Was Jesus Really a Carpenter? Part V: Bezaleel Continued

In our last installment we saw that Bezaleel and Jesus shared some very specific characteristics, making their depictions in Exodus and Mark conspicuously similar. The first 3 of the 7 points below were explored, and now we will look points 4-6.

  1. He is from the tribe of Judah
  2. He is filled with the spirit of God
  3. He has wisdom, understanding, and knowledge
  4. God “called him by name”
  5. He is a builder of “the tabernacle of the congregation”
  6. He equips the priests with garments and anointing oil
  7. His name means “in the shadow of God”

God “Called Him by Name”

Bezaleel is introduced as being specifically “called by name,” and as we will see in point 7 his name is a significant one. For now we will focus on the calling itself.

Ex. 31 could have simply said that God chose Bezaleel, but instead God tells Moses that he called Bezaleel “by name.” This emphasis of a divine calling and a particular name is significant in that it sets Bezaleel apart from the other anonymous helpers who built the Tabernacle, and also from Aholiab, who is said to have been “given with him” (“him being Bezaleel). This man is mentioned only in Exodus, and only in the account of the building of the Tabernacle. His name means “father’s tent,” the ab being “father” (like Abba), a term used in the NT for God the Father, and ‘ohel beingtent, the term used for the Tabernacle. In other words, both of the named men are very special: Bezaleel is called by name by God himself, and Aholiab is given by God to Bezaleel. Both men’s names refer to the Tabernacle.

In Mark, the first action of Jesus is to be baptized by John, with the result being that the Spirit descends on him and a voice from heaven calls him “my Son.” This endorsement and naming at baptism in front of a prophet (John) recalls the “calling by name” of Bezaleel in the presence of Moses. God calls from heaven in the presence of the greatest prophet of the time, and instead of commissioning that prophet he calls an unknown character his “son.” This name (My beloved Son) is functional, just as the name of Bezaleel is functional.

Again we see the connection between Mark 6 and Mark 1 (as mentioned in #2), strengthened by the fact that the people were “astonished” (ἐκπλήσσω) by the teaching of Jesus in 1:22 and then astonished again by his teaching in 6:2. While this astonishment is repeated twice more in Mark, the initial occurrence is first repeated in Mark 6:2, forming a conceptual link between the two accounts.

We can add to this that the later 2 occurrences deal with Gentiles being astonished at Jesus’s teaching (7:37) and the Jews in Jerusalem being astonished at his teaching directly after Jesus seems to take control of the Temple in Jerusalem (11:18). Before this episode the Temple is never mentioned by Mark, drawing another connection between Jesus’s astonishing teachings and his identity as Temple builder called by God, as well as the inclusion of the Gentiles into true Temple worship. Jesus can take over the Temple because he is the architect of it, being the Son of God (Mark 1 and throughout) and the new Bezaleel (Mark 6).

To this we can add that “called by name” in the OT is almost exclusively used of people or the Ark or the Temple, all of which are called by the name of God. This means that those “called” are under the authority and protection of God. The Temple is the Temple of God, the people are the people of God.

Here are some of the more significant instances of this:

Isaiah 62:2 And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name.

(alluded to in Revelation 2:17 and 3:12)

Isaiah 65:1 I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name.

(cited by Paul in Romans 10:21)

This last one is particularly significant because it is found in a passage in Mark we have already discussed:

Jeremiah 7:11 Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD.

(cited by Jesus in Mark 11:17 when he seized control of the Temple)

Yet the phrase “called out by name” (ἀνακέκλημαι ἐξ ὀνόματος) is used in the OT only twice, both of which refer to God calling Bezaleel. He is totally unique in this way, just as God calls only Jesus his “son” in Mark (1:11, 9:7)

(note: the example in Esther 2:14 in the link above speaks of Esther not coming before the king “unless she should be called by name,” making this significantly different than Bezaleel’s call, not to mention that the [hypothetical] call would be by a king rather than by God.)


He is a Builder of “the Tabernacle of the Congregation”

We have already covered this identity of Bezaleel, as well as pointed out how Jesus was seen as accomplishing the same feat (building the Tabernacle) in a metaphorical way, through his teaching and ultimately through his sacrificial death and resurrection. This “built” the Church (the congregation).

The Greek in Ex. 31 is “τὴν σκηνὴν τοῦ μαρτυρίου”, which means “the tent of witness,” but also means “the Tabernacle of martyrdom.” Tent and tabernacle are synonyms, and martyr means witness. Here we find a play on words, where the witness of Jesus as being the Righteous One comes about through his martyrdom, which God honors by raising him from the dead. His body then becomes the tent of witness to the power of God, as well as a symbol for the Church.

Bezaleel also builds the candlestick, the Ark of the Covenant, and all of the cultic items used by the priests in the Tabernacle. These aren’t mention specifically by Mark, but if we recall the incident in the Temple where Jesus kicks out the moneychangers (Mark 11), he also forbid any “vessels” from being carried in the Temple. The term is σκεῦος, used by Mark only in this passage about the Temple and in a parable about the “house of a strong man.”

This term is important in that it refers to the vessels/equipment used in the Temple (it is used like the term “paraphenalia” or “equipment” today). In Exodus 31:7 the “furniture of the Tabernacle” is ὴν διασκευὴν τῆς σκηνῆς. It should also be noted that people were referred to as being a σκεῦος, as in Acts 9:15. Not only that, but σκηνή (tabernacle) seems to be derived from a combination of σκεῦος (vessel/tool) and σκιά (shadow/shade).

