Before Moses could lead the Hebrews out of captivity, he had to make a journey away from the gods of the empire that had enslaved his people and head into the wilderness to meet with the all-but-forgotten god of his ancestors, El-Shaddai. It was there, out in the desert, away from the powers that had shaped his identity since birth, he began to forge a new identity.
Moses was born into slavery to Hebrew parents in Egypt and yet was raised in the house of the Egyptian Pharaoh. His body housed the tension of the two incongruous worlds that he inhabited.
He lived with his Hebrew birth mother and father until he was weaned. At his mother's breast, we can imagine, he was fed not only milk, but the mother tongue of his people and the beginnings of whatever stories and traditions the Hebrews had managed to retain under Egyptian domination. Close to his Hebrew mother's body, his skin learned the touch, scent, sound, and sight of his own people.
But the rest of Moses' growing up years were spent in the house of Pharaoh, near the seat of power that kept his Hebrew kindred oppressed and enslaved. Moses would have learned the patterns of thought and customs of the dominant culture. Moses' proximity to the empire afforded him certain powers and privileges. It was there, most likely, he learned to read and write, and gained a knowledge of politics. It was his status as a member of Pharaoh's household that kept him from a life of slavery.
But he was not Egyptian. Neither could he fully identify with the plight or traditions of his fellow Hebrews. When one day these two aspects of his mixed identity came head to head, he was forced to decide where his allegiances would lie.
Exodus depicts very little of Moses' early years and young adulthood, but says that when Moses had grown up, he went out to his "brothers" (i.e. his fellow Hebrews) and looked on their hard labors. He witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, "one of his brothers," the narrator emphasizes. Moses kills the Egyptian and buries his body in the sand.
This is, it seems at first, a decisive and public statement of where Moses stands: he is Hebrew and will not tolerate the oppression of his people at the hands of the Egyptians. But a closer look at the text, we see that while is deeply troubled by the oppression of his Hebrew kindred (troubled enough to kill!), he is fearful about the discovery of what he has done. The murder was committed isolation and then hidden: "He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand."
We might imagine that Moses himself is shocked at his own actions. Has he not grown up in the house of Pharaoh? Has he not lived these years as an Egyptian?
But neither does his murder of an Egyptian overlord cement his identity as a Hebrew, in fact it may even have identified him more with their Egyptian masters. The next day, his identity is called into question by a Hebrew slave:
When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?”
He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. (Exod. 2:14-15)
When Moses tries to arbitrate between two Hebrews, he is not accepted as a Hebrew leader nor is he respected as an Egyptian overlord. When the Hebrew man striking his brother retorts, "Who made you a prince and a judge over us?" he is getting to the heart of Moses' identity conflict. Is he to be identified with Pharaoh's house? Does he have the authority of Egypt to act as prince and judge over these two Hebrew slaves fighting one another?
"Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?"
The man's question is a challenge, an indictment. In murdering the Egyptian, Moses has made himself ruler and judge over the Egyptian, but he is a self-appointed ruler. He has shown that he resembles those who grow up in the house of Pharaoh, that he has learned their violent ways. On what grounds can he identify with the Hebrew slaves?
But now he is neither a son of Egypt nor a Hebrew. Pharaoh seeks to kill him for murdering the Egyptian, and Moses flees to Midian.
Moses will return to Egypt one day to confront Pharaoh and help lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. But for now he is a stranger in a strange land, neither a prince of Egypt nor a Hebrew slave.