Reading Time: 12 minutes

Unfortunately, over the extensive series concerning the availability of pitch as a waterproofing caulk in the Nile River area of Egypt during the New Kingdom era, we have failed to see the crap for the pitch.

Let us get back on an even (thoroughly pitch-caulked) keel by looking at the birth myth again, not in the context of it being appropriated from the Sumerian birth myth of Sargon of Akkad, a story that predated Moses’ birth myth, but by looking at the claims in and of themselves. Okay, with some contemporary mythology thrown in (like a baby in a basket into a crocodile-infested river?).

I have previously looked at the Exodus story is as a whole narrative and shown how the story, as zoomed out, is utterly ridiculous. See Debunking the Exodus II: A Ridiculous Story with Ridiculous Claims. I have also shown how it extensively draws on the Sargon myth; it is the same story: absent father, mother puts unwanted baby in a pitch basket and sends it down the river to be picked up by a royal household where the baby is brought up in secret to become a leader hero. As Jonathan Cohen states in his chapter “The Moses Nativity Story in the Bible” in The Origins and Evolution of the Moses Nativity Story (p. 8 – it is well worth reading his whole chapter if you can):

The detailed account of the ark’s construction, found in verse 3, is not justified by its context in the narrative. This indicates that the origins of the motif are not in the biblical story itself, rather in some archetype to which the biblical story is heir.

Fun tip: see the similarities with Karna in the Mahabharata. But let’s not revisit that can of worms (see the links at the end of this piece). Now let us consider the birth story in its own right.

According to the Bible, the Pharaoh decreed that all male Hebrew children, since the Hebrews were slaves of the Egyptians, were to be drowned in the Nile.

The first problem, of course, is that we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever for Hebrew slavery in Egypt. None. I’ve already talked about how massive the numbers had to have been for the whole story to work, and for the Hebrews to be such a threat to the Egyptians. I mean, we have archaeological evidence of Bedouin tribes at the time in Kadesh Barnea creating tent settlements and using a few tools and making fires. But we don’t have any evidence of an entire population of Hebrews living and working as slaves in Egypt for all those years, breaking out whilst doing a whole bunch of miracles, all while there were 10 plagues ravaging the land, crossing the Red Sea and the Sea miraculously parting and destroying the Egyptian army following along. And then wandering around the desert as a couple of million people, animals, tents, supplies and whatnot for 40 years.

There is no evidence of any of this. Literally none. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Let that sink in.

So this didn’t happen. This is what mainstream academia will tell you. But Christian apologists see it another way. This definitely happened and the birth story is a historical fact.

Okay, so no evidence of a Pharaoh decreeing to an enslaved Hebrew population that every male child will be drowned. Let’s forget that problem and move on to the next. What we have is a nifty little reworking of Noah’s Ark. Just as the Ark was covered in pitch, the basket containing Moses was covered in pitch. No small coincidence. He was sent off down the river to come to rest somewhere new, somewhere safe. Just like Noah’s Ark.

We could stop there, in the midst and mists of obvious mythology.

Alas, I must not tarry (for we have already spent too long on tarry).

Exodus 2 reads:

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him.

Let’s just think about whether this is something that would likely actually happen. Forgetting whether pitch was actually readily available and actually used to waterproof baskets, and forgetting that we have no evidence of such pitch-caulked baskets existing, this is a really, really weird thing to do. You have a baby and wanted to survive. You don’t give it away. You don’t hide it. You don’t go and leave it outside someone’s house. At the end of the day, you decide to place it in a pitch-covered basket, put it in a river infested with crocodiles, and set it on its way.

You see, the hope here is that it will be picked up by someone who is willing to raise it. Someone who is not a Hebrew. Otherwise, you would just give it to one of your fellow Hebrews. So the idea is that this baby is going to find its way to an Egyptian. So the probability of finding an Egyptian who is willing to take in is equally as low as just leaving it on an Egyptian street. Except, we have the added danger of crocodiles, waves, sinking, and drowning. This is so obviously mythical that I find it hard to believe that any serious thinker would entertain this as a historical fact.

