It was a bad time for the Israelites. They’d been subjugated by a certain Egyptian Pharaoh to a life of bondage and misery. But along came MOSES, a Hebrew chap who also happened to be an adopted Egyptian prince. YAHWEH appeared to him in the form of a burning bush on the side of a mountain and issued a rescue plan — with MOSES as chief perpetrator.
Close encounters with God are very rare. So we have to feel some admiration for MOSES, who kept his head in the midst of omnipresence and asked God the kind of personal questions we’d all like the answers to. YAHWEH was not entirely forthcoming but it was worth a try.
But when God started giving him detailed religio-political instructions for confronting kings and leading an entire nation out of slavery, MOSES was not enthusiastic. "Hang on a minute," he said. "You’re telling me to do all this big stuff, but I don’t even know you. It’s all very well terrifying me into submission, but if this relationship is going to work, it has to be a two-way thing." And so God uttered his Holy Name YHWH — and MOSES was terrified into submission.
From that moment, MOSES became the High Priest of the Israelites. And also their Prophet, Divine Interpreter and Chief Hygiene Officer. His Princely Egyptian status got him the ear of the Pharaoh, but the ear was a little hard of hearing. Cries of "Let my people go!" were met with insults, and MOSES realized this was gonna be a tough job. "My God is bigger than your God," he said. "Prove it," said the Pharaoh.
There followed a series of meetings in which MOSES contested against the very best Egyptian wizards. Sticks were transformed into snakes, rabbits were pulled from hats, and glamorous mummies were sawn in half to thunderous applause. The power of YAHWEH amazed everyone, but the sorcerers managed to duplicate every trick and the Pharaoh yawned.
Finally MOSES lost his rag and conjured up plagues of boils, locusts, frogs, gnats and other unspeakable nasties. Only the Israelites remained unscathed and boil-free. But still the Pharaoh yawned... until YAHWEH himself struck down the firstborn of Egypt — including the Pharaoh’s own son. Suddenly he couldn’t wait to get rid of the Israelites, who were banished from Egypt and led into the desert wilderness by a triumphant MOSES.
He didn’t stay triumphant for long. The people complained about the dust, the lack of provisions, and pretty much everything else. In his mercy, the Lord sent sustenance: a white flakey foodstuff which tasted like honey. This appeared every morning without fail — except on the Sabbath, which was God’s day off. Luckily he provided a double helping the day before. The Israelites called this mysterious food Manna, which means ‘what is it?’ To this day no-one knows exactly what it was, but they lived on the stuff for forty years so it must have done them some good.
Still the people grumbled. Needing guidance, MOSES went to consult with YAHWEH, who provided two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Many more were to follow. In fact there were so many regulations that the Israelites could hardly blow their own noses without permission. When it came to Thou Shalt Not, the sheer number of unclean practices and detestable bodily functions mentioned was enough to make anyone feel ill.
Many of these rules were practical tips for keeping a society healthy under difficult circumstances. But to the common people it just seemed like an excuse for MOSES to boss them around. Which, to be perfectly honest, he did. A complex array of sacrificial rituals ensured that a new legion of richly-paid priests could spend all their time tending to God while the common people paid in hard cash. As the Lord sayeth: "No-one is to appear before me empty-handed." (Exodus 34:20).
YAHWEH was so pleased at these achievements that he agreed to hear a humble request: MOSES wanted to see God’s face. But YAHWEH is nothing if not bashful when it comes to physical appearance. "No-one shall see me and live," he said. MOSES begged and pleaded for a glimpse of the Almighty — and eventually God took pity on him. "Go into that cave and cover your eyes," he said. MOSES did so. After a few moments, the voice of God spoke: "Okay, I’m ready. You can look now!" MOSES uncovered his eyes and stared out of the cave. And beheld in all its glory the eternal radiance and holy majesty of God’s backside.
The sight was so overpoweringly radiant that afterwards MOSES’s face gleamed with a supernatural glow. And here’s a funny thing. The original Hebrew text states: ‘The skin of his face shone’. But many centuries later, Roman translators poring over this vowel-deprived language were faced with two alternate readings: 1) Sent forth beams, or 2) Sent forth horns. Of course they plumped for the second version. And thus the tradition arose that MOSES sprouted horns. No less an artist than Michelangelo himself fell for that one.
Meanwhile, after forty years of wandering the desert, the Israelites finally reached Canaan, the Promised Land. But MOSES didn’t quite make it. After a lifetime of devoted service, YAHWEH punished him for an incident which was apparently too trivial to even put on record. So MOSES blessed his people, gave an incredibly long and repetitive farewell speech, and died within sight of the Promised Land.