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Moses and Jesus: the birth of the Savior.

THE ACCOUNT OF THE BIRTH OF MOSES IN the Book of Exodus is extremely brief. In the space of the first three short verses in Chapter 2 we read that a man of the house of Levi takes a daughter of Levi, who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. The boy is hidden for three months and is then sent down the river. Other details, such as the parents' names and the existence of other siblings, are omitted as the text focuses all dramatic attention on the birth of the child and his subsequent well-being. We first hear that the child has an older sister when we read in verse 4 that she stood by watching as he floated down the river. We are told the names of Moses' parents in Chapter 6 verse 20, after God reveals Himself to Moses and appoints him messenger to deliver the Israelites from Egypt.

Even in the terse Biblical account, there are wondrous aspects to Moses' birth and infancy. When he was born he was seen by his mother as a goodly child, ki tov, a usage which echoes the ki tov spoken by God at the Creation of the universe. Further, Moses escaped the fate of the other male children. The Midrash embellishes the wondrous aspects of the story. Legends about the birth of Moses are found in the Babylonian Talmud and the later Midrashic collections, including Exodus Rabbah, Midrash ha-Gadol, Yalkut Shimoni, and Sefer ha-Yashar. Parallels to much of the material are found in Josephus, pointing to the antiquity of many of the legends.

Through the picture that the rabbis created, the greatness of Moses can already be detected in his infancy; it can also be seen in the special circumstances of his birth. As has been noted, similar stories about prophets and great teachers are found in other religions: the birth of the prophet or teacher is attended with signs and miracles; frequently the child overcomes early dangers to his life. He shows surprising knowledge in his youth.(1)

The Midrash connects the birth of Moses with the decrees of Pharaoh, or, rather, it connects the decrees of Pharaoh with the prediction of the coming birth of the Hebrew savior. Of this prediction there are several versions. According to the Jerusalem Targum (on Exodus 1: 15), Pharaoh had a dream in which he dreamt that all of Egypt was on one scale and a young goat was on the other. The latter outweighed the former. This dream was interpreted to Pharaoh to mean that an Israelite child would be born who would destroy all of Egypt. Josephus relates that the announcement to Pharaoh of the birth of this child is made by one of the sacred scribes (Antiquities II, 1. 205); in Exodus Rabbah (I, 22), Pharaoh is informed of the impending birth of a redeemer by his astrologers. In response to this announcement, Pharaoh issues a decree to the entire nation, or, alternatively, only to the Israelites, to cast their

male-children into the river (B. Sotah 12a, Exodus Rabbah I, 18; cf. Ex. 1:22).

At this point, according to a tradition of Tannaitic provenance, Amram, one of the leaders of his generation, divorces his wife, Yokheved, reasoning that it is useless to chance having children if all male-children are to be killed. Other Israelite men follow Amram's course of action, but his daughter, Miriam, rises to reproach her father. "Father," she says, "your decree is worse than that of Pharaoh -- Pharaoh has decreed only against the male-children, but you decree against both males and females ...." In response to this reproach, Amram retakes his wife.

The concept of a remarriage of Amram and Yokheved helps explain the presence of an older sister in the birth story. At the same time it explains why the birth of Moses is presented as if it were the birth of a first child. The reason is that Moses is the first child born after the remarriage of his parents.

The ceremony of remarriage in which Amram retook Yokheved was no ordinary one. According to Rabbi Judah ben Zevina in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 12a), Amram placed Yokheved in a palanquin. Aaron and Miriam danced before her, while ministering angels sang a verse from Psalm 113, "The mother of the children is happy."

It is worth noting several rabbinic traditions regarding Amram and Yokheved. Both are considered righteous. Amram is one of four people who died, not on account of his own sins, but because of the decree directed against all humankind (B. Baba Batra 17a). He is one of seven people who helped bring the Shekhinah closer to earth (Song of Songs Rabbah 5,1). Yokheved, mother of Moses, is called by that name, meaning God is glorious, because her face reflected the Divine glory (Midrash ha-Gadol on Ex. 2:1).

