Names in the Bible have great significance and are frequently paired with an explanation of their etymology or origin. The story of Moses’ name is exemplary.
“When the child grew up, she [Moses’ birth mother] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She [Pharaoh’s daughter] named him Moses [Hebrew Mosheh], ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out [Hebrew meshitihu] of the water' (Exod 12:10).
The Egyptian princess names the infant in a way that reflects his discovery. The etymological link hinges on the play on words between the name Mosheh and the rarely occurring Hebrew verb mashah (to draw out [of water]), found elsewhere only twice in the biblical text (Ps 18:16 [Hebrew Ps 18:17//2Sam 22:17]; some translations read Hebrew mosheh as a verb in Isa 63:11, “the drawer of his people [out of the water]”). But as biblical scholars and early commentators have long noticed, this particular etymology is problematic because Hebrew mosheh has an active meaning (“one who draws out” or “the drawer [from water]”). A more accurate etymology would produce the Hebrew passive form mashuy, referring to the baby Moses being drawn out of the water. But biblical etymologies are generally not scientific or linguistically rigorous, so some scholars continue to argue that there is no reason to question the Hebrew origin of the name.
The question then arises: Why would an Egyptian princess choose a Hebrew name? Did this daughter of Pharaoh know Hebrew? Did she consult with someone who knew Hebrew or, as some later Jewish exegetes argued, learn it herself? If the name is not Hebrew, then what is it? Where does it come from?
Here is where Egypt comes into the picture. Open the pages of almost any recent Bible dictionary, Exodus commentary, or biblical reference work and you will likely find the name Moses linked to the Egyptian verb ms/msi (“to give birth”) or the related noun ms (“child,” “son”),various forms of which occur in Egyptian royal and non-royal names. The verb ms is incorporated into the royal birth names of New Kingdom pharaohs Ahmose (“the moon god is born”) and Thutmose (“Thoth is born”) as the suffix -mose. In the Greek forms of the names, the verb ms becomes -mosis: Amosis and Thutmosis. The name Ramesses follows a similar pattern: Re-mes-su (“Re is the one who bore him”). The verb is also found in non-royal personal names such as Ptahmose (“Ptah is born”) and Ramose (“Re is born”). All of the above names feature what scholars call a divine or theophoric element, but the Hebrew name Moses stands alone in the biblical text; it has no god’s name attached to it. Scholars have debated whether it may have once included a god’s name that was later dropped.
To support the view that Moses’ name always stood alone, while still retaining its Egyptian roots, scholars have cited examples of the personal name Mose/Mes in ancient Egypt. The name can be found in New Kingdom letters and legal documents, with one high-profile case involving land inheritance brought by a plaintiff named Mose. Among the tombs at Memphis one finds a chapel of Mose (mesy). It is likely also that the Egyptian name Mesy was an abbreviated reference to the late 19th-dynasty usurper to the throne, Amenmesse (“Amun is the one who bore him”), whose tumultuous reign lasted only a few short years. Although there are many uncertainties regarding events surrounding this pharaoh, Egyptologist Rolf Krauss has argued that the biblical writer intentionally modeled the biography of Moses on the life of Amenmesse.
If the name is Egyptian–which not all scholars accept—this then would seem to conflict with the Hebrew etymology. Did the biblical author/editor know of its Egyptian origin? Some maintain that a later editor, fully aware of the name’s origins, added the Hebrew etymology to bolster Moses’ Hebrew identity. Others argue the opposite—that a later editor had no idea what to make of the (Egyptian) name and thus added the Hebrew explanation.
Despite the popularity of the Egyptian origin of the name, it is possible to make sense of the Hebrew without recourse to Egyptian. For example, the name Moshesh (water drawer) could have intentionally been chosen following a contemporary Mesopotamian “hero infant exposure” tale that depicts its infant hero (Sargon of Akkad) taken from the water by a “water drawer.” Or, as commentators have long noted, the Hebrew name could be intentionally symbolic of the role that Moses would play later on in the narrative, delivering his people from the waters of the sea.
Much of this debate rests on the assumption that there was a biblical figure named Moses who lived in Egypt in the 13th century, one that many scholars are increasingly less inclined to accept—but that’s a topic for another article. Arguments based on proposed name etymologies, especially where the biblical text is concerned, are anything but ironclad. But this precariousness is what makes biblical scholarship so interesting and challenging.