Parashat Shemot: An Undeniably Mosaic Prosaic

Some Say "Mosaic," Others... "not so Archaic"

In a world where truth has come to be regarded as relative, it is no surprise that Mosaic authorship of the Torah has been questioned by liberal scholarship (as well as by the general public) from the 18th century forward. What may be surprising is that Moshe's claim as author (Shemot 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Bamidbar 33:1–2; D'varim 31:9–11) represents a position which was challenged much earlier - as early, in fact, as the 2nd century CE by the early Christian Netzari (Nazarene) sect.1

Clementine Homily 3, Chapter XLVII

The law of God was given by Moses, without writing, to seventy wise men, to be handed down, that the government might be carried on by succession. But after that Moses was taken up, it [the Torah] was written by someone, but not by Moses. For in the law itself it is written, 'And Moses died; and they buried him near the house of Phogor, and no one knows his sepulchre till this day.' But how could Moses write that Moses died? And whereas in the time after Moses, about 500 years or thereabouts, it is found lying in the temple which was built, and after about 500 years more it is carried away, and being burnt in the time of Nebuchadnezzar it is destroyed; and thus being written after Moses, and often lost, even this shows the foreknowledge of Moses, because he, foreseeing its disappearance, did not write it; but those who wrote it, being convicted of ignorance through their not foreseeing its disappearance, were not prophets.

The Rambam firmly opposed the Netzari position, affirming Mosaic authorship in two of his 13 Principles of Faith, i.e. the 7th and 8th:

(לג) אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה

(לד) שֶׁנְּ֒בוּאַת משֶׁה רַבֵּֽנוּ

(לה) עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם

(לו) הָיְ֒תָה אֲמִתִּית

(לז) וְשֶׁהוּא הָיָה אָב לַנְּ֒בִיאִים

(לח) לַקּוֹדְ֒מִים לְפָנָיו

(לט) וְלַבָּאִים אַחֲרָיו:

(מ) אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה

(מא) שֶׁכָּל הַתּוֹרָה

(מב) הַמְּ֒צוּיָה עַתָּה בְיָדֵֽינוּ

(מג) הִיא הַנְּ֒תוּנָה

(מד) לְמשֶׁה רַבֵּֽנוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם:

(33) 7. I believe with complete faith

(34) that the prophecy of our teacher, Moses,

(35) may he rest in peace,

(36) was true,

(37) and that he was the father of all prophets,

(38) —of those who preceded him,

(39) and of those who followed him.

(40) 8. I believe with complete faith

(41) that the entire Torah

(42) which is now in our possession,

(43) is the very one that was given

(44) to our teacher Moses, may he rest in peace.

So central to Medieval Judaism was the belief in Mosaic authorship that the 17th century Amsterdam crypto-Jew Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza was issued a writ of cherem formally cutting him off from the Jewish community on account of his denial in chapters 7 to 10 of his Theological-Political Treatise (ca. 1670). The pronouncement of cherem against him has never been reversed or repealed, remaining in force even to this day.

Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter IX2

If one merely observes that all the contents of these five books, histories and precepts, are set forth with no distinction and with no regard to chronology, and that frequently the same story is repeated, with variations, it will readily be recognized that all these materials were collected indiscriminately and stored together with a view to examining them and arranging them more conveniently at some later time. And not only the contents of these five books but the other histories in the remaining seven books right down to the destruction of the city were compiled in the same way.

The accepted Jewish positions, from which Spinoza grievously departs, are stated as early as the Talmudic text as follows:

... וּמִי כְּתָבָן מֹשֶׁה כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וּפָרָשַׁת בִּלְעָם וְאִיּוֹב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וּשְׁמוֹנָה פְּסוּקִים שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה....

אָמַר מָר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וּשְׁמוֹנָה פְּסוּקִים שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה תַּנְיָא כְּמַאן דְּאָמַר שְׁמוֹנָה פְּסוּקִים שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כְּתָבָן דְּתַנְיָא וַיָּמׇת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה׳ אֶפְשָׁר מֹשֶׁה מֵת וְכָתַב וַיָּמׇת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה אֶלָּא עַד כָּאן כָּתַב מֹשֶׁה מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ כָּתַב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְאָמְרִי לַהּ רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אָמַר לוֹ רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אֶפְשָׁר סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה חָסֵר אוֹת אַחַת וּכְתִיב לָקֹחַ אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה אֶלָּא עַד כָּאן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר וּמֹשֶׁה אוֹמֵר וְכוֹתֵב מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר וּמֹשֶׁה כּוֹתֵב בְּדֶמַע....

... The baraita now considers the authors of the biblical books: And who wrote the books of the Bible? Moses wrote his own book, i.e., the Torah, and the portion of Balaam in the Torah, and the book of Job. Joshua wrote his own book and eight verses in the Torah, which describe the death of Moses....

The Gemara elaborates on the particulars of this baraita: The Master said above that Joshua wrote his own book and eight verses of the Torah. The Gemara comments: This baraita is taught in accordance with the one who says that it was Joshua who wrote the last eight verses in the Torah. This point is subject to a tannaitic dispute, as it is taught in another baraita: “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there” (Deuteronomy 34:5); is it possible that after Moses died, he himself wrote “And Moses died there”? Rather, Moses wrote the entire Torah until this point, and Joshua wrote from this point forward; this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. And some say that Rabbi Neḥemya stated this opinion. Rabbi Shimon said to him: Is it possible that the Torah scroll was missing a single letter? But it is written: “Take this Torah scroll” (Deuteronomy 31:26), indicating that the Torah was complete as is and that nothing further would be added to it. Rather, until this point the Holy One, Blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated after Him and wrote the text. From this point forward, with respect to Moses’ death, the Holy One, Blessed be He, dictated and Moses wrote with tears....

A Not-Entirely Hebraic Prosaic

In addition to the insights presented by the rabbinical Sages, another intratextual evidence for Mosaic authorship is the Torah's vast use of Egyptian loanwords. In the opening parasha of the book of Shemot (Exodus), we find several Egyptian loanwords which attest to the author being someone who was fluent in the Egyptian language (pre-Arabic) as well as evidence of his intimate knowledge with practices undertaken by the royal family within the walls of the palace, away from public view - indicators that support the internal record that Moshe is the human author. Even Moshe's name may possibly be Egyptian rather than Hebrew.3

It is worthy of note that most of the Egyptian loanwords found in the Torah are not used by another other canonical author; they occur only in the Mosaic corpus (Torah), and primarily in the autobiographical portion (Shemot). Noonan asserts that 26 unique Egyptian loanwords are found in Shemot alone, with a total number of occurrences being counted at 333!4 Besides the obvious Paroh (Pharaoh), Egyptian scholar Thomas O. Lambdin also identifies the following:5

