The Redemption of Moses

By Neufeld, Ernest | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The Redemption of Moses


Neufeld, Ernest, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


BROUGHT UP AS HE WAS FROM EARLY childhood in the household of Pharaoh, what vestige of his true identity was retained by Moses? Did he, reared as an Egyptian prince, know or consider the Israelite slaves to be his kinsmen? If he did, when and how did he learn of the relationship, and how could he have transcended the acculturative influences to which he was subject in the Egyptian court?

Contrary to the views of commentators generally that Moses somehow knew that he was a Hebrew while he was growing up in Pharaoh's palace,(1) there is no indisputable evidence in the Bible that Moses was aware of his Hebrew identity until God revealed Himself to him in the burning bush.

The Bible devotes but a few sentences relevant to the subject of Moses' sense of his identity, and they are indirect. We are informed that Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born male Hebrew children be drowned. When Moses was three months old, his mother placed him in a basket, which she left among the reeds of the Nile. He was found there by Pharaoh's daughter, and was brought up in the royal palace from the time he was weaned (Ex. 1:22;2:3-10). We learn that:

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their toil. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting, so he said to the offender, "Why do you strike your fellow?" (Ex. 2:11-13)(*)

These three verses have served as the basis for the thesis that Moses somehow acquired and retained a sense of identity as a Hebrew, and that his formative years spent in Pharaoh's court were unable to blot it out of his consciousness. The keystone sentence is, "He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen." The problem lies in determining whether we are seeing the scene with Moses' eyes, as the formulation of the verse would seem to indicate, or through the narrator's eyes. Commentators generally have been of the opinion that the first interpretation is correct. To answer the question of how Moses could have kept a sense of his identity as a Hebrew, they provide unsubstantiated explanations, such as that his adoptive mother told him; he found out who his parents were and went to visit them, and thus knew not only that the Hebrews were enslaved but he was instilled with a feeling for his people as a result; or, it is simply asserted as a fact that Moses knew and retained his true identity in spite of his acculturation.(2)

After Pharaoh's daughter rescued Moses, she unwittingly entrusted him to his own mother to be nursed. When the child grew, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who "made him her son" (Ex. 2:6-10). Evidently, from the text (9-10), this occurred when the child was weaned, so he could not have been more than two or three years old. Hence, whatever Hebrew influences he was exposed to as a babe could not have had a lasting effect, and, in any case, would have been deeply submerged under the weight of his Egyptian upbringing.

There is no direct evidence that Moses was informed or learned directly or indirectly of his kinship with the Hebrews. In the absence of such evidence, the conclusion that Moses did not know is as tenable as that he did know -- indeed, even more likely. Undoubtedly, he could have known that there were Hebrews in Goshen, enslaved and forced to labor at erecting garrison cities for Pharaoh (Ex. 1:11). However, it does not follow that he would know from this, or through other means, that they were related to him.

The narrator relates that when Moses had grown up, "he went out among his brethren and witnessed their toil" (2:11) and the intimation drawn from that has been that Moses consequently must have known that they were his brethren, that being the reason why he went out to see their travail. In other words, the deduction results from the perception that the picture is presented from Moses' subjective point of view. …

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