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Moses' Egyptian Name
Ogden Goelet

 

The history of Israel begins with its enslavement in Egypt. Israel is
defined in opposition to everything Egyptian—they are powerful, Israel
is weak; they are rich, Israel is poor; they have many gods, Israel has
one.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that the greatest Hebrew prophet and lawgiver,
the man who single-handedly organized the Israelites and led them out of
Egypt, has an Egyptian name? And his name is not just any Egyptian name,
it’s a religious Egyptian name. Moses’ name reflects basic Egyptian
religious beliefs that are, in truth, not as different from Mosaic
Judaism as the Book of Exodus might lead us to believe.



The familiar name Moses is actually Moshe in Hebrew. The final -s in the
English comes from the ancient Greek translation of the Bible known as
the Septuagint: a terminal sigma was added because Greek does not permit
masculine proper nouns to end in a vowel.

The Book of Exodus offers its own explanation of how Moses acquired his
name. It’s a pun based on the circumstances of his discovery in a
floating basket.

Three months after Moses was born, his mother placed him in a basket and
hid him among the reeds along the Nile so that he would survive
Pharaoh’s decree to murder all Hebrew baby boys. When Pharaoh’s daughter
came to the river to bathe, she spied the baby and adopted him as her
own. Moses’ sister, who had been stationed near the river to see what
would happen, offered to find a wet nurse for the baby. She returned
with Moses’ (and her) own mother.

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"And the child grew," the Book of Exodus recounts, "and she [Moses’
mother, masquerading as a nursemaid] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter,
and he became her son; and she named him Moses (Hebrew, Moshe), for she
said, ‘Because I drew him (meshitihu) out of the water’" (Exodus 2:10,
Revised Standard Version).

There are many puzzling things about this statement, beginning with the
identity of the woman who names the child. Most likely, "she" is the
Egyptian princess, since she had adopted the child as her own and
presumably would be the one to name him.1 Yet, it seems improbable that
an Egyptian princess would be capable of making such a sophisticated pun
in Hebrew, or, for that matter, that she would even give her foster
child a Hebrew name.

In any case, let us assume that whoever named Moses knew Hebrew. How
valid, then, does the Hebrew etymology seem? As an Egyptologist, I must
here rely on the arguments of Hebrew scholars, who generally agree that
it simply doesn’t make sense.2 The biblical etymology—which says the
baby’s name is based on his having been drawn out of water—would lead
one to expect a name that means "the one drawn out" or "he who was
drawn"; that is, a passive form. But Moshe has an active participle
behind it;3 the name means "the one who draws." (That’s why Isaiah calls
him "the drawer" of his people [Isaiah 6:3].) The passive form would
result in a name like Mashuy, not Moshe.

The Egyptian language provides a far more plausible etymology.4 The name
Moses is related to common Egyptian names like Amenmose, Ramose and
Thutmose,* which are formed of a god’s name followed by mose.5 These
compound names mean something like "Amen is born" or "Born of Amen" or
"The offspring of Ra" or "The child of Thoth." When the name Mose
appears by itself, as it occasionally does in Egyptian, it simply means
"the Child" or "the Offspring."6 But in Egyptian, Mose most frequently
appears along with the name of a god as part of a compound name.

Most likely of all, the name Moses (assuming that he originally had a
longer name) is short for Ramose, a popular name related to the name of
the reigning pharaoh, Ramesses II.**—would also mean "Ra is born," but
his name is normally written R‘-ms-sw (roughly, Ramessu) and means
"Ra-fashioned him," using another meaning of the verb msi, that is, "to
fashion, form." The two senses of the verb are related, however, in that
Egyptians thought of the fashioning of a divine statue as equivalent to
the god being born.) It was a common custom among the Egyptians to
rename foreign slaves or captives after the pharaoh.

