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    Mayhem & murder – Sh’mot

    Moses kills the Egyptian taskmaster, from the Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695

    One of the strangest things about Moses is that he committed murder: “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. He turned this way and that and saw nobody; he smote the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Ex. 2:11-12).

    Before long it became clear that his act had not gone unnoticed, at least by some of his fellow Hebrews. Then Pharaoh found out, and Moses had to flee.

    Our question is why Moses took the law into his own hands.

    Granted, the Egyptian was a harsh taskmaster and was ill-treating the Hebrew slaves. But to murder him – would we expect such an extreme reaction on the part of Moses?

    Granted, the Egyptian was brutal and inhumane and someone needed to defend the Hebrews in their suffering. But to commit murder?

    There is a Midrash which depicts God telling Moses that he had no right to behave like this.

    Philo argues in his “Life of Moses” that the taskmasters were “wild beasts in human form” and such people without scruples forfeited the right to live.

    What did Moses do? “He turned this way and that and saw nobody” – there may well have been people around, but nobody was prepared to speak up and protest at what the Egyptian was doing. So Moses was indignant and could no longer take it.

    There is a limit to human patience. In the case of Moses we even see this in regard to his own people, when years later they goaded him to such an extent that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it as God had commanded.

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