Moses as Abandoned Hero

Although many ancient abandoned hero stories survive, the biblical example of the story Moses has some clear points of departure.

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Forbearing to commit the deed himself, the man sum­moned a herdsman named Mithradates, handed him the baby, and commanded him to leave him to die on a mountain range. The herdsman, however, took the infant home, only to discover that his wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby. The couple substituted Cyrus for the dead infant, whose body they left on the hills instead. Ten years later, by a quirk of fate, Cyrus's true identity was uncovered.

How the Story of Moses Differs

A close examination of the account of the birth of Moses clearly demonstrates striking differences that distinguish it from the foregoing examples. Other than the life-threatening exposure of the infant, all the significant details of the Torah's narrative are antithetical to the conventional characteristics of the literary genre that has to do with the birth legends of heroes.

First of all, a singular feature in the biography of Moses is the absence of a divine announcement foretelling his birth. There are no prophecies about his destiny or fate, no omens of future greatness, and no supernatural phenomena appear in connection with the event. The absence of these items conspicuously distinguishes the biblical narrative from the popular biographies of heroes.

There are many other considerations as well. The baby Moses is neither the issue of an illicit relationship nor the child of nobility or royalty. There is no parental or grandfatherly hostility to the newly born. The mother desperately makes every effort to retain her offspring at home as long as possible, and she cedes him to the river only to circumvent the pharaoh's decree of genocide.

Even then, she does not assign the task to someone else but carefully and tenderly puts the baby in a well-caulked basket that she places among the clumps of reeds by the riverbank, so that it would not float away and would be spotted by the princess. She also takes measures to make sure that she keeps track of developments. Again, the finder in the Exodus story is not the usual person of humble birth but the daughter of royalty, who at once recognizes the Hebrew identity of the infant.

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Nahum Sarna

Nahum M. Sarna was Dora Golding Professor Emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and the Gimbelstob Eminent Scholar and Professor of Judaica at Florida Atlantic University.