Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses in the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings, reportedly said this of Moses: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
That is quite something to say about one of the greatest figures in at least two major world religions (Christianity and Judaism). It also contrasts with the Bible’s own description of Moses, which says that he was “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
While a lot could be said in response to Bale’s comment, here are two very significant — but often overlooked — events in Moses’ life that show that, in contrast to being barbaric, Moses was actually marked by a radical commitment to defend the oppressed and stand up for those in need.
First, notice how Moses found his wife. In Exodus 2:16-22 we read that, after fleeing Egypt, Moses sat down by a well in the land of Midian. Shortly after that, the seven daughters of the priest of Midian came to draw water for their flock — only to be obstructed by some self-centered shepherds.
What did Moses do? We read: “But Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock” (Exodus 2:17). Moses didn’t sit idly by and let the shepherds run over the women. He stood up for them. Then, he even went one step further by watering their flocks for them himself.
This is something we easily overlook. But it is not something to skim over lightly, nor is it something just anyone would have done in this situation. It is recorded in Scripture to show the greatness of Moses’ character. He is hard-wired to defend the cause of the oppressed and act on their behalf. He was, like Jesus, a person radically committed to the welfare of others — even at sacrifice to himself.
Second, consider the event that led Moses to flee Egypt in the first place. Much is made of the fact that Moses was a murder. But did you notice that, once again, this happened in the midst of Moses acting to defend the oppressed? We read: “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-12).
Granted, killing the Egyptian was not the right action to take. But Moses was not acting out of vengeance or selfish interests. He was over reacting in the midst of the very good action of defending one of his people who was being beaten by the Egyptian.
So once again, we see that Moses was a radically other-oriented individual, quick to identify the needs of others and stand up for the oppressed.
Far from being “barbaric and schizophrenic,” Moses was a helper of the helpless and defender of the weak. But this is something we fail to see if we don’t read Scripture carefully and actually pay attention to it.
And, of course, let’s not forgot one of Moses’ greatest acts: leading an entire nation out of slavery. It’s easy to overlook what is right in front of us. It reminds me of the people who used to argue that the Bible is OK with slavery. Really? Isn’t the defining event of the entire Old Testament the liberation from slavery of God’s people? How can you see that and still think that slavery is OK?
So it is with Moses: like the two smaller events of defending his fellow Hebrew who was being beaten and standing up against the shepherds who were casting aside the women at the well, his leadership in delivering Israel from Egyptian oppression tells us something about his character.
Liberating a nation from slavery is not the act of a barbarian; it’s the act of a great man who has compassion on people’s suffering and puts their interests ahead of his own.
Thus we see why the Scriptures and two major religions are very well justified in regarding Moses as one of the greatest individuals to have ever lived.
More than that, we see that in all these things Moses is a model for each of us. For he exemplified what it means to obey God’s commands to “seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17) and “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).