Nobody’s Ancestor

I was listening to The Path podcast earlier this week as Father Thomas Soroka was beginning a read through of Exodus and Job when the Exodus passage reminded me of something I’d noticed a few years ago and thought quite stunning:

15 … But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.

16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. 18 When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” 21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. 22 She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:15-22 ESV)

It isn’t that Moses married a foreigner (a Midianite, whose father was a priest), but rather, that he had a son. Actually, he has two — Eliezar is the other (Exodus 18:4) — and eventually they, along with Moses’ wife and his father-in-law, join the Israelites in the wilderness. Which means they don’t go back to Egypt with him.

No, what’s interesting is that no one seems to claim descent from Moses. He is no one’s ancestor. His sons do not appear in the Bible, certainly not in any of the genealogies.

There is only one reference to a descendant of Moses in scripture, and that’s at the tail end of Judges 18, in that odd little story of the Danites, the Levite, and the idol (which almost sounds like the name of a Bob Dylan song). It’s the story about a group of men from the tribe of Dan seeking “an inheritance” for themselves, and is one of those stories tacked on the end of Judges that begins with, “In those days there was no king in Israel.”

It’s a strange little story about the looting of a house, the kidnapping of a priest, and the theft of a carved metal image. It ends like this:

27 But the people of Dan took what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, and they came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword and burned the city with fire. 28 And there was no deliverer because it was far from Sidon, and they had no dealings with anyone. It was in the valley that belongs to Beth- rehob. Then they rebuilt the city and lived in it. 29 And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was Laish at the first. 30 And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. 31 So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh. (Judges 18:27-31 ESV)

The ESV footnotes Moses in v.30, noting “Or Manasseh,” meaning this Jonathan son of Gershom might not be a son of Moses at all. However, there does not appear to be a Gershom, son of Manesseh.

Given that Moses’ children were from a Midianite, it would make sense they would descend into obscurity and something that seems to resemble idolatry.

Moses is one of the three major personalities in the Hebrew Bible (along with Abraham and David). He is the deliverer of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It would make complete sense for someone to claim descent from Moses, at least to shore up some kind of religious or political (not that the two were separate) legitimacy. Because there are no ends of claims to be “children of Abraham,” and David’s lineage is preserved well enough (okay, in two very different accounts in Matthew and Luke, though both link Jesus to David and thus to Judah) so that he can be claimed as an ancestor.

But no one claims Moses. Moses is nobody’s ancestor.

Aaron clearly is. In the Chronicles account (1 Chron 6), his lineage is laid out as one of the descendants of Levi. But not Moses.

I have no answer for this. It’s a curious fact.

But I have a suggestion. Let’s look at the story of Moses the foundling in Egypt:

1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. 4 And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. 5 Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews ‘children.” 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:1-10 ESV)

Twenty years ago, I was a reporter for The Khaleej Times in Dubai. We would get a complete and uncensored copy of the Dubai Emirate police blotter. It would be in Arabic, and a reporter would go through and cull the matters she knew we could get away with publishing. Mostly, this involved arrests of foreigners for various petty crimes.

But one day, the blotter came in with a report that one of the al-Maktoum princesses had called the police to note she’d found a baby left on the doorstep of her place. And that she was going to keep the child as “an act of charity.”

That’s a nice story, I said. I wonder if we could run it? It would make a nifty human interest feature.

The reporter — a hard-bitten Syrian woman — looked at me like I was, in that moment, the dumbest man who ever lived.

We can’t, she explained slowly (as if to a tiny child who being schooled for the first time in the ways of the world), because this is a cover story, a convenient fiction. The princess has had some kind of improper relationship, became pregnant, and had to explain in something resembling a believable way to the world why there was a child in the house of an unmarried al-Maktoum princess. The foundling story effectively did that, and the police report was enough “proof” if any was ever required.

(Not that anyone outside the ruling family was ever going to ask…)

Ever since, I have never been able to read the Moses without thinking about that. I’ve not made any kind of survey of foundling stories and their social use, but it wouldn’t shock me if this was that kind of story. Moses may only really be half Israelite, the product of some kind of illicit relationship between Pharaoh’s daughter and the Levite. Or another Israelite altogether.

(The fact that Moses isn’t really an Israelite — and that he marries a Midianite — it used to great effect by Zora Neale Hurston in her novel Moses, Man of The Mountain. He doesn’t die, he just goes away to live with his wife’s people. “This promise isn’t for you,” God tells Moses as Joshua leads the Israelites over the Jordan. “It’s for them. Your job was to lead them this far, to the place where they could lead themselves.”)

Granted, this is speculation on a 3,000 year-old story based on something I heard in 1995. I wouldn’t stake my life or my reputation (sic) on this.

But it is something to consider.

4 thoughts on “Nobody’s Ancestor

  1. Moses does seem fated always to be the outsider (even Aaron joins in the idolatry briefly); He is a person who seems to be used up in the course of the Exodus. All that close communication with God perhaps makes him too removed from normal human life for himself or his line to be woven back into the people properly.

    I’ve certainly heard more incredible speculations. Someone wrote a book (in the 80’s I think) proposing that the rediscovery of the books of the law during Josiah’s reign was in fact the recovery of ancient Israelite history, which broke off a millennium before Josiah’s time, but which was grafted out of ignorance onto the recent past. I.e. the claim was that everything in biblical history before Josiah actually occurred 1000 years earlier than we conventionally reckon, so that the Exodus occurred during Egypt’s Old Kingdom, and Joseph might have been Imhotep, etc. It doesn’t stand up to sober consideration, but it was fascinating how the history could be pieced together in new and almost convincing ways.

    As to major personalities of the OT, I would include Elijah with the other three. He certainly looms very large in Jewish folklore and tradition, and he appears with Moses at the transfiguration. The original covenant was given to Abraham, the Law to Moses, the kingdom to David, and to Elijah the new era of prophecy as the kingdoms fell into corruption. With Elijah, a new kind of relationship begins between God and his people, even long before the captivity.


  2. How do you understand the stories of the Old Testament? Are they historical, literal, metaphor, or all of the above? Can we trust the “fantastic” elements described?


  3. I came across an aside one time, I forget where (HG Wells’ History of the World?) that this sort of foundling claim was not unknown in Egypt, where rabble rousing types from the upper classes would use this narrative to gain street cred.


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