  1. Evyon: “poor, needy, wretched.”
  2. Avnet: girdle or sash. Lambdin writes that it is possibly connected to Egyptian “bnd.”
  3. Avrech: This word appears only at Gen. 41:43. Lambdin allows for the possibility that the word is Egyptian. The suggestion that he takes most seriously is that it means “attention.”
  4. Achu: grass or reed (as food for cattle).
  5. Achlamah: This word only appears at Shemot 28:19 and 39:12. In Egyptian, it is the name of a precious stone. The suggested Egyptian origin is based on the assumption that the Egyptian “N” can sometimes be equated with Hebrew “L.” See also “Leshem” below.
  6. Eifah: measure.
  7. Butz: linen. We all know this word from its appearance twice in the book of Esther. It appears six other times in Tanach. Lambdin discusses this word at length. He believes that an Egyptian origin is possible but very questionable.
  8. Gome: reeds. We all know this word from Ex. 2:3. But it also appears twice in Isaiah and once in Job.
  9. Hin: a liquid measure.
  10. Zeret: a unit of measure. Based on the Egyptian, it seems to be related to “hand” or “handful.” Translated to Hebrew, the equivalent would be khaf (כף).
  11. Chanichav: We all know this word from Gen. 14:14. Avraham took these type of men with him when he went to rescue Lot. Based on Egyptian, the meaning seems to be “armed” men. (If the word would be Hebrew/Semitic, the meaning would be something like “trainees,” from chet-nun-caf.)
  12. Chartumim: This word is found in Genesis, Exodus and Daniel. It is always in the plural. Lambdin views it as very likely that this word is of Egyptian origin, but he still cannot prove it. The Egyptian words that have been suggested are not sufficiently close to the Hebrew.
  13. Chotam: seal, signet ring. We all know the Hebrew verb chet-tav-mem, which means “to seal.” But since the noun chotam is Egyptian, this means that the Hebrew verb derived from the noun. Typically in Hebrew, the verb precedes the noun; the noun is formed by taking the three-letter root of the verb and adding a mem or a tav as the initial letter.
  14. Taba’at: signet ring, seal. The Egyptian word is something like “gbt,” but Lambdin believes that this is a sufficient match. It is also possible that taba’at comes from the Hebrew/Semitic tav-bet-ayin, which means “press down.”
  15. Ye’or: Originally, this was the word for “the Nile.” Later, the meaning became “a river.” Hebrew equivalent: nahar (נהר).
  16. Ketem: valuable type of gold. Lambdin believes that the word is foreign to both Hebrew and Egyptian and originally came from Sumerian.
  17. Leshem: a type of precious stone. It is mentioned only at Ex. 28:19 and 39:12. It derives from the Egyptian N-Sh-M.
  18. Nofek and Puk: Each appear a few times. The meaning is “turquoise” or “malachite stone.”
  19. Suf: fresh-water reed, seaweed. The Hebrew equivalent is agam (אגם).
  20. Pach: Sometimes this word means a trap used to trap chickens. Other times it is a thin sheet of metal. Both of these are of Egyptian origin.
  21. Kof: ape, monkey. This word only appears two times in Tanach (in the plural).
  22. Kalachat: pot, kettle. This word only appears two times in Tanach. The Egyptian original is K-R-Ch-T.
  23. Shitah (almost always in the plural, Shitim): acacia.
  24. Shasah: to plunder. We should all know this root from Lecha Dodi: ve-hayu le-meshisah shosayich—“they who spoil thee shall become spoil.” The original Egyptian term is “shasu,” which means nomads or marauders.
  25. Sha’atnez: Lambdin suggests an Egyptian origin for this difficult word, related to an Egyptian word that means “weave.”
  26. Tachra: This word appears at Ex. 28:32 and 39:23. It is a type of garment. Lambdin mentions a scholar who suggested an Egyptian origin but he doubts that the suggestion is correct.

In the pericope of Moshe being floated down the river to avoid slaughter, the word for the vessel in which he was placed is Egyptian, i.e. תבה ("box"), as are the words for papyrus, pitch, reed, and river (see Shemot 2:3 below, with Egyptian loanwords in orange). Though the same word is used here for Moshe's "box-boat" as is used for Noah's "ark" (used nowhere in Scripture except in these two contexts), the word for pitch is different. In Bereshit 6:14, the word is kopher (כפר), from the Hebrew root meaning "to cover," but here it is zaphet (זפת), an Egyptian root. The word "reeds" in Bereshit 6:14 is the Hebrew kanim (כנים),6 versus the Egyptian suf (סוף)7 here (note that it is in the singular).

(ג) וְלֹא־יָכְלָ֣ה עוֹד֮ הַצְּפִינוֹ֒ וַתִּֽקַּֽח־לוֹ֙ תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא וַתַּחְמְרָ֥ה בַחֵמָ֖ר וּבַזָּ֑פֶת וַתָּ֤שֶׂם בָּהּ֙ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וַתָּ֥שֶׂם בַּסּ֖וּף עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיְאֹֽר׃

(3) When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

Note in the Aramaic Targum (Onkelos, below) that the last two indicated words in the passage are presented using Semitic words rather than Egyptian ones. In place of suf for reed, the Semitic word ya'arah appears, and in place of the Egyptian word y'or, we see the Semitic word naharah.

(ג) וְלָא יְכֵילַת עוֹד לְאַטְמָרוּתֵהּ וּנְסֵיבַת לֵהּ תֵּבוּתָא דְגוֹמֶא וְחַפָּתַהּ בְּחֵמָרָא וּבְזִפְתָּא וְשַׁוִיאַת בַּהּ יָת רַבְיָא וְשַׁוִיתַהּ בְּיַעֲרָא עַל כֵּיף נַהֲרָא:

(3) When she could hide him no longer, she acquired a box of papyrus for him and loamed it with loam and with pitch and put the child within it and placed it in the reed on the bank of the river.

Rashi found it necessary to explain three of the foreign terms in this verse, i.e. gomeh, zapet, and suf.

