The Mission of Moses: Out of Bondage


The Mission of Moses:

Moses stands out as one of the greatest men ever to grace the earth. He was reverenced by ancient Hebrews as among the mightiest of their prophets and seers. Latter-day Saints, with good reason, also appreciate the importance and work of Moses.

Moses and his brother Aaron came of goodly parents. Their father and mother, Amran and Jochebed, were descendants of Levi, third son of Jacob. (Ex. 6:16, 18, 20.) Thus, Moses and Aaron were Levites. In later years members of the tribe were specially chosen of the Lord to officiate in the priesthood. (See Num. 8:5–26.)

The tribe of Levi was known as the priestly tribe, the one that took leadership in most spiritual matters among the Hebrews. Moses’ career may be divided into three periods of forty years each: (1) the Egyptian period, (2) the desert era or period of spiritual preparation, and (3) the period as Israel’s leader and lawgiver.

The events of the Egyptian period are briefly summed up in the first fifteen verses of Exodus 2, where Moses tells about his birth, the episode with Pharaoh’s daughter and his adoption by her, and his slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster. [Ex. 2:1–15]

Unfortunately, he explains nothing about his experiences as a member of the inner circle of Egyptian court life. Presumably he was familiar with the best in Egyptian education and diplomatic procedures of that day. And if we may trust the writings of Josephus, the Jewish historian, the Egyptians were not lax in putting to use the great leadership abilities of Moses during this period of his early life.

Did Moses marry before he fled from Egypt to Midian? This is an interesting question that should probably be answered yes. First, it was considered a special duty for a young man to marry; not to marry made him an accessory to murder of the human race. Second, we are told that “Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” (Num. 12:1.) It is probable that this marriage was contracted during Moses’ sojourn at the Egyptian court.

Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian taskmaster (Ex. 2:11–12) made it necessary for him to escape Pharaoh’s wrath, so he fled southeast to the grazing lands of Midian, near the southern end of what is now the Gulf of Aqaba (Ex. 2:15). Here is where the future lawgiver began to get spiritual preparation for the deliverance of his people.

Moses’ love of justice and fair play was illustrated as he was sitting by a well. When the seven daughters of Midian came to water their father’s flock, shepherds drove them away, “but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.” (Ex. 2:17.) This insistence on the sisters’ rights led Moses to become a member of the household of Jethro, the priest of Midian. (Ex. 2:18–22.) Here he married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, who bore him two sons, Gershom and Eleazar. Moses became the keeper of Jethro’s flock, which made it necessary for him to move about in the desert to find suitable grazing sites.

Jethro was very important in Moses’ life and work. The Old Testament calls him “the priest of Midian,” but modern revelation through Joseph Smith throws important light upon the priesthood of Jethro. According to the Doctrine and Covenants, section 84, Moses received the “Holy Priesthood … under the hand of his father-in-law, Jethro.” (D&C 84:6.) It is reasonable to believe that Jethro held the office of a high priest and may have presided over a branch of the church in Midian. (See JST, Ex. 18:1.)

It is interesting to note that Jethro’s priesthood is traced through Caleb and Elihu back to Melchizedek and Noah and thence to Adam. (D&C 84:7–16.) The fact that he held the Melchizedek Priesthood contributes to our believing that a branch of the church of Jesus Christ was in Midian. This is a surprising fact, since the Old Testament says nothing at this point about a church. But, thanks to the Prophet Joseph Smith, we may assume that Jethro had possession of the scriptures and taught Moses the gospel when he became a member of his household.

That Moses became a member of the church of Jesus Christ may be considered heretical thinking by nonmembers of our faith, but it logically follows in the thinking of those who know the gospel. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. When and by whom was the gospel carried to Midian and a church branch established there? What happened to the church in Midian and elsewhere when Moses delivered the Israelites out of bondage and led them into the wilderness? How did Moses preside over the whole church (assuming it had branches in places other than Midian) during the wilderness period?

When pondering these questions, keep in mind that Melchizedek presided over the church in the days of Abraham and received tithes from him. (See Gen. 14:20.) The Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 17:35) indicates that the gospel may have been preached in Palestine and most of the people rejected it. It is therefore probable that missionaries were successful in setting up some branches in places other than the one found by Moses in Midian.

Jethro’s spiritual training of Moses must have been extensive. It eventually led to the Lord himself instructing Moses and calling him to the ministry. It seems that Moses led Jethro’s flock westward into the desert, “to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.” (Ex. 3:1.) Here the Lord appeared to Moses from the burning bush and called upon him to go to Egypt and prepare his people to be delivered from bondage.

Soon after the episode at the burning bush, the Lord caught Moses up “into an exceedingly high mountain” and talked with him “face to face.” (Moses 1:1–2.) Moses’ experiences on the mountain were marvelous and of such a nature that we must not neglect them.

That man may speak face to face with God is attested to not only by Moses but also by others, such as the brother of Jared. (See Ether 3:6–28.) Such men must have been of extraordinarily high spiritual caliber for the Lord to speak with them face to face. The Lord not only faced Moses in person, but also called him “my son” (Moses 1:4), and consented to display much of his workmanship (Moses 1:4–5). He also told Moses that he (Moses) was “in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior. …” (Moses 1:6.) The Lord showed Moses the world and “all the children of men which are, and which were created. …” No wonder he “greatly marveled.” (Moses 1:8.)

