Was Moses a Myth?

I received several recent e-mails from people asking for help answering the claim that Moses never existed but was simply copied from Babylonian mythology. Let’s take a look at the story of Moses’ birth so that we can better compare it to the ancient tale that critics say is the story’s true origin.

Moses vs. Sargon

According to the first chapter of Exodus, after Jacob and his family settled in Egypt they “grew and became prosperous.” Many years later a new Pharaoh rose to power who “knew nothing of Joseph” and, fearing the strength and numbers of the Israelites, forced them into slavery. Despite being cruelly mistreated, the Hebrews multiplied so abundantly that the Pharaoh ordered Egyptian midwives to kill the Hebrew male newborns.

Exodus 2 describes a certain Levite man and his wife who gave birth to a son and hid him from the Egyptians. When they could no longer keep his existence a secret, they had their daughter place the child in a basket floating among some reeds. As she watched from a distance, the girl saw the Pharaoh’s daughter, who come to the river to bathe, discover the child. The Pharaoh’s daughter accepted the onlooking girl’s offer of her mother’s services to nurse the child, and royal daughter named him Moses, which means “I drew him out of the water.”

 

Critics contend that this story is an imitation of an earlier myth about a hero of the ancient Akkadians named Sargon. Sargon recounts his own birth story as follows: “[My mother] laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch, and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me. The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier. Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart, Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son, Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.”[1]

Objections to the myth theory

While the Sargon story has some similarities to the Moses story, there are several facts that show the story of Moses has an Egyptian origin and is not derived from the Babylonian story.

First, there are differences between the structure and theme of the narratives. While Moses is set in the river because he is of a race suffering genocide, Sargon seems to be set in the river because he is an obstacle to a princess retaining her position. Also, while Moses’s mother has him set gently in the reeds in the hopes of his being found, Sargon’s mother seems to want to kill the child. Sargon even reflects upon her intentions when he says her actions “did not drown me.” 

The other fact that counts against the Moses story being borrowed from the Sargon story is that the Exodus account possesses Egyptian vocabulary. This would not be expected if the story had been borrowed from the Akkadians and then set in Egypt. For example, the name Moses shares a root with the Egyptian word mse, which means “to give birth.” The root can be seen in the name of several Pharaohs, including Thutmose and Ramesses. In addition, the Hebrew word for river in the Exodus account is not the usual word nahar, but the word hayeor, which is a Hebrew transliteration of the Egyptian word for Nile.

Finally, the Sargon story may have been composed in the eighth century B.C. to honor the Assyrian king Sargon II, who wanted to embellish his ancestral tradition. If this is true, it would place the story’s composition several hundred years after the book of Exodus was written, thus eliminating it as a source for the Moses story.[2]

 


[1] Otto Rank. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. (1909). Rank was a psychologist who studied birth and also dabbled in anthropology. He seems to be one of the early sources for this claim about Moses.

[2] Granted, critical scholars are likely to date the authorship of Exodus to being much later, even the seventh century B.C., but they are also likely to say that the miracles in Exodus could not, even in principle, have happened. There is a lot that can be said about this critical approach to the Old Testament that would need to be addressed in separate posts, so I won’t address it here.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
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