This story is a reimagining of the Moses’ famous Burning Bush experience. Having escaped to a far flung village outside Egypt, Moses reluctantly decides to return to Egypt to help free the enslaved Hebrew people.
It’s my hope that this reimagining of the Exodus story reminds us that uprisings against injustice are as old as humanity itself.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” — Moses in Exodus 3:11
“How did you find me?” Moses asked, warming his toes by the fire. The bitter mountain wind blew sparks off the rocky ledge.
“We told our spies to keep an eye out for a Hebrew trying not to act like an Egyptian Prince.” Aaron smirked through his graying beard.
“Am I that obvious?” Moses laughed.
“Your clearly good enough to fool a Midianite.”
Moses sat in a heavy silence across from his brother Aaron. Eight years had passed since he’d left Egypt. Eight years since he had seen his brother Aaron. He had left without knowing if he were still alive. And now they were warming their feet on the side of a mountain a month’s ride from Egypt, in a forgotten corner of the desert.
Aaron stroked his graying beard, “You remarried.”
“She’s never left this valley,” Moses paused, gesturing toward a small cluster of fires dotting the darkness. “When I met her she had never met a Hebrew.” It was one of the things that Moses loved about his wife.
“Well, she picked a strange one to meet first.”
“Maybe. I should have asked, why did you come find me?” Moses forced a smile and tossed another branch in the fire. The flames illuminated long scars on his brother Aaron’s neck. The sight of the scars flooded Moses’ mind with long suppressed memories—Aaron tied to a post, a fat Egyptian guard, Aaron wincing as the leather whip tore his back until his brown skin was soaked in blood.
Moses remembered sweating through his black Egyptian wig and white palace robe as he stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of enslaved Hebrews who were caked in mud. He remembered forcing his face to remain impassive as the fat Egyptian’s white robes grew spotted with his brother’s blood.
“Do something,” his Hebrew mother had pleaded in his ear. “He’s your brother.”
Moses hadn’t responded to her. Then Aaron fell to his knees. The Egyptian shouted at Aaron, “Stand up!”
But Aaron didn’t respond. His brother’s body was facedown and still. Moses was sure he was dead. “Stand up!” the Egyptian shouted, kicking Aaron in the ribs.
“Do something,” his mother said between tears, her voice trembling. Moses felt sick, but he was determined to remain impassive.
The Egyptian kicked him again. “Stand up!”
“That’s enough,” Moses had said barely above a whisper.
His mother looked up at him. “Louder,” she whispered.
“That’s enough!” Moses shouted. At the sound of his voice, the other Egyptian guards knelt in supplication. But the fat Egyptian guard kept kicking Aaron’s bloody body.
“I order you to stop,” Moses shouted at him. He rushed toward the guard who kicked Aaron hard again. Moses felt rage surge through him. Before he knew what he was doing he had picked up a large rock and hit the guard over the head. He had swung hard, harder than he meant to. The stone broke through the guard’s skull as if it were a ripe fruit.
Blood covered Moses’ arm as he stood over the lifeless body of the Egyptian guard now lying next to his brother. Moses had never killed anything. He had never even butchered his own dinner. He had no idea how little it took to break open a skull. Moses looked up at the crowd. A thousand enslaved Hebrews stood silently shocked. The Egyptian guards still on their knees, watching Moses, waiting for an order.
The moment was hot and silent. Then Aaron coughed. Moses’ mother ran to Aaron with her ear to his bloody mouth. Aaron whispered something to her. Moses’ mother stood up and shouted. “He said, ‘My brother Moses has returned to fight with us!’”
Moses felt his stomach turn in horror. It happened so quickly. The Hebrews overpowered the kneeling Egyptian guards with rocks and shovels. Moses watched as guards from across the pit descended from their towers to quell the uprising.
He dropped the bloody rock and ran. He ran across the pit, throwing off his wig and palace robe. In the chaos, he found a Hebrew robe and mounted a camel. He rode through the city and out the main gate, past the rolling green farms dotted with pigs and cows. Out of Egypt and into the endless desert. He rode until he didn’t recognize the names of the small desert cities. Then he rode farther.
It had been eight harvests since he’d left Egypt. He had remarried, built a house, he had a son. He had a life in Midian. A life where he was a respected sheep herder—nothing less, nothing more.
Aaron stared into the fire awhile. When Aaron spoke his words were slow and labored.
“My baby boy was killed.”
Moses didn’t look up at his brother. “I’m sorry,” Moses said to the fire. He felt the weight of old grief hanging in the silence between them.
