Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Is Moses Mamzer?

In Exodus on January 12, 2012 at 8:23 am
English: Moses Laid Amid the Flags, c. 1896-19...

Moses Laid Amid the Flags, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

My child is born.
I look down and see. It is
the prettiest thing.

I look at my wife.
They said she was forbidden
and not like to me.

Others will say this:
“She is not like us,” until
she makes herself great.

My child is already great.

Exodus 1.1 – 6.1
Isaiah 27.6 – 28.13; 29.22 – 23

Parsha Shemot

And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

Exodus 2.1-2

And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.’

Exodus 4.10

Why does the text say and there went a man of the house of Levi, and took [to wife] a daughter of Levi?  This is the old JPS translation.  The new JPS translation renders it a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  Why not just “a man took to wife a woman”?

Ramban explains that the Sages explained the verse to mean that the man separated from his wife to avoid fathering a child following Pharoah’s decree and remarried her to have Moses.  Rashi and Rashbam echo this idea.  Ramban further explains that the plain meaning of the text describes marriage, not reunion, and that Torah does not relate events in strict chronological order.  The couple married, bore Aaron and Miriam, heard Pharoah’s decree, and then bore Moses, who was beautiful.  Of course, the statement that Torah does not relate events in their strict order is not an incontrovertible defense of either position.  In either case, the passage means that the certain man was already this woman’s husband, having already fathered Aaron and Miriam.

Ramban says something else interesting that contradicts the Sages, that to say the man went and did something does not mean to do over but to do something new.  He cites Reuben went and lay with Bilhah (Gen. 35.22) and he went and married Gomer (Hosea 1.1).  What fascinates me is what these phrases have in common.  Bilhah was Jacob’s concubine, or wife in the biblical sense, their marriage being established by sex.  Gomer was a sacred prostitute.  Both of these phrases refer to forbidden relations.  Perhaps nothing new, but exceptional.

It seems to me the onus of the statement went and did lies on the active participant, who in this case is the Levite man.  Ibn Ezra explains that Amram and Jochobed were later identified as Moses’ parents, and that Jochobed was Moses’ aunt. So here again, an exception has taken place.

What else is there?  We are taught later in Exodus that Moses is slow of speech and of a slow tongue.  Rashi explains slow of speech to mean that Moses was a stutterer.  Rashbam explains that slow of speech is part of Moses’ nature.  Ramban identifies it as an impediment, which seems to me to have support in who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4.11)  So does Moses, the beautiful son of a certain man who went and married his aunt, have a speech impediment?

Was the certain man a certain man because there was something certain about him?  Did Moses inherit his speech impediment from him?  Or was the certain man a certain man, certain of what he wanted to do, with his own self-formulated opinions and direction and sense of his own and others’ rights, regardless of others’ thoughts?  Why not both?  Is this irresponsible?  Or liberated?

Is the man chosen by God to be the greatest prophet of the Torah and the giver of the Law, a mamzer?

Now…what does this teach us?


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