The only time that Mark uses the term σκηνή is in the following passage (Mark 9:2-8):

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.

His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.

And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.

Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—

because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.

And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!”

Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.

This is a particularly rich passage, especially when viewed with Bezaleel in mind.

  1. This is the only passage where Mark uses the term “tabernacle,” and Peter suggests that they build 3 of them. This does not happen, of course, but building the tabernacle is the work of Bezaleel, and so it was fitting that Peter does not build a tabernacle (or three) because this was to be the mission of Jesus alone.
  2. God calls Jesus his Son, just as he called Bezaleel by name. The correspondence is strengthened by the presence of Moses in both accounts.
  3. God calls Jesus his Son in Mark only here and in chapter 1, where instead of Moses being present, John the Baptist is present. But John the Baptist in Mark 1 is the forerunner of Christ, and in Mark 9:11-13 (immediately after the passage above) Elijah as the forerunner is discussed. So in both passages we have John as Elijah, meaning that both times Jesus is called “son” by God, John/Elijah is present.
  4. In both Mark 1, Mark 9, and Exodus 31 the one called (Jesus, Bezaleel) is thought by all to be a lesser figure than the prophet(s) present. Nevertheless, God calls the one who is thought to be inferior and declares him to be utterly unique.
  5. Just as Bezaleel alone can make the holy vestments of the priests, Jesus’s garment is changed miraculously “such as no launderer on earth” could accomplish.
  6. Just as Bezaleel means “in the shadow of God,” the cloud that God speaks from in Mark 9 “over-shadows“(ἐπι-σκιάζω) them and only Jesus remains. Only Jesus emerges from the shadow of God.

We can add to this that while Mark does not tell us what Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about, Luke tells us that they were discussing his coming “decease” in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The English translation obscures what is really being spoken of: the Greek is ἔξοδος, literally “exodus.” This is another connection to Bezaleel, and indicates that Luke read Mark 9 with an Exodus theme in mind. This word is never used elsewhere by Luke, or any of the other Gospel writers.

The passage tells us that Jesus is the unique one, called by God to build the Tabernacle in Jerusalem through his death. Moses does not have the wisdom or the calling to do it, only Jesus, called by name in the shadow of God.


He Equips the Priests with Garments and Anointing Oil

Bezaleel alone has the wisdom to make the priestly vestments and the anointing oil, both of which are considered extremely holy and miraculous. While Mark says nothing of priestly vestments (τὰς στολὰς in Ex. 31) he does mention Jesus’s “garment” (ἱμάτιον) which is miraculous in Mark 9 (discussed above) and elsewhere.

Granting that this is not the exact same Greek word, we nonetheless should recognize that Exodus itself uses various terms for the priestly vestments. Mark uses ἱμάτιον 12 times, while the entire NT uses it 62 times. In the context of the length of the NT, Mark’s usage has the highest rate of occurrence of the term, and we can add to this that Matthew (who uses the term 16 times) depends on Mark for all but 2 of the occurrences. Therefore this term is especially significant for Mark as opposed to the other NT writers.

Ex. 28:4 & 31, and 29:5 mention the vestments of the priests, using the term ποδήρη, which shows us that it is indeed a valid step to include other Greek terms as synonyms for τὰς στολὰς of Exodus 31. It follows from this that ἱμάτιον could be used as a term for the priest’s vestments, and this is confirmed by Lev. 21:10

And the priest that is chief among his brethren, the oil having been poured upon the head of the anointed one, and he having been consecrated to put on the garments (ἱμάτια), shall not take the mitre off his head, and shall not rend his garments (ἱμάτια).

This same usage is found in Numbers 8:7, 21 in describing the consecration of the priests and their vestments. In Numbers 20:28 we read that Aaron, just before his death, took off his ἱμάτια and gave it to his son as a sign of the transference of the high priesthood. It is thus shown very clearly that ἱμάτιον does denote the priestly vestments in the LXX.

Perhaps the most striking usage of the term can be found in Zechariah 3, which we will examine in a later post. For now, we can simply note that the term there refers to the vestments of the high priest Jesus(!) who re-establishes the priesthood in Jerusalem.

In the Mark, the term is used 7 times of the garments of Jesus, 5 of which are in the context of miracles. His clothes are holy, and the last occurrence of the word in Mark alludes to the prohibition of tearing the garment (ἱμάτια) of the high priest (Lev. 21:10). Mark 14:63 and Matthew 26:65 have the high priest breaking this prohibition during the trial of Jesus, although Mark uses the term χιτών while Matthew uses ἱμάτιον.

The oil of anointing that is put on the priests literally makes them a messiah (anointed one). It makes people and things holy, as opposed to the oil used for lamps or cooking. Mark alone recounts that Jesus’s disciples healed through oil, and only in 6:13, following directly after the Nazareth carpenter episode. This healing with oil accompanied their preaching of Jesus’s words, which for Mark brought holiness to the people and was a priestly work. It was laying the groundwork for the true Tabernacle.

