Abstract: After about 1500 years of slumber, ancient Egyptian was brought back to life in the early 19th century, when scholars deciphered hieroglyphs. This revolutionary success opened the door to a reevaluation of history from the viewpoint of ancient Egypt. In the wake of this new knowledge, the first scholar posited the idea in 1849 that the name of Moses stemmed from the Egyptian word for child. Subsequently, this idea was refined, and currently the majority of scholars believe Moses’s name comes from the Egyptian verb “to beget,” which is also the root for the Egyptian word for child, or in the case of a male child, a “son.” Before this discovery and certainly before a scholarly consensus formed on the Egyptian etymology of the name of Moses, Joseph Smith restored a prophecy from the patriarch Joseph that played upon the name of Moses and its yet to be discovered Egyptian meaning of “son.” This article explores the implications of this overt Egyptian pun and its role as a key thematic element in the restored narratives in the Book of Moses.
In 1849, shortly after the decryption of hieroglyphs, Richard Lepsius published the first known theory that the name of Moses, the famed Hebrew deliverer, might have originated from the Egyptian word for child.1 This theory is now the prevailing theory for the etymology of the name Moses. Even before the academic community posited this idea, however, a pun on this Egyptian etymology for Moses appeared in Joseph Smith’s restored translation of Genesis 50. In 1832, Smith dictated a prophecy about Moses from the patriarch Joseph that [Page 188]contained a wordplay on Moses’s name and its Egyptian etymology. Smith also restored an extra-biblical account of Moses’s life that further plays on this hypothesized Egyptian etymology for Moses’s name. Taken together, these plays on Moses’s Egyptian name, which predate the academic community’s discovery of this possibility, provide circumstantial evidence of the authenticity of the texts Joseph restored.
This paper reviews the account of Moses’s naming in Exodus chapter 2 from a literary perspective informed by the Egyptian etymology of child or son for the name Moses, before discussing Smith’s restored Moses-related texts in the context of the rediscovery of Moses’s Egyptian etiology. Finally, this paper presents a discussion of this etiology as a key element to the restored dialogue between God and Moses and Moses’s confrontation with Satan, which presents Moses as a type of Christ by virtue of his being a son of God.
The Bible seems intended by its mostly anonymous authors to reward a close reading with a complex array of literary devices, which evinces the artistry of its narrative.2 The Bible’s palette of poetics includes puns upon the names of its personae dramatis. These puns are not merely ornamental but are designed to contribute to the substance of the dramatic tapestry that is the Bible’s conglomerate narrative. As with more than 100 other names in the Hebrew Bible,3 Moses’s narrative begins with a pun meant to explain his name. His name and the event of his naming orient the march of the narrative of the Hebrew exodus.
The great honors bestowed upon the children of Israel through the miracles wrought through Joseph come to an end when a new pharaoh, one who does not know Joseph, takes the throne. According to Exodus, this new pharaoh is afraid of the increasing Israelite population and ultimately decides to put to death the male infants born to Hebrew families. An anonymous Levite couple have an unnamed son they hide first at home and then in the river within the reeds. In a strikingly ironic twist, this baby is found, identified as a Hebrew child, and saved by the [Page 189]daughter of the same pharaoh who decreed this baby’s demise. The older unnamed sister of this infant suggests to the unnamed Egyptian princess that she could find a Hebrew midwife for the child. The baby is nursed and returned to the daughter of Pharaoh. Finally, a name, the first one in this particular part of the narrative, is given to the child:
And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water. (Exodus 2:10)
The conspicuous absence of any other names in this part of the narrative signals that the name of Moses is significant. According to James Hoffmeier, “There is widespread agreement that at the root of the name of the great Hebrew leader is the Egyptian word msi, which was a very common element in theophoric names throughout the New Kingdom (e.g., Amenmose, Thutmose, Ahmose, Ptahmose, Ramose, Ramesses)” and derives from the Egyptian verb to give birth.4
Matthew Bowen also makes reference to this derivation, noting that the Hebrew and Egyptian etymologies come together in the idea of pulling from water — whether that be amniotic water or baptismal water. He indicates that Moses is
a name which incidentally connotes “begotten [of deity]” or “[the deity is] born” (< Egyptian ms[i] “beget”) and “drawer” or “puller” (Hebrews Mōšeh, is pointed as a pseudo-active participle of *mšh/mšy, Exodus 2:10), but also baptism and being “born again.”5
Although the name of Moses is “almost certainly Egyptian”6 the Biblical narrators provide a conspicuous Hebrew pun between the name of Moses, [Page 190]Moshe in Hebrew, and the rare7 Hebrew verb mashah, to draw out. Moshe Garsiel explains that even names like Moses, which “are not Hebrew names,” are still “dealt with as if they were” by the Biblical narrators.8 According to Garsiel, these etymological explanations for Biblical names, which he calls “Midrashic name derivations,”9 “function as literary devices and are designed to enrich the literary unit.”10 They are not meant to be linguistically accurate; in fact, in the hands of the imaginative Biblical narrators, these plays on etymology could include “a deliberate deviation from the linguistic rules and norms of the time.”11 Herbert Marks argues that in the case of Moses, the play on Moses’s name “was a complex literary invention” that featured a “double etymology.”12 A double etymology in two different languages13 allowed the creative narrator to uniquely emphasize Moses’s “double identity”, “one public, one disguised.”14
Although for some scholars the existence of two puns on Moses’s name presents an opportunity to apply methodologies of “Higher Criticism”15 in order to identify different layers of source material that make up this account, this paper applies a literary approach to suggest what the extant material could mean as a whole. Instead of suggesting that the Hebrew pun is a later addition by a narrator who did not recognize the older Egyptian pun already present,16 this paper proposes [Page 191]the possibility that a creative Biblical narrator could have intended to insert both puns. This intention would explain the lack of any other names in the Moses birth story as a signal to the reader to look more closely at the name of Moses in order to aid the discovery of the more subtle Egyptian wordplay17 on the name Moses, which can be obscured by the more obvious Hebrew pun.
