I’d like to start a series of reflections on wordplays in the Bible. It will not follow an alphabetical schema, but will be a conglomeration of individual wordplays and their relevance to the stories of the bible. We will begin with Moses.
Many people are familiar with the basic story of Moses: he is born in Egypt to Israelite parents at a time when the Pharaoh has ordered the slaughter of all Israelite male infants. He is seen by the daughter of Pharaoh and she rescues and names the child. She then has Moses be raised by his own mother until weaned, at which time he returns to the Egyptian royal court.
Of course, this Moses becomes the chief enemy of Pharaoh and he ultimately helps liberate the Israelites and brings them into the desert. He receives the 10 Commandments on Sinai, leads the people, and intercedes with God to forgive the sins of the people. He is, all in all, the hero of the Pentateuch, and considered traditionally to be its author.
Hebrew or Egyptian?
Moses is a strange hero: he is both Hebrew and Egyptian.
He was from Hebrew stock, and was weened by his mother. This was important, because the breastmilk that a child received was thought to be essential to proper development. We are not talking about scientific ideas of development, but ideas that deal with identity.
Until the Middle Ages it was commonly thought that breastmilk was transmuted blood. Not only are milk and blood both nutritious and important, but it was observed that when a woman is lactating she does not menstruate. It was concluded that breastmilk was transmuted blood, and at least hinted at that the developing child in utero was also transmuted blood, or at least that it was being fed by transmuted blood.
This meant that the child and the mother were “blood brothers,” in a sense. This is fairly meaningless in most cases, but in the case of a child being fed by a woman who was not his mother, this becomes important. Moses was not fed by the Egyptians, but but his mother. He was nourished by Hebrew milk, and he developed as a Hebrew.
Yet as he grew up in the Egyptian court all of his influences (foods) were Egyptian. Not just Egyptian, but also royal. He could have been seen by Hebrews at the time as clearly an Egyptian, and by Egyptians at the time as clearly Hebrew (although his Hebrew identity was in some sources hidden or oblique). In some senses he was accepted by both Hebrews and Egyptians, and in other senses he was rejected by both.
The Meaning of “Moses”
We have briefly seen sketches of the life of Moses without getting into much detail. Yet to understand the name of Moses we need to look at the original mention of “Moses” in the Bible.
“1 And there was a certain man of the tribe of Levi, who took to wife one of the daughters of Levi. 2 And she conceived, and bore a male child; and having seen that he was fair, they hid him three months. 3 And when they could no longer hide him, his mother took for him an ark, and besmeared it with bitumen, and cast the child into it, and put it in the ooze by the river. 4 And his sister was watching from a distance, to learn what would happen to him. 5 And the daughter of Pharao came down to the river to bathe; and her maids walked by the river’s side, and having seen the ark in the ooze, she sent her maid, and took it up.
6 And having opened it, she sees the babe weeping in the ark: and the daughter of Pharao had compassion on it, and said, This [is one] of the Hebrew’s children. 7 And his sister said to the daughter of Pharao, Wilt thou that I call to thee a nurse of the Hebrews, and shall she suckle the child for thee? 8 And the daughter of Pharao said, Go: and the young woman went, and called the mother of the child. 9 And the daughter of Pharao said to her, Take care of this child, and suckled it for me, and I will give thee the wages; and the woman took the child, and suckled it. 10 And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her son; and she called his name, Moses, saying, I took him out of the water.” (Ex. 2:1-10)
The passage ends with the explanation of the name “Moses”: it appears to mean something like “I took him out of the water” simply by reading the English of verse 10. But does it really mean this?
The Hebrew is Mosheh (מֹשֶׁה), meaning “drawn.” It first appears in Ex. 2:10, as does the first instance of the Hebrew word is from: mashah (מָשָׁה), which also means “to draw.” So it seems that “Moses” means “to draw,” or a similar idea of to be saved, to be drawn out, etc. He has a fitting name for his role in the story, both in his infancy and his adulthood. He is drawn out of the water and saved, then draws the Israelites out of Egypt and the Red Sea, thereby saving them.
