Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.II.
THE BIRTH, EDUCATION, AND EARLY LIFE OF MOSES.
A man of the house of Levi.—Note the extreme simplicity of this announcement; and compare it with the elaborate legends wherewith Oriental religions commonly surrounded the birth of those who were considered their founders, as Thoth, Zoroaster, Orpheus. Even the name of the man is here omitted as unimportant. It is difficult to conceive any one but Moses making such an omission.
A daughter of Levi—i.e., a woman of the same tribe as himself, a descendant of Levi—not a daughter in the literal sense, which the chronology makes impossible.
And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.(2) When she saw him that he was a goodly child.—St. Stephen says, that Moses was” comely before God”— ἀστεῖος τῷ θεῷ (Acts 7:20). Trogus Pompeius spoke of him as recommended by the beauty of his personal appearance (ap. Justin, Hist. Philipp. xxvi. 2). His infantine “goodliness” intensified the desire of his mother to save his life, but must not be re garded as the main cause of her anxiety.
She hid him three months.—As long as she could hope to conceal him effectually. It must be remembered that Egyptians were mixed up with Israelites in Goshen, and that each Hebrew household would be subjected to espionage from the time of the issue of the edict.
And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink.(3) An ark of bulrushes.—Literally, a chest of the papyrus plant. The words used are both of Egyptian origin. Teb, teba, or tebat, is a “box” or chest in Egyptian, and is well Hebraised by tebah, or, as it is here vocalised, têybah. The papyrus plant was in Egyptian kam, as in modern Coptic, whence probably the Hebrew gôme. It was a material frequently used by the Egyptians for boats and even larger vessels (Isaiah 18:2; Theophrast. Hist. Plant, iv. 8, §4; P1in. H. N. 13:11).
Slime and pitoh.—By “slime” seems to be meant bitumen, or mineral pitch, as in Gen. ad. 3; by “pitch” (zaphath), the ordinary vegetable pitch of commerce. Mineral pitch, though not a product of Egypt, was imported into the country from Mesopotamia, and was largely used for embalming (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. i. p. 361).
In the flags.—A rank aquatic vegetation abounds on the Lower Nile, and in all the back-waters and marshy tracts connected with it. Jochebed placed her child “in the flags,” that the ark might not float away down the river, and so be lost to her sight. The word used for “flag”—suph—seems to be a Hebraised form of tufi, a common Egyptian word, having this sense.
And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.(4) His sister.—Presumably Miriam, the only sister of Moses mentioned elsewhere (Exodus 15:20-21; Numbers 26:59). To have taken the part which is assigned her in this chapter, she must have been a girl of some fourteen or fifteen years of age, and possessed of much quickness and intelligence.
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river's side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it.(5) The daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself.—This would be quite in accordance with Egyptian ideas. “Women were allowed great liberty in Egypt, and moved about much as they pleased. Cleanliness was especially regarded; and the Nile water was considered healthy and fructifying (Strab. 15 p. 695). The princess would, of course, seek a part of the river which was reserved for females. Probably Jochebed know where she was accustomed to bathe.
Her maidens.—As a princess, she was, of course, accompanied by a number of female attendants (na’aroth). Even ordinary Egyptian ladies seem to have been attended at the bath by four or five such persons. One of them was, however, more especially her waiting-woman (âmah), and to her the princess addressed herself.
And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children.(6) When she had opened it.—The princess opened the ark herself, perhaps suspecting what was inside, perhaps out of mere curiosity.
The babe (rather, the boy) wept. Through hunger, or cold, or perhaps general discomfort. An ark of bulrushes could not have been a very pleasant cradle.
She had compassion on him.—The babe’s tears moved her to pity; and her pity prompted her to save it. She must have shown some sign of her intention—perhaps by taking the child from the ark and fondling it—before Miriam could have ventured to make her suggestion. (See the next verse.)
This is one of the Hebrews’ children.—The circumstances spoke for themselves. No mother would have exposed such a “goodly child” (Exodus 2:2) to so sad a death but one with whom it was a necessity.
Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?(7) Then said his sister.—Miriam had bided her time. She had still kept in the background, but had approached within hearing distance; and when the princess observed that the babe must be “one of the Hebrews’ children,” was prompt with the rejoinder, “Shall I not fetch thee then a Hebrew mother to nurse him?” If the child was to be nursed at all—if he was to be brought up—a Hebrew nurse would be the fittest.
