Pharaoh’s Daughter: A Woman Worthy of Raising Moses
To save baby Moses from Pharaoh’s murderous decree against the Israelite boys, his mother places him in a basket along the bank of the Nile River in the hopes that an Egyptian would discover him and keep him safe (Exod 2:1–4). As the baby’s sister looks on from behind the Nile’s rushes, the daughter of Pharaoh appears, having come to the river to bathe:
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 at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 2:6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.
Hearing the princess’s recognition of the baby’s identity, the sister steps out from the rushes and offers to fetch an Israelite woman to nurse the child. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, and offers that Israelite woman—who happens to be the child’s mother—wages as a wet-nurse (2:7–9).
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, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses (moshe), “because,” she said, “I drew him (meshiti) out of the water.”
Pharaoh’s daughter is not mentioned again in the exodus story, and we hear nothing of her relationship with Moses, whether she encouraged, discouraged, or kept hidden his Israelite identity, what she thought of his becoming an outlaw, etc. Moreover, the Torah never gives us any sense of whether she, like the midwives in the previous story, objects to her father’s cruel killing of the Israelite boys, or whether her attachment to the baby she herself found was exceptional.
Early biblical interpreters, in light of their own time and culture, rewrote her story adding, subtracting, or adjusting details to produce their own versions of Pharaoh’s daughter, filling in many details of the laconic biblical tale. Each retelling highlights how they understood the character and place of Pharaoh’s daughter in the story of Moses.
Ezekiel the Tragedian: A Loving Adoptive Mother
Ezekiel the Tragedian, a Jew who likely lived in the second or first century B.C.E. in the vicinity of Egypt, composed a Greek play called Exagoge (ἐξαγωγή) “Drawing Out,” in which he retells the story of Moses and the Exodus. At one point, Moses, who serves as the narrator, recounts how Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him in the Nile (§13–31).
Then he recounts how his mother returned him to Pharaoh’s daughter (§31–41), and says:
And seeing that my infancy had passed
my mother led me to the princess’ rooms;
But first all things she did declare to me
pertaining to my father’s God and race.
Moses credits his biological mother with providing him with his Israelite identity, and goes on to explain that his adopted mother provided him with love, instruction, and material possessions:
Throughout my boyhood years the princess did,
for princely rearing and instruction apt,
Provide all things, as though I were her own
the circle of the days then being full
In the end, Moses still chooses his Israelite destiny:
I quit the royal house, impelled to deeds
By my own heart and by the king’s device.
In this account, Moses comes off as appreciative and loving in his description of his life as a boy brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter.
At approximately the same time that Exagoge was composed in Egypt, a Judean writer composed a Hebrew work known as Jubilees, in which the Angel of the Presence retells the stories of Genesis and much of Exodus to Moses, with multiple narrative and legal expansions. In the scene with Pharaoh’s daughter, the angel says to Moses:
Jub 47:5 And in those days Tharmuth, the daughter of Pharaoh, came in order to bathe in the river and she heard your voice as you were crying and she told her maids to fetch you. And they brought you to her.
Thermuthis (=Tharmuth), a popular Greek name for Egyptian women during this period, is a corruption of the Egyptian Renenūtet, the Egyptian goddess of nourishment, whose name comes from the verb meaning “to fondle, nurse, rear.” In some ancient representations of the goddess, Renenūtet is presented as married to the god Sobek, the crocodile deity who represented the Nile River. It is possible that the princess’s appearance by the river, and her nourishing of Moses, led some early Jewish writers to associate Pharaoh’s daughter with this goddess.
In Exodus, Pharaoh’s daughter first sees the basket, and only after opening it, is overcome by the baby’s crying. Jubilees reverses the order of events: the princess hears the baby’s cries and responds to them. This portrays the princess as an especially empathetic figure. Jubilees continues with the story as it is known from the Bible—the baby’s sister brings the mother as nursemaid—and then explains that Moses maintains his Israelite identity in the house of Pharaoh’s daughter because Amram, his father, tutored him:
Jub 47:9 And after this when you had grown, they brought you to the daughter of Pharaoh and you became her son. Amram your father taught you how to write. After you had completed three weeks (of years), he brought you to the royal court.
Whereas Ezekiel the Tragedian explains that the influence of Moses’s mother in the early years made him Israelite, in Jubilees, Moses’s father was apparently his official tutor, implying that Tharmuth raised him as an Israelite.
Biblical Antiquities: Prophecy and Circumcision
In the biblical story, Pharaoh’s daughter’ just happened to appear at the Nile. In contrast, Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, a 1st century C.E. text originally written in Hebrew, presents it as inspired by a prophetic dream (9:15–16):
Now Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, as she had seen in dreams, and her maids saw the ark. And she sent one, and she fetched and opened it.
