Commentators disagree as to whether Moshe's killing of the Egyptian should be praised, condemned, or viewed neutrally. Some exegetes attempt to justify Moshe's behavior by portraying the Egyptian as a more blameworthy figure than he might appear to be on a first read. Thus, Vayikra Rabbah and others suggest that the Egyptian was not merely hitting the Hebrew but beating him to death, and thus Moshe's action was not murder but rather saving a life. Philo and Rabbinic Midrashim similarly vilify the Egyptian's character by attributing to him capital crimes committed outside the context of our story, such as murder or adultery. On the other hand, R. Azariah Figo and R. D"Z Hoffmann look not to the culpability of the Egyptian himself, but to the state of Egyptian society as a whole. They suggest that amidst such tyranny and corruption, norms of law did not apply and Moshe had no choice but to take extraordinary measures to ensure justice.
Other commentators take the Egyptian's actions at face value and instead condone Moshe by reducing the harshness of his deed and suggesting that Moshe had not intended to kill the Egyptian. A final approach concludes that Moshe is indeed blameworthy.
The various approaches are motivated both by textual issues as well as philosophical and polemical concerns. The need to defend Moshe in the face of Christian criticism may have led to attempts to justify his actions. Wariness of setting up a model of militant activism, or conversely, a desire to provoke readers into action might have influenced other commentators. Finally, the various outlooks may be partially colored by their general perceptions of Moshe. Was he a perfect leader or did he have shortcomings? Does his character undergo any transformation over the course of his life?
In analyzing and assessing Moshe's actions, Biblical commentators offer three main categories of approaches which span almost the full gamut of possibilities:1
Justified / Admirable
Moshe's action was an appropriate and praiseworthy2 response because the Egyptian was either endangering the life of the Hebrew or guilty of other heinous crimes.
Saving a Life
The Egyptian taskmaster intended to murder the Hebrew man, and all bystanders were thus obligated to save the Hebrew even at the price of the life of his Egyptian pursuer.
Meaning of "מַכֶּה" – HaKorem and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah bring prooftexts to demonstrate that "מַכֶּה" sometimes indicates striking with an intent to kill.
"וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה" – If Moshe needed to save the Israelite's life, it is unclear why he would have first stopped to look to all sides to confirm that nobody was in the vicinity. Thus, Vayikra Rabbah and Shemot Rabbah reinterpret these words to mean that Moshe saw with prophetic vision what the Egyptian had done in the past6 and what he was planning to do in the future.7 HaKetav VeHaKabbalah offers a simpler alternative that Moshe looked around in astonishment that none of the Israelites present were defending their compatriot.
"וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ" – Here too, this approach opts to avoid having Moshe stealthily scanning the scene for witnesses.8 Thus, Vayikra Rabbah and Shemot Rabbah cite a number of opinions which explain these words as meaning that there was nobody else capable of intervening.9 HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, on the other hand, explains that Moshe saw that none of the Israelites present were concerned enough to intervene.10
Backdrop – Vayikra Rabbah and Shemot Rabbah identify the "אִישׁ מִצְרִי" with the "אִישׁ מִצְרִי" mentioned in Vayikra 24:10 whose union with an Israelite woman produced the blasphemer.11 Based on this, they reconstruct the background to the story, suggesting that the Israelite man had discovered that the Egyptian had slept with his wife,12 and the Egyptian intended to murder him so that nobody would find out. Alternatively, though, the Egyptian's savage conduct was merely typical treatment of slaves in the Ancient Near East.13 Cf. Philo below.
The Egyptian had committed crimes for which he was deserving of death, and Moshe was authorized to take the law into his own hands. There are a number of variations of this possibility:
The Egyptian taskmaster had previously murdered Hebrews.
Backdrop – Philo attempts to place the episode in a context in which Moshe's persistent efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Israelite slaves15 had infuriated the Egyptian taskmaster and caused him to murder many of the Israelites. However, there is no hint of this in the Biblical text.
Worthy of praise – Philo notes that it was a pious action to kill such a savage taskmaster.16
Taking the law into one's own hands – Philo does not address this issue explicitly, but he may believe that Moshe was simply exercising his rights as the Egyptian crown prince and "future inheritor of his grandfather's kingdom". Interestingly, according to Philo, even Paroh was angered not by the killing of the Egyptian per se, but rather because his "grandson" Moshe was helping his enemies.17
The Egyptian had committed adultery with the Hebrew's wife.
