4.2. Moses Chooses a Jewish Identity (2:11-12)

(11) Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.

(12) He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

(11) Moses had grown up: This is the second time that Moses grows up (the first was in the previous verse, v. 10). This time he grows up psychologically, as he understands that he is a crown prince.

He went out to his kinsfolk: Literally, “He went out to his brothers.” The words “his brothers” could refer to either the Egyptians or the Jews. Moses, nursed by his birth mother but brought up in Pharaoh’s palace (i.e., he received both Jewish and Egyptian upbringings) must at some point choose with whom he identifies more strongly and wishes to be associated. Moses left the palace and “went out to his brothers” to finally find out which of them are his true brothers.

And witnessed their labors: Moses’ awareness of social injustice was the first step toward his Jewish self-identification. There is nothing inherently unfair in that some people work and others manage them. But the fact that the Jews endure inordinately harsh exertions and are brutally compelled to do so was a clear violation of justice in Moses’ eyes.

He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen: Seeing injustice accompanied by violence, Moses concludes decisively that it is the Jews who are his brothers.

(11-12) He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew … he struck down the Egyptian: In this verse, the Torah uses the same Hebrew verb for “beating” and “struck down”: lehakot, (“to beat, smite, kill”). In other words, Moses did to the Egyptian the very same that the latter had tried to do to the Jew. This too emphasizes the justice of Moses’ actions.

(12) He struck down the Egyptian: As a member of the ruling class, Moses could simply have ordered the Egyptian overseer to cease and desist. But Moses decides instead that the Egyptian must be killed. What was behind this decision?

(12) He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about: Wherever the Torah uses the word ish, “man, person”, it means a person of particular importance. And likewise, ein ish, “there is no one”, means that there is “no worthy person” to be found. Moses, turning this way and that – scanning the entire governmental system that he knows so well – sees that there is no one there to come to the defense of the oppressed. He decides then and there not only to intervene in this particular incident, but to renounce the entire Egyptian system of government.

Moses kills the Egyptian as a means of encouraging the Jews, of arousing their self-esteem and their aversion to tolerating Egyptian violence of any kind (much later, Samson will act similarly, deliberately lacerating the Philistines in order to raise the Jews’ spirits. See Jud. 14:4).


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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