Raised as an Egyptian, How Does Moses Come to Identify as a Hebrew?
After Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses in a basket on the Nile and adopts him, the Torah shifts forward to a time after the boy has grown up. One day, he leaves Pharaoh’s palace and sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave:
שמות ב:יא וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.
Exod 2:11 After some time, Moses grew and went out to his brothers, and looked upon their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew man of his brothers.
The reader, knowing that Moses is a Hebrew, is naturally inclined to interpret both instances of אֶחָיו, “his brothers” or “his kin,” as referring to the Hebrews. A closer look at the text, however, shows that the Torah isn’t merely being repetitive here, but that אֶחָיו refers to a different group in each case.
The latter modifies the term “Hebrew man,” and clearly refers to the Hebrews, but the first reference never clarifies who Moses’ brothers are at that stage of the story—are they the Hebrews or perhaps the Egyptians?
The key is in the phrase וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם “and looked upon their burdens.” As the Hebrews have been enslaved by the Egyptians, presumably when Moses goes out to look upon “the burdens” of his brothers, it refers to the work of the Hebrews. Nevertheless, the use of the term in an earlier passage, at the beginning of the exodus story, suggests a different interpretation.
“His Brothers” the Egyptians
The passage begins with the new Pharaoh addressing his people and warning them about the Israelites as a potential threat. Note that the king refers to Israel with the singular masculine pronoun throughout:
שמות א:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. א:י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.
Exod 1:9 And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 1:10 Let us deal shrewdly with him, lest he increase and in the event of war he may join our enemies and, fight against us and rise from the ground.
The Egyptians (plural) next devise a way of dealing with “him.” Note the usage of singular (Israelites) and plural (Egyptians) in the verse:
שׁמות א:יא וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס.
1:11 So they set taskmasters over him to afflict him with their burdens; and he built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Ramses.
Assuming the Torah is being consistent, the plural phrase “their burdens” in this verse can only refer to the “burdens” of the Egyptians—namely the weight of having to build garrison cities, which will now be performed by the Israelite slaves.
That being the case, when Moses goes to look at “their burdens” (Exod 2:11), the term must be referring to these same burdens, namely those of the Egyptians. This would also be consistent with the entire experience of Moses’ adult life. Having grown up as an Egyptian, one day he leaves the palace to see the “burdens” of his Egyptian people, his “brothers.”
“His Brothers” the Hebrews
The text presents us with a contrast: From Moses’ perspective, before he encounters the Egyptian striking the Hebrew, the Egyptians are his brothers, but in reality, as the reader knows and Moses suddenly understands, the Hebrews are his brothers. Something along these lines would appear to be ibn Ezra’s view in his shorter commentary (ad loc.):
ויצא אל אחיו—המצרים—כי בארמון המלך היה. וטעם מאחיו אחר שהזכיר עברי ממשפחתו.
“He went out to his brothers”—the Egyptians—because he was in the Palace of the king. And the meaning of “of his brothers,” afterwards, refers to the Hebrews, of his family.
The story explains to us how Moses came to adopt an Israelite identity: The reality of how the Hebrews are being treated by “his brothers” the Egyptians discomfits Moses. It is not that Moses knows about a family connection and considers himself to be a Hebrew, but rather that he has identified with the victim of a shocking injustice whom he now considers as “one of his brothers.” It is this injustice that will lead him to make a dramatic intervention.
“His brothers” the Egyptians, with whom he identifies at the beginning of the verse, are not the same as “his brothers,” with whom he identifies at the end. Reflexively, Moses has left the ranks of the perpetrators and joined those of the victims.
The Absence of an ʾish
Another unusual feature of the verse is the superfluous use of the term אִישׁ “man.”
שמות ב:יא ...וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.
Exod 2:11 …He saw an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew man of his brothers.
The word אִישׁ “man,” used twice in this verse, is not necessary; grammatically speaking, the Hebrew terms מִצְרִי and עִבְרִי already imply them. The term אִישׁ appears again in the next verse:
שׁמות ב:יב וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל.
Exod 2:12 He turned here and there and saw that there was no man, and he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
This turning to see is sometimes understood as “to make sure that no one was watching,” even hinting at something cowardly in Moses’ actions, but this cannot be what is meant. Clearly there were people watching as the matter is well known in subsequent verses, as noted by R. Moshe Ashkenazy (1821–1898) in his commentary (Hoil Moshe, ad loc.):
וירא כי אין איש – מצרי עוד שם, אבל עברים היו שם, ולכל הפחות המוכה, ומשה בטח שלא יגלו הדבר.
