Was Moses an Egyptian?

We noted, last time, that Moses enjoys an ‘exceptional’ birth story. His parents are humble but Moses, escaping death, becomes a grandson of the Egyptian Pharaoh once adopted by his daughter. It’s an incredible tale, and a famous Jew, Sigmund Freud, had things to say about it …..

He observed that in this story’s most prevalent version, there are three stages – (1) a child is born of royal or noble parentage; (2) it’s brought up by humble parents; (3) later, the child is elevated to royal or noble status. The story’s aim was to ‘legitimise’ a royal or noble figure of humble birth, whose supposedly ‘real’ parents had been high-born (or one had been a god or goddess) and so their now elevated status is merited. But only in the second step does the truth lie!

The Moses’ story, however, turns this inside out – (1) he’s of humble birth; (2) he becomes a member of a royal family; (3) he ends up a keeper of sheep. Freud insists it’s still only in the second step that truth lies but, if the story’s editors are to legitimise an Egyptian ‘prince’ as an appropriate leader for the escaping Hebrews, then it has also to be ‘true’ that Moses, in actual fact, had indeed been born to Hebrew parents.

The name ’Moses’ is of Egyptian origin and it’s included, for example, in the name ‘Pharaoh Thutmoses’. This seems to have been embarrassing for the story’s editors, who came up with a far-fetched attempt to provide a Hebrew derivation. We’re told the Egyptian princess had a detailed enough knowledge of Hebrew (and a motivation hard to explain given Egyptian animosity towards the Hebrew population) to give her adopted son a Hebrew name, supposedly derived from the rare verb מָשָׁה ‘mashah’, said to mean ‘to draw out’, because she had drawn him out of the river Nile. Well, maybe yes, but most likely no.

Richard Friedman, Professor of Hebrew, points (*) to Exodus 4:10, where Moses, resisting God’s commission to lead the Hebrew escapees, uses the phrase “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue”, usually taken to mean he had a speech impediment. Friedman notes, however, that this same expression, in Ezekiel 3:5-7, refers to people of a foreign language to whom Ezekiel is being sent. This raises the possibility that Moses, at this particular time, was an Egyptian speaker to whom, as yet, Hebrew was a foreign tongue. This would explain why, in Exodus 4:29-30, when “all the elders of the children of Israel were gathered”, it was the Hebrew Aaron who “spoke all the words that YHWH had spoken to Moses”, whereas in 5:1, when the Egyptian Pharaoh is confronted, Moses now finds his voice! 

The Moses story is a skilful blend, created from at least three different sources. It aims at consistency but, thankfully, respects its inherited traditions, and doesn’t attempt to iron out the resulting anomalies. That’s part of the endless fascination of these tales. 

(*) Richard Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, HaperOne, 2003.

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