Prince Moses in the Dangerous Streets of Thebes

Shemot: Father of the Prophet

“And there went a man of the House of Levi, and he took to wife a daughter of [the Tribe of] Levi.”
–Exodus 2:1

It was a mild spring night; the moon shone down on the wavelets of the mighty Nile River, the sand dunes, and the pyramids. The Egyptian citizens of Thebes, the imperial capital, breathed more easily after the cold, damp winter. Egyptians worked hard, and they enjoyed their leisure, never missing an opportunity to stroll through the wide boulevards of their beloved city, where slaves held aloft torches to light the way of honest burghers. There were other places of entertainment, as well.

Young Prince Moses, barely 20 years old, a princeling of Ramesses’s court, loved to walk at night, as well—usually alone, though there was no lack of pretty princesses who strove to be in his company. He was a handsome fellow, with darker skin than most of the other princes and dukes. The princesses were fascinated by his deep-brown eyes and muscular form. He was not at all like the prissier, high-born young men who preferred to stay indoors, out of the sun, napping, gambling, and spreading gossip.

In contrast, Moses loved to walk the long, paved streets of his native city. He learned to dodge the Imperial Guards who served as policemen, but more often harassed the Hebrew slaves, especially if they found them outside of Goshen, the Hebrew ghetto. By day, the slaves were forced to work in Ramesses’s harsh building program; by night, they stayed in their own section of town. If they strayed from Goshen, the Guards would surely beat, even kill them—and no Egyptian court would ever convict any native Egyptian who laid hands on a Hebrew.

Moses, however, had a laisser-passer signed by the Royal Cup-Bearer. His great-grandfather, a past cup-bearer, had befriended Joseph after the Hebrew had predicted correctly that Pharaoh Seti I, Ramesses’s predecessor, would free him from prison. Carrying the document, the young Egyptian princeling felt confident—often foolishly over-confident.

One evening, fleeing an onslaught of pretty maidens both royal and common, Moses took to his heels and did not stop running for some miles. He found himself in a neighborhood he did not recognize—and a rough one, at that. It was a street of bars, where workmen and petty merchants went to guzzle beer and wine, hoping to forget their troubled lives in Ramesses’s Egypt. Hebrews had it difficult, true, but even native Egyptians were not safe from the press-gangs sent out by Ramesses’ Minister of War, to fight the Hivites for King and Country. Many Egyptians grew accustomed to drinking themselves into a stupor, night after night.

Moses stood outside of one such bar—a ramshackle place, with the combined smells of liquor, humanity, and the privy. But the young Hebrew nobleman was entranced by the music he heard: the sounds of harps, lutes, drums, flutes, cymbals, clappers and tambourines. He heard the lusty chorus of a drinking song:

Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plump Osiris, with pink eyne!
In thy fat our cares be drowned,
With thy grapes our hairs be crowned.
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round!

Each chorus concluded to a wave of laughter. Moses, who had grown used to being lonely—no one in the palace wished to befriend him, fearing his Hebrew taint—entered without hesitation.

As he stood inside the doors, the laughter and singing died down abruptly; all eyes were on Moses. The young man passed his eye over the crowd: no one smiled at him, not man, woman, or girl. Was it possible that they know me to be a Hebrew? he thought, but then decided to brazen it out. He strode up to the bar. Gradually, another drinking song began; he breathed more easily.

“Name your drink, Stranger,” rumbled the barkeep, a grizzled old veteran of the Canaanite Wars under Pharaoh Seti I. His one eye gleamed in the dark, like a cat’s; a crude leathern patch covered the other—what was left of it.

“Light wine,” answered Moses.

“Light wine?” responded a short, strongly-built man standing on Moses’s left—the prince knew him to be a tanner; he had that particular foul smell—“What sort of drink is that for a man? Beer, Orontes; give the boy beer!”

Moses opened and shut his mouth, without a word. When the mug appeared before him, he took a tentative sip. The tanner laid a hand on his forearm. “Ha! Methinks that this gentleman is a warrior of some note, My Friends; mayhap he wields both sword and lance in the manner of a professional soldier. Tell me, Boy—I mean, Young Gentleman: in what unit d’ye serve?”

“Answer forwardly,” said the shoemaker next to the tanner.

“Ay, and honestly,” said a petty tradesman.

“Ay, and directly, you were best,” finished the tanner.

“I—I—serve in the Royal Infantry,” stammered Moses, “and my unit is The King’s Own.”

“Ah!” said the tradesman, “That’s a strong and lovely regiment, that is. Not so able or victorious as my old outfit, “The Jaws of Anubis,” but it’ll do, Young Man, it’ll do.”

By this time, the old men and the young had moved to a corner table, where the fitful light of an oil-lamp lit up their work-worn features. The tanner, despite his stench, was good friends with the bartender, who kept sending clay pitchers of barley beer over, “On the house, and to honor our brave soldiers and confuse our enemies, a plague take them all!”

