What Was Moses’ Real Name?

moses saved from the waters

In Exodus 2:10, we have a curious remark attributed to the Egyptian princess who saved Moses from the river: “She named him Moses, saying, ‘I drew him out of the water.'” Now, this is generally considered by rabbinical tradition to be a Hebrew pun: Moses is “Moshe” in Hebrew, and “I drew him” is “meshitihu”–they have the same consonantal root. However, the pun is extremely tenuous, and Moshe (with its vowels) does not actually work as a Hebrew name. In addition, you must account for an Egyptian princess making a pun in Hebrew (or rather, in Proto-Canaanite; there is really no difference between Hebrew and Canaanite at this date). This makes no sense, and so some scholars consider this record either a scribal addition to explain Moses’ strange name or an outright error. I argue that it is neither. She did, in fact, name him “Moses”–and something more, which perfectly justified the rest of her comment, made in Egyptian, with no Hebrew pun in evidence.

Scholars agree that Moses/Moshe is a perfectly legitimate name of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt, meaning “offspring” or “child,” but it’s usually found in conjunction with a god’s name: Ramose, meaning “child of Ra,” Thutmose, meaning “child of Toth,” and so on. Many scholars think that there was originally more to Moses’ name, a pagan element that Moses dropped as soon as he left Egypt. I would suggest, from the cryptic comment and what we know of Egyptian mythology, that his full name meant “child of Osiris”–offensively pagan to the Hebrews, but it would make perfect sense with the princess’ remark–“She named him Child of Osiris, saying, ‘I drew him out of the water.'”

Buy why Osiris? The connection between a person found in the river and the specific god Osiris is linked to the major Egyptian myth of Osiris’ life. As I recorded in a previous article, Osiris was killed by his brother Set, and his body was tossed (or chopped up and tossed) into the river Nile. Osiris’ loving wife recovered and reanimated it–all except his penis, which was eaten by a fish. The Egyptian princess then finds a circumcised baby boy on the river, and despite her knowledge of Hebrew customs, this would have instantly called to mind the legend of Osiris and put her, quite flatteringly, in the role of Isis.

So that makes perfect sense. If she said, “I drew him out of the water” to explain her name choice, she could have hardly have choses any other name. But do we have any evidence of this?

Why, yes. Yes, we do.

SOne of the most significant sources that we have for this time period is the fragmentary Aegyptiaca by Manetho (a Hellenized Egyptian priest about 300 BC). It comes to us only through secondary sources. Manetho seems to have confused three historical events that occurred about the same time: first was the elevation of Joseph in the Egyptian king’s court; second was the ejection of the Hyksos (which means “kings of foreign lands”), Syro-Palestinian Semites who had conquered Egypt and ruled it for some time; and third was the Exodus of the Hebrews.

Manetho claims that a man named Osarseph, a renegade Egyptian priest, led an army of lepers and unclean people against one of the pharaohs named Amenhotep. (There were four, all in the early eighteenth dynasty, exactly when the Hebrew scriptures said the Exodus occurred and also when the Hyksos were expelled.) Osarseph ravaged Egypt with his army in alliance with the Hyksos and committed many sacrileges against the Egyptian gods before Amenhotep throws him out. Osarseph then changes his name to Moses and founds the city of Jerusalem.

Now, what does Osareph’s name mean? “Osar-” of course is and Egyptian element meaning Osiris, and “-seph” was a Semitic element meaning will add, or will increase; Joseph meant “YHWH will add,” and Osareph meant “Osiris will add.”

First we have elements of Joseph, who had a name with a -seph element, who married a high priest’s daughter, who was high and trusted in the court of the pharaoh 400 years before, and who brought in his family who were seen as “unclean” by the Egyptians because they were herders rather than farmers. Then we have elements of the various pagan Semitic kings of the Second Intermediate Period, called the Hyksos via the Greek, who were, in fact, violently overthrown and either put to the sword or ejected from Egypt in the early eighteen dynasty. And finally we have the elements from Moses, who definitely committed sacrileges against the Egyptian gods and who also took a good deal of the wealth from his Egyptian neighbors–and who would have appeared as a priest to the Egyptians (though a priest of YHWH) and who would have, in fact, changed his name from containing an “Osiris” element to a version of his name without the element.

It should be noted that the monuments of the Egyptian kings never recorded defeats, famines, or any hardships. According to every Egyptian temple and stele, every pharaoh was a combination of an Olympic athlete, a perfect general, and the most pious and sacred ruler, as befit a demigod on earth. He won every battle, though sometimes the battles that he “won” grew a lot closer to home. However, priestly and scribal traditions often preserved a somewhat less polished view of events in some form, and Manetho’s sources show this heritage rather than the relying solely on boastful public inscriptions.

So Manetho preserves, in a muddled form, a memory of Joseph and also of Moses, and it even preserves a name change from a theophoric (or god-bearing) name related to Osiris to that Moses. Moses’ name given to him by the Egyptian princess, would have been Osarmoses, in its Greek from, with Moses later repudiating the Osiris element. It makes no sense for him to get rid of the “Osiris” element and then change his name completely to a different Egyptian name–if he had completely changed his name, it would have been to something Hebrew.

Moses, of course, was not himself a conqueror according to Hebrew scriptures, and neither he nor any of the Hebrew generals founded Jerusalem, which was already an ancient, though not very important, city at this time. The Egyptians in the age of Moses knew of perfectly well of Jerusalem because it was a ruled by a client-king in frequent correspondence with the Egyptian king. Manetho’s confused sources preserved no knowledge of this, which shows that he is not terribly reliable, but there are a lot of specific details that correlate extremely well with what other sources tell us was going on at this time.

Author: Marya Harb