Moses' Egyptian Name
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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. “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. 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.

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