“Journeys and Events in the Life of Moses,” Ensign, Oct. 1973, 36–45
Moses was born (c. 1370 B.C.) the son of Amram and Jochebed, who were Levites. (Ex. 2:1–2; Ex. 6:20; Num. 26:59.) He was hidden in the house of his parents for three months, then taken to the river for safety. His discovery and adoption by the daughter of Pharaoh concluded the recorded account of his early years. (Ex. 2:3–10; Acts 7:20–21.) “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.” (Acts 7:22.)
Experience and Preparation in Midian and Sinai
When Moses was almost 40, he rejected his place in Pharaoh’s household. He sought to benefit the Hebrew’s cause but found opposition and rejection. (Ex. 2:11–15; Acts 7:23–28; Heb. 11:24–27.) Moses fled to a region called Midian near Mount Sinai. He became a shepherd and married Zipporah, who bore him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. (Ex. 2:15–22; Ex. 3:1; Ex. 4:18; Ex. 18:1–6; Num. 10:29.) It was from his father-in-law, Jethro, who was also known as Reuel, that Moses received the priesthood. (D&C 84:6) His sojourn in this land lasted 40 years. (Acts 7:30.)
Moses’ Call As a Prophet—Encounter with Pharaoh
The calling and mission of Moses had been foretold by Joseph who was sold into Egypt. (2 Ne. 3:9–10, 16–17.) Numerous revelatory experiences at Sinai prepared Moses to accomplish the task of restoring Israel again to the land of promise. (Ex. 3; Ex. 4:1–17; Moses 1.) Aaron, his brother, was prepared as a spokesman (Ex. 4:27–28; Ex. 7:1–2) and Moses began his labors in Egypt (Ex. 5–6). Signs and plagues were sent upon the Egyptians. Finally, after the death of the Egyptian families, the children of Israel were freed. (Ex. 7–11.)
Journey from Egypt to Sinai
After many years in bitter slavery, living in the regions of Goshen (Gen. 46:29, 34; Gen. 47:11), the exodus of the children of Israel (c. 1290 B.C.) began at the city of Rameses, a treasure city of the Egyptians (Ex. 12:37; Num. 33:3–5). They first stopped at Succoth (Ex. 12:37–39); and then, with the protective influences of the Lord, continued on to “Ethem in the edge of the wilderness” (Ex. 13).
Next came the miraculous events of crossing “the sea,” or as it is sometimes called the “Red Sea.” (Ex. 14:10–31.) The route proceeded on to Marah, the place of “bitter waters” (Ex. 15:23–26; Num. 33:8); to Elim, an oasis of wells in the wilderness (Ex. 15:27; Num. 33:9–10); and unto the wilderness territory along the Red Sea or the gulf of Suez (Ex. 16:1; Num. 33:11).
During this portion of the journey, the Lord provided quail and manna to sustain the people. (Ex. 16.) The manna continued as the staple of their sustenance for the duration of their wanderings. They passed through Dophkah and Alush (Num. 33:12–13), whose locations are not known today, and proceeded on to Rephidim, near Sinai, where water was miraculously provided (Ex. 17:1–7; Num. 33:14–15).
The Israelites were then attacked by the Amalekites, a nomadic desert people of that region. Joshua led a chosen military group of Israelites against their assault, while Moses held up his hand (assisted by Aaron and Hur) in covenant, leadership, and blessing for the victory of his people. (Ex. 17:8–16.) This episode illustrates well the great principle of sustainment. At this place Jethro and Moses’ family came to welcome Israel. He gave to Moses counsel concerning the government and organization of the people. (Ex. 18.)
Note: The journey from Egypt to Sinai took only about two months. (Ex. 12:1–2, 18; Ex. 16:1; Ex. 19:1.) During this period Moses taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ and attempted to prepare the people to receive a fulness of the priesthood, ordinances, and blessings. (1 Cor. 10:1–4; Jacob 4:4; Mosiah 13:33; D&C 84:23.)
While they were slaves in Egypt, the children of Israel were given the task of brickmaking to aid in various construction projects. Below, the top picture is a diagram taken from a tomb in upper Egypt dating back to 1450 B.C. and shows the process of making bricks in ancient Egypt. After digging the clay, piling it up, and letting it dry partially, it was tempered by several different processes and pressed into wooden molds to dry completely. The surfaces of the bricks often were impressed with the seal of the king for whom they were made. Archaeologists working at the site of the city of Ur of the Chaldees have determined that the bricks in the temple there were made by this process thousands of years ago. The bottom picture shows an Egyptian using the same process to make bricks today.
The children of Israel were organized at Mt. Sinai into various tribes, with specific positions assigned to them. Without this precaution, order in the temporal, legal, and spiritual affairs of Israel, and the task of governing this large nation would have been impossible.
The scriptures record that great numbers of people were involved. A census of those “twenty years old and upward, all that [were] able to go forth to war in Israel …” (Num. 1:3) was taken while they were encamped at Sinai and again after the forty-year sojourn at Kadesh. These censuses reflect the size of the nation of God’s people. (See the table, “The Military Census of Israel,” page 43.)
The camp itself was arranged to expedite the migration. Three tribes were placed on each side of the camp, with the tabernacle and the priesthood located in the center. (See the diagram, “Plan of the Camp of Israel,” page 39.)
From the camp, the order of march for the migration was established with four major companies, each composed of three tribes and some with priesthood, all directed to proceed in the outlined pattern according to the location of each in the camp. (See the diagram, “Israel’s Banners and Order of March,” pages 40–41.)
Israel’s Banners and Order of March
The ensign or banner (most often spoken of as a standard) was utilized in ancient Israel to facilitate organization and communication. By viewing the standard, a person could locate his place in the camp (Num. 2:2–3, 10, 17–18, 25, 31, 34) or in the company of march for migration or for war (Num. 10:14, 18, 22, 25).
The standard being raised, lowered, or waved would provide signals for movement, attack, assemblage, etc. The scriptures also use these terms to suggest that Israel (or the kingdom of God) would be as a sign (ensign) to the world of God’s authorized representatives. (Isa. 5:26; Isa. 11:10, 12; Isa. 18:3; Isa. 30:17; Isa. 31:9.)
“And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron saying, every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house. …” (Num. 2:1–2.)
For the migration to Canaan, Israel was organized into four companies: the first contained the tribes of Judah (Num. 10:14–16), Issachar, Zebulun, and the Levites (sons of Gershon and Merari—Num. 10:17); the second, those belonging to the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Gad, and the Levites (sons of Kohath—Num. 10:21); the third company was composed of the tribes of Ephraim (Num. 10:22–24), Manasseh, and Benjamin; and the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali made up the fourth company.
The Military Census of Israel
Note: Levites include all males one month old and older. But the other tribes counted “twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel. …” (Num. 1:3.) Their families—women, children, and those not able to war—would multiply their number considerably.
1st Census (Sinai)
2nd Census (Sojourn at Kadesh)
46,500 (Num. 1:21)
43,730 (Num. 26:7)
59,300 (Num. 1:23)
22,200 (Num. 26:14)
45,650 (Num. 1:25)
40,500 (Num. 26:18)
74,600 (Num. 1:27)
76,500 (Num. 26:22)
54,400 (Num. 1:29)
64,300 (Num. 26:25)
57,400 (Num. 1:31)
60,500 (Num. 26:27)
32,200 (Num. 1:35)
52,700 (Num. 26:34)
40,500 (Num. 1:33)
32,500 (Num. 26:37)
35,400 (Num. 1:37)
45,600 (Num. 26:41)
62,700 (Num. 1:39)
64,400 (Num. 26:43)
41,500 (Num. 1:41)
53,400 (Num. 26:47)
53,400 (Num. 1:43)
45,400 (Num. 26:50)
603,550 (Num. 1:46)
601,730 (Num. 26:51)
22,000 (Num. 3:39)
23,000 (Num. 26:57–62)
Fulness of the Gospel Offered
The children of Israel were encamped at Mount Sinai for almost a year (Ex. 19:1; Num. 1:1), where Moses attempted to sanctify the people so that the Lord might appear unto them. Through three revelatory experiences instruction was given to prepare the nation. Only the worthy and purified were to participate.
The newly covenanted people were orally given the Ten Commandments by the Lord; after that, a manifestation of the power of the Lord so frightened the people that they were fearful of his appearing. (Ex. 19; Ex. 20:1–2; Deut. 5:1–28.) The fourth recorded divine communication at Sinai to Moses was the criminal and civil code for the political government of the people. (Ex. 20:22–26; Ex. 21–23.) This “law” or body of statutes was recorded by Moses and accepted by the people. (Ex. 24:1–8.)
Moses then took some of the leadership of the tribes upon the sacred mount, where the Lord revealed himself unto them. After this theophany, Moses remained to receive further direction for his people. (Ex. 24:9–18.) During this interim, the Lord gave to Moses the fulness of the priesthood blessings and ordinances for his people. (D&C 84:19–23.) In addition, complete instructions were given for the building and operation of the tabernacle that was to be a portable temple for Israel. (Ex. 25–31; D&C 124:36–38.)
