filtered it all through his own worldview.
But it’s just another view – not the truth. Whoever the real Moses was, today we can only see him split through the prism of history – the truth broken up into little refractions of the truth, each one colored by the culture that tells it.
Top Image: Moses’ Horns. Source: rethought/CC BY NC 2.0
By Mark Oliver
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliot, 1843. https://books.google.com/books?id=4trfAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Singer, Isidor, editor. The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1905. https://books.google.com/books?id=eTsyAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Strabo, Geography. London: George Bell & Sons, 1903. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239%3Abook%3D16
Tacitus. “Tacitus on the Jews”, Histories. Translated by Kenneth Wellesley. Livius. http://www.livius.org/sources/content/tacitus/tacitus-on-the-jews/