“He saw there was no man” — no Egyptian in the vicinity, but there were Hebrews there, at the very least the one being struck, but Moses assumed that they would not reveal what happened.
Instead, the phrase “he saw there was no man” should be understood against the backdrop of “man” in the previous verse. When Moses looks around, he sees that each “man” was playing the role predetermined by the label attached to him—Egyptian or Hebrew, master or slave, perpetrator or victim. Finding no “man” independent of such labels, Moses is forced to act.
Thematically, one is reminded of Hillel’s statement in the Sayings of the Fathers (m. Abot 2:5):
במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש.
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
An inner-biblical exegesis in Isaiah uses the same phrase to describe God witnessing acts of injustice against his people with no “man” to stand up for them, and, like Moses, God will enter the fray to redeem them:
ישׁעיה נט:טו וַתְּהִי הָאֱמֶת נֶעְדֶּרֶת וְסָר מֵרָע מִשְׁתּוֹלֵל וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינָיו כִּי אֵין מִשְׁפָּט. נט:טז וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיִּשְׁתּוֹמֵם כִּי אֵין מַפְגִּיעַ וַתּוֹשַׁע לוֹ זְרֹעוֹ וְצִדְקָתוֹ הִיא סְמָכָתְהוּ.
Isa 59:15 Truth is lacking and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. YHWH saw it and it was bad in His eyes that there was no justice. 59:16 He (God) saw that there was no man and wondered that there was no intercessor, therefore His arm brought salvation to Him and His justice, it sustained him.
The parallel phrase here, “and wondered that there was no intercessor,” confirms the significance of the word אִישׁ as some independent person willing to intercede, to act.
Who Failed Moses?
As noted by Professor Nechama Leibowitz (1905–1997), two opposing suggestions among late rabbinic commentaries read the phrase in a similar vein, but assume that אִישׁ “man,” refers to a specific group and debate whence Moses expected the salvation to come. Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816–1893), the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in his commentary Haʿamek Davar, claims that Moses looked to the Egyptians, but found no man amongst them to plead with:
ויפן כה וכה – חפש עצות לקבול על המצרי שהכהו חנם. וירא כי אין איש – להגיד לפניו את העול, כי כולם עצרת בוגדים ושונאי ישראל.
“He turned here and there”—Moses sought to find a way to bring the Egyptian to justice for his criminal and inexcusable conduct. “He saw that there was no man”—to whom he could appeal for justice, since they were all treacherous and enemies of Israel.
In contrast, R. Yaakov Mecklenburg (1785–1865), in his commentary Ha-ketav veha-kabalah, points to the Israelites, who were so intimidated by their slavery that they could not take a stand even when one of their own was being killed:
ויפן כה וכה – חשב משה שאחד מאחיו העברים העומדים סביבו יתקומם על המצרי ויציל את אחיו המוכה מכת מות. וירא כי אין איש – ראה שאין ביניהם גבר בגוברין, ואין מהם שם על לב צרת אחיו להשתדל על הצלתו.
“He turned here and there”—Moses thought that one of his brothers, the Hebrews, who were standing around him would rise against the Egyptian and save his stricken brother from being beaten to death. “And he saw there was no man”—he saw that there was no heroic figure among them, and none of them paid attention to the suffering of his brother, to try to save him.
Both of these commentators are correct. Moses sees no “man” in either group, so he decides that he must be the man, and strikes the Egyptian and the blow kills him. Presumably, even for a prince of Egypt this act is unacceptable, and Moses buries the man in the sand (v. 12).
Moses Adopts a Hebrew Identity
The reader knows that Moses has been a Hebrew since his birth, but Moses himself does not know this. How did Moses know that he was a Hebrew? He didn’t at first. His conscious connection with the Israelites was a result of his intervention in what he observed as an act of injustice, and everything flowed from this. It was not a case of family loyalty, but a profound commitment to justice that affected him. Presumably it was this quality above all that singled out Moses as God’s choice to be the future redeemer of an enslaved nation.
That Moses is driven by justice and not by family ties is further evident in the story of Moses saving the Midianite girls from Midianite shepherds:
שׁמות ב:טז וּלְכֹהֵן מִדְיָן שֶׁבַע בָּנוֹת וַתָּבֹאנָה וַתִּדְלֶנָה וַתְּמַלֶּאנָה אֶת הָרְהָטִים לְהַשְׁקוֹת צֹאן אֲבִיהֶן. ב:יז וַיָּבֹאוּ הָרֹעִים וַיְגָרְשׁוּם וַיָּקָם מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹשִׁעָן וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאנָם.
