Did Pharaoh’s Daughter Name Moses? In Hebrew?
According to Exodus 2, after Moses was three months old, his mother could no longer hide him from Pharaoh’s soldiers, so she placed him in a small ark on the Nile, where he is found by Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter:
שמות ב:ה וַתֵּרֶד בַּת פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל הַיְאֹר וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל יַד הַיְאֹר וַתֵּרֶא אֶת הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ. ב:ו וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וְהִנֵּה נַעַר בֹּכֶה וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה.
Exod 2:5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. 2:6 When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, "This must be a Hebrew child."
Moses’ sister who was standing and watching from nearby, offers to find a Hebrew midwife to nurse the child, and she calls the boy’s mother, who then is hired as nursemaid. Then the text continues:
שמות ב:י וַיִגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת פַּרְעֹה וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ.
Exod 2:10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moshe (Moses), explaining, "I drew him (meshitihu) out of the water."
This verse suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter names Moses—oddly enough, using a Hebrew etymology. This interpretation goes back as far as the Second Temple period. For example, in a second century B.C.E. Greek play, Exagoge, written by a Greek Jewish dramatist from Alexandria, Ezekiel the Tragedian, Moses tells about his birth and how his sister brought his mother to be his nursemaid when Pharaoh’s daughter found him:
Mariam went to fetch our mother who presently appeared and took me in her arms. The princess said to her, “Woman, nurse this child and I shall pay your wages.” She then named me Moses, because she had taken me from the watery river-bank.
God Accepts the Name
The Sages in Leviticus Rabbah (ca. 5th cent. C.E.) were sensitive to the fact that this greatest of all Israelite prophets was named by an Egyptian woman, whom they name Bitya (based on 1 Chronicles 4:18), meaning “Daughter of Yah [God],” and thus, they explain that God specifically approved of her and her choice of name (Levitcus Rabbah 1):
ר' יהושע דסיכנין בש' ר' לוי אמ' לה הקדוש ברוך הוא לבתיה בת פרעה, משה לא היה בנך וקראת אותו בנך, אף את לא את בתי ואני קורא אותך בתי....
Rabbi Yehoshua of Siknin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: God said to Bithiah daughter of Pharaoh, “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not my daughter but I will call you my daughter.”
עשרה שמות נקראו לו למשה... אמ' לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה חייך מכל שמות שנקראו לך איני קורא לך אלא בשם שקראתה לך בתיה בת פרעה. ותקרא שמו משה (שמות ב, י). ויקרא אל משה.
Moses was called by ten names… The Holy One, praised be he, said to Moses: “By your life, from all the names you have been called I will only call you by the name that Bithiah the daughter of Pharaoh called you.” [The verses states:] “She named him Moses” (Exod 2:10), “He called Moses” (Lev 1:1).
What Did Moses’ Parents Call Him?
The biblical text suggests that Moses spent his first three months at home, where he certainly already had a name. The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, a 2nd cent. C.E. retelling of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Saul, suggests that Moses’ mother had named him earlier, but that the Torah adopts the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter (9:16):
She took him and nursed him. And he became her own son, and she called him by the name Moses. But his mother called him Melchiel (God is my ruler).
Other midrashim suggest a variety of names that Moses had been named by his parents and other family members:
ותקרא שמו משה כי מן המים משיתיהו, ואביו קרא לו חבר כי בעבורו נתחבר עם אשתו,
“And she called his name Moses, for ‘from the water I drew him’” – But his father called him Chaver, since it was on his account that he was reconnected with his wife.
ואמו קראה לו יקותיאל כי הניקה אותו משדיה,
And his mother called him Yekutiel, for she nursed him from her breasts.
According to this, God chose Bitya’s name for Moses above that of his own father and mother!
Yocheved Named Him Moshe: Hizkuni and Abarbanel
Despite the straightforward meaning of what the biblical verse says, several medieval commentators suggest that Yocheved, Moses’s mother, rather than Pharaoh’s daughter, gave Moses his name. The first traditional commentator to suggest this that I can identify is R. Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th cent. France) in his Hizkuni (ad loc.).
ותקרא שמו משה כדברי רבותינו שנתגיירה והיתה לומדת לשון הקודש על שם הנס שנמשה מן המים להזכיר כי מן העברים הוא ולכך אינו נזכר בכל התורה אלא על שם זה.
“She named him: Moses” – This fits with the words of our Sages that she converted (BT Sotah 12b) [when she went down to the Nile and immersed as if in a mikvah] and thus she learned the Hebrew tongue. [The name Moses] commemorated the miracle of his having been saved from the waters of the Nile, clarifying that he is from the Hebrews. For this reason, the Torah only uses this name for him.
ד״א בת פרעה לא היתה יודעת לשון הקודש, אלא כך פשוטו של מקרא, ותקרא יוכבד את שמו משה ותאמר לה בת פרעה מהו לשון משה והגידה היא לה שהוא לשון המשכה ואז אמרה בת פרעה יפה קראתו כן כי מן המים משיתהו.