“Elishe blames herself,” Aaron said. “She was in labor for hours. Miriam had to hold a cloth over her mouth to muffle her screams. I had to leave to work in the pit—when I came home the Egyptian guards…” Aaron’s voice faltered.
“You can stay here as long as you want,” Moses said. “You can send for Elishe.”
Aaron wiped his eyes. “I can’t leave our people.”
Moses felt an old anger flair at the accusation tucked into his brother’s words. “That’s what you think I’ve done,” Moses shot back. As the words left his mouth he regretted them.
“I didn’t say that,” Aaron responded. His voice cold and flat.
Moses tried to swallow the anger, forcing his voice into a controlled directness. “After I killed that guard Pharaoh called for my arrest. He said he was going to kill me.”
“You could have killed a hundred guards,” Aaron scoffed. “What were they gonna do to the son of the princess?”
“Adopted son,” Moses demanded.
“Adopted son,” Aaron scoffed.
Moses stared into the fire, determined not to let his brother get the best of him. Moses had never told Aaron anything about his life in Pharaoh’s palace, how he had grown up watching Egyptian mothers pull their kids away from him, always asking him if he was lost. They would tell him over and over that Hebrew kids weren’t allowed in the Egyptian nursery.
How he watched those same mothers’ faces change when they saw the princess hug him and ask, “Is there a problem here?”
He had never told Aaron how he was seated at the far end of the royal table. He watched his Egyptian sisters and brothers tell the Pharoah what they were studying in the royal academy, while Moses sat in silence, quietly picking the pig meat out of his dinner and feeding it to the dog that sat near his feet.
Sometimes Moses would steal a glance at the Hebrew girls who stood around the royal table holding large plates of grapes, beans, corns, and meats. They stood stone faced, like statues that could breathe. He never knew how to talk to Hebrew servants. The princess insisted Moses use the word “servant,” not “Hebrew servant,” and never “slave.” In private, Moses sometimes tried to talk to the servants, asking them where they were from, whether they liked working in the palace. But the servants only ever responded with a cold politeness.
Moses spent most of his childhood alone in the palace full of people. Alone in the corner of the nursery or eating at the far end of the royal table. In his bedroom trying to learn to read, he’d work hard to keep the hieroglyphs from blurring and dancing across the scroll. An old Egyptian tutor sat next to him, scolding him as Moses tried to sound out each word.
Moses remembered sitting at his desk as his mother complained to his tutor that he wasn’t keeping up with the other kids his age. Moses listened as his tutor carefully chose each of his next words. “Perhaps Hebrews aren’t up to the rigor of school.” Moses had never seen a Hebrew go to school, but he had assumed they went to their own schools. The idea that Hebrew children didn’t go to school at all had never occurred to him.
“Hebrews are a nomadic people,” the tutor explained to his mother. “They are built to work.” Moses stared at the hieroglyphs of a children’s story laying on his desk. He could barely read it. Maybe he was built to work? Maybe they would get tired of trying to teach him and just send him to make bricks in the pit? He waited for his mother to deny it, to say that her son was a prince and that it was the tutor’s fault he couldn’t read. But all he heard was his mother’s footsteps as she walked away. The tutor was replaced the next day and Moses was never told why.
Shortly after, the princess began to regularly send Moses to visit his Hebrew family. The reason for these visits was not explained, but he soon grew to dread them. It was on his first visit that he met his brother Aaron. Their Hebrew mother had forced Aaron to stand at the door when Moses arrived. Moses looked at him. They were only a few years apart but their childhoods had shaped them into two very different bodies. Aaron was broad-shouldered and strong. His skin was sun-baked and his hands were large and rough. Not knowing any better, Moses asked his brother what he liked to do.
But it soon became clear that Aaron had never learned to read, never been to the theater, never eaten any of the foods that were served every night at the royal table. Their mother explained that Aaron had grown up making bricks in the pit. Moses tried to ask Aaron about it, but he was met with a cold politeness he recognized from the Hebrews in the palace. When they sat down for dinner at a small wooden table, their mother seated Moses at the head of the table. Aaron shot her a look that made Moses feel like he was used to sitting there. As soon as the meal was done, Aaron left with a group of Hebrew boys. Moses sat at the dinner table picking around the rotting vegetables on his plate. Baby Miriam stared at the stranger in their house as their mother fed her a brown mush.
For three days sick people “dropped by” and told their stories to the family. He soon realized that he was expected to do something for these people. His mother always reassured them, “Moses will tell the princess your story.” Moses would nod along, trying to look sympathetic.
