Moses Was an Activist

Dedicated to three generations of activists: Ruth Epstein, Anne Epstein, and Mirah Epstein Curzer.

Activists are people attempting to change important social practices indirectly by persuading members of the establishment to make the change. Activists have exceptional moral sensitivity; they become aware of the immorality of some social practice at a time when the establishment considers these practices unproblematic. Then they try to change these practices by convincing members of the establishment who are open to moral persuasion, and by pressuring those without scruples.

Moses begins life as a prince of Egypt. He then flees into exile and lives in obscurity as a shepherd until the age of 80. He spends his last 40 years leading the Israelites. But for a tumultuous few weeks from the Burning Bush where he first recognizes the unjust suffering of the Israelites, to the Red Sea where their liberation is finally accomplished, Moses is an activist in Egypt.

Moses's struggles and strategies can be an inspiration to contemporary activists facing powerful opposition. And Pharaoh's fate is a warning to those who would adamantly resist social change.

Blood, Frogs, and Lice

Moses's ultimate goal as an activist is to enable the Israelites to escape from slavery and embark on a journey to the Promised Land (Ex 3:8). However, he begins by requesting something far less than this. He asks only for a three-day leave of absence for the Israelites so that they might go into the desert, worship, and then return to slavery (Ex. 5:3). Perhaps he is a gradualist, hoping to achieve his ultimate objective through a series of baby steps. Or perhaps he is simply lying to Pharaoh about his intention to return the Israelites to Egyptian slavery.

When Pharaoh denies his minimal request, Moses calls for a series of three highly annoying, but not terribly destructive plagues (Ex. 7-8). Analogs in the modern world might be disruptive protest marches blocking rush hour traffic, or spray-painting graffiti. Pharaoh doesn't think that these plagues are -- or foreshadow -- serious threats. Perhaps he thinks they are natural events or the work of mere magicians (even his own magicians can duplicate the plagues of blood and frogs). When Pharaoh makes only a faux concession (Ex. 8:11), Moses shifts to a different tactic of activism.

Insects (or Wild Beasts), Cattle Disease, and Boils

Moses unleashes a second trio of plagues which strike all of Egypt except Goshen where the Israelites dwell (Ex. 8-9). These plagues are much more serious; they cause extensive property damage and illness. They are comparable to a campaign of rioting, major vandalism, arson, assault, etc.

After plague number four, Pharaoh negotiates; he offers the leave of absence, but not the journey. Israelites may worship, but not leave Egypt (Ex. 8:21). Probably he suspects that the slaves would not return if they were allowed to leave. Moses does not meet Pharaoh halfway. Instead, Moses declines the offer (Ex. 8:22), and moves to yet another, even more serious sort of activism.

Hail, Locusts, and Darkness

The third trio of plagues are neither annoyances nor destructive. Hail and locusts can't do much harm, for most of Egypt's crops and livestock are already devastated (despite Ex. 9:32). Hiding the sun for three days is disturbing rather than damaging. These plagues aim to inflict psychological rather than physical harm. In this respect, they are comparable to contemporary terrorism.

The ruling class is split between (a) those who think Egypt is outmatched and should therefore give in to Moses; and (b) those who think that victory, or at least compromise, is possible (Ex. 9:20-21). After the hail, Pharaoh's courtiers urged him to yield (Ex. 10:7), but Pharaoh continues to negotiate, instead. He offers to let the Israelite menfolk go, but to retain the women and children as hostages (Ex 10:10-11). After the darkness, Pharaoh offers to let the women and children go along with the men, but leave their flocks and herds behind (Ex 10:24). Moses not only rejects these offers, he escalates his demands by asking Pharaoh to provide the Israelites with additional animals (Ex. 10:25-26). Pharaoh angrily refuses.

Death of the Firstborn

Finally, Moses unleashes deadly force. People are killed. Property is taken or extorted. (I take the claim that the Egyptians loaned the Israelites objects of gold and silver (Ex. 12:35-36) to be a rationalization.) Pharaoh relents, and the refugees stream into the desert (Ex. 12:29-32). When such things happen in the contemporary world, we call it an uprising or rebellion.

Even after social reform is accomplished, there are always some people who can't accept their loss of wealth, power, privilege, etc. Pharaoh sends his army in pursuit of the former slaves, trying to undo the social transformation, but he suffers a devastating defeat (Ex. 14: 27-29).


Moses is a reluctant activist. He struggles against feelings of personal inadequacy (Ex. 4:10). He worries that he will not be taken seriously by Pharaoh (Ex. 3:11), or accepted by the Israelites as their spokesman (Ex. 4:1). Even after God patiently addresses these concerns, Moses balks (Ex. 4:13). Perhaps he is daunted by the prospect of going up against the overwhelmingly powerful Egyptian ruling class. If you are an activist feeling similar doubts, take heart. Even if you are not assured of divine backing, and are reluctant to resort to contemporary analogs of the Biblical plagues, recent history shows that other regime-shaking tactics are available.

If you stand in place of Pharaoh - i.e. if you are a member of a privileged class, benefiting from the exploitation of an underclass - take note. The Bible does not say what would have happened if Pharaoh had acceded to Moses's early requests. Perhaps the Israelites would have gradually transitioned from slaves to underpaid workers, to justly-treated fellow citizens, and eventually to a friendly neighboring state peacefully over several generations. What the Bible does say is that when committed activists push for justified social change, resistance is futile.