Moshe's Birth and the Legend of Sargon
Numerous legends from both the ancient and classical periods share the motif of a hero being abandoned at birth,1 and some of them recall the story of Moshe's infancy in Shemot 2. Of these, the closest parallel is probably the Mesopotamian legend recounting the birth of Sargon, founder of Akkad.2 It tells how Sargon's mother bore him in secret, placed him in a basket, and cast him into a river. There he was found by Akki who raised him and appointed him as his gardener until subsequently Sargon ascended to the throne. A comparison of the Moshe and Sargon tales serves to highlight both the unique aspects of the Biblical story and some of the difficulties in the narrative.
Content Parallels and Contrasts
The overall plot of both stories is very similar. A mother places her a baby in a basket and sets it on the river. A stranger then discovers the baby, draws him from the water and adopts him, and the child grows up to become a heroic figure. The table below provides more specific similarities as well as distinctions between the stories:
|Parents||Moshe's mother is from the Levite tribe, and Sargon's mother is a priestess.3 In both stories, the father does not play an active role.||While Sargon's father remains unknown, Moshe's father is identified. Moreover, while Sargon loses contact with his mother, Moshe's mother continues to nurse him.|
|Baby Left in River|| |
Moshe and Sargon are both placed in a basket by their mothers, covered in bitumen, and hidden by a river.
|Sargon's mother "cast" him into the "river", suggesting abandonment. In contrast, Moshe is "placed" in the "reeds", with his sister standing guard.|
|Background for Abandonment||Yocheved's actions are prompted by Paroh's decree to kill all male babies. No reason is given for Sargon's mother's actions.4|
|Salvation||Moshe is drawn from the water and adopted by Paroh's daughter, and Sargon is adopted by Akki, "the drawer of water".||Moshe is saved by a member of the nobility, while Sargon is saved by a commoner. This enables Moshe, born a slave, to move up in status, while Sargon, born to a higher class, moves down.|
|Unknown Identity||Both Sargon and Moshe's full identity are unknown to their saviors.||Moshe's Israelite origins are immediately apparent to Paroh's daughter.|
|Naming||Moshe is named by the daughter of Paroh, and his name reflects her drawing him forth from the water. Sargon's name means "the legitimate king" which might suggest that it was an epithet he gave to himself.5|
|Interim Profession||Before assuming leadership roles, both engage in more common professions.||Moshe is a shepherd, while Sargon is a gardener.|
|Rise to Power||Both are commissioned by a deity to become leaders of their respective peoples.|
As is often the case, it is the contrasts between the two stories which are the most revealing:
- Placement of basket – The contrast between Sargon's casting of her child in the water versus Yocheved's placing of Moshe in the reeds makes the reader wonder about the motives of each mother. N. Sarna6 suggests that Sargon's mother was likely protecting herself rather than the baby. Being a priestess, she was expected to be chaste, and thus had to rid herself of her unwanted illegitimate child.7 Yocheved, in contrast, was reacting to a decree of death, and with tender love, attempted to save her baby. This analysis, though, is questionable, as Sargon's mother's caulking of her infant's basket suggests that she, too, may have hoped that her infant would be saved. Moreover, Shemot leaves Yocheved's intentions unclear. Was she hoping for Moshe to stay hidden (and continue to be cared for by his family) or be found?8
- Familial Involvement – A comparison of the stories highlights the continued involvement of Moshe's family in his welfare. His sister stands guard to discover his fate, and later his mother herself is able to nurse him. This raises the question of the extent of Moshe's continued relationship with his family even after he moves to the palace. How much did he know of his Israelite origins? Did he have a connection to his siblings? The fact that Aharon comes to greet Moshe on his way back from Midyan may suggest that close familial bonds were maintained.
- Change in status – Moshe's connection to a nation of slaves and the fact that he is found by a royal princess inverts the motif found in the Sargon (and other) legends in which it is a commoner who adopts a baby of originally noble lineage. N. Sarna9 points out that the folklore motif serves a political purpose, to legitimate a usurping king who really has no blood claim to the throne but wants to present himself as having had one. Sargon's name, "the king is true or legitimate" would support such a claim.10 The Biblical story, obviously, does not share this goal, presenting Moshe as one who rises in status to live in the palace, but then decides to identify with his lowly nation instead. It suggests that noble birth might not be a necessary prerequisite for leadership, while a royal upbringing might be advantageous.11