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 …..
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