Exod 2:16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; 2:17 but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.
Here clearly Moses has no connection at all to either party, and yet he intervenes. It is an act for “the man of justice” par excellence.
Betrayed by the Hebrews
The burial of the Egyptian in the sand should have been the end of the matter, but the following verse shows that Moses’ reliance on his new brethren’s discretion was misplaced. The next day, Moses encounters another case of injustice, this time among the Hebrews themselves:
שׁמות ב:יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ.
Exod 2:13 He went out on the following day, and behold, two men, Hebrews, were fighting, and he said to the guilty one, “Why are you striking your neighbor?”
What is Moses doing involving himself with a dispute between two Hebrews, even to the extent of determining who is the guilty party in the conflict? It suggests that overnight Moses has considered the action he had taken and has moved beyond identifying with the victim to a certain curiosity about this people with whom he has become involved, and hence the desire to learn more.
But his attempt to engage with the Israelites will have an immediate and shocking consequence as the accused party angrily retorts:
שׁמות ב:יד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר.
Exod 2:14 And he said: “Who placed you as a man who is a lord and judge over us. Do you intend to kill me just as you killed the Egyptian?” And Moses was afraid and said, “Surely the matter is known.”
As R. Ashkenazy (quoted above) noted, Moses may have assumed that out of gratitude and solidarity, the Hebrews would keep the matter secret, but he soon learns that this was not the case. He understands from the Israelite taunter that the killing of the Egyptian is known, at least amongst the Hebrews. Even worse, it was not universally appreciated; some Hebrews apparently view this “prince of Egypt” as a meddler, complicating their lives.
Moses is betrayed by the very people he thought he was helping. This first engagement with the people whom he will recognize and accept to be his own will be a theme throughout the exodus and wilderness accounts, especially in the story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16.
Moses, the ʾish
After the negative report of the spies leads to Israel being punished with the wilderness wandering, several groups come together in a rebellion led by Korah (Numbers 16). One group of complainants, led by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram, open with a scathing attack on Moses’ promise to bring them into a land “flowing with milk and honey,” by accusing him of taking them out of “a land flowing with milk and honey,” Egypt, in order to kill them in the wilderness.
They further taunt Moses with another accusation:
במדבר טז:יג ...כִּי תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם הִשְׂתָּרֵר
Num 16:13 “Will you also like a lord, lord it over us?”
The emphatic repeated use here of the verb sarar, “to act as a prince or ruler,” reminds us of the accusation of the Hebrew back in Egypt whom Moses had found guilty of striking his neighbor. He had used the same Hebrew verbal root, but that time as a noun, מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ, “Who placed you as a man who is a lord and judge over us?”
Only at this point, when dealing with the Korah rebellion, does Moses actually lose his temper, so much so that he feels obliged to make a public oath before God about his integrity:
במדבר טז:טו לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם,
Num 16:15 “No single donkey of theirs did I take, nor did I do harm to any one of them.”
It is as if all his suppressed resentment about that first attack and betrayal that he experienced at the hands of the Hebrews back in Egypt now expresses itself, and he must defend the twin functions that he has fulfilled as political leader (sar) and judge (shofet).
Indeed, rabbinic midrash identifies the “guilty one” in that original fight with none other than Dothan, who is striking his future fellow conspirator Abiram! To quote just one example, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translates the verse thus:
ונפק ביומא תיניינא ואודיק והא דתן ואבירם גוברין יהודאין נצן וכד חמא דיזקף דתן ידיה על אבירם למימחייה אמר ליה למה אנת מחי לחברך.
He (Moses) went out on the second day, and looked, and Dothan and Abiram, Jewish men, were fighting. When he saw that Dothan was stretching out his hand to Abiram to strike him, he said to him: “Why are you striking your fellow?”
Rabbinic midrash brings the point home here: Moses’ experience with the people of Israel begins and ends with the likes of Dothan. This time, however, both will be punished by God and disappear into the bowels of the earth.
An Independent Man of Justice
From early adulthood, Moses is blessed, or cursed, with a degree of independence, a sense of justice and of compassion that will set him forever apart. He stands between the two identities that determined how people perceived themselves and behaved in that time and place, Egyptian or Hebrew. Amongst them, he alone is the one who can act as an אִישׁ, an independent, responsible human being.
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Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism. His latest book is, How Did Moses Know He Was a Hebrew?: Reading Bible Stories from Within (Hakodesh Press, 2021).
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