The Newborn Moses
Arguably one of the most puzzling verses in Holy Scripture is that which tells why Moses’ mother did not drown him at birth. For the purpose of introducing this subject as a matter of inquiry, but without recommending the accuracy of the translation, I quote the relevant verse in the New King James Version: “And when she saw he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2).
This verse is puzzling in two ways. First, taken as a plain assertion—“he was beautiful, so she hid him”—the verse just won’t do. Are we to imagine that all the other little Hebrew boys were ugly? Since the beauty in Moses’ case is given as the reason for his parents’ refusal to obey Pharaoh’s command, we suspect that a deeper, subtler significance is intended.
Second, ancient interpreters, though differing among themselves somewhat about details, agree that its meaning is more mysterious than at first appears.
We may begin with the New Testament witnesses, Stephen and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In their reading of this verse, both these early Christians maintained the adjective asteios, which the Septuagint used to describe Moses. Although this word is most often translated as “well formed” or “beautiful,” each of these sources recognized that the appearance of the newborn Moses was of a quality different from merely human beauty.
Thus, after the adjective asteios, Stephen added the qualifying expression to Theo, “to God,” which effectively changes the sense of the verse to “well pleasing to God” (Acts 7:20). Moreover, Stephen was describing Moses himself, his relationship to the Lord, not his mother’s assessment of the child. In fact, Stephen does not even mention Moses’ mother.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23). Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11, faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.
These early Christian interpretations of Exodus 2:2 are not unlike those found among ancient Jewish readers of the text. For example, Philo wrote that the newborn Moses “had a beauty more than human” ( de Vita Moysi 1.9), and Josephus apparently agreed ( Antiquities 2.9.6 §224). Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, went even further, speculating that the house was filled with light at Moses’ birth. Indeed, he wrote, when Pharaoh’s daughter opened the little basket floating on the Nile, she beheld the Shekinah, the luminous cloud of the divine glory.
All of these readings, differing among themselves in detail, are in accord in their search for a deeper, subtler meaning in the Bible’s description of the newborn Moses. They all agree that his beautiful appearance was revelatory of God’s purpose.
I respectfully offer here another approach to the passage.
Most of the authors I have cited (Rashi the exception) based their interpretations of Exodus 2:2 on the Septuagint. I suggest that we look more closely at the underlying Hebrew text, which asserts of Moses’ mother, wattere’ ’oto ki tov hu’, literally, “and she saw that he was good.”
The most obvious parallels to this passage, I submit, are the several places where the Book of Genesis says of Creation, “And God saw that it was good,” wayyar’ ’Elohim ki tov (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31). It is remarkable that both passages employ the identical predicate (ra’ah) and exactly the same objective clause (ki tov). That is to say, each of these books begins with the selfsame assertion, ra’ah ki tov—“. . . saw that . . . was good.” Moreover, this verbal correspondence between Genesis and Exodus is certainly deliberate on the author’s part. Thus, God’s salvific deed in Exodus is here set in intentional parallel with his creative work in Genesis. I propose that this harmony pertains to the deeper, subtler significance of the text.
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“The Newborn Moses” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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