Was the Story of Moses Based on an Ancient Legend?

baby Moses from the Bible story

In modern stories people destined for greatness rarely start off privileged. They are dropped off at the doorstep of an orphanage or abandoned in the rain. This literary motif goes back to ancient stories, where writers use the abandoned child theme to identify a character that rises from obscurity to privileged hero status. It’s a motif found in the biblical account of Moses’ birth. But is that really the whole story?

Moses’ story begins when Pharaoh feels threatened by the growing Hebrew population in Egypt and commands that all Hebrew male infants be killed (Exod 1:16–22). Moses’ mother hides her newborn son for three months and then devises a risky but calculated plan: She sets him adrift on the Nile in a small basket made of bulrushes, waterproofed with bitumen and pitch (2:1–3). Moses’ older sister, Miriam, watches as the basket floats to where the daughter of Pharaoh bathes. God uses these circumstances to bring Moses under the protection of Egypt’s ruler (2:4–10).

Ancient literature outside the Bible attests to several stories in which a child, perceived as a threat by an enemy, is abandoned and later spared by divine intervention or otherworldly circumstance. Roughly 30 stories like this survive from the literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, Greece, Egypt, Rome and India.

The Mesopotamian work known as the Sargon Birth Legend offers the most striking parallels to the biblical story. It relates the birth story of Sargon the Great, an Akkadian emperor who ruled a number of Sumerian city-states around 2000 bc, centuries before the time of Moses. The infant boy is born into great peril: His mother is a high priestess, and he is illegitimate. Consequently, his mother sets him adrift on a river in a reed basket. The boy is rescued and raised by a gardener named Akki in the town of Kish. He becomes a humble gardener in Akki’s service until the goddess Ishtar takes an interest in him, setting him on the path to kingship.

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A source for the Moses story?

Some assume that the biblical story of Moses’ birth was based on the Sargon Birth Legend, but this is unlikely. Although ancient Sumerian accounts of Sargon the Great date back to his lifetime, the legendary account of his birth is known from only four fragmentary tablets—three from the Neo-Assyrian period (934–605 bc) and one from the Neo-Babylonian period (626–539 bc). During the Neo-Assyrian period an Assyrian king took the name Sargon II and likely commanded the legends to be written about his namesake (722–705 bc). By doing so, he would have linked himself to the ancient hero and glorified himself as a “revived Sargon” figure. This would suggest that the birth legend was composed for propaganda purposes well after the biblical story of Moses.

Turning a literary strategy on its head

The existence of stories like the Sargon Birth Legend help us understand the biblical story. They show that the abandoned child theme was a popular literary strategy for the ancients. They used it to introduce a figure who rises from mundane origins after gaining favor from fate or the divine. The common elements in these rags-to-riches stories helped ancient audiences identify with the central figure and develop respect for his achievements.

Moses’ story is about more than parallels, though. While Moses briefly seems to find favor and protection in the household of Pharaoh, a quasi-divine figure for the Egyptians, his life takes a surprising turn. He ends up leaving the kingdom of Egypt fearing that Pharaoh will kill him. From there, the story is repatterned: In a wilderness of Midian, Yahweh appears to Moses, now an obscure shepherd “slow of speech and of tongue” (4:10). He tells Moses to act as His spokesperson before Pharaoh and lead His people out of Egypt.

Moses stands out against the stories of the ancient cultures because he isn’t promoted like their chosen figures, but saved and demoted to poverty so that he can lead others to salvation. He is the new archetype of the chosen hero—one who is promoted only for the benefit of others. Over and against the stories of worldly kingdoms, Moses’ story articulates God’s remarkable work for His kingdom. His values are different from ours, and as is often the case in retrospect, we can be grateful for that.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser (1963–2023) was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He had a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He was a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser
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