The Birth of Moses: Between Bible and Midrash
Midrash: Amram Remarries His Wife
Rabbinic tradition prominently commemorates the valor of Moses’ sister, implying that without her there would be no Jewish people, let alone a Moses or an exodus from Egypt. Take for example b. Soṭah 12a, which opens with an interpretation of Exodus 2:1.
“A man from the house of Levi went…” Where did he go? Rav Yehudah bar Zevina said: “He followed his daughter’s advice.” It was taught: “Amram was the leader of the generation. Once wicked Pharaoh made the decree that all boys should be thrown into the Nile, [Amram] said: ‘We are striving for nothing!’ He then divorced his wife. Every man followed him and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him: ‘Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh’s decree applies only to boys, but yours applies to boys and girls. Pharaoh’s decree extends only to this world, but yours extends to this world and the world to come. The wicked Pharaoh’s decree might or might not be acted upon [in any given situation], but you are a righteous person so your decree will take effect, as it says (Job 22:28): “You will decree and it will be fulfilled.”’ [Amram] went and brought back his wife. All the men brought back their wives as well. 
According to this midrash, Amram had given up all hope when he learned of the Pharaoh’s decree that all male children were to be executed. Seeing no reason to procreate (and, in turn, no reason to be married), he divorced his wife. Because he was the greatest of his generation (gedol ha-dor), all the men of Israel followed his example and divorced their wives.
When Amram’s daughter learns of her father’s decision, she declares, with astounding temerity, that his deeds were worse than the crime perpetrated by the Pharaoh and his soldiers. With the same skills in reasoning that the rabbis so highly esteemed, she then proceeds to demonstrate her audacious claim in three persuasive points.
Without saying a word, this great leader of his generation responds to his daughter’s eloquent expostulation by immediately taking back his wife. Once again, the other men follow suit. If this young woman had not boldly challenged her widely respected father, no boys or girls (as she states explicitly) would ever have been born again to Israel, making an exodus from Egypt superfluous.
The Pseudo-Philo Version
An alternative to this midrash is offered in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (a Jewish work transmitted in Latin that retells the biblical story from creation to Saul in abridged form but with many fascinating embellishments). This work tells how all the elders of the people decree that the men of Israel should divorce their wives in response to the Pharaoh’s decree. Amram, however, boldly defies the decree. “Now therefore I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the orders of this king.” Notice how this version presents Amram as blameless so that he does not need to be challenged by his daughter. The remarkable midrash extols a young woman—the sister of Moses, no less—for behaving in a manner that many in our communities today would sharply denounce. But what prompted the rabbis to create it? One of their objectives, as I see it, was to present a young woman as a prime mover in Israel’s salvation. In this regard the rabbis take their point of departure from the text of our parashah, which ascribes positive and powerful roles to a host of women.
What gave rise to both versions of this midrash is the first line of our parashah’s birth story: “And a man of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi.” The repeated allusions to this line in both versions reveal that it agitated earlier readers. Yet the difficulty it poses is only the first in a whole series of problems we encounter in this story.
Questions Surrounding Moses' Birth
The union of the man from the house of Levi and the daughter of Levi produces a baby boy. The mother sees that he is טוב (“good / comely / healthy”), so she decides to hide him for three months before abandoning him in the reeds by the Nile riverbank. The boy’s sister however watches over him and later intervenes at an auspicious moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him.
Reading this story independently of later tradition and of the preceding chapter in the book, we notice an array of oddities. The formulation of the first line suggests that this is the first child from the union of this man and woman. How then does the woman already have an older daughter? And why are we not told here the name of the Levite man and the woman? After all, this is the birth story of the greatest figure in Israel’s history. Moreover, why does the mother decide to hide the boy after noticing that he was a good/comely/healthy child? And where is the mention in this account of the Pharaoh’s servants who would slay the male children? Finally, why does the Pharaoh’s daughter know nothing at all about her father’s genocidal decree when she recognizes that the child belongs to the Hebrews?
All these observations suggest that this account was originally unrelated to the preceding chapter. The mother (who already has a daughter) abandons this newborn son not because of the Pharaoh’s death-decree but because her sexual relations with the Levite man were in some way illicit. This is common myth of “the hero as foundling.” We encounter it in the Neo-Assyrian Sargon birth legend as well as in many other times and places. The overlap between these birth stories is remarkable.
But why would the biblical authors have told such a tale of their national hero? Their reason was probably not to compare Moses to a great Assyrian ruler, as my colleagues in biblical studies have often claimed. More likely they were attempting to account for an older tradition that raised questions about Moses’s ties to the Egyptians. The birth story leaves no room for doubt that Moses is full-fledged member of Israel—a full Levite no less. He may have grown up at the Egyptian court, but he was not an Egyptian. Due to problems surrounding his birth, his mother abandoned him and later an Egyptian princess found him.
The very next episode in the narrative supports this reading: When Moses is grown up, he goes out to his “brothers” where he witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, “one of his brothers.” Proving his true colors, he slays the Egyptian and hides him in the sand. Both episodes affirm emphatically that Moses was not an Egyptian. Yet the composition of these texts attests to questions in ancient Israel about Moses’s true identity.
Solutions: A New Preface and Midrash
The birth story may do a good job of showing that Moses was not an Egyptian. But it also presents the nation’s leader as the product of an illicit sexual union. Not surprisingly the tale troubled later generations. They responded to it in various ways.
One way is found in the preceding chapter of the book. This new preface to the story exonerates Moses’s parents by depicting a situation of genocide. Now we know that the Levite woman didn’t abandon her son due to his illegitimate birth. Rather, she feared the murderous decree of the Pharaoh and sought to hide her male child from him. She actually adhered to the king’s decree by depositing the child in the Nile—yet she placed him in a raft before doing so!
When we read the second chapter through the lens of the first, the originally fairy-tale quality of the story (with an Egyptian princess discovering a Hebrew child at the riverbank) assumes a much heavier, yet also richer, character. But the new preface to the story does not solve the problem posed by the first line of the older account.
This is where our midrash comes into play. It gives the Levite man a name, drawing on another biblical passage. It also makes him “the greatest of his generation.” To explain the formulation of the account’s first line, it tells an intricate backstory: The man did not have illicit relations with Moses’s mother. Instead, he had been previously married to her and had fathered children with her. Yet when he heard the Pharaoh’s evil decree, he divorced her. Then his daughter persuaded him to take his wife back. Therefore, we are told “he went and took her.” (The midrash explains “took,” ויקח, as “took back / returned,” והחזיר.)
The Multi-layered Tradition
What we witness in this brief study is the extent to which rabbinic tradition stands in direct continuity to the formation of the biblical text. The earliest biblical account of Moses’s birth responds to questions about his origins. A later preface responds to the problems posed by the older account, and both texts in turn provoked new attempts by the rabbis to solve the remaining problems in the text. In this way we can trace how the multilayered pearls of our tradition evolved from the agitating sands of time.
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December 19, 2013
January 13, 2021
Dr. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.
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