That she may nurse the child for thee.—“For thee.” Miriam divines the thought of the princess, or half divines, half anticipates it, and helps to make it take a fixed shape. She assumes that the child is to be brought up, and for the princess, as her protegé, at any rate, if not something more.
And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child's mother.(8) The maid went and called the child’s mother.—Jochebed must have been waiting near, eagerly expecting—perhaps, while concealed from sight, watching the result, and ready to appear the moment that she was summoned. Miriam knew where to find her, and brought her quickly to the princess.
And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.(9) Nurse it for me.—The princess adopts Miriam’s suggestion; the child is to be nursed for her—is to be hers. She will place it out to nurse, and pay the customary wages.
And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.(10) The child grew.—Josephus regards these words as implying a growth that was strange and abnormal (Ant. Jud. ii. 9, § 6). But nothing more seems to be intended than nature’s ordinary course. The child grew and reached the time when it was usual in Egypt that children should be weaned. We have no means of determining what this time was. It may have been the completion of the first year; but more probably it was the completion of the second (2 Maccabees 7:27).
She brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter.—Jochebed carried out the terms of her engagement faithfully, and gave up her son to the princess at the time agreed upon.
He became her son.—Possibly by a formal act of adoption; but we have at present no evidence that adoption was an Egyptian custom. Perhaps the writer means simply that she brought him up as if he had been her son, gave him a son’s education, and a son’s privileges. (On the education of Moses, see Excursus II. at the end of this Book.)
She called his name Moses.—In Egyptian probably “Mesu,” which is found as a name in the monuments of the nineteenth dynasty, and which is common as the latter half of a name—e.g., Ra-mesu, Aah-mesu, Amen-mesu, &c. In ordinary use this word meant “born” and “son.” (Comp. the Latin natus.) It was, however, derived from an Egyptian verb, meaning “to produce,” “to draw forth;” and the princess justified her imposition of the name by a reference to this etymology. Owing to the existence of a cognate verb in Hebrew, it was possible to transfer her explanation into the Hebrew language exactly and literally. The play upon words cannot be rendered in English.
EXCURSUS B: ON THE EDUCATION OF MOSES (Exodus 2:10)
Moses would be educated like the sons of princesses generally, not like those of priests, or of persons destined for the literary life. St. Stephen, when he says that Moses was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” does not (probably) mean more than this. The question then is, In what did the education of princes and young nobles at the time of the exodus consist?
It would consist, in the first place, of orthography and grammar. Moses would be taught to speak the Egyptian language, and to write it, correctly. He would probably not be taught the hieroglyphic character, the knowledge of which was reserved to the priests, but would be familiarised with the ordinary cursive writing—the hieratic, as it was called in later times—which was the common character for books, and even for official documents, in his day. Care would be taken to instruct him in the graces of style, so far as they were understood at the time; and he would be especially practised in epistolary correspondence, which was regarded as one of the most necessary of all gentlemanlike accomplishments. Whether his attention would be turned to poetry, might perhaps be doubtful; but he would certainly be taught a clear and perspicuous prose style, such as was required for official reports and other communications between members of the governing class.
 The poetry of Moses his “songs” (Exodus 15:1-19; Deuteronomy 32:1-43), his “blessing” (Deut. Xxxii), and his “prayer” (Ps. xc), indicate an actual study of Egyptian poetry, whether, it was a part of his education or not.
The next branch of his education would be arithmetic and geometry. The Egyptians had made considerable progress in the former, and their calculations ran up to billions. In the latter they are said to have been exact and minute, but not to have pushed their investigations very far. It was sufficient for a youth of the upper classes to be able to keep correct accounts; and a speculative knowledge of the intricacies of numbers, or of geometrical problems, scarcely formed a part of the established curriculum.