Let’s look again at Ex. 2:10, this time with some glosses on word meanings.
“And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her son; and she called his name, Moses, saying, I took him out of the water.”
How does Moses become the son of Pharaoh’s daughter? It seems that this short phrase tells us that Moses until that time had been the son of his mother, but when older he actually became the son of the Pharaoh’s daughter. It is at this point that we first hear the name of the child, Moses, and it is implied that this transfer of place (Hebrew home to Egyptian court) corresponds to a transfer in family (Hebrew mother to Egyptian mother), economic status/power/education (low to extremely high), and a transfer of name (from an anonymous child to Moses). This is a watershed moment for Moses.
Note that Moses is nursed by his Hebrew mother, but not named by her. This is very strange. It is also strange that Moses would be named by an Egyptian princess, but not so strange as the name being a Hebrew name, giving away the identity of the child. The Hebrews were hated by the Egyptian Pharaoh and people at this time. It makes no sense for an Egyptian to name an adopted Hebrew child (whom she saved from her father’s orders) with a Hebrew name. It is as if she named him according to how she found him, but in a foreign language of a hated people.
Yet it cannot be denied that “Moses” is a fitting name for him, since it alludes to how he was saved from death. So we could take the fact that he was given a Hebrew name as ironic or miraculous. This name would have surely given away his identity, which is the very reason why the Hebrews were being killed at the time. Perhaps this is a literary technique that lets the reader in on a secret while the characters do not seem to notice it. The Hebrew savior was in the court of Pharaoh all along, and obviously so by his name. Yet he is never discovered as being the real threat to the Egyptian throne.
This is the understanding I had of the situation until recently when I came across a most interesting fact: Moses is an Egyptian name.
Etymologies are always open to interpretation, but here there is a consensus that “Moses” is related to the Egyptian ms, meaning “son of.” For example, “Ramses” means “son of Ra.” Moses simply means “son of.”
Yet this is tricky, since the story was written in Hebrew, not Egyptian. On the other hand, Pharaoh’s daughter would have given him an Egyptian name under “normal” circumstances. Let’s look at verse 10 again:
“And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her son; and she called his name, Moses, saying, I took him out of the water. ”
And now let’s fill in some of the foreign terms with their conceptual equivalents:
Moses as ms (moses): “And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her moses; and she called his name, Moses, saying, I moses(ed) him out of the water.”
Moses as drawn out: “And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her son; and she called his name, Drawn Out, saying, I drew him out of the water.”
Moses as son: “And when the boy was grown, she brought him to the daughter of Pharao, and he became her son; and she called his name, Son, saying, I gave birth to him out of the water.”
We should mention here that the name Moses as “drawing out” is fitting, and indeed it fits a little too well. The root of the Hebrew word is mashah, a word found only 3 times in the Bible. Contrast this with the nearly 800 references to Moses in the Bible, and it becomes apparent just how rare this verb is in the biblical text. But what is really striking is the three usages of the verb.
We have already seen the first: Ex. 2:10 has Moses being named in an apparent reference to mashah as “drawing out.” When we look at the only 2 other occurrences of this verb, an obvious point comes across:
2 Samuel 22:17 “He sent from above, he took me; he drew me out of many waters;”
Psalm 18:16 “He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.”
The two passages are identical, but the strangeness doesn’t stop there. It turns out that 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 are identical in all 50 verses. 2 Samuel recounts the song of David that is Psalm 18.
This means that mashah as “drawing out” occurs in:
- Only 3 instances in the Bible
- Those 3 are reduced to 2 by eliminating duplication
- The first explains how Moses both survived and was named (Ex. 2)
- The second (and third) are clearly references to the first (Ex. 2)
- The “drawing out” is exclusively connected to “water” and God/Pharaoh’s daughter
The Psalm and 2 Samuel do not reference Moses per se, but the righteous person in the character of David. Moses is never mentioned, except in the usage of “drawing out,” which we have seen is almost unknown as a verb in the Bible. It only occurs in 2 separate stories, the first and most important of which is the saving/naming of Moses. It is intimately connected to the character of Moses.