(א) ולא יכלה עוד הצפינו. שֶׁמָּנוּ לָהּ הַמִּצְרִיִּים מִיּוֹם שֶׁהֶחֱזִירָהּ, וְהִיא יְלָדַתּוּ לְשִׁשָּׁה חֳדָשִׁים וְיוֹם אֶחָד (שם), שֶׁהַיּוֹלֶדֶת לְשִׁבְעָה יוֹלֶדֶת לִמְקֻטָּעִין (נדה ל"ח), וְהֵם בָּדְקוּ אַחֲרֶיהָ לְסוֹף תִּשְׁעָה: (ב) גמא. גְּמִי בִּלְשׁוֹן מִשְׁנָה (שבת ע"ח), וּבְלַעַז יונק"ו, וְדָבָר רַךְ הוּא וְעוֹמֵד בִּפְנֵי רַךְ וּבִפְנֵי קָשֶׁה (סוטה י"ב): (ג) בחמר ובזפת. זֶפֶת מִבַּחוּץ וְטִיט מִבִּפְנִים, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יָרִיחַ אוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק רֵיחַ רַע שֶׁל זֶפֶת (שם): (ד) ותשם בסוף. הוּא לְשׁוֹן אֲגַם, רושיי"ל בְּלַעַז, וְדוֹמֶה לוֹ "קָנֶה וָסוּף קָמֵלוּ" (ישעיהו י"ט):
(1) ולא יכלה עוד הצפינו AND SHE COULD NO LONGER CONCEAL HIM, because the Egyptians calculated the period from when he (Amram) took her back. She, however, bore him after a term of six months and one day — for a woman who gives birth to a child in the seventh month may do so in incomplete months (i. e. the seventh month of pregnancy may not be completed) (Niddah 38b) — and they (the Egyptians) made enquiry regarding her at the end of nine months (the normal term of pregnancy, but in this case three months after the child’s birth; therefore “she could no longer conceal him”). (2) גמא PAPER-REED — In the language of the Mishna it is called גמי (Shabbat 78a), and in old French junc. It is a flexible substance that offers resistance to the pressure of both soft and hard things (Sotah 12a). (3) בחמר ובזפת — with pitch (זפת) outside, but with slime (חמר) inside, in order that that righteous child might not smell the disagreeable odour of the pitch (Sotah 12a). (4) ותשם בסוף AND SHE PUT IT IN THE FLAGS — It (סוף) has the same meaning as אגם. old French rosel. Another example of the word is (Isaiah 19:6) “And reeds and flags (סוף) shall wither”.

Between the internal claims by the author that it was Moshe who penned the words and the evidence presented above that the author was someone who had a solid working knowledge of the Egyptian language of the time, all factors support that not only the biographical prosaic of Shemot is Mosaic, but that the whole of the Torah (with the possible exception of the final eulogy) was penned by the great Prophet Moshe.


  1. A Christian work called The Clementine Homilies (2nd century CE) claimed that a school of seventy sages authored the Torah some time after Moshe's death, i.e. that Moshe had no role in the text. The denial of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, to varying degrees, reemerges in Christian thought in the Reformation period; see Martin Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament” (1523), in his translation of the Hebrew Bible; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Book III, chapter 33; Isaac de la Peyrère (French Calvinist), Praeadamitae, published in 1655; and Samuel Fisher (Quaker), The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies (1660).
  2. English translation from Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (transl. Samuel Shirley, 2nd edition; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001), 121.
  3. See David J. Zucker, "Did Pharaoh's Daughter Name Moses? In Hebrew?" ​​​​​​​ (online:
  4. Robert Dick Wilson, “Foreign Words in the Old Testament as an Evidence of Historicity,” PTR 26 (1928): 177–247; see also Benjamin J. Noonan, "Egyptian Loanwords as Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus and Wilderness Traditions," pp. 49-68 (chapt. 3) in “Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?”: Biblical, Archaeological, and Egyptological Perspectives on the Exodus Narratives (James K. Hoffmeier, Alan R. Millard, and Gary A. Rendsburg, eds.; University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 2021; online:; Yoshiyuki Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names and Loanwords in North-West Semitic (SBLDS 173; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999); Aaron D. Rubin, “Egyptian Loanwords,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (ed. Geoffrey Khan; 4 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 1.793– 94.
  5. Thomas O. Lambdin, "Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament," Journal of the American Oriental Society 73(3): 145-155 (Jul 1953).
  6. Typically read as kinnim (compartments) rather than kanim (reeds), but see Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (The Schocken Bible, Volume I; New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1995), 35n14.
  7. Everett Fox, op. cit., 263n3: "The word suf (reeds) appears to be a loanword from Egyptian."