By the time the third jug was dry, the little group was merry. They traded the marching-songs of their various regiments. When they arrived at Moses, he confessed that he had forgotten his, but offered to sing “Drink, Puppy, Drink” in its place. The others laughed and beat on the table with their clay mugs to accompany him.

It was well past midnight watch when the quartet tumbled out of the bar.

“Which way are ye bound, Younker?” the shoemaker asked Moses.

“I—I don’t really know,” the princeling answered, looking up-and-down the street; his brain was all in a haze.

“Tut! ‘Twill never do for a warrior of Anubis to desert a brother soldier in time of need—we will, therefore”—the man chose his words carefully—accompany you until we get to your street. Agreed?”

“Agreed!” said the relieved Hebrew.

The four limped along, feeling no pain; Moses was beginning to wonder if he would ever get home. His sense of direction, never strong, was further weakened by the application of alcohol.

“Will it take us 40 years to arrive at our destination?” chuckled the tradesman.

“Oh, I hope not,” smiled Moses. Just then, he saw a sign on a leather-maker’s, and remembered it was about two miles from the palace of Ramesses II, his foster father.

“I can go the rest of the way by myself, Friends—I cannot thank you enough!” he said. The others shrugged off his thanks, and the young Hebrew turned into the street alone, calling “Good-bye, and Ra bless you all!” They waved and departed.

He was alone. Just then, worse luck: a gang of young Egyptian toughs came out of a nearby alleyway. He saw that, unlike respectable Egyptian gentlemen, they deliberately grew their hair long. It meant that they were members of the Sons of Medjed, taking their gang name from the Egyptian god of Fate. Moses felt a wave of fear move up his spine; he was totally unarmed. Legally, the Royal Guards bore responsibility for every citizen’s safety, and would arrest any civilian who carried a weapon. Moses looked over his shoulder; his elderly warriors were gone.

“What are you looking at, punk? Your old buddies are gone,” said the chief Medjed, taking his place right in front of the Hebrew. The chief was fat—extremely fat—and stood half-a-head shorter than Moses. Others moved around him, so that he was completely surrounded.

“I—I—am an honest burgher of Egypt, Sir Medjed. I pray you, let me pass,” said Moses, struggling to keep his voice steady. The chief’s breath stank of cheap wine.

“’Let me pass,’” mocked the bully, and the others laughed raucously, “and what if I say ye ‘No,’ Imperial Fusspot?”

“I—I have a document requiring all to guard my safety,” said Moses.

“Oh!” said the bully, feigning concern, “Take it out and show me, and I will surely let you go about your business.”

Moses took the document out; the bully looked at it—Holding it upside down; this fool cannot read—and carefully tore it to shreds.

“That solves one problem,” he smiled; Moses could see he was missing some teeth.

Trying to brazen it out, Moses demanded, “Sir! Will you not let me pass?”

“Correct,” said the bully, and stood, arms akimbo, grinning.

“Medjed! You might re-consider,” said a new voice, and all turned. In the shadows, Moses could make out a thin, small man, holding an instrument he could just begin to recognize—of course! It was a shepherd’s crook; Moses’s Hebrew mother, Jocheved, had told him about his people’s history as herdsmen and cattle dealers.

“What did you say, Runt?” hissed the Chief Medjed.

“I said, let him go,” said the man of the shadows, “Or I will be forced to crack your skulls. What manner of men attack four against one?”

“This tiny mannikin offers more sport,” laughed the Chief, pointing, “and we are the ones to test his boasting. At him, my Boys!”

Moses leaned up against the wall of a nearby shop, hoping to make himself as small as possible. As he watched, the little man took a fighter’s stance, holding the crook out before him. One after the other, the villains ran up to him, full speed; he either struck their head with an audible “crack!” or let them pass, tripping them up with the stick. When it was over, the gang took to their heels and ran, except one who lay senseless in the gutter.

When the fracas had died down, Moses slowly approached his champion.

“How can I ever repay you, Sir?” he whispered, “and who are you? What is your name? I am a person of some influence in the Pharaoh’s Palace; perhaps I can do you a service.”

The little man only grinned. “I need no favors, Young Man,” he said, “I am a simple man, and I dwell among mine own people. As for my name, it is Amram.”

“Amram?” said Moses, incredulously, “but that is my father’s name, my long-lost father!”

“So it is, Moses,” smiled Amram, “and so am I.”

“How did it happen that you were there to save me?” asked the princeling.

“I have been watching you and protecting you,” said the man more seriously, “for all of your life. And so will I continue, until I die.”

He turned and vanished up the street. Moses stood gaping.

Will I ever see him ever again? he wondered.

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu.
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