Stories from the Midrash fill in many gaps of what we know about Moses.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Although we’ve all seen the movies (“The Ten Commandments” and “The Prince of Egypt”) and hopefully most of us have also read the book (Book), there is much more to Moses’ life that readers may not be familiar with. The Midrashic literature, which is full of legends, traditions, and folklore, present a side to Moses that is downright fascinating. Let’s get to it.
After Moses was drawn from the water by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, we are told that Batya could not find a wet nurse to nurse the seemingly abandoned baby. As it is explained, the mouth that was soon to speak with God could not nurse from an idolatrous woman! One thing led to another, and it was Moses’ birth mother who ended being the one to nurse him – for pay!
Moses, had several other names, as well. Among them were Jared, Avigdor, Ḥeber, Avisocho, Yekuthiel, Avizanoah, Heman, and Shemaiah. Some of these names are mentioned or at least alluded to in other areas of Scripture.
What’s the story behind his speech impediment?
At the age of three, Moses took Pharaoh’s crown off his head and put it on his own, in full view of Pharaoh’s cabinet and guests! Not only did this embarrass the most powerful ruler of the time, but Pharaoh’s advisors and wizards warned him that this act was a sign that this boy would one day destroy Egypt and free the Jewish people from slavery.
In fact, one of Pharaoh’s advisors recommended killing Moses right then and there. But another advisor suggested testing the boy. After all, who isn’t attracted to shiny gold objects?
So they took a piece of gold along with a hot coal to see which one Moses would reach for. As Moses was reaching or the gold (which would have solidified Moses’ execution) an angel came and moved his hand to the hot coal which he put in his mouth. This burned his tongue, causing him difficulty in speaking. But it also saved his life.
Moses was somewhere between 18 and 40 when he was forced to flee Egypt for having killed an Egyptian who was about to kill a Jew. But here’s where it gets exciting.
According to the Midrash, Moses did not immediate flee to Midian as the Book and movie seem to imply. We are told that he first went to Ethiopia and joined the court of King Nikanos who was fighting a war for control of the capital. Moses joined the army of Nikanos, and was wildly successful on behalf of the king. The king regained all his captured territory thanks to Moses.
Moses remained in Ethiopia after the war and sometime later King Nikanos died and Moses was eventually proclaimed the new king of Ethiopia. He ruled Ethiopia for 40 years, during which time he considerably increased the power of the country. After forty years of helping Ethiopia, his closest advisors turned on him deciding that they did not want a Jew running their country, and Moses was banished.
So off to Midian, went Moses.
According to some sources, when Moses arrived in Midian he was imprisoned by Jethro who knew he was a fugitive from Egypt, intending to return him to Pharaoh. According to this account, Moses was imprisoned for 7-10 years.
But Jethro eventually realized that Moses was a holy man and released him. It was Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, who realized from day one that Moses was special and provided him with food during his imprisonment. They then married when he was freed. However, Jethro only agreed to the marriage if Moses would promise that their first-born son would be raised as a pagan. Shockingly, Moses agreed to the condition! This ended up being their son Gershom who even remained uncircumcised.
Soon after Moses returned to Egypt to face Pharaoh…and the rest is history!
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