The second chapter of the book of Exodus overflows with textual oddities. By chance, Jonathan asked me to read it with him last night, and so we sat down on Zoom and read through it, stopping every once in a while to comment on some textual quirk that leapt off the page. I thought it would be worthwhile to write some of these down and get some feedback, if anyone else is interested. I’ll break it up by verses and comment where I think the text is less than clear. These really are just impressions that I get from the text. I haven’t checked any commentaries at this point beyond that of the Stone Chumash. They may have some great explanations that I haven’t come across yet.
The first thing that strikes me as off is the abruptness of the introduction to the Moses story. In chapter 1, we saw that Pharoah commanded his people that כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלּ֗וֹד הַיְאֹ֨רָה֙ תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן “you shall throw every boy who is born into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live” (Ex. 1:22b). For the introduction of a new piece of the story, we would normally expect some kind of temporal marker like וַֽיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם “and it happened in those days” (Ex. 2:11) or וַֽיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵ֫לֶּה “and it happened after these things” (Gn. 39:7). This is the regular way that new episodes are introduced in the biblical narrative. It isn’t required, but it certainly makes this passage feel rushed.
The lack of names for the characters stands out. It is simply אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי “a man from the house of Levi” and בַּת־לֵוִי “the daughter of Levi,” neither one being identified by name until later in the story (Ex. 6:20). The only other place in the Bible that mentions Amram and Yochéved (the parents of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam) is this one verse from within a genealogy:
וְשֵׁ֣ם ׀ אֵ֣שֶׁת עַמְרָ֗ם יוֹכֶ֨בֶד֙ בַּת־לֵוִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָֽלְדָ֥ה אֹתָ֛הּ לְלֵוִ֖י בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַתֵּ֣לֶד לְעַמְרָ֗ם אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת מִרְיָ֥ם אֲחֹתָֽם׃
And the name of Amram’s wife was Yochéved the daughter of Levi, whom she bore to Levi in Egypt. She bore to Amram Aaron, Moses, and Miriam their sister.
This verse seems to indicate that Yochéved was the direct daughter of Levi, but we are to believe that Levi was among the brothers of Joseph who went down into Egypt to join him with the rest of his family–which would have been some 300 years before the birth of Yochéved. Once again, it’s odd that the text says “she bore to Levi” without providing the name of Yochéved’s mother. Who is this “she”? This does give some sort of explanation why she is simply called “the daughter of Levi” in our verse, though it is still awkward to call her this rather than giving her a name from the very beginning. Rashi’s commentary (in the Stone Chumash) states that Yochéved was literally the daughter of Levi and that she gave birth to her children when she was over 130 years old.
Yochéved’s relationship to Amram before they were married is also unclear. The Masoretic Text (𝔐) indicates that she was his aunt (דֹּדָתוֹ), whereas the Septuagint (𝔊) says that she was the daughter of his father’s brother (θυγατέρα τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ, Ex. 6:20 𝔊), which is his first cousin). These two are clearly irreconcilable.
There wasn’t really anything strange in this verse, but I wanted to point out two things:
- It is always neat to repeat the conception formula “she conceived and bore a son.” For me, it always brings Isaiah 7:14 to mind, with all its connotations and arguments. It may be significant that the formula there is not imperfect with vav-consecutive perfect, but rather an adjective and a participle (הָרָה וְיֹלֶ֫דֶת בֵּן). Were it speaking of some future date, would he not have chosen a different formula (perhaps הִנֵּה הָֽעַלְמָה תַּהֲרֶה וְיָֽלְדָה בֵּן וכו׳) rather than simply using the adjective הָרָה, which clearly means “the girl is pregnant”? Then again, there are often odd vocalizations of this combination even in the narrative portions of the Bible. For example, it often points וילדת as וְיֹלַדְתְּ instead of the expected וְיֹלֶ֫דֶת (cf. Gn. 16:11; Jd. 13:3, 5, 7). It’s especially clear in the verse in Genesis that הָרָה means “pregnant,” for Abraham had already impregnated Hagar in verse 4 before she was declared to be pregnant and bearing a son in verse 11, using the same exact phrase that we see in Isaiah 7:14.
<playful>This really is irrelevant to anything, but it’s my blog, so I’ll write what I want to.
- The phrase וַתֵּ֫רֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי־טוֹב הוּא has hints of the creation day summaries from Genesis (וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב), with God seeing that the world was good at every step along the path of creation and, indeed, “very good” at the end. It makes me think that we are to see a sort of new creation in the character of Moses—a new beginning for the people of Israel as their emergence from slavery begins to take form. Strangely, the Talmud (bSotah 12a) takes this to mean that he was perfectly formed at birth—circumcised when he emerged from the womb. This is something that is very commonly believed among traditional Jews. Just as Christians normally believe that Jesus was born from a virgin, many Jews believe that Moses was born without an עׇרְלָה ʿorlâ, meaning that he was born already in covenant relationship with God.
Of course, הצפינו is a hiphil infinitive construct with a 3ms personal suffix, but even it’s pointing is strange! We would expect הַצְפִּינוֹ haṣpînô, but we get הַצְּפִינוֹ haṣṣəp̄înô, as if the dagesh were simply placed in the wrong letter. It should have been in the peh rather than in the tsadi.
Of course, every time I read this chapter, I think about the image presented in the film The Prince of Egypt in which the little ark is thrown and tossed in the strong current and waves (!!) of the Nile River before by divine providence finding its way to the bathing area of the princess. This is not reflected in the text at all. Yochéved simply places the basket among the reeds (so that it won’t float off), and Miriam sits and hides nearby to see if anyone picks the baby up. It doesn’t travel down the river, and it certainly doesn’t put the baby’s life at risk. Those theatrics have no place in the story as it is written.
