Moses, the Crossing of the Red Sea and the Exodus

Aside from the biblical texts of the Old Testament, little is known about the real life of Moses. So much so that historian Édouard Meyer was able to declare in 1906 that Moses was not a historical figure. Discarding them waters of the sea Red and brandishing them Tables of the Law in a famous peplum film in the guise of Charlton Heston, Moses, who is mainly known to us from the Bible, and more specifically the Pentateuch, nevertheless had a decisive importance in the history of the Jewish people.

The youth of Moses

Born in Goshen, inancient Egypt (possibly in the 13th century BC), Moses belongs to the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve Hebrew tribes that migrated to Egypt in the 17th century BC. AD; son of Amran and Jochebed, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam.

Shortly before his birth, Moses escapes the repression of the pharaoh (perhaps Ramses II or his successor Mérenptah) who strikes the Hebrew newborns to prevent any uprising. To save her son, Moses' mother places him in a basket which she places in the reeds on a bank of the Nile. The child is taken in by the Pharaoh's daughter, who takes pity, adopts her and brings her up to Pharaoh's court like a prince. She gives him the name of Moses because, says the Bible, she "brought him out of the waters". The origin of the name Moses more likely dates back to the Egyptian term mosu ("Son" or "child").

The "Burning Bush" episode

As an adult and aware of his origins, Moses discovers the misery of his people as he visits one of the construction sites where the Hebrews work. His revolt prompts him to kill an Egyptian who is persecuting one of his own. After his crime, Moses fled Egypt and reached the land of Midian. There he finds protection with the priest Jethro, who gives him his daughter in marriage. During this exile, God would have appeared to him on Mount Horeb (in Sinai) in the form of a "burning bush," and assigned him a mission: to take the head of the Hebrews and bring them out of Egypt.

Armed with divine revelation at the Burning Bush, Moses returns to Egypt to free the Hebrew people from slavery and guide them to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Helped by his brother Aaron, and endowed by Yahweh with the gift of working miracles, Moses obtains an audience with the Egyptian sovereign to whom he asks to let the Jewish people celebrate the Passover in the desert. Pharaoh refuses, despite the miracle of Aaron’s staff turned into a serpent, and intensifies the persecutions against the Hebrews. Moses is not discouraged, intercedes again but only obtains a refusal from the king.

In order to prove his omnipotence, Yahweh then intervenes directly by bringing down a series of plagues on Egypt: the water of the Nile is turned into blood, the plague falls on Egyptian cattle, locusts cover the devastated country. , darkness settles for three days…, finally, all the firstborn of the Egyptians die in one night. After the death of his son, whom Yahweh did not spare, Pharaoh resolved to let the Hebrews go. Then begins an exodus that will last forty years.

The exit from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea

The Hebrews believe they have finally escaped Pharaoh's grip, but the latter changes his mind and launches his chariots in pursuit. The Hebrews face the Red Sea ("the Red Sea") when they see Egyptian troops. Moses stretches out his hand towards the sea whose waters split to leave a passage between the liquid walls; the people enter the corridor thus cleared. The Egyptians in turn entered the passage, but Moses, at Yahweh's request, made the sea return to its place and Pharaoh's troops died engulfed.

The Tables of the Law

Three months after leaving Egypt, the Hebrews reached the Sinai desert. Moses entrusts the people to his brother Aaron and goes to the foot of Mount Sinai. After forty days and forty nights of fasting, the prophet receives from God the Ten Commandments, the basis of the Covenant between Yahweh and his people. When Moses joined the Hebrews, he saw that they had no faith in God: with the help of Aaron, they built a divinity in the image of a Golden Calf which they idolized. Moses' wrath is so great that he seizes the tablets of the Law which he received from God and shatters them, before burning the statue of the idol. However, the prophet begs Yahweh not to stray from his people and to forgive them; Yahweh hears his prayer and invites him to renew the Covenant on Mount Sinai. Moses comes down from the mountain forty days later, with two new tablets of the Law.

The Hebrew people therefore pledge to follow the Law of Moses (or Mosaic law), which advocates rigorous monotheism, as well as the fear and love of an invisible, omniscient and almighty God. Moses then guides his people, Israel, to Canaan. He dies on the threshold of the Promised Land, at the age of 120. His figure goes beyond the mere history of the Jewish people. It is of fundamental importance in the establishment and development of the early Judeo-Christian Church.


- Sigmund Freud, L’Homme Moïse et la religion monotheiste, Gallimard, 1986.

- Charles Szlakmann, Moïse, Gallimard, coll. “Folio Biographies”, Paris, 2009

For further

- The Ten Commandments, by Cecil B. De Mille. Fiction, on DVD.

Video: Moses and the Red Sea (October 2021).