Moses, Sargon, and the Exposed Child Motif in Ancient Literature

Posted By on May 28, 2009

Here’s an interesting article that advanced students of the Old Testament should read and digest. Egyptologist Donald Redford traces what he calls the “exposed child” motif through ancient literature. By “exposed child” he means stories that have the elments of the Moses birth in them. Redford’s goal isn’t specifically to deal with the Moses story, but that’s inevitable. The Sargon story in particular is very similar to the Moses story:

My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener.

The article is a good example of literary / genre criticism / analysis of the OT. It may trouble some readers whose exposure to OT scholarship has heretofore been limited.† I’m hoping readers give careful thought to how one who views the OT as inspired might handle the similarities and material. Hint: the Sargon version has its own literary history.

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9 Responses to “Moses, Sargon, and the Exposed Child Motif in Ancient Literature”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    What is the accepted time for the story of Sargon; is it dated later than that of the account of Moses? I won’t lie and say I’m comfortable with the implications; I’m always going to defend the inspiration of the Bible (not so much its inerrancy per se). So, even if the story of the birth of Moses is a legend (or based on one)…I can live with that…right? *

    I like Mr Redford’s line: “The sharp line which moderns tend to draw between human hero and god, legend and myth, did not exist for the ancient.” Quite so it seems! Here lies the great truth to put all this in perspective (something that never occurred to me until I read it in your own writings about the Divine Council, Dr. Heiser…thanks again for all your hard work in bringing this to the masses).

  2. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: Note this comment from Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts anthology: “The legend concerning the birth of Sargon of Agade is available in two incomplete Neo-Assyrian copies (A and B) and in a Neo-Babylonian fragment (C).”

    The Neo-Assyrian period covers the 8th and part of the 7th centuries BC. The Neo-Babylonian period is later, encompassing the 7th and 6th centuries BC. This would mean that, even by higher critical standards, who would have the Moses birth account as written by J or E (or an amalgam of JE), the biblical story is EARLIER, at least with respect to the literary evidence that actually exists. J and E are dated to the 10th and 9th centuries BC, respectively, by most source critics.

    The Ancient Near East an Anthology of Texts and Pictures. ( ed. James Bennett Pritchard;Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 119.

  3. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Cool, thanks!

  4. Tim McConnell says:

    I don’t think we necessarily say that all of these stories are similar because they borrowed ideas from each other, but I think a lot of them could arise out of similar practices common to unrelated cultures. Exposure was a common way back then to get rid of an unwanted child back then. If a child is to become special somehow, they need to be raised in some special way.

    One of the stories quoted in that document is a story about an Indian sun god. I have a hard time imagining how that story could have interacted with any of the other ones until at least Alexander the Great’s time and the origional contents of the story it came from seem to date to around 800 BC.

    Here’s an idea though. Maybe the reocurring idea of floating a baby down a river, is just a way to get rid of it, without killing the baby and making it someone else’s problem? Moses’s mother didn’t want to kill him, neither did a mother from a Persian version of the story (she was espescially sad). I don’t have the texts of the other ones so I can’t say.

  5. Patrick says:

    It makes one wonder how much of the OT(especially the Pentateuch) is metaphor and how much is reality? I guess I have a lot to learn.

    • MSH says:

      why would you conclude that metaphor is detached from reality?

      • Roger says:

        I guess it depends on what the metaphor is. It’s one thing to say certain prophetic ideas are metaphors. It’s another to suggest a prominent character is a metaphor. Also, I think it is key to remember that there should be a relatively easy way to spot a metaphor. A historical character like Moses, whom inspiration would allow historical falsehoods to enter scriptures sounds problematic and deserves attention.

  6. Roger says:

    I found this rather facsinating from Prof. Allen Millard

    “…..The story is one common in various forms in folklore and is obviously comparable to the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Before we dismiss either or both [ Moses and Sargon] as fiction, however, we should note that Babylonia and Egypt are both riverine cultures and that putting the baby in a waterproof basket might be a slightly more satisfactory way to dispose of an infant than throwing it on the rubbish heap, which was more usual. Today unwanted babies are frequently dumped on hospital doorsteps or in other public places in the hope that they will be rescued. The story of the foundling rising to eminence may be a motif of folklore, but that is surely because it is a story that occurs repeatedly in real life.”

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