The main verb here is the vav-consecutive וַתֵּתַצַּב which corresponds to no normal verb pattern. Based on the Samaritan Pentateuch (⅏), scholars normally reconstruct it as וַתִּתְיַצַּב. Another oddity—a verb that doesn’t exist.
It looked like we made it through a verse without any strangeness, but (alas) there is one odd thing. The Leningrad Codex, the copy of the Bible that serves as the basis for most modern editions, doesn’t end the verse with sof pasuk (׃), the mark that ends all verses in the Bible.
This is the strangest of the strange. First, there is no explicit subject. Is the “she” here the servant girl who had taken the basket from among the reeds, or was it the princess herself? It seems to be the princess, but there is no indication of that. We just have to get that from the fact that she had compassion on the boy. It wouldn’t make any difference if a servant had felt any particular way. The emotional reaction is all that tells us that this is speaking of Pharaoh’s daughter.
The second oddity is the way that it reports her seeing the baby. We are to think that Moses was three months old at this point, from the verse above. We are told that when she opens the basket, וַתִּרְאֵ֫הוּ “she sees him,” אֶת־הַיֶּ֫לֶד “the boy,” וְהִנֵּה־נַ֫עַר בֹּכֶה “and behold a youth crying.” This is extremely peculiar. The word יֶ֫לֶד is stretching it for a baby, but to call the baby a נַ֫עַר “young man” is very odd. Rashi says that it means that it was the voice of a young man (rather than of a screaming baby). Thus, we are to imagine that Moses was born circumcised and that he already had features of an older boy when he was three months old. The phrase אֶת־הַיֶּ֫לֶד comes after a verb that already has an explicit object, which would normally lead us to translate the אֵת as “with.” Again, Rashi interprets this to mean that she opened the basket and saw the divine presence with the boy. The problems in the text force commentators to get creative with their solutions.
Since these two verses have nothing peculiar in them, I put them together. The only interesting spelling is the word הָֽעִבְרִיֹּת, which looks singular in the consonantal text (as if it were הָֽעִבְרִית), but that’s just a defective spelling, which has no significance. We might also call to mind that עַלְמָה is here used of Miriam without any connotation of sexual abstinence. It just means “girl.” This is also relevant for the question of Isaiah 7:14.
Oh, wouldn’t it have been enough for the text to say that Miriam went to call her mother? Why is the stress placed on the boy. Don’t we already know that they are siblings? It would have made better sense (in my thinking, anyway) to say וַתֵּ֫לֶךְ הָֽעַלְמָה וַתִּקְרָא אֶת־אִמָּהּ. That’s a very minor quibble indeed.
The root הל״ך behaves like a first-yod verb outside of the qal perfect. It is used 45 times in the hiphil in the text of the Bible (as per Logos Bible Software), but only here does the first syllable become ◌ֵי instead of וֹ. We would expect to see הוֹלִ֫יכִי, but we got הֵילִ֫יכִי. Very odd indeed.
One thing that is obviously lacking from the text is the statement that Yochéved (still unnamed in the story) arrived at all. In the previous verse, the princess tells Miriam to go, and then Miriam is said to go to call her mother (well, the boy’s mother). The very next line is “and Pharaoh’s daughter said to her.” It’s normal to state explicitly that the other character in the plot had arrived before they begin speaking to them.
This verse is completely normal. One comment on the name of Moses, though.
<borrowing intensity="gratuitous">As it is, מֹשֶׁה is a participle. It would most naturally refer to the one who does the drawing rather than the one who was drawn from the water. It would have been more natural for him to have been named מָשׁוּי “drawn” rather than מֹשֶׁה “drawing.”
This was brought up by Jonathan yesterday in reference to a comment he heard from one of his professors.
The rest of the chapter is fine. It’s only when we get to the last verse that we ask ourselves a few questions.
There are two changes that are interesting in the textual witnesses. The Targum adds the word שִׁעְבּוּד before the Israelites, which corresponds to the Hebrew עֳנִי “affliction.” Instead of seeing the Israelites, God is said to have seen the affliction of the Israelites, which makes better sense. It reads: וּגֱלִי קֳדָם יְיָ שִׁעְבּוּדָא דִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל “the affliction (servitute) of the Israelites was laid bare before the Lord.”
The final phrase also causes some confusion. What did God know, after all? 𝔊 renders the phrase as καὶ ἐγνώσθη αὐτοῖς “and it became known to them” or “and it was perceived by them.” It’s also very unclear. BHS suggests a reconstruction the Greek as וַיִּוָּדַע אֲלֵיהֶם “and it was known unto them,” which they mark as fortasse recte “probably correct.” How does this reconstruction help us understand the last line of the verse? What was made known to the people? Did they find out somehow that God had taken notice of their sufferings? Saying that “God knew” doesn’t help either. Doesn’t God know everything? The chapter ends strangely.
Sometimes the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the biblical text are those which exhibit unexpected or unusual language. We can read a thousand verses like verses 11–24 in this chapter and just cruise on through. It is the ones that catch the eye, that make you stop and say, “huh?”, that give us pause… these are the verses that are the most interesting. We might not understand them perfectly, but we can at least devote some mental energy to struggling with them in the same way as the generations of the People of the Book, or perhaps in a different way.
I don’t intend to have solved anything in this post. I just wanted to confront the text as it is, having read through it last night with joy. I mean, why does the text say “the boy’s mother” instead of “her mother” when talking about Miriam? I don’t know, but these types of questions keep us coming back to the text to look at it again and again. Can you imagine if the Bible were perfect and free of error? How boring would it be? We would read it once, understand it, and move on. It is the error that gives the text character and challenges us to really invest some time in investigation rather than simply passing over the text without a second thought.
Enjoy your reading!