Moses is one of the most beloved people in the Bible. From his miraculous birth to his heartbreaking death, God used his life in unprecedented ways that people still marvel at thousands of years later. Moses’ story, which he wrote down for future generations, highlights his strengths and exposes his weaknesses. For example, in one account, Moses took another person’s life.
Moses killed an unnamed Egyptian who he saw physically beating Hebrew slaves. Though he grew up in the courts of Egypt, Moses’ ancestry was Hebrew, which made him protective of his people. However, in this story, anger got the best of Moses, as it did on other occasions, leading him to kill a man.
What did Moses see that caused him to well up with anger? How old was he when this happened? What details suggest that Moses premeditated the killing? How did he try to conceal his actions? What happened to Moses in the aftermath of the killing? What does the text say about his identity? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, the Bible is clear that Moses was a Hebrew even though he grew up in Egypt. Learn what tribe in Israel Moses was from to get more insight into his background.
Why Did Moses Kill the Unnamed Egyptian?
The first passage in the book of Exodus describes how the Israelite population exploded even though the nation was enslaved in Egypt (Exod. 1:1-6). The increase threatened Pharaoh. He decreed the death of all male Hebrew babies to slow their population’s rapid growth (Exod. 1:7-22).
When Moses was born, his mother, Joechebed, hid him so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him. Then, along with Moses’ sister, Miriam, Jochebed concocted a plan to save his life.
She put him in a basket and put him in a river in the path of Pharaoh’s daughter, hoping she would take compassion on him. The plan worked, and Moses grew up in the courts of Egypt (Exod. 2:1-10).
Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew
Following Moses’ birth story and explaining how he grew up among Egyptian royalty, Exodus fast-forwards about 36 or 37 years to when Moses was an adult.
Because the Pharaoh’s daughter raised him, the Egyptian authorities, who may not have known his actual ethnicity, didn’t force Moses into slave labor. However, he had a front-row seat to those they did.
Exodus reports that Moses grew in compassion for the Hebrews, who the Egyptians forced to work and endure great punishment. “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Exod. 2:11).
Moses kills the Egyptian slave master
After witnessing this injustice, anger overcame him. “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exod. 2:12, NIV). After killing a man, Moses’ life would never be the same. His relationship with his people and his association with Egypt would change forever.
Moses’ taking another man’s life would be part of his legacy. In the book of Acts in the New Testament, the first Christian martyr, Stephen, mentions the killing when briefly mentioning Moses’ story when giving a speech to Jewish authorities (Acts 7:23-29). However, he doesn’t mention the Red Sea parting or the 10 Commandments.
Also, Moses’ departure from Egypt was a dramatic turning point in his life. Learn how old Moses was when he left Egypt to better understand the story.
Moses’ Futile Attempts to Conceal His Actions
Exodus 2:12 reads, “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” This verse mentions three facts about Moses’ actions:
- He made sure to kill the man in secret.
- He struck the Egyptian, and it killed him.
- He tried to cover up his actions when he buried the Egyptian’s body in the sand.
Moses thought he killed the Egyptian in secret
Moses didn’t want anyone to know that he planned to kill the Egyptian. This detail implies that he premeditated the killing. He desired it, planned it, and executed it. Moses knew what he was doing.  The Egyptian’s death wouldn’t fit the definition of manslaughter in the Bible (e.g., Deut. 17:8).
Moses hit the Egyptian hard enough to kill him
The Hebrew word that describes Moses’ actions (נָכָה, nakah) means “to smite.” Some translations say Moses “killed the Egyptian” (e.g., NIV, NLT, NKJV). Other translations say he “struck down” the man (e.g., ESV, NASB). Another says, “he struck the Egyptian dead” (CSB).
Moses hid the man’s body in the sand
After Moses killed the Egyptian, he buried his body in the sand. Transporting the body to a location far away probably wasn’t an option because people would see him. And because he killed a man in the desert, there were no alternatives but to use sand to hide the body.
Later in the story, the reader learns that Moses’ scan of the area was insufficient or the burial was poor because some people knew what he did. He discovered this the day after he killed the Egyptian when he tried to mediate an argument between two Hebrews.
When he rebuked one of the men for hitting the other, the guilty man replied, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exod. 2:14).
Fear gripped Moses when he realized that other people knew what he did. Furthermore, not only did the Hebrews know, but Pharaoh learned of it, too (Exod. 2:14-15).
Afraid for his life, Moses fled to Midian, the region east of Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. This story explains why he was in Midian when God called him to confront Pharaoh and demand that he release God’s people (Exod. 2:23-3:22).
Also, Moses’ family plays a key role in his narrative in the Bible. Learn who Moses’ mother was to get more insight into his birth story.
Moses Identifies As a Hebrew
The first verse about Moses’ adult life reveals essential information, which it states twice, about his self-perception. “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Exod. 2:11, ESV).
Moses was born to Hebrew parents yet was raised in the courts of Egypt since he was a toddler. Did he identify as a Hebrew or as an Egyptian? Moses may have known much more about Egypt than his people, as teachers taught him the Egyptian language, culture, and belief system.
Yet he identified with the Hebrews.  The verse says Moses “went out to his people” (emphasis added) and that he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, “one of his people’ (emphasis added).
Moses’ actions may have partly come from having compassion for a beaten slave, but in addition to that, what moved him was that the victim was a member of his ancestral family.
 Exodus: Vol. I by John D. Currid. EP Bible Commentary. p. 58-59.
 Exodus by Douglas Stuart. New American Commentary. p. 95.
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