Shemot’s Missing Names




One of the most important strategies of classical commentators like Rashi and Ramban is to address particular questions about specific verses or phrases based on an understanding of the larger literary context. Hence they often bypassed understandings that would make the most sense in isolation because of their working assumptions that 1) a sentence or phrase cannot be viewed as an independent unit, and 2) that the Bible often communicates through larger tapestries that it sought to build.1

I believe one section of the Torah that must be looked at in this way is the first two chapters of the Book of Exodus. Only by looking at this section as a single literary unit will the reader fully understand the tone and underlying message that the narrative intended to communicate. We will now attempt such an analysis.


As in most lengthy narratives, the names of many of the Bible’s characters are not given. This is partly as a literary tool and partly because of the Bible’s compact and terse style. Indeed, that terse style can alert us to the importance of a character by the very fact that the Bible bothers to give us his or her name.2

Besides the importance of a character, there are other reasons why the Bible might identify a person by name. Being related to a main character is one such reason. In particular, we find that the Bible has a strong a tendency to reveal the names of important people’s parents or – to be more exact – of their fathers, e.g. Elkanah the father of Samuel (I Sam. 1:1), Manoach the father of Samson (Judg. 13:2) and Yoash the father of Gideon (Judg. 6:11).3

Again, as in most literature and again for obvious reasons, the names of characters (and especially main characters)  are almost  always  given  when  we first encounter them. If we are going to know a character by name, it makes obvious sense to know it from the outset. This is all the more so the case in the Bible, where names often signify much more than a convenient way to refer to a person – arming us with that information helps us better understand the plot line as it subsequently emerges.4

We have just summarized some of the major conventions the Bible uses in deciding whether and when to present the names of its characters. The reason for doing so is to show how the narrative in question does not follow these conventions. But why not? Alongside Robert Alter, it is our understanding that when the Bible veers from its conventions, it is using a purposeful literary tool in order to express an idea.5 After we examine all of the relevant information, we will try to understand what the idea could be.


There is arguably no more important character in the Bible than Moses. If anyone should be introduced at birth, it is he. And yet we only hear his name after he is brought into the house of Pharaoh (Ex. 2:10). One could argue that there is a very good reason for this – did he not only receive his name after he was placed into the river and subsequently picked out by the daughter of Pharaoh? Yet this should strike us as quite odd. Why would his parents not have named him at birth and have – instead – waited for him to be named by a stranger? One could answer that they actually did name him, but since Moses – the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter – is the name that stuck, his first naming is of little interest. This is not implausible. But given other elements in the story, we will argue that there is a more likely answer.

A similar anomaly is found with Moses’s family. Though we eventually find out the names of Moses’s parents (6:18-20), they are introduced to us with striking anonymity – And a man of the House of Levi took [to marry] a daughter of Levi (2:1). And while acceptable answers for this can (and have6) been given, here too, we would prefer an answer that takes note of all the related issues. Moreover, as opposed to Moses, their names are withheld throughout this story and not just in their initial introduction.7 For had the latter been the case, we could have said that the Torah only briefly withheld their names so that the reader would focus on Moses’s parents’ tribal identity instead of their names. But since this is not the case, we will need to look further for an explanation.

To complete the picture, we note that Moses’s brother and sister remain nameless as well. In the case of his brother, Aaron, it is no wonder – he doesn’t come on the scene until Moses moves to Midian. (The fact that he is immediately – and hence, more conventionally – identified by name in that later story is also worthy of note, but beyond the immediate scope of this article.) Not so, however, his sister, Miriam, who plays a significant role in the story, watching over her brother and serving as the go-between between Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’s parents. And yet we do not find out her name for another fourteen chapters (15:1)!

Here too, one could give answers for Miriam’s initial anonymity that ignore the context created by this story. Most simply, we could have attributed it to her being a woman. We have already noted that the Torah is more likely to give us the name of an important character’s father than his mother.

