Princess of Egypt
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Princess of Egypt*

Li'l Moses was found in a stream.

Li'l Moses was found in a stream.

He floated on water

Till ol' Pharaoh's daughter,

She fished him, she said, from dat stream.

(Gershwin)

The great liberator Moses owed his life—and his name—to the daughter of Pharaoh who happened to be bathing in the Nile when the infant’s basket floated by; and she, in full realization that he was an illicit Hebrew child, chose to raise him as her own. In a civilization that had degenerated to depths of cruelty and genocidal paranoia, the Egyptian princess was, to be sure, a courageous and compassionate lady.

And yet the Torah never mentions her again, and does not even tell us her name.

These blaring silences provoked interpreters to fill in the details without which the scriptural narrative seems incomplete.

And so we find that some of the ancient re-tellings of the saga of Moses did know the name of the virtuous Egyptian princess. The earliest known work to identify Pharaoh’s daughter was the Book of Jubilees (from the third or second century B.C.E.) which names her Tharmuth, but other than a paraphrase of the familiar Bible story, has very little to say about her.

What seems to be a variant on that name appears in Josephus Flavius’s retelling of biblical history in his Jewish Antiquities composed in the latter years of the first century C.E. However, the Egyptian princess Thermuthis in Josephus’s account plays a far more active part in the narrative.

According to Josephus, Thermuthis’ determination to rescue the baby Moses was not motivated so much by compassion as by his wondrous beauty—since God had intentionally made the child so stunningly adorable that even otherwise hostile Egyptians would find him irresistible. Thermuthis was particularly desirous of adopting Moses because she had no children of her own, and hence there appeared to be no other prospect for an heir to the Egyptian throne.

In this connection Josephus inserted an episode that bears an uncanny resemblance to a story that would later appear in rabbinic midrash. It seems that one of the Egyptian scribes had predicted that a child would be born to the Hebrews who would bring about the downfall of Egypt. Now, when Thermuthis brought her baby Moses to charm her father as she notified him of her intention to adopt him, Grandpa Pharaoh playfully placed his crown on the child’s head—but the mischievous toddler threw it on the ground and proceeded to kick it around and stomp on it. At this point, the scribe recognized this as an omen that little Moses was the foretold child who would overpower Egypt, and called for his execution. It was Thermuthis who boldly stepped in to rescue young Moses, making it possible for him to grow up to become the liberator of his enslaved people.

It would appear that both Jubilees and Josephus were drawing on the same earlier tradition, perhaps an elaborate novel that expanded the life of Moses. Indeed, at this point Josephus inserts a detailed narrative that fills in exploits from Moses’s younger years between his escape from Egypt after killing the taskmaster until his arrival in Midian—including a period of forty years when he reigned over Ethiopia (with the approval of Thermuthis). It is likely that this story had its beginnings in the Jewish community of Alexandria as a way of demonstrating their deep and aristocratic roots in Egyptian history. In several other respects as well (for example, by linking Osiris-worship with their memories of Joseph), Jewish tradition tried to show that central aspects of Egyptian culture and religion had evolved out of biblical sources.

In Egyptian lore, the name “Thermuthis” was in fact that of a serpent-headed goddess associated with fertility and baby-nursing, and who later came to be identified with Isis. The ancient Christian teacher Epiphanius wrote derisively of how the Egyptians had turned Pharaoh’s daughter into an idol to be worshipped. Notwithstanding the efforts of Bible scholars and Egyptologists to find an historical Egyptian princess of that name, and thereby resolve ongoing controversies as to who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, no such personage has turned up yet in the detailed chronicles of the ancient dynasties.

Jewish rabbinic tradition was generally uneasy about anonymous or one-time characters in the Bible, and often sought to fill in the gaps by identifying such figures with named persons who appear elsewhere. As it happens, there is another Pharaoh’s daughter who shows up in one of the genealogies that abound in the books of Chronicles. In a listing of descendants of Judah, an otherwise unknown individual named Mered is said to have married “Bithiah the daughter of Pharaoh.” A homiletic rule cited in the Midrash held that Chronicles should not be read on its own, but only as a vehicle for illuminating texts from other books of the Bible; and accordingly the rabbis found it most convenient to conclude that this Bithiah was identical with the Egyptian princess who adopted and protected Moses.

