Gateway to the Classics: Tales and Customs of the Ancient Hebrews by Eva Herbst
Tales and Customs of the Ancient Hebrews by  Eva Herbst


ONE Sabbath day, David sat with his father, in the garden behind their house. At their feet were beautiful flowers, and they sat in the shade of a fig tree, whose broad leaves and spreading branches made for them a cool resting-place on this warm day. From this tree they could pluck the juicy figs which they ate with their simple mid-day meal of milk, bread and honey. In another part of the garden many grape vines could be seen, and here, also, grew the vegetables. Near by was the cistern with its cool water.

Jesse read to David from a scroll. He read how the Hebrews had come to live in the land of Canaan. David was glad to hear these stories, and, as his father read or related them again and again, he learned to know much about his people. As they sat together on that bright day, Jesse told the story which David loved more than all others—the story of a great man who had done much for his people.

You will like to hear it, I know, as well as David did, so many, many years ago. This is the story Jesse told:

Long, long years ago, our people did not live in this country of Canaan. They lived in Egypt. Once a baby boy was born among them. The King of Egypt had given an order that all Hebrew boys, as soon as they were born, should be thrown into the river. When this little boy came to live upon this earth, his mother, of course, loved him very dearly. She could not bear the idea of having him thrown into the dark river. She was very sad, and scarcely knew what to do.

She hid her dear little baby for three months, so that nobody might know about him, but you know babies are not always quiet; they will sometimes cry and make much noise. When the poor mother knew she could keep him concealed no longer, she said: "What shall I do? I cannot give him up." She thought about it for some time. Then at last, she said: "Now, I have a good plan."

She made a basket of rushes. It was coated with pitch, so that the water would not leak through. It looked just like a little cradle. And now, when the basket was finished, what do you think she put into it? Why, her dear little boy. She told her daughter Miriam to place the basket, with the baby in it, among the bulrushes that grew along the river.

After Miriam had done this, she stood behind the trees near by, to watch the precious basket. She had not been there long, before she saw the king's daughter and her maids coming along. They often bathed here, in the river. As they came near, the princess saw something strange among the rushes. "Go, see what that strange thing is," she cried to her maids, "and bring it to me."

One of the maidens then lifted the basket from the water, and carried it to the princess. How delighted she was, when she saw the wee baby! She exclaimed: "What a handsome baby! He must be a Hebrew child. I will save him from the river, and keep him as my own son."

Then Miriam came forward, and asked the princess if she cared to have her get a nurse for the baby. The princess bade her do so, and Miriam went quickly for her own mother. Her mother came, and as she took her boy into her arms once more, how happy she was! Now she knew his life would be saved. The princess commanded her to take the baby to her own home, and said she would pay her to care for him, until he should be old enough to live at the palace. The princess named the baby Moses, for this name means "drawn out of the water."

When Moses was still a young child, he was taken from his own humble home to the home of the princess. He was so handsome, it is said, that men would turn and look at him as he passed them at their work. He seemed brighter than other boys of his age.

The princess loved him as though he were her own son. She took him to her father, Pharaoh, the king. He, also, became very fond of the boy. He had him taught and trained, just as though Moses had been the grandson of the Egyptian king.

As a child, Moses wore no clothes, as was the custom among the Egyptians. He had several people to care for him when he went out. He was taken into the streets in a wheeled vehicle. Sometimes he was taken for a sail in a boat, on the river.

In Egypt the education of a boy trained the body as well as the mind. The boys played such games as wrestling, fighting with single sticks, ball, and lifting and swinging heavy bags of sand over their heads.

Besides being trained in these games, Moses was carefully educated in all that was known at that time. Pharaoh sent for the wisest teachers in the land. Moses began by learning to read and write the Egyptian language. He learned the Hebrew language, also. After this he studied arithmetic and learned the multiplication tables. He also studied music. During his youth he had teachers at the court of Pharaoh, but as he grew older he was sent to the university, where he was taught law. He learned about the stars, and also about medicine. He was trained to be a soldier and a leader. You will hear how this helped him in after years. You see, the king wished to make Moses a ruler in the land, next to himself.

But while he was taught all these things, there was one teacher whose words were more to him than all else that he learned. This teacher was his own mother. Remember, she was the nurse chosen by the princess. As Moses was still young when taken to Pharaoh's court, his mother went with him. When he was under her care she talked to him of many things which he did not hear from his other teachers. He heard of his own people, the Hebrews, who had now lived almost four hundred years in this land of Egypt. He learned how they had become slaves to the Egyptians, and how hard they were made to labor. So that Moses, although living in the Egyptian court, never forgot that he was a Hebrew.

