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The Life of Moses

Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman

The Birth of Moses and his rescue

The wall paintings in the Dura Europus synagogue, dating from the 3rd century CE, focus primarily on God’s redeeming hand in the Bible’s stories. This focus apparently reflected the community’s hope that the redemption of the Jewish people, even if delayed, would surely come.

Moses appears in at least five of the Dura Europus paintings. This one illustrates the story of his miraculous survival as an infant. The account appears in Exodus 2, after the description of the enslavement of the Israelites by a “new king… who did not know Joseph” (1:8). The text then moves from the general to the specific; likewise, the painting in Dura Europus is a progression divided into three scenes by curtains draped above the characters.



Dura Europus, Saving of Moses

Dura Europus, Saving of Moses


On the right, fortifications and an open gate represent Egypt, from which the children of Israel will leave; beside them sits the king of Egypt, dressed in the style of the Persian nobles who ruled over the Jews of Dura. Aides flank the king and write down his commands (verse 22):


Every son that is born you shall cast into the Nile river,
and every daughter you shall save alive


In the center, beneath the second curtain, two women stand, gesturing in response to the king`s aide, while another woman, her hair exposed, crouches at their feet. Because the painting was damaged, it is hard to see that this woman is placing a cradle in the Nile – this is Jochebed, the mother of Moses and the scene is described in Exodus 2:3. The two other women are either the midwives (Exodus 1:15-21) or Jochebed and Miriam; according to the Midrash, these pairs of characters are actually identical!
At the left, in the widest section of the painting, three women stand with washing utensils in their hands – they are certainly the maidservants of Pharaoh’s daughter since they are dressed differently than Miriam and Jochebed, who appear again on the left edge holding a baby. And finally, below, a cradle floats on the Nile, while a naked woman standing in the river holds a baby. Who is this woman?
In Jewish commentaries and Midrashim on Exodus 2 we find two different responses to the question, Who is drawing Moses out of the water? Both are derived from interpretations of Exodus 2:5 (ותשלח את אמתה). By painting her with a necklace, the Dura Europus artist seems to indicate that it was Pharaoh’s daughter herself who rescued Moses.
The emphasis on the figure of Moses in Dura Europus is surely an example of the synagogue`s art as an expression of the Jewish people’s hope for redemption. The story of the miraculous rescue of the infant Moses, who is pulled out of the Nile by none other Pharaoh’s daughter herself, is, thus, particularly fitting.

Article Sources:

