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No. 21: The Beautiful Child

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 21
January, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

Each time the Scriptures recount the story of Moses’ birth and deliverance from Pharaoh, reference is made to two facts about that event. First, each text points out that Moses was "beautiful." Second, each text points out that Amram and Jochebed, his parents, hid him for three months (cf. Ex. 2:2; Acts 7:20; Hebrews 11:23). What is the significance of these two facts?

The Hebrew word (tob) translated "beautiful" in some modern versions of Exodus 2:2 is translated elsewhere as "good." The word (asteios) used in Acts 7:20 and Hebrews 11:23 means "beautiful" or "well-formed." Some scholars suggest that Stephen’s phrase "beautiful to God" should be taken in a superlative sense, thus meaning "wonderfully, divinely beautiful." The New Testament word is a fitting translation for the Hebrew tob. In the book of Genesis, by and large, tob refers to physical beauty or describes something pleasing to the senses. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was "good" for food. The sons of God in Genesis 6 saw that the daughters of men were "good." Eliezer, when he first saw Rebekah approach the well, saw that she was "good" (24:16). It does seem entirely proper to translate the same word in Exodus 2:2 as good.

Determining why this fact should be mentioned so consistently is somewhat more difficult. The Scriptures say that Moses’ parents decided to spare him when they saw that he was a "good" child. But how was this an exercise of faith (Heb. 11:23)? This seems to imply, instead, a normal parental affection for a good child. Surely, moreover, we cannot conclude that Amram and Jochebed would not have spared Moses if he had been an ugly child. In response to these sorts of questions, most commentators have been content to suggest that there was something in Moses’ appearance even as a newborn that bespoke some future greatness, and leave it at that.

That interpretation is, I think, true as far as it goes. It does seem, however, that something more may be going on here. First, though a different word is used, Genesis 39:6 makes a point of noting the physical beauty of Joseph. Perhaps by noting the physical beauty of their child, Moses’ parents were thinking of him as a new Joseph. Just as Joseph was be a prince in Egypt, so also Moses would be a prince. Joseph had brought the Israelites to Egypt in a partial fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and Moses would bring the people out to fulfill God’s promise of deliverance (Gen. 15).

It is also possible that the reference to Moses’ physical beauty is part of a larger set of connections with the life of Noah. Noah too was marked out as a special child at birth, as a child who would bring "comfort" to his people (Gen. 5:29). Though not mentioned in Scripture, there is an ancient tradition that Noah was a beautiful child. Noah lived, moreover, at a time when people were multiplying on the face of the earth (Gen. 6:1), just as Moses lived when the Israelites were multiplying in the land of Egypt (Ex. 1:7). Noah lived in a time of apostasy, just as Moses lived in a time when Israel had begun to worship the gods of the Egyptians. Both Moses and Noah were placed in arks (the same Hebrew word is used of Moses’ "basket" and Noah’s "ark"). Noah was delivered from the waters of death, as Moses was drawn out of the very waters that were supposed to drown all the Hebrew male children.

Moses’ beauty, then, could have suggested to his parents that their son was a new Noah. Just as Noah delivered the faithful remnant from God’s judgment, so also Moses was marked as one who would deliver God’s people from the plagues of Egypt. Just as Noah brought his family through the waters of the flood into a new creation, so also Moses would lead God’s people through the waters of the Red Sea into a land flowing with milk and honey, a new Eden. Moses’ childhood deliverance from the waters of the Nile foreshadowed his role in the deliverance of Israel.

The "three months" of Moses’ hiding connects Moses’ early years even more closely to the experience of the Israelites. The number "three" in Scriptures refers to a resurrection in the midst of the week of history. This mid-week resurrection is both a pledge and a foretaste of the resurrection of the seventh day, at the end of history. The "third day" in Scripture is a day of resurrection and renewal. The "third month" is the month of Pentecost, when the fruits of the grain harvest were offered and when the Spirit was poured out upon the apostles. The third month is also the month of the recovenanting assembly of the people of God at Sinai (Ex. 19:1).

Given this background, it is highly appropriate that Moses was reborn through water in his third month. He was delivered in the third month from the waters of death. This too foreshadows the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Moses was "passed over" by Pharaoh in his first month, just as Israel was "passed over" by the angel of death in the first month, the month of Nisan. In the third month after the Passover, the people assembled in the presence of God to recut the covenant, to receive His laws, to be born again as a peculiar people and nation of priests. Moses foreshadowed the "passing over" of the angel of death, and the rebirth of Israel in the third month. Moses was the firstfruits of the liberated Israel of God.