The account of the birth of Moses in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus is a classic example of how the true course of events can become distorted when a story, as in this case, has been the subject of a long oral tradition before being set down in writing. The first chapter of the Book of Exodus introduces an immediate note of confusion. It suggests that the birth of Moses coincided with a number of events that we know from Egyptian historical sources did not occur until more than half a century later, and it makes a number of statements that are obviously contradictory. We are told initially that the land was "filled with" Israelites (1:7). This can hardly have been the case when all the evidence from other sources points to Moses having been born only a couple of decades after Jacob, his grandfather, led the group of 66 Israelites on their journey from Canaan to Egypt to join his son Yuya (Joseph). That we are dealing with events that postdate the birth of Moses by several decades is clear from the next verse where we have a reference to the appearance of a new king "who knew not Joseph." Until the time of Horemheb, the last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty who came to the throne nearly half a century later, there is no king of whom it can strictly be said that he did not know Joseph, since all four of the kings who preceded Horemheb—Akhenaten, Semenhkhare, Tutankhamun and Aye—were, as we shall see, descendants of Yuya (Joseph). Next comes an account of the Oppression when the Egyptians set the Israelites to the task of building the treasure cities of Pithom and Raamses and made their lives "bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, in all manner of service in the field" (1:14). These events, again, can be dated to the reign of Horemheb.
The muddled nature of this chronology is made clear yet again when we are told that—just as Moses is about to be born—the ruling Pharaoh ordered that all male Israelite children are to be killed at birth. He instructed the midwives: "When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew woman ... if it be a son then ye shall kill him." At the time, however, the Israelites are said to have had only two midwives, "of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah" (1:15). This argues again that we are reading about events that happened early in the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt, when only two midwives were sufficient for the needs of the Israelite women. The fact that the Pharaoh was able to speak to the midwives in person also implies that when he gave this order he would have had to be living in the vicinity of Goshen, the location outside the frontiers of Egypt proper where the Israelites had been allowed to settle. The midwives failed to carry out Pharaoh's orders, explaining, when questioned, that "Hebrew women . . . are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them." Pharaoh then issued a further edict: "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river ..." (1:22).
Despite the muddled chronology it is clear that the target of Pharaoh's hostility, the child he wished dead, was Moses because, as his mother was not the heiress and only half-Egyptian, a male child posed a threat to the Eighteenth Dynasty. The actual birth of Moses occupies the early verses of the second chapter of the Book of Exodus. His mother, we are told, was "a daughter of Levi." In face of the threat to all newborn male Israelite children, she kept him hidden for three months. Then, unable to conceal him herself any longer, she "took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags (reeds) by the river's brink" (2:3). Pharaoh's daughter saw the basket when she went down to the river to bathe and "sent her maid to fetch it" (2:4). When she opened the basket the baby was crying and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrews' children," she said.
We learn at this point that Moses had a sister, Miriam, who, having watched this sequence of events from a distance, now approached the princess and asked: "Shall I call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" (2:7). When the princess agreed to this suggestion, Moses's sister fetched her mother. The princess told her: "Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it" (2:9). Later, after Moses had grown up, his mother is said to have returned him to Pharaoh's daughter "and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water" (2:10).
This familiar account of the birth of Moses raises some intriguing questions. What possible threat can a Hebrew baby, born into a race of despised Asiatic shepherds, have posed to a mighty Pharaoh? Why would a mother, anxious to save the life of her three-month-old son, set him afloat in an ark of bulrushes close to Pharaoh's residence? Who was the princess who rescued him and returned him to his mother to nurse? Why was the life of the child, now returned to his mother, no longer under any apparent threat? Why, contrary to Egyptian custom, was an unmarried princess allowed later to adopt Moses and bring him up in the palace as her son?
We then have a gap in the story until Moses, by now "grown up," is said to have killed an Egyptian who was attacking a Hebrew, then fled to Midian in southern Sinai where he married Zipporah, one of the seven daughters of a Midian priest named Reuel, and settled down to the task of looking after his father-in-law's sheep. His pastoral life continued until the Lord appeared to him in a burning bush and ordered him to return to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from the harsh Oppression that, according to the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus, had taken place several decades before Moses had even been born.
