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Conceiving Moses: Birth Mother, Wet Nurse, Author, Translator

December 9, 2013

Marg Mowczko quotes the NIV and adds a little interpolation in brackets, when she says the following:

Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted Moses to lead in a maternal way.
Moses complains and says: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breast feeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?”

I mention this here:

Reading her comment now, I can hardly stop imagining Moses himself writing this. It is in the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch, or “The Five Books of Moses“).

And don’t we also imagine him writing down, in the Hebrew language, the story of his own name. It’s right there in what we refer to as the second chapter of שמות‎, Sh’mot, “Names,” or from the Greek translation of it, in the second chapter of ἔξοδος, Exodos, “the birthed-way out.”

His name is an Egyptian woman’s Egyptian language for something like “delivered.” She’s one of his surrogate mothers, who delivers him out of the waters of the Nile and who calls on his sister to find a wet nurse for him. And we know the story. The three women conspire to deliver this little baby from death, his surrogate mother, his sister, and his wet-nurse, his very own birth mother.

We must imagine, then, that Moses is a translator. He’s clearly bilingual. He’s clearly literate in Hebrew too. So he’s able to write down for his readers, even for you and for me, we might suppose, what his surrogate mother called him. We think of his name usually as the most Hebrew of Hebrew names, but he somehow gets in a play on his Egyptian name and the Hebrew verb meaning “pulled out,” “rescued,” or even perhaps “delivered as a baby is delivered.” And so his name is motherly from the get go. And it goes into Greek then and now into English as a transliteration that sounds something like Moshe(h) or Moses or Μωυσῆς.

The passage Exodus 2:6-10, with the bit of Egyptian language translated presumably, provides some of the Hebrew language, and then the Greek language for Numbers 11:12. Perhaps you can look at your Hebrew Bible and then at your Septuagint translation for all of that.

I imagine Moses himself having fun writing all of this. I imagine, then, the Septuagint translator in Egypt having fun with the Greek. I, then, imagine NETS translator Peter W. Flint having fun making the Hellene rendered Hebrew of Moses into English:

Was it I who carried in the womb all this people, or was it I who gave birth to them, that you are saying to me, ‘Take them to your bosom, as a nurse might take up the sucking child,’ into the land, which you swore to their fathers?
The hyperbolic phrase ἐν γαστρὶ / en gastri / (which Flint makes “in the womb”) is the one bit in Numbers 11 that does not appear in Exodus 2. It’s as if Moses is saying to God, and is writing down for all his readers, the fact that his motherliness is a bit more explicit than that of the team of three women it took to deliver and to nurse him. Conceiving Moses may have been easier than the conceiving Moses. Either way, the Bible in these passages sure seems to give birth to some wonderful wordplay.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2013 9:13 pm

    Kurk, this is splendid! And thanks also to Marg for her original comment.

    but he somehow gets in a play on his Egyptian name and the Hebrew verb meaning “pulled out,” “rescued,” or even perhaps “delivered as a baby is delivered.”

    Seeing those concepts juxtaposed made me think of difficult labors in which babies are pulled out of the womb by the midwife using forceps or something similar. Wonder how old that practice is?

    How interesting that Moses’ own biography is reflected in this passage, since it was in fact the woman who conceived and gave birth to him that nursed/suckled him.

    Was it I who carried in the womb all this people, or was it I who gave birth to them, that you are saying to me, ‘Take them to your bosom…

    Oh, “bosom” is such the wrong register here! “Breast” would be a better choice, given that “chest” is either the primary or secondary definition in a few dictionaries I checked.

    Oh, look: that’s what the NAB chooses:

    Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my breast, like a nurse carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?

    And the next two verses make the nursing/suckling reference even stronger:

    >”Where can I get meat to give to all this people? For they are crying to me, ‘Give us meat for our food.’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for they are too heavy for me.”

    At first I thought this was playing with Moses saying, you’re telling me to breastfeed them but, ahem, I got no milk here…
    But then I noticed how important meat was in the passage: so I really think this is Moses saying, look, you want me to breastfeed these people? They’re not nursing infants anymore, they’re big heavy (whiny!! bratty!! demanding!!) toddlers who want solid food!

    Which, now that I think about it, sets up a really nice image for the development of the people of Israel during the years of wandering.

    And v15a sounds hilariously like something Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer might have one of her characters say:

    If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once

    :wanders away giggling:

  2. June 5, 2014 11:58 pm

    I wonder if you have seen the music of this passage derived from the Hebrew text itself. I posted on it recently here – for Pentecost.

  3. June 6, 2014 6:53 am

    look, you want me to breastfeed these people?

    That’s hilarious! Moses whining this way about the little babies, his people, his children, whining. Mother Moses, with breasts, with protests. I like how you use wording to flesh out some of our imagination around Moses as autobiographer.

    seen the music

    Thanks. I’m “looking” right now. “Did I conceive all this people as if I’d begotten them for you to say to me bear them in your lap?” !! What a rhetorical (question) lyric!

  4. June 6, 2014 10:45 am

    I doubt it will make the hit parade! But I find the presence of coded music in the Bible an interesting aspect of ancient life. It intrigues me that they could have composed something that I can have it interpreted with a computer program.


  1. Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #5

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