When he grew to be a man, he went among his people to see how they lived. He saw them working as slaves in the brick fields. Some were digging the clay out of pits, and some were shaping the bricks. He observed how cruelly they were treated. Then he went back to the court. As he lay on his fine couch, in his beautiful room, all these sights came back to him. He thought: "How can I help my brethren? Can I do nothing for them?"

One day, as he was walking in a lonely place, he saw an Egyptian treating a Hebrew very roughly. Moses became so angry that he struck the Egyptian, and killed him. When Moses found that he had killed the man, he was horrified. No one being in sight, he buried the body in the sand. This was all over so quickly that Moses scarcely knew what a terrible deed he had done, but it was soon known among the people, and Moses fled from the king's anger.

He wandered into the land of Midian. As he sat resting by a well, the daughters of the priest of Midian came to draw water from the well for their sheep. Some shepherds, who lived near by, tried to drive the maidens away, but Moses prevented the shepherds from doing this, and helped the maidens to water their flocks.

They went home and told their father about the stranger. Jethro, their father, sent for him to come to his home. After this, Moses made his home with Jethro and tended his flocks. He married one of Jethro's daughters and lived many years among these people.

Though far away from his own people, Moses still thought of them, and longed to save them from the hard life they were leading. One day, as he was tending his flocks on the mountain side, he saw a strange sight. There, in a bush near by, a bright fire was burning. As it burned, strange to say, the leaves and branches were not even scorched by the flames. He approached nearer to it. A voice seemed to call to him: "Moses, Moses, come not nearer; take thy shoes from off thy feet: this is holy ground."

Then Moses removed the sandals from his feet, and listened to the voice. It said: "Go to Pharaoh, and lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Bring them to this mountain, and offer sacrifices to me, for I am their God. Tell them I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

But Moses answered: "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?"

God said: "I will be with you."

Then Moses replied: "I cannot do this. The people will not believe in me."

The voice then said: "Cast your staff upon the ground." Moses did so, and the staff changed into a serpent. Moses was afraid, and ran from the serpent. But again the voice called to him: "Take hold of it by the tail." Moses took hold of the tail, and as he touched it, the serpent changed into his staff again. God said: "If the people will not believe you, show them this sign. If they will not then believe you, I will cause other wonders to happen in the land."

Still Moses did not wish to go. He said: "I cannot talk well." Then God said: "I will tell you what to say. Is there not Aaron, your brother? He will come to meet you. He shall go with you, and he shall speak to the people for you. Go, and take your staff with you, to show the signs."

At last, Moses went to Jethro and asked to be allowed to go back to Egypt, to see if his relatives were still alive. Then Moses set out on his journey. On the way, he met his brother Aaron, who had been sent by God to meet him. They were happy to see each other again. Moses kissed his brother, and told him of God's command.

They went into Egypt and called the elders of the people together. Then Aaron told them what had happened, and why Moses had returned. It made the people joyful to hear all this, and they thanked God for his goodness. The two brothers went to Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. They asked him to let the Children of Israel (as the Hebrews were sometimes called) go, for three days, to offer sacrifices to their God, on the mountains. But the king would not allow them to go.

After this, the Hebrews were made to work even harder than before. This made them angry with Moses, as they thought he was the cause of this new trouble. Moses and Aaron went to the king again. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh, and it was changed into a serpent, but the king only said: "No, the people shall not go."

Once again Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh. This time they were by the river. The king still refused to let the people go. Moses, to show the power of God, told Aaron to lift his staff above the river; Aaron did so and all the water was turned into blood. Now this was the first of the ten plagues which were to fall upon the Egyptians. Not only here in the river, but everywhere in Egypt—in the wells and even in the houses—the water was turned into blood. The fish in the river died. But even this did not change the king.

Then Aaron, as he was bid, again stretched his staff over the river. At this, thousands of frogs came up, out of the water, all over the land. At last Pharaoh was frightened. He sent for Moses and Aaron. He said: "Ask your God to take away these frogs, and I will let the people go." But as soon as the frogs were no longer to be seen, he forgot his promise.

And God told Moses to have Aaron strike the ground with his staff. Aaron did so, and the land was covered with vermin. They were upon every man and every beast. The wise men said: "This is the hand of God." Still the heart of Pharaoh did not feel for the people. Next, God sent great swarms of flies, and they filled the land. They settled upon everything—indoors and out of doors. They were all over Egypt, except in that part of the country where the Hebrews lived. Again Pharaoh sent for Moses. He said: "Offer sacrifices to your God in this land." Moses answered that this could not be done. "Then," replied Pharaoh, "go, but do not go far from here." But, as soon as the flies had disappeared, he took back his promise.