Matthew and Luke both mention oil (6 times total) but never in the context of healing with it. This is significant because Jesus in ch.6 picks the Twelve and gives them power over unclean spirits (v.7). He then tells them to take nothing with them except sandals and a staff (v.8-9). It is then said that they preached, cast out spirits, and anointed with oil. It is therefore understood (or hinted at) that Jesus had also given them oil with which to anoint the sick. This anointing with oil is unique to Mark, and found only directly after Jesus is called a carpenter. Not only that, but the superiority of Jesus over the anointing oil is shown in v.5, where Jesus heals with his own hands while his disciples heal with anointing oil obtained from him. Just as the priests are made holy with the oil from the hands of Bezaleel, Jesus provides his disciples with oil to make the people holy. Both Jesus and Bezaleel are the sources of this holiness, by the calling of God.



Just as we saw in our previous post, Mark paints Jesus uniquely as the new Bazeleel. It is unbelievable that such unique and precise descriptions could have been made unintentionally, leading us to conclude that Mark did indeed construct his description of Jesus the Carpenter to mimic that of Bezaleel the Architect. This is the meaning of “carpenter” for Mark: the one who uniquely builds the true House of God. In our next posting we will take one last look at Bazaleel, examining what is probably the most striking aspect of his description. Once again, it is totally unique in the OT and corresponds to the unique identity of Jesus in the NT.

Thanks for reading.




Was Jesus Really a Carpenter? Part IV: The Case of Bezaleel

We have settled on a typological lens to understand how Jesus is a carpenter for Mark, and just what that means. Jesus is the fulfilment of the heroes of the OT, as mentioned in our last post. (note: in my haste I left out two rather important types that Jesus fulfills: Adam and God himself. Apparently they were too obvious for me to take note of!) Below we will look at the first likely referent that Mark has in mind, which deals with the typology of the Tabernacle builder Bezaleel.



Most people are unfamiliar with this seemingly obscure character in the Bible, but he is very important for writers like Mark who wish to portray Jesus as the one who will build God’s true Temple.

Exodus 25-30 has an account of the instructions that God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai regarding cultic matters (construction of the tabernacle, priestly consecration, etc.). Following this, chapter 31 states:

1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah:

And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,

To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,

And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee;

The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle,

And the table and his furniture, and the pure candlestick with all his furniture, and the altar of incense,

And the altar of burnt offering with all his furniture, and the laver and his foot,

10 And the cloths of service, and the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister in the priest’s office,

11 And the anointing oil, and sweet incense for the holy place: according to all that I have commanded thee shall they do.


Bezaleel is an interesting type of Jesus (or vice versa) in a number of ways:

  1. He is from the tribe of Judah
  2. He is filled with the spirit of God
  3. He has wisdom, understanding, and knowledge
  4. God “called him by name”
  5. He is a builder of “the tabernacle of the congregation”
  6. He equips the priests with garments and anointing oil
  7. His name means “in the shadow of God”

A few coincidences are bound to happen when depicting characters, but as the coincidences begin to pile up and are shown to be rather specific and pointed, we begin to see that this appears to be a deliberate typological portrayal of Jesus as Bezaleel.

Below I will explore the connections between the first 3 points above and Mark’s depiction of Jesus, particularly in the “carpenter” passage in Mark 6. I will privilege the information in Mark because he alone states that Jesus was a carpenter, and to bring the evidence from the whole of the NT would take our attention away from what Mark in particular had to say. In this approach, we will assume the following 3 points:

  1. Paul wrote prior to Mark, and Mark had read Paul’s letters
  2. Matthew, Luke, and John wrote after Mark, and Matthew and Luke had definitely read Mark’s Gospel
  3. if Mark actually sought to depict Jesus as the new Bezaleel for his readers, he would have provided them with concrete clues in his Gospel, rather than vague correspondences


Points 1-7 are all repeated in Mark’s description of Jesus, and below the first three are expounded upon:

He is from the Tribe of Judah

While Mark says nothing of Jesus being from the tribe of Judah, no sources ever contradict the claim and it was common knowledge that he was from the line of David and therefore the tribe of Judah. This claim was so strong that Mark felt free to include the seeming denial of this lineage by Jesus himself (see Mark 12:35-37). Jesus’s identity in Mark was a secret (the so-called “Messianic secret“) but he was called “son of David” (10:47-48) and connected to the “kingdom of David” (11:10) nonetheless. So Mark points to the Davidic identity of Jesus, and consequently Jesus must be understood as being from the tribe of Judah. This is made explicit by the amplified accounts of Matthew and Luke, who both affirm through their genealogies that Jesus was from Judah.

Yet many people were from the tribe of Judah, and this in and of itself is a rather weak link. As the links begin to add up, the cumulative argument becomes a strong one. But we are not satisfied with a mere cumulative argument. Is there something more specific (in terms of tribal identity) that links the two men? The answer is yes, in that both figures were the offspring of Judah (the royal tribe) and Levi (the priestly tribe). We will explore this more fully when we get to the implied background of Bezaleel in a future post. For now we should simply notice that both men were Judahites, and both men had Levite blood from their maternal ancestors. They were uniquely qualified to be both kings and priests.

In addition to this we can add that “Judah” appears in Exodus only 4 times. The first is in 1:2, in a listing of all 12 tribes. Nothing too interesting there. The remaining 3 occurrences should pique our curiosity, though: all 3 pertain to Bezaleel! All 3 are also verbatim repetitions of the phrase “Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.” Judah in Exodus is particularly linked with Bezaleel and his father and grandfather, and is never connected to anybody else.


He is Filled with the Spirit of God

It seems like no big deal to be filled with the Spirit of God, given that various saints were filled with the Spirit in the NT, and the phrase in modern Christian parlance if often applied to all Christians. So is it really significant that Bezaleel was filled with the Spirit?

