Moses’ Birth in Exodus 2:1-10:
A Pattern for the Birth of the Messiah
This is the first in a series of articles to run between Christmas and Epiphany. Each article will explore Scripture passages and traditions related to the Birth of the Messiah. As such, it is not a study of the birth of Jesus, except insofar as his birth is connected with Messianic traditions, and, in particular, traditions regarding the Messiah’s birth. It should be admitted from the outset that this study is made difficult by two factors: (1) the paucity of references to the Messiah’s birth, especially of traditions which may be plausibly dated as early as the first centuries B.C./A.D., and (2) the fact that there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. I have discussed the second point at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In addition to the more commonly recognized Davidic ruler figure-type, there were several Anointed Prophet types, Messianic Priest-figures, and Heavenly-deliverer types, all attested variously in the writings of the period. Different traditions may be associated with each of these figure-types.
We begin with what could be considered the earliest Scriptural tradition related to the birth of the Messiah: the birth of Moses, as narrated in Exodus 2:1-10. The Messianic aspect of this narrative may not be immediately apparent; it can be established, at least for early Christians, on the basis of two pieces of evidence: (1) the association of Jesus with Moses in early tradition, and (2) the fact that the Matthean Infancy narrative was influenced by the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus.
These two areas of study will structure this article; here is the outline I follow:
- Jesus and Moses: The Messianic Prophet to Come
- Similarities between the (Matthean) Infancy Narrative and Moses Narratives
- Parallels with contemporary Jewish versions of the Exodus tradition
- Exodus 2:1-10 and the Archetypal Narrative
Jesus and Moses: The Prophet to Come
As I have already dealt with this subject extensively in Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will here summarize the results of that study with the following discussion. Christians are not accustomed to thinking of Jesus as a Prophet, but in the Gospel tradition—at least in terms of his time of ministry (prior to the final journey to Jerusalem)—this is the ‘Messianic’ designation that best applies to him. In the Synoptic narrative, which divides neatly between Jesus’ ministry [in Galilee and the surrounding regions] (Mark 1-9 par) and the time in Jerusalem (Mark 11-16 par), there are virtually no references to Jesus as a Davidic ruler or ‘Messianic’ king (cf. Matt 9:27) during the period of ministry. Even references to “the Anointed One” [o( xristo/$] are quite rare, and almost non-existent prior to Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed One…”, Mk 8:29 par). There are considerably more references to Jesus as “the Anointed One” in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:41; 3:28; 4:25, 29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 10:24; 11:27), but, apart from the explicit identification in Jn 7:42, it is by no means clear that “Anointed One” in these passages always refers to a ‘Messiah’ of the Davidic-ruler type. There is actually better evidence for Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, though it takes a bit of detective work to see the extent of this:
- First, Jesus himself claims to be a Prophet (or identifies himself as such) in Mark 6:4, along with the parallel passages of Matt 13:57; Luke 4:24ff. The Lukan version of this pericope offers a much more extensive development of this idea, including Jesus’ illustrations associating himself with Elijah/Elisha (vv. 25-27) and his interpretation of Isa 61:1-2 in vv. 18-21. The earlier reference to Jesus coming to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (v. 14) may be intended to depict him as a Prophet as well (cf. Luke 1:17; Acts 10:38).
- Such a self-identification by Jesus may also be inferred or implied from:
Mark 13:24 (Matt 24:11, 24); Matt 10:41; 23:29-37 (Lk 11:42-50); and Luke 13:33-34
- Others identify Jesus as a Prophet at numerous points in the Synoptics:
Mark 6:15; 8:28 (Matt 16:14; Lk 9:8, 19); Matt 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16, 39; 24:19
- There are even more direct statements in the Gospel of John—Jn 4:19; 6:14; 7:40, 52; 9:17
- In at least one early sermon by Peter (as recorded in Acts 3:18-24), Jesus is identified as the Prophet of Deut 18:15-19 (on this, cf. below).
It should be noted that the idea of Jesus as a Prophet is entirely based on early Gospel tradition, and is really only found in the Gospel narratives themselves. Apart from Acts 3:18-24 (cf. also 7:37), it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, and is virtually non-existent in early Christian doctrine and theology as well. All of this is strong evidence for the historical veracity of the Gospel references, on entirely objective grounds—the identification of Jesus as a Prophet is not something the early Church would have invented.