Exodus 31: 1 - 5
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. 3 I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, 5 and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.
Numbers Rabba 15:10
R. Levi son of Rabbi says: A pure candlestick came down from heaven. For the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, And you shall make a candlestick of pure gold (Ex. 25:3). Moses asked Him, How shall we make it? Of beaten work shall the candlestick be made (ibid.), said He. Nevertheless, Moses still found difficulty in understanding, and when he came down he forgot its construction. He went up again and said, Master! How shall we make it? He told him, Of beaten work, shall the candlestick be made. Still Moses experienced difficulty, and when he descended he forgot. He went up again and said, Master! I have forgotten it. He then showed a model to Moses, but the latter still found it hard to construct. So He said to him, See it and make it (ibid. 40), and finally He took a candlestick of fire and showed him its con­struction. Yet, in spite of all this, it caused Moses difficulty. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him, Go to Bezalel and he will make it. So he told Bezalel, and the latter immediately constructed it. Moses began to wonder, saying, To me it was shown ever so many times by the Holy One, blessed be He, yet I found it hard to make, and you who did not see it, constructed it with your own intelligence! Bezalel, You stood in the shadow of God (bezel el) when the Holy One, blessed be He, showed me its construction. And so, when the Temple was destroyed, the candlestick was [divinely] stored away. It was one of the following five things that were so stored away: The ark, the candle­stick, the fire, the Holy Spirit, and the cherubim. When the Holy One, blessed be He, in His mercy will again build His Temple and His Holy Place, He will restore them to their position in order to gladden Jerusalem; as it says, The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice(Isa. 35:1)
Numbers Rabba 19:13
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, With what countenance do you request to enter the Land? This may be illustrated by a parable. It is like the case of a shepherd who went out to feed the king`s flock. The flock was carried off as booty. When the shepherd sought to enter the royal palace, the king said to him, If you come in now, what will people say?  That it was you who have caused the flock to be carried off! So in the present case also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, Your glory is that you have taken out of bondage sixty myriads of people. But you have buried them in the wilderness and will bring into the land a different genera­tion! This being so, people will think that the generation of the wilderness have no share in the World to Come! No, better be beside them, and you shall in the time to come enter with them, as it says, For there the portion of the law-giver is hidden, that he might come at the head of the people. He executed the righteousness of the Lord(Deut. 33:21). Therefore it is written, You shall not bring this assembly but the one that came out [of Egypt] with you.
Deuteronomy Rabba 11:10
R. Johanan said, Scripture refers ten times to the death of Moses, as follows:
Behold, your days approach that you must die(Deut. 31:14);
And die in the mount (ibid.,32:50);
But I must die (ibid.,4:22);
For I know that after my death (ibid.,31:29);
And how much more after my death (ibid.,31:27);
Before his death (ibid.,33:1);
A hundred and twenty years old when he died (ibid.,34:7);
So Moses the servant of the Lord died there (ibid.,5);
Now it came to pass after the death of Moses(Josh. 1:1);
Moses My servant is dead (ibid.,2).
This teaches that ten times was it decreed that Moses should not enter Eretz Israel, but the harsh decree was not finally sealed until the High Court revealed itself to him and declared, It is my decree that you should not pass over [as it is said,] For You shall not go over this Jordan(Deut. 3:27). Moses, however, made light of this, saying, Israel have many times committed great sins, and whenever I prayed for them, God immediately answered my prayer, as it is said, Let Me alone, that I may destroy them (ibid.,9:4); yet what is written there? And the Lord repented of the evil(Ex. 32:14); I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them(Num. 14:12); What is written there? And the Lord said: I have pardoned, etc. (ibid.,20). Seeing then that I have not sinned from my youth, does it not stand to reason that when I pray on my own behalf God should answer my prayer?` And when God saw that Moses made light of the matter and that he was not engaging in prayer, He seized the opportunity to swear by His great Name that Moses should not enter Eretz Israel, as it is said, Therefore (laken) you shall not bring this assembly (ibid.,20:12), and `laken`always implies an oath, as it is said, And therefore (laken) I have sworn unto the house of Eli(I Sam. 3:14). When, however, Moses saw that the decree against him had been sealed, he took a resolve to fast, and drew a small circle and stood therein, and exclaimed, I will not move from here until You annul that decree. What else did Moses do then? He donned sackcloth and wrapped himself with sackcloth and rolled himself in the dust and stood in prayer and supplications before God, until the heavens and the order of nature were shaken. Said they, Perhaps it is the desire of God to create His world anew. Whereupon a heavenly voice was heard proclaiming, It is not yet God`s desire to renew His world ... but, In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind (`ish` = man)(Job 12:10), and `man` must surely refer to Moses, as it is said, Now the man Moses was very meek, above all men that were