Moses the Anti-Myth

This sheet on Exodus 2 was written by Jonathan Sacks for 929 and can also be found here

[There] is a curious feature of the narrative of Moses’ birth. We recall that he was placed in a basket and set afloat on the Nile where he was seen and subsequently adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. She gives him the name Moshe (Moses), saying, “I have drawn him [meshitihu] from the water” (Ex. 2:10). It takes a while before we realize that there is something strange about this sentence. It presupposes that Pharaoh’s daughter spoke Hebrew. It also makes the impossible assumption that not only would she adopt a Hebrew child in direct contravention to her father’s decree that every male child be killed, but would advertise the fact by giving him a Hebrew name. In short, the Hebrew etymology of the name is only half of the story.

Moses – in the form Mose, Mses or Messes – is in fact an Egyptian word. It figures in the names of several Pharaohs, including Thutmose, and most significantly Rameses himself. The word means “child.” Understanding this we stand before one of the Torah’s boldest and most revolutionary strokes. Years later, two men are to be involved in a monumental confrontation: Rameses and Moses. Their names tell us what is at stake. Rameses means “child of the sun god Ra.” Rameses, as we have seen, saw himself as a god and erected a temple at Abu Simbel to that proposition. Moses was simply, anonymously, “a child” – with no more identification than that, exactly as there is no name given to his parents when we first encounter them in the biblical text, other than the bare description, “A man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman” (Ex. 2:1).

It is not one man, a supreme ruler, who is in the image of God, but every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. It is not one infant who is a child of God but all infants: “My child, My firstborn, Israel,” as God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh on their first meeting (Ex.4:22). The greatest ruler, if he holds himself to be a god, stands lower in the true order of things than any child who serves God rather than making God serve him. Moses means “a mere child.” Nothing could be more skewed than the various commentators, most famously Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud, who read the story of the childhood of Moses as a variant on the “birth-of-the-hero myth” to be found in the ancient world in endless versions, among them the stories about Sargon, Oedipus, Paris and many others. What they failed to see is that the story of the birth of Moses is a polemic against such myth: an anti-myth, a sharp, stinging rejection of the idea that every hero is really of noble blood, raised by commoners, but truly royal and destined by birth to conquer and rule. This is not the world of Israel: it is the world Israel rejects.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z"k (1948-2020) was the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, and the International 929 president.

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