Some clues to the historical events behind a story that raises so many questions are to be found in other accounts of the life of Moses. The Talmud— the compilation of Hebrew laws and legends, dating from the early centuries a.d. (but derived from ancient oral traditions, believed to go back to the time of Moses himself) and regarded as second only to the Old Testament as an authoritative source on the early history of the Jews—provides some additional details about his life. One is that he was a king.
It is said that after the slaying of the Egyptian he fled to Ethiopia, not Midian, where he fought on the side of the king against Bi'lam, a wise Egyptian magician who had usurped the throne, and became such a favorite at court that, when the king later died, Moses himself was appointed the new King of Ethiopia. Moses reigned "in justice and righteousness. But the Queen of Ethiopia, Adonith (Aten-it in Egyptian), who wished her own son to rule, said to the people: 'Why should this stranger continue to rule over you?' The people, however, would not vex Moses, whom they loved . . . but Moses resigned voluntarily the power that they had given him and departed from their land." Only then did he make his way to Midian.
While the Talmud suggests that the departure of Moses was peaceful, the account of these events in the Koran indicates that he fled because his life was in danger:
And there came a man, Running, from the furthest end Of the City. He said: O Moses! the Chiefs Are taking counsel together About thee to slay thee: So get thee away, for I Do give thee sincere advice.
The Talmud also makes it clear that Moses was to be murdered at the time of his birth because he posed a threat to the throne of Egypt. Pharaoh, it records, had a dream in which he was sitting on the throne when he saw an old man holding a large pair of scales. The old man placed the elders and princes of Egypt on one side of the scales and a lamb on the other. The lamb proved to be heavier. The king asked his adviser Bi'lam—who had made his escape from Ethiopia and returned to his native Egypt (and who does not occur in the Bible)—the significance of this strange dream. Bi'lam explained that a great evil would befall the country: "A son will be born in Israel who will destroy Egypt."
When Moses was about three years of age, the story goes on, in the course of a banquet at which his family and princes of the realm were present, Pharaoh took Moses on his lap, whereupon the child stretched out his hand, removed Pharaoh's crown from his head and placed it on his own. The king felt this action had some possibly sinister significance. "How shall this Hebrew boy be punished?" he asked.
Bi'lam confirmed the king's suspicions. "Think not, because the child is young, that he did this thing thoughtlessly," he said. "Remember, oh king, the dream this servant read for thee, the dream of the balances. The spirit of understanding is already implanted in this child, and to himself he takes thy kingdom."
It is reasonable to assume that scribes who wrote their accounts of these happenings many centuries later did not invent the facts but based what they wrote on genuine historical events whose memory had been transmitted orally for generations, with the distortions and accretions that are inevitable when stories are passed on by word of mouth. The principal points of the Moses story from the above sources are that he:
1) was a Hebrew child, born in the early years of the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt;
2) posed a threat to the Egyptian throne;
3) was sent into hiding to save his life;
4) was later restored to his mother and lived in the royal palace;
5) became a king;
6) abdicated and fled to Midian when his life was again threatened;
7) and, of course, as we learn later, believed there was only one God.
To establish the historical identity of Moses we have to seek a personality of whom at least the majority of the above statements are true. There is only one such personality of whom they are actually all true—the Pharaoh Akhenaten (Plate 12).
The scribes who wrote the story of the birth of Moses faced a daunting task. They had to accommodate in their account, in addition to Moses himself, a ruling Pharaoh and his queen, two future Pharaohs and their queens, a daughter of Levi, a sister of Moses who was actually a half-sister, a brother of Moses who was not actually his blood brother, a wet-nurse and a "house" that went for a swim in the Nile and came across an abandoned baby. This was a formidable amount of information to pack into the first ten verses of the second chapter of the Book of Exodus and, in the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that the scribes did not name any of the principals in the story, particularly when many of them had two names, one biblical, the other Egyptian. Rectifying this omission will help to make a complex tale simpler:
Amenhotep III: Queen Tiye: Akhenaten: Nefertiti:
The Daughter of Levi:
The father. The mother. Moses.