Moses told Pharaoh that if he would not let the people go, all the cattle in Egypt should die. And this happened, as Moses had said. Only the cattle of the Hebrews did not die.

Next, all the Egyptians were covered with boils. Then a terrible storm of thunder and lightning was sent. The hail came down and killed the crops; it broke the trees; it killed every man and beast in the field. The storm was so dreadful that Pharaoh again sent for Moses, but when the hail had ceased to come down, the king's heart was as hard as before.

The next plague came in this way: the whole country was full of locusts. In the trees, in the houses, in every nook and corner, these locusts were found. They ate up everything which the hail-storm had left. Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and said to them: "I have sinned against your God and you. Take away the locusts." Moses begged God to take away the locusts, and a strong wind came and blew them into the sea. Then, just as so many times before, Pharaoh forgot his promise.

Now there came a terrible darkness over the land. For three days it was so dark that the Egyptians could not even see one another. They could not leave their beds. But there was light where the Hebrews lived. Again Pharaoh sent for Moses. "Go ye," he said, "and offer sacrifices to your God. Only, your flocks and herds must remain behind." Moses said the people should not go without their cattle. Pharaoh then cried: "Get thee from me. See my face no more." Moses answered: "I will not see thy face again."

Thereupon the Hebrews began to get ready to go out of the land. At God's command Moses told them to ask the Egyptians for jewels and silver and gold. And the Egyptians gave them many valuable things. Moses bade each Hebrew to kill a lamb, and splash the blood upon the lintel of his door. Thus the homes of the Hebrews were to be known from those of the Egyptians. This was on the night of the fourteenth of the first month, called Nisan. Moses told the people that, forever after, a feast should be held on the anniversary of this night, in memory of God's goodness. This should be called the "Feast of Passover."

That night, a more terrible plague than all the other ones visited the Egyptians. At midnight, wailing was heard in all parts of the land, for in every home, in palaces as well as in the poorest huts, the first-born son lay dead. Not one person had died among the Children of Israel. This was the tenth plague sent by God upon the Egyptians. Then Pharaoh was so frightened that he called for Moses and Aaron, and cried: "Rise, and take the people and all their belongings. Go out of the land and serve your God."

The Egyptians helped them in their preparations, for they thought that unless the Hebrews went, they themselves would all die. The Children of Israel took with them all they could carry. Think what preparation was necessary! Think of a crowd of about six hundred thousand men, besides the women and children, leaving the country at one time! What a long procession! How many, many people, and how many cattle and beasts of burden! They carried with them their tents, also. They were hurried away so quickly that the dough for their bread was was not yet leavened—that is, it had not had time to rise—so they carried "the unleavened dough, in kneading-troughs, bound up in their clothes, upon their shoulders."

Their departure from Egypt was on the night of the first full moon, after the winter was over. The days were growing longer, and the time of year was the most pleasant for traveling. At night the people slept upon their cloaks, which they spread upon the ground. They took a long way through the wilderness.

Some time after they had gone, Pharaoh was sorry that he had allowed the Hebrews to depart. He sent his mighty army, together with hundreds of two-wheeled chariots, after them.

As the Hebrews were close upon the Red Sea, they saw the Egyptian army coming in pursuit of them. They were greatly frightened. They became angry with Moses, and asked why he had brought them there to die. Moses said: "God will take care of you." At this, he raised his staff over the sea. A strong east wind blew all night, and the water of the sea divided. Then the Hebrews passed over on the dry sand, in the middle of the sea, with the water forming a wall on each side. A pillar of light in front showed them the way, while a dark cloud behind hid them from their enemies.

Pharaoh's chariots and the army rushed on to overtake them. The wheels of the chariots sank in the sand, as the horses dashed into the sea. The wind died away; the water rushed back into its place, covering chariots, horses and men. Not one Egyptian was left.

When the people of Israel saw what had happened, they were very thankful to God for their safe delivery from slavery. Moses sang words of praise to God, and all the Children of Israel joined in this song of praise. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was with them. She it was, you will remember, who years before had placed the little cradle by the river. Miriam and the other women took their timbrels in their hands, and they played and danced, as she, also, sang beautiful words of praise to God.


Moses and Miriam Rejoicing

How happy they were! For this was their day of deliverance. And the Children of Israel, for all time to come, will bless Moses, who, with the help of God, delivered them from their bondage.

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