An alternate explanation: The daughter of Pharaoh did not know any Hebrew, but the plain meaning of the text is: She, Yocheved, called him Moses. The daughter of Pharaoh said to her: “What does Moses mean?” She explained to her that it derives from [the Hebrew word for] drawing out something. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said: “you have given him a great name for I drew him out of the water!”
Hizkuni sees two options. Either the Sages are correct that Pharaoh’s daughter was a “righteous convert” of sorts, and this is how she would have known Hebrew, or that Pharaoh’s daughter did not know Hebrew, and that Yocheved named the baby, and Pharaoh’s daughter adopted that name.
A similar interpretation was suggested by Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), likely independently (Abarbanel does not seem to know Hizkuni):
כל תי"ו הנקבה הנזכר בזה הפסוק היא כנוי לצדקת אם משה לא לבת פרעה כמו שאמר ותקח האשה את הילד ותניקהו ותביאהו לבת פרעה. ועליה נאמר גם כן ותקרא שמו משה ותאמר כי מן המים משיתהו
The feminine verbal forms in this verse all refer back to the righteous mother of Moses and not to Pharaoh’s daughter, as the verse states: “And the woman took the boy, nursed him, and brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter.” It is thus referring to her when it says “and she named him Moses, for she said, ‘He was drawn out of the water.’”
ופירוש הכתוב כך הוא שאמו של משה לקחה הילד ותניקהו ואחרי אשר גמלתו הביאתהו לבת פרעה שלקחה אותו לה לבן וכשהביאתהו לפניה קראה שמו משה רוצה לומר יוכבד הנזכרת קראתהו כן כי היא אמרה לבת פרעה שהיא ובני ביתה היהודים קראו שמו משה ותאמר רוצה לומר אמו של משה אמרה לבת פרעה כי מן המים משיתהו כלומר גברתי הלא קראתי אותו משה ע"ש המאורע שהיה לך עמו כי מן המים משית אותו
The meaning of the verse is that his mother took the boy and nursed him, and after she had weaned him, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who had adopted him as a son, and when she brought him before her, she called him Moses, i.e., Yocheved, who was just referenced, called him this, for she said to Pharaoh’s daughter that she and her Jewish household had been calling him Moses, and she—meaning Moses’ mother—said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “for he was drawn out from the water,” meaning [she said:] “My mistress, I have called him by the name of Moses because of what happened to you, for you drew him out of the water.”
Like Hizkuni, Abarbanel wonders in an earlier part of his commentary how Pharaoh’s daughter could have known Hebrew. He therefore argues that Pharaoh’s daughter learned Moses’ true name from his mother.
The Meaning of Moses’ Name in Egyptian: Philo and Josephus
The question of how Pharaoh’s daughter could have given Moses a Hebrew name bothered commentators since the Second Temple period. In his On the Life of Moses (c. 50 CE), the Greek Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, noting that Moses had been taken up from the water, writes (#17):
Since he had been taken up from the water, the princess gave him a name derived from this and called him Moses, for Mou is the Egyptian word for water.
Philo attaches the name Moses, pronounced mouses (Μωυσῆς) in Greek, with the Egyptian word for water, mw (written with the hieroglyph made to look like waves of water ), which remained the same in Coptic, with which Philo may have come in contact. Philo’s etymology, however, contradicts the plain meaning of the verse, that Moshe derives from the Hebrew term for “drawing forth” rather than “water.”Not long after Philo, Josephus (c. 90 CE), in his Antiquities of the Jews (2:9.6), writes that the princess:
Thermuthis (Josephus’ name for Pharaoh’s daughter) imposed this name “Mouses” upon him, from what had happened when he was put into the river; for the Egyptians call water by the name of mo, and such as are saved out of it, by the name of uses: so by putting these two words together, they imposed this name upon him (Feldman trans.).
Josephus takes the etymology to its final conclusion, combining the words for “water” and “saved” in Coptic Egyptian to form “saved by water,” an alternative Egyptian etymology for the name, and one that is at least somewhat close to the biblical suggestion of “drawn out from water.” Even so, Josephus is forced to veer from the plain meaning of the verse in order to avoid the impression that Pharaoh’s daughter could have given Moses a Hebrew name.
Early Modern Scholarship
In modern times, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto 1800-1865) adopted Josephus’ interpretation:
כי מן המים משיתהו – היא אמרה בל׳ מצרי, והכתוב אמר בלה״ק, והזכיר פעל משה להיותו ל׳ הנופל על הלשון.
“For he was drawn out of the water” – she said this in Egyptian but the verse says it in Hebrew, and it uses the verb מ.ש.ה due to the assonance of the Hebrew word [to the Egyptian name].
