Part I

By Dr. A. Wiedemann

[Extracted from PSBA, 11, 19-43.]

Orientalists as well as historians and theologians have commenced again of late to explain Biblical passages with the help of Jewish traditions, and tried even to obtain new historical facts by it. It is indeed very surprising to see how sometimes names and facts, only recently made known to us by monuments, are already to be found in these writings; but they contain as well heterogeneous and erroneous notices. In order to judge of the real value of this literature I worked through the writings bearing on one period, the results of which may help in the verification of other periods. Parts of these studies, which may be of interest to the readers of the Proceedings, I intend to give in the following pages.

The lively interest which the Jews took in their great national heroes did not die out with the conclusion of the Old Testament canon. As direct information to complete the Holy Writings was wanting, the endeavour was made to draw always new conclusions from the words and modes of expression, and to obtain new facts by comparing different portions. Naturally results obtained by such means are of very little importance to history, all the more so as we are still at the present time able to follow their bold and far-fetched combinations: but the material is very interesting in assisting us to obtain a knowledge of the lines of thought among the learned of the Palestinian and Alexandrian Jews, We find besides stories directly in connection with the Old Testament, and even taken out of it, another series of independent reports trying in a fantastical and rhetorical way to fill up the chronological gaps in the Sacred History, and thus differing greatly from the calm and measured style of the first stories. It is the Hellenistic influence from Alexandria which we find here in the Jewish writings, and especially in the biographies of biblical persons. Most of all, the life of their founder and favourite hero Moses, principally of the young Moses, offered a wide field for extravagant combinations, the historical facts being but few and insufficient to fill up a period of about 40 years.


Besides, his youth having been passed in Egypt, there was a fair chance of interweaving it with Egyptian history, and by making use of the knowledge of Egyptian manners and customs, to enliven and enrich the story, giving it, at the same time, a more truly historical form than could be added to other traditions preserved in the heart of the small country of Palestine. Thus the number of legends and tales glorifying Moses grew from century to century; the orthodox Jews liked to show how Moses was their predestined chief sent by God, law-giver and prophet from his earliest youth; while the Hellenistic Jews laid the greatest stress on Moses' Egyptian education, culture and political influence at court. These two elements are mixed up and often worked together, as well in the Talmudic, Rabbinic and Mohamedan writings as in the Hellenistic historians and commentators from Artapanos down to Josephus and Philo.

In this first part I shall consider some of these legends and exegetic noticesthose relating to the first chapter of Exoduswith the help of the Biblical verses, not in order to show Moses' life in the light of the Jewish tradition, as Beer did (Leben Moses; Leipzig, 1863), or to give the translation of one Midraschthe form of these treatises being known to the readers by the learned articles of Rev. Loewy, especially by his interesting translation of the Legend on the Death of Moses {Proc, IX, p. 40, sqq.), but to explain clearly by an example how the tradition developed.

Verse 6. As Joseph was dead and all his brothers and all who lived at the time.

The Jews lived, according to Exodus xii, 40, for 430 years in Egypt, as in Genesis xv, 13 (from here Act. Apost., vii, 6) God prophesied 400 years of oppression to them. In Genesis xv, 16, it is said that the sojourn lasted four generations, and in Exodus, vi, 16-20, that the great grandfather of the man who emigrated had entered Egypt. Here the generation must have been estimated as 100 years. Josephus does the same when he states (Ant., II, 9, i, Bell. Jud., V, 9, 4; Hitzig, Geschichte Israels, I, p. 62) the stay of the Jews to have been 400 years.

The later commentators thought the number 400 too high, and already the LXX add to the number 430 years (Ex. xii, 40) "lasted the residence in Egypt and Kanaan." Similarly the Talmud means that the 430 years ought not to be counted from the Exodus, but from Isaac's birth. According to the Talmud the LXX (Wunsche, Jerus. Tal., p 166) had undertaken their change in the original text for [p.31] King Ptolemaeus. So we have here one of those passages where the translators intentionally made the text differ from the original in order not to offend the Egyptian sovereign, as they did for example in the list of unclean animals, where the hare (lagos) was omitted, because the royal ancestor bore the name of Lagos.

