By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In order to save its life, a mother puts her illegitimate baby boy into a boat made of reeds and sets him adrift on the local river, until he is discovered by somebody who rescues the boy and raises him. That boy grows up to be an important ruler of his people.
Moses? Well, it can’t be, because Moses was a legitimate rather than illegitimate child. And although the other details in the above paragraph relate to Moses, they also relate to somebody who is thought to have lived over a millennium before the time of Moses.
Let’s take a closer look at the early Moses legend, as it is told in the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. In the course of our analysis we will attempt to answer some intriguing questions. Where did the name ‘Moses’ come from? And what are the origins of the story of Moses’ birth and his subsequent rescue from the river, where he had been set afloat in a boat made from bulrushes?
But before that, let’s briefly summarise the story of Moses’ childhood and brush with death.
Childhood of Moses: summary
Let’s take a look at what the Book of Exodus (chapter 2) says about Moses’ birth and rescue:
2:1 And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.
2:2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.
2:3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.
In summary: the Pharaoh of Egypt commanded all baby boys born to the Israelites living in Egypt to be drowned. A woman of the tribe of Levi gave birth to a boy, and decided to try to get him to safety by placing him in a small boat made of bulrushes (i.e., papyrus reeds), daubing the reeds with pitch to make the boat waterproof, and placing the vessel on the Nile.
2:4 And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
2:5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.
So, as luck would have it, Pharaoh’s daughter chances upon the ‘ark’ or vessel of reeds, and calls for her maid to bring it to her. Note that at this point there’s no indication that she knows what’s inside the reeds: in other words, she doesn’t know she’s discovered an abandoned baby.
2:6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.
2:7 Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? 2:8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother.
2:9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the women took the child, and nursed it.
2:10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.
Because of this last verse, it’s often claimed that Moses’ name is from the Hebrew meaning ‘to draw out’, but it seems more likely that it has an Egyptian derivation, as would be fitting for a Pharaoh’s daughter to give the child an Egyptian rather than Hebrew name.
Childhood of Moses: analysis
Moses will grow up, of course, to become the leader of his people, the Israelites, who had first come to Egypt after Jacob founded their people (‘Israel’ being the new name Jacob adopted). After seeing the burning bush and interpreting this to be a sign from God or Yahweh that he should lead his people out of Egypt, Moses famously parted the Red Sea (according to the Book of Exodus), allowing them to escape the Egyptian army that was pursuing them. This legend is an important part of the Old Testament and the Pentateuch.
Stories of children who are abandoned, only to be saved and grow up to become important people, are found in many different myths: Oedipus and Perseus are two examples from Greek mythology, for instance, Romulus in Roman legends, and Cyrus in Persian myth.
So there’s probably little historical foundation for the story of Moses being cast on the Nile in a small ‘ark’ of bulrushes only to be saved by Pharaoh’s daughter.
And oddly enough, a strikingly similar story to the account of Moses’ childhood is found among the Babylonian legends surrounding Sargon of Akkad, over a thousand years before Moses. Sargon, too, was placed in a small boat fashioned from reeds and daubed with pitch to make the vessel waterproof, before being set adrift on the river (though in Sargon’s case the river was the Euphrates rather than the Nile).
The baby was rescued by a man, a poor water-drawer named Akki, who took Sargon in and raised him as his own son. Of course, in appropriating this myth, the authors of Exodus took things up a notch: Moses is a legitimate son where Sargon was illegitimate, and Moses is raised by a princess rather than a poor man.
The name Moses, by the way, is from the Egyptian for ‘son’, so Thutmose was ‘son of Thoth’ (Thoth being an Egyptian god) and Rameses was ‘son of Ra’ (Ra being another Egyptian god). It’s quite possible that ‘Moses’ was originally known under some longer name which, as an Egyptian prince, identified him as the ‘son’ of one of the Egyptian gods, in keeping with the names of other noble Egyptians.
It’s also plausible that the Egyptian god’s name would have been dropped, as Israelite monotheism and faith in the Hebrew god became stronger and other gods, such as Ra and Thoth and the rest, were abandoned. And thus he became known simply as ‘Moses’.
Talking of Rameses, the most likely candidate for the ‘Pharaoh’ who oppresses the Israelites in the later story of Moses is Rameses II, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC. Although the Bible does not identify ‘Pharaoh’, Exodus 1:11 tells us that ‘for Pharaoh’ there were ‘treasure cities’ (i.e., store-cities) built named Pithom and Raamses.
Because of the closeness of ‘Raamses’ to ‘Rameses’, and because Rameses II was a powerful and long-reigning pharaoh, it’s probable that he was the Pharaoh the Old Testament writers had in mind. Rameses II is one of the better-known rulers of ancient Egypt, but he’s also known to thousands of poetry fans around the world as Ozymandias, the Greek name for him, thanks to a famous poem by Percy Shelley.