One Hebrew mother hid her newborn son, but after three months could no longer conceal him. So she laid her baby in a basket covered with tar, and placed it in the reeds by the river’s bank.

When Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river, she saw the basket among the reeds and she looked inside.
Pharaoh’s daughter named the baby, Moses, which means, “Drawn Out of the Water.”
When she saw the baby and he cried, she felt compassion toward him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” She took the baby and raised him as her son, calling him Moses, which means, “Drawn Out of the Water.”

Jochebed was Moses’ mother, her husband Amram (who was actually her nephew) lived to 137. Jochebed bore the famous trio of  Moses, Aaron (Ex 6:20) and Miriam (Ex 15:20). Jochebed “got” or “took” the basket rather than “made” it, which makes it reasonable to assume the basket was of ordinary design. (i.e. similar shape to the most common baskets in Egypt at the time).

According to most Septuagint references, Jochebed used a wicker basket (qibin), but some variants use the word for a reed basket (kalathos), which seems more reasonable. Wicker usually refers to work made of interlaced slender branches, which means a coarse weave and requires generous radii. This is in opposition to the KJV which calls it an “ark of bulrushes”, matching the Hebrew gome’ {go’-meh} which always means reeds, bulrushes, papyrus.

“Ark” comes from the Latin word arca which means box or chest. In the trail from Greek to Latin to English we find Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant sharing the same term.

In Genesis, the Hebrew term is tebah,  {taw-bah} or tbh. which is used in only two places, Noe ark and the basket of baby Moses, in which the infant Moses was laid Ex. 2:3 is called in the Hebrew teebah, a word derived from the Egyptian teb, meaning “a chest.” It was daubed with slime and with pitch to make it water-resistant. The bulrushes were papyrus reeds.

It is not easy to establish the meaning of tebah because it appears in only two places – Noah’s Ark and the reed basket of baby Moses. Such disparate objects (a colossal ship and a tiny baby basket) have kept many scholars guessing. Obviously it can’t mean either “ship” or “basket” specifically. (tebah could mean a boat, something pitch coated, a certain material, a life preserver, or a certain shape. tebah cannot be restricted to a wooden object, a reed object, or have anything to do with size.)

Moses in the Ark of Bulrushes

Moses in the Ark of Bulrushes

On the basis of this association there might be a number of meanings anything from ‘boat’ to ‘life saver’. It does not refer to the Ark of the Covenant.

Hebrew has another word for ship, ‘oniyah   {on-ee-yaw’}. In 35 of 36 occurrences, KJV renders this as “ship” e.g. Jonah’s escape ship. If tebah means boat or ship then there is no obvious reason for this word to fade into obscurity. This word is not a good choice for a basket small enough to be carried, or fetched from the river by a maid.

Both the ship and the basket were pitch coated. Moses called his mother’s reed basket a tebah before she coated it (Ex 2:3), which is a minor issue. Linguistically, this option has the same problems as the first point above (boat or ship), there is no good reason to use an archaic term and no logic behind the disappearance of tebah in subsequent writings. These points alone are probably insufficient to disqualify the “pitch coating” interpretation, but the context certainly should, Moses basket was reeds gome’  {go’-meh} which always means reeds, bulrushes, papyrus. Hebrew also has a good word for basket, cal,  which Moses used whenever he talked about bread baskets and the like (14 times). So they can’t be the same material.

The purpose of each vessel was to preserve life, or to put it a different way, perhaps tbh implies the “preservation of life.”. This definition is perhaps the most robust since there are no subsequent parallels that involve life preserving objects. We might trace it right through to Moses, his basket account would read; Ex 2:3 “…she took a life saver of bullrushes and coated it with tar and pitch…” In a preliminary investigation it appears the most robust interpretation would not be a descriptive term (like boat) but a functional one (such as “life preserver” or “rescuer”). This would also offer a convenient typology with Jesus Christ (tebah = savior)

The Shape of an Old Basket.
Egyptian basket weaving was very advanced from the earliest records. They used coiled, plaited or woven techniques and a variety of materials and shapes.
Coiled basketry dominates the collections of surviving tomb items and ancient drawings.
“Oval and circular forms were particularly common, some having matching lids. Smooth, rounded lines and graceful reinforcement ribs can be seen in many surviving examples of ancient Egyptian coiled basketry.”

Bulrushes (gome’, “papyrus”):

This species of reed was used by the Egyptians for many different vessels, some of which were intended to float or even to be used as a skiff. Slime (chemar, “bitumen”), pitch (zepheth, “pitch”) was probably the sticky mud of the Nile with which to this day so many things in Egypt are plastered. In this case it was mixed with bitumen. Flags (cuph, “sedge”) were reeds of every kind and tall grass growing in the shallow water at the edge of the river.

Thus the ark of bulrushes was a vessel made of papyrus stalks and rendered fit to float by being covered with a mixture of bitumen and mud. Into this floating vessel the mother of Moses placed the boy when he was three months old, and put the vessel in the water among the sedge along the banks of the Nile at the place where the ladies from the palace were likely to come to bathe. The act was a pathetic imitation of obedience to the king’s command to throw boy babies into the river, a command which she had for three months braved and which now she so obeyed as probably to bring the cruelty of the king to the notice of the royal ladies in such way as to arouse a womanly sympathy, That method of abandoning children, either willingly or by necessity, is as natural along the Nile and the Euphrates, where the river is the great artery of the land and where the floating basket had been used from time immemorial, as is the custom in our modern cities of placing abandoned infants in the streets or on door-steps where they are likely to be found, and such events may have occurred then as often as now.

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