The older Rabbins hesitate between 210 and 215 years (cf. Pirke Rabbi Elieser, c. 48). The Seder Olam Rabba (about 170 A.D.) takes 210 years; Jochebet is said to have been 130 years old at Moses' birth, and to have been born herself directly after the arrival in Egypt. Also the fixing of the date of Pharaoh's dream about Moses in the year 130 after the Exodus (Midrasch, fol.51), has been occasioned by similar calculations. Josephus (Ant, II, 15, 2) puts the Exodus 215 years after Jacob's arrival in Egypt, though this date quite contradicts the rest of his chronological system. Undoubtedly he took the number from the rabbinic traditions, which often strongly influenced him, and not as Bloch (Quellen des Josephus, p. 57; Freudenthal Studien, p. 49) supposes from Demetrius, who also (Euseb. Praep. ev. IX, c. 29) names 215 years He counts thus: Jacob in Egypt till Kehat's birth, 17 years; Kehat till Amram's birth, 40 years; Amram till Moses' birth, 78 years; Moses till the Exodus, 80 years.1) But Demetrius follows here only the older rabbinic ideas, and is not to be looked upon as authority. Josephus, in another place, estimates (c. Ap., I) the generation to 33 years, as the Greeks (p. ex. Herodotus II, 142) ordinarily do, adds 30 years, and gets thus 170 years for the sojourning in Egypt.

Verse 7. The Jews increased and had many children, and increased and became many, so that the country was filled.

The older Greek commentators of the Old Testament have simply taken over this part of the text, or amplified it a little, as Josephus (Ant. II, 9, i), who remarks that the Jews had increased greatly in number, in riches and power, on account of their activity and virtue. Philo (Vit. Mos., p. 603) thinks that on account of the great increase of the Jews, the Egyptian king had feared a war for the mastery between his people and the strangers later on when [p.32] they had become more powerful and numerous (cf. Exodus i, 10). The Rabbins thought it necessary to detail the manner of the increase. The Schemot Rabba (transl. Wunsche, p. 55.) relates that some Rabbins supposed that each Jewess gave birth to six children at once (cf. Jarchi, ad v., 7), others spoke of twelve and even of seventy. As a natural consequence the country was filled with them, as R. Nathan says, "like as with rushes." Aben-Ezra is less extravagant in his notices to this subject, he gives only two, three, or four children at one birth to the Jewish women.

It is very strange that the number 7 is not found among all these opinions, while we find in the classic literature the declaration (Trogus in Plinius, Hist. Nat., 7, 3) that there had been in Egypt births of seven children at once. Also other ancient writers (Aristot. Hist. Anim., 7, 4, 5, Columella, de re rustica, 3, 8) speak of the great fertility of the inhabitants of the Nile valley, and attributed it to the Nile water (Strabo, 15, p. 695; lian, Hist. Anim., 3, 33; Plin., Hist. Nat., 7, 3; Seneca, Quaest. Nat., 3, 25).2

Verse 8. Then came a new king in Egypt, who knew nothing of Joseph.

While the old exegitic writers quietly accepted this fact, and Josephus (Ant., II, 9, i; cf. Philo) only remarks that Joseph's merits had been by degrees forgotten, the later authors thought it very improbable that any later sovereign should not have known such an important man as Joseph. So they declare that the king only feigned not to know Joseph (Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 6 sq., Jarchi, ad v. 8. Schumann, Vita Mosis, p. 30, and Keil, Bucher Mosis, I, p. 313, followed them). Others supposed the king had not obeyed Joseph's prescriptions (Onkelos), and not lived according to them (Jonathan and Hierosolym. paraph.), or finally that the king did not like Joseph (Bar-hebraeus ad Exodus, I, 5, who calls the Pharaoh, Phalamthiosi).

