Acts 7 – The Moses Strikes Back

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Today’s PassageActs 7

Do you remember that scene in The Prince of Egypt where Moses kills an Egyptian and flees to the wilderness? He goes to stop one of the taskmasters from beating a Hebrew slave, but accidentally sends the taskmaster plummeting off a scaffolding and kills him. Everyone sees the event, and Moses runs away into the desert. It’s a dramatic scene, but as it does elsewhere, the movie takes some liberties with the text it’s interpreting. It differs starkly from both the original account in Exodus and Stephen’s interpretation of it in his speech before the Council in Jerusalem.

Perhaps I’d better back up. The bulk of today’s chapter from Acts consists of Stephen’s defense, in which he summarizes the entire history of the Jewish people. As we noted yesterday, he’s being tried before the Council on false charges, specifically “speak[ing] blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:11) and “against this holy place [i.e. the temple] and the Law” (Acts 6:13). On top of that, his accusers claim, “We have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:14). Remember that Nazareth was considered the backwaters of Galilee; I expect Stephen’s accusers intended it to be heard as an insult. But when Stephen defends himself, he shows a level of familiarity and respect for the Hebrew scriptures that puts his nemeses to shame.

And his studiousness and piety might have gotten him off the hook. But having surveyed the Patriarchs and Moses, Joshua and David, as he turns his attention to the prophets, he tells the Council, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:52). Savage, Stephen! In essence, he’s telling the jury of his peers, “I’m not the one opposing true Judaism, you are. You killed the Messiah!” It would seem he’s been taking a page from Peter’s playbook.

Unsurprisingly, they kill him. They take him outside the city and stone him, and they have a guy named Saul keep their robes (Acts 7:58). This is the first (and extremely unassuming) appearance of the man who would later be known as the apostle Paul.

But let’s get back to Moses and that Egyptian taskmaster, right? Contrary to The Prince of Egypt’s depiction, Moses offs that dude quite deliberately. The book of Exodus tells us, “He looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Ex. 2:12). And Stephen considers Moses’ action laudable, saying, “And when he saw one of them being treated unjustly, he defended him and took vengeance for the oppressed by striking down the Egyptian” (Acts 7:24). Peculiarly, the Exodus narrative indicates that Moses has an interest in keeping the matter concealed and describes him as “afraid” (Ex. 2:14), but Stephen portrays the deed as the first strike of a would-be liberator. Giving his own account, Stephen says, “And he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). Is he interpolating Moses’ motivations here? Does he flee because his people misunderstand him and are unwilling to be led, or because he’s scared of the consequences of his hit-and-run? I’ll let you be the judge of whether Stephen is taking liberties.

Either way, Moses kills the Egyptian decisively, and by the end of the chapter, Stephen is dead. Long live Stephen.

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