The Lord then withdrew from Moses for some time, and the great lawgiver fell to the earth from weakness. Moses recognized the nothingness of man in God’s presence, and he says that he beheld God not with his natural but with his spiritual eyes. Otherwise he would have withered and died in God’s presence.

Moses next had a personal confrontation with Satan, who wanted Moses to worship him. But he recognized Lucifer and commanded him to depart in the name of the Only Begotten. (Moses 1:12–22.)

When the glory of God returned, the Lord told Moses that he would be made stronger than many waters and deliver Israel from bondage. (Moses 1:25–26.) By the Spirit, Moses was next permitted to see the earth and all its inhabitants, and many lands, each called earth. (Moses 1:28–29.) They so intrigued Moses that he asked the Lord to explain. He was informed that God had created worlds without number through his Only Begotten Son, but the Lord gave only an account of this world and its inhabitants.

In an important verse, Moses now had explained to him the very purpose of God’s work: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)

This verse, perhaps more profoundly than any other scripture, explains the Lord’s love for his children.

In response to Moses’ request (Moses 1:36), the Lord explained matters pertaining to this earth and its inhabitants. (Moses 1:40–41.) He was commanded to write those things which the Lord spoke.

The third period of Moses’ career was his work as Israel’s leader and lawgiver. Fortified and prepared by his great spiritual experiences in Midian, Moses took leave of Jethro and, accompanied by his wife and sons, set forth to return to Egypt as the Lord required. On the way, Aaron met Moses as the Lord had commanded. Moses told Aaron, now his spokesman, the words of the Lord. On arriving in Egypt, Moses and Aaron gathered together the elders of Israel and told them the Lord’s message respecting the people. Their recital so moved the people that they bowed their heads and worshiped. (See Ex. 4:10–31.)

The mighty miracles and wonders performed by Moses and Aaron in persuading Pharaoh to release Israel from bondage are so well known they need not be recited here. But even when, with the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, Pharaoh consented to let Israel depart with their flocks and herds (Ex. 12:30–33), only after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea were the Israelites completely free to move. We are told that Israel then “believed the Lord, and his servant Moses.” (Ex. 14:31.)

Once in the wilderness, Moses realized that the Israelites’ spiritual image needed a radical change. Because they had been exposed so long to the Egyptians and heathen religious practices, they had become corrupted. (The golden calf episode is described in Exodus 32:2–9.) [Ex. 32:2–9] The Lord commanded Moses to tell the people the following:

“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. …” (Ex. 19:5–6.)

The Israelites were taught the fundamentals of religion when they were given the Ten Commandments and other teachings. Some of them doubtless joined the church, but it is also clear that many didn’t or were considered unworthy. (See 1 Cor. 10:1–8; D&C 84:24.) In time, even the higher ordinances of the gospel were revealed by Moses, at least to some.

Had Israel unitedly joined the church as Moses desired, the history of the world might have been materially changed, but unfortunately “they hardened their hearts.” (D&C 84:24.) After their worship of the golden calf, the Lord took Moses out of their midst and took away the holy, or higher, priesthood. Only the lesser priesthood remained.

Moses, as is well known, was not permitted by the Lord to enter Canaan. He did not die in the wilderness; the Lord translated him, as is evidenced by his appearance with the prophet Elijah to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. (See Matt. 17.) Moses and Elijah conferred the keys of their power upon the three apostles; in order to do this, it was necessary that they have bodies of flesh and bones—in this case, translated bodies. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158.)

Both Moses and Elijah were with Christ in his resurrection (D&C 133:55), probably being changed from their translated state to a resurrected state in the twinkling of an eye.

Moses made a most important appearance in this dispensation to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836. In Doctrine and Covenants 110:11, we read: “… Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.” (D&C 110:11)

When we consider the work of Moses in this and former dispensations, we are reminded of this scripture: “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. …” (Deut. 34:10.)

[illustration] Moses, reverenced by the ancient Hebrews as among the mightiest of prophets, received remarkable assignments from the Lord, including freeing Israel and giving guidance to Joseph Smith. (“Moses” by Jose Ribera.)

[illustrations] THE EGYPTIAN PERIOD: Found in the bulrushes by Pharoah’s daughter, Moses was brought up a Prince of Egypt, and may have lived in the royal palace at Memphis. This obelisk is all that remains from that ancient palace. Rameses II was Pharoah of Egypt at the time the Israelites were finally released from bondage. (Photo by Lamar C. Berrett.)

[illustration] THE JETHRONIAN PERIOD: Following his expulsion from Egypt, Moses found a home in the deserts of Midian with Jethro. Here the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush.

[illustration] THE ISRAELITE PERIOD: Leading his people out of Egypt, Moses directed their wanderings through the wilderness of Sinai.

Dr. Sperry, now retired, is former director of the Division of Religion at Brigham Young University. He serves as patriarch in the BYU Eighth Stake.