The expression [Heb.] "a new king," is connected with the above interpretation. Josephus, II, 9, i, had accepted, like Artapanus (Euseb., Praep. ev. IX, 18) and Rab (Sota 11a), the theory that the king belonged to a new dynasty. Josephus' opinion had also great importance in after times. Not only the Syrian Exodus- [p.33] Commentar of Jacob of Edessa {cf. Wiseman, Horae Syriacai, I, p. 266 sq.) has followed it, but also numerous later scholars (Cook, The Holy Bible, I, p. 250, Knobel, Exodus, p. 3; Kurtz, Gesch. d. alt. Bundes II, p. 24 sq.; Schumacher, Handb. d. heil. Gesch., I, p. 140; Schumann, Vita Mosis, p. 28. These latter take the king for a Hyksos.). Ewald (Gesch. des Volkes Israel, III, p. 17) has contradicted this hypothesis most decidedly, and Hengstenberg (Bucher Moses und Aegypten, p. 267) means that the king was called "new" because he did not know Joseph, and that this disregard of Joseph's merits marks the turning point between the old and the new empire. This last hypothesis is also not a new one, though the Targum (Jon. and Jer.; Dillmann, Ex., p. 3; Keil, Bibl. Commentar liber d, Bucher Mosis, p. 312) thinks the expression [Heb.] had been chosen to design at the same time the reorganisation that began with the king. Just like the moderns, the Rabbins were uncertain whether the king was called "new" because he was really a new oneas Rab meansor on account of his new lawsas Samuel opinions; the latter being founded on the fact that the Bible does not say "he died" and a new king reigned. (Sota, p. 225 sq.; Schemot Rabba, p. 6; Jarchi ad v., 8.) The Jewish tradition tried to detail the story and person ot this Pharaoh (cf. Sota, p. 230); one notice is of interest, where some think him a descendant of the Amalekitic race. In the Book of the Jubilees, cap. 47, is told how he had a conflict with Menkeron, ruler of Kanaan and Assur, and was beaten by him. The Arabic tradition gives Pharaoh the name of Valid (Herbelot, Bibl. Orient., JI, p. 744 f ), and says that his wife Assiah was Amram's niece, and explains thus Amram's important position at the Egyptian court.

Verse 9. And he spoke to his people.

The Bible relates the suppression of the Jews without informing us if the king acted thus of his own free will or by the counsel of his court. In consequence the opinions of commentators are at variance. Some (Sota, p. 226; Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 7) assume that Pharaoh was most to blame, and that therefore the divine punishment reached him the first. The Jelammedenu (fol. 23, col. 3; Sota, p. 230; Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 6) has quite a contrary opinion. Pharaoh first opposed himself to his people when they oppressed the Jews; but the Egyptians dethroned him, and he had to live three months as a private individual. After [p.34] that time he regained his throne, and was then ready to obey his people's will. Others take the middle course between these two series of legends; they make Pharaoh a tyrant by advice of his counsellors, of whom several names are cited (Sota, p. 227; Midr. Jalkut ad 2 Mos. cap. i, 162, and ad cap. 2, 168), thus:

Balaam, who advised him, and was killed afterwards (cf. Numbers xxxi, 8).

Job, who remained silent, and was stricken by plagues. About the time of Job's living the Rabbins disagree (Sota, p. 231 sq.; Wunsche, Jerus. Talmud, p. 224), but Rabbi Ismael concluded, by comparing Ex. ix, 20, with Job i, 1, that Job was one of Pharaoh's servants, and ranked high in his family (Wunsche, 1.1.).

Jethro, who fled when the council took place, and was, therefore, not an accomplice; his children even were rewarded for it afterwards. According to the book de Vita Mosis, p. 12 sq., Balaam had advised that hard work should be given to the Jews, as they would not succeed in destroying the people on account of their cunning, known by biblical examples. Jethro opposed to this, and stated that God always punished those who oppressed the Jews. Pharaoh, indignant at these words, ordered Jethro immediately back to his province.

The Koran mentions other councillors of the king: Hainan [Arab.] (Sure 28, 5, 7, 38; 29, 38; 40, 25). This Haman was assuredly only named here because Mahomet had heard him called an enemy to the Jews. The later, and really biblical Haman, has another name with the later Arabs, who call him [Arab.] (cf. Geiger, Was hat Muhammed, etc., p. 156).