The conspicuous Hebrew etymology provides an explanation for why the pharaoh’s daughter called the child Moses (Moshe), because she drew (mashah) him out of the water. This pun involves a sound correlation between the name Moses and the verb to draw out. In this scenario, scholars note that Moshe would be the active participle of the verb mashah, “he who draws out,” instead of the expected passive participle mashu, “one drawn out.”18 According to Marks, this Hebrew wordplay sets up the central theme for Moses’s life, an uneasy negotiation between Moses’s passive role as someone being drawn out by God, and his active role of drawing out Israel from Egypt as a deliverer. As Moses draws water for the daughters of Jethro in Midian and marries one of them, he draws Israel out of the sea of reeds19 and sadly draws water out of a rock incorrectly and is unable to enter the promised land. For Marks, “the question posed by Moses’s name is the central question of the exodus itself.”20
Literarily speaking, Moses’s name plays an additional key role when read as an Egyptian word play. In the birth story in Exodus 2:1–10, the Biblical narrators play off Moses’s name’s Egyptian origin through the “persistent” use of the word child, which repeats 10 times in as many verses.21 The repetition of this word plays on the name Moses, which [Page 192]“corresponds to the Egyptian word mose, meaning ‘son’ or ‘child’.”22 With a small change of emphasis and punctuation, something existent only in modern documents anyway, the Egyptian play becomes more pronounced:
And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water. (Exodus 2:10)
With the introduction of a period in a different place, this verse emphasizes the Egyptian pun between the word son and the name Moses. It focuses the reader on the daughter of the pharaoh’s explaining not why she called the child Moses, but why she could call him her son. She had the right to call Moses her son because she drew him out of the water.
Like the Hebrew play on Moses’s name, Moses’s Egyptian name foreshadows the roles Moses will play in his life and to the deliverance of his people from the clutches of Pharaoh. As the reader continuously encounters the name Moses, the very repetition of his name repeats the question to the reader, “Who is Moses?” The dual etymologies surrounding his name dramatize the inner duel Moses himself must have experienced as the adopted Egyptian child whom God calls to deliver the children of Israel. Part of this deliverance includes yet another twist on Moses’s name as God commands Moses to threaten Pharaoh’s son:
And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. (Exodus 4:22–23)
Moses’s Egyptian name, meaning child or son and rooted to the verb to beget, plays off of the words son and firstborn in his threat. It seems like a simple exchange of son for son, delivered by a once Egyptian son turned son of God. God’s threat is not idle, and as the decision of last resort, the death of the Egyptians’ firstborns finally convinces Pharaoh to allow the children of Israel to leave. Moses’s name is not an auxiliary ornament of rhetoric, but a guiding component to the story of the Exodus. Moses’s struggle to identify who he is echoes in the reaction to the exodus by the children of Israel, who choose on various occasions to act as the children of Egypt instead of as the children of God.
The literary play on the name Moses adds depth and complexity to the narrative formed by Moses’s actions. It helps the close reader to appreciate the art of Biblical narrative more fully. In his review on the [Page 193]scholarship of the motifs comprising the birth story of Moses more than 50 years ago, Brevard Childs noted the interdependence between the infanticide episode in Exodus chapter 1 and Moses’s birth story in chapter 2.23 According to Childs, the scholar Hugo Gressmann had even posited the existence of an earlier prophecy, no longer in the Bible, about a Hebrew deliverer, which would better explain why Pharaoh sought to kill the male Hebrew children and the need to expose the infant Moses to the elements on the Nile.24 Although this specific prophecy is not extant in the current Hebrew Bible, it is an event borne out in other traditions and consistent with the character of Joseph in the Bible. In addition to the preservation of Josephine prophecies of Moses found in the Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis and the Targum Pseudo-Johnathan: Genesis25, what Latter-day Saints call restored scripture also supports the occurrence of this prophecy.