upon the face of the earth(Num. 12:3). What did God do? At that hour He had it proclaimed in every gate of each of the heavens, and in every Court, that they should not receive Moses` prayer, nor bring it before Him, because the decree against him had been sealed. Now at that hour God hastily summoned the Angel in charge of Proclamations, Achzeriel by name, and He commanded the ministering angels, Descend quickly, bolt all the gates of every heaven, because the voice of the prayer threatens to force its way to heaven. And the angels sought to ascend to heaven because of the sound of Moses` prayer, for his prayer was like a sword which tears and cuts its way through everything, and spares nothing, seeing that his prayer was of the nature of the Ineffable Name which he had learnt from Zagzagel the Master Scribe of the children of heaven. It is to that hour that [the prophet] alludes when he says, And I heard behind me the voice of a great rushing: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place(Ezek. 3:12); and ‘rushing’surely means trembling, and `great`surely refers to Moses, as it is said, Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh`s servants, and in the sight of the people(Ex. 11:3).
What is the meaning of, Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place?When the wheels of the Chariot and the fiery Seraphim saw that God commanded that Moses` prayer should not be accepted and that He did not respect [Moses`] person, nor grant him more life, nor bring him into Eretz Israel, they exclaimed: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place, for before Him there is no respecting of persons, great or small. And whence do we know that Moses prayed at this juncture five hundred and fifteen times 1 For it is said, And I besought (wa-etchanan) the Lord at that time, saying (Deut. 3:23), the numerical value of `wa-ethchanan` is this number. Moses said to God: Master of the Universe, the labor and the pains which I have devoted to making Israel believe in Your name are manifest and known to You, to what trouble have I gone with them in connection with the precepts in order to fix for them Torah and precepts. I thought, just as I witnessed the woe, so too will I behold their weal; but now that the weal of Israel has come, You say to me, You shall not go over this Jordan(Deut. 31:2); 10, You make of your Torah a fraud. Therein it is written, In the same day You shall give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it, for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it, lest he cry against you unto the Lord, and it be sin in you (ibid.,24:15). Is this the reward for the forty years` labor that I went through in order that [Israel] should become a holy and faithful people, as it is said, But Judah yet rules with God, and is faithful with the saints(Hos. 12:1)
Exodus Rabba 1:13
When he [Pharaoh] saw that they increased abun­dantly, he then decreed concerning the male children, as it is written: and the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:13).Who were these midwives? Rab said it was a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, namely, Jochebed and Elisheba, the daughter of Aminadab; R. Samuel b. Nahman said: It was a woman and her daughter, namely Jochebed and Miriam. Miriam was then only five years old, for Aaron was the senior of Moses by three years. The Sages said that she used to accompany her mother Jochebed, attending to all her wants and she was very zealous, for even whenthe child is yet young, its [character] is known. This is what Solomon said: Even a child is known by his doings(Prov. 20:11). of whom the name of one was Shiphrah - because she used to make the babe good­looking (me-shapereth); for when the babe was born, it was full of blood. P u a h - because she used to make bubbles (nofa`ath) with wine before the babe in the presence of her mother. Another explanation of Shiphrah is because Israel multiplied (she-paru) exceedingly, thanks to her; and Puah, because she used to revive (mefi`ah) the infant when people said it was dead. Another explana­tion of Shiphrah: because she made her acts pleasing (shafrah) before God. Another explanation of Puah: because she (Miriam) lifted (hofi` ah) Israel up to God. Another explanation of Puah: she lifted up her face against Pharaoh and turned up her nose against him, saying: Woe unto this man when God comes to exact His retribution. Whereupon Pharaoh became so angry that he sought to slay her. Shiphrah - because she smoothed over (meshapereth) her daughter`s words and pacified [the king] for her. For she said to him: `Do you take notice of her? She is only a child and knows nothing.` R Hanina, the son of R. Isaac, said: She was called Shiphrah because she preserved Israel unto God, for the heavens were created on their account, as it is written of them: By His breath the heavens are serene(Job 26:3). Puah - because she dared to reprove her father. Amram was at that time the head of the Sanhedrin, and when Pharaoh decreed that If it be a son, then you shall kill him, Amram said that it was useless for the Israelites to beget children. Forth­with he ceased to have intercourse with his wife Jochebed and even divorced his wife, though she was already three months pregnant. Whereupon all the Israelites arose and divorced their wives. Then said his daughter to him, Your decree is more severe than that of Pharaoh: for Pharaoh decreed only concerning the male children, and you decree upon males and females alike. Besides, Pharaoh being wicked, there is some doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, but you are righteous and your decree will be fulfilled. So he took his wife back and was followed by all the Israelites, who also took their wives back. Hence was she called Puah, because she dared to reprove her father.
