The Subversion of Myth
A major finding of modern biblical scholarship is the extent to which the narrative in the book of Exodus is informed by the ancient Israelites’ knowledge of Egyptian culture, religion and literature. The birth story of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10 provides an excellent illustration of both the extent of and the transformation involved in such borrowing.
One of the core myths of ancient Egypt concerned the gods Seth, Osiris, Isis and Horus. Seth and Osiris were brother deities, the former representing evil and chaos, the latter representing good and fertility. The battle between the two resulted in the death of Osiris, but before he died Osiris had impregnated his wife, Isis, goddess of wisdom and beauty. Isis in turn gave birth to Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship. When Seth learned that his brother Osiris’s offspring had been born, he sought to kill the baby Horus. Isis prepared a basket of reeds to hide him in the marshland of the Nile Delta, where she suckled him and protected him, along with the watchful eye of her sister, Nephthys, from the snakes, scorpions and other dangerous creatures until he grew and prospered.
Scholars have noted that the birth story of Moses is part of a larger motif of ancient literature, namely the exposed-infant motif. The ancients delighted in telling tales of their heroic leaders who at birth were exposed to nature, usually by their parents who, for one reason or another, did not desire their newborn sons. Among the most famous accounts are the stories of Oedipus from Greece and Romulus and Remus from Rome, along with the less well known but equally important story of Sargon of Akkad (in ancient Mesopotamia). There is a difference, however, between the Moses story and the other exposed-infancy narratives, for in Exodus, chapter two, the goal of Moses’ mother is not to be rid of the child but to save him. This occurs elsewhere in ancient literature only in the story of the baby Horus, whose mother, Isis, sought to protect him from his wicked uncle, Seth. The Hebrew and Egyptian stories share this crucial feature, which is lacking in the other parallels, and therefore beckon us to read the former in the light of the latter.
The list of specific features shared by the two accounts is truly remarkable. In both stories, it is the mother who is the active parent (in the Egyptian version, Osiris is dead; in the Hebrew account, Moses’ father is mentioned in passing in Exodus 2:1, after which the role of the mother is highlighted). Both mothers construct a small vessel of reeds and place the baby in the marshland of the Delta. In both accounts, another female relative watches over the baby (Nephthys in the Horus story; Miriam in the biblical account). Significantly, in both stories the mother’s suckling of the child is emphasized: Isis’s nursing of the baby Horus is a prominent feature of Egyptian artwork, with many statues portraying this action; while in the biblical story, Miriam arranges for Moses’ mother to nurse the child. Most importantly, in both stories the baby is hidden and protected from the wicked machinations of the villain.
The fact, noted briefly above, that Horus is the god of kingship is of critical importance. It means that every pharaoh was considered the living embodiment of Horus. Egyptian artwork helps illustrate the point, since a number of statues depict individual pharaohs with Horus behind them and the wings of the falcon coming forward and enveloping the king. In such artistic portrayals, the pharaoh and Horus become one — as indeed they were in the mindset of the ancient Egyptian. Thus, if Moses is the baby in the bulrushes in the biblical account, he has become, as it were, Horus, and thus the equivalent of the pharaoh. And if the pharaoh of the biblical account is the one who commands that Hebrew baby boys be drowned in the Nile, and who by extension seeks the death of the baby Moses, then he has been transformed into the wicked Seth. The biblical author, in short, subverts the foundational myth of ancient Egypt by portraying Moses as the good Horus and by converting the pharaoh into the wicked Seth. Such subversions are typical of the manner in which a weaker people (in our case, ancient Israel) gains power, as it were, over the stronger nation (in our case, ancient Egypt).
The story of Moses’ birth implies that not only did the author of our text possess a thorough knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture, religion and literature, but that his audience, or at least a significant portion thereof, did, as well. One can imagine the ancient Israelite reader, conversant with all matters Egyptian, delighting in such a tale portraying Moses, and not Horus or the pharaoh, as the hero, and depicting the pharaoh not as the good force but as the evil force identified with Seth.
Gary Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie professor of Jewish history and chair of the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.