(Heb., mōše(h); Gr. mouses), the Hebrew lawgiver who led the bene Yisra'el out of Egypt, and a reputed prince of Egypt. The name Moses has generally been derived from the Egyptian root msi (“to bear”), in the form of a hypocoristikon formed on the theophoric pattern “God X is born.” (The biblical derivation, from putative mašā(h), “to draw out,” is a false folk etymology based on the details of the story.) Such shortened forms involving the elision of the divine element occur with relative frequency in the onomasticon of the New Kingdom. An alternative theory would deny any Egyptian derivation at all, equating the name with Canaanite Mt > Muš, the serpent god, son of Ba'al.
According to the Pentateuch, which comprises all that survives of the primary tradition about the man, Moses is a Hebrew secreted at birth by his mother to escape a kind of pogrom, and he was discovered by a daughter of the king of Egypt. Brought up at the court, he acts as Yahweh's agent in coercing pharaoh, by the infliction of a series of plagues, to let the bene Yisra'el, enslaved Israelites, go free into the desert to worship their God. Thereafter he acts as law-giver to his nation at Mount Sinai and functions as their tribal leader as far as the border of Canaan. As presently constituted, the narrative sections of Exodus in which Moses figures are a pastiche of known folkloristic motifs, deftly woven together in a narrative of some literary effect: the community threatened by a tyrant, the hero cast away in infancy, the contest between magicians, the cosmic miracles, the “magicians' tricks” (inanimate-object-to-snake, parted-water, river-to-blood, darkness, “pillar-of-fire,” and so forth—all well known in the folklore of the eastern Mediterranean).
As far as is known, no figure comparable to the biblical Moses is to be found in surviving Egyptian sources, and attempts to identify him historically have proven arbitrary and unconvincing. It has been fashionable at times to find him in the Amenmesse of the outgoing nineteenth dynasty (late thirteenth century BCE); in Ahmose, founder of the eighteenth dynasty (sixteenth century BCE); or in one of the protagonists of the Amarna period (fourteenth century BCE). The alleged link between “Mosaic monotheism” and the belief system of Akhenaten has proven impossible to sustain. Similarly, any connection between the biblical figure of Moses and the Shasu Yahweh of eighteenth dynasty toponym lists is yet to be demonstrated.
Whatever roots of the tradition extend back in time, the full-blown Mosaic account belongs to the latest stage in the development of the Exodus story. In earlier literature outside the Pentateuch, although the Exodus is a prominent element in the collective memory of the Levantine communities, Moses scarcely appears. In pursuing the evolution of the tradition, one cannot ignore the folklore later used by discutants in the Judeo-pagan polemic. By the fifth century BCE, a narrative was in existence that linked an “exodus” from Egypt to a pious “clean-up” of Egyptian temples, culminating in an expulsion into the desert of a group of lepers. Once expelled, the lepers organized themselves under the leadership of a renegade priest (“Moses”) who thereupon conducted them to Palestine, where they founded Jerusalem. Although this piece of folklore appears to have taken shape as a midrash on the dim recollection of the Amarna period, one version firmly links it to the twenty-fourth dynasty and the reign of Bakenrenef (Bocchoris, 717–711 BCE), when a Kushite domination of the Nile Valley loomed. Curiously, in consonance with this travesty of chronology, biblical tradition (Num. 12.1) gives Moses a Kushite wife, and post-biblical commentary (Artapanus) brings him into association with the siege of Hermopolis, recalling Piya's siege of the same town around 719 BCE.
- Aurelius, E. Der Fuerbitter Israels: Eine Studie zum Mosebild im Alten Testament. Stockholm, 1988.
- Ćerný, J. “Greek Etymology of the Name of Moses.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 41 (1941), 349–354.
- Denis, A.-M. “Le portrait de Moïse par l'anti-semite Menathon (IIIe s. av. J.-C.) et le refutation juive de l'historien Artapan.” Museon 100 (1987), 49–65.
- Gager, J. G. Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism. Nashville, Tenn., 1972.
- Griffiths, J. G. “The Egyptian Derivation of the Name Moses.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953), 225–231.
- Marshall, R. C. “Moses, Oedipus, Structuralism and History.” History of Religions 28 (1989), 245–266.
- Siebert-Hommes, J. “Die Geburtsgeschichte des Mose innerhalb des Erzählungszusammenhangs von Exod. I-II.” Vetus Testamentum 42 (1992), 398–404.
- Van Seters, J. The Life of Moses. Louisville, Ky., 1994.
- Vergote, J. “À propos du nom de Moïse.” Bulletin de la société égyptologique de Genève 4 (1981), 89–96.
- Weinfeld, M. “The Traditions about Moses and Jethro at the Mount of God.” Tarbiz 56 (1987), 449–460.
Donald B. Redford