As one of my commenters (Raging Bee) observed: “Pitch or no pitch, that’s just not something any woman would do to a baby she wanted to live.”

But it gets even more unlikely. Not only does this baby in its ark find a caring Egyptian who doesn’t mind about a random Hebrew baby, and apparently you could tell it was Hebrew, but also this loving person just happened to be in the Royal household. Even better still, it was a daughter of the Pharaoh. This is just insanely fortuitous!

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her maidens walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” 

She’s a pretty good anthropologist.

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for you?”Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go ahead.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”

Before I get onto talking about that Moses’ name, let me just discuss how wildly improbable this is. So, the mother sends the basket with the baby down the river. The sister watches it to make sure it’s safe (more on this being appropriated from the Egyptians later). But also, the sister happens to be working as one of the maidens for the Pharaoh’s daughter. She then suggests a wet nurse who just so happens to be the actual child’s mother. So the mother is reunited almost immediately with the baby she has just cast into a river full of crocodiles.

I can’t overstate this. The story is fantasy. It is complete and utter, unfiltered and totally unrealistic fantasy.

I’m not sure I can help the Christian apologist who really, really, really, really wants this story to be historically true. It is not. If you saw this in the holy book of any other religion on Earth – and there are plenty of similar birth myths – you would reject it out of hand. I think that for the Christian or Jewish literalist to assert that this story is historically accurate is to employ double standards of epic proportions.

I’ve already introduced you to a source that looks closely at the etymology of the name given to this boy.

There is interesting etymology of Moses, here, too, in meaning (as according to Exodus “because I drew him out of the water”) “the one who draws out”. In his paper “A Structuralist Exercise: The Problem of Moses’ Name”[1], Michael Carroll directly connects Moses’ name to the Sargon (birth) myth.

Indeed, Carroll states (p. 776-7):

Rank (1959[1909]) long ago made the point that ”placing the hero on a body of water at birth” is an element found in hero stories from a great variety of historically unrelated cultures. The simple fact that both Moses and Sargon are abandoned on water at birth is, therefore, not in itself evidence of historical connection between the two stories. Nevertheless, the fact that the two stories are so similar in so many details (the placing of the infant into a reed basket sealed with bitumen, abandonment upon a major river, being found by a foster parent at the river’s edge), plus the fact that the Sargon story was well known in the ancient Middle East circa 1000 B.C., when the Moses legend was taking shape, have suggested to many scholars that the story of Moses’ birth was in fact direcl.tly modeled upon the story of Sargon‘s birth. Sometimes this hypothesis has been stated quite boldly (as in Frazer 1919:450-451); often it is only implicit (Gray 1971 :38). But it is a hypothesis that is by no means novel.

What has generally been overlooked, however, is the fact that the Sargon story provides a basis for explaining why Moses is associated with the ”one who draws out” since the Sargon story, too, makes explicit reference to ~omeone who “draws out. ” That someone is, of course, Akki, Sargon’s foster parent. Though most older translations describe Akki as an ”irrigator,” this term can just as easily be translated as “drawer of water” (since that is precisely what a Mesopotamian irrigator did), and in fact in his most recent translation Speiser (1969[19551:119) prefers ”drawer of water” to “irrigator.”

This common association of both Akki and Moses with the label ”drawer of water” has not been entirely unnoticed by previous commentators. Winckler (1902, cited in Rank 1959[19091:16n), for instance, pointed to the common association of Akki and Moses with the label “drawer of water” as yet another similarity between the Sargon and the Moses birth stories. Nevertheless, Winckler aside, the fact remains that most of those commenting upon these two stories over the past century have ignored the fact that both stories refer to someone who “draws out.”…

That the story of Sargon’s birth and the story of Moses’ birth are related has, of course, been obvious for over a century.

Indeed, he draws on his previous work (and what is known as the “Transformation Rule”, as seen in the Genesis accounts, to explain why biblical stories (for example) that are lifted from elsewhere exchange prominent details. So in the Moses story, Akki the Irrigator is lowly, and this gets transformed into someone of much higher standing. Indeed, this feeds into his theorising as to how the Moses name and etymology developed. Check out his paper.

