December 8, 2023 |

Sh'mot - A Nameless Man Meets A Nameless G-d

What was Moses' name?

Duh, Moses, right?

Not so fast. Moses was the name given by Pharaoh's daughter -- but what did his parents call him? We never find out.

For that matter, what are his parent's names? His whole family is nameless at first. Even Miriam is not named in this parsha. We don't learn the names Yocheved and Amram until much later, after Moses has grown up, Ex. 6:20. Even after that, Moses is not referred to by his father's name. We hear of Joshua, son of Nun -- but of Moses, son of none.

The text is at pains to assure us of his legitimacy, at least. And yet, where is Amram? Moses, in Egyptian, means "son." The names Tut-moses and Ra-mases thus indicate greatness. But 'Moses' by itself? The absence of a father's name is blatant. Moses, growing up, did not know his name or his father's name.

In context, that's even more glaring. Sh'mot begins with the "names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob." Ex. 1:1. But Moses, the one Israelite of the generation of slavery whom we really get to know as a person, has no name and no father that he knows. This graphically demonstrates the Israelites' degradation -- their very identity has been taken away.

In their namelessness, they are weak. They cannot protect their baby boy. He is consigned to the great anonymous waters of the Nile, where Pharoah's daughter (herself nameless) finds him and at last gives him a name. But what a name! In Egyptian, as discussed above, it suggests bastardy. In Hebrew, it is weirdly passive. "I drew him out." Not "he draws out," or even, "he who is drawn out." Moses, like a toy, is named from the perspective of a child playing at being a mother. She "made him her son" after he is weaned (Ex. 2:10), but how, in that society, could a woman alone truly have a son? Again, the absence of a father, a real name, or a true place in society, is blatant.

Moses' namelessness, his lack of family authority, ruins his first attempt to find a place for himself. Moses, we are told, goes out to his kinsfolk. Ex. 2:11. (Unlike in the movie versions of this tale, there is no suggestion that Moses was ever in doubt about his ethnicity). Why would he do that? Well, to find out why a person does a thing, look at what he does next. The next thing Moses does is defend an Israelite by force, the next thing after, to attempt to adjudicate a dispute between two Israelites. Ex. 2:12-13. In short, he acts like a leader, even a king. That makes sense. Moses, the Israelite in the King's house, naturally wants to be the Israelite king.

Perhaps he even dreamed of making Pharaoh's fears of a slave rebellion a reality. Why not? The Hyskos supplanted the native rulers of Eqypt once, why couldn't the Hebrews? They had great power not so long ago. This "new Pharaoh" who "knew not Joseph" may well have been a new dynasty, his place so precarious that he had to, or at least felt he had to, sweep out the old regime's bureaucratic class, Joseph's tribes, to safeguard his throne. Certainly his power is less than total, he can't even get a couple of Hebrew midwives to obey him. So why not dream of an uprising?

It doesn't work, of course. The unnamed Israelite sneers, "Who made you chief and ruler over us?" The Israelite goes on to ask the logical question of how Moses intends to enforce a decree: "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses is panicked: "the thing is known!"

Does he mean the killing is known, or his ambition? The latter, the text suggests: "When Pharaoh learned of the thing, he sought to kill Moses." An unlikely reaction to a household pet killing a commoner, but a very normal response to a nascent slave rebellion. And after all, Moses could hardly have thought the killing, as such, would be secret from the Israelites - he "saw no one about" when he killed the man (Ex. 2:12) but that must mean, no one except the slave whom the overseer had been beating. What Moses hoped to keep veiled, was his ambition, his attempt to force a place for himself (and perhaps for his people) in Egyptian society.

His ambition crushed, his pretensions exposed, and his life in peril, Moses flees. Taking power by force is not the answer to his, or the Israelites', identity problem.

And then, many years later, the nameless son of nobody sees a strange sight and turns aside to see a wonder... and meets G-d.

Well, a god. He doesn't know yet it's the one and only G-d. So he naturally asks, which one are you, are you really the same one our ancestors knew? What is your name? Ex. 3:13. G-d answers, we all know, "I am what I am." Ex. 2:14. Or maybe "I will be what I will be." Either way, the point is, G-d refuses to be named. God is too big for names.

And suddenly, there is an answer to "Who made you chief and ruler over us"... and suddenly, namelessness flips from the symbol of abject weakness, to a declaration of absolute power. Moses, the nameless son of nobody, is now a chief of his people by the authority of the nameless G-d Who created the universe, and the weakness of the Israelites transforms into a strength undreamed of. Moses doesn't need another name, he doesn't need to be a king of the Jews, and he (and the Israelites) don't need to take over Egypt. Who are we? Like G-d, with G-d, we will be who we will be.


Manny Jacobowitz

Joined: December 12, 2010

Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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