Miriam, Amenhotep Ill's daughter by Sitamun, the infant heiress sister he married to inherit the throne.
Jochebed (Tiy in Egyptian). She was the sister-in-law of Queen Tiye through her marriage to
Aye (Ephraim), the second son of Yuya (Joseph), who was Queen Tiye's brother and would later rule over Egypt himself. Tiy was also the wet-nurse to both Nefertiti and Akhenaten (Moses). Tiy's son, who is described in the Old Testament as the Levite brother of Moses. This was not, however, a blood relationship, but based on the fact that, then as now, a wet-nurse was given the honorary title of "mother" and her own children were looked upon as brothers and sisters of the nursed child.
Queen Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten (Moses). Two reasons explain why she appears in the biblical story as the princess who adopted Moses. Firstly, in the sixth century B.C., when the Old Testament was given permanent form, the word for "daughter" and the word for "house" were written identically, bt, creating doubt in any context about which particular meaning was intended. It did not make any sense to the scribe to suggest that a house went down to bathe in the river, rescued Moses, later adopted him and brought him up in the palace. He therefore chose to use the word "daughter," unaware that—as we saw in the earlier chapter about Joseph—the word "house" is a polite Egyptian way of referring to someone's wife. Consequently, it was Pharaoh's "house"—the Queen—who rescued Moses and the supposed adoption represents his safe return to his mother.
Akhenaten (Moses), who was given the birth name Amenhotep, was the second son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. An elder son named Tuthmosis had disappeared in mysterious circumstances while being edu-
cated and trained with the sons of nobles at Memphis, the administrative capital 15 miles south of modern Cairo. His fate remains a mystery.
From what we know of his later life, it is a reasonable deduction that Akhenaten (Moses) was born in the latter part of 1395 B.C., nine months after his parents went sailing on the pleasure lake at Zarw during a kind of second honeymoon. We have no historical evidence to support the stories that Amenhotep III ordered the two midwives to kill his wife's child if it proved to be a boy and, when this plan failed, arranged for all newborn sons of Israelites to be drowned. Indeed, it is difficult to credit that a mighty Pharaoh should have to resort to such an extravagant measure.*
We do have factual evidence about other aspects of the young prince's life. We know that from the time he was born—and throughout his life— he had influential enemies, particularly among the powerful priesthood of the state god Amun-Ra at Thebes in Upper Egypt. Their hostility stemmed from his parenthood. In Egypt the king was regarded as the son of Amun-Ra, born as a result of the god's union with the heiress. As Queen Tiye was not the heiress, she could not be regarded as the consort of Amun-Ra, and a male child born to her could not be considered the son of Amun-Ra and therefore the legitimate heir. Furthermore, as Queen Tiye herself was of mixed Egyptian-Israelite blood, if one of her sons did come to the throne this would be regarded as forming a new dynasty of non-Egyptian, non-Amunite, part-Israelite kings over Egypt. We encountered a similar case earlier when his father arranged for Tuthmosis III, the son of a concubine, to undergo an adoption ritual where the image of Amun-Ra, carried by the priests, chose the prince as the god's son before he could be established as the legitimate heir.
We also know that Akhenaten (Moses) spent most of his childhood and early youth in hiding—we hear nothing of him until his sudden appearance in the royal palace at Thebes in his midteens—and that he was nursed by Tiy, who is described in the tomb she later shared with her husband, Aye, as "the great nurse, nourisher of the god (king), adorner of the king (Akhenaten)."
My interpretation of these events is that Queen Tiye, aware, as a result of the death of her first son, Tuthmosis, of the dangers facing the newborn
*As information about Akhenaten was not allowed to appear in official and temple records, oral transmission of the story of his life must have started from the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C. immediately after his death, both among Israelites and Egyptians. These stories were put down in writing many centuries later, after a long period of oral translation.
