Moses and the Fugitive Hero Pattern
For more than a century, Bible scholars have worked with story types from folklore studies to better understand biblical tales. Some scholars, such as Susan Niditch, a professor of religion at Amherst College, have argued that such an approach, which focuses on story-type or motif, is often more productive than intertextual comparisons that look at how one biblical text reworks another. The tale of Moses’ escape and return to Egypt provides a good example for typological analysis.
The story of Moses in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus follows a pattern that is shared among the Bible’s major narratives, and recalls stories of the ancient Near East from Egypt in the south, Mesopotamia in the east, and Hatti (Asia Minor) in the north:
- Sinuhe the Egyptian — early second millennium B.C.E.
- Idrimi the Syrian — mid-15th century B.C.E.
- Hattushili III the Hittite — mid-13th century B.C.E.
- Esarhaddon, King of Assyria — mid-7th century B.C.E.
- Nabonidus, King of Babylon — mid-6th century B.C.E.
All these texts share a common fugitive narrative pattern: They tell of a national leader or hero who is compelled to leave his homeland, spends a period in exile, receives an instruction or encouragement from a deity to return home, achieves leadership or fame at home, and founds or renews a cult or ritual.
The Fugitive Hero Pattern
Tales of individuals who must leave their homeland and survive a precarious exile before returning in triumph are widespread in world literature. However, the “fugitive hero pattern,” as reflected in biblical and extra-biblical narratives, appears to be specific to the cultures of the ancient Near East. The pattern consists of 14 basic features, listed in the table below.
|The Hero …||Sinu.||Idri.||Hattu.||Jacob||Moses||David||Esar.||Nabo.|
|(1) is a younger/ youngest brother||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(2) emerges from a political and/or personal crisis||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(3) flees, or is in exile||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(4) enjoys support of female protector||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(5) marries daughter of his host in exile||x||x||x||x||x|
|(6) assumes a position of responsibility in the host’s household||x||x||x||x||x||?|
|(7) has a divine encounter||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(8) is joined by kin||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(9) spends a seven-year period (usually in exile)||x||x||x||?||x|
|(10) repels an attack||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(11) takes spoil or plunders||x||x||x||x||x||x||?|
|(12) returns home||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(13) is restored to a position of leadership and/or honor||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|(14) establishes or renews a cult||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
Story of Sinuhe
The earliest attestation of the fugitive hero pattern is a story from around 1875 B.C.E. that deals with the Egyptian official Sinuhe, who served in Amenemhat I’s court, and was a bodyguard of the princess. While on campaign with prince Senwosret I (who would succeed his father as pharaoh), Sinuhe overhears suspicious conversation, leading him to suspect an attempted coup, and as a result, flees his home country towards Canaan, going as far north as Lebanon. There, Sinuhe becomes a military hero, marrying the daughter of a local chieftain named Ammunenshi (ammu-nasi, “The [Divine] Kinsman Is Chief”) and raising a family there.
When Sinuhe gets old, he seeks to return to Egypt to be buried in honor in his homeland. With the apparent support of the princess, now queen, Sinuhe eventually returns home. The story of Sinuhe features all characteristics of the fugitive hero pattern except for two: Sinuhe is not known to have been a younger son, and his exile is not a multiple of seven years.
Story of Idrimi
The second-oldest example of the fugitive hero pattern is the narrative of Idrimi, who became a Syrian king in the 15th century B.C.E. The story tells of Idrimi’s escape from a crisis in his native Aleppo, his seven-year exile in the land of Canaan, his muster of an army of Syrian expatriates, and his successful takeover of Alalakh, a city west of Aleppo in northern Syria, which he adopts as his new home. Idrimi, having long suffered from homelessness, spends his earnings to build a palace for himself, and a dwelling for every citizen in his town.
This story, too, features all characteristics of the fugitive hero pattern, with the exception of two: Idrimi does not marry the daughter of his host in exile, and he does not take a responsible role in his host’s household.
The Fugitive Hero Pattern in the Moses Story
Examining the narrative of Moses in light of the fugitive hero pattern promises to explain both the trajectory and purpose of this story as well as some of its curious details.
Feature 1: The hero is a younger/ youngest brother
In the early part of his story, Moses is watched over by his older sister (Exod 2:4-8); and he is later said to be three years younger than his brother Aaron (7:7).
The Bible favors younger siblings over older ones—this is one way of showing that heroes and leaders are elected by God and not by the neutral legal norm of primogeniture. Fugitive heroes are always chosen by a deity, and that is one reason for formulating a hero’s tale according to the fugitive hero pattern.
Features 2+3: As the result of a political and/or personal crisis the hero flees or is exiled
Moses feels compelled to flee from Egypt once word of his slaying of an Egyptian taskmaster reaches the pharaoh (Exod 2:15) and Moses is wanted for murder.
Feature 4: Support of a female protector
When Moses reaches Midian, to the east, he is brought home by the daughters of the local priest, and probably the chieftain, Reuel/Jethro (Exod 2:18-20). This was not the first time Moses enjoyed the protection of women. He was spared a genocidal edict of the pharaoh at birth by having been hidden by his mother and sister and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh (Exod 2:2-10).
