What’s in a Name

Rabbi Maurice D. Harris

Rabbi Maurice D. Harris

Parshat Shemot

Shemot (Ex. 1:1-6:1) opens with a list of the names of the sons of Jacob who made the journey from Canaan to Egypt and settled there at the invitation of the Pharaoh, whom Joseph had advised.

It’s a curious way to open the Book of Exodus because, in the final chapters of Genesis, we were just given an even more detailed version of this list. But the text wants us to note their names, perhaps because it wants us to think about names and their importance.
Once Shemot is finished listing the names of Joseph’s brothers who came to dwell in Egypt, it moves swiftly into a familiar tale: A new Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” reacts to his fear of the growing Hebrew population in Egypt first by enslaving them and later by ordering to have their newborn sons murdered. The story then gallops forward.

In a handful of verses, we are told about the birth of a son to Moses’ parents, about his parents’ desperate decision to send their 3-month-old baby down the Nile in a basket in hope that someone might show him kindness, about the Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing and then adopting the boy and about her naming him “Moses.”

We hear about Moses growing up and venturing out to see his Hebrew kinfolk at their labors, about his killing an abusive Egyptian taskmaster and about his fugitive flight into the wilderness. We learn about Moses finding a new home in the tent of a Midianite priest, Jethro; about his marrying Tzipporah, Jethro’s daughter; about his working years as a shepherd near the “mountain of God”; and finally, we learn about his receiving the Divine call to return to Egypt as God’s agent of liberation.

Throughout this drama, there is some complex stuff going on with names.

First, consider who is named and who is not. Moses, Jethro and Tzipporah are named. So are Aaron (Moses’ brother) and Gershom (Moses’ and Tzipporah’s firstborn). Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s infanticidal orders, are named. Pharaoh and the Pharaoh’s daughter are not.

Then there’s God. God is named — sort of. At the burning bush, when Moses asks for God’s name, God offers Moses several names, and each one obscures as much as it reveals. God tells Moses that God’s name is the tetragrammaton (Y-H-V-H), but God also self-identifies as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” “I Will Be What I Will Be” and “I Am / I Will Be.” (Ex. 3:13-16)

For the humans listed above who are named, their names conceal as much as they reveal.
First, there’s Moses himself. We are told that this is the name the Pharaoh’s daughter gave him. Ex. 2:10 says, “She named him Moses, explaining ‘I drew him from the water.’” Moses: a name that is presumably Egyptian, not Hebrew.

So what was this child’s previous name, his Hebrew name, the one his birth parents, Yocheved and Amram, had given him? They had their baby for three months before setting him afloat on the Nile. Surely they gave him a name — a Hebrew name that the Torah conceals. In the moment we first learn the name of our greatest prophet, we actually only learn one of his names — the foreign name given him by an unnamed princess.

Let’s turn to the midwives, Shifrah and Puah. The text doesn’t complicate their names, but it does their identities. The Torah tells us that these two brave women were m’yaldot ha-ivriyot, which can be translated either as “Hebrew midwives” or as “midwives to the Hebrews.” As several biblical scholars have noted, they might be Hebrews themselves, or they might belong to some other ethnic group — possibly another enslaved group whose job was to handle the births and the census-keeping duties of the enslaved workforce.

Then there’s Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. Or is that name Yeter (Ex. 4:18)? Or Reuel (Ex. 2:18)? Or was it Hobab (Num. 10:29)? Or one of the other names by which he appears in the Hebrew Bible? We’ll leave him aside for the moment because there are too many possibilities for what’s going on with Moses’ multiple-named father-in-law to explore here.
Finally, Shemot gives us an unnamed Pharaoh and never tells us his daughter’s name either. (Centuries later, in midrash, the rabbis taught that Pharaoh’s daughter’s name was Batya, but in the Torah’s own telling her name is unknown.)

The Hebrew Bible is generally not shy about telling us the names of emperors who oppressed our ancestors. We hear about Nebuchadnezzar, Shalmaneser and Akhashverosh. In Shemot, perhaps hinting to us that if the text wanted to it could reveal this Pharaoh’s name, we read that the Hebrew slaves built a city called Rameses, the name of more than one Pharaoh. So the decision to conceal the Pharaoh’s name and that of his daughter is deliberate. We are left to wonder why.

Perhaps one of the juiciest questions for us to puzzle with as we re-read the story of the Exodus each year has to be: What’s in a name?

Rabbi Maurice D. Harris is associate director for thriving communities and Israel affairs specialist at Reconstructing Judaism in Wyncote. He is the author of three books, including “Moses: A Stranger Among Us.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


  1. I have enjoyed listening to Rabbi Maurice when he was at TBI in Eugene Oregon.
    Please include me in all postings and articles by him.


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