The technical term for a compound name with a divine element is a
"theophoric" or "theophorous" name, derived from a Greek word meaning
"bearing [derived from] a god."7

As BR readers know, theophoric names were common in the biblical world,
too. Examples include Samuel, which means "His name is El"; Ishmael,
"God hears [requests]"; Daniel, "God is my judge"; Jehoshaphat, "YHWH
has judged"; and Jeremiah, "The one whom YHWH has appointed," to name
just a few. (In the Hebrew Bible, God is called both El and YHWH, with
El being a more generic name for God; and YHWH—usually vocalized
Yahweh—being the personal name of the Israelite deity. Jeho, yahu, yah
and iah are shortened forms of the latter name.)

Studying the emergence of theophoric names in Egypt might shed light on
the meaning of this practice in the biblical world, too.

In Egypt and Israel, theophoric names were used to induce a deity to
place a person under his or her protection. A man named Ramose might
expect the sun-god Ra to protect and guide him for life. When, in the
Bible, Hannah names her son Samuel, she is inviting the Israelite deity
El to watch over the child.

Certain theophoric names avoid mentioning the god’s name explicitly,
replacing it with either a pronoun or a circumlocution, as shown by the
royal names Userkaef ("His ka is powerful"), referring to the god Re,
and Senwosret, "The man of the Powerful One," probably referring to the
goddess Hathor. This was done both out of respect for the divine name
and out fear of its power. Similarly, the Hebrews avoided mentioning
God’s name by substituting Adonai or Elohim for the Tetragrammaton
(YHWH) when reading aloud from the Hebrew Bible.

Theophoric names were used at various times in the deeply religious
climate of Egypt and would continue to be so throughout Egyptian
history. They were especially popular in Egypt during the New Kingdom,
in the Ramesside period (1295-1069 B.C.E.), the biblical setting for
Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Some of the most common Ramesside period
theophoric names were Thutmose (Thoth is born), Ramose (Ra is born) and
Ptahmose (Ptah is born). Since the first two of these were the names of
famous and powerful Egyptian kings, they were to remain popular for ages
to come, and thus offer scant improvement over other means of estimating
the date of the Moses stories.

   
The emergence of these names is directly related to a development in Egyptian worship: the rise of personal piety. Theophoric names are a direct expression of the belief that even the humblest individuals could establish a personal relation with a deity who would become their patron
or tutelary (guardian) god.8 In the Egyptian consciousness, a personal name was virtually akin to a soul; it was critical to one’s survival in this world and the next. A theophoric name served as a prayer for divine assistance in the journey through life to the afterlife.


Nigeria: Evening outing

The Book of Exodus and contemporary Egyptian monuments—the massive
Temple of Karnak, the colossal statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel,
numerous grandiose reliefs trumpeting great Egyptian triumphs on the
battlefield—give the impression that the Ramesside age was an
oppressive, almost totalitarian civilization. But the prevalence of
theophoric names in this period, as well as the remarkable prayers
preserved by the non-elite on papyri and stelae, suggest this image is
inaccurate. In this period, average Egyptians were granted limited
access to their god’s dwelling—the temple. (These areas were sometimes
marked with a special logographic sign that meant "the common people
praise the lord" and that even the illiterate could recognize, just as
we today can navigate our way through foreign airports simply by looking
for special iconic symbols.) In earlier times, only the king, some
members of the royal family and the temple priesthood were allowed into
special areas within the temple precinct. Another change in this period
was that average Egyptians could come into direct contact with the gods
when shrines containing their concealed statues were placed on portable
barques and then paraded along public processional routes on the
shoulders of the priests. (Might one see here a distant echo of the Ark
of the Covenant?) During these festive events, questions written on
potsherds could be submitted to the god, and the answers would be
deduced from the barque’s movements along the processional route.9 In
this way, a god participated in the daily life of regular people.
Certain theophoric names such as Horemheb (Horus is in festival) refer
directly to these celebrations.