Extraordinary things happened to Yokheved at that time. The rabbis took bat Levi, daughter of Levi, literally. If Yokheved was the daughter of Levi, she would have been 130 years old at the time of her remarriage, having been born upon the entry of the Israelites into Egypt. So why is she called daughter, signifying a young woman? Because, according to Rabbi Judah ben Zabida (or Zevina), signs of youth were reborn in her: her flesh became smooth, her wrinkles straightened out, and her beauty was restored (B. Baba Batra 120a). Both the conception and childbirth of Moses were painless, for Yokheved was excluded from the decree placed on Eve (Sotah 12a, cf. Josephus Antiquities II, 1.220) -- according to a gloss, by virtue of her righteousness.

Moses' role as savior (moshiah) is predicted before he is born. In Josephus, Amram is told by God in a dream that the child to be born "will deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt" (Antiquities II, 212, 215-216). This tradition is elsewhere ascribed to Miriam (and according to the Midrash this is the reason why she is called Miriam the prophet at the Song of the Sea). Miriam prophesies: "My mother will give birth to a son who will save Israel" (sheyoshia et Yisrael).

When Moses is born, he is immediately recognized as special. As was noted, his mother sees that he is a goodly child (ki tov). Various interpretations are offered: that his parents recognized that he was fit for prophecy, that he was born circumcised, and, according to the sages, that the entire house was filled with light when he was born (Sotah 12a), for the phrase ki tov alludes to an earlier usage during creation: "And God saw the light and it was good." According to Rabbi Nathaniel, in the Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 48), the form of the newborn child was as an angel of the Lord. Rabbi Jose ben Haninah relates that when Pharaoh's daughter opened the ark which contained the infant Moses, she saw the Shekhinah with him (Sotah 12b).

The similarities between the birth stories of Moses and Jesus are striking. Obvious parallels exist between the New Testament stories and the tale in Exodus:(2)

1. In Matt. 2:13-14, Herod was going to search for the child to destroy him, so Joseph took the child and his mother and went away. In Exodus 2:15, Pharaoh sought to do away with Moses, so Moses went away.

2. Herod's massacre of the boys in Bethlehem parallels Pharaoh's command to throw the Hebrew children into the Nile.

3. In Matt 2:19. Herod dies; in Ex 2:23, the king of Egypt dies.

4. In Matt 2:19-20, the angel of the Lord says to Joseph in Egypt, "Go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." The language is similar to Ex. 4:19, "The Lord said to Moses in Midian, 'Return to Egypt, for those who were seeking your life are dead.'"

The Midrashic tales of Moses offer additional parallels between the birth of Jesus and that of Moses:

1. The impending birth of each is announced to Herod and Pharaoh respectively, and both monarchs are filled with dread at the news.

2. Amram is told that his wife will give birth to a son who will save Israel; Joseph is told that Mary's son will be called Jesus "for he will save the people from their sins." (It should be noted that "from their sins" may be a later gloss.)(3)

3. The birth of Jesus is heralded by a star; at the birth of Moses there is great light.

4. From the start, both children are recognized as extraordinary.

5. Joseph espouses Mary while she is pregnant. This has an interesting parallel in a cryptic statement found in the Talmud that Amram married -- or rather remarried -- Yokheved while she was already pregnant. We will return to this statement later.

According to the late French midrashist, Renee Bloch, the parallels between Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus and the Midrashic traditions about the birth of Moses are not accidental, for "the author of Matthew had in mind constantly the story of Moses' birth according to the Midrashic tradition."(4) To the rabbis, Moses was the prototype of the Messiah. And, according to Rabbi Berakhiah, the final redeemer will be like the first (Eccl. Rabbah 1,9; Targum Lamentations 2,22). It is thus not surprising that the New Testament pictured so many of the patterns of Moses' birth as repeating themselves in the birth of Jesus.

There is one feature of the birth of Jesus which seems to have no antecedent in the Moses accounts: the idea of the virgin conception. It is commonly believed that "there was no Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be God's son in the sense of having been conceived without a male parent."(5) Traces of such an idea can, however, be found, and it is possible that there was at some point a legend about the supernatural conception of Moses, a legend that was later suppressed because of its similarities to the Jesus story.

