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There is, of course, nothing new in the idea that Moses was Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god. I discovered that when I thought I’d hit on a new idea. I put Moses and crocodile in a Google search and was surprised at the results. However, none quite matched with my own (perhaps still original) ideas.
I hit upon it while doing some research for a play in which I played an Egyptologist. As we needed to fake some hieroglyphic papyrus scrolls, I wanted to get a better understanding of that ancient form of writing. Having found that the Egyptian word for cat is the rather onomatopoeic MIW, and that the hieroglyph consists of the symbols representing the sounds M, I & W plus a picture of a cat, I spotted the following:
This hieroglyph shows the sound or phoneme symbols M, S & H with a picture of a crocodile. It is the accepted hieroglyphic representation of the word ‘crocodile” which was formed from the three sounds (in this order) M, S, and H. Now, like Hebrew, ancient Egyptian did not show vowel sounds. The word could have been pronounced masah, mesah, miseh, musoh, or any combination of vowels sounds between the three root letters. Also, as in Hebrew, the S could be pronounced as an ‘s‘ or a ‘sh’. So it is not a stretch to argue that the word mosheh (Moses in Hebrew) is the correct pronunciation of the Egyptian word for crocodile.
This is not to say that I support the view that Moses WAS a croc. However, the scriptural explanation that his name derives from mashah is not a satisfactory one. Of course, we get the name Moses from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Tanach. The rabbis who made that translation were Greek speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. They would have known that the Egyptian word mss means son or son of, as in Ramss (ie Rameses – Son of Ra). So they interpreted the Hebrew משה (Mosheh) as Moses. According the biblical account, the new born Israelite sons were thrown into the Nile. Although it isn’t specified, we can assume (if the story had any basis in fact) that they were sacrifices to Sobek, the crocodile god and that most were either eaten by the river reptiles or drowned.
The story goes that Moses was placed in a basket of rushes and placed in the river – not necessarily the safest option. I suggest that the basket was crocodile shaped; a clever ruse to keep suspicious Egyptians at bay. It would have looked more like a dead croc the nearer it got, so perhaps that is what the Pharoah’s daughter thought it was. When the baby cried, the ‘crocodile’ could have been approached and the truth discovered. It would seem that Moses appeared as a returned offering from the god, one which the princess accepted back and took as her own. She might even have thought the baby was in fact the son of the crocodile god. There we have both names: mosheh and moses – crocodile and son.
Conclusive proof? Hardly. It is however, a fun bit of modern midrash.
In the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the name of the Israelite prophet we know as Moses is given as משה. When written from left to right in Latin characters, this is MSH. Both ancient and modern Hebrew do not distinguish between the letters sin and shin: Both are rendered as ש. The Masoretic text does make that distinction by placing a dot over the top right or left of the letter; to the top right it is a shin and pronounced as sh, while to the left it is a sin and pronounced as s. The Masoretic text clearly shows the ש as a shin. We also need to remember that like all Semitic languages, Hebrew has no proper vowels in its alphabet. The letters one might assume to be vowels such as א (aleph) and ע (‘ayin), which would be A and O respectively in the Latin alphabet, are both silent and can be vocalised in a variety of ways. Using lower case letters to demonstrate, משה is generally rendered as MoSHeH.
According to the Torah, Moses was given his name by the young Egyptian princess who rescued him from the Nile.
“And she called his name Moses; and she said, “Because I drew him out of the water”” (Exodus 2:10).
The word used for ‘I drew him out’ is משיתהו (M’SHiYTiHU). In modern Hebrew this translates as ‘conversation’, although the ancient usage is not generally disputed. What is debatable though, is why an Egyptian princess would use a Hebrew word to name her ‘adopted’ son.
The Septuagint generally renders the name as Μωσῆ. In the original, of course, there are no lower case letters so it should be written ΜΩΣΗ, which transliterates to Mose in English (Latin) characters. It should be noted though, that perhaps the Greek is also a transliteration or, more correctly, a direct transcript from the Hebrew to Greek alphabets. Whereas the Greek Η (lower case η) is pronounced as an ‘E‘ it derives its place in the Greek alphabet from the ה in Hebrew (Greek not having a use for the ‘h‘ sound but needing an ‘e‘, for which there is no equivalent in Hebrew/Phoenician. The addition of the letter Omega (Ω) was to clarify the pronunciation of משה, which Masoretic tradition has as ‘Mosheh‘. So where exactly does our English version, Moses, come from? From the Greek Christian Bible, which has the name as Μωϋσῆς or ΜΩΥΣΗΣ (ie. Moyses). However, the etymology of this alternative Greek rendering is far from clear. There are generally two interpretations on the origin of this name. The first is one favoured by many Egyptologists. They point to the Egyptian words ms and mss, meaning ‘son‘, ‘child‘ or simply ‘born‘ in the first instance and ‘son of‘ or ‘born of‘ in the second. So, according to that theory, Moses simply means ‘son‘ or ‘child‘. Or else it is a name stripped of the original patronymic: One might expect the name of a father or god such as Ahmose/Ahmoses, Ramses/Rameses or Thutmose/Thutmoses. So ‘Moses’ is perhaps just half a name.
The other strand goes back to Josephus, a first century Roman Jewish writer who postulated that Moses was actually ‘Mo-uses‘ or ‘Mw-uses’. As we have established, ‘Mo‘ or ‘Mw‘ is the Egyptian word for water while ‘uses‘ meant ‘to rescue from water‘. Neither theory explains why or how the Hebrew version is ‘Mosheh‘.
