Today is the last Day of Unleavened Bread. I admit that I’ve slipped a few times this week—and not by accident. I ate some chips a few days ago, and I ate a cookie this morning. But I ate a lot of matzos this week, plus I skipped out on Subway, burgers, pizza, and soda crackers. Overall, I’d say this holiday was a success for me, even if I didn’t follow the letter of the law to a T.
When I was an undergraduate, a professor told his class that the biblical story of baby Moses being preserved in a basket was copied from a similar tale about Sargon, a king of Akkad in the third millennium B.C.E. I decided to do some research on that this morning.
The source of the Sargon story is the Legend of Sargon’s Birth. The IVP Bible Background Commentary dates this work to the eighth century B.C.E., but this online article refers to Brian Lewis’ The Sargon Legend (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1978), which says that the story could date anywhere from 2039-627 B.C.E. The article states the following:
In favor of an early date are, for example, the abundant Sargon literature of an early period, correspondences with the Sumerian King List, and the match of the adoption process to the known process of the early time. In favor of a late date, for example, are Neo-Assyrian orthographic forms, idiomatic expressions attested only in a later period, and the mention of cutting roads with bronze or copper picks. Some of these factors allow for possible explanations which reduce their force. [98-100] Lewis offers the suggestion that the story was written in the reign of Sargon II, a much later king who was possibly a usurper, to legitimate his own rule. Some similarities to the reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC) may be suggested. For example, Sargon I claims the conquest of Tilmun as a major conquest. But contact with Tilmun seems to have been limited — it is mentioned only once before Sargon II. Sargon II boasts of Tilmun in his time sending tribute. Lewis also notes a few verbal similarities between the Sargon I story and Sargon II inscriptions. He adds that 7 issues about Sargon I in the story are corroborated by other Sargon I material, but 6 issues are not, and 2 points are anachronistic.
So Lewis opts for an eighth century B.C.E. date. The text has early and late features. Maybe it was an old text that was updated, or (conversely) a late text that used earlier material.
Drawing upon the IVP Bible Background Commentary and Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, I can determine the story to be as follows:
Sargon was the love-child of a priestess, and his father was unknown. The priestess would have lost her position if people found out she had a baby, for priestesses were supposed to be childless. Consequently, she put baby Sargon in a little basket and set it afloat on the River Euphrates. Some say that she was aiming to kill the baby rather than seeking to preserve his life. The IVP Bible Background Commentary, however, states that she was hiding her baby at the Euphrates rather than sacrificing him, “as priestesses were supposed to do.” The baby was then found and raised by Akki the water-carrier, who set Sargon up as his gardener. Later, in Sarna’s summary, Sargon “was favored by the goddess Ishtar and seized the throne of Akkad, which he held for fifty-five years.”
The IVP Bible Background Commentary also refers to a Hittite story, A Tale of Two Cities: Kanesh and Zalpa, in which “the queen of Kadesh is said to have given birth to thirty sons in a single year and placed them in caulked baskets and sent them down the river”; the gods then find the baskets and raise the boys. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the date of the story, but this site included an English translation of the relevant text. Apparently, the queen thought that thirty boys were too many for her household, so she got rid of them by sending them off in baskets.
Sarna refers to a story about King Cyrus of Persia, who ruled in the sixth century B.C.E.: His grandfather Astyages, king of the Medes, experienced two dreams that were interpreted to mean that his newly born grandson Cyrus would one day usurp the throne. He therefore ordered his trusted servant Harpagus to murder the infant. Forebearing to commit the deed himself, the man summoned a herdsman named Mithradates, handed him the baby, and commanded him to leave him to die on the mountain range. The herdsman, however, too the infant home, only to discover that his wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby. The couple substituted Cyrus for the dead infant, whose body they left on the hills instead. Ten years later, by a quirk of fate, Cyrus’s true identity was uncovered.
I think that the religiously (and anti-religiously) motivated debates over the similarities between the biblical story and ancient Near Eastern tales are difficult to resolve. First of all, apologists for the Bible try to argue that the biblical story about baby Moses is different from the ancient Near Eastern tales about abandoned infants, so the Bible didn’t borrow from them. But who’s to say that the stories had to be exactly alike, for one to draw from another?
Second, it’s hard to determine what depends on what by the dates. Some scholars date the Book of Exodus to the second millennium B.C.E. Others date it to the first millennium B.C.E. If the Book of Exodus was written during or after the eighth century B.C.E., then perhaps it drew from the Sargon legend. But, conversely, who’s to say that the Sargon legend couldn’t have drawn from the Moses story? Stories circulated through trade. Why do we always have to assume that the biblical writers borrowed from other cultures? Maybe there were cases in which it was the other way around. Ultimately, it’s hard to determine which source draws from what.
Third, life can imitate art. The things we read in stories can happen in real life. So saying that the story of baby Moses couldn’t have happened because there are similar stories in other cultures is being a little hasty, in my humble opinion. There are power-hungry people in the world who will put people to death to protect their power. If we see that sort of story across many cultures, maybe that’s because human nature is the same everywhere you go.