Out of deference to religious sensibilities, it’s relatively uncommon even today to find much discussion in popular media of the parallels between Near Eastern mythology and the Hebrew Bible. It’s not surprising, for example, to see credulous discussions of Noah’s Flood without mention of the fact that the Mesopotamian peoples had the same flood myth, right down to the Ark, at least 1,500 years before Biblical version was constructed. Similarly, the most prominent person to discuss in popular literature the clear linkage between the stories of the birth of Moses and that of Sargon of Akkad, who was born sometime around 2300 BCE, was Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical fraud, who at least did the service of bringing to a wider audience the academic work of George Smith and others on the Mesopotamian origins of Genesis.
The legend of Sargon’s birth was recorded in the seventh century BCE but was based, in all likelihood, on much earlier sources. The seventh-century legend agrees with the Sumerian king of around 2000 BCE in making Sargon a commoner, the son of a gardener, and it is probable that some version of the birth legend was in circulation long before the seventh century BCE. The birth of Moses was recorded a century later and bears a striking similarity:
Legend of Sargon
Trans. Robert Francis Harper
SARGON, the powerful king, King of Agade, am I.
My mother was of low degree, my father I did not know.
The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.
My city was Azupirani, situate on the bank of the Euphrates.
(My) humble mother conceived me; in secret she brought me forth.
She placed me in a basket-boat of rushes; with pitch she closed my door.
She gave me over to the river which did not (rise) over me.
The river bore me along; to Akki, the irrigator, it carried me.
Akki, the irrigator in the * * * brought me to land.
Akki, the irrigator, reared me as his own son.
Akki, the irrigator, appointed me his gardener.
While I was gardener, Ishtar looked on me with love
[and] * * * * * * four years I ruled the kingdom.
[Remnants of five lines too badly mutilated for translation.]
Exodus 2: 1-10
New International Version
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
“Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
The detail of the baby placed on a river in a basket of rushes and sealed with pitch is identical in both. Perhaps interesting is the way that the Hebrew story inverts the story of Sargon. Sargon, of humble birth, is found by a gardener but rises to rule a kingdom by the will of a goddess, while Moses, of priestly birth, is found by a princess and leaves a kingdom to serve God.
This isn’t a coincidence. The Bible is full of stories that invert or subvert Mesopotamian myths to glorify God and and denigrate the peoples of Mesopotamia. Witness, for example, the wicked Nephilim (the sons of God) and “men of renown” from Genesis 6:4, who are quite transparently the old gods and heroes of the Near East–on the order of the semi-divine Gilgamesh–turned into the wicked sinners that brought about the Great Flood, another element borrowed from Near Eastern myth. This is confirmed by the apocryphal literature, such as the Book of Giants, which in at least one version explicitly makes Gilgamesh and his arch-enemy Humbaba two of the pre-Flood giants of Genesis.