Exodus : the Birth of Moses

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Genesis ended with the descendants of Abraham still not in possession of the promised land of Canaan. That story had told how famine forced their entry into Egypt to buy food, and how the presence there of family member Joseph, who had been made the Grand Vizier, led to their settling down comfortably in that land.  

Exodus begins with a growing increase in numbers of the descendants of Joseph and his brothers, which leads to their being considered a possible threat by a “new Pharaoh“. This being a story, no historical name is assigned to him. All that matters for the tale is that he “did not know Joseph“, even though it couldn’t have been all that long since the days of the very memorable exploits of, supposedly, one of the most highly successful, and economically productive, of all the Grand Viziers of Egypt. 

To reduce the numbers of these people, forced labour, then ruthless slavery, was employed, and failed. As a next attempt, the Hebrew midwives were ordered to kill all male babies at birth, but this new measure was also a failure – which is hardly surprising! According to Exodus 12:37, the Hebrew population consisted of “six hundred thousand men“. If women and children are added in, we’re talking about more than 2 million people! Since there were apparently only two midwives, named Shiphrah and Puah, their excuse that they always arrived too late would seem to be watertight ! Which conveniently leads us to the story of the newly born Moses.

Legends of heroes saved, as infants, from intended death are widespread in location and time. Examples are Dionysus in Greece, Romulus in Rome, and Jesus in Christianity. The closest Ancient Near Eastern parallel to the Moses’ story, is that of the 3rd millennium King Sargon of Akkad (present day Iraq)

“My mother.. bore me in secret. She set me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch. She left me to the river .. The river carried me off .. Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as he dipped his bucket .. (and) raised me as his adopted son.”

In the biblical version, the newborn Moses, like Sargon, is placed in a “wicker basket .. caulked with bitumen and pitch“, and hidden among Nile reeds. He’s found, and adopted, by an Egyptian princess, and brought up as an Egyptian. One of the writers/editors of the story, however, seems troubled about a Hebrew ‘hero’ with an unusual name. He proposes the less than convincing idea that an Egyptian princess, (apparently conversant with the language of Hebrew slaves), came up with the name Moses, supposedly derived from the Hebrew verb mashah, meaning ‘to draw out’, as from the river Nile. The fact of the matter is, however, that Moses is an authentic Egyptian name, meaning ‘child of’, and is included in the names of such Pharaohs as Thutmoses (son of the moon god Thoth) and Rameses (son of the sun god Ra). Why a Hebrew ‘hero’ had an Egyptian name remains a tantalising mystery, (which Sigmund Freud made the most of), but you and I needn’t let this little detail spoil a delightful tale.

What the writer/editor is wanting us to pick up on, is dependent on our having some acquaintance with the original language in which the story was written. The Hebrew word used to describe the “basket” into which Moses was placed, occurs in only one other place in the Hebrew Bible. It’s used of Noah’s ark, a very much bigger ‘basket’ which, likewise, was daubed with pitch to make it waterproof. The point being made is that Moses, like Noah, is intended to become a means of deliverance. Just as Noah saved the entire human species from destruction, so Moses will be the saviour of the Hebrew people – their deliverer from brutal slavery and the threat of genocide.

Good stories, which endure down through the years, are often adapted to suit other times and circumstances. And so the infant delivered from the threat of death turns up again in Mathew’s Gospel, where Herod takes the place of the Pharaoh, and similarly orders the death of all male infants. Where is Jesus taken? Egypt comes into focus once again and, when it is safe for him to leave there, the message that comes from on high is a repeat of the message given to Moses in Exodus 4:19 after he’d had to temporarily flee Egypt – “all those who wanted to kill you are dead“. Matthew is suggesting that Jesus is the new Moses, who will deliver God’s people from enslavement to this world, and bring them to the ‘promised land’ yet to come.

There may well be some historical events and personages underlying these stories in Exodus, but they have been elaborated, exaggerated, and otherwise modified through centuries of oral, before written, transmission. If they’re taken literally, they involve us in such palpable nonsense as slave populations of over two million, and in taking as history, events that we’d unquestionably describe as legendary in other writings. Let’s just enjoy the good story telling, first and foremost, and leave the devils in the details for another day.

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