Features 5+6: The hero marries the daughter of his host in exile, and assumes a position of responsibility in the host’s household
As a guest in Reuel’s house, Moses is given his daughter Zipporah as wife (Exod 2:21), and he is placed in charge of at least some of his flocks (Exod 3:1).
Feature 7: A divine encounter
The most elaborate part of Moses’ story, from the perspective of the fugitive hero pattern, concerns the divine encounter. Whereas some elements in the narrative pattern are optional, the divine encounter, like the flight itself, is de rigueur. In the case of Idrimi of Alalakh, for example, the hero performs two types of divination in order to learn if the storm-god has shown him favor and allows him to return to northern Syria in triumph.
In the case of Moses, the deity draws him in with a marvelous sight—a bush that is burning but not consumed (Exod 3:2-4). Then, by way of a protracted dialogue with God (אלהים, later identified as אהיה, “I am [with you]” or י-הוה; Exod 3:14-15), Moses is commissioned to return to Egypt and liberate the Hebrews from servitude there.
Here, the story of Moses veers somewhat from the usual narrative pattern of an oracle that allows the hero to return. Moses never brings up his fear of being executed for the crime he committed, nor does God tell him that this is no longer something he needs be concerned about. This is a significant deviation from the fugitive hero pattern and will be treated below.
Feature 8: The hero is joined by kin
A second extraordinary event that occurs as Moses heads back to Egypt is striking for its utter lack of drama. According to the pattern, the hero is met by family. In most of the stories, this encounter occurs prior to the staving off of an attack, but in the Moses narrative, it occurs afterwards (the attack in Exod 4:24, and the meeting in Exod 4:27). Moses’ brother Aaron is ordered by YHWH to go out to the wilderness and greet Moses.
שמות ד כז וַיֵּלֶךְ וַֽיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ בְּהַר הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּשַּׁק־לוֹ
Exod 4:27 … He met him at the Mountain of God, and he kissed him.
There is little if any real purpose to this encounter, prior to Moses’ arrival in Egypt, but it follows the elements of the fugitive hero pattern. Aaron is meant to serve as Moses’ mouthpiece when he speaks in Egypt (Exod 4:15-16), but Aaron could have taken on this duty later in the narrative, once Moses has already returned to Egypt.
Feature 9: A seven-year-period (usually of exile)
Moses spends a relatively long period of exile. However, the length of the exile is unspecified, and thus, does not conform explicitly to the usual 7-year-theme of the fugitive hero pattern.
Feature 10: The hero repels an attack
Moses packs up his family and makes his way back to Egypt. While he is en route, he is attacked. Usually, according to the pattern, this would be a military action by which the hero and his troops must fend off hostile armies. But in Moses’ case, he is attacked by God:
שמות ד כד וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְ-הֹוָה וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ
Exod 4:24 It happened on the way, at the night-lodge, that YHWH met him and he sought to kill him.
A similar attack by a divine being confronted Jacob, another fugitive hero, when he was returning from Aram to Canaan (Gen 32:25). Once again the hero Moses is saved by a female—his wife Zipporah, who, as a priest’s daughter, knows how to ward off harm by spilling ritual blood. This event happens in precisely the place where the narrative pattern would predict it to occur.
Feature 11: Spoil or plunders
Moses does not gather loot on the way back to Egypt. But once Moses returns to Egypt and leads the Hebrews out, he turns the entire Israelite nation into a fugitive hero. His own narrative melds with that of his people. And so, when the Israelites flee Egypt, they take with them, at Moses’ instruction, “silver vessels and gold vessels and garments” which they had “borrowed from Egypt” (וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם; Exod 12:35)—and “they exploited (despoiled) Egypt” (וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם; Exod 12:36).
Features 12-14: The hero returns home, is restored to a position of leadership and/or honor, and establishes or renews a cult
The Moses story continues to follow the fugitive hero pattern: Moses makes it back to Egypt; he takes charge as the leader of the Hebrews; and he inaugurates a covenant replete with rituals, which the bulk of the Torah delineates.
If we stopped here, we would miss out on the distinctiveness of Moses’ story from other fugitive hero narratives. It is not where the Moses story follows, but where it deviates from the pattern that explains curious details in the text.
The Deviation in Feature 7
In most of the fugitive hero tales, the hero seeks the sanction of his deity to help him return. Idrimi, as mentioned above, practices divination. Sinuhe, living in exile and afraid to return, appeals to the divine:
Whatever god decreed this flight, have mercy, bring me home! Surely you will let me see the place in which my heart dwells!
Moses, unlike Idrimi or Sinuhe, never asks the personal question regarding his return home at his divine encounter (see above, feature 7). Nevertheless, the narrative does open with Moses arriving at the Mountain of God:
שמות ג:א וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה.
Exod 3:1 As Moses was herding the sheep and goats of his father-in-law Jethro, Priest of Midian, he drove the sheep and goats into the wilderness and he came to the Mountain of God, to Horeb.
Why did Moses go to the Mountain of God, Horeb?