The specific identification of Jesus with Moses—that is, an Anointed Prophet according to the type of Moses—is derived from the tradition that a “Prophet like Moses” will appear (at the end-time), who will instruct the faithful just as Moses did. This tradition clearly comes from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (cf. also Deut 34:10-12).
In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel. This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.
The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways:
- Parallels with the birth of Moses (and the Exodus) in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:1-21, cf. below)
- Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4:2 par) just as Moses was on Sinai for 40 days (Exod 24:18); in the arrangement of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus likewise returns to deliver/expound the Law/Torah (Matt 5:17ff)
- The association with Moses in the Transfiguration scene (on this, cf. below)
- In various ways, Jesus’ words and actions followed the type/pattern of Moses:
- Cf. the detailed summary of Moses’ life in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:17-44) and its parallel to Jesus (7:45-53)—cp. “this Moses” (7:35, 37, 40) with the frequent use of “this Jesus” in Acts (1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:11; 6:14 etc)
- Moses and the ‘bronze serpent’ as a pattern of Jesus’ death (and exaltation), Jn 3:14
- Moses and the manna (Jesus as the “bread from heaven”), Jn 6:32ff
- Moses and the rock in the wilderness (Christ as the rock), 1 Cor 10:2-5
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also find a juxtaposition contrasting Jesus and Moses—e.g., John 1:17; 5:45-46 (cf. Lk 16:29-31); 9:28-29; 2 Cor 3:13ff; Heb 3:2-5. Interestingly, these points of contrast are still based on a similarity between Jesus and Moses, the emphasis being on Jesus’ superiority or on how he fulfills/completes the “Old Covenant” represented by Moses.
Finally, in the Transfiguration episode in the Synoptic Gospels (also mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18)—Jesus is associated directly (and at the same time) with both Moses and Elijah. It is customary and popular for Christians to interpret Moses and Elijah here as representing “the Law and the Prophets”—that is, Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. However, this does not seem to be correct. For one thing, Elijah is not an especially appropriate figure to represent the written books of the Prophets, since he apparently wrote nothing, and did not utter any ‘Messianic’ prophecies that might be fulfilled by Jesus. At the same time, Moses, in addition to his connection with the Law (Torah), was viewed as perhaps the greatest of Prophets (cf. above)—indeed, Moses and Elijah together represent: (a) the two great Prophet figures of Israel’s history, and (b) each served as the type of a end-time Prophet-to-Come. Secondarily, perhaps, one might note that Moses and Elijah each experienced a special manifestation of God (theophany) on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, and that there are clear echoes and allusions to the Sinai theophany in the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration (esp. in Luke’s version).
The Matthean Infancy Narrative and the Moses Narratives
There are clear similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) and the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus (1-4), as can be seen even by a casual reading and comparison of the two. Whatever this may say about the historicity of the events recorded in the Gospel narrative, there can be little doubt that the Exodus traditions have shaped the literary narrative in Matthew. One must be careful not to confuse or confound the historical and literary aspects of any Scripture passage. And, from a literary standpoint, there is every reason to think that the Gospel writer has consciously shaped his narrative in light of the earlier story of Moses birth, etc. The similarities between Exodus and the Infancy narratives are:
- Pharaoh and the people of Egypt come to fear Israel and the threat it poses; Moses is among the many children being born to the Israelites (Exod 1:9-12)
Herod and the people of Jerusalem were frightened at the prophetic news of the Messiah’s birth (Matt 2:2)
- The king’s plan to thwart their strength by putting the male infants to death when they are born (Exod 1:15-16ff, 22)
Herod’s attempt to thwart the Messiah by putting the male infants to death (Matt 2:8, 13ff, 16-20)
- Moses is born of a Levite woman (Exod 2:1)
While not specified in Matthew, the Lukan narrative suggests Mary is also from the line of Levi (Lk 1:5, 36)
- Reference to the conception and birth by the woman (Exod 2:2; Matt 1:20, 25)
- Saving the child from being put to death by the wicked king (Exod 2:2b-3ff; Matt 2:13-15ff)
- Moses’ flight and return, par. to that of Jesus and his parents (Exod 2:15, 23; 4:19-20; Matt 2:14-15, 19-20ff)
Perhaps the clearest example of literary dependence on the Moses narratives is how closely the wording in Matt 2:20 resembles that of Exod 4:19 LXX:
“And after those many days, the king of Egypt completed (his life) [i.e. died], and the Lord said toward Moshe in Midian, ‘You must walk (and) go (away) from (here) into Egypt, for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died‘. And Moshe took up his wife and the children…” (Exod 4:19-20)
“And (with) Herod (hav)ing completed (his life) [i.e. died], see! a Messenger of the Lord appeared by a dream to Yosef in Egypt, saying, ‘Rising…you must travel into the land of Yisrael, for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died. And, rising, he took along the child and his mother…” (Matt 2:19-21)
The italicized words above are nearly identical:
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte/$ sou th\n yuxh/n
“for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died”
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n tou= paidi/ou
“for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died”
Moreover, in both narratives we have the common location of Egypt—traveling into and out of the land, though in different directions.