Exodus Rabba 1:23
To bathe in the river - (2:5). To cleanse herself from the idols of her father`s palace. and her maidens walked along - R. Johanan said, the expression `walked` here means, walking to meet death, as it is said, Behold, I am going to die(Gen. 25:32). They said to her, Your Highness, it is the general rule that when a king makes a decree, his own family will obey that decree even if everyone else transgresses it; but youare flagrantly disobeying your father`s command? Where­upon Gabriel came and smote them to the ground.
And she sent her handmaid (amathah) to fetch it. R. Judah and R. Nehemiah discuss this; one says the word amathah means `her hand`, and the other `her handmaid`. He who says `her hand` points to the word, `amathah`; and he who says `her handmaid` points out that it does not say yadah (her hand). According to him who opines that it means `her handmaid` Gabriel must have spared one maid when he smote the others, because it is not right for a princess to remain unattended. The question was asked: According to him who says that it means `her hand`, why does it not explicitly sayher hand? - This does not refute him. The word `amathah`is used on purpose because her arms were lengthened. We have learnt, thus you will find: You have broken the teeth of the wicked(Ps. 3:8); do not read You have broken(shibbarta), but You have prolonged (sheribabta). The Rabbis say that Pharaoh`s daughter was leprous and went down to bathe, but as soon as she touched the ark she became healed. For this reason did she take pity upon Moses and loved him with an exceeding love.
Bab. Tal Sotah 11a-b
And his sister stood afar off - R. Isaac said, The whole of this verse is spoken with reference to the Shekhinah:
            and stood, as it is written, And the Lord came and stood etc;
            his sister, as it is written, Say unto wisdom, You art my sister;
            afar off, as it is written, The Lord appeared from afar unto me;
            to know, as it is written, For the Lord is a God of knowledge;
            what, as it is written, What doth the Lord require of You;
            done, as it is written, Surely the Lord God will do nothing;
            to him, as it is written, And called it Lord is peace.
Now there arose a new king etc. Rab and Samue [differ in their interpretation]; one said that he was really new, while the other said that his decrees were made new. He who said that he was really new did so because it is written `new`; and he who said that his decrees were made new did so because it is not stated that (the former king] died and he reigned [in his stead]. knew not Joseph -he was like one who did not know [Joseph] at all. And he said unto his people. Behold the people of the children of Israel. A Tanna taught: He [Pharaoh] originated the plan first, and there­fore was punished first. He originated the plan first, as it is written, And he said unto his people; therefore he was punished first, as it is written, Upon You, and upon your people, and upon all your servants. Come, let us deal wisely with him -it should have been with them! -R. Hama b.Hanina said: [Pharaoh meant,] Come and let us outwit the Savior of Israel. With what shall we afflict them? If we afflict them with fire, it is written, For, behold the Lord will come with fire, and it continues, For by fire will the Lord plead etc. [If we afflict them] with the sword, it is written, And by His sword with all flesh. But come and let us afflict them with water, because the Holy One, blessed be He, has already sworn that he will not bring a flood upon the world; as it is said, For this is as the waters of Noah unto Me, etc. They were unaware, however, that He would not bring a flood upon the whole world but upon one people He would bring it; or alternatively, He would not bring [the flood] but they would go and fall into it. Thus it says, And the Egyptians fled towards it.· This is what R. Eleazar said: What is the meaning of the verse, Yea. in the thing wherein they zadu [dealt proudly] against them. In the pot in which they cooked were they cooked. Whence is it learnt that zad means cooking? Because it is written, And Jacob cooked [wa-yazed] stew.
R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Simai: There were three in that plan, viz. Balaam, Job and Jethro. Balaam who devised it was slain; Job who silently acquiesced was afflicted with sufferings; Jethro, who fled, merited that his descendants should sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, as it is said, And the families of scribes which dwelt at Jabez; the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, the Sucathites. These are the Kenites that came of Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab; and it is written, And the children of the Kenite, Moses` father-in-law etc.
And fight against us and get them up out of the land -it should have read `and we will get us up`.   R. Abba b. Kahana said: It is like a man who curses himself and hangs the curse upon somebody else.
Therefore they did set over him taskmasters - it should have read `over them`! It was taught in the School of R. Eleazar b. Simeon: It indicates that they brought a brick-mould and hung it round Pharaoh`s neck; and every Israelite who complained that he was weak was told, Are You weaker than Pharaoh?
Missim [`taskmasters`]-i.e., something which forms [mesim].
To afflict him with their burdens -it should have read `them`! The [meaning is] to afflict Pharaoh with the burdens of Israel.
And they built for Pharaoh store cities [miskenoth].   Rab and Samuel [differ in their interpretation]; one said, [They were so called] because they endangered [mesakkenoth] their owners, while the other said because they impoverished [memashkenoth] their owners, for a master has declared that whoever occupies himself with building becomes impoverished.