In 1832, Joseph Smith restored by revelation a prophecy about Moses he claimed the Bible originally contained. According to Smith, the Joseph sold into Egypt prophesied about the bondage his descendants would endure and the deliverer the Lord would provide. The restoration of this prophecy not only supports Gressmann’s intuition but additionally strengthens the connection noted by scholars between the Egyptian leader Joseph and Moses.26 Just on a linguistic level, Hoffmeier points out the unique and authentic Egyptian background linking Joseph and Moses.27
Although common for modern scholars to confidently state that Moses’s name stems from the Egyptian verb to beget and is thus related to the Egyptian word for child, it has only been since the mid-19th century that this idea was first posited and much later until it became the preferred hypothesis. This hypothesis is a relatively modern rediscovery because of the demise of hieroglyphic knowledge more than 1500 years ago and its more recent deciphering in the 19th century. This chronological context makes it all the more remarkable that Joseph’s prophecy of Moses the deliverer restored by Joseph Smith would include a pun on Moses’s name and the word son more than a decade before the academic world first posited this possibility.
[Page 194]Joseph Prophesies of Moses
As the knowledge of ancient Egyptian diminished, presumably so did the awareness of the Egyptian wordplay on the name Moses in the Bible. The knowledge of hieroglyphs likely went on the decline well before the last hieroglyph is believed to have been written in ad 450.28 Only after Jean-Francois Champollion successfully began decrypting ancient Egyptian in 1823 after an absence of more than a millennium, could Richard Lepsius suggest that the name Moses could be Egyptian stemming from the word for child and related to the verb to beget two decades later. Richard Lepsius, one of the founders of Egyptology,29 is credited30 as one of the first scholars to point out this possibility, which he did in 1849 in his Die Chronologie Der Aegypter.31 His suggestion was followed by Georg Ebers’ independent discovery published in Durch Gosen Zum Sinai in 1881.32 Although Lepsius and Ebers published this theory in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s with the work of J. Gwyn Griffiths that more scholars began to accept it.33 Before Lepsius, there were other scholars who suspected that the origin of Moses’s name was Egyptian,34 but these earlier academics did not connect it with the Egyptian verb to beget or the related Egyptian word for child.
In 1830 Joseph Smith embarked on a project he framed as a translation of the Bible with the intent to restore by revelation parts of the Bible that had been lost or changed from the original. One of these restored [Page 195]sections of the Bible was a prophecy the Lord gave Joseph who was sold into Egypt, regarding Moses. Almost certainly unaware of the possible Egyptian etymology for the name of Moses, Joseph Smith dictated the following text in July 183235 that contains a pun on the name of Moses and its Egyptian meaning of son:
For a seer will I raise up to deliver my people out of the land of Egypt; and he shall be called Moses And by this name he shall know that he is of thy house [Joseph’s house]; for he shall be nursed by the king’s daughter, and shall be called her son. (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:29)
According to this prophecy, the name of Moses was the key Moses would employ to unlock his own identity and recognize his connection to his ancestor Joseph and by extension to the rest of the children of Israel, the Hebrews. This prophecy also follows the same Egyptian pun between the name Moses and its Egyptian meaning of son in Exodus 2:10; “And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses.”
The connection between being called son, the Egyptian word for Moses, and knowing that he was of Joseph’s house36 could stem from a statement Joseph made describing his standing with Pharaoh: “[God] hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house” (Genesis 45:8). This statement potentially suggests that Moses, by being raised as the son of an Egyptian princess, became a son to Pharaoh, who in turn was a son to Joseph. Later, when a new Egyptian king began to reign, the scriptural account points out that he “knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This phrase may not have meant only that this new king did not acknowledge Joseph’s authority37 but also that this king came [Page 196]from a different family line — one not affiliated with Joseph in the same way as Joseph specified in Genesis 45:8. Additionally, the two stories of Joseph and Moses not only share similar themes but also, according to Hoffmeier, share authentic Egyptian elements that corroborate their shared setting in Egypt.38 It is fitting that Joseph, who knew Egyptian,39 would prophecy of Moses and include an Egyptian pun.
