The Birth of Moses (i)

There was a time when it was taken for granted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the ‘Torah’ if you’re Jewish, the ‘Pentateuch’ if you’re not. These books, however, don’t say that he did. They’re written from a third person perspective; and it’s hard to imagine Moses describing, in advance, the circumstances and location of his own death and burial. In any case, two centuries of scholarship have demonstrated (except to the die-hard) that the Torah was compiled from four sources, each from different times, locations and standpoints, hence the number of repetitions, inconsistencies, anachronisms and contradictions.

Was there then a historical Moses? It’s quite likely that there was, just as there was quite probably a King Arthur, although we don’t (hopefully) take literally the accounts of the knightly (and daily) goings-on at Camelot, splendidly and imaginatively entertaining as these tall tales are. If there is some history, there’s also plenty of legend, beginning with the both shocking and astonishing circumstances surrounding his birth. We’re told that the Egyptian Pharaoh, since the Israelites are getting too numerous for his liking, orders the killing of all their newborn boys, but Moses is hidden in a basket among the Nile reeds, and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. She decides to ‘adopt’ him, and is cleverly manipulated into choosing his own mother to nurse him for her. Nice one!

That we’re dealing here with legend is, perhaps, ‘given away’ in Exodus 3:11. When God tells the adult Moses to command the Pharaoh to ‘let his people go’, Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” This seems somewhat odd if Moses is, in fact, Pharaoh’s own adopted grandson! But then we ought to recall the innumerable, incredibly amazing, legends that were attached to political, national and religious leaders, who were divinely protected from threatened dangers, because they were destined to achieve great things. The Greeks told about Dionysus and Hercules; the Persians about Zarathustra; the Romans about Romulus; and Christians about Jesus. As for Moses, here’s the the fascinatingly similar Mesopotamian legend about the birth of King Sargon the Great …

A secondary purpose of the Moses’ birth legend, is the provision of an ‘explanation’ for why this Israelite hero should have an Egyptian name (as seen in the names of the Pharaohs Ahmose and Thutmose). According to Exodus 2:10, it was the Pharaoh’s daughter who “named him Moses, saying, “because I drew him from the water.” This Egyptian princess, very surprisingly, must have really known her Hebrew, because this is a derivation from an extremely rare verb found only in two other places in the Hebrew Bible! Perhaps it’s closer to home to note that the verb מָשָׁה (mashah) sounds like the name מֹשֶׁה (Mosheh) which gives us our English ‘Moses’. There are, of course, lots of such word plays in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is one of the indications that if it’s meant to inform, it’s also meant to entertain us, and should be read accordingly.

There’s more to be said about this legend but, for the moment, allow me to fly a kite. Could it be possible that Moses was, in fact, a highly principled Egyptian who, when he “saw an Egyptian man attacking a Hebrew man(Exodus 2:11), was outraged and intentionally or otherwise killed him, thereafter fled, and later threw in his lot with the Israelite people? You may think that far-fetched but, arguably, so are some of the other things to be found in the early chapters of Exodus …..

4 responses to “The Birth of Moses (i)

  1. Entertain? One meaning of the word I see is “mull over; contemplate” but I am not sure from the context that this is the meaning you are promoting . The more usual meaning is “to perform for the pleasure of (the reader”. We can pretty decisively say the editors of the material were concerned with meaning and drawing meaning from; they were not concerned with providing an audience with what we call entertainment. Sure enough centuries later readers lacking belief or detached might find rational pleasure in what is written-such might be entertained; but that was far beyond what the original editors were seeking to provide: an understanding of the early development of their tribe in relation to divine providence: it was a big theme and that was how they saw it.


    1. We can indeed say ‘decisively’ that the writers/ editors were concerned with ‘drawing meaning from’. I don’t agree at all that we can say ‘decisively’ that none of them were concerned with entertaining an audience.
      First of all, there were many writers, with many different styles. They can’t be lumped into a single category and modus operandi. Serious meaning can be combined with humorous entertainment, and skilled writers/editors can use that to their advantage in reaching and building an audience.
      Secondly, these writers/editors were often making use of stories originally passed on orally ‘around the campfire’, where humour can be very much part of what is normal and expected. They also made use of myths and legends, as well as such folk-tales, which in my view were never intended to be taken with humourless and prosaic literalness.
      Hence we have the ‘great fun’ I recently wrote about in relation to Jonah. One can add to that the rumbustious antics of Samson, or Balaam’s talking ass etc., not to mention the ‘darker’ humour of Elijah’s sloth of bears ripping up the 42 boys who’d been yelling “bald head’ at him. The Book of Genesis is full of illustrations of the archetypal ‘trickster’ figure – Jacob, Rebecca, Laban are a few obvious examples. The original audiences would have loved listening to all that.
      Down the hill a bit, Br’er Rabbit has things to teach us while we’re being entertained.
      So I think there were plenty of occasions when the writers/editors were indeed “concerned with providing an audience with what we call entertainment”, and that we do the Hebrew Bible a disservice if we fail to take proper note of that.
      To me, none of this has anything to do with “belief” or the lack of it. One can believe in ‘inspiration’ while fully enjoying some, not ‘rational’, but plain, ordinary, honest to goodness good humour.
      So I stick by what I’ve written about “entertainment”.


  2. I am not sure I ever spoke of the Bible not being humorous. There is much humour as you point out and I’d say much in the conversation between God and Moses would be such. Jonah as you say has much humour. And Jesus is ever sharply witty. My objection was the word entertainment and its implications to a modern reader. The example you give as entertaining -the naming of Moses seems to me a strange kind of entertainment. Obviously entertainment can be profound_ I know that as a reader of Shakespeare and Dickens. Also there were earlier versions originating no doubt from over the camp-fire as you say. When written however by the Israelites in captivity the writers were not seeking to entertain in the modern self-conscious isn’t this clever and amusing style that might be suggested from your play with the name Moses. The final/editorswriters were deadly serious because they knew that the culture/religion of Israel had to be preserved from extinction. So entertaining in the modern sense of playful amn’t I clever detachment from what is meant -no, in that sense they were not seeking to entertain. It just seems important to establish this for a modern readership who find understanding a different consciousness shaped by a different understanding difficult to access.


    1. I think there is a flaw in your logic. The Torah was not “written”, but rather brought to its final form during and after the Exile, and by that time this was mostly about editing, rather than writing. The J material was probably mostly written up mainly from the 10th to 9th century, the E material from the 8th to 7th, the D material in the 7th century, and the P material from the 6th.
      So when you talk about material “written by the Israelites in captivity”, most of the material was already written. It was edited, rearranged and added to by the Priestly redactors. Yes, the intention was to provide an inspiring national epic, but that has nothing to do with excising the entertainingly humorous – arguably the contrary is the case. You seem to me to be insisting on an ‘either or’ approach – either entertaining humour or deadly seriousness. I would insist on a ‘both and’ approach.
      As it happens, these Priestly redactors, far from imposing their own viewpoint on the already existing material, showed great respect for it. I’m sure you must applaud their respect for what by that time was ‘traditional’ material, even if it sometimes showed up priests, like Aaron, in a bad light, and even if it meant letting repetitions, inconsistencies, contradictions, and some folksy fun be.
      As far as the word “entertaining” is concerned, you and I both know about Wittgenstein’s ‘word game’ philosophy. The meaning of a word is dependent on the use to which its user is putting it. There is therefore the element of subjectivity here, and what is ‘entertaining’ to me, may not be to you. Any readers of this post, and these comments, can make up their own minds.


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