The same could be said of brothers as opposed to sisters. But there are two problems with such an approach. First, Miriam is ultimately named. And it is not because she is Moses’s sister, but rather because she is a major character in her own right. But there is something more. If we might still want to claim that Miriam is really not important enough to give her name here, we would at least expect the Torah to be consistent and avoid naming other less important women in the same section. However, in Chapter 1 we find two minor characters – that were likely not even Jewish (see below) – introduced by name. I am referring to Shifrah and Puah (1:15). Though one might be tempted to see Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 as two disparate units, the two chapters’ location at the beginning of a new book and their strong thematic and plot connections suggest otherwise: Together, these two chapters provide the story of Moses’s birth and early life. Chapter 1 essentially sets the stage for the actual story that we read in Chapter 2. Hence the first chapter could easily be described as the second chapter’s introduction. By Chapter 3, we have turned a page and encounter Moses the prophet and his charge to begin the redemption. As such, the reader is perplexed as to why Shifrah and Puah get such recognition, while Miriam (and the rest of her family) does not.


Though not the center of our analysis, I believe that knowing the nationality of Shifrah and Puah may be a key to the anomalies encountered so far. The question of whether they were Jewish or Egyptian is an old one.8 As many have already pointed out, the phrase, miyaldot ha-Ivriot, can have one of two meanings. It can either mean, the Jewish midwives, or the midwives of the Jews – the latter of which opens up the possibility that they themselves were not Jewish. Based on such an understanding, Abarbanel makes a strong case for their being Egyptian when he points to Pharaoh’s reliance upon them to kill mass numbers of Jewish babies. To extend the argument further, given Pharaoh’s brutal treatment of the Jewish people, it is astounding how mild he is in his behavior towards the insubordinate midwives. When he questions their insubordination, he gets an answer that should have been, at least, suspect. But the very fact that he allows them to give an answer should make us question the possibility of their being Israelites. Nor is it likely that this was the result of divine intervention, as we are only told that God favored them (1:20) after – and perhaps even, also as a result of – this interview.

There is another indication, however, which I believe should ultimately tip the scales. The verses emphasize that the source of their insubordination was the fear of Elokim (1:17). As we have demonstrated elsewhere, this is a phrase that the Torah generally uses with regard to gentiles.9 Over and over, the Torah uses this term as a synonym for basic human decency. This is exactly what we are dealing with here, and which, by inference,10 the Torah is suggesting is lacking in Pharaoh’s regime. In other words, the maidservants excelled in a trait that the Torah was particularly interested in when evaluating gentiles. True, this is not a full-fledged proof that Shifra and Puah were not Israelites. But added to the other evidence, it is much more than likely.


If we are correct about the identities of Shifra and Puah, it would emerge that the only Jew who is given a name from the time the Egyptians subjugation of Israel begins (1:11) until Moses escapes from Egypt (2:15) is Moses himself. (It is not clear that the minor characters we see when Moses goes out to see his brethren (2:11-14) are important enough to have names, but note that three out of these four nameless men are also Jewish.) And so, it is hard to miss the stark contrast when relatively minor Egyptian characters like Shifrah and Puah are given names, specifically in this context of nameless Jews. The message is clear: in this section, Jews – no matter how important – don’t get names. But Egyptians, on the other hand – even if they are relatively minor – do get names. Before we get back to the reason for this, let us go back to the one obvious exception to our pattern, the naming of Moses.

In fact, Moses’s getting a name doesn’t undermine the pattern, but actually reinforces it. For Moses too is not given a name so long as he is an Israelite. Instead, he gets his name from the daughter of Pharaoh, when he is adopted by a member of the Egyptian court. And when it occurs, the naming seems to be far more than just a recounting of events. It shows that like the other Israelites in the story of the Egyptian oppression, Moses the Israelite cannot be named. At the very least, he cannot be named by other Israelites. For as far as the narrative is concerned, naming their own children is not a power that the Israelites seem to have. A famous midrash claims that the Jews kept using their Hebrew names while in Egypt.11 Yet the Torah’s actual narrative indicates that there were no names to be kept.

Of course, we know from the later reports of the names of Moses’s parents and sister, that Jews did have names. But having a name is not a completely black and white business. What happens to a name, for example, when no one uses it? And even if the Israelites did use their names – to the Egyptians, the Israelites’ names did not matter. To them, they were mere numbers. For this is the way slaves are often viewed, and it is the way oppressed peoples are viewed as well. At some point in the exile, then, the Egyptians no longer looked at the Israelites as people with names, but rather as a growing threat and then, later, as mere economic assets meant for exploitation.


