Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bible Woman: Pharaoh's Daughter

The Bible Woman of the Week is Pharaoh's daughter, who rescued the infant Moses and adopted him.

Here is what the Bible tells us about her, in Exodus 2:
Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. "This is one of the Hebrew babies," she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?" "Yes, go," she answered. And the girl went and got the baby's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you." So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, "I drew him out of the water."
That is all we learn about this women in Exodus, which tells us nothing about Moses's childhood. The next verse begins when Moses has already grown up: "One day, after Moses had grown up..."

The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that when Moses grew up, he actually rejected his Egyptian adopted mother: "By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time."

Although neither of these accounts provides us with the name of Pharaoh's daughter, in Chronicles, we find the name "Bithiah" (meaning "daughter of God") in this verse: "These were the children of Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah, whom Mered had married."

This pious name suggested a story to the rabbinic commentators in the Midrash, who explain that this name was an honor bestowed upon her by God: "God said to her, You have called Moses your son, although he was not your son, therefore I will call you my daughter ["Bithiah" = "bat," daughter; "Yah," God], although you are not my daughter."

There are, in fact, numerous legends about Pharaoh's daughter, as you can read in Ginzberg's wonderful compilation, Legends of the Jews. In this account, she has the name Thermutis, as found in Josephus's account of these events (Thermutis is also a title of the goddess Isis):
At the time of the child's abandonment, God sent scorching heat to plague the Egyptians, and they all suffered with leprosy and smarting boils. Thermutis, the daughter of Pharaoh, sought relief from the burning pain in a bath in the waters of the Nile. But physical discomfort was not her only reason for leaving her father's palace. She was determined to cleanse herself as well of the impurity of the idol worship that prevailed there. When she saw the little ark floating among the flags on the surface of the water, she supposed it to contain one of the little children exposed at her father's order, and she commanded her handmaids to fetch it.
The presence of the handmaids allows the storytellers to contrast the behavior of the pious daughter of Pharaoh with these other Egyptian women:
But they protested, saying, "O our mistress, it happens sometimes that a decree issued by a king is unheeded, yet it is observed at least by his children and the members of his household, and dost thou desire to transgress thy father's edict?"
Who comes to the rescue? None other than the angel Gabriel:
Forthwith the angel Gabriel appeared, seized all the maids except one, whom he permitted the princess to retain for her service, and buried them in the bowels of the earth.
The daughter of Pharaoh also has amazing powers granted to her, and is granted a miraculous cure:
Pharaoh's daughter now proceeded to do her own will. She stretched forth her arm, and although the ark was swimming at a distance of sixty ells, she succeeded in grasping it, because her arm was lengthened miraculously. No sooner had she touched it than the leprosy afflicting her departed from her.
Yet there is more heavenly intervention yet to come:
Her sudden restoration led her to examine the contents of the ark,and when she opened it, her amazement was great. She beheld an exquisitely beautiful boy, for God bad fashioned the Hebrew babe's body with peculiar care, and beside it she perceived the Shekinah. Noticing that the boy bore the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, she knew that he was one of the Hebrew children, and mindful of her father's decree concerning the male children of the Israelites, she was about to abandon the babe to his fate. At that moment the angel Gabriel came and gave the child a vigorous blow, and he began to cry aloud, with a voice like a young man's. His vehement weeping and the weeping of Aaron, who was lying beside him, touched the princess, and in her pity she resolved to save him.
The notion of Gabriel having to give Moses a slap to make him cry is such an endearing detail! There is nothing here that contradicts the brief account in the book of Exodus, so these legends are able to coexist with the Biblical text, expanding on the text while also reinforcing it.

Moses is also a figure in the Islamic Koran, and in that version it is Pharaoh's wife rather than his daughter who rescues the child from the river: "And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers. And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. And the wife of Pharaoh said: (He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son. And they perceived not." (Surah 28, The Story).

If you'd like to read more stories about Moses and his legendary youth, there is also a detailed article about Moses in the Internet Encyclopedia of Religion with abundant information about extra-Biblical legends.

The image I chose for Pharaoh's daughter is a painting by Edwin Long (1829-1891), a well-known Orientalist painter.

This was a popular topic for the Victorian Orientalists, as you can see in this painting on the same subject, The Finding of Moses, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904.

This was a subject of interest not only for modern painters, but for ancient painters as well, as you can see from this beautiful fresco painting found at the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos, circa 200 C.E.:

There are many works of art devoted to Pharaoh's daughter pulling Moses from the water - if you have any favorite images of the scene online, leave a comment here at the blog!


  1. Thank you for writing and posting your article about Pharaoh's daughter! I want to include her in a workshop on Bible women, and your article gives me a good lead on extra-biblical sources. Many thanks!
    Patricia Mitchell

  2. Hi Patricia, I am so glad that it was helpful to you. This is a blog I had to abandon for lack of time, but I really like the way that the posts from old blogs remain online and can still be of use to people. Super! :-)


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