On the cold mountainside, Aaron tossed a branch in the fire and sparks flew up into the night sky. When he spoke it was with a measured calm. “Our sons have died. My own baby was murdered hours after he was born. And when our daughters grow up they live as slaves in the palace.”
Moses winced as he heard his brother say “palace” with a clear derision.
“The tribal leaders have decided that it is time for us to leave.”
“Leave?” Moses looked at his brother, confused. “Leave how?”
“Our men are too old to fight. Which is why I said that we must make the Egyptians lives so miserable that they let us go.”
“Miserable enough that Ramses would let the entire empire collapse?”
Aaron’s eyes flashed. “That’s why we need you. You know how Ramses thinks. You understand how the empire works. You know where to push.” Aaron used a long stick to push a log at the base of the fire. The collapsed logs were reduced to a smoldering pile of glowing embers, a cloud of sparks rose into the night wind. .
Moses felt a pang of anger. He wanted to shout that he had never been allowed to go to the royal academy with Ramses. That he was never allowed to be an Egyptian child. But he took a deep breath and swallowed the thought. “I don’t understand how everything in Egypt works,” Moses said curtly.
“Egyptians give each of us one job. One.” Aaron held his finger in the air. “We cook, we clean, we cut stones, I make bricks. And we do that one job until we collapse.”
Moses’ mind flashed with the image of Aaron’s bloody body falling under the fat Egyptian guard’s kicks. “That’s because Pharaoh was always worried that if you—” Moses corrected himself, “If the Hebrews moved around too much, they would start getting ideas.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes, but pushed past the slight. “Those are exactly the ideas that we need you to help us with.”
Moses stared into the smoldering fire. The mountain wind blew cold and the flames leapt.
After a long time Aaron spoke, but this time his voice was softer. “I was never kind to you.”
“You hated me,” Moses shot back.
“Yes,” Aaron smirked. “I hated you. I used to watch you pick the vegetables out of our dinner.
And I hated you—hated you for going to school and eating fresh vegetables every day.”
“They hated me too,” Moses said, looking into his brother’s eyes.
Aaron’s face softened. “There was a neighbor girl who served the royal dinner in the palace. She would stop by our house once in a while and tell us how you were doing. She told us they made you sit alone at the end of the table next to the dog.”
“I used to feed the pig meat to that dog,” Moses said, looking back at the fire as tears welled in his eyes.
“She told us that too,” Aaron laughed. “Our mother was so proud of you.”
Moses remembered that his mother always made a big show of seating him at the head of the table on his visits.
“We used to be a great people,” Aaron said with a deep longing in his voice. “Noah built the largest boat the world had ever seen. He built that with his own two hands.” Aaron’s voice rose with passion. “Bab-el built a tower to the sky. Leviticus wrote a scroll that saved a thousand villages from the plague.” Aaron threw his hands up in the dark, starry night. “And we have a chance right now to be remembered as the brothers who freed the Hebrews from slavery.” Aaron looked at his brother. His eyes were pleading.
For a moment Moses imagined himself back in Egypt. Then his mind flashed with the sight of a mob of Hebrews descending on the kneeling Egyptian guards, watching the guards climb down from their towers with whips and clubs. He remembered dropping the stone and running.
Moses took a deep breath, “They’ll kill us.”
“They’re already killing us,” Aaron said. Moses felt his stomach clench painfully. He remembered his mother’s voice whispering in his ear, “Do something. He’s your brother.”
Moses smoothed out the cold sand between them. Then he began to draw shapes with his finger. He drew a large triangle. “This is the palace,” Moses said pointing at the triangle. Next to it he scooped out a handful of sand for the pit. Then he marked where the Hebrews lived, the sea, the Nile river running alongside the city. “This is the Nile, this is the pit, and this is where our people live. There are Hebrew servants stationed in every corner of the city and there is a secret river that flows under the city.” Moses’ finger connected the palace to the river. “We could try contaminating the water to the palace.”
Aaron smiled wide at his brother. Then he looked down to study the map. “Some of the elders talked about growing locusts and releasing them into the Egyptian fields.”
Moses raised his eyebrow suspiciously, “We would need a lot of locusts.”
“We have a lot of people,” Aaron said confidently, throwing a long branch into the fire.
This story is from a collection of reimagined short stories from Nathan Roberts called Deserted: Retelling Bible Stories Without An Angry God available now in ebook, audible, and paperback.