The Name “Moses”

We’re talking about Moses in GD these days. As you know, I’m kind of fascinated by names, and the name “Moses” is an interesting one.

Exodus 2:10 reads as follows:

And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses [Mosheh]: and she said, Because I drew him [meshiythahu] out of the water.

First of all, Moses is the form of the name as it comes to us through the Greek of the Septuagint and New Testament. In Hebrew the name is Mosheh. (Greek lacks the sh sound, and male personal names generally end in -s.) This passage suggests that the name derives from the Hebrew verb mashah “to draw.” But this is problematic in a couple of respects. First, the “she” who does the naming is intentionally left ambiguous, but it was almost certainly the Egyptian princess, who certainly would not have known Hebrew. Second, the form of the name Mosheh would be an active participle on this theory “the one who draws,” and not the passive contemplated by the etymology, “the drawn one.” This is almost certainly a folk etymology, and not the true origin of the name. (Such folk etymologies are quite common in the OT. When the scriptures say a name means X, you can’t simply assume that that’s accurate.)

The logic of the Exodus story, if historically accurate, would seem to require that Moses would have been given an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one. And in fact, Moses is almost certainly Egyptian in derivation. It seems clear that the name Moses comes from the Egyptian verb msi, meaning to be born or to fashion, form. This was a common element in Egyptian names, such as Amenmose, Ramose and Thutmose. These are compound names called theophoric (“bearing the name of a god”), and mean something like “Amen is born” or “Born of Amen” or “The offspring of Ra” or “The child of Thoth.”

The “mose” element occasionally occurs by itself, in which event it simply means something like “Child” or “Offspring,” and it is possible that that is its meaning here. It seems more likely, however, that originally the name was combined with the name of an Egyptian god. Mose may be a hypocoristic (“shortened”) form (like Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch from the longer form Berechyahu), but more likely the name of the Egyptian god was intentionally removed from his name in the Hebrew tradition, meaning that mose is simply a name fragment. The most likely possibility is that he was named for the Pharaoh of the time, Rameses, but the name of the god Ra was removed from his name in the Hebrew scriptures so as to avoid offending Israelite sensibilities.

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Comments

  1. Cool post … I recently read that the kings of Egypt had -mses at the end of their names for this reason – I believe it was mentioned in some Yale Old testament lectures that were linked here in the ‘Nacle.

    But it had not occurred to me that the name of Moses might have included the name of an Egyptian God or king and that it was simply edited away by the Hebrew scripture writers …

    Or maybe Moses edited his own name and presented himself that way to people?

    Anyway, I much enjoyed reading this. It dealt with a question I had been reading and thinking about recently.

  2. Mike Parker says:

    The “mose” element occasionally occurs by itself, in which event it simply means something like “Child” or “Offspring,” and it is possible that that is its meaning here.

    The Egyptians worshiped the Nile as a god, the source of all life. It makes sense, then, that Pharaoh’s daughter would have believed Moses was born of the Nile, and so his name would have indicated as such.

  3. Speaking of scriptural names, Kevin, I’ve picked up from your articles that El (and, I presume, Eloheim, from El) and Jehovah are proper names. Does Hebrew have a generic word for “god”?

  4. Left Field says:

    OK, now you’ve got a song going through my head.

    “Named him after a man of the cloth…”

  5. Very cool, Kevin. It would be a great post (and great big task) to make a summary of all the various explanations of names and terms you have given the Mormon blogging community. Maybe I should start one…

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Dane, El is both the proper name of the head of the Canaanite and early Hebrew pantheons and a generic Semitic term for God. Elim is the plural form, and Elohim is the plural form with a medial he’ (the h in the middle, reflecting Aramaic influence). Elohim occurs thousands of times in the Hebrew Bible, usually with the generic meaning “God.”

  7. reed russell says:

    Just FWIW, the Kabbalists have fun with this name –

    Moses spelled with the three letters MEM-SHIN-HEH (Mosheh) has a Gematria of 345:

    Mosheh = MEM (40) + SHIN (300) + HEH (5) = 345

    On the other hand, the Hebrew name by which God first announces Himself to Moses is Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh (“I Am”) which has the following Gematria:

    Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh = EHEYEH (21) + ASHER (501) + EHEYEH (21) = 543

    Thus, Moses (with a Gematria of “345”) is a reflection of God (with a Gematria of “543”). In other words, the sequence 5-4-3/3-4-5 is a “palindrome” in which Moses emerges as a “reflection” of Yahweh — and it was for this reason that the latter said to the former: “See, I have made you a God.”

  8. I think the name “Moses” was definitely of Egyptian origin–c.f. “Ah-mose,” “Tut-moses,” “”ka-mose,” etc., all of which mean “son of ____(some god in the pantheon)”. Whether or not Moses’ name originally had a prefix denoting that he was the son of some Egyptian god, when he left Pharaoh’s court and the religion that accompanied it, I imagined he lost that designation. No longer believing in the Egyptian gods, he became just “Moses,” son of no one.
    An understanding of his name makes it all the more poignant to me when God addresses him as “Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6-7). Whatever god he may have claimed as his father when he was a prince of Egypt was gone, but the true God had not left him an orphan. Now he was El-Moses (or Yah-Moses), son of the One True God.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Very good, Amy.

