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Let My People Know: Retracing Moses' Origin
Seder traditionalists be warned: What some experts have to say about Moses’ real origins may upset the story upon which the Haggadah is based.
Parts of Moses’ story — the baby in the basket in the Nile, the adopted son who became a prince — may have been borrowed, if not outright plagiarized, from legends belonging to another ancient culture: Assyria.
There is no question that, wherever he came from, Moses remains one of the most inspirational and beloved leaders in Judeo-Christian-Muslim theology. There is archaeological and social-scientific evidence that Moses was the first great leader of earliest Israel and, as such, he broke Egyptian control of his people, says Mark Leuchter, director of Jewish studies at Temple University. Even if there were not hard data to back up Moses’ legend, Jews would still believe in him.
“The Moses of our hearts is the man we admire, no matter his true origins,” says Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 Jewish-themed books, including the bestseller, Moses: A Life. Kirsch is a Los Angeles-based attorney, the book editor of The Jewish Journal and a frequent commentator on NPR’s Southern California affiliates. “But it is very interesting to read what the Bible actually says — and doesn’t say — about him and then put the whole story into historical context.”
Part of that historical context includes Sargon. Although his name makes him sound like a character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sargon of Akkad was an Assyrian ruler, one of the most powerful in its history. “The story of Moses being floated down the Nile, then discovered and adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh is — note-for-note — lifted from an ancient Assyrian myth about Sargon,” Leuchter says.
Here is that legend: Born to a priestess mother and a wild, mystical man who lived in the hills, the infant Sargon was put in a basket and floated down the Euphrates River, Leuchter explains. Sargon was found and adopted by an artisan who raised him to adulthood. When he learned of his true roots, Sargon fulfilled his destiny, overcoming many challenges to become king of Assyria.
To be clear, Moses came first; he lived about 1,000 years before Assyria rose to power. But the story of his origins — what is called a “foundation myth” — apparently morphed over that millennium. Isn’t it possible that the Assyrians borrowed Moses’ story? Not likely, says Leuchter. “Before the Assyrian period, the Moses story was, as far as we can determine, quite different and didn’t have the adoption component to it,” he explains. “It seems that the Israelites’ goal was to make Moses, the founder of their nation, as powerful a leader as the other.”
Kirsch agrees that Sargon probably influenced biblical scribes writing in the Assyrian period. There are other possibilities. Kirsch points to a hypothesis about Moses that was offered by Sigmund Freud in the last book he wrote, Moses and Monotheism. In it, Freud contends that Moses was actually an Egyptian prince and not Hebrew. Like Abraham before him, Freud’s Moses rejects the polytheistic religion of his father and embraces monotheism, for which he is banished by his family. He then converts Egypt’s slaves to monotheism and leads them to revolt against Pharaoh to win their freedom. Attan is whom Freud names as the object of Moses’ monotheism, Kirsch explains. But the slaves had a pre-existing covenant with the Hebrew God, known to them by his holy name. “There are those who suggest that the god of the Israelites wasn’t the only god, but just the best of those gods,” Kirsch says, “as He well proved to Moses and Pharaoh, which may have been the point of the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the other divinely wrought actions explained in Exodus.”
Where does this leave Moses’ siblings? The girl who watches the infant Moses float down the Nile is not named as Miriam; she is identified much later. As for Aaron, he was probably not Moses’ biological brother, Leuchter says. “In ancient cultures, ‘brother’ implied tribal kinship, not sharing DNA,” he explains. “Kinship was created in ancient cultures to create political unions between leaders, and that kinship bond was rock solid. The Israelites would have understood the alliance between Moses and Aaron, and it wouldn’t have mattered to them if they were actual blood brothers.”
And does the historical truth matter? It doesn’t to Shoshana Silberman, author of A Family Haggadah, The Jewish World Family Haggadah, The Whole Megillah and many other books that provide education and insight into Jewish holidays and customs. “For me, it’s not a helpful direction to look at the story from a scientific view or to seek historical accuracy,” says Silberman. “I read the stories to find real truths — truths about my people, my religion and myself.”
Those truths have not only held up over time but have become more relevant as present-day culture finds new dimensions to Moses’ story. The role of Moses’ Israelite mother and of his Egyptian mother particularly touch Silberman’s heart. She finds their stories repeated again and again through history: from Kindertransports during the Holocaust and Gentile families who hid Jewish children to modern-day Americans adopting children who are Chinese, Russian or African. “It speaks to the bond between women and children and women and other women,” Silberman says. “The earliest example of that is Pharaoh’s daughter saying that, no matter where the child came from, she will raise him as her own.”
And whether Aaron and Miriam were Moses’ real siblings or not, Silberman says that trinity represents a very modern form of leadership. “Working with Aaron and Miriam was Moses’ way of establishing his credibility with the Israelites and it gave him extra understanding of his people,” she says. “Moses doesn’t pronounce himself the one and only ruler. He leads with them as, literally, a member of the tribe — something we see today in successful governments.”
Kirsch sees another theme in the story of Moses’ origins: the threat of assimilation. “Wherever the Jews have gone, they have been tempted to give up their religion for power, privilege and wealth,” he says. “Whether Moses was a prince or not, he was an Egyptian — not a slave — and had a comfortable life. He gave that up and lived a very different, difficult life. The point may have been that we may have the opportunity to affiliate with the goyim, and that may make your life more comfortable. But you have to realize your true nature to be a ‘real’ Jew.”
Finding one’s “real” self resonates with his college students, Leuchter says. Many see Moses as someone of mixed race, or of mixed cultures, including immigrants and first-generation Americans seeking freedom and opportunities in the United States.
It may also resonate with anyone whose “real” self has been hidden for years, either from self-ignorance or for fear of disapproval. Through that lens, Moses is a role model because the wealthy trappings of his life were not enough to keep him from establishing a new, more authentic self-identity. He “outed” himself and had to deal with his Egyptian family’s disapproval before he found a tribe that accepted him for who he was. “Many people identify with the concept of creating family different from the one you were born into,” Leuchter says.
All of these reasons are why the story of Moses is eternally and universally embraced, Kirsch says. “What you were born doesn’t determine your fate,” he says. “Your faith in yourself and your faith in God do that.”
Melissa Jacobs is the religious affairs correspondent for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.