Exodus 1:15–2:10, the story of Pharaoh’s decree to put to death all male-born Hebrews, presents itself in its current form as: first, a failed attempt by Egypt’s king since the Hebrew midwives refuse to comply to the king’s demand, and thus all the newborn babes are spared (1:18); and second, a supposed reissue of the ordinance by Pharaoh to his people, this time specifying to drown the male infants, wherein we learn of the legendary tale relating Moses’ birth and deliverance (1:22-2:10).
Although as the text now sits these two stories can be read as a sequel, in actuality this narrative is a composite of two once independent versions of the story, the Yahwist and the Elohist, each one narrated in slightly different terms.
Noticeable differences are E’s use of the expression “Egypt’s king” (1:15), while J prefers “Pharaoh” (1:22); and while E recounts that the decree was given to two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, which are literary not historical characters,1 J conversely narrates that it is given to Pharaoh’s people, and specifically for the drowning of all male infants.
Furthermore, the first account (E) relates how it was on account of the midwives’ “fear of the god” (1:17) that they refused to obey the king’s decree and were thereby blessed by God—which as we have already seen is a recurring theme in E. Thus in E’s account no male infants die; they are seemingly all spared!
In J’s account, however, this theological emphasis on God’s presence and protective care are completely absent—which is also a feature of J as we have seen elsewhere. And although there is no explicit mention of infants dying in J, the story of Moses’ unique and heroic birth is recounted—namely how, on account of Pharaoh’s decree, he was abandoned (rather than killed) by his mother, let adrift in a basket upon the Nile, and drawn out by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter (2:3-5). Given what is portrayed as a miraculous birth, we must assume that for this narrator other male infants did indeed drown! Yet surprising, as will be revealed later in the narrative (chap 4), Aaron, Moses’ Levite brother, must have also been miraculously saved from Pharaoh’s decree.
The influence of a larger Near Eastern literary culture is detectable in J’s rendition of the Mosaic birth story. Commentators have long noted the similarities between Moses’ birth as recorded in J and the birth of Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2300 BC). Both recount how the births of their political heroes, Moses and Sargon, were forbidden births, and births with religious significance: Moses is descended from a Levite mother—who is named in the later P source (6:20), but curiously never in J—and Sargon from a priestess who is prohibited to bear children. Each child is placed in a basket and put in the river, and each is found, drawn out of the water, and reared by a midwife. Moreover, each story enumerates an etymological pun on being drawn from the water: Moshe means ‘to draw out.’
Clearly we are in the realm of folklore, not historical chronicle2. It is a tale explaining the extraordinary circumstances of an extraordinary founding-figure, created for the purpose of displaying Moses as a political leader and foreshadowing his role as legislator to a later generation of readers. The same literary technique will be adopted by the gospel writers in their presentation of Jesus’ birth. Readers unfamiliar with ancient literature regularly miss this fact.