  10. Kevin, I like your hypothetical link to Ramses, but I’m sure you are aware of all of the potential problems with Ramses being the Pharoah of Moses’ time. The most significant is the timeline: Ramses lived in the 13th century BC, but the Old Testament says there were about 450 years between the Exodus and the time of David (11th century BC). So something’s gotta give. (I’m not saying Ramses is definitely not the Pharoah of Moses’ time, but there are reasons to doubt he is).

    http://www.millennialstar.org/exodus-and-archeology/

  11. Wonderful post, Kevin.

    Amy, thanks for that addition. It is both plausible and profound.

  12. Thank you for this insightful post Kevin.

    #1- I listened to Christine Hayes Yale lectures as well, and I remember her talking about this. I was fascinated.

    #2- I love reading your GD lessons, but this particular insight, although compelling, had me stumped. The naming is found in verse 10, how then do you explain the princess commenting “that this is one of the Hebrews children” in Ex 2:6? It seems like she perhaps knew his origin??? In naming him, was she tactfully negotiating her father’s decree? If so we might have a great example of a courageous woman outside the covenant (I love those examples).

    #8- I love that reading. It makes God seem so personal.

  13. StillConfused says:

    Stuff like this makes religion actually interesting to me.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Geoff B., right, that the missing god name was Ra is ultimately nothing more than a guess.

  15. Coffinberry says:

    Didn’t Orson Scott Card cover much of this ground in his historical fiction “Stone Tables”?

  16. The most likely possibility is that he was named for the Pharaoh of the time, Rameses, but the name of the god Ra was removed from his name in the Hebrew scriptures so as to avoid offending Israelite sensibilities.

    It might not even have been Israelite scribes who removed the prefix — perhaps Moses himself did so after his time in the wilderness and after being given his weighty assignment from God on behalf of his people.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, john f.

  18. jeff Spector says:

    John f.

    I don’t think it is clear that Ramses was the Pharaoh of Moses’ time. That is largely an invention of Cecil B. DeMille because Ramses was a well known Pharaoh.

    The name Ramses does not appear in the exodus account and the Pharaoh is described as one “who knew not Joseph.”

    It is possible I am mistaken but is what I understand to be the case.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Jeff, right, see nos. 10 and 14 above.

  20. Cynthia L. says:

    Amy #8, that’s excellent, thank you.

  21. jeff Spector says:

    #19, Probably should read a little more carefully….

  22. This is almost certainly a folk etymology, and not the true origin of the name. (Such folk etymologies are quite common in the OT. When the scriptures say a name means X, you can’t simply assume that that’s accurate.)

    Tangential question: Is the above statement true for Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Esau/Edom, and the sons of Jacob, as well? If so, I need to retract several things my wife and I have been teaching to our Valiant 10 class…

    I am curious, Kevin, what your thoughts are for this argument which I just discovered in an effort to see if folks other than Mr. DeMille had linked Moses and Ramses (I know off the top of my head that the writers of “Prince of Egypt” make the link, but it is quite possible they were taking the same artistic license as Mr. DeMille.)

    In essence, the author is saying that the name Moses is an Egyptian compound name of mo (water) and uses (to save from). The author also says that the last line about her naming him because she drew him out isn’t saying, “she named him Moses because the name means ‘drawn out'” but, rather, it is saying “she named him because she was the one who drew him out” (i.e. finders-keepers). I have no idea the authority of the author, but I thought it was interesting enough to throw into the “why is Moses called Moses?” mix.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    That alternate Egyptian argument actually derives from Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews. I don’t think anyone really buys it today.

    For other names in the OT, usually a good modern Bible dictionary will give the accepted scholarly etymology. Many of the ones given in the scriptures are accurate, so I didn’t mean to give the impression that they’re never correct. (If you don’t have a modern Bible dictionary, the Wikipedia articles usually have a pretty good section on the etymology of the name that you could check.)

  24. Kevin, thanks! I was wondering how accurate it was!

    So, then, the footnotes in the LDS scriptures do a good job of explaining what the names mean? (We rely on them rather heavily in our class.)

  25. Many years ago when I was at BYU Donald Perry told me that Moses meant (as Amy says) Son of… ie they didn’t know who he was the son of since the Egyptian princess drew him from the water. He becomes the son of Jehovah and we end up with a battle between the son of Jehovah and the son of Ra which culminates at the red sea. Probably to simplify he reminded us that near eastern languages leave out the vowels so Ramses which means son of RA would be written RMSS where Mss was son of and of course R was RA. Where as Moses is MSS again son of …we don’t know he came from the water.

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