Biblical Antiquities further explains how it is she knew that the child was a Hebrew:
And when she saw the boy and while she was looking upon the covenant (that is, the covenant of the flesh), she said, “It is one of the Hebrew children.”
Biblical Antiquities here focuses on what was a distinct marker of Jews in his time, though in the period in which the story was set, Egyptians also circumcised. Notably, the story cuts out the back and forth with Miriam entirely, as well as the idea that Moses was nursed by someone other than Pharaoh’s daughter:
And 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.
Biblical Antiquities is apparently bothered by Moses having only an Egyptian name—moshe means “son” in Egyptian. Thus, it makes sure he receives a proper Hebrew name, even though it is unclear when his mother could have given him this name, since she did not raise him, even as a baby, according to this version. The retelling in Biblical Antiquities pushes in opposite directions: on one hand, it associates Moses more fully with his Egyptian mother, by having her nurse him, on the other hand, he has Moses’s biological mother give him a Hebrew name unattested in other sources.
Josephus: Moses Was a Beautiful Boy
The first century C.E. historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, describes how Moses’s father Amram had prophetic knowledge that God would save the Israelites through Moses, and thus he—not his wife Jochebed—constructed the ark, put Moses in it, and placed it in the Nile, hoping that the baby would be discovered and saved. Josephus describes the circumstances in which Thermuthis—the same name as in Jubilees—discovers Moses (Josephus, Antiquities, 2.9.4–5).
In Josephus’s account, Thermuthis is not struck with empathy at the sounds of Moses’s cries, but is captivated by his physical perfection:
The king had a daughter, Thermuthis. Playing by the river bank and spying the basket being borne down the stream, she sent off some swimmers with orders to bring that cot to her. When these returned from their errand with the cot, she, at sight of the little child, was enchanted at its size and beauty; for such was the tender care which God showed for Moses, that the very persons who by reason of his birth had decreed the destruction of all children of Hebrew parentage were made to condescend to nourish and tend him.
Josephus invokes here the Hellenistic value of καλοκαγαθία (kalokagathia), literally “beauty and goodness,” the idea that physical beauty is a marker of good character. Josephus also describes God’s control of the situation, and the irony that Pharaoh’s own family would be the one to bring up the savior of the Hebrews.
In contrast to Biblical Antiquities, which has Pharaoh’s daughter nurse Moses, Josephus makes a big deal about how Moses would only nurse from an Israelite woman:
And so Thermuthis ordered a woman to be brought to suckle the infant. But when, instead of taking the breast, it spurned it, and then repeated this action with several women, Mariam, who had come upon the scene, apparently without design and from mere curiosity, said, “It is lost labour, my royal lady, to summon to feed the child these women who have no ties of kinship with it. Were you now to have one of the Hebrew women fetched, maybe it would take the breast of one of its own race.” Her advice seemed sound, and the princess bade her do this service herself and run for a foster-mother.
Because she has no other children, Thermuthis wishes Moses to be the legitimate heir to the kingdom, and tries to convince her father, the Pharaoh who wanted all Hebrew boys killed, to accept him:
Such was the child from Thermuthis adopted as her son, being blessed with no offspring of her own. Now one day she brought Moses to her father and showed him to him, and told him how she had been mindful for the succession, were it God’s will to grant her no child of her own, by bringing up a boy of divine beauty and generous spirit, and by what a miracle she had received him of the river’s bounty, “and I thought,” she said, “to make him my child and heir to your kingdom.”
Pharaoh at first tries to accept his daughter’s will, but Moses soon ruins the situation:
With these words she laid the babe in her father’s arms; and he took and clasped him affectionately to his breast and, to please his daughter, placed his diadem upon his head. But Moses tore it off and flung it to the ground, in mere childishness, and trampled it underfoot; and this was taken as an omen of evil import to the kingdom.
The king’s scribe interprets this incident as a bad portent and recommends that Moses be immediately killed, but Josephus informs us that:
Thermuthis was too quick for him and snatched the child away; the king too delayed to slay him, from a hesitation induced by God, whose providence watched over Moses’s life.
While Thermuthis loves Moses as her own son, her understanding of his destiny is limited and ultimately erroneous. It is only Moses’s father Amram who correctly prophesies that Moses’s destiny remains with the Israelites.
Rabbinic Interpretation: Bityah the Jewess
The rabbis also give Pharaoh’s daughter a name, Bityah “daughter of Yah,” the Israelite God (rather than an Egyptian god). They derive this name from 1 Chronicles 4:18, which in its genealogical list of Caleb’s descendants refers to a Pharaoh’s daughter—not necessarily this Pharaoh—by that name who married into the family. Leviticus Rabbah, a mid-first millennium C.E. midrashic collection, explains this unusual name for an Egyptian princess by identifying her as the woman who saved Moses’s life (1:3):
וְאֵלֶּה בְּנֵי בִּתְיָה בַת פַּרְעֹה, רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דְּסִכְנִין בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר לָהּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְבִתְיָה בַּת פַּרְעֹה, משֶׁה לֹא הָיָה בְּנֵךְ וּקְרָאתוֹ בְּנֵךְ, אַף אַתְּ לֹא אַתְּ בִּתִּי וַאֲנִי קוֹרֵא אוֹתָךְ בִּתִּי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי בִּתְיָה, בַּת יָהּ.
