Skip to main content

The Prophecy of Moses

Rav Zvi Shimon


The Prophecy of Moses


Moses is regarded as the greatest and most important of all prophets.  How did Moses earn this reputation?  This week's Torah reading, parashat Ve-zot Ha-Berakha, the final section of the Torah, concludes with the death of Moses and a description of the uniqueness of his prophecy:


"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moav, according to the word of the Lord.  And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moav, near Beth-Peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.  Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.  And the Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moav for thirty days ...  Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses - whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel." (Deuteronomy 34:5-12)


Moses is unrivaled amongst all prophets by virtue of God's having "known him face to face" and by virtue of the awesome miracles which were performed on his behalf.  These are the aspects of Moses' prophecy which place him above all past and future prophets.  Let us investigate these outstanding qualities of Moses' prophecy.



I.  Face to Face


What is meant by the statement that the Lord  knew Moses "face to face?"  Is Scripture's intention that Moses beheld the image of God?  This proposition contradicts an explicit verse in the Torah: "for man may not see Me and live" (Exodus 33:20).  Furthermore, what does it mean to behold God?  Can one speak of seeing God?  The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204), who wrote extensively in his Guide for the Perplexed about anthropomorphic terms in the Torah, offers the following elucidation of the term "face to face:"


"Another meaning of the word ['panim' - face] is "the presence and existence of a person;" compare "He died in the presence ('peneh')[i.e., in the lifetime] of all his brethren" (Gen. 25:18); "And in the presence ('peneh') of all the people I will be glorified" (Leviticus. 10:3) ...  In the same sense the word is used in the following passage, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face," i.e., both being present, without any intervening medium between them.  Compare ... "the Lord talked with you face to face" (Deuteronomy. 5:4); instead of which we read more plainly in another place, "Ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no representation; only you heard a voice" (ibid. 4:12).  The hearing of the voice without seeing any image is termed "face to face."  Similarly do the words, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face" correspond to "There he heard the voice of one speaking unto him" (Num. 7:89), in the description of God's speaking to Moses.  Thus it will be clear to you that the perception of the Divine voice without the intervention of an angel is expressed by "face to face."  (Guide for the Perplexed Part I Chapter 37)


Moses did not actually see God!  The term 'face to face' is used here in a figurative sense.  It refers to hearing God's voice, but not to seeing Him.  Building on this interpretation, how are we to understand the uniqueness of Moses' prophecy?  Did the other prophets not hear the voice of God?


The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers the following explanation:


"It is possible that [this is the intent of the verse]: because when two persons see one another face to face, they become acquainted with each other through that meeting, Scripture therefore says "whom the Lord knew face to face" [indicating that God and Moses were like two people who knew one another well]"


The term 'face to face' does not refer to any specific aspect of revelation, but is rather a general assessment of Moses' greater familiarity and intimacy with God.  Moses had a greater grasp of the divine than any other human being. Metaphorically speaking, his relationship with God was similar to that of friends who become closely acquainted with one another.


Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) offers a different interpretation:


"Moses was familiar with Him and he spoke to Him at any time he so desired."


According to Rashi, the uniqueness of Moses' relationship with God lies in its frequency and informality.  Moses feels "at home" with God.  He speaks to him whenever he desires and in an almost totally unconstrained manner.


The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) interprets the clause 'face to face' differently:


"Face to face"- "Through no intermediary, and the textual explanation is just as a person speaks to another face to face, even though, [in this specific case], Moses did not actually see God." (Ibn Ezra, Deuteronomy 5:4).


In contrast to Rashi who considered Moses unique due to the free and unlimited access he had to God and to revelation, the Ibn Ezra suggests that the term 'face to face' relates to the manner of the revelation.  As opposed to other prophets, Moses' revelation was a direct one.  God's word was not revealed to him through an angel or messenger but directly from the "mouth" of God.  This direct revelation is indicative of a higher and closer relationship with the Almighty.


The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12 century) offers a similar explanation:


"God told him that which he desired to communicate to him, and he would not reveal Himself through visions or symbols as with other prophets to whom He would appear in dreams or in visions, as God told Aaron and Miriam."