There are, of course, many other considerations. The most obvious is that Moses never existed and that the entire Exodus narrative, if not the entire Bible, is nothing more than an anthology of folk tales and myths. There is a certain absolutist view prevalent here: God does not exist therefore the Bible must be a fictitious fabrication. This is a view in diametric opposition to the fundamentalist view that God certainly does exist and that every word in the Bible is true (and the word of God). The other is a scientific viewpoint (Richard Dawkins notwithstanding): The fundamentalist position is untenable as it requires a suspension of logic, reason and centuries of scientific endeavour. That is not to say that God does not or cannot exist, but that biblical events either didn’t happen or didn’t happen necessarily in the way they were reported. The opposite view as espoused by Dawkins et al simply throws out the baby with the bath water, so to speak. Some biblical events can be verified: Just because an ancient civilisation (or indeed a contemporary one) believes there is divine guidance and manifestation in biblical stories does not mean they do not relate real events, albeit from a specific viewpoint. Put another way, proving a biblical event was real neither proves not disproves the existence of a deity.
So, for the sake of argument, let us say that the biblical character Moses was based on a real person. There is no way of proving when this man existed as there is little correlation between accepted Egyptian chronology and biblical record. Not that it matters. Whether Moses lived in the 17th, 18th or even 19th dynasties has little bearing on this current inquiry. On the other hand, it would be significant if Moses was Egyptian either by birth or adoption as that would support an Egyptian source for his name. Let’s start with one of the most common assumptions. That he was called ‘mss’, the ‘son of’. In hieroglyphs that would be written thus:
However, what if we assume that the Hebrew משה was a direct transliteration of the Egyptian. What would that Egyptian word have been. Clearly it would have comprised the sounds M, S and H (there being no SH as such in Egyptian). This would be rendered thus:
What then would this have meant and how would it have been pronounced? The latter question is harder to answer, given the vague nature of Egyptian pronunciation. The best guess is the Coptic ‘Emsah‘, but could have been ‘Masah‘ or ‘Imsahe‘ just as easily, with a host of other possibilities. What the word ‘msh‘ does mean though is less uncertain: It means crocodile, the river ‘serpent’ common in the Nile. The hieroglyph for crocodile is formed from the phenomic symbols for M, S & H with a pictograms of a crocodile next to it, as shown at the start of this article.
The first difficulty with any such transliteration from Egyptian to Hebrew is the same as for any other ‘foreign’ language. Loan words in Hebrew are usually spelt in a way that signifies that they are not ‘native’ words. Two letters in particular are significant here. The letter samekh (ס) and the letter tet (ט). They are generally used in place of the more common sin (ש) and tav (ת), equivalent to the Latin/English S and T. So משה could actually be מסה.
All the above does assume that the original biblical account was written in Hebrew. Even if it was, it was certainly not in the script that is in use today; ie the one in use since about 500 BCE. The extant Hebrew script is a variation of Chaldean, or Babylonian. It replaced the earlier, so-called Paleo-Hebrew, at the time of the Babylonian captivity and has been in use since. The original Hebrew script was closely related to Phoenician/Aramaic, the source of all modern alphabets including Greek and Latin. Yet that alphabet significantly post-dates even the latest point in history when Moses could have lived. Apart from Egyptian with it’s various writing forms, Hieroglyphs and Hieratic, there was one very early Semitic alphabet in use in the Sinai peninsula and the eastern edges of the Nile delta. This was Proto-Sinaitic, a script that used hieratic symbols but seems to have been used phonetically’ like modern languages, in a way that ancient Egyptian never did until the advent of Coptic. The script, of which there are only a few fragmentary samples, is thought to represent a Semitic language like early Canaanite and was used by the ‘Asiatic’ workers in the turquoise mines of the area.
‘Moshe’ written in Paleo-Hebrew script.
Egyptian ritual votive sacrifices to Sobek (the crocodile god) were usually symbolic. There is no record of human sacrifice to Sobek. However. it cannot be ruled out that enemies of the state might be thrown into the river to drown or be eaten by the crocodiles. It would be a tidy way to dispose of unwanted babies – no ‘bloody’ mess and no graves to dig. Should any survive the ordeal they might be seen as having been redeemed by Sobek. However, it is unlikely any baby could survive being thrown into the Nile, crocodiles or not.
There is yet another way to read the Egyptian hieroglyph: The twined symbol (twisted flax) was not so much an H sound as the more guttural CH the found in the Scottish work loch. In Hebrew that would be either the harsh khav (כ) or the softer chet (ח). In which case the name would be משח or משך in Hebrew (M-S-CH or M-S-KH). Now משח is a very well known Hebrew word. It is Mashiach, better known in English as Messiah. The word messiah in Hebrew has a very different meaning from its usage in English and the Christian world in general. It means ‘anointed’, and refers specifically to somebody anointed with oil as either a king or priest in ancient Israel. Aaron is generally thought of as the first priest and so the first anointed Israelite. King Saul was the first anointed king. Both could legitimately be called messiahs.
But could Moses? In the Christian sense of a messiah as one who brings salvation or saves, perhaps. But as that isn’t the original meaning, we must dismiss that idea. However, there is another possibility; that Moses didn’t exist other than as a cover for Aaron. After all, Moses didn’t speak to pharaoh at any point when he returned from his sojourn in southern Canaan; his brother did all the talking, Moses having complained to God (according to Exodus) that he was ‘slow of speech. Yet if Aaron was actually Moses, then he wasn’t placed in the river, or rescued by one of the pharaoh’s daughters. Which unravels the links to Sobek and the Egyptian word for crocodile.
The conclusion? Well, I haven’t come to one yet. I’ll let you, the reader decide what you want to believe about either what I’ve written here, or the source materials.