An awareness of this prophecy can explain the context for Moses’s name and shed more light on the context to his birth. For Childs, Pharaoh’s dictum to kill all the male Hebrew children did not make sense; masters typically do not want fewer slaves, but more. Additionally, if population control was the concern, Childs pointed out that killing the females would have been more efficient.40 These difficulties with the narrative can be resolved if the existence of a prophecy concerning a male Hebrew child predicted to deliver the children of Israel was known to Pharaoh. Presumably, not all the details would have been known to Pharaoh; otherwise he would likely have impeded his own daughter from taking in a Hebrew child.
Also, as part of the Bible translation project initiated in 1830, Joseph Smith restored additional stories regarding Moses. Of particular relevance, Smith restored a dialogue between Moses and God and a confrontation between Moses and Satan that continuously employ Moses’s sonship as a key literary device. This emphasis on Moses as a “son” seems to be an additional play on the etymology of the name of Moses. This restored wordplay within the dialogues Christianizes Moses by assigning him a role as a type of Christ. According to Northrop Frye’s definition of a literary type, Moses would be a type of adumbration, or what will happen to Christ, what Christ will do, or what Christ is. In response, Christ would be the antitype, or the realized form of what happened to Moses, what Moses did, or what Moses was.41
[Page 197]Moses as a Type of Christ
Moses’s sonship becomes a key theme in restoration scripture. Specifically, the restored narrative contained in the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price focuses on Moses as a son of God and a type of Christ through the repetitive use of the words son and begotten, which are also related to the etiology of the Egyptian name Moses. For instance, note God’s heavy use of these terms:
And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all. (Moses 1:6)
The connection between Moses, God’s son, and Christ, God’s only begotten, can become a signal to the witting reader that Moses’s Egyptian name is a central theme in this narrative. Moses is not the only prophet the Lord called his son, but the frequency with which the Lord refers to Moses as his son is uniquely pronounced.42
Moses and Satan’s dialogue further emphasizes Moses’s divine sonship. “Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12). Moses, who has just learned his true patronage, corrects Satan, “I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten” (Moses 1:13). Moses not only refuses to worship Satan but also calls for Satan to leave. “Get thee hence, Satan, deceive me not; for God said unto me: Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:16). This episode with Satan ends with Moses’s confirming his relationship as a son of God and expelling Satan in the name of the Only Begotten.
This confrontation is a type of the later confrontation between Satan and Christ. Both confrontations are possibly prefaced by a spiritual outpouring followed by a trial. It is significant that the Joseph Smith Translation amends the account in Matthew to emphasize the fact that Christ went to the wilderness to be with God (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 4:1). It is scripturally consistent, then, to suggest that Christ could have been with God before Satan appeared, as was the case with Moses.
Similar to the account of Moses, Satan attempts to cast doubt upon Christ’s sonship and true patronage by employing the taunting preface “If thou be the Son of God…” to his temptations for Jesus (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3). Ultimately, like his attempt with Moses, Satan’s objective is to trick [Page 198]Jesus into worshiping him. Satan’s futile efforts are refuted with the same command, “Get thee hence, Satan” (compare Matthew 4:10 and Moses 1:16).
The idea that Moses was a type of Christ is not unique to this particular event. Both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament allude to other events that tie Moses and Christ as type and antitype. For example, when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to save the afflicted Israelites, he was a type for when Christ would be lifted up on the cross to save the world (see John 3:14–16, Alma 3:18–22, and Helaman 8:11–15). The law of Moses was also viewed by the New Testament and Book of Mormon authors as a type of Christ (see Galatians 3:24; Hebrews 10:1; Mosiah 13:30–31; and Alma 25:15, 34:14).
What the restored account of Moses does most powerfully is establish what Moses was, not just what he did, as a type of Christ. He was a son/ child of God; a man whose very name tied him to the quintessential son/child of God, Christ the Only Begotten. The Egyptian etymology for the name Moses, although almost certainly unknown to the secularly uneducated Joseph Smith, appears nonetheless as a key element in scripture that he restored.
The appearance of a blatant pun on the Egyptian etymology of the name Moses in the prophecy that Smith restored and its probable role as a key thematic element in the restored narratives in the Book of Moses support the authenticity of these texts, especially when one considers these elements as “firsts” in the modern era. Before the first known scholars published the idea that Moses’s name might be Egyptian and certainly before a general scholarly consensus was reached, the texts Joseph Smith restored contained evidence to support Moses’s Egyptian heritage. Indeed, Joseph the patriarch, who prophesied of Moses, and Joseph Smith Jr., who restored these texts, knew first!
[Author’s Note: This paper was inspired by a presentation from Dr. Royal Skousen and a class taught by Dr. John Gee. I am grateful to my friend Katherine for her insightful editing of my first draft, to the Rozeskis for expanding my personal library, and to the Jefferson County Public Library Interlibrary Loan system for providing access to materials otherwise unavailable.]