Korah, [Arab.] (Sure 29, 38; 40, 25). Already earlier than the Koran this name had been cited in Midrasch Rabba ad Mos., par. 14, "Korah was chief manager of Pharaoh's house."

The most important of the counsellors was Balaam, of whose anti-Jewish feelings the book de Vita Mosis records several legends. When his plans against the Jews failed (p. 17) he went with his two sons, Janes and Mamres (Jonathan ben Huziel on Exodus i, 15, has Zimberes) to Necas, King of the Idumeans. The sons are cited under the names of Jamnes and Mambres by Numenius (Euseb. Praep. ev. 9, 8) as magicians; they were chosen by the Egyptians to oppose Musffius, chief of the Jews and very powerful through his [p.35] prayers to God. They were said to have indeed succeeded in averting the great plagues sent over Egypt. Jannes and Jambres, as they are also called, play a prominent part as magicians with the old Jewish and Christian authors, 2 Tim. iii, 8, Ev. Nicod, cap 5., Palladius, histor. Lausiac.; Macarius Alexand., etc.; cf. Fabricius, Cod. apocr. N.T. I, p. 813, II, p. 105 sq., where numerous passages are named, and Freudenthal, Hell. Studien, S. 173). Even their names found their way into the works of classical writers, so we find the magician Janes in Pliny (Hist. Nat., 30, i, 2, 11), and Apuleius (Apol. 2).

Verses 9-14. Well, the children Israel are many and more than we. We will suppress them, etc.

The forced work, at which the Israelites laboured by command of the Egyptian tyrants, has been closely described and detailed by tradition. The Rabbins relate how at first the Egyptians made the Jews work with kind words and money. But when they showed themselves zealous, and produced numerous bricks in the feeling of their strength, the Egyptians doubled the number of the tiles due, and ordered guards to watch the working Jews (Sota, p. 230 sq.). Others (Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 9) contradict this so far as by saying that each Jew had to make daily as many bricks as he worked on the first day. It is principally Philo who speaks about the torture of the work; the king not only forced the native men to mould tiles, but also strangers and made the burdens too heavy to carry. If a Jew was hindered by weakness or illness from doing the average quantity, which was superintended by the most cruel men to be found, he was condemned to death, and those who died of heat or too hard work were thrown aside unburied. In connection with this report stands one of the most peculiar explanations which was ever produced on the rabbinic side: one master tells (in Schemot Rabba, Wunsche, p. 8) that one fastened a brick to Pharaoh's neck; now if an Israelite complained that he was too weak to do his work, he was answered, "Are you then weaker than Pharaoh?" Surely this is a characteristic example how far such learned deductions, unbridled by logical thoughts, may be carried.

The work consisted, as stated in the Bible and by Philo (de Vita Mosis, p. 608), principally in moulding bricks (not kilning them, as Luther translated it). According to Philo they had not only to form the clay-tiles, but also to provide straw to hold them together, as the [p.36] Bible states only much later (Exod. v). This addition wears quite an Egyptian stamp, and shows a close knowledge of the customs of that country. In a tomb at Thebes are represented the Egyptian workmen of Tutmes III's time occupied in moulding bricks and building with them. Though this representation has nothing to do with the Bible and the Jews, however it may have been so pretended (p. ex. by Hengstenberg, Die Bucher Mose's und gypten, p. 79 sq., and Kurtz, Gesch. des alten Bundes, II, p. 25 sq.), it gives a complete illustration of the subject, and corresponds in all its details with the biblical records.

Besides the brick-making, a series of other occupations is cited and detailed, especially by Josephus (II, 9, i), who, by Bloch's indeed unproved hypothesis, took it from Artapanos (Euseb. Praep. ev. IX, 27). Following his report the Jews had:

  1. To divide the Nile into several rivulets, a task which also Philo, de Vita Mosis, p. 608 (cf. Philo, de Confusione Linguarum, p. 333, C. Frankf.), ascribed to them,

  2. To surround the towns with walls. Philo goes farther here (de Vita Mosis, p. 608), saying that they had to build temples, walls and cities; and the Book of Jubilees (cap. 46) defines as their work "the rebuilding of every wall and every partition which was destroyed in the land of Egypt."

