“The Missing Years in the Life of Moses”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of the enslavement of the Jewish people and the birth of Moses–the great leader whom G-d chooses to lead the people out of the slavery of Egypt.

As we have previously noted (Shemot 5765-2004), although Moses is a gifted leader, and is regarded as the greatest prophet and leader ever to arise in Israel, the so-called, “Savior of Israel,” is not the “son of G-d,” but a mere mortal, born to, Amram and Jochebed, human parents of flesh and blood.

When his mother has to hide the newborn child, who is doomed to die along with all the Israelite male children, Moses is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in Pharaoh’s palace. The Bible reports, that even though Moses grew up as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s court, when he went out, he acknowledged the Jews as his brethren, and felt their burdens.

The Bible in Exodus 2:11 states, וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו , Moses, the prince of Egypt, saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brethren. When he [Moses] looked this way and that and saw that no one was coming to the Hebrew’s aid, he struck the Egyptian, killing him, and buried his body in the sand.

The Bible reports, that the very next day, Moses went out and saw two Hebrews fighting with one another. Moses, who has an extremely high sense of morality, reproves the wicked person who is striking his fellow, saying, Exodus, 2:13-14, לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ ? “Why do you strike your fellow?” The wicked Jew responds, מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ, הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי ? “Who appointed you [Moses] as an officer and judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?”

When Moses realized that the matter of his killing the Egyptian had become publicly known, he was frightened. Sure enough, when Pharaoh heard about this matter, he sought to kill Moses, causing Moses to flee before Pharaoh to the land of Midian. There Moses eventually met his wife, Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, at the well.

According to many calculations, Moses was twenty years old when he fled to Midian. The Bible tells us that after beholding the manifestation of G-d in the Burning Bush, Moses returns to Egypt to meet with Aaron. He is 80 years old when he speaks to Pharaoh (Exodus7:7). However, there is no account in the Bible for the sixty years between fleeing Egypt and returning to Egypt.

The great historian, Flavius Josephus, cites two aggadic traditions. The first maintains that Moses lived for twenty years in Pharaoh’s house and fled to Midian, where he remained for sixty years. When he sees the vision of the Burning Bush, he undertakes the mission of liberating the people of Israel. The second account is that Moses lived for forty years in Pharaoh’s house before going to Midian, where he stayed for forty years until G-d called him to redeem Israel.

The problem with these Midrashic traditions is that they do not explain how Moses, a prince in the palace of Pharaoh, was transformed into the charismatic military and spiritual leader that he eventually became. If he remained in Egypt until he was forty, he could have possibly learned the skills of the monarchy from all that he experienced while living in the court of Pharaoh. But, that assumes that Moses did not become a playboy and spend time gambling at the casinos near the great pyramids of Ghiza.

An alternate Midrashic source provides an entirely different account of what happened to Moses from age twenty to age eighty.

Moses did not go directly to Midian, but fled first to Ethiopia, where he joined the army of the Ethiopian King Kikanos. King Kikanos and his generals took a liking to Moses because he was courageous like a lion and his face gleamed like the sun.

According to the source of this Midrash, the capital city of Ethiopia had been captured by Balaam and his sons, through acts of sorcery and treachery. Using his unique talents while the king of Ethiopia and his troops were out of the city, Balaam raised up the walls of the capital and filled the ditches with water that was infested with snakes and scorpions, rendering them impassable. Try as he may, King Kikanos and his Ethiopian troops could not defeat Balaam, and had no luck penetrating the city fortifications.

Nine years after Moses’ arrival in Ethiopia, King Kikanos died, and the people chose Moses the Hebrew as their new leader. Fighting sorcery with sorcery, Moses instructed the Ethiopian army to go into the wilderness to capture the native storks and their chicks. He instructed them how to teach the baby chicks to fly and to jump in response to the commands of their trainers.

When the chicks matured, Moses ordered their owners to withhold food from them for three days. He told the soldiers to prepare for battle and to take the young storks in their hands. When they approached the moat that was filled with snakes, he instructed the Ethiopian hosts to release the storks, who immediately devoured all the snakes. Sounding their horns, the Ethiopian soldiers proceeded to sack the city, killing over a thousand compatriots of Balaam. Together with his sons and other sorcerers, Balaam fled to Egypt, where they soon became advisors to Pharaoh.

The Ethiopians hailed Moses as a hero, anointed him as their king and gave him the wife of the late King Kikanos to serve as his queen. Moses, however, refused to cohabit with the woman who was a Canaanite.

During his time as the king of Ethiopia, Moses assembled a powerful army of 30,000 soldiers bringing security and tranquility to Ethiopia and to the entire region.

After serving, with much success, as king of Ethiopia for forty years, the wife of the deceased king of Ethiopia approached the senior members of Ethiopia nobility and revealed to them that during all this time Moses had refused to cohabit with her. She argued that since Moses was not a believer in the Ethiopian gods and is not loyal to the Ethiopian traditions, he is not fit to rule Ethiopia. Now that the son of King Kikanos had matured, she demanded that he should be made king instead of Moses. Even though the Ethiopian people loved Moses, they replaced him with the young Ethiopian prince. Showering Moses with gifts and praises, they bid Moses farewell as he left Ethiopia and went to Midian.

Although this Midrash is but a legend, it fills in many unknowns in the story of Moses. It explains how Moses became a great warrior and military strategist, matured into a wise and beloved king, learning how to manipulate the masses of people, to run the military and the economy of a great country. This is not something that Moses could have learned while he was shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. As a shepherd in Midian, Moses could have been drawn close to G-d and could have grown in his spirituality as he meditated in the beautiful pastures of Midian, but it would not explain how a young, freshly-minted, prince of Egypt, developed the wisdom and courage to confront the greatest contemporary king of all, Pharaoh of Egypt, and to eventually defeat him.

It is during this period that Moses, the young prince of Egypt, becomes “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses, our Master; Moses, our teacher; Moses, our leader.

May you be blessed.