Can you explain the parallels between the stories of Sargon and Moses? Could the story of Moses be borrowed?
My question is, do you have any insight into the story of Sargon vs. the story of Moses? It seems that these tablets from Ashurbanipal are dated much earlier than the account of Moses’ origins written in Exodus. I would greatly appreciate just a brief exposition of your knowledge on the subject.
First of all, there is in existence a myth about a certain Assyrian named Sargon. This legend, at first glance, bears some resemblance, not to the life of Moses more broadly, but to the story of his birth. In other words, there are no parallels whatsoever between the mythical legend of Sargon and the life of Moses, such as his leaving Pharaoh’s palace, his going into the desert, etc. However, the stories of the birth accounts are not without parallel. Here is the legend, taken from an ancient manuscript and translated, so you can judge for yourself (taken from http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/sargon.php):
Sargon, strong king, king of Agade [ie. ancient Akkadia], am I. My mother was a high priestess, my father I do not know. My paternal kin inhabit the mountain region. My city (of birth) is Azupiranu, which lies on the bank of the Euphrates. My mother, a high priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me. She placed me in a reed basket, with bitumen she caulked my hatch. She abandoned me to the river from which I could not escape. The river carried me along: to Aqqi, the water drawer, it brought me. Aqqi, the water drawer, when immersing his bucket lifted me up. Aqqi, the water drawer, raised me as his adopted son. Aqqi, the water drawer, set me to his garden work. During my garden work, Istar loved me (so that) 55 years I ruled as king.
The parallels with the account in Exodus includes the keeping secret of the birth, the hiding of the baby in a reed basket covered with tar, the placement of the basket in a river and the discovery and adoption of the baby by an important person. This leaves us three possibilities:
1. The parallels are a coincidence.
2. The Moses story was borrowed from the Sargon story. or
3. The Sargon story was borrowed from the Moses story.
Let us ignore option #1 briefly. If either #2 or #3 is correct, then the date at which the story was first recorded is crucial. The story of Moses goes back to roughly 1400 BC. Some liberal scholars want us to believe that Moses was not even a real person and that the entire story of his birth was created about 600 BC or so, but this view is incorrect for many reasons. The Law of Moses had been in place, governing Jewish belief, certainly by the time of David, but more likely from the time of the conquest. There is plenty of evidence for the conquest, including the Tel el Amarna letters, describing an invasion of the “Habirus” as well as the Shishak inscription, describing the Jews in Canaan in the 13th century, as well as the destructions of Hazor and Jericho at about 1400 BC. Besides, there is the evidence for the inspiration of the scriptures and the evidence for historical accuracy of the Bible in general. Can I say it is “proved” that the story of Moses, even if invented, goes back to 1400 BC? No I cannot, but I can say that this is the most reasonable conclusion, and 600 BC is way too late in any case.
What about the date of the legend/myth of Sargon? This is much more problematic. The only versions of this story come from the period of the Neo-Assyrian dynasty in the seventh or more likely the eighth century BC. This is where the grammatic form of the story comes from. This is the time, not of the semi-mythical Sargon I of Akkadia, but the very real and historical Sargon II of the Assyrians, a character in the Bible. There are parallels between the recorded myth of Sargon I to the actual life of Sargon II. The most likely explanation is that Sargon II, or a supporter of his, composed this myth about his ancient predecessor from fourteen centuries before his time, in order to build the status of the living Sargon II. Most likely, this myth was written in the 700’s BC. If this is the case, then the borrowing, if any, is from the Old Testament into the Sargon story. Let us be honest here, there is reasonable room for doubt, both for the date of composition of the Old Testament story of Moses and for the date of the Sargon myth. The most reasonable borrowing story is from Moses to Sargon, but to say that this is a slam dunk may be an overstatement.
But this gets us to the most likely answer of the three. The two stories, though on the surface appearing at least somewhat similar, are not related and the similarities are a coincidence. Like I already said, if we look at the entire story of Sargon 1 from the Assyrians of the eighth century, and the story of Moses, the overlap is only slight. If we were to list 50 things we know about Moses and 50 things we can glean from the story of Sargon, only the four things listed above are in common and the rest is so different, it seems unlikely that one borrowed from the other.
Besides, if we look at the similarities, they are not really all that similar when we look at the details. For example, the reason Moses was hidden was due to the persecution of a non-Jewish king, whereas in the Sargon story, the reason for secrecy is social stigma and there is no evidence of persecution at all. The mother in the Sargon story is not a poor foreigner, but a member of the aristocracy. With Sargon, the father is unknown (ie illegitimate) whereas Moses was a legitimate birth. The parallels of detail are weak here at best. And then there is the hiding of the baby in a pitch-covered basket. There is some parallel here, but the only thing that could be used at that time to make a basket float was pitch, so the only real parallel detail is the use of a basket, not the use of pitch/bitumen. Besides, in the Sargon story, the baby is thrown out into the stream, with the intention that he flow downstream, being lost to the mother forever. In the Moses story, the child is placed in the reeds where his basket would not move, presumably so that his mother could return and take the child out of hiding at a later time. The last parallel is the taking of the discovered baby into the royal family. There are a number of accounts of royal lines adopting babies from obscure or unknown origins in the case of a lack of a royal son to perpetuate the royal line or for labor in the royal family.
In the overall analysis, the differences between the two birth accounts have much more in difference than in similarity. The only real similarities are the placing in a basket in water and the subsequent adoption by a royal family. It is more likely that these similarities are a coincidence, given the hundreds of ancient stories about the lives of their kings, that that either story was borrowed.
In summary, given the historical details, and given the overwhelming in addition that the Bible is a reliably accurate historical account, never mind the evidence that the Bible is inspired, the most likely explanation of the apparent parallels is:
Explanation #1 by far most likely.
Explanation #3 much less likely.
Explanation #2 still less likely that #3.