Ministry Resources

Moses as a refugee

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

Moses may have thought that killing an Egyptian oppressor was an act of justice, but the Egyptian overlords have different ideas. Once word about his action leaks, the attempted hero must flee for his life, soon becoming a fugitive in Midian from political repression.

Moses has reason to fear Pharaoh (Exod 2:14; cf. 14:10), though fearing God matters more (1:17, 21; 14:13; cf. 3:6; 9:30). Pharaoh wants to kill Moses just as Moses had killed an Egyptian (2:15). Now Moses has to flee for his life (2:15), abandoning any semblance of privilege and virtually all connections with both Egyptians and Hebrews. Undoubtedly his action shamed his adoptive family, but survival would now be his first concern. Moses’s ancestor Jacob had had to flee both his brother (Gen 27:43; 35:1) and his uncle (31:20-22, 27); but Moses’s flight from Pharaoh especially prefigures the flight of all Israel from Pharaoh a generation later (Exod 14:5). In contrast to Joseph, who went from being a pastoral nomad to being vizier over Egypt, Moses goes from being a high-status member of the Egyptian nobility to being a pastoral nomad.

Moses thus sits by a well in Midian, both a useful place to quench thirst and a normal place for meeting local people. Those who come to the well include the priest of Midian’s daughters. (The priest is apparently called both Reuel, as in 2:18 and some other passages, and Jethro, as at other times in Exodus. Alternatively, the term translated “father-in-law” in these passages might mean simply “male in-law,” allowing for a grandfather or brother-in-law who also held or shared the priestly office at different times.)

That these daughters come to draw water might not be unusual, but Moses might recall the story about himself being drawn from the water, an event commemorated even in his name (2:10). He might also recall stories about his ancestors. The servant whom Abraham sent to find a bride for Isaac found her at a well, where she graciously watered his camels (Gen 24:13-21). Jacob met Rachel at a well, when she was coming to water her father’s flock at the well’s watering troughs (29:9-11). Now Moses also acts gallantly, like his ancestor Jacob. Jacob rolled away a large stone and watered the flock Rachel had brought (Gen 29:10). Moses rescued the women here from bullying shepherds and watered their flock (Exod 2:17).

Moses acts like Jacob here, but also like himself: he had already demonstrated his hatred of oppression by killing the Egyptian in 2:12. That the text does not specify violent action on Moses’s part here might suggest that it proved unnecessary; standing up for the women may have been enough to make the bullying shepherds back down and wait their turn. (Moses did know how to try to resolve matters nonviolently; cf. 2:13.)

Yet like Pharaoh’s cupbearer temporarily forgetting Joseph, the young women leave their benefactor Moses at the well, apparently with no reward for his action—until their father intervenes (see 2:18-20, in the next lesson).

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