Long ago, in the desert of Egypt, Hebrew slaves known as Israelites escaped from the tyranny of the pharaoh. This story has a common theme that an unlikely hero leads people out of a wasteland and into a place of new life. The Israelites heroes’ name was Moses. There are several attributes that his quest shares with Joseph Campbell’s theme of the journey of the spiritual hero, found in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Departure, initiation, and return are all part of the journey. Moses’ journey will take him away from his familiar surroundings, separating him from all that he knows, so that he can return to perform the tasks God commanded him to complete.
Moses’ journey begins in Egypt. This is a land where the Pharaoh has ultimate control and power over the people. Campbell refers to this greedy, egocentric, possessive leader as the tyrant. At this time, Egypt is noticing a huge increase in the number of Hebrew slaves (Exodus 1:9).
In order to maintain possession of the land, Pharaoh must stifle the future threat that the increasing population of Israelites represent. To do this he orders the first born son of every Hebrew to be thrown into the Nile. However, baby Moses floats to the Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses is raised as an Egyptian prince. He grows up different than any other Hebrew. He learns how to become soldier for his Pharaoh, but something is always troubling him.
One day Moses sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave and Moses intervenes and kills the Egyptian (Exodus 2:12). The next day he sees two Hebrews struggling, and tries to intervene, but he discovers that his murder of yesterday is known. This conflict symbolizes what Campbell says is the “call to adventure”. “A blunder—apparently the merest chance—reveals an unexpected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood.”(Campbell 51)
Campbell also states Sigmund Freud’s theory that blunders are not the merest chance, but are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. Moses killed the Egyptian because of an ongoing conflict within himself over the treatment of slaves. To escape persecution from Pharaoh, Moses flees to Midian. By leaving his familiar surroundings, Moses finds himself crossing a threshold into a foreign land. To get to Midian, Moses must cross the Desert of Sin.
The crossing of the threshold is the first step into the sacred zone of the universal source (Campbell 81). In Midian, he befriends and then marries the daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian. Moses becomes a shepherd as he adjusts to his new life. There is an enormous contrast between Moses’ life as an Egyptian prince and his life as a Midianite shepherd. As a prince he had everything done for him. As a shepherd he had to do everything for himself; he was holding the very job that he had been taught to despise, and he lived as an unknown foreigner. This was a humbling experience for Moses.
Living the life of a shepherd and nomad, Moses learned about the ways of the people he would be leading and also about life in the desert. Campbell would say that Moses was swallowed into the belly of the whale (Campbell 90). Moses couldn’t appreciate these lessons, but they were preparing him to free Israel from Pharaoh’s grasp. During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, because of their slavery their cry for help went up to God. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So, God looked on the Israelites and was concerned for them (Exodus 2:23-25).
One day, after God hears the complaints of Israel, He speaks to Moses through the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. God says, “Take off your shoes, this is sacred ground.” This represents the sacred spot known as the axis mundi. It is through the burning bush that God’s Holy Spirit begins a transfiguration process with Moses, and he becomes a channel of grace. God’s work will be done through an unlikely candidate, Moses, who represents the world navel, or life giving force. God tells Moses that He will bring Israel to the area of Canaan out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:16,17).
Moses doubts his ability, but God reassures him that He will be with him. Moses is to gather the elders and tell them of God’s plan; they are to get Pharaoh’s permission to leave “temporarily” to sacrifice to God, three days away (Exodus 3:18). Moses still doubts himself, but God gives him some miraculous signs to perform: a rod that becomes a snake, a leprous and then cleansed hand, and turning the river to blood. These are examples of what Campbell calls supernatural aid. Moses’ doubts also then focus on his ability to be an effective public speaker, so God, becoming angry, appoints his Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help him act as a mouthpiece for Moses (Exodus 4:14).
Moses finally agrees and returns from Midian. God gives Moses a message for Pharaoh: if Pharaoh does not let Israel, known as God’s firstborn, out of Egypt, then God will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son. On the way, Moses meets Aaron and tells him the plan. In Egypt, they tell their people, who believe after seeing the signs. Moses and Aaron give Pharaoh the message. But the tyrant doesn’t believe them or care about God, and instead thinks the Hebrew slaves are trying to slack off from making bricks. So Pharaoh makes it even harder; the Hebrews have to find their own straw for bricks, but their quotas remain as high as ever.