The idea of supernatural conception is not totally alien to the history of Judaism. The idea may be found in Philo, who states (On the Cherubim, 40-48), that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are not represented by the lawgiver as having known a woman. Sarah, according to Philo, conceived when God visited her in her solitude. Leah's womb was opened by God, not by her husband. Similarly, Moses, when he took Zipporah, found her pregnant through "no mortal agency," and Tamar and Hannah both received divine seed. Philo cautions his readers that these thoughts are "holy mysteries." Given the complexity of Philo's allegory, some have questioned whether he was really expressing a belief in a Divine conception.(6) Goodenough feeds that Philo was, indeed, expressing such a belief, and that his De Isaaca may have been suppressed (and lost) because of uncanny similarities with the birth and resurrection of Jesus.(7)

There may be a rabbinic text referring to the birth of the Messiah through an unusual seed. In Genesis Rabbah 23, in the comment on the verse (Gen. 4:25) "And she called his name Seth because God has appointed me another seed (zera aher)," Rabbi Tanhuma explained it in the name of Samuel Kuzit as referring to that seed which comes from another place (mi'makom aher), and that is the king Messiah. This line is found again in Genesis Rabbah 51 and in Ruth Rabbah, 8,1. This midrash was cited by some Christians in their disputations with Jews during the Middle Ages.(8) Traditional Jewish interpreters took these statements to refer to the fact that the Messiah is descended from Ruth, who is of a strange seed, namely Moab, who was not to enter into the congregation of Israel. This interpretation, however, seems somewhat strained. The original sense of the text may have been that the Messiah was to have an unusual conception, and the idea that Moab was the strange seed may have been a secondary interpretation coming from a time when Jews wished to disassociate themselves from ideas that seemed too Christian.

There are two possible hints in Jewish literature that the conception of Moses may have been somewhat unusual. There is a strange line in the core portion of the Passover Haggadah, in the Midrashic explication of the credo of Deut. 26, universally recognized as being very old, possibly pre-Maccabean.(9) Deut. 26:7 reads, "And God saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression." The Haggadah explains "our affliction" as abstention from sexual intercourse, and gives as its proof-text Ex. 2:25, "And God saw the children of Israel and God knew." There is no difficulty in understanding how "affliction" was associated with sexual abstinence, for, as pointed out by David Daube, the verb "to afflict" is used in passages enjoining fasting on the Day of Atonement, and the rabbis understood such fasting as including abstaining from marital relations. The association of Ex. 2:25 with this idea is much more difficult. Daube suggests that the Midrash would then be that God saw the Israelites' abstinence from sexual intercourse and, since natural propagation was impossible, God intervened, and the women, or perhaps only the mother of Moses, conceived from God.(10)

Other midrashim definitely see God as actively involved in assisting the Israelites in procreating in Egypt. On the verse (Ex. 1:7), "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly and multiplied and waxed exceedingly mighty, and the land was filled with them," the rabbis commented that six children were born at each Israelite birth (Exodus Rabbah 1,8). Later, when Pharaoh placed taskmasters on the Israelites and forbade marital relations among them, God assisted the Israelite women when they went into the fields to feed their husbands and cohabit with them. When they gave birth in the fields, God sent angels to take care of the children (Exodus Rabbah 1,12). Given this context, it does not appear implausible that the Midrash in the Haggadah saw God as even more actively involved in the Israelite birth process.

The second possible hint of unusual conception is found in the Midrashic explication of the statement in Ex. 2:3 that Moses' mother hid him for three months. The Jerusalem Targum, several of the later Midrashic works, and the commentary of Rashi, explain that Moses was born prematurely, after six months, and that his mother was thus able to hide him until the time that the Egyptians expected her to give birth. However, a tradition found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 12a) gives a different explanation, namely that Yokheved was able to hide Moses for three months because she was already pregnant for three months at the time of her remarriage with Amram. The Egyptians suspected that she would give birth nine months after her remarriage, and so Yokheved was able to avoid the watchful eyes of the Egyptians for three months.

The exact timing of Amram and Yokheved's divorce and remarriage is not spelled out. The common interpretation of the sequence of events is as follows: Amram divorces Yokheved upon hearing Pharaoh's decree. He does not realize that she is already pregnant. Miriam intercedes and Amram remarries Yokheved three months after their separation. Six months later Moses is born.

