Character Identity

in Chapters 1 and 2

Generally, a book begins by introducing the main characters and setting the stage for the rest of the story. The Book of Exodus, however, does not seem to follow this traditional model. The main antagonist of the book, Pharaoh, or the New King, is introduced in chapter 1 and immediately begins terrorizing the Israelites. He is clearly the "bad guy" of this book. After Pharaoh is introduced, however, two unlikely and inconspicuous heroes enter the narrative. Two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, refuse to kill baby Israelite boys, as they are commanded by Pharaoh, and they are subsequently rewarded by God. After chapter 1, however, they are never heard from again. Shifrah and Puah, two heroic characters, seem to disappear almost as soon as they emerge in the narrative.

Rashi explains that Shifrah and Puah are actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses' mother and sister, respectively, whom are both introduced in chapter 2. Yet this does not explain why they are introduced as Shifrah and Puah, and why they shed those identities almost immediately. The ambiguity of Shifrah and Puah/Yocheved and Miriam is obvious; they are characters with dual identities and roles.

In chapter 2, the main protagonist of the text is finally introduced. Moses, the hero of the Exodus story, is born and drawn from the Nile by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. To add to the serendipity of the text, Moses is nursed by his own mother, an "Israelite woman."

Moses is raised in Pharaoh's house, and grows up in the shadow of his enslaved "kinsfolk". At one point, perhaps the climax of this chapter, Moses kills an Egyptian man who is beating an Israelite. This leads him to flee Egypt for neighboring Midian, where he meets his wife, and ultimately encounters God (chapter 3). Yet, something is slightly disturbing about this prior incident. The first act of the hero of the Jewish nation is one of violence and murder. Obviously, he was acting out of concern for his fellow Israelite, but his first act in the Exodus narrative story is one of moral ambiguity nonetheless.

Perhaps the answer to the ambiguousness of these characters lies not in the characters but in the actions they performed. Shifrah/Puah and Moses both act in devious ways, curtailing the laws of the land, but their actions represent something more than mere criminal offense. By breaking the immoral laws imposed on them, they exhibit a nobel form of civil disobedience. Shifrah and Puah refuse to murder innocent children, and Moses refuses to stand by and allow blatant authoritative abuse. These characters, and their actions, may be setting the stage for a theme which will perpetuate this text. The Exodus story is one of national uprising and revolution, which makes the acts of Moses and Shifrah/Puah very apropos.  

Thoreau popularized the term 'civil disobedience,' perhaps with Exodus in mind.

Part I: Moses and Sargon

  • 1. There are many striking similarities between the episode of Moses’ birth and that of Sargon. The most obvious similarity is the placement of a child in a basket on a river. Each basket is made of reeds and pitch, which seems to be the most effective way of making a basket. Moses and Sargon also come from priestly lineage, born from a Levite and a priestess respectively, and are born in secret. As well, both children were “drawn” from the water. Moses is named for this action, while Aqqi, drawer of water, removes Sargon from the water. Finally, both baby boys are raised in the homes of their adopted royal families.
  • 2. Moses’ unique origin sets him up for a unique role. He was recovered by Egyptian royalty and raised in their home, yet he never forgot his humble beginnings. Ultimately, he returns to his people and becomes their savior. Additionally, the uncanny similarity to Sargon’s origin story places Moses on the plane of royalty. Perhaps the baby-in-a-basket narrative was a common way to depict a humble leader.

Part II: Shadal on Chapter 2

  • 1. Shadal writes that Pharaoh’s daughter came to the logical conclusion that the child must be of Hebrew origin. No other mother would place their baby in a basket and send it floating down the river, perhaps in the hope that some Egyptian man would pick it up and spare its life.
  • 2. Shadal seems to think that Moses grew up in the home of Pharaoh.
  • 3. Shadal notes that Moses’ biological mother, who had been his wet nurse, would have come to visit him periodically, which is a natural thing for a wet nurse to do. Over time, she may have revealed aspects of his origins, and might have fully revealed his Hebrew lineage and her own identity.
  • 4. Shadal believes that when Moses discovered his origins, he wished to meet Hebrews. This is also the view of Moses Mendelssohn.
  • 5. In the first interaction, Moses empathized with the grueling conditions under which his brethren lived. His empathy is a hint at God’s empathy for Leah in Genesis 29. In the second interaction, Moses felt that one man was in the wrong and one was in the right. The men, however, were not afraid of Moses being an authority, for they saw him covering up the body of the Egyptian he killed.