Old Testament thoughts is a weekly post where we’ll be looking at some interesting aspects of some Scripture from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). Right now, we are looking at the first two chapters of Exodus.
Where did Moses get his name from? The text itself says that the etymology of his name is כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ (lit. because from the water I drew him)But there are a few slight problems with saying that Pharoah’s daughter named him “Moses,” “Because I drew him from the water.” First, the probability of Pharaoh’s daughter naming the child with a Hebrew name is slim for two reasons. The first is that naming him with a Hebrew name would give away his identity as a Hebrew…and remember, her Dad is killing Hebrew boys at the moment. The second reason it’s improbable is that she’s not Hebrew! It’s not very likely at all that she would have known Hebrew. The conquoring country rarely learns the language of the conquored country. Secondly, the term itself is more easily taken from the Egyptian noun ms ‘boy, child’ as a cognate of the Egyptian verb msỉ ‘to bear, beget’ and appears in such names as Ptahmose, Tuthmosis, Ahmose, and Harmose.
But then why did the Jewish author record the Hebrew etymology and not the Egyptian etymology of the name? To say that it was obviously due to the ignorance of the author of the Egyptian derivation misreads the purpose of the text and certainly isn’t obvious, contra Durham.
On the contrary, it is quite possible (and likely) that the purpose was theological and literary. Naming in the whole of the Old Testament was a highly theological and literary enterprise and is used by the writer on more than one level and for more than one purpose. “Moses’ name meant for the Israelites (and therefore for God, whose Spirit inspired the writers) that he was drawn out of water and would draw them out of water” (Peter Enns, Exodus, 64-65).
So maybe it’s not the validity of the answer that should cause worry but whether or not we are even asking the right questions. There is much more meaning, for the reader today and especially for the ancient Jewish reader, in the Hebrew etymology of the name than in the Egyptian, not that the Egyptian etymology shouldn’t be recognized. The problem comes when we start thinking that the only thing that is truly “meaningful” is modern notions of history and “what really happened.”
But the origin of the name of Moses seems to be an intentional foreshadowing. This foreshadowing in the name of Moses as one drawn out of the water only to later himself ‘draw’ his people out of the water is also supported by the placing of Moses “in the reeds” (בַּסּוּף)in 2:3 and “in the midst of the reeds” (בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף)in 2:5. And later he will in fact lead God’s people through the “sea of reeds” (יַם-סוּף).
Then there is a final, broader connection that comes by way of the overall structure of the stories. Just as Moses begins outside of the house of Egypt (raised in the court of Pharaoh), then enters the house of Israel, then is dealt harshly by Pharaoh who tries to kill him and then chases him out, so goes the story of Israel in Egypt (cf. the story of Joseph and Exodus 1:1-14:31).