This is also the interpretation preferred by R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), in his commentary to Exodus (ad loc.):
איך זה שבת-מלך-מצרים קוראת לילד בשם עברי, שהרי מדברי הכתוב משמע, שהשם נגזר מן השורש העברי מש״ה... כבר יוסף בן מתתיהו כתב, כי ׳מואי׳ במצרית פירושו מים, ואלו ׳אסיס׳ פירושו ניצל מן המים. ואכן גם בשפה הקופטית... הכתוב המספר לנו על מתן השם בעברית, בוחר משום כך בפועל מש״ה שצלילו כמו משה ואשר משקף את הוראתו של השם המצרי....
How is it that Pharaoh’s daughter could have given the boy a Hebrew name, for the verse implies that the name comes from the Hebrew root מ.ש.ה… Joseph ben Matitiyahu (Josephus) already explained that mo in Egyptian means water and uses means saved from water, and this is, in fact, what these words mean in Coptic… The verse is giving us an account of his naming in Hebrew, and thus it chooses the verb מ.ש.ה since it sounds like Moshe and it offers a general sense of the Egyptian name.
Shadal and Hoffmann add the final point missing from Philo and Josephus, namely, why the verse makes it sound as if the name comes from the Hebrew word moshe if it actually comes from the Egyptian words mo and uses.
Moses Was Not His Egyptian Name
In the medieval period, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) went so far as to suggest that Moses was really his name; instead, Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moses an Egyptian name:
שם משה – מתורגם מלשון מצרי בלשון הקדש, ושמו בלשון מצרים היה מוניוס.
The name “Moshe” is a translation from the Egyptian into Hebrew. His name in Egyptian was Monius.
Thus, according to ibn Ezra, the name Moshe is a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian Monius. It is unclear where ibn Ezra got the idea that Monius was Moses’ Egyptian name, and monius does not mean “drawn from water” in Egyptian or Coptic. Moreover, as Abarbanel points out, it is unusual to translate names; usually names are simply transliterated and rendered in the closest possible way.
What Moses’ Name Actually Means
All of the above interpretations underline how problematic traditional commentators have found the idea that Pharaoh’s daughter could have given her adopted son a Hebrew name with a Hebrew etymology since she did not speak Hebrew. Contemporary scholarship, however, has opened up new paths with which to approach this problem.
In modern times, Ancient Egyptian has come back to life in the academy, and with it an alternative understanding of Moses’s name: As Josephus, Philo, Hoffmann and Shadal intuited, Moshe is not a Hebrew name.
Mose in Egyptian
The word mose in Egyptian means “son” or “born.” It is a very common element in Egyptian theophoric names such as Thutmose, “Son of Thoth” (or “Thoth is born”), Rameses (Son of Ra), Ahmose (Son of Ah), etc. In Moses’ case, it simply means, “Son” or “Born.” His name, which lacks a patronymic (father’s name), works well for him since he was a foundling, a son of nobody. The meaning was likely unknown to the biblical author who, in any case, wished to Hebraize it, and thus he added in the Hebrew etymology.
The biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna (1923-2005), explains the artistry behind this Hebraization:
The narrator puts a Hebrew origin for the name into the mouth of the Egyptian princess; unbeknownst to her, she foreshadows the boy’s destiny. By means of a word play, the Egyptian Mose is connected with Hebrew m-sh-h, ‘to draw up/out (of water).’ The princess explains the name as though the form is mashui, ‘the one drawn out,’ a passive participle, whereas it is actually an active participle, ‘he who draws out,’ and becomes an oblique reference to the future crossing of the Sea of Reeds.”
The active meaning is, in fact, used in Isaiah 63 to pun on Moses’ name:
ישעיה סג:יא וַיִּזְכֹּר יְמֵי עוֹלָם מֹשֶׁה עַמּוֹ אַיֵּה הַמַּעֲלֵם מִיָּם אֵת רֹעֵי צֹאנוֹ אַיֵּה הַשָּׂם בְּקִרְבּוֹ אֶת רוּחַ קָדְשׁו. סג:יב מוֹלִיךְ לִימִין מֹשֶׁה זְרוֹעַ תִּפְאַרְתּוֹ בּוֹקֵעַ מַיִם מִפְּנֵיהֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ שֵׁם עוֹלָם.
Isa 63:11 Then they remembered the ancient days, Him, who pulled His people (moshe) [out of the water]: "Where is He who brought them up from the Sea along with the shepherd of His flock? Where is He who put in their midst His holy spirit, 63:12 Who made His glorious arm march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make Himself a name for all time.
Popular Etymologies in the Bible
Classical commentaries were forced to make the etymology of Moses’ name as coming from the Hebrew verb moshe work, since they believed that the biblical account represented historical fact. Contemporary academic scholarship, however, has shown how the Bible often includes folk etymologies for names of people or places that do not reflect their more probable meaning. The interpretation of Moses as having been named for his being drawn from the water is an example of such a biblical folk etymology, reinterpreting his Egyptian name as a Hebrew one.
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January 2, 2018
July 31, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David J. Zucker is an Independent Scholar. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (UK), and Ordination and an M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He publishes regularly (see www.DavidJZucker.org) and his latest book is American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction, Second Edition.
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