Multicultural Moses: Reexamining an Icon

The story of the burning bush is one of the most familiar biblical narratives, but it con- tains often-overlooked nuances. Certain assumptions on the part of readers lead them to flatten the character of Moses and obscure the way in which his hybrid identity shapes both his reluctant response to God’s call and his eventual leadership. Stereotypes about those who perform great acts and a cultural bias elevating natural endowments over hard-won wisdom fuel the perception that figures like Moses were simply born heroes, possessed of qualities that made their accomplishments inevitable. However, foregrounding the layers of Moses’s identity leads to a different perspective on Moses and what makes him stand out in a crowd. In this view, he emerges not as an exemplar of rugged individualism rising to his destined greatness, but as someone shaped by multiple communities, one who sometimes struggled to navigate those layers of belonging—and who grew into leadership by embracing that struggle rather than by overcoming it.

In the burning bush dialogue, God says to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). This seemingly mundane introduction already emphasizes the complexity of Moses’s background: born to Hebrews but raised by an Egyptian princess.

When God addresses Moses from the burning bush, the reference to “your ancestors” is not obvious, especially since the modern preoccupation with genetic ancestry does not apply in Moses’s world. Rather than trying to account for precise biological relationships, the biblical context prioritizes the social function of ancestry as a way of mapping the individual’s place in society. As an adoptee and an émigré living with his wife’s family, Moses has ties to multiple social networks and may not know which ancestors are meant without further clarification.

Moses’s very presence at that bush results from a series of conflicts in which his navigation of his layered identity features prominently. The text reports that “Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers” (Exodus 2:11). While brothers are typically those with whom we share daily life in the most intimate way, Moses had to go out to see his brothers and the conditions in which they live. This episode illustrates both the dynamics of his layered identity and the way in which they fuel his famous passion for justice: Royal Egyptian privilege leads him to expect justice, but Hebrew marginality leads him to witness injustice. 

Moses intervenes on behalf of the Hebrew man but does not thereby endear himself to the Hebrew people. When he subsequently intervenes in a dispute among Hebrews, one of them responds: “Who made you a chief and a judge over us? Do you mean to murder me like you murdered the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14). This rebuttal positions Moses as an outsider to Hebrews and Egyptians alike, a status confirmed by Pharaoh’s response to his action. Pharaoh seeks to kill Moses—either because Moses has killed a man or because his expression of solidarity with the oppressed Hebrews has called into question his loyalty, revoking the privilege of his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter and reinstating the death sentence he escaped at birth.

Fleeing Pharaoh, Moses arrives in Midian, where the locals immediately recognize him as … an Egyptian (Exodus 2:19). People see the distinctions that have social significance and fail to see those that do not. Thus, while the distinction Pharaoh makes between “his people” and the Children of Israel plays an outsize role in daily life in Egypt, it proves meaningless beyond that territory. Leaving Egypt takes Moses away from familiar ways of framing his identity and presents yet another set of social conventions to navigate.

In their encounter at the bush, God points out to Moses the holiness of the place where he is standing and instructs him on appropriate behavior. This could be read as God guiding Moses in relating to a lineage that he may not know how to embody. Like a person participating in an unfamiliar tradition, Moses needs to be briefed on the protocol.

Accordingly, when God announces the plan to free the Israelites from Egypt, Moses’s first response is to proclaim his own inadequacy. His response to God echoes the question posed to him in his unsuccessful mediation attempt. Just as one of the Hebrew combatants had questioned Moses’s legitimacy, now Moses questions it himself, asking, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Children of Israel out from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

Moses then points out that he is unprepared to answer even the most basic question about the Israelites’ God, whose name he doesn’t even know. The reader may recognize God’s response as a special moment of revelation, but to Moses it may be an embarrassing admission of ignorance. For all he knows, this information about God is common knowledge among the people with whom he shares an identity, but not a life experience. Moses struggles with an ancient version of racial impostor syndrome: a set of insecurities that arises among those whose bodies, families, or predilections don’t correspond to their normative sense of what it means to be a member of a group to which they putatively belong.

Furthermore, rather than resolving the ambiguities of Moses’s identity, God calls Moses to live against the grain of his experience and operate in a self that is not a natural fit. The very background that prompts Moses to question his fitness turns out to equip him in a special way for the leadership to which God calls him. Brokering the exodus is just the beginning. The larger task is to bring the people to a new land and a new way of life rooted in covenant with God.

Moses’s lack of cultural competence (his self-description in 4:10 encompasses more than just words) provides a good foundation for his role as lawgiver precisely because the typical patterns of thought and behavior of the people don’t come naturally to him. In his hybridity, he occupies a kind of cultural wilderness adjacent to many social territories, but not fully contained within any of them. Lacking “words” of his own, he is well positioned to bring the Children of Israel into the physical wilderness to receive new words from God, a point powerfully made when he gives voice to the Book of Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is literally “Words.”

A version of this essay appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review

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