Silence is Golden

Silence is Golden

By: Yonah Bar-Maoz

In the study of biblical narrative sophistication of the text has become well-recognized.  One aspect of this sophistication is economy of detail so as not to obscure the main point.  The silence in the story of the binding of Isaac, for example, has been noted for its sharp contrast to the epic narration of Homer.[1]

The economy of names in this week’s reading is especially noticeable and serves the story, for the paucity of information in this regard is an integral part of the content and gives it greater force.  The same goes for the fact that Moses’ parents are not mentioned by name in conjunction with his birth (Ex. 2:1-2):  “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.”  Thus the Torah ushers us directly into the atmosphere of secrecy that surrounds the pregnancy and birth, for fear of the Egyptians, while at the same time it also turns the story of Moses’ birth into a paradigm for other births.  Most likely all the Israelites did their best to hide from Egyptian eyes their marrying and bringing children into the world, and clearly other women as well tried to save the fruit of their wombs in one or another way.

Moses’ sister, who stands by and secretly keeps watch over him, also is unnamed.  Indeed, we are not even aware of her existence prior to that,[2] for she appears to Pharaoh’s daughter as a young Hebrew girl who just happened to be standing among the reeds at the Nile’s edge and with childish cheek intervened in affairs that did not concern her.

The name of Pharaoh’s daughter is another instance where our lack of knowledge reinforces the message.[3]  The story leaves her without a name, just as she was in the eyes of Miriam, who identified her position by the way she was dressed and they way her maidservants related to her, but did not know her name.[4]  Another objective is served by hiding her identity:  it emphasizes the message of divine providence accompanying the people of Israel even in their darkest hour, for Pharaoh’s edict was undone by his very own daughter.  Her name is of no importance at the moment, hence mentioning it would only distract the reader from noticing the ironic turn of events.[5]  In this brief episode Scripture continues to emphasize her title of “Pharaoh’s daughter,” referring to her in this manner in four consecutive verses.  This superfluity of information is important precisely because of the general economy of detail in the narrative.

Hiding Moses’ original name, given him by his parents, is easily understandable:[6]  the risk was too great to even mention his name, both before he was put into the Nile, and after he was delivered.  Therefore, also the reader does not know his name, and when his mother is hired to nurse him prudence dictates not revealing the true circumstances of his birth, which might have come out had it become known that the family knew him by another name.[7]

Silence continues to be used as a technique to share the hero’s emotions with the reader.  Moses strikes an anonymous Egyptian man and reproves two Hebrews for quarreling with one another, of course without knowing their names, for he had come from the palace, far from the world experienced by the slaves, and encountered situations in which he had to construe what was going on from what he saw alone.  Even if he had heard the names of the men, that would have been immaterial to him.

The story of Moses meeting Jethro’s seven daughters (Ex. 2:16-17) fits right in with the general pattern of anonymity:  “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off.  Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.”  Not even one of the daughters is mentioned by name, nor is their father’s name mentioned.  They are, however, presented as the daughters of the priest of Midian, since this exceptional information could have come to Moses’ attention as he stood by the well, witnessing the altercation.  In all the cultures familiar to us priests are highly esteemed and even feared, and no one would dream of raising a hand against their families.  Therefore, the information about the identity of the father of the young women was perceived by Moses as strange.  Mentioning his name, Reuel, when the daughters return home, hints at the reason he was ostracized by his fellows.[8]  It also attests to a possible spiritual affinity to the same values as Moses held, thus enabling Moses’ marriage into his family.

Against the setting of this consistent economy of language, the excess of information given regarding the midwives’ names is all the more outstanding.  Taking a closer look, we see that this excess of information is presented in an exaggerated declarative style.  Instead of simply saying, “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you deliver…,’” their names are mentioned in a subordinate clause, forcing a repetition of the word va-yomer (rendered here as “saying”; Ex. 1:15-16):  “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool:  if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’”  This is seen as intimating that Pharaoh himself publicly proclaimed the names of these midwives as the ones he officially appointed, thus giving them authority to enter every home and carry out his evil plot; however they did not play along.  Here Scripture switches method, and as in the case of Pharaoh’s daughter, repeatedly refers to them by their title of midwife[9] and not by name, as if to say that instead of putting the males to death as the king had commanded, they brought life into the world as does every midwife worthy of the name.