The answer is an emphatic “yes.” The Hebrew word for “filled” (male’) is used 249 times in the OT (stretched over 24 books), meaning that it was a relatively common word. Yet we should notice that the 2 books with the highest number of incidences are Exodus and Ezekiel. Since Ezekiel is longer than Exodus by around 10%, this means that the word male’ is used in Exodus to a conspicuous degree. How is it used?

You can see all of the instances here. Exodus is divided into 40 chapters, and so we would expect 2.3 occurrences of the word every 4 chapters if the distribution was even. Yet we find 16 occurrences in the 13 chapters (28-40) alone, instead of the expected 7-8. This is double the average rate, telling us that something about being “filled” is conspicuous to the last third of the book. The first two thirds of the book contain 7 instances, roughly .26 per chapter, while the last third has 1.23 per chapter. In other words, the final third has about 5 times the rate of the word that the reader would expect. Something is afoot.

You might be wondering “What is the point of all this numerical analysis?” The point is this: I prefer to demonstrate objectively that something is going on in the text rather than going on hunches and feelings. The repetition of “filled” can be objectively demonstrated, and so I prefer to show that rather than have the reader trust (or not trust) that it is indeed an important word in the last third of Exodus.

So how is the term used in this section of Exodus? consider the following:

  1. filled “with the spirit of wisdom” or “the spirit of God” (4x, all referring to Bezaleel and his coworkers)
  2. consecrating actions (6x, 5 of them specifically referring to the priests, made possible by Bezaleel)
  3. setting stones and gems (4x, all in reference to constructing cultic objects made by Bezaleel)
  4. filled with “the glory of the Lord” (2x, both times at the very end of the book, referring to the Tabernacle built by Bezaleel)

The language of being “filled” with the Spirit of God or with wisdom never occurs in the Bible prior to the reference made to Bezaleel. He is the first to be said to have this experience, which is astonishing when we remember that Moses had already been communing with God on Mt. Sinai prior to this. All this information simply drives home that the depiction of Bezaleel is very important in Exodus, and consequently in the entire OT. All of the 16 usages of “filled” listed above refer to the person of Bezaleel or the result of his workmanship.

What can be said about the term “spirit”(ruwach) in Exodus? Interestingly enough, it occurs 11 times in Exodus in the following order:

  1. the “anguish of spirit” of the Israelites (1x)
  2. the wind (6x)
  3. the spirit of wisdom (1x)
  4. the Spirit of God (3x)

As you might have guessed, the spirit of wisdom and the Spirit of God are spoken of only in reference to Bezaleel and his workmen.

In the opening chapter of Mark, the Spirit of God descends on Jesus and drives him into the wilderness (1:10-12). This is striking not only because it is the beginning of Mark’s account (and therefore it is very important in his overall depiction), but because “spirit” never refers to God’s spirit in Mark’s narrative outside of this one episode (the first 3 occurrences refer to the Holy Spirit [1:8, 10, 12], while the other 3 occurrences [3:29, 12:36, and 13:11] all refer to the future events rather than actual narrative action; of the remaining 17 occurrences, 14 refer to demons, 2 to Jesus’s “spirit,” and 1 to the generic spirit of man).

It follows from this that not only are Jesus and Bezaleel endowed with the Spirit of God and the spirit of wisdom, but that they are the only ones who have that spirit. The exception to this is the anonymous others in Exodus who assist Bezaleel, and in Mark 6 directly after Jesus shows his acquisition of the spirit of wisdom (already he was said to have acquired the Spirit of God in ch.1) he goes to different villages teaching (building the Tabernacle) and sends out the (unnamed) 12 disciples (who correspond to the anonymous helpers of Bezaleel). This can hardly be coincidental. Mark depicts Jesus as the unique wise man who has the Spirit of God, a “carpenter” who never is said to build anything literally, but instead goes about teaching with his disciples, who together construct the Tabernacle of God (the Church). This is precisely how Bezaleel is depicted in Exodus.


He has Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge

This description of Bezaleel is impressive, but is it really that unique to him? Yes, it is! Wisdom (chokmah, σοφία) is mentioned in Exodus 8 times. We might expect that the first wise man in Exodus would be Moses, the main hero of the book. Or perhaps Joshua. But no, it is Bezaleel. 7 of the instances refer to him and his (male) helpers, while 1 instance refers to the women who sewed the Tabernacle curtains. This is quite a distinctive use of a very  general term and worth noting. Wisdom in Exodus is the gift given to the builders of the Tabernacle alone; not even Moses is said to have it.

Wisdom (σοφία) is only mentioned in Mark a single time (6:2), in the same account where he is called a carpenter. This wisdom is “given to him” just as Bezaleel and his helpers were “filled” with it by God. This wisdom is never inherent, but received. Again, it is striking that such a common word is used so pointedly in both Exodus and Mark, and applied to such similar characters.

Understanding (tabuwn, συνετός) is, as you might have guessed, is also exclusively applied to Bezaleel and his coworkers. The first three instances of the word in the entire Bible are in Exodus, and only deal with Bezaleel.