The relatively late Chronicles of Moses and Sefer ha-Yashar give a three year time span to the divorce and remarriage of Amram and Yokheved. They suggest that Miriam was born at the beginning of the enslavement in Egypt (hence her name Miriam, from mar, or bitter) and that Aaron was born at the time that the decree was made to throw the Israelite male-children into the Nile. (The Torah does not explain how Aaron survived.) At that time, Amram separated from Yokheved. After three years, Miriam predicted the birth of a savior, and Amram remarried Yokheved, who became pregnant and gave birth.

The Chronicles of Moses do not deal with the question of the three months. Sefer Ha-Yashar does, however, and explains that Yokheved gave birth in the seventh month. This idea of the premature birth of Moses, already found in the Jerusalem Targum, is adopted by the Midrash Hagadol and by Rashi. This explanation has become so standard that, in more recent times, Louis Ginzberg, in his Legends of the Jews, writes that "Jokhebed gave birth to the child six months after conception."(11) Only in his notes do we learn that an alternative interpretation for the three month period exists.

These are naturalistic scenarios. However, there is another possible scenario which is based on an alternative interpretation of the tradition found in the Babylonian Talmud. Pharaoh issues his decree; Amram divorces Yokheved. A considerable time later, Miriam intercedes and Amram remarries his divorced wife, who is already pregnant, having conceived during the period of abstinence through some miraculous manner. This legend is not found as is, but is reconstructed from the known parts of the story. It fits the tenor of the other miraculous aspects of the pregnancy: conception at age 130, and the rejuvenation of Yokheved. It fits the image of the remarriage ceremony pictured by Rabbi Judah ben Zevina, of the angels singing, "The mother of the children rejoices," and of the children dancing before Yokheved. The great emphasis on Yokheved in this picture points to her being pregnant with the Hebrew savior.

Numerous parallels exist between the birth of Jesus as told in the New Testament and the birth of Moses as described in the Midrash. Both births are preceded by announcement of the coming of a savior. Both children are marked as special at birth. The births are accompanied by a manifestation of light. Each child faces a serious threat to life during his infancy. The one parallel to the birth story of Jesus which is conspicuously absent in the Midrashim of the birth of Moses is the Divine conception. The Midrash does, however, point to Divine assistance in the birth process of the Israelites in Egypt, and possible references to a miraculous conception are scattered in the Midrash. The suggestive tone of the line in the Passover Haggadah, "And God knew," as well as the statement in the Talmud that Yokheved was pregnant for three months before Amram remarried her, lead us to the possibility that a Jewish legend of a miraculous conception of Moses did, in fact, exist. If, indeed, there was such a legend, it was clearly suppressed. Ample reason certainly existed for such suppression by the rabbis. In Christianity, the belief in the divine conception of Jesus became a key element in the depiction of Jesus as son of God. This concept had no place in Judaism, nor in the story of its greatest hero, Moses. The hints that remain in rabbinic literature are, therefore, but traces of lost legends.

ALLAN KENSKY is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

1. H.W. Obbink, "On the Legends of Moses; in the Haggadah,"' Studia Biblica et Semitica T.C. Vriezen Dedicata, ed. W.C. van Unnick and A.S. vander Woude (Wageningen, 1966), p. 252.

2. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, 1979), pp. 112-116.

3. P. Winter, "Jewish Folklore in the Matthean Birth Story," Hibbert Journal 53 (1954-55):40.

4. Renee Bloch, "Quelques Aspects de la Figure de Moise dans la Tradition Rabbinique," Moise, l'Homme de l'Alliance, pp. 164-165.

5. Brown, Op. cit., p. 312.

6. Ibid., p. 524.

7. Erwin R. Goodenough, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven, 1935), p. 155.

8. See Raymundus Martini, Pugio Fidei.

9. See Louis Finkelstein, "The Oldest Midrash," Harvard Theological Review XXI, 4 (1938).

10. David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London, 1956), p. 7.

11. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1920), vol. II, p. 264.
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Author:Kensky, Allan
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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