The reticence about names disappears when it comes to the patriarchs,[10] with especially exaggerated repetition of the name of the first three fathers of the nation.  Mentioning them by name is fully justified the first time:  “G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,” but uncalled for further on.  Nevertheless, G-d does not make do with presenting Himself to Moses as the G-d of his father, “I am the G-d of your father,” but continues, “the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6), even though this information was not important to Moses at that particular time.  Likewise, both in the instructions that G-d gives Moses in response to his question, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13), and after answering his question He continues to present Himself in general and specific terms:  “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites:  The Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:15).  And, lest this not suffice, Moses is immediately assigned another task in which the names are again spelled out after a general statement:  “Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them:  the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G- d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, ‘I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt’” (Ex. 3:16).

The sign of the snake was also given Moses in like manner:  “that they may believe that the Lord, the G-d of their fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob, did appear to you” (Ex. 4:5).  This repeated emphasis apparently is intrinsic to the essence of the book of Exodus, as Nahmanides presents:[11]


According to Nahmanides’ analysis, 38 of the 40 chapters of Exodus deal with Redemption, yet the bondage and oppression which made redemption necessary are mentioned but briefly; especially the main reason they occur is glossed over in silence.  Although Exodus does present Pharaoh’s fear of the Israelites as motivating his wickedness towards them, the book does not explain why the Lord did not protect the Israelites as He had done their forefathers throughout the book of Genesis.  This silence contains covert reproach, hinted at in the first mention of the patriarchs – “G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob” – implying that only the merits of the patriarchs and the Lord’s faithfulness to His promise led to the Israelites being redeemed from Egypt.  Thus, every repetition of the names of the forefathers is a further allusion to the fact that the children themselves were not worthy of being protected,[12] rather deserved to be wiped out, as described in Ezekiel 20:7-9.

This bitter truth has to be repeatedly voiced to the Israelites in order for them to improve their behavior, but it cannot be stated outright in a book whose main concern is the story of their redemption.  Therefore, for the time being, it suffices to repeat by way of allusion the names of those who ushered in Redemption, thus expressing simultaneously the mightiness of Redemption on the part of the Redeemer and its frailty on the part of those being redeemed, hinting to the children that they must adhere to the ways of their forefathers if they wish to do themselves well.


[1] Following the famous analysis by E. Auerbach, Mimesis:  The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1968 and 2003, in the chapter entitled Odysseus’ Scar.

[2] Initially one has the impression that Moses was the first child born to his parents after their marriage.  Therefore the Sages (Sotah 12a and elswhere) said that Amram remarried his wife after having divorced her.

[3] A homily of the Sages in Megillah 13a identifies the daughter of Pharaoh with Bithiah daughter of Pharaoh in I Chronicles 4:18, but this information would not have appeared in the story in any event, for this was the Hebrew name of Pharaoh’s daughter, not her Egyptian name by which she was known at the time.

[4] Not to make any claims as to the identity of the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, we note, for example, that Ramses II had sixty sons and sixty daughters, so that even if it were possible to identify Pharaoh’s children by their royal garb, it would be difficult to know a specific one’s name.

[5] This irony is compounded by the one that precedes it:  Pharaoh thought, “Let us deal shrewdly with them,” but, the more they were oppressed, the more they increased” (Ex. 1:10-12).

[6] Leviticus Rabbah (1.3) mentions several names for Moses, according to I Chronicles 4:18, and Otzar ha-Midrashim (p. 358; and Yalkut Shimoni on the Torah, par. 166) attributes to each of these names a source from his family and relating to his people.

[7] Aside from this, most likely the mother was extremely grateful to the woman who had saved her son, and gladly adopted the new name that woman had given him.

[8] In Exodus Rabbah 1.32 the Sages’ interpreted that the shepherds drove off Reuel’s daughters because their father scorned the gods that he was supposed to serve.

[9] Five times, where there was no need to mention them at all; thus the reader senses undue emphasis.

[10] The reading begins by mentioning the names of Jacob and his children who came down to Egypt, even though this information is superfluous since it was conveyed in Genesis 46; thus the book of Exodus could simply have opened with the words, “Joseph died.”

[11] Bibliographical reference of Nahmanides translation.

[12] Levi receives special note in the verse telling of Moses’ birth:  “A certain man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman” (Ex. 2:1), thus hinting at the special status accorded the Levites among the rest of the tribes; apparently from Exodus Rabbah 5.16 and Tanhuma, Beha`alotkhah 8.


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Last modified: 19/10/2015