Pulling on the work Hugo Gressmann, German Old Testament scholar, Jonathan Cohen in his aforementioned chapter states that the way that the birth story of Moses is worked into Exodus is typical of a legendary nativity as it is unrelated to the content of the narrative as it carries on. It is as if it is tacked on (due to its symbolic meaning to the audience), and once its job is done, it is effectively discarded and plays no further role (p. 5-6):

…Nor is there any subsequent mention of other motifs associated with the nativity: the miraculous way in which Moses was rescued, and in particular his adoption: and he became her son (Ex. 2:10), and his growing up in the Pharaoh’s palace. In all the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh there is not even the slightest allusion to this background.

…Thus it is clear that the ancient traditions were not familiar with the nativity legend. Discerning this is of utmost importance, since it releases us from evaluating various methods of assigning sources to documents, advanced by different Bible scholars. Moreover, the evidence for the late date of the nativity’s story’s incorporation removes the underpinnings from source differentiation according the classical documentary view.

Many parallel texts from the folk literature of other peoples reveal that the story of the birth of Moses took shape within an existing pattern. Having noticed this, E. Meyer has said that the Moses nativity story should be viewed as belonging to the category of migratory legends. Gressmann developed this point further, comparing our story primarily to the legend of the birth of Sargon.

But let’s look again at what was actually supposedly happening. Another of my commenters, Lex Lata, explained the huge problems:

The bafflement continues with Pharaoh’s daughter. She presumably knows all Hebrew boys are to be killed. Then finds a recognizably Hebrew infant boy she wants to help. Then sends him to live with a Hebrew wetnurse (his mother), putting him in precisely the perilous situation in which he started. Wut?

And then she adopts this identifiably Hebrew boy, and gives him a name derived from a Hebrew verb for some reason. Then brings him into the royal household, and apparently neither Pharaoh nor anyone else is troubled that this Hebrew kid with a Hebrew-sounding name just lives there now. Wut?

Sure, you can argue that it all worked out according to Yahweh’s plan, but Pharaoh’s daughter’s motives and judgment just don’t compute. The decisions and events seem rather contrived.

The word “rather” is the understatement of the year. This is incredibly contrived and the probability of this being a historically accurate account of the birth of Moses is, well, for all intents and purposes, impossible. It didn’t happen.

There is simply no sense to the story at all. But it doesn’t need to be. This is cultural mythology. In the same way that the myths of St George slaying the dragon are not true, this is not true. It’s obviously not true. The only reason it gets to the Christian veto system is that it has been normalised by telling and retelling and retelling again throughout time and place and when one is too young to know what is plausible and what is implausible. I’m not saying this to try and rile the Christian reader here. It is simply obviously not true. I mean, it’s obvious.

Am I being clear enough?

Do I need to list all of the abandoned child myths throughout all the cultures of the world? Interestingly, the Moses birth myth doesn’t make a slightly important change in that the intention of the mother in abandoning the child was that the child should survive, as discussed already. This needs to be seen in parallel form in pre-existing Egyptian mythology:

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.

I can’t tell you how significant this is. Not only is the Moses birth myth drawing from the Mesopotamian culture in which the writing of the Torah was originally set, but it is also drawing from the Egyptian cultural milieu in which the story itself was set.

The story is loaded with symbolism. To return to Cohen again (p. 15):

Analysis of the parallels to the Moses story led us to conclude above that this story should be viewed as the result of blending three basic elements: the tradition of enslavement, joined with two archetypes of birth stories – the murder pattern and the ark pattern.

Cohen goes into some depth in his analysis of the Moses archetypal motifs and related symbolism.

Because this is myth.

I don’t know how you could conclude otherwise. In knowing of the existence of both the Sumerian and Egyptian myths, you cannot see the Moses story as independent and as historical.

You cannot.

I don’t.


[1] Carroll, Michael P., “A Structuralist Exercise: The Problem of Moses’ Name”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1985), pp. 775-778


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...