Ministry Resources

Moses as a third-culture kid

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

Did Moses know that he was a Hebrew? Contrary to some of the movies we see (including my beloved Prince of Egypt!), he presumably did. In many periods in Egypt’s history, Asians could serve in the Egyptian court. Disloyalty to Egypt, however, would be harshly punished. A Hebrew less than fully assimilated in Egyptian culture and too Egyptian to be trusted by many of his fellow Hebrews, Moses was like what we call today a “third culture kid” (like many children of immigrants, refugees, missionaries, diplomats or other cross-cultural settings, and sometimes like children in bicultural homes). (Midianites who met him viewed him as Egyptian, Exod 2:19.)

In some cultures a child can identify with multiple cultures, but Moses grew up in a setting of prejudice where his Hebrew identity would have counted as a liability. So Moses grew up as a Hebrew, but also in Egyptian culture. This experience continued until he grew up (Exod 2:11).

Miriam interceded for Moses when she saw the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, offering to secure a Hebrew wetnurse for the child (Exod 2:7). The period of nursing might take two years, and the nurse needed to be one who could provide milk for the child—in this case, Moses’s own mother, who now got paid to nurse her own baby (2:8-9).

Although Moses’s mother was able to nurse him, once he was weaned she had to return him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted Moses as her own son. The new mother also named him “Moses,” commemorating her finding him and drawing him from the water (2:10). “Moses” is not an unusual component of an Egyptian name, but Pharaoh’s daughter may have used a wordplay on the Hebrew words for drawing him out of the water because the child was a Hebrew. (Although the Hebrews lived in close proximity, in Goshen, in state servitude but living in their own mud-brick homes, she may have had to consult with Hebrew servants or others to find the right wordplay.) The providential irony here is that under Moses’s leadership God would someday deliver all his people through water.

Moses thus grew up in privilege, yet was also aware that he was Hebrew. Moses belonged to two cultures, but an event would soon force him to choose one at the expense of the other—in the short term costing him both (Exod 2:11-15).

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