Akhenaten (Moses), may have tried initially to smuggle him out of the Zarw palace, his birthplace, to the safekeeping of her sister-in-law, Tiy, and other Israelite relations at Goshen, the fertile land surrounding Zarw and linked to it by water. She then seems to have kept him at Zarw during his early childhood, not allowing him to travel to Memphis or Thebes.*
If Akhenaten (Moses) was given the birth name Amenhotep, which he later changed to Akhenaten, it seems odd that the world should remember him as Moses. His identity and the origin of his name eventually engaged the attention of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who argued in Moses and Monotheism, a controversial book published shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, that Moses was an Egyptian. He showed also that the story of the birth of Moses is a replica of other ancient myths about the birth of some of the great heroes of history. Freud pointed out, however, that the myth of Moses's birth and exposure stands apart from those of other heroes and varies from them on one essential point. To hide the fact that Moses was Egyptian, the myth of his birth has been reversed to make him born to humble parents and succored by the high-status family: "It is very different in the case of Moses. Here the first family, usually so distinguished, is modest enough. He is a child of Jewish Levites. But the second family—the humble one in which as a rule heroes are brought up—is replaced by the royal house of Egypt. This divergence from the usual type has struck many research workers as strange."
Freud remarked on the oddity that the Israelite law-giver, if actually Egyptian, should later have passed on to his followers a monotheistic belief rather than the classical Ancient Egyptian belief in a plethora of gods and images. At the same time, he found great similarity between the new religion that Akhenaten tried to impose on his country and the religious teaching attributed to Moses. For example, he wrote: "The Jewish creed says: 'Schema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.' As the Hebrew letter d is a transliteration of the Egyptian letter t and e becomes o, he went on to explain that this sentence from the Jewish creed could be translated: 'Hear, O Israel, our God Aten is the only God.'"
Freud came to the conclusion that Akhenaten had been murdered by his own followers because of the harsh nature of his monotheistic regime
*I think rhat, as in the case of Abraham-Sarah-Pharaoh and David-Bathsheba-Uriah, the conspiracy between Tiye and Tiy to save Moses provides the inspiration for a repeated Old Testament story—the wisdom of Solomon when he had to decide between two women in a dispute over who was the mother of a child.
and suggested that subsequently one of his high officials, probably called Tuthmose, an adherent of the Aten religion, selected the Hebrew tribe, already living at Goshen in the Eastern Delta, to be his chosen people, took them out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus and passed on to them the tenets of Akhenaten's religion.
Of the name Moses he wrote: "What first attracts our interest in Moses is his name, which is written Moshe in Hebrew. One may well ask: 'Where does it come from? What does it mean?'"
It certainly does not come from, or mean, what the biblical narrator would like us to believe when he quotes Pharaoh's daughter as saying that she called the child she is supposed to have adopted Moses "because I drew him out of the water." As a verb, the Hebrew word m sh a can mean either "to draw" or "one who draws out." Therefore, to agree with the explanation given by the biblical editor the name should not have been Moshe but Moshui, "one who has been drawn out."
Freud came to the conclusion that the origin of the name Moses was mos, the Ancient Egyptian word for "child," which is found in many compound Egyptian names such as Ptah-mos and Tuth-mos. It is simple to trace the link semantically. In Ancient Egyptian the word for "child" was written with the consonants m and s— neither Egyptian nor Hebrew wrote short vowels although they were pronounced— and, if we remove the vowels from Moshe, we are left with two consonants, m and sh. The Hebrew letter sh is the equivalent of the Egyptian s. It is therefore easy to see that the Hebrew word came from the Egyptian word mos (the final "s" of Moses derives from the Greek translation of the biblical name).
I am sure Freud is right about the word mos, but, in relation to Akhenaten, I think, as we shall see, that it has a broader significance dat-ing from the latter years of his life when mere mention of his name was punishable by death.
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