You don’t hear it much today, but it used to be all the rage to compare the birth story of Moses to that of a certain Sargon of Assyria, and claim copying was done. That’s not heard much anymore, and we’ll see why in a moment. First let’s set up with the Moses story, from Exodus 2:1-10:
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children. Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.
We’ll begin with a sidelight about the last verse where Moses is named. Some have argued that this is one of the “folk” etymolgies, incorrect because Egyptian for Moses’ name means “child” (so, Thutmose = child of Tut, for example). But chances are that “Moses” was not Moses’ full name. Like Thutmose and Ahmose, he was the “child of…” something, and that something was probably an Egyptian deity or object, and that part of his name is one which he would have discarded as he cast his lot with his own people and declared his independence of his past.
One commentator has suggested that “Moses” is actually what is left of a combo of the Egyptian words for “child of” and “water” (swh — which was generally applied to the Nile as well). So “Moses” would be a child of the water, one who was “born of” or, metaphorically, drawn out of the water (the metaphorical usage being made precisely in order to draw the pun between “Moses” and “draw out” in Hebrew, and serving as a slap in the face to Moses’ now-rejected Egyptian heritage — think of this in the same way as Malcolm X adopting his own name).
But now to Sargon. Here’s his story, the relevant part. It is in poetic form, but we will compact that here for convenience. Our primary source here and hereafter is Brian Lewis’ The Sargon Legend (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1978).
Sargon, strong king, king of Agade, 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 story goes on to relate some of Sargon’s deeds. None of these are claimed to find parallels in Moses’ account. Some of the similarities commonly cited are:
The secrecy factor surrounding the birth
The placing in a reed basket, covered with bitumen
The setting in a river
The recovery and adoption
We will now look at some background data provided by Lewis, then analyze each of these similarities in turn.
The key question of course is whether anyone here borrowed from anyone. Skeptics would immediately chime in, “Of course. Exodus borrows from Sargon, because Sargon was earlier. Case closed.” Is this what the evidence warrants? It should be fairly noted that the Sargon story was apparently quite accessible and well known. One of the fragments of it is on a school practice tablet .
On the other hand, dating is a serious issue. Of course many critics date Exodus late, to 600 BC; we would say 1400 BC. On the other hand, the Sargon story “lacks any obvious grammatical, lexicographical, or philological feature that would allow a precise dating.”  The initial date range is anywhere between 2039 and 627 BC.
In favor of an early date are, for example, the abundant Sargon literature of an early period, correspondences with the Sumerian King List, and the match of the adoption process to the known process of the early time. In favor of a late date, for example, are Neo-Assyrian orthographic forms, idiomatic expressions attested only in a later period, and the mention of cutting roads with bronze or copper picks. Some of these factors allow for possible explanations which reduce their force. [98-100]
Lewis offers the suggestion that the story was written in the reign of Sargon II, a much later king who was possibly a usurper, to legitimate his own rule. Some similarities to the reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC) may be suggested. For example, Sargon I claims the conquest of Tilmun as a major conquest. But contact with Tilmun seems to have been limited — it is mentioned only once before Sargon II. Sargon II boasts of Tilmun in his time sending tribute.
Lewis also notes a few verbal similarities between the Sargon I story and Sargon II inscriptions. He adds that 7 issues about Sargon I in the story are corroborated by other Sargon I material, but 6 issues are not, and 2 points are anachronistic.
Now let’s have a closer look at those four similarities:
The secrecy factor surrounding the birth. In Exodus it is quite clear why the secrecy is needed: Moses is in serious danger of being killed. Sargon’s story gives no reason for the secrecy, but the social background explains it: As a high priestess, Sargon’s mother had to avoid pregnancy to hold her office. Such high priestesses were normally members of the royal house, and hence Sargon had a claim to royalty.
There was nothing about Moses’ mother that would stand as a parallel, though his father’s descent from Levi has some significance. Therefore the secrecy touchpoint bears the hallmark of a coincidence: It is one point out of many, and the rest do not match; they make sense in each case within a composite whole that makes borrowing unlikely either way.
In addition, Sargon’s unknown father indicates an illegitimate birth  which is again not paralleled in Exodus.
The placing in a reed basket, covered with bitumen. Bitumen or pitch would of course be needed to seal any basket set afloat on a river. In the Moses account, we have a logical reason for the basket [Gispen, commentary on Exodus]: Such a basket would easily be taken for the sort that was attached to Egyptian ships to carry idols. This was designed to attract attention from the Egyptians.
