August 28: Moses the Black, Desert Father and Martyr, c. 400

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About this commemoration

Moses the Black
Moses the Black

Moses of Ethiopia (d. c. 405), sometimes called Moses the Black, was a fifth century monk who lived in one of several isolated desert monasteries near Scete in Lower Egypt. He was described as being tall, strong, “black of body,” and in his early life, the hot-blooded leader of a marauding robber band.

Little is known of his actual life, but an imaginative collection of religious legends has accumulated about him. Such tales point to the deep struggles of a Christian soul seeking salvation in difficult settings. Moses was portrayed as a person of deep excesses, a slave who was both a thief and a murderer, a perennial fornicator who, after he became a monk, still struggled for several years with sexual fantasies. To rid himself of sexual temptation he reportedly stood all night in his cell with his eyes open. This endured for seven years, after which the temptations went away.

He led an ascetic life, lived in a simple cell, and ate only ten ounces of dry bread each day. Once when the monks gathered to judge a member who had sinned, Brother Moses arrived carrying a leaky basket filled with sand on his back. He explained that what he was holding behind him represented his own many sins, now hidden from his own view. “And now I have come to judge my brother for a small fault,” he remarked. The other monks then each personally forgave their erring brother and returned to their cells.

Moses was not ordained until late in life; also in his later years he founded his own monastery. At about age 75 he was warned that an armed band of raiders was approaching to slay him. “They who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) the former robber-murderer calmly replied. He and six other brothers waited patiently, and were slain, after which a monastic account, St. Moses the Ethiopian recounts, seven crowns descended from heaven over the place where they were martyred.

Collect of the Day

God of transforming power and transfiguring mercy: Listen to the prayers of all who, like Abba Moses, cry to you: “O God whom we do not know, let us know you!” Draw them and all of us from unbelief to faith and from violence into your peace, through the cross of Jesus our Savior; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


2 Chronicles 28:8–15

Acts 22:6–21

Luke 23:39–43

Psalm 86:1–13

Preface of God the Son

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

12 thoughts on “August 28: Moses the Black, Desert Father and Martyr, c. 400

  1. So, on August 28th we choose between Saint Augustine and Moses the Black? If there ever was an argument against combining commemorations on the same day this would seem to be the best example.

    In the bio he is described as a “thief and a murderer, a perennial fornicator who, after he became a monk, still struggled for several years with sexual fantasies.”

    Can you imagine standing before the usual assembly on a Wednesday morning and beginning the usual weekday Eucharist?

    <blockquote cite="Good morning everyone. Today we will not be celebrating the feast of the “greatest theologian in the history of Western Christianity” (HWHM page 544), Augustine of Hippo, … but instead we will remember Moses the Black. Moses was a Desert Father and Martyr who was a thief, a murderer, and a PERENNIAL FORNICATOR before he became a holy monk. [suppressed gasps from the ladies present, and a few giggles] Let us pray: …."

    A ‘perennial fornicator ..’ Yikes. If we include Moses we have to find a better. a way to say this a bit more gently.

    Collect: The collect is well composed and prays well.

    Readings: This is a strong set. Though the reading from 2 Chronicles will be a challenge for lectors, it will be a stirring reading read aloud.

    • If I’ve done my reading correctly, it would seem that Augustine of Hippo was also a perennial fornicator. Why isn’t that mentioned in the description of Augustine?

  2. I think “thief, murderer, and perpetual fornicator” is perfect: the God who inspired the Biblical authors to pepper their texts with puns, word play, and scatological humor won’t object to a few chuckles when the bio is read.
    However, saints should share a date only when they shared a similar ministry at about the same time. Moses is worthy of commemoration, but give him his own date. Yoking him with Augustine produces a feast of “two nice people who came from Africa.”

  3. “Little is known of his actual life, but an imaginative collection of religious legends has accumulated about him.”

    Not sure Moses the Black should even be included. “Imaginative collection of legends?” Loch Ness, Big Foot, The Tooth Fairy.. these sound in line with Moses.

    Just my two cents. There may very well be other saints we currently commemorate who fall into the same category. Just sounds like we should question this.

  4. Before reading about this commemoration, I had never heard of Moses the Ethopian. I cannot imagine why his commemoration is linked with St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is such a giant in the early Church and such a towering influence in our understanding of Christianity though his extensive writigings, even to this day. Moses gets lost in his shadow. Moses was a man of action and example, not a literary behemoth. If Moses is worthy of commemoration, then he needs his own day Moses may remind one of the young sinfilled Augustine though I do not think Augustine ever became a brigand. As it is, Moses is lost by the large penumbra of Bishop Augustine of Hippo.

  5. I would prefer that we entitle this desert father “Moses the Ethiopian”, or “Moses of Ethiopia”, the name used in the biography. To choose the lesser-used alternative, based on the color of his skin, could be construed as pandering to persons of color. There are biblical precedents for naming folk with reference to their race or place of origin.

    We seem to know more about his sins and legends than his actual life.

    • i do not agree with your opinion about the colour of ones skin, you have misinterpreted the question asked. the question asked was “How did this person’s life witness to the gospel”? I ask u humbly to search your heart and soul to reflect on the question asked and to refrain from the taughts of your head and your politics.

      Hi Mark, Thanks for your comment. In the future, we need both your first and last name. –Ed.

  6. Historicity is an important criterion for inclusion, and commemorations that need a caveat, about the lack of historical foundation, undermine the credibility of hagiography as such. If we want these to be inspiring, they have to be more believable than the Just So Stories.

    Pitting him against Augustine by putting them on the same day seems crazy to me.

    I don’t think he belongs in our calendar and if included he doesn’t belong on this date.

  7. We found the celebration of Moisés Etíope/Moses the Ethiopian very moving in our parish. Partly no doubt because our parish includes many people who have been prisoners for their past life, and many descendants of slaves. (Perhaps Moses´ list of sins as a young adult is different from Augustine´s because the former started out as a slave.)
    Please use the title ¨Abba Moses the Ethiopian¨ if not just Abba Moses. We don´t call the young Franciscan queen of Hungary ¨Elizabeth the White,¨ although we might presume her complexion was very pale. My parishioners wondered were there never any other redeemed people named Moses who were also of dark complexion.
    The parishioner who researched and prepared a marvelous reflection for us on Abba Moses chose different lessons emphasizing hospitality and the need to provide for the hungry. His reason was that the transforming crux of Moses´ life was the radical hospitality of the desert monks he had intended to rob; and that Moses´ life as monk, priest, and abbot became legendary precisely for this welcoming stance towards friends, strangers, and yes, sinners.

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