The Magic of Names
Shemot or Sh’mot at the beginning of Exodus (I.1-6.1) is probably the best-known part of the Torah, even better known than the Garden of Eden story. It tells the tale of the descent into oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt under a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” Pharaoh’s fear of the demographic threat of these “foreigners” and his extreme orders to kill the first-born male children of Hebrew mothers. This is said without getting into the logical paradox of no terminus for such an order, for as you kill the first-born when they are born, then the next-born becomes the eldest and, in some interpretations, eligible to be killed.
The core of the story revolves around the salvation of Moses from this edict as he is floated down the Nile River in his wicker basket made waterproof with bitumen, his being adopted by a princess of the realm and included in the royal household as an adult. As my colleague, Carl Ehrlich, sums up the tale, “A baby boy is born. Owing to a threat to his life, his parents must hide him. Providentially, the baby is rescued and grows to adulthood, when he will perform great deeds and lead his people to glory.”
The narrative shares an uncanny similarity with legends in other cultures, Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus of Thebes, Cyrus of Persia and, the best known of all, Jesus of Nazareth. Given the extreme sparsity of any evidence supporting the historicity of the tale, it seems more akin to a heroic tale of the birth of a nation than a historical chronicle. But that may be its magic, its power, rather than a weakness, rooted in cultural history, in what Ehrlich calls mnemohistory, the way history is constructed and remembered versus what actually took place in the past. The meanings given to names are crucial to these constructions.
Moses kills a particularly vicious taskmaster who was whipping a Hebrew slave-worker, flees, intermarries with the daughter Zipporah, of a Midian priest, Jethro, who will later become his consigliere. Moses is then ordered by God to return to Egypt and preach the message to Pharaoh, “Let My People Go.” In the Black Gospel spiritual, the task is best captured and summarized in in the first two of four verses of the song, “Go Down Moses.”
When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh
“Let my people go.”
There is a lesser known sub-plot within the larger narrative, the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives ordered by Pharaoh to kill the male children of Hebrew mothers. The section (Exodus 1:15-21) is relatively short and succinct.
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (15)
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃
. .saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (16)
וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃
The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (17)
וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃
So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” (18)This raises all sorts of questions.
וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃
The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (19)
וַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃
And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. (20)
וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃
And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (21)
The traditional Talmudic interpretation, reflected in the English translation of לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת, is that these two midwives were themselves Hebrews. The phrase could be translated as “midwives to the Hebrews,” but is generally not. As Ana Bonnheim suggested in her commentary, the text could read lam’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “[to the] Hebrew midwives,” but as li-m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “the midwives to the Hebrews.” The Masoretic text in adding the vowels could have shifted the meaning of the tale.
This raises all sorts of related questions. Why would Pharaoh order Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies? Why would there be Hebrew midwives at all? After all, Egypt was famous for its advances in medicine while, of the professions assigned to the twelve tribes of Hebrew, and contrary to the dictum that every Jewish mother wants her son to grow up to be a doctor, not one tribe is assigned the task of health care. In ancient Israel, health care was probably not as popular a vocation as it became in our contemporary period. Further, in ancient Egyptian depictions of midwives, they worked in pairs. In Hebrew tales of midwifery (Genesis 35:17; 38:28), they were sole professionals, as when Rachel is depicted in giving birth to Benjamin and even when twins were born – Pharez and Zarah.
But if the midwives were Egyptians, why would they defy Pharaoh? The text suggests they were motivated by fear of God. (1:17) In any case, why would Pharaoh even order the Hebrew boys to be killed. If you want a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, this would be it. For the Hebrews were the physical labourers for the Egyptians. Why sever the source of your labour supply, especially since the fear was an anticipated one rather than a response to any actual revolt?
Some believe it does not matter whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew. It is a great tale of civil disobedience, of telling a lie (the Hebrew mothers are vigorous and give birth before we can arrive to attend to them), even an improbable “big fish” story to explain their failure. They tell the “lie” in service of a higher cause of natural justice. If the two midwives were Egyptian, they would qualify for early rewards as “righteous gentiles.” But the last two millennia of Biblical interpretations have not only preponderantly insisted that the two were Hebrews, in Rashi and other accounts, they are just two alternative names for Miriam (meaning bitterness after the sense of the period) and her mother, even though Miriam saved her brother when she was evidently only five-years-old and that story of the salvation of Moses comes after this one. Talk about ethno-centric revisionism!
There is an older tradition that said the two were Egyptians. Josephus overtly said they were. Other dissidents from the medieval view asked why Pharaoh would trust Hebrew women with the task, and, if he did, surely their behaviour would be something expected rather than a case of heroic behaviour worthy of recording in a sacred text. Bonnheim points to “an incredible fragment of a text from the Cairo Geniza (a collection of manuscripts found in a Cairo synagogue, some dating back as far as 870 C.E.) that recognizes Shiphrah and Puah as Egyptians” among a list of righteous gentiles. And we do know that among commentators, such as Rashi who experienced pogroms, there existed a strong propensity to circle the wagons. Suspecting rather than acknowledging gentiles, excluding rather than including them, became de rigueur, so how could such heroic women be Egyptian?
