Moshe's Violent Debut
Shemot 2 provides only scant and selected details of Moshe's early life. Somewhat surprisingly, his first recorded initiative is to kill an Egyptian who was hitting a Hebrew man. His second action is to conceal the crime by burying the body:
(יא) וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.
(יב) וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל. (שמות ב':י"א-י"ב)
(11) It happened in those days: Moshe grew up, went out to his brothers, saw their burdens, and saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, from his brethren. (12) And he looked this way and that way and saw that there was no man, and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Shemot 2:11-12)
Since most readers of Tanakh tend to revere Moshe and sympathize with the oppressed Israelites in Egypt, Moshe's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster is usually viewed as demonstrating Moshe's willingness to champion the cause of justice even at great personal risk, and as an initial indicator of Moshe's empathy and leadership potential.1 The continuation of the chapter may support this reading, as this story is immediately followed by two others in which Moshe similarly intervenes on behalf of the defenseless party.
Upon closer examination, however, Moshe's action raises questions of vigilante justice. Did the Egyptian taskmaster deserve to die simply for smiting the Hebrew slave under his command?2 And even if he did, by what right did Moshe take the law into his own hands? Could Moshe, a prince of Egypt, not have stopped the beating without resorting to such an extreme measure? And if Moshe's deed was justified, why did God not intervene to prevent the resultant decades of Moshe's exile and estrangement from his nation?
The Torah does not explicitly praise or condemn Moshe's action, nor does it overtly punish him for the deed, leaving the commentators to mine the meager details of the story for additional clues. Some of the issues they consider include:
- What exactly was the Egyptian doing to the Hebrew slave? Was he simply following orders?3
- Does the root הכה have the same connotation in both verses of "מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי" and "וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי"? Did the Egyptian hit the Hebrew with intent to kill? Did Moshe smite the Egyptian with intent to kill?
- How old was Moshe when the incident took place? Did Moshe know he was an Israelite? Is he identifying with his people or standing up for the cause of justice?
- What do "וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה" and "וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ" mean, and did they play a critical role in Moshe's decision to act? If people had been around, would Moshe not have dared to act? And if there were no witnesses, how did the Israelites and Paroh find out?