Contemporary Versions of the Exodus Tradition
The similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative and the Moses story are even closer when one considers the developed Jewish versions of the story that would have been in circulation around the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written. Two versions, in particular may be noted—those found in the Antiquities of Josephus, and the Biblical Antiquites of Pseudo-Philo—both likely composed c. 70 A.D., roughly the same time as Matthew’s Gospel.
The portion in the Antiquities corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is book 2 sections 205-237. A considerable amount of legendary material has been added to the Scriptural narrative, most of which is likely traditional, rather than being simply the invention of Josephus. Here are the most noteworthy details, in relation to the Matthean Infancy narrative (cf. also Brown, pp. 114-6):
- A prophecy of Moses’ birth, forewarning that a Deliverer of the people Israel would be born; in particular, it was the king’s sacred scribes that made this known to Pharaoh (2.205, 234-5)
- In a subsequent development to the tradition, those who advise Pharaoh are specifically designated as Magi-astrologers—Babylonian Talmud, b. Sotah 12b, Sanhedrin 101a; Exodus Rabbah 1.18 (on Exod 1:22); cf. also Philo Life of Moses I.92.
- Pharaoh’s alarm at this news (2.206, 215)
- God appears to Amram, the child’s father, in a dream, warning him (2.212, 215-6)
- Note also the reference to Moses’ growth (2.230-1) which resembles, in some of its basic thought and vocabulary, the notice in Luke 2:47, 52.
Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities
The expanded version of Old Testament/Israelite history in Pseudo-Philo likewise contains much additional information and legendary detail. The portion corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is in chapter 9. The parallels with the Gospel Infancy narratives are:
- Emphasis on Amram (the father)’s prophetic foresight and action (9:3ff)
- God’s declaration of the special status of Moses as His servant (9:7-8), suggestive of a Messianic character
- There is an Angelic appearance to Miriam similar to the Lukan annunciation to Mary (9:9-10; cp. Lk 1:26-38); it also involves the Spirit of God coming upon her; “Miriam” and “Mary”, of course, are essentially the same name (Grk Maria/m)
- The Angel’s announcement includes a declaration of Moses as one who will save his people (9:10, cp. Matt 1:21); also, the statement that he will have a position of “leadership always” may remind one of Lk 1:32-33
The Archetypal Narrative
Beyond the specifics of the Scriptural narrative itself, the Moses traditions follow an archetypal story-pattern which would naturally apply to the Messianic figure-types. It may be referred to as the “abandoned hero” motif. There are many stories worldwide involving a chosen (and/or divine) hero who, upon his birth, was threatened by an authority figure who attempted to kill the child, or, under similar circumstances, the infant was left helpless amid the forces of nature (e.g., on a mountain top, in a river, etc). In most versions of these stories, the ‘abandoned’ child was rescued and reared/adopted by good or noble parents.
For western readers, perhaps the best known versions are the Greek hero-myths surrounding figures such as Hercules, Perseus, and Oedipus. A bit closer in detail to the Moses narrative is the Roman tale of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the city of Rome. After being thrown into the river Tiber by a wicked usurper to the kingship, the twin babes washed ashore, eventually to be discovered by the royal herdsman who raised them as his own. From far-off India, similar colorful tales surround the deity-hero Krishna. It was prophesied to the wicked ruler Kansa that he would be slain by a child born from his female relative (Devaki); as a result of attempts to kill both the mother and all her children, the infant Krishna ended up being raised by the herdsman Nanda and his wife.