Understanding is never mentioned by Mark, but the opposite (ἀσύνετος) is mentioned in 7:18 “And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also?” By implication, Mark portrays Jesus alone as having understanding since Jesus was said to have amazed the people with his wisdom in chapter 6, and then in chapter 7 his disciples were “without understanding also.” This is surprising specifically because the coworkers of Bezaleel did possess understanding. This goes along with the them in Mark of the ignorance of the disciples, in spite of them being around the great teacher Jesus. No such deficiency was found in Bezaleel’s companions, and so the contrast is heightened by Mark.  While Jesus and the disciples begin constructing the Tabernacle through his teachings during the book, it is only after the Resurrection that the truth is made known and the real construction begins.

Knowledge (da`ath, ἐπιστήμης) is also used conspicuously in Exodus, occurring only twice, and this time referring only to Bezaleel (and not to his coworkers).

Similarly to “understanding,” Mark does not use this term in reference to Jesus but instead uses it in reference to Peter when he denies knowing Jesus and “understanding” what his questioner is asking (Mark 14:68). Significantly, this is the only instance of the word in Mark. The person identifies Peter as being with Jesus “of Nazareth,” and this title is used only 3 times in Mark: in 14:67, in the opening chapter, and in the closing chapter. When we add to this that chapter 6 tells us that Jesus was rejected “in his own country”(Nazareth) we cannot help but notice a connection. Nazareth as a city is mentioned by Mark only in 1:9, but also by implication in Mark 6:1.


Conclusion for Points 1-3

We have seen that Jesus in Mark and Bezaleel in Exodus share a common set of characteristics, and these characteristics are unique to both men in the 2 books. The usages of the terms involved is so conspicuous that it becomes an exercise in “faith alone” to see these as mere coincidences. Instead, it appears that Mark intentionally used such pointed terms and depictions to show his readers that Jesus was indeed a new Bezaleel, and uniquely so. Nobody else in Exodus is like Bezaleel, and nobody else in Mark is like Jesus; and they share the same unique characteristics! If the reader is not yet convinced of this, have no fear, because we have another 4 points that show the same striking correspondences.

As always, thanks for reading.

The Christology of Hebrews Chapter 1

I recently got into a discussion about the assertions that the author of Hebrews makes in the opening chapter of his letter and I was invited to unpack just how I interpreted what the author was doing. Given that it is a somewhat complex topic that is not germane to a short comment in a thread, I decided to make a blog post about it.


Hebrews 1

The passage in question is this:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.

Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

The passage is a beautiful exposition of the identity of the Son of God. By using a series of different scriptural quotations the author makes his point about just who the Son actually is, and he also adds his own assertions/rhetorical questions both prior to and after this string of quotations.

Here is a listing of the quotations used:

Verse 5: Ps. 2:7b and then 2 Sam. 7:14

Verse 6: Dt. 32:43 (see this paper for more info on the text critical issues involved)

Verse 7: Ps. 104:4

Verses 8-9: Ps. 45:6-7

Verses 10-12: Ps. 102:25-27

Verse 13: Ps. 110:1

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the author’s use of Scripture in this chapter is that he asserts that the words of David directed towards God are actually the speech of God directed towards the Son! This issue is a problematic one for non-Trinitarians, and one which I will address here. But first we need a little background.


Jewish Monotheism

Jews believed in One God. They might have admitted to other “gods” existing, but such entities were not on par with the One God. Only God was worthy of worship, only God created everything, only God chose Israel and spoke by the Prophets.

In the created realm there were humans, animals, inanimate objects, and angels. The gods of the nations were thought to be either in the angelic realm or else simply imaginary. They were no gods at all, even if men worshipped them as gods.

The way that God was spoken of by Jews was diverse but rather consistent. God was called  El, YHWH, the Lord, Father, the Rock, and other titles. The primary titles were ‘el, ‘elohiym, and Yĕhovah/Yahweh. This final name is a proper name of God revealed directly to Moses, and the variation of how it is rendered is due to the Hebrew text lacking consonants. It is called the Tetragrammaton because it is 4 consonants (YHWH); he vowels between those letters are inferred, leading to the different renderings as Yĕhovah/Yahweh.

The Greek terms corresponding to these Hebrew titles/names are fairly consistent: El and Elohim are ὁ θεὸς (God), and YHWH is κύριος (Lord). The second is quite important, since when reading the Hebrew word YHWH, the reader would not pronounce the Tetragrammaton but would instead pronounce the word as Adonai (Lord). This was due to the belief that YHWH was such a holy name that it should not be pronounced, except once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

This led to a curious aspect of the Greek text of Scripture: when the Hebrew text had YHWH, the Greek text usually had κύριος. When the Hebrew text had Adonai, the Greek text also had κύριος. Hence there was no way of telling (by the Greek alone) if the κύριος written of was YHWH or Adonai. Even in the account of God revealing his name of YHWH to Moses (Ex. 6:3) the Greek has no literal rendering of YHWH and instead has κύριος. So when a Jew heard “Adonai” or “κύριος” they had to decide whether it was referring to the One God or was simply a title of respect that could be used of humans. (note: Adonai is a plural of Adown, just as elohim is a plural of el. This was a plural of heightened emphasis rather than actual pluarlity, at least in the minds of interpreters.) Just as Mr. or Sir Jones means “master” and “sire,” but we don’t actually consider Jones to be our Master like God is said to be; or when we hear “Lord Byron” we don’t assume that it denotes the same Lord as the phrase “Lord have mercy.”


Hebrews 1 and the Exegesis of Jewish Monotheism

While the authorship of Hebrews is a contested matter, we can safely assume that the author was either Jewish himself or was convinced of the truth of Jewish beliefs. This follows from his use of Jewish scriptures in his argument in chapter 1 and throughout the entire letter. As such, it is shocking (to us) how he appears to speak of Two Gods.