  3. To construct dykes against the inundation.

  4. To build the pyramids. Unhistorical as this assertion is from chronological reasons, the pyramids having been erected about 2000 years before Moses, it has nevertheless often been cited even in modern times (p. ex. Kurtz, Gesch. des alten Bundes, II, p. 25) as a token of the hard pressure under which the Jews suffered in Egypt. In a similar way Aristotle (Pol. 8, 11, p. 224, 27 sq. Bekk.) quotes the pyramids as an example how tyrants used to oppress a people by average, and hinder them thus from opposing his own power.

  5. The Jews had to learn arts and to become accustomed to hard work. This servitude lasted for 400 years, during which time the Egyptians vied with each other in their efforts to destroy the Jews with hardships, and the Jews to show themselves equal to the task.

Later authors speak of still other forced occupations; thus (Patricid. p. 25, if. Hotunger, Smegma orientale, p. 396) of stone- [p.37] cutting, excavation of mountains, agriculture. Similar embellishments are often found in such writings, and are nothing but pure invention.

As special work of the Jews the Canon designs the erection of two [Heb.]. Already the ancients had different opinions about the meaning of this word; the LXX thought it a name for fortified places ([Grk.]), and were followed by Jarchi, ad v. 11, and newer commentators (Knobel, Exodus, p. 5; Dillmann, Exodus, p. 6). The Targum and the Schemot Rabba (Wunsche, p. 8) have other opinions; they think the expression means store-house. Also Keil (Bucher Mosis, I, p. 314) keeps to this explanation when he says, "they were towns of store and magazine houses (cf. II Chron. xxxii, 28, "towns to preserve the harvest"), which contained the productions of the country partly for trade (Ewald, Gesch. Israels, II, p. 16), partly for forage for the army in times of war, and not fortresses." When the Vulgate seems to offer a third version in translating the word "tabernacla," it is probable that in the Hebrew original the word was read [Heb.] instead of [Heb.].

It is not possible to decide philologically which interpretation is the right one, as the word is seldom found, and the passage is a very short one.3 The Rabbins tried to explain it with help of etymology (Gemara in Sota, p. 229; Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 8); they suppose the name originated in the fact that "they brought the builders into danger," or because "they made the builders poor," but from such speculations no real information is gained.

The Hebrew text of the Bible names two of these towns, Ramses and Pithom; other texts seem to have cited besides On, the Greek Heliopolis. This might be accepted because the LXX does it (Egli, Zeitschrift fur wissensch. Theologie, 1870, p. 326, thinks this the original version, while Frankel, Ueber den Einfluss der palaest. Exegese u. s. f. S. loi f., sees here a double glossem. A reader made to [Grk.] the gloss [Grk.]; another one who knew that Heliopolis was called [Heb.] in Hebrew, put this notice in the text, and then both glosses were combined by [Grk.]; but as the Septuagint originally came from Egypt, and Heliopolis was looked upon there as one of the most important and most sacred towns, it [p.38] is nowise improbable that the authors of the translation themselves introduced this name in the text in order to connect their ancestors with this centre of Egyptian culture and religion.

The Book of Jubilees (cap. 46) followed the Septuagint Version, and names in its Latin text Phytom, Rammasse and Oon as towns erected by the Jews (that the book is here dependent of the LXX has already been pointed out by Roensch, Jub., p. 193); other texts of the scripture give only the two, Pito and Rames (var. Pitotho and Ramse), according to the Hebrew text of the present time. But a relation to Heliopolis was made out in still another way: Josephus (Ant. II, 7, 6) among others wished to identify Ramses with Heliopolis, an idea held also in the 9th century by Saadia (ad Exodus I, 11) and by numerous later commentators (cf. the names quoted by Dillmann, Exodus p. 7, sq. 139 sq.). This identification is all the more curious because the LXX thought Ramses to be Heroonpolis, as their rendering of Genesis xlvi, 28 f., shows. The Jerusalem Targum and Jonathan think Pithom and Ramses are [Heb.], Tanis and Pelusium and the Gemara tells, that the Rabbins took both names for the designations of one and the same town (Wagenseil, Sota, p. 229; Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 8); they were only uncertain which of the names was the principal one and which the surname.