Midrashic homilists painted Bithiah as a paragon of piety and as a sincere convert to the monotheistic faith of Israel. Her bathing in the Nile was interpreted as an act of purification from the defiling idolatry of her father’s palace.

In particular, she was portrayed as a poster-girl for adoption (an institution that was not discussed very much in ancient Jewish sources). One midrashic exposition expressed this most eloquently: God gave her the name “Bithyah” meaning “daughter of the Lord” in recognition of how she reared Moses as her own son. Assorted rabbinic comments dwell at length on the personal effort, courage and divine assistance that were required for her to disobey the royal decree when rescuing Moses from the waters. The rewards for her valour included immunity from the plagues, especially from the death of the firstborns for which she would otherwise have been eligible.

The desire to expand the role of this heroine has continued into more recent times; and it may be discerned in what might be the most influential modern interpretation of the Exodus story: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1959 epic “The Ten Commandments.” In the producer’s introductory speech he explicitly named Bithiah among the elements of Moses’s “missing years” that the film reconstructed from extra-biblical sources.

Indeed, DeMIlle’s Bithiah plays a prominent role in the plot in ways that do not derive from any of the historical novels that were consulted by the screenwriters. Many of the ancient traditions about Pharaoh’s daughter were accessed in the thorough (but uncritical) investigations of the studio’s historical researcher Henry S. Noerdlinger who stitched together a detailed biography for the princess: As a widow who had no child of her own to inherit the throne, Bithiah chose to raise the Israelite child against the protests of her servant, in the hope that he would grow up to be a worthy ruler of Egypt. Aware of Moses’s Hebrew origins, Bithiah tried to destroy the swaddling cloth from his basket that testified to that fact. Eventually the princess decided to cast her fate in with that of the Israelites and she accompanied them in the exodus, participating in the first Passover meal. Her conduct among her adopted people was exemplary for its courage and compassion, relinquishing her princely litter for the sake of unfortunates who had difficulty walking. She was also among the few who resisted the temptation to join in the dissolute celebrations around the golden calf.

By whichever name we chose to call her—Tharmuth, Thermuthis, Bithiah or just plain “Pharaoh’s daughter”—this royal personage inspired imaginations over many generations; and indeed she deserves a place of honour when we gather to retell the story of the exodus.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 22, 2016, p. 18.
  • For further reading:
    • Day, John. “The Pharaoh of the Exodus, Josephus and Jubilees.” Vetus Testamentum 45, no. 3 (1995): 377–78.
    • Eldridge, David. Hollywood’s History Films. London and New York: I.B.Tauris, 2006.
    • Feldman, Ron H. “Josephus’ Portrait of Moses.” Jewish Quarterly Review 82, no. 3–4 (1992): 285–328.
    • Flusser, David, and Shua Amorai-Stark. “The Goddess Thermuthis, Moses, and Artapanus.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 1, no. 3 (1993): 217–33.
    • Heimlich, Evan Samuel. “Divination by ‘the Ten Commandments’: Its Rhetorics and Their Genealogies.” Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2007.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 2003.
    • Levine, Yael. Midreshe Batyah Bat Parʻoh: ʻIyun Nilveh le-Lel ha-Seder ; Va-yehi ba-Ḥaṣi ha-Lailah: Batte Tosefet ʻal Nashim. Jerusalem: Yael Levine, 764.
    • Matthews, Shelly. “Ladies’ Aid: Gentile Noblewomen as Saviors and Benefactors in the ‘Antiquities.’” The Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 2 (1999): 199–218.
    • Noerdlinger, Henry S. Moses and Egypt: The Documentation to the Motion Picture the Ten Commandments. Los Angeles: University of Southern California Press, 1956. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b3384828.
    • Rajak, Tessa. “Moses in Ethiopia: Legend and Literature.” Journal of Jewish Studies 29, no. 2 (1978): 111–22.
    • Avigdor Shinan, “Moses and the Ethiopian Woman: Sources of a Story in the Chronicles of Moses,” ed. Joseph Heinemann and Werses, Shmuel, Scripta Hierosolymitana Studies in Hebrew Narrative Art Throughout the Ages, no. 27 (1978): 66–75.
    • Steiner, Richard C. “Bittě-Yâ, Daughter of Pharaoh (1 Chr 4,18), and Bint(i)-ʻanat, Daughter of Ramesses Ii.” Biblica 79, no. 3 (1998): 394–408.