But the Torah is replete with heroic women, with women of valour, who join the tribes of Israelites, women who were not originally Hebrews – Ruth comes to the fore, but she is not the only one. The Egyptian princess in this story is another one, daring to defy the Pharaoh for she knew Moses was a Hebrew child. Further, an underlying, but fairly explicit motif of the whole text, is that it is really women who are the foundation for forging the Jewish nation. Prior to the compact between Leah and her sister Rachel, Jewish brothers had a propensity to fall out and separate. It is the women that were responsible, not only for the birth of Hebrew children, but for the birth of the nation. And this is a predominant theme in this story – the extraordinary role of women, and women who were both Hebrews and non-Hebrews, who came to love the Hebrew God with whom they were in awe. Further, medieval commentators betray not only an extreme suspicion of non-Jews, but they are paragons of male chauvinism who reinforce an emphasis on the role of male, as well as excluding gentiles from the class of the virtuous.
Once we begin to suspect the bias of traditional interpretation, especially of taking Shiphrah to be Miriam and Puah to be an alternative name for Jochebed, a myriad of other questions arise. Why would Pharaoh say to those midwives “when you deliver Hebrew women” if the midwives were not Egyptian. The sense of the text clearly implies they were. If they were Hebrews, who else in this tyrannical age would be helping in Hebrew childbirth? Hebrew women would be expected to be in awe of God, but, in the case of Egyptian women, this would be well worth mentioning and emphasizing.
What about their names? Do not their names pose an insurmountable problem for saying the women were Hebrews? For Rashi, the root source for Shiphrah in Hebrew means “the capacity to make something better, or to improve its quality.” The root source of Puah is a gift of speech, from which Rashi derives the idea that Puah meant a capacity to soothe babies with her words and voice. When the capacity for amelioration is combined with a skill in keeping babies quiet and not revealing their presence, we find the source motif for why Hebrew male children were saved. One cannot help but admire Rashi’s inventiveness and ingenuity when he characterizes them as good-hearted equivalents to Judah, able to master the mechanisms of survival. His acolytes even expanded on the tale and insisted that the two were so ingenious that they convinced Pharaoh to allow them to continue their work otherwise, if they killed the babies after they were born rather than allowing the infants to die in childbirth, the mothers would no longer tell them their due dates so they would never ever be able to be present during childbirth.
Is this not the definitive argument that the two midwives were Hebrews and not Egyptians because their names were Hebrew? After all, Jews do not assign Hebrew names to gentiles when referencing them. Take a closer look at the names and their meanings. We already have Rashi’s – Shiphrah, the do-gooder, and Puah, the instrument for succeeding in those good works by keeping the babies quiet. There are a plethora of other meanings given to their names.
Shiphrah: brightness (Jeremiah 43:10); beautiful (Genesis 49:21 and Psalm 16:16); fairness (Job 26:13); pleasing (Jeremiah from the root שפר shapar), meaning to be pleasing and related to the shofar, the horn blown on Yom Kippur; from the Indian, Sifra, daughter of God as used in Christianity; Shiphrah can be said to mean the horn blown at childbirth by a midwife who brings clarity as well as charity, calm and care at a very stressful time. Shiphrah is also represented as an anagram pulling together all the qualities needed for a calm and relaxing childbirth:
A amenable or easy-going
Puah: splendid; gift of speech; a human equivalent to a horse whisperer; mouth, but used as a name for a male as in the father of Tula תּוֹלָע בֶּן-פּוּאָה from the tribe of and the second son of Isssachar, a judge (Genesis 46:13; Numbers 26:23; Judges 10:1; Chronicles 7:1)
The name of a person is intended to express the quality of the being represented by and identified with the name, to reflect an individual’s personality and to offer a pointer to what that person should become. Names are not then simply conventions for designation, an arbitrary sign, but have an intrinsic connection with the character, especially one who will become an agent in history. Or, at least in mnemohistory, the history that has the power to direct and guide a nation through millennia.
And that, of course, is why they must have Hebrew names even if they happened to be Egyptian. For they became Israelites; they learned to live in awe of God. Their names conveyed the power and mode of salvation.
There are three other names of individuals in this specific narrative whose name gives them magical qualities even more than their deeds. Pharaoh’s daughter gives “Moshe” an Egyptian name, explaining, as she does, “I drew him out of the water,” (Exodus 2:10) – water, the symbol of change, of transformation, of the conversion of a people with a slave mentality to a nation that carried the torch of freedom. When Moses first encountered God, he hid his face “for he was afraid to look at God.” The princess knew that Moses would become a famous transformative agent.
Moses, when he married Zipporah, had a son whom he named Gershom for, he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land,” (Exodus 1:22), a sojourner, one who does not belong in that place but in another, an adumbration that even Egypt was not a “natural” place for Moses.” Ironically, if Moses is the name for his future and his son’s name is the term characterizing a past he must escape, the third name is about a presence, an ever presence, and, therefore, is not about a man at all, but about God.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃
And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”
וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ יְהוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר׃
And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all eternity. (Exodus 2:14-15)
First, God now has an all-encompassing name that goes beyond all the names that attribute personal characteristics to God. He also has a very personal, not a generic, name – YHWH. That name is considered so powerful that the person who invokes it, acquires tremendous power, That is why it is taboo to use it; it is too dangerous. (For a much longer, more scholarly and nuanced analysis, see Rabbi Farber’s commentary: TheTorah.com <TheTorah.email@example.com> This is the reason that the stranger/God wrestling with Jacob would not reveal His name to Jacob. But Jacob himself received a new name and became the father of the nation of Israel.
It is not unreasonable to speculate that two Egyptian midwives were given Hebrew names when they expressed their unity with the Israelites, their awe for the God of the Hebrews and, in their personalities, demonstrated the very characteristics those names embodied.
With the help of Alex Zisman