Trampling Pharaoh's Crown
As I read over the story of the birth of Moses in the opening chapters of Exodus, it occurred to me that there is a gap--much like the life of Jesus--between Moses' infancy and adulthood. We get this intensive look at the circumstances of his birth, and then the tape is fast forwarded to his adulthood.
Where the biblical texts give us gaps in biography, extra-canonical sources rush in with imaginative fervor. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing of the life of Moses in his Antiquities, passes on a rabbinic legend that Pharaoh's daughter Thermuthis, brought the baby Moses to Pharaoh. Here is Josephus' account:
(232) Thermuthis, therefore, perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him
for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time she had carried Moses to
her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her father’s
successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and
said to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, and of a generous
mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in a wonderful
manner, I thought proper to adopt him for my son and the heir of thy kingdom.”
(233) And when she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands; so he
took him, and hugged him close to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a
pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground,
and, in a puerile mood he wreathed it round, and trod upon it with his feet; (234)
which seemed to bring along with it an evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt.
But when the sacred scribe saw this (he was the same person who foretold that his
nativity would bring the dominion of that kingdom low), he made a violent attempt to
kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, (235) “This, O king! this child is
he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself
affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy
government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and
deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of
the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” (236) But Thermuthis prevented
him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God
himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him. He was,
therefore, educated with great care.
Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged
(Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 68.
A handful of European artists in the 17th century treat this theme of Moses trampling Pharaoh's crown, including the ones depicted above by French painter Nicolas Poussin and Dutch painter Jan Lievens.
As an image of speaking truth to power, it is enduring. Why are tyrants so afraid of babies in the Bible? From Pharaoh to Herod, a thread of genocidal wrath connects the stories of overbearing tyrannical leaders to opposing God's people. The people of God must decide, in turn, whether to trample Pharaoh's crown, or try to put it on their own heads. The temptation of politics is that we might become more like Pharaoh than servants of the living God.
Citations for art:
By Jan Lievens, The Infant Moses Tramples Pharaoh’s Crown
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille