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Posted January 8, 2009

Book: Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: Ancient Role Models for Sacred Relationships
Author: Jeffery K. Salkin
Jewish Lights Publishing. Woodstock, Vermont. 2008. Pp. 151

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Now more than ever, gentiles are an integral part of the Jewish community. But they are not new to the Jewish story. In fact, righteous gentiles go back to Abraham. The story of the Jewish people can’t be told without them.

Noted author and educator Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin provides an informative and inspiring look at the sympathetic non-Israelite characters of the Hebrew Bible and the redemptive relationships they had with the Jewish people. Relying on biblical and extra-biblical sources, he introduces each character, drawing lessons from the life of each that will be relevant to you, whatever your faith tradition. They include the . . .

First gentile to bless a Jew

First woman to hear the Divine voice and save a Jewish baby

First teacher of morality to the Jews.

First gentile mother of Jewish children.

Gentile midwives who invented civil disobedience.

Mother of Moses and nurturer of the Jewish people.

Father-in-Law and teacher of Moses.

First “gentile Zionist”

Gentile warrior who fought for the Israelites.

Gentile contractor for Solomon’s Temple.

Gentiles who acknowledged God and repented.

Creator of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The question of how Moses got his name is truly one of the great biblical conundrums. Numerous scholars have noticed that the story of Moses is, frankly, not original to the Hebrew Bible. It seems to have appeared in an earlier form in Akkadian mythology — more precisely, the story of the birth of Sargon.

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.

My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not . . .

My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.

She sent 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, took me as his son and reared me. . .

Moses’s story not only has ancient parallels, but it has modern ones as well — most notably, the story of Superman, who was sent away from danger in a basketlike capsule as a child; found by a childless couple; had an obscure childhood; and grew to adulthood and became a great hero. It is hardly coincidence that Superman was the creation of two Jews, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, and that many authors have written about the Jewish linkage to the origins of the comic book industry.

The biblical text would like us to understand that Mose’s name, Moshe, is derived from the Hebrew word meshitihu [to draw out] due to the fact that Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out of the water. A contemporary Hasidic teacher notices that she gives him a name not according to the feelings of pity that she feels for him, but rather, for what she is prepared to do for him. Feelings are nice, actions better.

While this explanation may be satisfying, there is one problem: the name of Moses is not a Hebrew name. It is actually Egyptian. That has led scholars — most famously, Sigmund Freud — to wonder whether Moses was really, in fact, an Egyptian.

It also leaves us with the problem of how an Egyptian princess would have known enough Hebrew to give the child a name with Hebrew resonances. The twelfth-century biblical commentator Hizkuni surmised that Pharaoh’s daughter had either converted to Judaism and learned Hebrew, or that Yocheved had named him and explained the name to her. Ibn Ezra claims to have found an Egyptian name for Pharaoh, suggesting that Moshe is the Hebrew translation of the name Monius. And how did Pharaoh’s daughter know enough Hebrew to name him Moses? “Perhaps she learned our language, or asked someone,” he suggests.

But all the questions about Mose’s name actually become irrelevant because of the extraordinary care that Pharaoh’s daughter gives him. A midrash [Shemot Rabbah 1:26] teaches that Pharaoh’s daughter used to kiss and hug Moses, loving him as if he were her own son, and that she would not allow him out of the royal palace.

She not only nurtured him emotionally, but also intellectually. She educated him broadly in all ancient disciplines. The ancient Hellenistic Jewish tragedian and poet Ezekiel [not to be confused with the prophet of the same name.] imagines Moses saying:

Throughout my boyhood years the princess did,

for princely rearing and instruction apt,

provide all things, as though I were her own.

According to the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo, Pharaoh’s daughter arranged for Moses to learn “arithmetic, geometry, the lore of meter, rhythm and harmony, and the whole subject of music.” Apparently, early Christians knew these traditions as well, because in the New Testament [Acts 7:21-22], we read that “Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son, and Moses was educated in all the wisdom of Egypt, and he was powerful in his words and actions.

In fact, Pharaoh’s daughter is such a good mother to Moses that her behavior becomes the model for a particular Jewish law — that to raise an orphan is the equivalent of having given birth to the child. Some years ago, an organization that supports foster care put out a bumper sticker that read: “Superman Was a Foster Child.” So was Moses.

Table of Contents:

1. Melchizedek: The first righteous Gentile and the first person to bless a Jew.

2. Hagar and Ishmael: the first woman to hear the Divine voice; the first Jewish child to be saved from death.

3. Tamar: the first teacher of morality to the Jewish people.

4. Asnat: the first gentile mother of Jewish children.

5. Shifrah and Puah: the righteous midwives who invented civil disobedience

6. Bityah, Pharaoh’s daughter: the mother of Moses and the nurturer of Jewish children

7. Jethro: the father-in-law and teacher of Moses

8. Rachav: the prostitute who was the first “gentile Zionist”

9. Yael: the gentile warrior who fought for the Israelites

10. Hiram: the gentile “contractor” for Solomon’s temple

11. Naaman: the Syrian general who acknowledged God

12. The sailors and Ninevites: gentiles who acknowledged God; gentiles who repented

13. Ruth: the classic “convert” to Judaism

14. Cyrus, King of Persia: the creator of the second Jewish commonwealth

15. Dama ben Netinah: a postbiblical reghteous gentile and exemplar of honoring parents