The implicit assertion is found in verse 8, but the previous verses set the stage and the verses which follow strengthen his point. It should be noted that while many modern Christians have doubts about the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his humanity, it appears that Hebrews 1 addresses the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his angelic status. The humanity of the Son is never mentioned explicitly in chapter 1.

The book opens (vs.1-2b) with the assertion that in these last days God spoke through his son rather than through the prophets. It follows that the Son spoke for God, but there is also an implication that he trumped the work of the prophets precisely because he spoke as a son rather than as a servant.

The Son is then said to be:

1) the heir of all things,

2) the one who God used to make the worlds

3) the brightness of God’s glory

4) the image of God’s person

5) the upholder of all things by the word of God

6) the one who purged our sins

7) the one seated at the right hand of God

(Note that rather than copying and pasting the original, I summarized the content and therefore the listing above contains some of my own interpretation of the words rather than a literal retelling. One should always defer to the original when in doubt, which would be the Greek text rather than my reworded synopsis.)

Verse 4 is where the angels come in: the Son was made to be better than the angels and by virtue of his inheritance the Son received a greater name than the angels.

At this point the description of the Son seems to rule out a (mere) human being, although it could be said that the description could apply to a perfect, high priestly, true human being on all points except one: that God made the worlds through the Son. This simply did not happen through a human in Jewish teaching.

Yet all of these points could possibly apply to an angelic figure, including the making of the worlds. It was affirmed by Jews that God was the creator of everything, but also that God made everything through Wisdom, a hypostasized (personalized) concept. Some Jews believed that Wisdom made everything by the power of God, and still other Jews believed that God made everything through angelic mediators.

This seems to be exactly what the author of Hebrews was addressing: the idea that the Son was Wisdom and an angelic mediator. His aim seems to clarify the latter and distinguish the Son from a “mere” angel, affirming that the Son was the Son of God, not merely a creation of God (as the angels were). There was a “genetic” connection, to use a modern metaphor.

So, verse 4 distinguishes the Son from all other angels, but still allows for the Son to be an angel himself. He could simply be the highest angel. Yet verse 5 makes clear that the identity of the Son is that he is God’s son, not simply one of God’s angel. Verse 6 has God telling all of his angels to worship his Son, which shows that the Son is higher than the rest of the angels, but admittedly still allows for the Son to be an angel. After all, the chapter began with the Son being sent by God to speak to humans, which is exactly the role of an angel.

While verses 4-6 set up a distinction between the Son and the angels: angels are not spoken of (here) as being “sons” nor are they (here) objects of worship. Yet it should be remembered that in some instances an angel could receive worship that was due to God alone, and that angels were sometimes called “the sons of God.” So the distinction is not absolute at this point.

It should also be pointed out that my analysis here is functional, not ontological. The angels could be exalted men, since an angel is simply an agent who brings a message. Verse 7 speaks of angels as “sprits,” and men have spirits; they are also “ministers,” and God appointed men to minister to him in the Temple and elsewhere.

Yet in verse 8 we have something rather different: the author of Hebrews boldly asserts that “to the Son” (or perhaps “regarding the Son”) God calls him (the Son) “God”! Not only is this bold on the face of it, but it is bold when we consider the Psalm that he is citing. On a plain reading of the Psalm it is clear that David is speaking of the One God. Yet the author of Hebrews tells us that God spoke those words to the Son. The One God called his Son “God.” This simply cannot be said of a (mere) angel or a (mere) man.

Yet the citation continues with another twist: God, still speaking to the Son, says that the Son’s God anointed the Son above the Son’s fellows. This is perplexing because the One God cannot be “anointed,” nor can the One God have a God. In the Psalm it is clear that the figure being anointed is not the One God, but the king (Ps. 45:1), yet verse 8 in Hebrews (Ps. 45:6) makes it explicit that the one being addressed has shifted from the king/warrior to the One God, apparently as an aside. The author of Hebrews makes clear that he interprets the Psalm differently than this, and that the king is God. Yet the king is God who has a God and has “fellows.” This seems to be impossible to say of the One God. Yet the fact remains that the author of Hebrews is asserting this very impossibility.

God is often spoken of as a king and a warrior. Could the Psalm be about God himself, and not a human agent? It could be, and the author of Hebrews seem to lean in this direction, but again there is the objection of the king having a God, and being anointed (Hebrews 1:9, Psalm 45:7). Whoever this figure is, he is God and he has a God, which John 20:17 applies to Jesus and in Hebrews is applied to the Son.

The specific words used for “God” in this Psalm are elohiym and θεός. These terms cannot be read as merely functional (like Adonai or κύριος). They apply only to the One God in a plain reading of the OT writings. The author of Hebrews points out to his readers that this is not the case, but rather that elohiym and θεός are rightful titles for the Son. The Son is both God and yet distinct in some ways from the One God who goes by the same name/title.

For the sake of easy reading I will here repost the end of Hebrews chapter 1 so the reader doesn’t need to scroll up to see the original:

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Verses 10-12 move from the stunning assertion that the Son is God to the assertion that the Son is Lord. The idea that Jesus is Lord is nothing new, of course, but is often taken in the more mundane sense of “master.” But the author of Hebrews makes clear that the Son is Lord and God, making the “Lord” to mean YHWH. No human Lord laid the foundations of the earth or created the heavens. Only the Lord YHWH did this, and this idea was already mentioned in Hebrews 1:2. But again, the original context of the Psalm seems to apply to YHWH as the One God, leaving open the possibility that the actual work of creation may have been done by an imtermediary. The author of Hebrews affirms that it was done through an intermediary, namely the Son of God who is also God and Lord (YHWH).