The Bekhor Shor refer us to God's words to Aaron and Miriam: "When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make myself known to him in vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with my servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles" (Numbers 12:6-8).


The Bekhor Shor agrees with the Ibn Ezra that the term 'face to face' refers to the manner in which Moses received his prophecy.  However, he suggests that it highlights not only the difference in God's revelation to Moses but also Moses' state of being upon receiving revelation.  All other prophets received revelation in a state of slumber and semi-consciousness.  Moses, by contrast, received divine revelation while all his faculties were fully alert.  God's communication with Moses is similar to normal human communication.  Moses was at such an elevated spiritual state that he could receive revelation even while fully conscious.  His personal faculties were so refined that he could grasp revelation while fully awake and cognizant.


The different explanations of the term 'face to face' offered so far by the commentators are by no means mutually exclusive.  This is evident from the Rambam's articulation of the uniqueness of Moses' prophecy.  The Rambam invested more effort than any other commentator or philosopher in attempting to understand the phenomenon of prophecy.  He methodically defines the different components and ingredients involved in the process of receiving prophecy.  He lists four ways in which Moses' prophecy differed from all others.  We will number them and ask you, as you read them, to identify which differences were already cited and identify the commentator who offered a similar explanation:


"What is the difference between Moses' prophecy and that of all the other prophets?


1) [Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets in a dream or vision.  Moses, our teacher, would prophesy while standing awake, as [Numbers 7:89] states: "When Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak to Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him."


2) [Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets through the medium of an angel.  Therefore, they perceive only metaphoric imagery and allegories.  Moses, our teacher, [would prophesy] without the medium of an angel, as [Numbers 12:8] states: "Mouth to mouth I speak to him," and [Exodus 33:11] states: "And God spoke to Moses face to face."  {Numbers 12:8] states: "He gazes upon the image of God" - i.e., there was no metaphor.  Rather, he would perceive the matter in its fullness, without metaphor or allegory.  The Torah testifies concerning him [Numbers 12:8]: ["I speak to him...] manifestly, without allegory."  His appreciation of prophecy would not be through metaphor, but through open revelation, appreciating the matter in its fullness.


3) All the [other] prophets are overawed, terrified, and confounded [by the revelations they experience], but Moses, our teacher, would not [respond in this manner], as [Exodus 33:11] relates: "[God spoke to Moses...] as a man speaks to a friend" - i.e., just as a person will not be awe-struck from hearing his friend's words, so too, Moses mental power was sufficient to comprehend the words of prophecy while he was standing in a composed state.


4) All the [other] prophets cannot prophesy whenever they desire.  Moses, our teacher, was different.  Whenever he desired, the holy spirit would envelop him, and prophecy would rest upon him.  He did not have to concentrate his attention to prepare himself [for prophecy], because his [mind] was always concentrated, prepared, and ready [to appreciate spiritual truth] as the angels [are].  Therefore, he would prophesy at all times, as [Numbers 9:8] states: "Stand and hear what God will command you."  He was promised this by God, as [implied by Deuteronomy. 5:27-28]: "Go and tell them: 'Return to your tents,' but you stand here together with Me."  This should be interpreted to mean: When prophecy departs from all the [other] prophets, they return to their "tents" - i.e., the needs of the body like other people.  Therefore, they do not separate themselves from their wives.  Moses, our teacher, never returned to his original "tent."  Therefore, he separated himself from women and everything of that nature forever.  He bound his mind to the Eternal Rock.  [Accordingly,] the glory never left him forever.  The flesh of his countenance shone, [for] he became holy like the angels."  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:6)


The first, second and fourth differences were all already mentioned by the commentators.  The first difference was cited by the Bekhor Shor, the second by the Ibn Ezra, and the fourth by Rashi.  The Rambam adds, in the third difference, that not only was Moses' prophecy unique but his reaction to it was also different.  He was not totally overcome by the prophetic experience.  For Moses, prophecy was not an outstanding or abnormal occurrence.  It was a natural event which was a fundamental and basic  part of his existence.



