The Bible explains the root of Moses’ name. “She” is pharaoh’s unnamed daughter:She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” Exodus 2:10
According to Exodus, the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the water then bestowed a Hebraic name on him – mashah from the root M-S-H meaning “to draw out.” However, this biblical explanation makes no sense. It is unlikely a pharaoh’s daughter would look for a Hebrew name, thus a slave name, for her foundling. In fact, it is improbable that an Egyptian royal would have even bothered to learn a slave language at all.[i] It is equally dubious that she would have given him a Hebrew name in an Egyptian court where his very presence would be a constant reminder that he was under the order of death by the Egyptian king.[ii]
There is another explanation for the M-S-H root that comes not from Hebrew but from the Egyptian language. In Egyptian, the term moses or mosheh means “born of” or “son.” So for example, Thutmose and Ramses would respectively be “son of Thoth” and “son of Ra.” Thoth and Ra are both Egyptian Gods. It is entirely possible that Moses was simply named “son.”[iii] Certainly there is precedent in other spiritual systems for message bringers to carry the appellation of “son.” And it surely would not have been out of the character of the scribes to deliberately change the explanation of his name in order to obscure Moses’ Egyptian roots.
Who was this man, “this son” who liberated his people? There is no dispute among scholars that Moses was born and reared in Egypt or that his parents were Levites:A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. Exodus 2:1
Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses. Exodus 6:20
But other details of his life remain a mystery. For example, whom did Moses marry? The Bible mentions two wives; Zipporah (Ex 2:21) and “an Ethiopian” (Numbers 12:1).[iv]
Who was his father-in-law? The Bible mentions three; Jethro (Ex 3:1, Ex: 4:18, Ex 18:1, Ex 18:5), Reuel (Ex 2:18-21) and Hobab (Judges 4:11, Numbers 10:29).[v]
Where is the Midian that Moses fled to? The Bible never gives its location. Most common tradition places it in the Sinai Peninsula but there are traditions placing it in the Sudan or in Ethiopia.[vi]
Even the dates of the Exodus out of Egypt are unclear. There are proponents of many dates, most cluster around the 16th– 13th centuries BCE. And even though a great deal is known about the Egyptian pharaohs and when they ruled, scholars have varying theories for which Pharaoh ruled during the time of Hebrew oppression and which one ruled during the Exodus. As historically important as they are, the entire timing of Moses’ life and experiences are not definitively known.
Next up: More about Moses and the mysteries of his life.
[i] Asimov, Isaac, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Avenel Books, 1981; 128.
[ii] Greenberg, Moses; 204. All male babies born to Hebrew mothers were to be killed according to the law of the Pharaoh.
[iii] Asimov; 128.
[iv] Some versions of the Bible say Moses married a Cushite woman and others identify his wife as Nubian. Some have argued that these two descriptions are of the same woman.
[v] There are schools of thought that these three names refer to the same person. Further confusing the issue is that the Hebrew term for father-in-law and brother-in-law was the same.
[vi] Osman, Ahmed, Moses and Akhenaten, Bear & Company, 2002; 23.