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The Etymology of the Name “Moses”

“Josephos has preserved an extract from the Egyptian historian Manetho, which relates the Egyptian version of the story of the Exodus as it was told in the second century before our era. In this it is stated that the earlier name of Moses was Osarsiph, and that he had been priest of Heliopolis or On.

Here it is evident that Moses and Joseph have been confounded together. The name of Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On, has been decomposed into two elements, the first of which is the divine name Jeho, and this has been changed into its supposed Egyptian equivalent Osar or Osiris.

It is clear that, whatever might have been his opinion about the name of Joseph, Manetho had no doubt that that of Moses was purely Israelitish. It was not until he had become the Israelitish lawgiver and had ceased to be an Egyptian priest that Osarsiph took the name of Moses.

But Moses finds no satisfactory etymology in the pages of the Hebrew lexicon. It stands alone among Hebrew proper names, like Aaron and David. We do not hear of any other persons who have borne the name. If, therefore, it is Semitic, it must belong to an older stratum of Semitic nomenclature than that preserved to us in the Old Testament. We must look to other branches of the Semitic stock for its explanation.

There is only one other branch of the Semitic family whose records are earlier than those of the Hebrews. Arabic literature begins long after the Christian era, when Jewish and Greek and even Christian names and ideas had penetrated into the heart of the Arabian peninsula.

The Arabic language, moreover, belongs to a different division of the Semitic family of speech from that to which Hebrew belongs. To compare Arabic and Hebrew together is like comparing Latin with modern German. There is, however, one Semitic language which has the closest affinities to Hebrew, and this is also the language of which we possess records older than those of the Hebrew Scriptures. I need hardly say that I am referring to Assyrian.

Now the Assyrian equivalent of the Hebrew Mosheh, “Moses,” would be mâsu, and, as it happens, mâsu is a word which occurs not unfrequently in the inscriptions. It was a word of Accadian origin, but since the days of Sargon of Accad had made itself so thoroughly at home in the language of the Semitic Babylonians as to count henceforth as a genuinely Semitic term.

Mâsu signified as nearly as possible all that we mean by the word “hero.” As such, it was an epithet applied to more than one divinity; there was one god more especially for whom it became a name.

This god was the deity sometimes called Adar by Assyrian scholars, sometimes Nin-ip, but whose ordinary name among the Assyrians is still a matter of uncertainty. He was a form of the Sun-god, originally denoting the scorching sun of mid-day. He thus became invested with the sterner attributes of the great luminary of day, and was known to his worshippers as “the warrior of the gods.”

The title of Mâsu, however, was not confined to Adar. It was given also to another solar deity, Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon and the antagonist of the dragon of chaos, and was shared by him with Nergal, whose special function it was to guard and defend the world of the dead.

But Nergal himself was but the sun of night, the solar deity, that is to say, after he had accomplished his daily work in the bright world above and had descended to illuminate for a time the world below.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 45-7.

Commonalities Between Sargon and Moses

” … I will conclude this Lecture with a few illustrations of the extent to which the study of Babylonian religion may be expected to throw light on the earlier portions of Scripture. We have already noticed the curious parallelism which exists between the legend of Sargon’s exposure in an ark of bulrushes and the similar exposure of the great Israelitish leader Moses on the waters of the Nile.

The parallelism exists even further than this common account of their infancy. Sargon of Accad was emphatically the founder of Semitic supremacy in Babylonia; he was the great lawgiver of Babylonian legend; and to him was assigned the compilation of those works on astrology and augury from which the wise men of the Chaldeans subsequently derived their lore.

Moses was equally the legislator of the Israelites and the successful vindicator of Semitic independence from the exactions of Egyptian tyranny, and future generations quoted the books of the Hebrew law under his name.

As we have seen, Sargon was a historical personage, and popular tradition merely treated him as it has treated other heroes of the past, by attaching to him the myths and legends that had once been told of the gods.

Now the name of the great Hebrew legislator has long been a puzzle and a subject of dispute. In the Hebrew Old Testament it is connected with the Hebrew verb mashâh, “to draw out,” not, indeed, in the sense that Moses was he who had been drawn out of the water, for this would not be grammatically permissible, though Pharaoh’s daughter puns upon the idea (Exod. ii. 10), but in the sense of a leader who had drawn his people out of the house of bondage and led them through the waves of the sea.

The translators of the Septuagint, on the other hand, living as they did in Egypt, endeavoured to give the word an Egyptian form and an Egyptian etymology. With them the name is always Μωυσης, which Josephos tells us is derived from the Egyptian words , “water,” and usês, “saved from the water.”

But this etymology, apart from other imperfections, depends upon the change the translators of the Septuagint have themselves made in the pronunciation of the name.

Modern Egyptian scholars, equally willing to find for it an Egyptian derivation, have had recourse to the Egyptian messu or mes, “a son.” This word, it is true, when occurring in proper names is usually combined with the name of a deity; Rameses, for example, the Sesostris of the Greeks, being written in the hieroglyphics Ra-messu, “Lord of the Sun-god.”

But it is conceivable that we might occasionally meet with it alone, and it is also conceivable, though not very probable, that the daughter of the Egyptian king would assign to her adopted child the simple name of “son.”

It is much less conceivable that such an Egyptian name would be that by which a national hero would be afterwards known to his Semitic countrymen. It is difficult to believe that the founder of the Israelitish people would have borne a title which the Israelites did not understand, and which could remind them only of that hated Egyptian land wherein they had been slaves.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 43-5.

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