Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The derivation of Moshe's name

{Update: See also another post on parshat Vayikra, on the etymology of Moshe's name, where I expand upon this.}

A visitor to this site, Jonathan, commented that in Freud's book "Moses and Monotheism" (1939) Freud asserts that the name Moshe came from Egyptian for child, Mośe (with a sin), and not from the Hebrew.

William Propp in the Anchor Bible cites (Griffiths 1953) for this, and has a discussion about it.

I think there are several difficulties with this assertion though. First, there is a pasuk. This pasuk gives the etymology. In Shemot 2:10:
וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ.
"And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.'"

Elsewhere I comment on dual etymologies for names so one could say the Hebrew and Egyptian are dual etymologies.

However, there are several theological difficulties claiming that the etymology is Egyptian and not what is given in the pasuk. First, if one believes in Divine Authorship of the Torah then one cannot assume that the etymology is mistaken. If one believes the Torah is Truth one cannot say the Torah "invents imaginary spurious etymologies." (Propp referring to Zakovitch 1980; Garsiel 1992) Further, Moshe wrote the Torah. Would he be mistaken or ignorant of the true etymology of his name?

More than that, the etymology seems phonologically unsound ( ;) ). Propp himself admits that "we might admittedly have expected *mose(h), not moše(h)," but he claims that those who voice those concerns provide no credible alternative.

That probably is that the samech is a closer approximation to the Egyptian phone [s] than shin.

I would add: After all, the claim is that this is the same name as mose in Thutmose and Ramses. The name Ramses is mentioned in close proximity. In Shemot 1:11, we read:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים, לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה--אֶת-פִּתֹם, וְאֶת-רַעַמְסֵס.
"Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses."

The Hebrew character used to encode the Egyptian "s" phone is samech. Why would we have a shin instead. And we cannot even claim it is a sin, since the etymology provided ( כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ) shows that a shin is intended.

Further, those who claim Moshe's name comes from the Egyptian have to also claim it is a partial name. That is, it was "born/child of water," or "child of Egyptian deity X," and the first part was lopped off and just "Moshe" was left. This is also a difficulty, and overall makes it more difficult in my opinion than the etymology explicitly given in the pasuk.

What are the problems that spark this alternative etymology? I think firstly there is a general attitude among modern commentators to dismiss out of hand etymologies provided within the Torah text as fanciful.

But more than that, the problems are 1) how an Egyptian princess gave the child a Hebrew name with a Hebrew etymology and 2) the name, based on the etymology in the pasuk, perhaps should have been different.

Addressing #1:
We see Pharoah's daughter was able to speak to Miriam when the latter offered to find a Hebrew nursemaid, and was able to speak to the Yocheved as well (though this might be the Hebrew slaves knowing Egyptian rather than the opposite). In the time of Yosef, the brothers did not know Yosef (who they saw as the Egyptian vizier) understood their speech because there was an interpreter between them. By this time the Jews either spoke Egyptian or the Egyptians spoke Hebrew. We have already about a century of time in which the Hebrews lived in Egypt and served as slaves. When you have two populations living in close proximity, one tends to pick up a bit of the other's language. Royalty especially might know Canaanite, given that it was a neighboring kingdom and there were presumably diplomatic relations between them.

Further, upon seeing the infant, Pharoah's daughter's reaction was "MiYaldei HaIvrim Zeh." She knew it was a Jewish child, and saw to it that he was nursed and partially brought up in a Jewish home. Further, Pharoah's daughter did not name him on the spot. As it says:
וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ
"And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.'"

Thus, she named him Moses later. In the meantime, knowing that this is a Jewish child, she might have likewise decided to give him a Jewish name, and consulted with Yoacheved, Miriam, or some slaves working in the palace, described the intent she wanted the name to convey, taken their suggestions and then named the boy a Hebrew name. Given her recognition and treatment of Moshe as a Hebrew child, this is not farfetched at all.

Addressing #2:
The form of Moshe's name is the kal. As a result it should mean "Drawer Out of Water," rather than "Drawn Out of the Water." To be "Drawn Out" Moshe's name would have to be משוי.

Ibn Ezra addresses this issue. He says not to wonder that Moshe's name is not משוי because names are not as carefully watched as verbs. That is, the verb forms must follow rules of grammar, but not so proper nouns. In other words, Moshe's name is not a verb - it is a name, and names are not subject to grammar.

There is an even better answer to this non-issue. That is, there is a form in Hebrew called the kal passive. It has the form of kal but denotes passive. This form is relatively rare, but it exists. Propp cites some who suggest the kal passive but rejects them on the basis of the rarity.

It seems to me that he is ignoring the fact that the places one would most expect to find rare/archaic forms would be in names and Biblical poetry. Thus the fact that it is a rare form should not pose any problem.

In poetry because it is fancy, and in names because it is fancy/formal and further because names are not as subject to the reformative forces of changing grammar. A place named X in year Y in a grammatically correct manner will still be called X by the populace in year Z even though the grammar has changed. We see a similar phenomenon in terms of the most common words. The most common words in English are most often the exception to modern grammatical rules. This is because they were in such use that they resisted the force of grammatical reform. (As a throwaway consider שתים, which has a dagesh in the tav even though it comes after a shva na. This may be a remnant from an earlier form of Hebrew where there was no rule against dagesh in beged kefet following shva na, and resisted the grammatical reform because it was such a common word.)

From a practical perspective, if Biblical scholars are prepared to reject the etymology given in the Torah, they should also be prepared to reject the story behind the etymology - that is, that he was named by Pharoah's daughter. That is, it is a great oversight to claim the etymology in the pasuk is fanciful and then cite the fact that he was named by Pharoah's daughter to bolster the idea that his name is Egyptian. Rather, once rejecting the pasuk's etymology, there is no longer a "problem" of the clash of kal with passive, so it could be regular kal. Why jump to an Egyptian etymology for a Hebrew character, a half-name at that, and one troubled by a phonological difficulty.

Thus, to sum up, I think the Egyptian etymology is fanciful. It matches "Moshe" to half of an Egyptian name, relying on the assumption that the rest of the name was lopped off. It uses a Hebrew phone somewhat more distant than it could from the [s] sound in Egyptian. We would have to say this difficult phone is used even though in close proximity we see in the "same" root (Ramses) a closer Hebrew phone in use. Contrast that with the Hebrew etymology for which we have an age-old tradition, which makes sense, is a full name, is not phonologically difficult, and it grammatically possible as the kal passive, a form which though rare does exist and is more likely to exist in proper nouns. And if one rejects the Torah's etymology, an alternative Hebrew etymology still seems more likely than the Egyptian.


Anonymous said...

This doesn't PROVE that Mose is not Egyptian

You could answer that it IS Egyptian and that the Torah stating the reason is an example of dibra Torah bilshon b'nei adam, that it is just giving an Isaraelite angle to the Israelites, or that the name is inherently ambiugous etc. this article does not disprove that Mose is of Egyptian origin.

And even the Midrash hints that Moses had more than 1 name. Perhspa this is a hint that it KNOWS that this is specifically the moniker assigned by Bas Par'oh , etc.

joshwaxman said...

This doesn't prove that Mose is not Zulu, either. Why should we have to prove it is not Egyptian? It is a question of plausibility, and as it stands, I am not convinced that the Egyptian etymology is better than the Semitic one. In fact, IMHO, it is much less plausible.

I expand upon this in the following post, on the etymology of Moshe's name.


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