Finally there remains to be mentioned that Philo (de Posterit,, p. 235) tried to interpret the three names [Grk.], '[Grk.] and [Grk.] allegorically, and gives them the meaning of Reason ([Grk.]), Sensuality ([Grk.]), and Speech ([Grk.]). [Grk.] means speech because it contains the power of persuasion (this explanation took its origin in the word's etymology from the Greek verb [Grk.], and stands for "expressing mouth" (Hebrew etymology). [Grk.] is sensuality, which gnaws reason like a worm; (Frankel, Ueber palaest. und Alex. Schriftforschung, p, 38 conjectures that this exposition results from the derivation of the town-name from the Hebrew root [Heb.]. [Grk.], at last, means the height, the reason.

While in general the tradition only speaks of affliction by means of work, the Schemot Rabba (Wunsche, p. 9) reports an addition to Pharaoh's order, by which he tried to hinder the increase in the number of the Jews. He forbade the workmen to sleep in their houses where their wives lived; but R. Akiba (cf. Wunsche, 1.1., and the Gemara in Wagenseil, Sota, p. 237 ff.) relates how the Jews evaded the prohibition which menaced their tribe with complete [p.39] decline. The women took food to the men at their working places, and had there intercourse with them; then they remained at home to await the resulting birth of children. Under an apple-tree these were born, and God's angels came down to wash the children. (Details of God's protection were combined by help of Ezekiel, xvi, 5, 4, 9, ID, 7. Cf. Benedetti, La Vita di Mose, p. 160 sq.). As soon as the Egyptians discovered the children, they thought of killing them, but the earth swallowed them before they could realize this intention, and oxen came and ploughed over the place.

We find nearly the same idea in the Vita Mosis. When Pharaoh had given the order to drown the children, many Jews lived apart from their wives, but others did not for fear of their race becoming exterminated through them. The mothers left their little children lying in the field, and God, who had declared to their fathers "I will increase your seed like the sand on the earth," sent angels to wash the children, and to put two stones near them out of which flowed milk and honey. At the same time hair grew upon the children to protect the whole body, and God ordered the earth to swallow them and to keep them up to the time of their puberty. Then she gave them back again, as is told in Psalm lxxii: "Those flourished like the grass of the earth."4 Each now went home, an event which occasioned the custom of the Tabernacle. Also of the children thrown into the river none died, but were saved by God himself.

Verse 15. "And the king spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom one was named Siphra, the other Pua, &c."

The Bible names two midwives who had the charge of killing the Hebrew children, Schiphra and Pua, who do not play any part in the latter history, so that it could not be proved if the divine promise to reward them had been fulfilled. To repair this omission the Rabbins supposed that Schiphra and Pua were only title-names or designations of their profession (so Abarbenel) under which other persons were to be understood. Thus they said that Schiphra was a by-name of Jochebet, Pua of Miriam (so pseudo-Jonathan, Jarchi, ad V. 15); while others believe that instead of Mirjam, Eliseba, wife of Aaron (2 Mos., vi, 20) was meant (Gemara in Sota, p. 243; Wiinsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 10 sq.)


Another often debated question was whether these midwives were Egyptian or Jewish women. From an unprejudiced examination of the passage (cf. Rosenmuller, Schol. in Vet. Test., II, 2 p. 16) it would result in the latter ; but in early times another interpretation had already been adopted, as by Josephus, II, 9, 2, who reports that the king gave Egyptian midwives to the Jews, as he supposed he would be better obeyed by them than by the Jewish women. Also the Septuagint may refer to Egyptian women, when it renders the passage with [Grk.]. Luther adopted the same view (Auslegung des andern Buches Mosi, Werke 35: Erlangen, 1844, p. 14), and a series of later writers also, who tried even, though always without success, to explain the names with the help of the Egyptian language. So p. ex., Cox (The Holy Bible, I, p 253), who thinks [Heb.] meant "splenduit" or "parturio," and that Schiphra was the old-Egyptian cheper, and to be translated "prolific." Ledrain went even farther (Hist. du people d'Israel, p. 63) and gave purely Egyptian names to the midwives, and he calls them P-uah and Schep-Ra (la djgnite de Ra). We find a medial proposition with R. Isar Bar Juda Levita (cit. Schumann, de Vita Mosis, p. 100) who says in his book [Heb.] (the Egyptian name for Joseph) that he found out that the midwives were Egyptians by birth, but Jewesses by religion.

