Readers may be more familiar with seeing some of these names spelled differently—as Ptahmosis, for example, or Thutmosis. Just as Mose became Moses when translated into Greek and then English, so too with these names that first became known to the West through Greek historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus and Manetho.


It might seem that the name of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great, the pharaoh most often associated with the Exodus)—would also mean “Ra is born,” but his name is normally written R‘-ms-sw (roughly, Ramessu) and means “Ra-fashioned him,” using another meaning of the verb msi, that is, “to fashion, form.” The two senses of the verb are related, however, in that Egyptians thought of the fashioning of a divine statue as equivalent to the god being born.



According to both Hebrew and Egyptian tradition, it was often the mother who named the child. See P. Vernus, “Namengabung,” Lexicon der Ägyptologie 4 (1982), pp. 326–327; and William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1–18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible series (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 152.


For a summary, see Propp, Exodus, p. 152.


Propp, Exodus, p. 152; James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), p. 144; J.G. Griffiths, “The Egyptian Derivation of the Name Moses,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953), p. 223.


To be sure, some scholars have looked to a number of languages other than Hebrew or Egyptian for a derivation of the name, but none of these seem plausible enough for consideration here. An Egyptian name would certainly fit the context of the narrative far better than one drawn from places so far afield as Kassite Babylonia, the Hurrian-speaking land of Mitanni, or the long-lost civilization of Sumer. Propp (Exodus, p. 152) summarizes, then rejects, several proposed etymologies—Sumerian, Kassite, Hurrian—with the remark, “If Moses’ name is not Hebrew, what else could it be but Egyptian?”


Since the ancient Egyptian language, like the original pre-Masoretic Hebrew, wrote only the consonantal structure of words without any intervening vowels, the pronunciation of the word transliterated as Mose is just an educated guess based on the rendering of certain Egyptian names in Greek and the vocalization of the underlying verbal stem in Coptic sources. The Coptic language is a late dialect of ancient Egyptian spoken by the native Egyptian Christians that employed the Greek alphabet and preserved vowels missing in the classical hieroglyphic forms of the language. In Coptic the verb in question appears in the forms mise “to bear, give birth to”/mose “to be born”; by itself mise can be a noun meaning “child, offspring.”


See G.A. Gaballa, The Memphite Tomb Chapel of Mose (Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1977).

There is a reasonable phonological objection that could be raised against interpreting the name Moses as some form of an Egyptian name ending in –mose. The second consonant in the Hebrew Moshe is a V or shin, whereas the Egyptian seems to use a letter or , which normally would be rendered in Hebrew as s (samek), as seems to be the case with many toponyms. See Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, pp. 110–122; and Griffiths, “Egyptian Derivation,” pp. 228–231. This does not present a major obstacle, however. There are no hard-and-fast rules for predicting how sibilants will be rendered as they move between the languages of the ancient Near East. This is attested in the Amarna letters and the Hittite-Egyptian correspondence; see E. Edel, Die Ägyptisch-hethitische Korrespondenz aus Boghazköi in babylonische und Hethitische Sprache, 2 vols., Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-WestfÄlischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 77 (Opladen: Westfalischer Verlag, 1994) passim.


H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 792a, s.v. qeoforevw.


A good overview of this complex religious phenomenon is available in a recent collection of essays by Jan Assmann, “Personal Piety and the Theology of Will,” in The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (New York: Metropolitan Books: 2002), pp. 229–246. Strikingly enough, this phenomenon was also widespread in other parts of the contemporary ancient Near East. See Thorkild Jacobson, “Second Millennium Metaphors: The Gods as Parents,” in The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 145–164.


See J.-M. Kruchten, “Oracles,” in D.B. Redford, ed., The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press: 2002), pp. 298–302.