Most Old Testament scholars (and many students) are aware of the birth legend of Sargon, famous king of Akkad and founder of the early Akkadian dynasty (c. 2300 B.C.) in Mesopotamia. It is presented as an autobiography, but the text as we have it likely does not come from Sargon himself. It is preserved in much later documents, four tablets from the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian imperial periods; the lack of evidence makes it very difficult to determine how old the underlying traditions might be. It is a Semitic tale, sharing certain key details with the Moses birth narrative in Exod 2:1-10. The portion dealing with Sargon’s origin and birth is in lines 1-11 (of tablet K.3401); I give the translation here, from Joan Goodnick Westenholz, Legends of the Kings of Akkade (Eisenbrauns: 1997), pp. 38-41:
“Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkade, am I.
My mother was an en-priestess(?), my father I never knew.
My father’s brother inhabits the highlands.
My city is Azupiranu, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates.
She conceived me, my en-priestess mother, in concealment she gave me birth,
She set me in a wicker basket, with bitumen she made by opening water-tight,
She cast me down into the river from which I could not ascend.
The river bore me, to Aqqi the water-drawer it brought me.
Aqqi the water-drawer, when lowering his bucket, did lift me up,
Aqqi the water-drawer did raise me as his adopted son,
The close similarity with the details in Exod 2:2-3ff hardly requires comment.
It is not entirely clear why the infant Sargon is hidden away and then put into the river in a basket. Perhaps it has to do with his apparently illegitimate birth; while this detail is foreign to the Moses narrative, it has an interesting sort of parallel with the story of Jesus’ birth. The notice in Matthew 1:19 alludes to the irregular character of Jesus’ birth, and the tension/conflict it would have produced in Israelite society. There may have been rumors of illegitimacy surrounding his birth; while there is little or no mention of them in the New Testament itself, they seem to have been preserved, to some extent, in Jewish tradition (for example, b. Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; t. Hullin 2.22-23; j. Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d; cf. Brown, p. 536), and Christians felt it necessary to address them on occasion (e.g., Origen Against Celsus 1.28, 32, 69; Tertullian De Spectaculis 30:6).
Another story worth mentioning is told of Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. His grandfather king Astyages of the Medes was warned via dreams that his grandson Cyrus would eventually take over his throne. The wicked king thus sought to have the child put to death, ultimately to be abandoned on a mountain and left to die; however, the herdsman Mithradates rescued the infant , taking it home to raise as his own son. Cf. Sarna, p. 267.
Since Jesus, in the Matthean Infancy narrative, is always with his parents, there is no abandonment-motif; however, the motif of the wicked tyrant who wishes to kill the chosen/prophesied child is very much present—at least that much of the archetypal story-pattern applies to the birth of Jesus. To avoid misunderstanding, I feel it necessary to repeat here that the fulfillment of an archetypal pattern, in and of itself, says nothing about the historical reliability of the Gospel narrative; it merely indicates that the historical tradition has been shaped by the story pattern. The critical point is literary, not historical.
There are thus three primary factors which indicate that the Gospel Infancy narrative (esp. the Matthean narrative) is specifically meant to record the Birth of the Messiah, and that the Moses birth-narrative influenced how this story was told. Beyond any instance of historical verisimilitude, we can be sure of this literary influence because of these three factors:
- The Messianic association between Jesus and Moses in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition
- The many clear parallels between the Matthean narrative and Exodus 2:1-10, as well as developed forms of the Moses story in contemporary Jewish tradition—these later versions bring the Moses birth story into closer alignment with Messianic tradition and the archetypal hero-myth pattern
- The archetypal story-pattern of the threatened/abandoned hero is fitting for the Messiah, especially for the Davidic ruler and Heavenly deliverer figure-types; the Moses narrative happens to be the most immediate (and relevant) example from Old Testament and Jewish tradition
Interestingly, while there is a clear parallel between Jesus and Moses in the Matthean Infancy narrative, the emphasis is not on Jesus as an Anointed Prophet (cp. John the Baptist in the Lukan narrative), nor even on the Prophet-to-Come like Moses. Instead, the Scriptures cited (Isa 7:14 and Micah 5:2 / 2 Samuel 5:2) clearly identify Jesus as a royal Messiah—i.e. an Anointed end-time ruler from the line of David—just as he is in the Lukan Infancy narrative. The association with Moses primarily has to do with Jesus as a savior, one who will deliver his people from bondage, even as Moses did for the Israelites in Egypt.
References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993). Those marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, Commentary by Nahum Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).