Future Mountain of God
One approach is to suggest that he did not know that it was the Mountain of God. In other words, the mountain is called this not by Moses and his contemporaries, but by the (future) Israelites reading the story, because this is where God’s revelation in the wilderness took place. In other words, it is an anachronistic term, familiar to the author and reader, but not to the protagonist of the story.
This is the approach taken by the Sages in Sifrei Devarim, as well as by Targum Onqelos:
ויבא אל הר האלהים חרבה, מגיד שנקרא על שם סופו.
“And he came to the Mountain of God, to Horeb” – this tells us that it was named based on what would eventually happen there.
וְדַבַּר יָת עָנָא לַאֲתַר שְׁפַר רִעְיָא לְמַדְבְּרָא וַאֲתָא לְטוּרָא דְּאִתְגְּלִי עֲלוֹהִי יְקָרָא דַּייָ לְחוֹרֵב
And he drove his flock to a good area for grazing in the wilderness, and he came to the mountain upon which the glory of God would be revealed to him, to Horeb.
According to this, Moses could not have been going there on purpose to commune with God, since he did not know this was God’s mountain to begin with. The “oracle scene” is an accident, at least from Moses’ perspective.
A Mountain Known for Divine Encounters
An alternative, more straightforward explanation is that “Mountain of God” is how Horeb was already known to the local inhabitants, the Midianites, and, consequently, to Moses. This is the reading preferred by R. Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (ca. 1255–1340) and R. Ovadiah Sforno (ca. 1455–1550):
כדי להתבודד בנבואה
To be alone in his prophecy.
הוא לבדו להתבודד ולהתפלל
By himself, to be alone and to pray.
I believe that Bahya and Sforno are correct, but for a different reason. Moses went to Horeb to receive an oracle about whether it would be safe to return home. This would be a reasonable thing to ask an oracle about, since the reason Moses had fled to Midian was out of fear for his life after killing an Egyptian official.
It is Safe to Return Now
Evidence for Moses’ inquiry whether the time was ripe to return home, can be found in the answer he receives from God:
שמות ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְיָן לֵךְ שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם כִּי מֵתוּ כָּל הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ.
Exod 4:19 YHWH said to Moses in Midian: “Go return to Egypt, for all the people who are seeking your life have died.”
Ibn Ezra’s Response
In its current context, coming after Moses accepts God’s command and after he took leave of his father-in-law, this verse is problematic. Why does God command Moses to return to Egypt after Moses has already made plans to go? Why would God bring this up now, and not during the negotiations at the burning bush?
In his longer commentary to Exodus, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) suggests that, contrary to its normal usage, the expression “he (the Lord) said” is not the simple past but rather the pluperfect — God had said this to Moses earlier.
ויאמר – אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. הכי פירושו: וכבר אמר, וככה: ויצמח י״י אלהים מן ורבים ככה.
“And he said”—there is no chronological order in the Torah. This is its meaning, “and he had already said.” And thus we see with (Gen 2:9): “And YHWH God had made plants sprout from the ground” and there are many like this.
Ibn Ezra surely knew that the normal way to indicate the pluperfect in Biblical Hebrew is by the sequence: we- (and)—subject noun-phrase—verb in the suffixed (past tense) form (e.g., Exod 1:5 וְיוֹסֵף הָיָה בְמִצְרָיִם “but Joseph was [already] in Egypt”). Here Ibn Ezra departs from the norm, thereby indicating the problem in the narrative sequence.
Reading 4:19 together with 3:1
Once we understand 3:1, in which Moses goes to the Mountain of God, as the opening to an oracle scene, 4:19 makes sense: The command to Moses was once directly connected to an oracle scene that opened with 3:1. Accordingly, we must conclude that the lengthy narrative of the burning bush negotiation belongs to a separate literary layer of the text.
In the earlier layer, Moses went to Horeb to seek an oracle and received an answer. Later, the burning bush theophany was added, almost completely overwhelming the earlier layer, which belongs to the fugitive hero version.
So why is Moses’ quest for the oracle shunted aside, and relegated to the prologue of the burning bush theophany (Exod 3:1) and to its epilogue (Exod 4:19)?
Not a Personal Fugitive Hero
The Torah is not interested in Moses per se, but in the release of the Hebrews and their induction into a covenant with God. Moses is an instrument for delivering the Israelites from Egypt and forging them into a viable nation.
And so, the part of the fugitive hero pattern that involves an encounter with God—Moses seeking and receiving an oracle—is almost obliterated in the formation of the full narrative. Between Moses arriving in Horeb and receiving his personal oracle is a lengthy section in which God commissions him to return to Egypt and liberate the Hebrews. This near-deletion of Moses’ initiative in seeking an oracle is intentional. The Torah is interested not in Moses’ personal quest but in Israel’s covenantal destiny.
Thus, discerning the fugitive hero pattern in Moses’ story enables us to contrast the conventional expectation aroused by the ancient Near Eastern pattern with this particular biblical variation. The story of the person is subordinated to the story of the people. Moses’ fugitive hero story is being repurposed as an exodus story.
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Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020 and an award from the Association for Jewish Studies for his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019). He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.
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