Upon his return to the camp, Moses found idolatry and wickedness rampant. In anger, he broke the tables of stone that the Lord had prepared with the higher law. The idol was destroyed and offenders punished. (Ex. 32.)
Moses returned a sixth time to the holy mountain, to plead for forgiveness of his people. He received the assurance that justice would be satisfied and that the people would still be permitted to go to the Promised Land. (Ex. 32:30–35.)
The Lesser Law Given
The Lord instructed Moses to move away from the people for a time. Outside the camp where he dwelt, further instruction was received relative to his leadership in Israel. (Ex. 33; JST, Ex. 33:20–23.) Two new stone tables were to be prepared on which would be recorded a lesser law and order of priesthood and ordinances. (JST, Ex. 34:1–3; D&C 84:24–26; 1 Ne. 17:24–30.)
Moses returned a seventh known time to Mount Sinai to receive this law, known as the “law of Moses”: a law that was after the law of a carnal or temporal order of things. This Mosaic law was intended to be a “schoolmaster” to turn Israel to Christ. (Gal. 3:24; Rom. 10:4; 2 Ne. 11:4; Jacob 4:5; Mosiah 3:13–15.) It was a “law of performances and ordinances” intended to keep Israel in remembrance of God and to strengthen their faith in Christ. (Mosiah 13:30–33; Alma 25:15–16.)
Moses was also given instructions for continuing the journey to the Promised Land. (Ex. 34:4–28.) When he returned from the mount, the glory of the Lord was manifest in his countenance. (Ex. 34:29–35.) The children of Israel completed construction of the tabernacle and were organized according to tribes for encampment and travel to the land of Canaan. (Ex. 35–40; Num. 1–6, Num. 10.)
Note: The sojourn of the children of Israel at Sinai and the events that transpired there are the most comprehensive record of all of the events of the life of Moses and of the exodus.
Journey to Kadesh
Three days’ travel from Sinai was the first encampment at Taberah, where fiery judgment consumed those who were complainers. (Num. 11:1–3.) Next, they came to Kibroth-hattaavah, where quail was again provided; but many were smitten with a plague because of their lustfulness. Seventy of the “elders” of the people were endowed to assist Moses in directing the people. (Num. 11:4–34.)
The nation removed to Hazeroth, and Aaron and Miriam (Ex. 2:4; Ex. 15:20; Num. 26:59; 1 Chr. 6:3) slandered their brother Moses and were judged accordingly (Num. 12). Finally, they arrived in the wilderness of Paran, in the area of Kadesh-barnea, near the borders of the land of Canaan. (Num. 12:16.)
Note: Between Sinai and Kadesh-barnea, many places of encampment are mentioned. (Num. 33:16–36.) However, only the above-named places have recorded events that transpired there. None of the other geographical locales of the named places between Sinai and Kadesh are definitely known today.
The Spies and the Land of Canaan
From Kadesh were sent 12 spies, representing each of the tribes, to gather reconnaissance intelligence for an invasion of the country. (Num. 13:1–25; see inset map for the extent of the travel of the spies.) The report of the spies told of the rich fruitfulness of the land, but also of the well-defended cities and the military prowess of the inhabitants.
Only Caleb, the representative of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua, the representative of the tribe of Ephraim, expressed faith that, with God’s assistance, Israel could conquer the land. (Num. 13:26–33; Num. 14:6–9.) The general lack of faith among the people was manifested in their full acceptance of the negative report of the other ten spies and in their declared response: “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!” (Num. 14:2.)
Rebellion and the Curse of “Wandering”
Because of their rebellion the Lord would have destroyed the Israelites, but through the pleadings of Moses (Num. 14:3–28), the Lord granted their request to die in the wilderness: “… as ye have spoken in my ears, so will I do to you” (Num. 14:28).
They were cursed to live in the desert of Kadesh one year for each day the spies were in the land of Canaan, or 40 years. (Num. 13:25; Num. 14:34.) Of those who were 20 years old or older, only Caleb and Joshua received the promise to enter the Promised Land. (Num. 14:29–39.)
The people, sorrowful at the judgment decreed, attempted an attack upon the Canaanites in the southern regions of the land, with the hope they might yet occupy the covenant place of their inheritance. Moses refused to lead them and they were defeated. (Num. 14:40–45.)
Sojourn in the Wilderness
The children of Israel lived as a desert people in the area around Kadesh-barnea, until forty years from the time of their departure from Egypt had passed. (Num. 33:38; Deut. 2:14.) During this period, only three events are recorded that transpired among them: the stoning of the Sabbath breaker (Num. 15:32–36); the leading by Korah, a Levite and priest officiating at the tabernacle, of a rebellion against Moses in an attempt to obtain power and to turn aside the prophet, but this man and all who supported him received capital judgments from the Lord (Num. 16); and the miracle of the budding of Aaron’s rod as a witness to the people that the Levites were to be the Lord’s authorized representatives to them (Num. 17).
