Much has been made of the similarity between the infancy stories of Moses and of Sargon, king of the Akkadian empire. These come from a text purporting to be Sargon’s autobiography, in which he states that his mother bore him “in secret,” then “set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me.”

Collins calls it a “common folkloric motif” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.57), while my study bible says that “aspects of this story are paralleled in the legends of other national heroes.” In both cases, however, only Sargon is named. Further, my study bible continues by saying that both Moses and Sargon were “saved from danger by being put in a basket of rushes sealed with pitch and floated on the river.”

sargon-of-akkadThis is a little problematic for a couple reasons, the first being that Sargon’s tale doesn’t show us a mother trying to save her baby so much as disposing of him as some horrible people might get rid of a bagful of kittens, whereas Moses’ mother was clearly trying to save him.

The other issue is one of dates. Let’s say, for a moment, that both stories were originally written in the time that they claim to be (or, in the Bible’s case, our best guess for when the story is set). This would place Sargon’s story in 2300BCE and Moses’ story in 1390BCE. Sargon wins by nearly a thousand years!

But if we try to go by when these accounts are more likely to have been written, Sargon’s story can easily be placed in the 7th century CE. Moses’ story is a bit more difficult to date, but I do think that elements of the story we’ve read so far make the period of the Babylonian exile, around the 6th century CE, likely. Sargon still wins, but he loses his comfortable margin.

Because both stories were probably passed down orally long before they were ever written down, it’s impossible to determine which came first, or even if they arose together in a cultural environment where it was fashionable to claim that one’s historical leaders were dumped into rivers as babies. It’s certainly impossible to say which may have been inspiration for the other, let alone exclude a third, unknown, story that spawned both.

One possibility lies in Moses’ name. As I discussed in Exodus 2, the name does sound Egyptian and was commonly used as part of Egyptian names. But it also has a Hebrew meaning – “to draw,” just as the Egyptian princess drew Moses out from the water. So it’s possible that the Egyptian name was associated with the story (whether to make it sound more “authentic” or because there really was a figure named Moses), and Hebrews telling the story noticed that the name had a meaning in their own language. This could lead to confusion which, in turn, would lead to a story about Moses being “drawn” from the water. This would make sense since the same people who were likely telling each other the story of Moses were probably telling each other stories from Genesis as well, and Genesis is the chapter of the allegorical names.

Another interesting connection is between Sargon and Nimrod who is described in Genesis 10:10.


EDIT: I’ve just found an interesting post on the “exposed child” motif in ancient literature over at The Naked Bible.