I should have posted this last week when we began reading the Book of Exodus—Sh’mot (Names) in Hebrew. But I needed time to mull over the first two chapters. Names play a big role. Yet the Torah seemed to display a strange oversight.
Exodus begins by naming the sons of Israel (Jacob), who come down to Egypt under the protection offered by their brother Joseph. We know of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and the rest. We also know what their names mean since Genesis (B’reishit) tells us why their mothers named them as they did (aside from Jacob naming Benjamin). When we meet the first patriarch, Abraham, he already has a name—Abram—but God changes it to indicate that he will be the father of a great nation. Isaac, and before him Ishmael, also receive meaningful names. So does Jacob and his twin, Esau.
In the ancient Near East, knowing the name of a human or a god gave a person a degree of power over that being. Thus names often are guarded. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “man”/angel before reuniting with Esau. As sunrise nears, the angel renames Jacob Israel—one who strives or wrestles with God. But when Israel asks his opponent’s name, God’s messenger responds, “You must not ask my name!” (Gen 32:30).
Moses, too, makes inquiry of the Divine. At the Burning Bush, he asks God’s name because the Israelites in bondage in Egypt will want to know Who is sending Moses to them. God answers, but cryptically: “Eyeh-Asher-Eyheh”—“I am What I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exod. 3:14). Later, God reveals God’s ineffable name—YHVH—not pronounced by Jews, who instead say Adonai (Lord) or, in more observant circles, HaShem (The Name).
There’s the background. Now for the question: Guess who doesn’t have a name? Moses! Pharaoh’s daughter gives him that name (Moshe in Hebrew) when she has the three-month-old boy floating in a small ark drawn out of the Nile. Yet the biblical narrative never tells us “Moses’” birth name. Amram and Jocheved are his parents. Aaron is his brother and Miriam his sister. Moses’ original name remains a mystery.
The Midrash—stories seeking to fill gaps in the biblical narrative—yields many names for Moses. Leviticus Rabbah gives Moses seven names, other sources ten, including Yered (descent), Avigdor (master of the fence) and Chever (companion or connector). But all this is speculative.
Why does the biblical text tell us nothing? Perhaps Torah seeks to emphasize Moses’ deeds as an adult. Or perhaps the name Moses represents an irony too strong to be diluted. As Pharaoh’s daughter has a servant draw him out of the river, so the elder Moses draws the Israelites out from Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea—payback for the previous Pharaoh’s order: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile…” (Exod. 1:22).
Moses’ name, like his burial place, is unknown. We have his words. We have his deeds. Still, Moses forever remains a mystery beyond our reach.
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