Pithom and Raamses - Rab and Samuel differ [in their interpretation]; one said, Its real name was Pithom, and why was it called Raamses? Because one building after another collapsed [mithroses]. The other said that its real name was Raamses, and why was it called Pithom? Because the mouth of the deep [pi tehom] swallowed up one building after another.
But the more they afflicted him, the more he will multiply and the more he will spread abroad -it should have read `the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad`! - Resh Lakish said: The Holy Spirit announced to them, The more he will multiply and the more he will spread abroad.
And they were grieved [wa-yakuzu] because of the children of Israel - this teaches that they were like thorns [kozim] in their eyes.
And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor [parek]. R. Eleazar said: [It means] with a tender mouth [peh rak]; R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: [It means] with rigorous work [perikah]. And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, etc, Raba said: At first it was in mortar and in brick; but finally it was in all manner of service in the field. All their service wherein they made them, serve with rigor. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: They changed men`s work for the women and the women`s work for the men; and even he who explained [parek] above as meaning `with tender mouth` admits that here it means `with rigorous work`.
R. `Awira expounded: As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fishes should enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fishes. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field and washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had intercourse with them among the sheepfolds, as it is said. When you lie among the sheepfolds, etc. As the reward for When you lie among the sheepfolds, the Israelites merited the booty of the Egyptians, as it is said, As the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her pinions with yellow gold. After the women had conceived they returned to their homes; and when the time of childbirth arrived, they went and were delivered in the field beneath the apple tree, as it is said, Under the apple tree I called you to come forth [from your mother`s womb] etc. The Holy One, blessed be He, sent down someone from the high heavens who washed and straightened the limbs [of the babes] in the same manner that a midwife straightens the limbs of a child; as it is said, And as for your nativity, in the day that you ware born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you. He also provided for them two cakes, one of oil and one of honey, as it is said, And He made him such honey out of the rock, and oil, etc.   When the Egyptians noticed them, they went to kill them; but a miracle occurred on their behalf so that they were swallowed in the ground, and [the Egyptians] brought oxen and ploughed over them. as it is said, The ploughers ploughed upon my back. After they had departed, [the Israe­lite women with their babes] broke through [the earth] and came forth like the herbage of the field. as it is said, I caused you to multiply as the bud of the field; and when [the babes] had grownup, they came in flocks to their homes, as it is said, And you did increase and wax great and did come with ornaments - read not with ornaments [ba`adi `adayim] but in flocks [be`edre `adarim]. At the time the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself by the Red Sea, they recognized Him first, as it is said, This is my God and I will praise Him.
And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, etc. Rab and Samuel [differ in their interpretation]; one said they were mother and daughter, and the other said they were daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. According to him who declared they were mother and daughter, they were Jochebed and Miriam; and according to him who declared they were daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, they were Jochebed and Elisheba. There is a teaching in agreement with him who said they were mother and daughter; for it has been taught, Shiphrah is Jochebed; and why was her name called Shiphrah? Because she straightened [meshappereth] the limbs of the babe. Another explanation of Shiphrah is that the Israelites were fruitful [sheparu] and multiplied in her days. Puah is Miriam; and why was her name called Puah? Because she cried out [po`ah] to the child and brought it forth. Another explanation of Puah is that she used to cry out through the Holy Spirit and say, My mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel.
And he said, When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, etc. - What means `obnayim`? R. Johanan said, He entrusted them with an important sign and told them that when a woman bends to deliver a child, her thighs grow cold like stones [abanim]. Another explains [the word `obnayim`] in accordance with what is written, Then I went down to the potter`s house, and, behold, he wrought his work on the wheels. As in the case of a potter, there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side and the wooden block in between, so also with a woman there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side and the child in between.
If it be a male, then you shall kill him. R. Hanina said: He entrusted them with an important sign, viz., if it is a son, his face is turned downward and if a daughter, her face is turned upward.   But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt spoke to them. Instead of alehen [`regarding them`] we should have had lahen [`to them]! R. Jose son of R. Hanina said, It teaches that he solicited them for immoral intercourse, but they refused to yield.