II.  Moses' Miracles


The Torah states that Moses was unique not only due to the level of his prophecy but also by virtue of the miracles that occurred during the years of his leadership.  However, the question arises, how are the miracles performed for Moses different from the miracles performed for other prophets such as Joshua, Elijah or Elisha?  Was not the stoppage of the Jordan river (see Joshua 3:16) or the halting of the progress of the sun in the time of Joshua (see Joshua 10:12-14) comparable to the miracles performed for Moses?  Were not the resuscitation of dead by Elijah (see Kings I 17:22) and Elisha (see Kings II 4:35), or the divine fire which, in response to Elijah's prayer, descended from the sky onto Mount Karmel (see Kings I 18:38) just as impressive?  What advantage do the miracles performed on behalf of Moses have over those performed on behalf of other prophets?


The Rambam offers the following answer:


"The general distinction between the wonders of Moses and those of other prophets is this: The wonders wrought by prophets, or for them, are witnessed by a few individuals, e.g., Upon hearing of the wonders wrought by Elijah and Elisha;  the king of Israel is surprised, and asks Gechazi to describe to him the miracles: "Tell me, I pray thee, all the great things that Elisha hath done" (Kings II 8:4) ...  The same is the case with the signs of every other prophet, except Moses our Teacher.  Scripture, therefore, declares that no prophet will ever, like Moses, do signs publicly in the presence of friend and enemy, of his followers and his opponents; this is the meaning of the words: " Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses - whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel"   Two things are here mentioned together; namely, that there will not arise a prophet that will perceive as Moses perceived, or a prophet that will do as he did; then it is pointed out that the signs were made in the presence of Pharaoh, all his servants and all his land, the opponents of Moses, and also in the presence of all the Israelites, his followers.  Compare "before ALL Israel."  This is a distinction not possessed by any prophet before Moses; nor, as is correctly foretold, will it ever be possessed by another prophet.  We must not be misled by the account that the light of the sun stood still certain hours for Joshua, when "he said in the sight of Israel, [sun, stand still at Givon]" . (Joshua 10:12); for it is not said there "in the sight of ALL Israel," as is said in reference to Moses.  So also the miracle of Elijah, at Mount Karmel, was witnessed only by a few people."  (Guide for the Perplexed Part II Chapter 35)


The distinguishing feature of Moses' prophecy is the publicity of the miracle.  All of Israel and all of Egypt witnessed the cataclysmic miracles performed during the exodus of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt (See Exodus, chapter 7 ff.).  The miracles performed on behalf of other prophets were not witnessed by such a large number of people.


The Ramban rejects this solution:


"And the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] stated in the Guide for the Perplexed that 'the distinction of Moses our teacher was that he spoke [publicly] to Pharaoh and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in the sight of all Israel,' for they [his signs and wonders] were in full view of his opponents and his followers.  The rest of the prophets, however, performed them [the signs and wonders] in the presence of a few individuals, ...  But this does not appear to me to be correct. ...  The halting of the sun for Joshua was certainly in view of all Israel, and all the kings of Canaan saw it - those who fought against him [on that day] as well as the remaining ones.  The splitting of the Jordan, like the splitting of the Red Sea, was not done for individuals, but for all Israel, and furthermore it is written, 'And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, that were beyond the Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, that were by the sea, heard that the Eternal had dried up the waters of the Jordan' (Joshua 5:1)."


The distinction of the miracles performed on behalf of Moses can not lie in the degree of their publicity since the miracles performed by other prophets were also visible to the masses.  The Ramban offers alternate solutions.  His first answer is that of our Sages:


"However, the distinction of those [signs and wonders] of Moses our teacher is explained by the Rabbis in the Midrash: "All the prophets wrought miracles through prayer...but Moses performed [signs and miracles] immediately [without prayer]."