We can see this when we look at the original in Psalm 102, and for your convenience I have listed below the verses that mention God/Lord by name, starting with verse 1:

Hear my prayer, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and let my cry come unto thee.

12. But thou, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.

15. So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and all the kings of the earth thy glory.

16. When the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.

18. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD (Jah, κύριος).

21. To declare the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;

22. When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD (YHWH, κύριος).

24. I said, O my God (El, no word given in the Greek), take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.

We then come to verses 25-27, which are the ones cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. But we should note that the author of Hebrews has used the Greek version of the beginning of the citation. The Psalm English readers are used to is based on the Hebrew text, which begins:

“Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth”

while in Hebrews we read

“And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth”

This is better understood when we realize that the author of Hebrews is citing the LXX version of the Psalm, which includes “Lord.” Here is the Greek of both:

κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς σύ κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (Ps)

καί Σὺ κατ᾽ ἀρχάς κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (H)

The only difference between the two is the “and” which actually introduces the citation rather than forms part of it, and the transposition of the “you” (σύ).

Who is the Lord in this Psalm? It is always YHWH (6 times strictly speaking, and 1 time the shortened form YH substitutes YHWH). The Lord in this Psalm is always understood as the One God, and the author of Hebrews asserts that it refers to the Son, just as earlier elohiym, θεός refers to the Son.

The chapter has one final citation, this time of Psalm 110:1. He cites only the second and third clauses of verse 1, but it is worth noting the clause he omits (note that it is a common Jewish rhetorical technique to omit a verse or part of a verse with the aim of the reader supplying the clause/verse himself; the omitted phrase is usually the most important one).

The LORD (YHWH, κύριος) said unto my Lord (‘adown, κύριος)

Sit thou at my right hand,

until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

The author of Hebrews essentially asks how it would be appropriate to speak to an angel this way. Yet he omits the most striking clause, the initial one that calls the subject of the action “Lord”  (‘adown, κύριος). Here we should point out that Lord is not the name of YHWH, but adown in the Hebrew. Yet there is no such distinction in the Greek, and we have already seen that the Son is Lord in the sense of YHWH, not merely adown or Adonai.

By omitting the initial phrase which speaks of “the Lord” speaking to “my Lord,” the knowledgeable reader’s attention is brought to bear specifically on this phrase. And when they look at it, it clearly says that the Lord spoke to my Lord, just as the author of Hebrews had earlier asserted that God had spoken to the Son and called him “God.” Without this treatment by the author of Hebrews, a Jewish Christian would read Ps. 110:1 as YHWH speaking to a human or angelic “Lord.” The author of Hebrews makes that reading impossible. There are two Lords (κύριος) and two Gods (θεός). The two have distinct functions and are not the same, but are also identified with the same unique titles. The Son is not an angel or a man, but God and Lord.

At this point the reader here has a few options:

  1. Affirm that the Son is a second God and Lord, even while being distinct from the first God and Lord
  2. Affirm that there is only one God and Lord, and so the Son must be that sole God and Lord
  3. Affirm that the author of Hebrews is wrong in his treatment of the OT citations
  4. Affirm that the author of Hebrews didn’t mean what he actually wrote

The only viable option for those who affirm that Hebrews is an inspired book is #1. Options 2-4 are all contradicted by the author of Hebrews and the notion of the inspiration of Scripture. It should be remembered that the idea of a second YHWH was already an idea extant in Judaism, forwarded by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who simultaneously affirmed that the second YHWH/Lord/Logos was distinct from the One God yet still God.There was also the “Two Powers in Heaven” discussion in Jewish circles, which pointed to Metatron as an angelic second YHWH. The only novelty in the assertions made in Hebrews 1 is that the Son (Jesus) is affirmed to be that second YHWH, something that Philo would not have affirmed and that Jews who believed in a second YHWH like Metatron also rejected.

As always, thanks for reading.





Why Was Cain’s Sacrifice Rejected?

The first instance of sacrifice in the Bible is a strange one, as we see in Genesis 4:1-6.


“And Adam knew Eve his wife;

and she conceived, and bare Cain,

and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

And she again bare his brother Abel.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep,

but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And in process of time it came to pass,

that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.

And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.

And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”

Why did God accept the offering of Abel but not of Cain? Evidently some think that it was because there was no blood offered with Cain’s sacrifice. But this clearly cannot be the case, since offerings to God were often of fruit, bread, and incense in the OT. So what was the reason?

The text does not tell us. We need to be open to the ambiguity that we are presented with. We also need to keep in mind that Cain and Abel were just introduced. They were born, they had respective roles, and then they sacrificed, all in a few verses. Nothing is said of their characters.

One explanation is that Cain harbored ill will against Abel. He goes on to kill him rather quickly in the story, but this could have been a result of jealousy stemming from the sacrifice, not a long held antipathy.