Given what we have seen so far, we cannot help but notice the fact that this section of the Torah has been associated with the word, shemot (names). Though the reason both the Book and this parsha are known as Shemot is because it is the first important word in both of these units, it strikes us as more than ironic. In fact, it both acknowledges and reinforces the significance of having a name and – thereby – contrasts it to what the careful reader will see unraveling in the Egyptian subjugation of the Israelites

But even without this somewhat homiletical observation, it is not for naught that the section under consideration (1:11 – 2:15) is immediately preceded by a recounting of the names of the family leaders (1:1-5). That recounting is actually a review of something the Torah had recently mentioned (Gen. 46:8:24). That being the case, its inclusion here requires some justification, since the reader will know this information already.

Could it not be that the Torah is setting up another powerful contrast? This time, it is not between the Israelites and the Egyptians, but rather between the Israelites when they first came to Egypt on the one hand, and their descendants who bore the yoke of Egyptian persecution on the other: The Israelites came in as men of stature; a respected – even feared – clan of men who were accustomed to success and status.12 If the immediate reason for Jacob’s grand reception in Egypt was Joseph’s position of power, it also spoke to his station and that of his children. And so, being welcomed by the Egyptian monarch himself – the most powerful in the world at the time – is something we see them taking in stride.

The Israelites came to Egypt with everything that a name connotes – they were truly what the Bible elsewhere (Num. 16:2) calls anshei shem (men of name). And yet from these heights, the Egyptian exile would bring them down to this status’ very opposite, that of men with no names. In this way, the Torah shows that the Israelites had become men who could simply be ignored. On some level, it could be said that they lacked not only names, but even faces. The Israelites had become an undifferentiated mass that had no recourse other than to lie low and make sure that the group survived. But as far as the individual that a name represents, he was lost in the fields and swamps of Egyptian bondage.


1. See how I use the rabbinic reading of the Tamar narrative as an example of this in Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2010) pp. 100-102.

  1. See Ha’amek Devar on Genesis 38:6. This need not be seen as a hard and fast rule and there can be other more important considerations at play that trump this on occasion. Hence when we see the mention of a seemingly unimportant character’s name, we should not feel compelled to contrive some explanation for their importance. By the same token, it is a possibility that should generally be considered.
  2. In the examples just mentioned, we only know the name of one the three mothers, Channah, probably because she is a major character in her own right.
  3. See my article, “What’s in a Name – Ya’akov and/or Yisrael,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 40:4 (Oct – Dec 2012), p. 241. See also, Adele Reinhartz, Why Ask My Name? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), especially pp. 3-13.
  4. The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), Chapter 3.
  5. See, for example, R. S. R. Hirsch and Umberto Cassuto in their respective commentaries on Exodus on 2:1.
  6. Another example of names revealed at the end of story are Zimri and Kozbi (Numbers 25:1-15).
  7. See Shmuel David Luzzato (Shadal) on Exodus 1:15 and Nechama Leibowitz’ Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981), pp. 31-36. It should be noted that while most understand the rabbinic tradition to identify them as Jews based on TB Sotah 11b, there is a midrash (Midrash Tadshe 21, which may well be a very late midrash) that explicitly identifies them as converts from the nations.
  8. See my Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2016), pp. 87-88.
  9. Shadal makes exactly this point. But Nechama Leibowitz and Amos Chacham in Da’at Mikra al Shemot (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1987) p. 11, note 27, disagree. The latter bolsters his claim with the fact that the nursemaid sought for Moses was specifically Israelite and not Egyptian (2:7). Based on that, he argues that it would be reasonable that the women delivering these babies would be Israelite as well.
  10. Vayikra Rabbah 32:5.
  11. See Seforno on Exodus 1:1 who seems to be alluding to such an idea.

Rabbi Francis Nataf is an associate editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly.




2017-10-02T08:29:55+00:00 Categories: 45:3|