Yet the strangeness does not end there, because the Egyptian interpretation of Moses is “son of.” This means that the connection to water is not coincidental, and can apply to both the Moses story and the song of David:
“He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.”
can be rendered
“He (the Lord) sent me (as an apostle) from the highest (heaven); he took me out; he drew me out of many waters.”
The imagery is both of salvation and birth. Bodies of water were dangerous, and being saved from the sea, flood, etc. was an important theme in the Bible. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that infants were thought to come from “heaven” in the sense that their souls were waiting in heaven until their bodies were prepared. They were then “delivered” into the world, but quite literally “drawn out from the waters” of the womb. Salvation and birth coincide here.
Moses, arguably the most important human in the Bible, is introduced in Exodus 2 as surviving miraculously. No super-human intervention is explicit, but the movement from imminent death by command of the Pharaoh to being incorporated into the very family of the Pharaoh is so unlikely that is it implicitly miraculous. The name Moses will dominate the book of Exodus and the entire Pentateuch, and it is here introduced as having a meaning defined by the narrative action.
As we have seen, the meaning of the name is double. He was named by an Egyptian, and the meaning of the name in Egyptian is “son of.” This indicates that Moses is the “son of” Egypt from their perspective. Yet Moses means “drawn out,” and the significance from the Hebrew perspective is that Moses was drawn out/delivered from the waters of birth, then put into the water and drawn out again from the Nile, then drawn out of the court of Pharaoh, and finally he draws out the Hebrew people from Egypt and the waters of the Red Sea. Moses is the Hebrew savior, and the one who is saved by God.
Ultimately Moses is the son of the Hebrews, and the son of God. He saves the Hebrews and just as he was adopted by Pharaoh’s house then by God, the Hebrews had been adopted by Pharaoh’s house (in the time of Joseph, centuries prior to the Exodus) and were then (re)adopted by God.
Given that Exodus was written in a culture where knowledge of basic Egyptian words would have been commonplace, it follows that the author is utilizing both the Hebrew and Egyptian meanings of “Moses” to define his character. His early life foreshadows who he will become and what he will accomplish.
You may be asking yourself whether the Moses’ name was really “Moses,” given that it serves a rhetorical purpose in the narrative. Was he perhaps named something else, but the author of Exodus changed his name to suit the story?
We simply cannot know, but there is little reason to think that he name was invented by the author. If Moses was raised as an Egyptian after an initial upbringing as a Hebrew (until perhaps 2-6 years old when he was weaned), then it could be assumed that his Egyptian name would have likely contained the element “son of” (ms). The irony of Moses being “son of” Egypt would have been welcomed by the author, as would the Hebrew meaning of the Egyptian word, being “drawn out.” The wordplay was too good to pass over (pun intended).
Compassion and Beauty
Two final issues should be noted here: the role of compassion and the typology of Moses as a holy person. Both are significant to the identity of Moses.
“Compassion” (חָמַל chamal) is found in the Pentateuch only twice: in Exodus 2:6 where the daughter of Pharaoh has compassion on the crying infant Moses, and Dt. 13:8. Below are verses 1-10 for context:
“1 Every word that I command you this day, it shalt thou observe to do: thou shalt not add to it, nor diminish from it. 2 And if there arise within thee a prophet, or one who dreams a dream, and he gives thee a sign or a wonder, 3 and the sign or the wonder come to pass which he spoke to thee, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye know not; 4 ye shall not hearken to the words of that prophet, or the dreamer of that dream, because the Lord thy God tries you, to know whether ye love your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 5 Ye shall follow the Lord your God, and fear him, and ye shall hear his voice, and attach yourselves to him. 6 And that prophet or that dreamer of a dream, shall die; for he has spoken to make thee err from the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, who redeemed thee from bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the Lord thy God commanded thee to walk in: so shalt thou abolish the evil from among you.
