The story of Moshe's killing of the Egyptian in Shemot 2:11-12 introduces the reader to the adult Moshe, and helps shape their initial perceptions of the leader. Commentators, artists amongst them, have much to say about the incident, questioning Moshe's motivation, the justification for his actions, and the details of the story itself. The contrast between the two artworks displayed here, the image from Arthur Szyk's Haggadah (1932-1938)1 and the engraving from Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's Picture Bible (1851-1860),2 serves to highlight many of the issues and ambiguities of the narrative.
Szyk's vibrantly colored illustration focuses on just Moshe and the Egyptian taskmaster. The only hint to the beaten Israelite is the whip still clenched in the Egyptian's hand. Moshe is centrally placed, with his club raised against the taskmaster who, in turn, cowers on the floor. The two figures are dressed similarly, and had it not been for the headdress of each, one might not have been able to distinguish friend from foe. In the background, two heads peep from behind a building and watch Moshe's actions.
In contrast to Szyk, Schnorr chooses to depict all three characters of the story. The Egyptian stands in the middle, not just beating but actually choking the Hebrew slave who kneels on the ground, struggling for breath. Moshe balances the image, standing on the other side of the taskmaster. As he unsheathes his sword, he glances behind him, presumably checking for onlookers. Schnorr distinguishes between the statuses of the characters through their clothing. The slave is barely dressed, the taskmaster wears a tunic and hat but stands barefooted, while Moshe is fully garbed and wearing sandals. In the top left background one can see Israelite slaves at work, and a lone figure (unseen by Moshe) peeking out from behind a building, observing the scene.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Cruel Taskmaster or Potential Killer?
The beaten Hebrew does not appear at all in Szyk's image; according to his rendering, Moshe is not trying to stop the beating but rather reacting after the fact. In Schnorr's woodcut, on the other hand, the Hebrew figures prominently, and surprisingly, he is being strangled and not merely whipped. Does the Biblical text allow for such a reading? Was the Egyptian simply a cruel taskmaster or should he be viewed as a "רודף" (one chasing another to take his life)? The question depends on how the word "מכה" is used in Tanakh. Does it always mean to smite or can it also take on the added connotation of to kill? This difference is crucial for understanding Moshe's actions. Was he simply avenging an unjust beating or was he intervening in medias res, trying to save the life of the Hebrew? For a full discussion, see Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian
Schnorr depicts only one onlooker to Moshe's actions. His ethnicity is obscure and a case could be made to identify him as either Israelite or Egyptian. Szyk, in contrast, paints two people whose head coverings would seem to classify them as Hebrews. Which rendering is closer to the description in Sefer Shemot? We are actually not given any clues in the chapter as to the number, nationality or identity of the person/s who observed Moshe and later reported the deed to Paroh. Though one might have thought that it would be Egyptians, Shemot Rabbah identifies the talebearers as fellow Hebrews, Datan and Aviram, which would fit well with Szyk's portrayal.3
Choice of Weapon
In Szyk's Haggadah Moshe wields a club, while in Schnorr's image he holds a sword. Moshe's choice of weapon is not specified in the story; we are simply told "וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי".4 The connotation of the word "וַיַּךְ" is ambiguous. Did Moshe intend merely to hit the Egyptian or was he dealing him a deathblow?5 See Moshe's Killing of the Egyptian
While Szyk chooses to dress Moshe in garb similar to the Egyptian whom he is striking, Schnorr sets Moshe apart both from the Hebrew slaves and from the taskmaster, adorning him with a full cloak and thus marking him as one from a higher class. The different portrayals make one question both how Moshe viewed himself and how he was perceived by others at this stage of the narrative. Did Moshe identify himself as Egyptian or Jew? Were his actions motivated by a feeling of brotherhood or just a strong sense of justice? Did anyone else know he was Israelite or had he been fully integrated into the royal family? See Moshe's Character.
Both artists render Moshe as a man in his mid-twenties or thirties. Sefer Shemot, though, leaves his age open to question. We are simply told, "וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו," which allows for a full range of possibilities. In our story, was Moshe a somewhat impetuous youth or was he a more experienced adult, acting not out of rashness but with full knowledge of his actions and their consequences? The question of age bears on later stories as well. How long did Moshe sojourn in Midyan before returning to Egypt? Had he traveled elsewhere en route? See Chronology of Shemot 2-4 for more.