Another difficulty in this passage was how, from the great number of Jews in Egypt, two women were able to assist at all the births; so it was at an early time assumed (Aben Esra) that the two women undoubtedly directed at least 500 midwives, and had to pay, as is often the case, a tribute from the profit of their art. Although such an acceptance cannot be proved from the Bible, and though it is logically very improbable that the Jews had, at that remote time, a kind of guild of midwives (Dillmann, Exod., p. 10), nevertheless Aben Esra's supposition found acceptance, and even with more modern writers. Schumann (de Vita Mosis, p. 3S sq.), who thinks the midwives of Egyptian race, means that as two women could not suffice, they must have been the heads of a guild, and Weissenborn (Reiher, falsiloquentia obstetricum Hebraearum. Jena, 1703, p. 5 sq.; Kurtz, Gesch. des alten Bundes, II, p. 27) declares them to have been directors, or at least the most important of the Jewish midwives, and takes at the same time great troublejust like Hieronymus, Amhrosius, Luther and Melanchthon didto defend the deceit of the midwives to the king, which the Bible gives without any [p.41] addition from the moral point of view. This thought would never have come to the old Jewish commentators, to whom the moral right of an action which God himself rewarded was quite self-evident and needed no further confirmation.5

Verse 22. All sons who are born throw into the water, and all daughters let live.

The Hebrew text and the Rabbins only mentioned the killing of male children (p. ex., Jarchi ad v. 16; Pirke R. Elieser, part. 48; Midrasch Jalkut ad II Mos. i, 164; Elmacinus, p. 46; similarly Koran, Sur. 28, 5) ; others seemed to suppose that all children of both sexes were drowned. Thus the History of the Apostles, 7, 19, speaks of the killing of the [Grk.], the new-born children in general, and also Patricid., p. 25, reports that countless children were killed and drowned in the sea.6 The Rabbins sought for motives for the sparing of the female children, though it was rather natural, as the order was the result following upon their opinionalthough it differs from the original textof the fear that a deliverer of the Jewish nation might grow up. Thus the Schemot Rabba (p. 16, Wunsche) means that the astrologers had said that they would kill the boys and afterwards marry the girls, for the Egyptians were very voluptuous.

The Bible says nothing about the duration of the order of destruction; Luther's notice (Auslegung des andern Buches Mosi in Werke 35: Erlangen, 1844, p. 20) that the edict was in force for twenty years, is merely an hypothesis. The Book of Jubilees (cap. 47) pretends that the boys had been drowned during seven months up to the day or month when Moses was born. At first sight Cedrenus seems to have had another version when he remarks that the little Genesis says that the sucklings were killed during ten months. But Cedrenus obtained this higher number by adding the three months that Moses was hid by his parents to the seven months of the Book of Jubilees. Philo reports (de Vita Mosis, p. 604) that the king ordered the boys to be killed, but keeps silence about the oppression of the Jews.


The Rabbins give many details relating to the persecution of the Jewish children. Thus the Gemara (Sota, p. 256) tells how Pharaoh gave out three decrees:

  1. when a son was born he was to be killed;

  2. he was to be drowned;

  3. was even directed against his own subjects, the Egyptians.

