What's in a Name?

Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

by David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem

This week’s parasha, Shemot (“names”) is the beginning of the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt. When we finished Genesis, Jacob and his descendants were in Egypt. They were cared for by the royal family, and prospered in a time of economic woes. The book of Shemot (Exodus) opens with the identity of the people of Israel in Egypt:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt: the man Jacob and his family came.
Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah,
Issachar, Zevulun and Binyamin,
Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher.
So it was that all of Jacob’s descendants were 70 people, as Joseph was already in Egypt. (Exod 1:1–5, author’s translation)

The Egyptian ruling dynasty underwent a drastic change towards Israel, and, “A new king arose in Egypt, one who did not know about Joseph” (Exod 1:8, author’s translation).

We are unsure which Pharaonic dynasty this may have been. Some scholars guess that this was the Hyksos dynasty, with their origins not in Egypt, but further east. Others maintain that it was a native Egyptian dynasty that simply began a new policy toward the foreign presence, the monotheistic descendants of Jacob. This Egyptian dynasty remains nameless, in the very book of Names.

In 1:15, we learn about two more names: “And the king of Egypt told the Hebrew midwives, one named Shifrah and the other named Puah . . .” (author’s translation).

These two heroic, humane, God-fearing midwives are known to us by their names. Outside of Jacob and his sons, these two women are the first persons mentioned by their names in Exodus, the book of Names.

Israel’s hero of the liberation, Moses, was known by his name, which was Egyptian in its root. Years ago I attended a fascinating seminar on the Exodus from Egypt, given by renowned archaeologist Gavriel Barkai. He insisted that many names from the Exodus narrative are Egyptian in their origin. For example, “Mosay” was a common Egyptian name; “Hur”, who held up Moses’ arms (cf. Ex. 17:12) was a name that came from the idol “Horace”. Miriam’s name probably came from “Miri-amon”, an Egyptian deity. Barkai concluded that the use of these Egyptian names proves that the people of Israel were indeed once resident in Egypt. 

Moses’ name is explained in a midrashic pun as meaning “drawn out”:

And the boy grew up, so she [Yocheved] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter. Then he became her son, and she named him “Moses,” saying, “Because I drew him [Hebrew, meshitihu], from the water.” (2:10, author’s translation)

Israel’s leader and prophet is known to us by his name. Moses is chosen by God to be active in his purposes, and in a covenant relationship with him. Yet Pharaoh’s daughter, a princess, remains nameless in this verse, in the very book of Names. 

Our narrative’s Pharaoh is quoted five times in chapter 1, but he also remains nameless. Scholars have guessed him to be it Ahmose I, Merneptah, Ramses II, Tutmoses III, Amenhotep II, or Ramses III. But we do not know his identity from our text itself. He has no name, only an ugly legacy.

When personal names are used at the beginning of the book of Exodus, let us ask why they are known to us? What may the Torah be telling us? I do not know conclusively, but I have some thoughts on this interesting question. When I read a name here, I am drawn to pay attention to the person named, who no doubt is in a covenant relationship with God, or who has done what Paul describes in Romans 11:17ff—drawing close to the people of Israel, and no doubt to the God of Israel. As it is written: “the midwives feared God” (Ex. 1:15).

The midwives are called meyaldot ha’ivriot in Exodus 1:15, which can be translated either “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives designated for the Hebrews.” In this chapter, after the introduction of Joseph’s family, we are furnished with no individual names up until this verse, which supplies the names Shifrah and Puah. This is significant because these women feared God, and he “gave them houses” (1:21). This is another phrase with a number of possible translations. It can mean that the midwives were taken in by the tribes of Israel (that is, “adopted” by the people), with the Hebrew word bayt (“house”) understood as a “home” they were given among the people of Israel. Or, bayt can be interpreted as a “family,” meaning that the midwives became fruitful and bore their own children, as a reward for their saving of Israel’s babies. Often in the Bible, the word bayt has such a meaning, as in the “House of David,” which doesn’t mean just the king’s palace, but his extended family (cf. Zech 12:7–8; 2 Sam 2:4, 6:5, 9:1; Ezek 20:5).

People who are named in the beginning of the book of Exodus have something to teach us—those who are not named have no enduring legacy by which they positively impacted the Kingdom of God, or the world around them. In 2:10 we learn of Moses’ actual name. Moses, the man who was “pulled out of the water” has a name to live up to. And indeed, he helps pull Israel out of the water (the Sea of Reeds) later on in his life, further on in our book. 

The identified persons, by name, in our parasha include the descendants of Jacob (1:1–6), then Shifrah and Puah (1:15), Moses (2:10), Reuel (2:18), Tsipporah (2:21), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (3:6, 15–16) and Aaron (4:14). Their names are remembered, their reputations and influences are positive, and till today each of them remains a part of the story of Israel and has an honored role in the story of redemption. The mighty, but nameless Pharaoh came to nothing, both in his lifetime and in biblical history. He is a wisp in time, a forgotten person, but for his evildoing.

So I am impressed by the significance of the revealing of names in our parasha. Nothing in our Torah is written by chance. To be known by name early on in our book is to be a person who sided with God’s purposes. And their names, their legacies, are worthy to be heard.

Russ Resnik