As opposed to all other prophets who had to beseech God to perform miracles on their behalf, Moses did not have to request them.  In fact, he did not even initiate their performance.  God wished to perform miracles in order to glorify His name.  Consequently, Moses' prophecy was characterized with an abundance of divinely initiated miracles.  God informed Moses of his intention to perform a miracle and Moses fulfilled whatever task he was commanded to carry out in relation to the miracle.  Moses' prophecy was unique in that it was, from its very outset, miraculous in nature.


The Ramban concludes with his own explanation:


"But in line with the simple meaning of scripture it is all tied and connected [with the preceding verse, 'And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses' etc.].  Scripture states that no prophet has ever appeared in Israel like Moses whom the Eternal knew face to face and for whom God performed signs and wonders with such a mighty hand and great terror.  If they brought about some of them [the signs and the wonders], they did not approach the numbers or great distinction of those [performed by Moses], for there was never a day like Sinai, before it or after it.  So, also, the signs of the prophets did not extend for as long a period as did those of Moses, peace be upon him - for the sign of the manna continued steadily for forty years (Exodus 16:38), as did the pillar of fire and the cloud.  And their walking through 'the great and dreadful wilderness, wherein were serpents and scorpions, and parched land with no water in it' (Deuteronomy 8:15) and yet they lacked nothing."


The miracles performed on behalf of Moses are outstanding from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives.  Qualitatively, the revelation at Mount Sinai was different from all other miracles since it involved the voice of God imparting His commandments.  Other miracles involved a change in the natural order, but did not contain a direct revelation from the mouth of God.  God disclosed His presence through the performance of miracles for other prophets, but he did not reveal Himself by speaking to the people.  This is unique to the prophecy of Moses.


In addition, the miracles performed on behalf of Moses were different from all other miracles from a quantitative perspective.  Moses performed many more miracles, and the miracles which he performed lasted for a far longer span of time.  Moses' prophecy, from beginning to end, was accompanied by miracles.  The exodus from Egypt was one continuous chain of miracles as was the Israelites' sojourn in the desert during the forty years. God provided the multitudes with the manna, food from the heavens, and His presence, whether through a cloud during the day or fire by night, was constantly visible to the people.  Miracles were the norm during the forty years of travels in the desert under Moses' leadership!  This is unparalleled by any other prophet.


Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865), offers textual support for this explanation.  He suggests that the key word in our verse is the word 'le-kol' (translated ALL).  Our verse states: "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses - whom the Lord knew face to face, in ALL the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt ... and for ALL the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel."  The word 'all,' repeated several times in the verse reveals, according to Shadal, that the uniqueness of the miracles performed on behalf of Moses lies in their great number.



III.  Conclusion


The final verses of the Torah may be viewed as a eulogy for Moses.  However, one may ask, for what reason did the Torah see fit to emphasize the uniqueness of Moses' prophecy?  Was it solely in order to praise Moses?  Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) does not believe this to be the case.  He offers the following explanation:


"These three final verses place a seal on the Law of God brought through Moses, and ensure it its eternal inviolability and unalterableness.  Accordingly, they stress only three factors out of Moses's mission, and just those which hold out an iron shield against any complete or partial abrogation of God's Torah by any later prophet, as well as against any bold or light-minded addition to it ...  Moses stands unique for all time.  The direct contact in which God made Himself and His Will manifest to Moses in raising him out of the rest of mankind for the mission he had to carry out was not attained by any later prophet, none of them can ever boast of that in Israel.  Moses received every word of his mission face to face from God and no word not received in a similar direct manner can ever shake in the tiniest degree that which was given so directly to Moses ...  All this stands for all time, warning against any ... defection from the Torah in Israel which would estrange Israel from its calling and thereby endanger the work of the mission of Moses."


The Torah concludes with a description of the uniqueness and greatness of Moses' prophecy not in order to praise Moses, the man, but rather in order to underscore the greatness of his prophecy, namely the Torah itself.  Since Moses' prophecy was the highest to be reached by man and will never be paralleled by any other prophet, his words are inviolable. "The Torah of truth God gave to his people, through his prophet, his own faithful servant." (From "Yigdal", a poem composed in the 14th century by Daniel ben Judah of Rome, summarizing the Rambam's 13 principles of faith.)


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!