As the desert sojourn drew to a close, Israel assembled near Kadesh. Here Miriam died and was buried. (Num. 20:1.) A water crisis arose and was resolved by the miracle of striking a rock, called Meribah, which brought forth water. Moses and Aaron did not glorify the Lord for this blessing and consequently were denied the privilege of entering the Promised Land. (Num. 20:2–13.)
The People of Edom and Israel
In preparation for their journey, Moses sent representatives to Edom to negotiate passage through their country. The people of Edom, who were the descendants of Esau, had received their land as an inheritance from the Lord; and the Israelites were required to honor this covenant. (Gen. 32:3; Deut. 2:4–5; Judg. 11:17–18.) The request was denied, requiring the Israelites to travel through the difficult regions to the south of Edom. (Num. 20:14–21.)
This new generation of Israelites left Kadesh and transported themselves to a place on the border of Edom that they called Mount Hor. (Num. 20:22; Num. 33:37.) Upon this mount, Eleazar, the son of Aaron, was given the presidency of the Levitical Priesthood in his father’s stead; and here Aaron died. (Num. 20:24–29; Num. 33:39.)
The Israelites had not attempted to enter Canaan from the south, because of the strong fortifications that had been built to protect those borders. The king of Arad, one of these walled cities, was fearful of the movement of the Israelites and attacked them, but was defeated by the forces of Israel. (Num. 21:1–3; Num. 33:40.)
Test of Faith
The children of Israel journeyed southward, to avoid passing through the land of Edom. They traveled through rugged wilderness areas and headed south to Elath on the sea or the gulf of present-day Aqaba. (Deut. 2:8.) Their experiences in this wilderness proved to be a test of the faith of this new generation of Israelites. “Fiery serpents” afflicted them and caused the death of many.
Moses was commanded to make a serpent of brass and place it high upon a standard so that all who were bitten by the serpent-creatures were instructed to only look upon it and they would be spared. (Num. 21:4–9.) This symbolized the future atonement of Christ and was intended to teach the principles of faith in Jesus Christ. Because of the simplicity of manifesting such a trust, many would not respond to the direction given them. (John 3:14; 1 Cor. 10:9; 1 Ne. 17:40–42; Hel. 8:14–15.)
The Trans-Jordan Conquests
From Elath the route required crossing into the eastern borders of Edom in order for the Israelites to make passage to the north. The Lord directed that they cause no conflict with the Edomites, and that they pay for any food taken and any wells dug for water. The Edomites, fearful of this massive migration, permitted this brief intrusion along their borders. (Deut. 2:1–8.)
The people of Ammon—the Moabites and Ammonites who were the descendants of Lot (Gen. 19:37–38)—were at this time a vassal state that had been driven from the north of their rightful territory, Bashan, by the Amorite king, Og. They were concurrently occupied in the south by the Amorite king, Sihon. These kings resisted the request of the Israelites for passage through their vassal states. In consequence, the Israelites attacked them and defeated these imperialistic rulers, who were unable to marshal the support of the occupied people to support them.
The Israelites did not actually war against the Ammonites in these lands nor did they attempt to fully possess the land for a part of their inheritance at this time. (Num. 21:21–35; Num. 22:1; Deut. 2:18–37; Judg. 11:19–22.)
The people camped near the Jordan River, to bring preparations for entry into the land of Canaan. While here, some of the people were enticed to practice the immoral rites of the idolatrous Moabites. This sinful conduct, that further involved some of the women of the desert people, brought great judgments upon the offending Israelites. (Num. 25; 1 Cor. 10:8.) Eventually military action was commanded to eliminate the apostasy provoking influences of the desert dwellers. (Num. 31.)
The story of King Balak of Moab and the prophet Balaam occurs during this time period. (Num. 22–24; see also Bruce R. McConkie, “The Story of a Prophet’s Madness,” New Era, April 1972, pp. 4–7.)
Moses completed his mortal mission, having brought a people from bondage to the borders of the Promised Land. He presented a series of final discourses to the people, reviewing the history of their journeyings; emphasizing the laws and covenants they had been given; and prophesying concerning their future course and destiny. Deuteronomy is the summation of these discourses.
Moses’ work having been declared finished by the Lord, (Deut. 31:2), he was translated and taken from the earth that he might perform a yet future mission. (JST, Deut. 34:5–7; Alma 45:19; Matt. 17:1–4; Mark 9:2–5; Luke 9:28–33; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158).