Another explanation is that the story shows the preference for the shepherd over the farmer, the pastoral life over the city life. It should also be noted in this regard that eating animal flesh had yet to be blessed by God (this only happened after the flood). Why was Abel shepherding sheep if nobody was going to eat them? This kind of shepherding is non-violent and non-abusive, while in the world of the readers the shepherd was known to occasionally slaughter a sheep for good (sacrifice) and bad (greed) reasons. The leaders of Israel were often compared to shepherds in the Bible, and criticized for abusing their power and devouring the sheep they were supposed to protect. Shepherds generally did not kill their sheep, but awaited orders from their masters as to when a sheep should be killed. The flock was “on loan” to the shepherd, not owned by him.

This explanation does little to resolve the tension in the story. Various other explanations have been offered, but rather than list all of them I will simply refer to the “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” a Christian text that preserves various Jewish and Christian traditions.

The text tells us that Abel loved to pray, fast, and sacrifice, while Cain often would skip out on the action. Cain had a “hard heart,” while Abel had a “meek heart.” Abel was interested in spiritual things, but Cain was interested in ruling over his brother.

The account is very much like Rabbinic retellings of Jacob and Esau. From the womb God favored Jacob, the second born twin, while Esau was “hated.” The two boys grew up very much like Cain and Abel, with one of the pair interested in the fields and hunting (Cain and Esau) and the other stayed at home and was gentle and pious (Abel and Jacob). The sworn enemy of Jacob becomes precisely his twin brother Esau. This continues until the end of time, when Amalek (the anti-Israel figure in the OT who is the descendant of Esau) is destroyed by the Messiah and the face of God is finally revealed to humanity.

In the “Conflict,” Satan appears to Abel while he is praying and tells him that he will kill Abel because he fasts, prays, and offers sacrifices to God. Then Satan appears to Cain, telling him that since Cain’s parents love Abel more than him, they will give Abel Cain’s twin sister for a wife (yes, Cain and Abel were both born with twin sisters in this retelling). Cain wants to marry his own twin (!) rather than Abel’s twin (Abel’s twin was evidently less attractive!). Satan suggests that Cain should kill Abel, leaving his beautiful twin to be his wife.

The story then takes a dramatic turn, in that it begins to conflict directly with the Biblical account. Here Adam tells Cain and Abel both to make an offering to God for their sins: both of their offerings are said to be “the fruit of thy sowing.” They both offer a vegetarian sacrifice. The tension between an animal and vegetable sacrifice disappears.

Abel makes his offering first, but only after being instructed how to do it properly by his parents. God accepts it “because of his good heart and pure body. There was no trace of guile in him.”

Cain, on the other hand, angered his father by not wanting to sacrifice and taking no pleasure in the offering. He offered a sheep (a surprise since the offering was “of his sowing”) but was thinking about eating it as he sacrificed it. He had also picked out the smallest (least desirable) sheep.

We should note here that the text in question has another strange tradition about sacrifice and blood. It tells us that Melchizedek offered bread and wine, and was the first priest. It is  specified a number of times that he never offered blood sacrifice, but rather the type of the Eucharist. His priestly ministry was without animal blood, in distinction to the Aaronic priesthood. So the views on animal sacrifice should be seen as later Christian teachings, although they might also be derived from Jewish traditions.

Here we come to the reason for the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice by God: the text tells us that “God did not accept his offering, because his heart was full of murderous thoughts.”


We cannot definitively say why Cain’s offering was rejected, and this is (evidently) how the writer of Genesis wanted it. Had he wanted the meaning to be plain, he would have simply stated it. Instead, ambiguity was inserted into the story, inviting various readers to add their own interpretation to the textual story.

The most convincing explanation is that God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice because he did not accept Cain. Cain was a (future) murderer and was a current murderer in his heart. We have no other information to explain the rejection. The explanatory sections of the “Conflict” fill out this picture with background information: Cain eschews prayer and sacrifice, and is jealous of his brother (the younger favorite).

God rejects his sacrifice because a pure heart is acceptable to God, not sacrifice, as we see from Psalm 50 (51 MT):


“O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:

a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,

with burnt offering and whole burnt offering:

then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

The praise of the lips (prayer) is an acceptable sacrifice, as we also see in Hosea 14:2

“Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him,

Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously:

so will we render the calves of our lips.”

Obviously the image is a metaphor, but it shows that the substitution of praise for animal sacrifice was not a development of post-70 CE Judaism, but one that was repeated in the Psalms and Prophets. It is also noteworthy that he Greek version of the verse above has “fruit of our lips,” indicating that the LXX translators saw the “calves” as being “fruit.” The hard distinction between fruit and animals sacrifices cannot be maintained, according to Hosea.

Cain did not have “a broken and contrite heart” while Abel did. Abel offered “sacrifices of righteousness,” which are sacrifices from one who practices righteous acts and has a righteous heart (not merely animal or vegetable offerings). The sacrifices are only acceptable of the sacrificer is acceptable. Cain was not, and it was because his heart was not right with god or his family (all of humanity at that point!).

Therefore the “Conflict” explains the story rather well, even if it of a comparatively late date (5th or 6th century CE). Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not offered with joy, nor remorse, nor charity. Instead, it was offered with a greedy mind, and one bent one killing his brother and anyone else who would stand in his way.

Wordplay: Moses, the Son Drawn From the Water

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.”

Drawing Out

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:

  1. Only 3 instances in the Bible
  2. Those 3 are reduced to 2 by eliminating duplication
  3. The first explains how Moses both survived and was named (Ex. 2)
  4. The second (and third) are clearly references to the first (Ex. 2)
  5. 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.

Historical Considerations

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.