The Motif of the Abandoned Hero

This post isn’t related to the general theme of the blog (the miracle of the Jewish people), but we start reading Sefer Shemot (the book of Exodus) this week in the weekly Torah reading and I found it hard to find information about this topic online, so I’m posting it here.

This is taken from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus (pages 29-31):

The account of Moses as told in the Exodus has often been compared to a well-known class of legends that has as its subject the birth of a national hero and in which the motif of the abandoned child repeatedly recurs. These legends concern both mythology and folklore. Heracles (Hercules) was abandoned by his mother Alcmene; Oedipus, who became king of Thebes, was exposed on a mountain; Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were put in a chest and cast into the Tiber; Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, was ordered by his royal grandfather to be left to die on a mountain. The examples could be multiplied; the motif appears in quite unrelated cultures. What has most attracted the attention of Biblical scholars is the Mesopotamian version known today as “The Legend of Sargon.” He was the third-millenium B.C.E. king who established the first Semitic dynasty based at the city of Akkad, and who founded the first of the great empires of the world. This text purports to be Sargon’s autobiographical account in which he ascribes to himself a mysterious origin, according to the preserved portion of the inscription. More likely it was the work of later scribes. The relevant section of the text reads as follows:

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My mother, the high priestess, conceived; 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 not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer.
Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me.
Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener.
While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love,
And for four and … years I exercised kingship.

The supposed close affinities between this folkloristic composition and our Exodus narrative are fanciful. In fact, the story of Moses’ birth departs from the “The Legend of Sargon” and from the genre in general in so many significant respects that one must almost gets the impression of a conscious attempt on the part of the biblical narrator to dissociate this narrative from the features otherwise characteristic of the foundling hero motif.

In the first place, Sargon is exposed to the river because he is the unwanted child of an illicit relationship. His mother belongs to a class of priestesses that is supposed to live in chastity, and is forbidden to bear children. She therefore needs to conceal the birth and to dispose of the baby as quickly as possible in order to avoid the shame and disgrace that would be her lot should her offense be uncovered. Moses, by contrast, is the legitimate offspring of a lawful marriage, and his mother tries to keep him as long as possible. She places him by the river as an act of desperation, and this she does with tender loving care – such is the force of the Hebrew word sim, “to place,” used of her action, as opposed to the verb hishlikh, “to abandon,” used by the pharoah. She takes every precaution to ensure his safety and to keep track of his fate.

Another striking distinction lies in the identity of the one who chances upon the foundling. In Exodus the discoverer is a princess, whereas in the Sargon folktale, and generally in this genre of literature, the finder is a person of low social status, or even an animal. Furthermore, the origin of the child is usually unknown, and only later in life is it revealed through detection or recognition on the part of a third person. In Moses’ case there is no identity problem. Even the princess recognizes at once that this is a child of Hebrew origin. There there is the fact that in the story of Moses it is his own mother who nurses him, a circumstance quite alien to the foundling type of story. Finally, attention must be paid to the function of the Sargon and similar legends. Usually the child is the son of distinguished parents, often royalty, and when he ultimately achieves rank and honour it constitutes recognition and confirmation of his true and rightfully deserved status. Not so in the Exodus account. Here the parents of Moses are ordinary folk, albeit Levites, and the son stakes out no claim for himself. The narrative does not serve the political, as it does in the case of Sargon, of legitimating the usurper who has no royal genealogy. Sargon’s name, in fact, in Akkadian is sharru-ken, which means “the king is legitimate,” that is, “the legitimate king.”


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