By Dr Leya Landau, January 14, 2009

“They replied, ‘An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds’” Exodus 2:19

After slaying an Egyptian man in order to save a fellow Hebrew, Moses escapes to Midian to avoid Pharaoh’s anger. There he saves the daughters of Jethro from bullying shepherds. Returning home, the daughters tell their father that they have just been rescued by an “Egyptian man”. A midrash on this verse (Shemot Rabbah 1:32) explains that the daughters’ description of Moses as an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew is an understandable error: Moses was a Hebrew brought up in Pharaoh’s palace; he dressed like an Egyptian and was, not unreasonably, recognized as one.

Another midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:8), however, reads the phrase “Egyptian man” critically, as a more ambiguous misrecognition that reflects a wavering in Moses’s identity. It compares him unfavourably with Joseph: Joseph merited burial in the land of Israel because, as an exiled slave in Egypt, he identified himself openly as a Hebrew. By contrast, Moses stays silent instead of correcting Jethro’s daughters. According to this midrash, this makes him complicit in the mistake. By remaining silent, he denies his origins and, consequently, is not buried in the land of Israel.

While this reading asserts an absolute distinction between Hebrew and Egyptian, a third midrash in Shemot Rabbah moderates this separateness by understanding the verse literally: when Jethro’s daughters thank Moses for saving them, he responds: “Don’t thank me. It was the Egyptian man I killed who saved you.”

It is the slain Egyptian who is responsible for the rescue of Jethro’s daughters: had he not been killed, Moses would not have been in Midian. In this midrash, Moses’s response is interpreted uncritically as a complex expression of gratitude: he acknowledges a debt to a foe, and out of conflict emerges the outline of a relationship.

Later Moses will relate how God “took a nation from the midst of a nation”. At first glance, these midrashim seem contradictory. Read collectively, however, they reflect the complexities of the way we relate to our surroundings: it is a relationship that is not afraid to acknowledge appreciation and gratitude, while at the same time confidently expressing a strong and distinctive identity.

Last updated: 4:29pm, January 14 2009