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Two Mothers, One Son

In a previous post, we considered the identity of Pharaoh’s daughter and concluded there does not seem to be enough evidence to settle on any one name with confidence. However there is information about daughters of pharaohs in general which could have a bearing on the Moses story.

Who is her mother?

Though we can’t answer the following conclusively, we’ll explore a couple of general questions regarding this elusive princess:  who her mother was, and where she might have lived. If she was a daughter of Pharaoh’s principal wife, it’s probable that she would have lived in the environs of the royal palace. If, however, she was the daughter of a secondary wife, she and her mother could have taken up residence in one of many royal compounds scattered throughout Egypt. In that case, Pharaoh would visit or call for them as he desired.

“‘The pharaohs of the New Kingdom period (c. 1570-1085 B.C.) maintained residences and harim not only in the great capitals of Thebes, Memphis, and Pi-Ramesse (Ra’ amses) but also in other parts of Egypt, especially in pleasure resorts….Papyrus documents indicate that this Harim was no prison of enforced idleness for its inmates in pharaohs [sic] absence; the royal ladies supervised a hive of domestic industry, spinning and weaving done by servants….’”[1]

Women of substance

Some may wonder about the role of women in Egypt.  According to Nahum M. Sarna, in his book, Exploring Exodus (1986),  the social and legal position of an Egyptian woman was considerable. “Descent was strictly matrilineal, so that property descended through the female line. This meant that the woman possessed inheritance rights and could dispose of property at will. As a result, she enjoyed a certain measure of economic independence” (p. 31).  It should not seem strange that Pharaoh’s daughter made several on-the-spot decisions with confidence and without apparent reservation (Ex. 2:1-10), likely based not only on her position generally, as a woman in Egyptian society, but especially on her place within the royal family.

The princess commissions a wet-nurse

Wet-nurses were hired to care for foundlings. Ancient Mesopotamian legal texts provide specifics for proper payment regarding such services. Typically, a wet-nurse suckled and reared a child in her home for a specified period of time, usually two to three years, until it was weaned. Then it was returned to the finder for adoption.[2]

The account in Exodus 1 records an interesting departure from the normal procedure. Royal wet-nurses were generally members of elite families, perhaps wives or mothers of high officials. This connection brought with it a certain prestige, one which could result in possible advancement in rank for their husbands and sons.[3] For Pharaoh’s daughter to listen to a young Hebrew girl and follow her suggestion to enlist the services of an unknown woman, represents, to my mind, evidence of the providence of a much higher Power in this whole episode.

Moses and Jochebed

Moses and Jochebed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The role of Jochebed

Of course, there is no doubt as to Jochebed’s ability to nurse her own baby. Her breasts were probably aching for relief by the time Moses was once more in her arms. However, what she might have done additionally, in the long term, is well worth contemplating.

There are those who speculate that this mother had carefully planned for her baby’s rescue, positioning him deliberately in a place where Pharaoh’s daughter would find him.[4] Why, one might wonder. Had she secretly watched this princess over time, and knew vicariously her disposition for kindness? Did she have a God-given understanding that hers was no ordinary son and that his future would require the best education the world of her day could offer?[5] Did she feel that the safest place for him would be in the care of this royal princess–one whom Jochebed knew to be influential and strong-minded enough to set aside her father’s bloody policy?

Training her child

Others discuss a different matter. Since Jochebed likely had Moses for three years or longer, what did she do during that time? Several feel she carefully laid a foundation for his eventual worshipping of the God of Israel. She was a daughter of Levi (Ex.2:10) and according to one source her name (Hebrew yokebed) apparently means “YHWH is glory.” She is noted as the first person in the Bible to have a name with the divine element yah, a shortened form of YHWH.[6] Does her name indicate that she came from a family of believers who worshipped the true God? Such a notion seems worth considering.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary offers the following opinion concerning Ex. 2:10: “His [Moses’s] age when removed to the palace is not stated; but he was old enough to be well instructed in the principles of the true religion; and those early impressions, deepened by the power of divine grace, were never forgotten or effaced. He had remained long enough to be thoroughly imbued with the true national feeling of a Hebrew; and though he may have actively engaged in the varied scenes to which his royal station afterward introduced him, he never ceased to cherish a spirit of sympathy with the race from which he had sprung.”[7]

If the ruling pharaoh was indeed Thutmose III, he worshiped a form of the sun god (sometimes depicted as a sphinx), Amun-Re. It would have been important to introduce knowledge of the true God of Israel to Moses early on. Stephen, in Acts 6:20, says “Moses was born and was well-pleasing to God,” indicating that God was already involved in his life, beginning with his brave and faithful mother.

Grooming a royal prince

While Jochebed likely concentrated on the religious upbringing of her young son, his adopted mother provided the means for a formal education. At about the age of four, boys in the royal court began attending school from early morning until noon–a routine lasting for approximately twelve years. Strict discipline was maintained, backed up with corporal punishment. “The school curriculum largely centered on reading, writing, and arithmetic,” with writing being especially important. “The art of penmanship and the cultivation of style were both highly esteemed as the indispensable prerequisites for a sound education. Drill and memorization seem to have been the chief pedagogic techniques.”[8]

As for Moses’s childhood, John Davis writes: “Children were generally carefree, and played much like children do today….Swimming, horseback riding, hunting, playing with household pets would all be part of the experiences of a young boy in Egypt.”[9] 

Mummy Portrait of a Boy

Mummy Portrait of a Boy (Photo credit: Taifighta)

The young prince would have sported the typical haircut for Egyptian boys of his day—a shaved head except for one long lock on the side, which was braided.[10]

Teen to early adulthood

Moses undoubtedly spent much time perfecting his skills at archery and horsemanship—both favorite pastimes of that dynasty. Learning languages and the geography of his land would have been important as well. Slowly and surely he was being equipped with skills that would serve him in the challenging days to come. In Davis’s words, what we know is a “remarkable example of the excellency of the providence of God” (p. 56).

One last piece

Moses spent forty years in Egypt before he went into exile in Midian. We’ve managed to piece together a collage of what life might have been like into his early adulthood. The Jewish historian Josephus records another bit of his story in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 10. According to his account, when Moses had reached full maturity, he was appointed general of the Egyptian army, went against their enemies, the Ethiopians, conquered them, and returned victorious. The Bible nowhere mentions this activity.

One yet to come

So far we have noted five memorable women whose presences figured prominently in the epic story of Moses: Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh’s daughter, Jochebed, and Zipporah —all heroic figures, all courageous in dangerous times.

One woman yet remains—Miriam—the subject of our next post.


[1] Citation in Moses and the Gods of Egypt (1971), John J. Davis, p. 52.

[2] See Exploring Exodus, p. 32.

[3] Women in Ancient Egypt (1993), Gay Robins, p. 89.

[4] See Barnes’ Notes and Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary regarding Ex. 2:4-5.

[5] Josephus seems to think so. See The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 9.3; 9.4.

[6] Women in Scripture (2000), Carol Meyers, Gen. Ed., p. 103.

[7] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.

[8] Exploring Exodus, p. 33.

[9] Moses and the Gods of Egypt, p. 55.

[10] Ibid. Davis comments that this hairstyle was actually found on a mummy of a young boy.

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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