He would be further instructed in morality, and in the Egyptian views on the subjects of the Divine Nature, of the relations subsisting between God and man, of a future life, and of a judgment to come. Egyptian morality was, for the most part, correct so far as it went, and was expressed in terse gnomic phrases, resembling those of the Proverbs of Solomon. The points especially inculcated were obedience to parents and to authorities generally, courtesy to inferiors, and kindness to the poor and the afflicted. The mysteries of religion were the exclusive property of the priests; but life beyond the grave, judgment, reward and punishment, probably metempsychosis, were generally inculcated; and the mystic volume, known as the “Ritual of the Dead,” must have been pressed on the attention of all the educated.
It is not to be supposed that one brought up as the son of a princess would attain to the scientific knowledge possessed by Egyptian professionals of different kinds. Moses would not be an astronomer, nor an engineer, nor a physician, nor a theologian, nor even an historian; but would have that general acquaintance with such subjects which belongs to those who have enjoyed a good general education in a highly civilised community. He would also, no doubt, have a knowledge of the main principles of Egyptian jurisprudence. But here, again, his knowledge would be general, not close or intimate; and it would be a mistake to expect, in the Mosaical legislation, reproductions, to any extent, or adaptations, of the Egyptian judicial system.
And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.(11) In those days.—Notes of time are used with considerable latitude by the sacred writers. (Comp. Genesis 38; 2Kings 20:1.) According to the tradition followed by St. Stephen (Acts 7:23), Moses was “full forty years old “when he took the step here indicated. We might have expected him to have come forward sooner; but there may have been difficulties in his so doing. It is remarkable that he does not tell us anything of his life during youth or early manhood. Later tradition was full of details (Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, pp. 107-9), which, however, are worthless.
He went out unto his brethren.—It is probable that Pharaoh’s daughter had never concealed from Moses that he was not her own child, but one of the oppressed race. She may even have allowed him to hold communication with his family. It is not, however, a mere visit that is here spoken of, but a complete withdrawal from the palace, and renunciation of his position at the court. “By faith, Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Hebrews 11:24-25). It is the first sign of that strong sympathy and tender affection for his people which characterises him throughout the narrative, and culminates in the pathetic cry, “Forgive them; and if not, blot me out of thy book” (Exodus 32:32).
Looked on their burthens—i.e., examined into their condition, watched their treatment, made himself acquainted with it by personal inspection.
He spied an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew.—Probably a taskmaster chastising one of the labourers, whom he accused of idling. St. Stephen regards the act as one of “oppression” and “wrong-doing” (Acts 7:24). Moses must certainly have viewed it in this light, or he would not have been so moved to indignation as to kill the Egyptian. Though not a cruel nation, the Egyptians, no doubt, like other slave-drivers, occasionally abused their power, and treated the unfortunate labourers with cruelty.
And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.(12) He looked this way and that way.—To see that no one observed him.
He slew the Egyptian.—Jewish commentators gloss over the act, or even eulogise it as patriotic and heroical. But it was clearly the deed of a hasty and undisciplined spirit. The offence did not deserve death, and if it had, Moses had neither legal office nor Divine call, justifying him in making himself an executioner. The result was, that, by his one wrong act, Moses put it out of his power to do anything towards alleviating the sufferings of his brethren for forty years.
Hid him in the sand.—To the east of the Delta the sand creeps up close to the cultivated grounds. There are even patches of it within the Delta itself. Moses naturally remembered that he dug the grave “in the sand.” Any other writer would probably have said “in the ground.”
And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?(13) The second day—i.e., the next day.
Him that did the wrong.—Heb., the wicked one. Our version follows the LXX.
Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?—Comp. Acts 7:26, where the words of Moses are reported somewhat differently, “Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?” In either case there was no offensive assumption of authority. But the wrong doer took offence, nevertheless.
And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.(14) Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?—As the reputed son of a princess, Moses would be in some sort a “prince.” But no one had given him jurisdiction over the Hebrews. He had not really interfered as one who claimed authority, but as any man of position and education naturally interferes to stop a quarrel.
Intendest thou to kill me?—Here is the sting of the rejoinder; here was the assumption of authority—not in the interposition of to-day, but in the blow of yesterday. That fatal error laid Moses open to attack, and deprived him of the influence as a peacemaker which he might otherwise have exercised over his countrymen.
Surely this thing is known.—We are not told how the “thing” came to be known. “Murder will out,” says the English proverb. Perhaps, though Moses thought himself unnoticed, some Egyptian had seen the deed. Perhaps the man whom he had avenged had told the tale.
Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.(15) When Pharaoh heard . . . he sought to slay Moses.—Naturally. The administration of justice was one of the chief duties of the royal office; and the crime committed by Moses was one to be punished by death. There was nothing to reduce it from murder to manslaughter. And the motives which extenuate it in the eyes of moderns—patriotic zeal and hatred of oppression—would not have commanded the sympathies of a Pharaoh.
Moses fled.—Or, had fled. Moses would fly as soon as he found his act was known. He fled “at the saying” of the Israelite (Acts 7:29). When Pharaoh sought for him, he was gone.
Dwelt in the land of Midian—i.e., “Was led to make Midian his home,” under circumstances about to be related. The Midian of this book seems to be the south-eastern portion of the Sinaitic peninsula, not the opposite Arabian coast, where were the main settlements of the nation.
Sat down by a well.—Rather, the well. There must have been one principal well in these parts, copious, and so generally resorted to. Moses fixed his temporary-abode in its neighbourhood.
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.(16) The priest of Midian.—Reuel may have been both “priest” and “prince,” like Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18); but there is no reason to doubt that he is here called “priest.” In Exodus 18:12, Jethro is represented as exercising priestly functions. The Midianites, descendants of Abraham by Keturah, worshipped the true God, and seem to have been at this time a religious people. The name Reuel, or Raguel, means “friend of God.” Jethro’s sacrifices were “for God,” and Aaron and the elders eat bread with him “before God.”
They came and drew water.—Comp. Genesis 29:9. According to Oriental ideas, there is nothing derogatory in the daughters of a chief so acting.
And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.(17) The shepherds came.—Those of the neighbourhood. The rule of the desert is that those who come to a well take their turns in the use of the water in the order of their arrival. But these rude shepherds declined to wait for their turn. It appears later on, by the question of Reuel, “How is it that ye are come so soon to-day?” that this rude and unfair conduct of the shepherds was habitual.
Moses stood up and helped them.—Moses is again the champion of the oppressed, but has learnt wisdom by the past, and uses no unnecessary violence. His air and manner intimidated the wrong-doers, and they allowed the maidens sheep to be watered first.
And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.(19) An Egyptian.—So they concluded from his dress and appearance, perhaps even from his speech. It would be natural for them to make the mistake, and for Moses to remember it. Any other author would probably have said, “a man,” or “a stranger.”
And also drew water enough.—The shepherds had consumed some of the maidens’ water before Moses’s interference, so that he had to draw more for them —another “little trait,” which speaks for the Mosaic authorship.
And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.(20) That he may eat bread.—Arab hospitality was offended that the stranger had not been invited into the tent to partake of the evening meal. The feeling of the modern Bedouin would be the same.
And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.(21) Moses was content to dwell with the man.—Reuel must have been so pleased with the manner and appearance of Moses that he invited him to take service with him—perhaps to share his tent. Moses consented, and in course of time took to wife Zipporah, one of Reuel’s daughters. Marriage with the Midianites was allowed, even under the Law. It has been conjectured that Reuel might have communicated to Moses traditions, or even documents concerning their common ancestor, Abraham, and his family. But there is nothing to indicate the use of letters at this early date by the Midianites.
And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.(22) Gershom.—Almost certainly from ger, “a stranger,” and shâm, “there.” So Jerome, who translates it advena ibi. (Comp. Josephus and the LXX., who write the name Gersam.)
And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.(23) in process of time.—Heb., in those many days. As Moses was now eighty years old (Exodus 7:7), and only forty when he quitted Egypt, the Pharaoh from whom he fled must have reigned above forty years. Between the commencement of the eighteenth and the close of the nineteenth dynasty, two kings only seem to have reigned so long as this—Thothmes III. and Rameses II. Our choice of the Pharaoh from whom Moses fled thus lies between these two.
The children of Israel sighed.—Or, “groaned.” They had perhaps expected that a new king would initiate a new policy, or, at any rate, signalise his accession by a remission of burthens. But the new monarch did neither.
Their cry came up unto God.—“Exceeding bitter cries” always find their way to the ears of God. The existing oppression was such that Israel cried to God as they had never cried before, and so moved Him to have compassion on them. The miraculous action, begun in Exodus 3, is the result of the cries and groans here mentioned.