This last thought has arisen, as Jarchi (ad 22) proves, by the facts that the Bible does not say "when he is born by the Hebrews," but in quite a general way, "when he is born." The Rabbins give the following detailed account (cf. Jarchi, who cites the Midrasch Jelammedenu, but used, as Wagenseil, Sota, p. 257, first pointed out the Midrasch Rabba. Cf. Wunsche, Schemot Rabba, p. 16; Jalkut I, 164, gives a little diversion; Synhedrin; Sota, 12a): "On the day Moses was born, the astrologers told Pharaoh that they had seen in the stars that the deliverer of the Jews had been born that day, but they could not see whether his parents were Egyptian or Jewish. Therefore Pharaoh killed not only all the Jewish boys born that day, but also all the Egyptian, and when next day the fatal constellation had not yet disappeared, the king did not withdraw his order until, with the exposing of Moses, the bad sign vanished. The Egyptians are said not to have obeyed the decree, as they thought it impossible that from their race a saviour and protector of the Jews could arise." The idea of an Egyptian persecution is relatively a late one; the ancient tradition, as Josephus (Ant., II, 9. 2) gives it, does not yet mention it. It is very interesting to see on comparison how the Rabbins knew to embellish with new points the originally simple stories, for instance from the celestial constellations. Following Josephus, an Egyptian priest prophesied to the king that about this time a boy would be born among the Jews who, when grown up, would destroy the Egyptian power, raise the Israelites to a mighty power, shine among men on account of his virtues, and leave behind him a famous memory. The king was in great fear, he followed the prophet's counsel, and ordered all the Israelite boys to be drowned in the river. The midwives had to look after the punctual execution of the decree. Josephus says nothing of their disobedience.

There exists still another, a third well-known tradition about this Jewish persecution; (Jalkut, Exodus, 164; Libellus de Vita Mosis, Sepher Hajaschar, p. 128a: Schalsch. Hak. p. iii; R. Eliezar, cap. 48; Jonathan ben Huziel, ad Exod. i, 15; Midrasch, fol. 51). Pharaoh dreamed one night, 130 years after the arrival of the Jews [p.43] in Egypt, and 60 years after Joseph's death, that an old man stoop near him with scales in his hand.7 On one side of the scale he placed all the inhabitants of Egypt, men, women, and children; on the other side only a lamb [Heb.], this is translating after Sepher Hajaschar, which refers to the expression, I Sam. vii. 9, [Heb.]; with "lamb" and not with "child," like others do. In comparison with this lamb the multitude of Egyptians seemed lighter than a feather, and the lamb had the greater weight. Confused and in fear, Pharaoh assembled the interpreters of signs and dreams, and asked them for the meaning of his dream. They stood at first trembling and terrified ; then they said that on this day the future deliverer of the Jews was born, he who would bring heavy misfortune to the Empire. Upon this interpretation the before-mentioned determination to kill the children was decreed.

As an essential factor, a dream appears here as it often does in the later rabbinical traditions. These portions of the traditions were accepted from preference by the later Mahometan commentators, and extended. This has been the case in a very characteristic manner with the Mahometan legends relating to the murder of the children who were collected by Weil, Bibl. Legenden, p. 126-9. Here we find even three different dreams, which curiously enough do not agree with the dreams reported by the Rabbins.


1 Salomo, Apis, p. 35, counts: Levi was 46 years old at Kahatlvs birth, Kahath 63 years at Amram's liirth, Amram 70 years at Moses' birth. Newer views of the numbers 430 and 215, cf. Kuriz, Gesch. des alten Bundes, II, p. 14, sqq.
2 Later notices about the fertility of the Egyptians were collected by Rosenmuller, Altes und neues Morgenland, I, p. 252.
3 The excavations of Naville have shown that Pithom was a store-city, but this fact does not preclude the Biblical word from referring to the fortification of this town, proved by the same excavations.
4 Also Psalm cxxix, 3, has been brought in connection with the above legend: "The ploughman ploughed over my back, &;c.," for also this ploughing has done no harm to the children.
5  To the passage: "And He made houses to them," cf. Krafft, de pietate obstretricum, qua deus domos dicitur aedificasse Israelitis: Jena, 1744.
6 Analogous measures are related, ex. Lysimachus (Joseph, c. Ap., I, 34), after whom Bocchoris threw the lepers packed up in lead into the sea. Isocrates (in illaud. Busirin, p. 442) reports Busiris to have killed all the strangers who came to his country.
7 The idea of the Deity with a scale, also Daniel v. 27; Proverbia Salom. xvi, II.