There are, of course, sharp differences between the essentially
polytheistic Egyptian beliefs and Hebrew monotheism, but the presence of
theophoric names among both groups suggests a common ground. It is not
surprising. Can there be a greater and more universal desire among
humans than the need for a sign from the deity, a confirmation of faith
from above? Surely the many pleas for signs from God in the Bible
express a need for an affirmation of faith and a desire for personal
interaction with God. It is this fervent hope that God will take a
personal interest in us that is expressed in Egyptian, through a name
like Moses, "Child [of God]" and in Hebrew by a name like Ishmael—"God
hears."

1 According to both Hebrew and Egyptian tradition, it was often the
mother who named the child. See P. Vernus, "Namengabung," Lexicon der
Ägyptologie 4 (1982), pp. 326-327; and William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18:
A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible series
(New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 152.

2 For a summary, see Propp, Exodus, p. 152.

3 Propp, Exodus, p. 152; James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The
Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1997), p. 144; J.G. Griffiths, "The Egyptian Derivation of
the Name Moses," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953), p. 223.

4 To be sure, some scholars have looked to a number of languages other
than Hebrew or Egyptian for a derivation of the name, but none of these
seem plausible enough for consideration here. An Egyptian name would
certainly fit the context of the narrative far better than one drawn
from places so far afield as Kassite Babylonia, the Hurrian-speaking
land of Mitanni, or the long-lost civilization of Sumer. Propp (Exodus,
p. 152) summarizes, then rejects, several proposed etymologies—Sumerian,
Kassite, Hurrian—with the remark, "If Moses’ name is not Hebrew, what
else could it be but Egyptian?"

5 Since the ancient Egyptian language, like the original pre-Masoretic
Hebrew, wrote only the consonantal structure of words without any
intervening vowels, the pronunciation of the word transliterated as Mose
is just an educated guess based on the rendering of certain Egyptian
names in Greek and the vocalization of the underlying verbal stem in
Coptic sources. The Coptic language is a late dialect of ancient
Egyptian spoken by the native Egyptian Christians that employed the
Greek alphabet and preserved vowels missing in the classical
hieroglyphic forms of the language. In Coptic the verb in question
appears in the forms mise "to bear, give birth to"/mose "to be born"; by
itself mise can be a noun meaning "child, offspring."

6 See G.A. Gaballa, The Memphite Tomb Chapel of Mose (Warminster, UK:
Aris & Phillips, 1977).



There is a reasonable phonological objection that could be raised
against interpreting the name Moses as some form of an Egyptian name
ending in -mose. The second consonant in the Hebrew Moshe is a shin,
whereas the Egyptian seems to use a letter that normally would be
rendered in Hebrew as s (samek), as seems to be the case with many
toponyms. See Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, pp. 110-122; and Griffiths,
"Egyptian Derivation," pp. 228-231. This does not present a major
obstacle, however. There are no hard-and-fast rules for predicting how
sibilants will be rendered as they move between the languages of the
ancient Near East. This is attested in the Amarna letters and the
Hittite-Egyptian correspondence; see E. Edel, Die ägyptisch-hethitische
Korrespondenz aus Boghazköi in babylonische und Hethitische Sprache, 2
vols., Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der
Wissenschaften 77 (Opladen: Westfalischer Verlag, 1994) passim.

7 H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. ed. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 792a.

8 A good overview of this complex religious phenomenon is available in a
recent collection of essays by Jan Assmann, "Personal Piety and the
Theology of Will," in The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time
of the Pharaohs (New York: Metropolitan Books: 2002), pp. 229-246.
Strikingly enough, this phenomenon was also widespread in other parts of
the contemporary ancient Near East. See Thorkild Jacobson, "Second
Millennium Metaphors: The Gods as Parents," in The Treasures of
Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven and London: Yale
Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 145-164.

9 See J.-M. Kruchten, "Oracles," in D.B. Redford, ed., The Ancient Gods
Speak: A Guide to Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press: 2002), pp. 298-302.