Backdrop – These sources identify the "אִישׁ מִצְרִי" with the "אִישׁ מִצְרִי" from Vayikra 24:1019 whose union with an Israelite woman produced the blasphemer. This motif of the Egyptian committing adultery with the Hebrew's wife is found already in Vayikra Rabbah above, but there the Egyptian attempts to cover up his actions by killing the Israelite, and it is to prevent this murder that Moshe kills the Egyptian. In contrast, the sources here make no mention of attempted murder, and apparently have Moshe killing the Egyptian because of the adultery (this is explicit in Chizkuni).20
Consensual relations or rape – In Vayikra Rabbah, the Egyptian seduces the Hebrew's wife after she flirts with him, and this is most explicit in Seikhel Tov "והשמיעה לו לרצון". According to Tanchuma, Shemot Rabbah, and Rashi, though, the act is against her will, as the Egyptian fooled her into thinking she was engaging in intercourse with her husband.21 Lekach Tov and Chizkuni refer to the act as outright rape, and this matches the description in Divrei HaYamim LeMoshe Rabbeinu.
Meaning of "מַכֶּה" – According to these sources "מַכֶּה" can mean simply beating and does not necessarily imply an intent to kill.
Personal injury is included in the general Noachide prohibition of stealing – Ran notes that according to this possibility, the law would apply even in a case where a non-Jew struck another non-Jew. He also suggests that this reading could find support from Moshe's killing of the Egyptian, as since this event transpired before the giving of the Torah, the beaten Israelite had merely the same status as any other Noachide.
Striking a Jew is prohibited because he is the recipient of additional Divine commandments,25 and thus smiting him causes a desecration of God's name26 – This is Ran's preferred option. Accordingly, even prior to Sinai, the Israelites possessed a special status by virtue of the extra commandments which they had already received, and this is why Moshe was justified in killing the Egyptian.
Heavenly or human implementation – While the Bavli states that a non-Jew who strikes a Jew is deserving of death, it does not indicate who is authorized to enforce this penalty.
Judicial or extra-judicial – While the Rashba and Sefer HaNitzachon cited above appeal to the letter of the law, R. D"Z Hoffmann argues that the trampling of human rights in Egypt was so massive that legal norms did not apply.32 In his estimation, any measure short of killing the Egyptian would not have prevented him from intensifying his abusive behavior in the future, and this is what obligated Moshe to act in the way he did.
Meaning of "מַכֶּה" – According to these sources "מַכֶּה" can mean simply beating and does not necessarily imply an intent to kill.33
"וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ" – R. Azariah Figo and R. D"Z Hoffmann explain that Moshe looked around and saw that no other Israelite was coming to the rescue.34 The Netziv, in contrast, interprets that Moshe searched in vain for an Egyptian authority to intervene, but realized that they all hated the Israelites and would not act.
Moshe's action was problematic, but it was considered to be unintentional (שוגג).
How was it unintentional? R. Saadia appears to maintain that Moshe had absolutely no intent to kill, and the Egyptian's death was completely inadvertent.36 In contrast, the Ari says that although Moshe intended to kill the Egyptian, he was considered to be שוגג because he thought he was commanded to do so. This latter approach seems to also be how Devarim Rabbah37 and the Zohar understood the story.
Meaning of "מַכֶּה" and "וַיַּךְ" – According to R. Saadia, the root הכה means to strike in the cases of both the Egyptian and Moshe, and does not imply any intent to kill.38
"וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ" – It is unclear why Moshe would have looked to all sides.39
Vigilantism and its evaluation – R. Saadia's approach avoids both the problem of an unjustified killing as well as the issue of Moshe taking the law into his own hands. From Devarim Rabbah, the Zohar, and the Ari, though, it seems that Moshe's action required some degree of repentance or atonement.
Yitro's priestly estate as Moshe's city of refuge – One advantage of this approach is that it explains the need for Moshe to remain in exile until the avengers of the Egyptian's blood had died (see Shemot 4:19). It is also possible that according to Egyptian law, Yitro's priestly estate was off limits even to Paroh's forces.40
Moshe's action was both intentional and wrong, and he may have been punished as a result.
Moshe punished – While the Torah does not state that Moshe was punished or even rebuked for taking the life of the Egyptian, the picturesque account of Moshe's dialogue with Hashem before his death found in Midrash Petirat Moshe43 places such an argument in God's mouth and implies that this was the reason Moshe needed to die. Alternatively, Moshe's exile to Midyan may have served as a punishment for Moshe's action.44
What was Moshe's sin? These sources leave some ambiguity as to whether the criticism of Moshe is due to a miscarriage of justice (i.e. the Egyptian did not deserve to die – see R"Y Bekhor Shor) or because of vigilante justice (i.e. Moshe should not have taken it upon himself to serve as judge and jury).
Moshe's age – The Torah implies that the incident happened shortly after Moshe had reached the age of adulthood, and R. Menachem Tziyoni attributes Moshe's impetuosity to his relative youth. However, the Torah does not provide a precise chronological time frame for the episode, and some commentators depict Moshe as much older. See Chronology of Shemot 2-4 for the wide range of possibilities.
Emotions overcame him – R"Y Bekhor Shor attributes Moshe's actions to his anger boiling over out of mercy for his brethren, rather than to a strict sense of law and order.45 For additional cases where Moshe displays anger, see Moshe's Character.46