7 And if thy brother by thy father or mother, or thy son, or daughter, or thy wife in thy bosom, or friend who is equal to thine own soul, entreat thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, 8 of the gods of the nations that are round about you, who are near thee or at a distance from thee, from one end of the earth to the other; 9 thou shalt not consent to him, neither shalt thou hearken to him; and thine eye shall not spare him, thou shalt feel no regret for him, neither shalt thou at all protect him: 10 thou shalt surely report concerning him, and thy hands shall be upon him among the first to slay him, and the hands of all the people at the last. 11 And they shall stone him with stones, and he shall die, because he sought to draw thee away from the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
The passage is about false prophets. The first section is about prophets proper, who show signs and wonders and give messages. This is what Moses did, and he was the first to do so in the Bible (excepting possibly Joseph, the other Hebrew who was in the court of Pharaoh and the savior of Israel). If a prophet counsels idolatry, they are false and are to be killed. They are an anti-Moses, worthy to be killed rather than saved because they kill the people rather than saving them.
Then the focus shifts to “regular” people: family and friends. The reader is not to have compassion on them, but to kill them. The reason is the same, but the idea of pity is inserted because we are talking about family members and not leaders/prophets. This familial compassion is what saved Moses, but ironically it was done by an Egyptian whose act of “compassion” (suffering with) on the Hebrew was what led to the suffering (passion) of the Egyptians. The Israelites had suffered under the Egyptians, and by the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter the Egyptians experienced a passion.
Yet the Israelites are not to make that same mistake. Their enemies, the idolaters, will kill them (spiritually) if they are sympathized with. They will be their downfall, just as Moses was the downfall of Egypt. Moses, of course, was worthy to be saved and the Egyptians were justly punished, while the false prophets are not worthy of salvation and those who spare them are worthy of punishment.
The second issue is the physical beauty of Moses. This is a common theme in the extra-canonical literature, but in the Pentateuch it is especially prominent in Joseph and Moses. These two characters are also the only ones who are part of the court of Pharaoh and both save Israel. It is stated that Moses’ mother “conceived, and bore a male child; and having seen that he was fair, they hid him three months.” She hid him seemingly because of his good looks, a quality so important that it was mentioned only after his gender. This probably also helped Pharaoh’s daughter pity him, since an ugly child is an object of derision rather than pity. Moses was attractive from birth, and this helped him survive. The same was said of Joseph, whose good looks figured prominently in his story.
Moses is “Moses,” whether that means that he is the “son of” Paharaoh’s daughter (the Egyptian perspective) or that he was “drawn out” of the water (the Hebrew perspective). Any way you look at it, he is “Moses.” While reckoned as a son of an Egyptian, he drew out the Hebrews from the chaotic waters of Egypt. He also made the Hebrews sons of God, as we read in Hosea 11:1, which begins with a reference to the Exodus:
“Early in the morning were they cast off, the king of Israel has been cast off: for Israel is a child, and I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called his children.”
Here Israel is a child (νήπιος, na`ar), and this word is used in Exodus initially of Moses (2:6).
It is also noteworthy that the Epistle of Barnabas (1st c. AD) interprets the Promised Land imagery of “milk and honey” as applying to the feeding of infants. Just as honey and then milk is given to infants, so too the Promised Land (Jesus) is where we (as infants) are fed and will inherit. This feeding, of course, takes place after being “delivered” from the “waters” of the Red Sea. In some sense the people were born through the Red Sea and entered as infants into the Promised Land (after the wandering through the desert, of course). It is actually through Joshua (Jesus) that this infant image reaches its climax: Joshua circumcised the people, which was normally done only when the child was 8 days old. The circumcised males were in a sense reduced to infancy, celebrated the second Passover, crossed the Jordan River in the same way as they had crossed the Red Sea, and then entered the Land of Milk and Honey (infant’s food).
Note: Anybody with kids out there might be shocked that honey was considered to be the first thing that a newborn ate. Parents are warned to not feed their children honey until they are over a year old, because there is a risk of botulism. This was not the case in ancient times, or rather we can say that the ancient view was diametrically opposed to the modern one. Not only was honey given to infants, but it was given to them before milk. It was foundational.
Moses is introduced in the Bible as a child, special from birth, and destined to be saved and adopted, just as he works with God to save and adopt the Hebrews as the people of God. He is the son of God drawn out of the water in order to make Israel sons of God and draw them out of Egypt.