Rabbi Yehoshuah taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that The Holy one said to Bityah the daughter of Pharoah: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you, too, though you are not My daughter, yet I will call you My Daughter.” This is why it says: “These were the sons of Bityah daughter of Pharaoh.”
As noted, the verse in question appears after a list of Caleb’s sons and grandsons—all of whom are later than Moses—and states:
דברי הימים א ד:יח וְאִשְׁתּוֹ הַיְהֻדִיָּה יָלְדָה אֶת יֶרֶד אֲבִי גְדוֹר וְאֶת חֶבֶר אֲבִי שׂוֹכוֹ וְאֶת יְקוּתִיאֵל אֲבִי זָנוֹחַ וְאֵלֶּה בְּנֵי בִּתְיָה בַת פַּרְעֹה אֲשֶׁר לָקַח מָרֶד.
1 Chron 4:18 And his Judahite (or Jewish) wife bore Jered father of Gedor and Hever father of Sochoh and Jekutiel father of Zanoah. And these were the sons of Bityah daughter of Pharaoh whom Mered took as his wife.
While the verse is difficult, it can be understood to say that Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, is a Judahite (yehudiah), a term that can also be translated as “Jewess,” and this is how the Talmud understands it. It then explains how an Egyptian princess could be called by this moniker (b. Megillah 13a):
אַמַּאי קָרֵי לַהּ ״יְהוּדִיָּה״ — עַל שׁוּם שֶׁכָּפְרָה בַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַתֵּרֶד בַּת פַּרְעֹה לִרְחוֹץ עַל הַיְאוֹר״, וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: שֶׁיָּרְדָה לִרְחוֹץ מִגִּילּוּלֵי בֵּית אָבִיהָ.
Why is she referred to as Jewess? Because she repudiated idol worship, as it is written: “And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself in the river” (Exodus 2:5), and Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “She went down to wash herself from the idols of her father’s house.”
Pharaoh’s daughter gave up idol worship before she saw Moses, thus she was fit to act as Moses’s mother. To make this work chronologically, one would have to assume that this woman married into Caleb’s family at an extreme old age (well over 100) and had children, but such stretches are not beyond rabbinic imagination.
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer: Saved by the Baby
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, a midrashic work from the latter half of the first millennium C.E., offers a less generous explanation for why Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing that day, and why she decided to adopt Moses (48:8):
והיתה בת פרעה מונגעת בנגעים קשים ולא היתה יכולה לרחוץ בחמין, באת לרחוץ ביאורה וראתה את הנער בוכה, ושלחה ידה והחזיקה בו ונתרפאת. אמרה, הנער הזה צדיק הוא, וקיימתו לחיים,
Now Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, was smitten sorely with leprosy and she was not able to bathe in hot water, and she came to bathe in the river, and she saw the crying child. She put forth her hand and took hold of him, and she was healed. She said: This child is righteous, and I will preserve his life.
Although in this retelling, Bityah wasn’t driven by altruistic motives, she still earns a place in the world to come:
וכל המקיים נפש אחת כאילו קיים עולם מלא, וכל מאבד נפש אחת כאילו מאבד עולם מלא, לפיכך זכתה לחיי העה"ז ולחיי העה"ב.
Whosoever preserves a life is as though he had kept alive the whole world. And anyone who destroys a live is as if he has destroyed the whole world. Therefore was she worthy to (inherit) the life in this world and the life in the world to come.
Similarly, Derekh Eretz Zuta lists Batyah among nine righteous individuals who will enter the Garden of Eden.
A Righteous Gentile or a Convert to Judaism?
The Bible’s account of Pharoah’s daughter is sparse, and later interpreters embellished her story. For some she was Thermuthis, named after an Egyptian goddess, for others Bityah, named after her conversion to belief in the Jewish God. In one telling, she tries to have Moses as heir to the throne, in another, she brings him up as an Israelite with his own father as his tutor. These and other embellishments are attempts to fill in the biblical text, and reflect the worldviews and artistic conceptions of these later authors.
Whereas the effort on the part of Second Temple Jewish writers to praise the princess as a righteous gentile reflects their broader comfort with the idea that Moses looked up to Egyptian role models, and even learned piety and wisdom from Egyptian culture, the rabbis prefer to keep Egyptian influence – and non-Jewish cultural influence more generally – at bay when it comes to the presentation of biblical heroes. For these rabbinic writers, Moses’s adopted mother was a pious convert, who later became one of the ancestors of the Jewish people.
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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