The Israelites get mad at Moses for this.In order to become transformed, the spiritual hero must attain purity of soul and wholeness of the spirit. This is gained through the trials and sufferings undergone when he returns to Egypt, or hell. This downward movement into hell is also known as dismemberment or tragedy (Campbell 58). Moses becomes aware of the woundedness of the Hebrew slaves, as well as his own pain felt through his doubt in himself and his ability to lead. Moses complains to God, but God tells Moses to reassure the Israelites, giving him the words to say (Exodus 6:6-8).
However, when Moses speaks the words to them, the people are too discouraged to believe him. Moses takes this as proof of his bad oratorical skills. He is still having trouble accepting the role that God has told him was his destiny, since Moses came from Abraham’s bloodline. God reassures Moses again, and says that He will let Pharaoh’s heart remain obstinate in failing to let the Israelites go. Moses and Aaron return to the Pharaoh to display God’s supernatural powers. Unfortunately, when Moses drops his staff and it transforms into a snake, Pharaoh is not impressed because his magicians can do it as a trick. The magicians are symbolic of the tyrant’s demons. The same is true when Moses turns the river into blood, which remains putrid for a week (Exodus 7:19-24)
Immediately following the encounter, the plagues begin, which mostly affect the Egyptians. Pharaoh promises to let the people go at the height of each plague, and then reneges once the plague is over. The plagues consist of frogs, gnats, flies, livestock plague, boils, deadly hail, locusts, and the death of the firstborn son. They cause great suffering for all the Egyptians (Exodus 8-10).
Pharaoh comes to know the power of God, though he seems not to accept the implications. Finally, once Pharaoh’s son is killed, he drives Israel away, and lets all the people go including their flocks. At this point, everything begins to change. The nadir, or bottom point of the axis mundi, allows Moses’ journey to begin the upward climb into comedy (Campbell 193).
Moses finally sees a new life for all the Hebrews that will bring way to a new restored land, free from oppressed rule of the tyrant. The Israelites leave Egypt with the supernatural aid of God, who leads his chosen people with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:22).
God tells Moses to make sure the Israelites seem like they are wandering aimlessly, and that He will let Pharaoh become obstinate against them again. Pharaoh hears of the wandering, and so he and an army of Egyptians go out to retrieve the Israelites. The Hebrews see the Egyptians and fear death, but Moses reminds them that God will fight for them. God tells the Israelites, through Moses, to pick up and go through the sea, and that He will bring glory to Himself by means of the bad deeds of Pharaoh and Egypt. Moses lifts his hand and the sea divides, the threshold to restore the land is revealed (Exodus 14:16).
The Hebrews proceed through on foot, while the Egyptians follow in their chariots, but God makes the Egyptians confused and their chariots break apart in the mud at the bottom of the sea floor. They are not pure of heart and therefore cannot cross the threshold. Moses lifts his hand again and the sea returns, killing the Egyptians and Pharaoh. Israel puts its faith in God and in Moses. The other side of the Red Sea symbolizes a new life, or the axis mundi.
Moses journey, however, is not over. He must battle the doubts of his fellow Hebrew people as they make their way to the promise land. Later, God gives Moses the laws by which all Israelites are to follow if they choose to remain in God’s good grace. These are known as the Ten Commandments. Just as God used the burning bush as a channel for the transfer of spiritual energy and life force to Moses, Moses is the channel for the message to the Israelites. This serves God’s ultimately purpose of setting his chosen people free. Although Moses does not seem like a worthy candidate for the task, God gives him the power to overcome his flaws.
Moses was successful in communicating and obeying God’s word throughout his journey, because he never sought to control or possess the land or the people, unlike Pharaoh. In the end, the journey of the spiritual hero can finish in either one of these two paths. It is up to the individual whether or not they will succumb to temptation and be led down into hell and remain there forever.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1973.
- Bible. English. New International. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986