On the other hand, the verb describing the actions of Sargon’s mother means to throw or cast down, and has the secondary sense of “to abandon.”  Her actions were not intended to lead to Sargon being discovered, as may be further seen in the next point.
The setting in a river. Note well that Sargon is abandoned to the current, whereas Moses is set among reeds. Foundlings were typically left in places of danger . In Moses’ case we have exactly the opposite: the gambit is designed to get him out of danger. It may be noted in reply, though, that Sargon’s mother clearly did intend for him to live for a while, for otherwise she would not have placed him in a caulked basket.
The recovery and adoption. The adoption of Sargon itself is not unusual. Mesopotamian practice of adopting a son and heir, including one that was a foundling, was not uncommon . On the other hand, some commentators suggest that Pharaoh’s daughter easily took Moses in because her dipping into the river signified a fertility rite — and she could easily suppose that Moses was an “answer to prayer.”
Adoption as a whole was not uncommon in the ancient world, because it served a variety of needs: Perpetrating the family line; providing free labor and care in old age; and sometimes humanitarian considerations [51-2].
In light of these significant differences, it is more likely that what we see in Moses and Sargon are not son and father, but cousins. Lewis  goes on to explain a motif of “infant exposure” some have also seen in the story of Jesus. These stories (Lewis lists 72 of them) range from the BC era up into the 18th century AD and come from a variety of locations: Assyria, Greece, Persia , Rome, Germany, even Iceland, Ireland, China, Turkey and Albania. The components of these stories are seven:
Explanation of abandonment
Infant of noble birth
Preparations for exposure
Infant protected in an unusual manner
Discovery and adoption
Accomplishments of hero
Of course within each component there may be certain variations. The explanation for abandonment can be shame, salvation of life, avert unfavorable destiny, or being unwanted. We may make the point as we have elsewhere that some of these are simply what we would expect anytime a baby was abandoned and later found; all except item #2 would be in some way an inevitable contextual element, and even that could be stretched into a definition of any important person, even Abe Lincoln (as shown here).
Concerning our unique “Moses factors”, in 32 of 72 stories the child is placed in a box or basket or chest; in 21 of these it is prior to exposure on water. (A total of 34 versions involve water in some way.) 8 of these add the precaution of the vessel being caulked, though four of these come from the Hebrew tradition; on the other hand, many containers were watertight enough already or would not take caulking (a jar, a casket, even an egg!), and the caulking would not be used anyway if the intent was to kill the child. In only 6 stories does anyone watch the infant after it is left; in one case, to be sure it dies.
At the same time, Moses’ story contains several elements unknown in the other stories: genocide as a motivation for the hiding; the three months of concealment; the sister as a guardian, and the hiring of the infant’s own mother as the one to nurse the child.
Lewis concludes that it is likeliest that Sargon and Moses are both drawing on a common archetype and that both stories are fictional, using reasoning not unlike that of Werner Kelber (see link above). Of course we disagree that the use of a motif necessitates fiction, as we have amply argued in other venues. Lewis acknowledges that adoption of foundlings was a regulated practice, which suggests that there were enough of them around for the stories to have a strong root in reality, and for a motif to develop as a result; but this no more renders any given story fictional than the motif of men gathering around the office water cooler means any account of men gathering around a water cooler is fictional. Lewis even concedes (in the case of Sargon!) that the motif reflects an expression of social practice.
In any event, we conclude that there is no satisfactory reason to propose borrowing or fictionalization, in either direction.
Update March 2013. Here are some rather lame objections we received from someone.
All of this doesn’t rule out that the stories were creatively modified by the cultures who repeated them.
Nothing “rules in” such a thesis to begin with, so we have no burden to “rule it out”. That said, this is the same sort of reasoning used by those who claim that e.g., the resurrection of Jesus is based on the “resurrection” of Osiris. Then, when it is pointed out that Osiris was not “resurrected” but reassembled like some sort of Lego set, it is replied that the “culture” of Judaism “creatively modified” the Egyptian concept, so the parallel holds.
In the end, such a retort is merely an excuse for why the two sides don’t match, and an attempt to save the refuted parallel. It assumes what it wants to prove (that borrowing occurred). This is not to be permitted, and as Glenn Miller has pointed out, experts in this subject demand a lot more stringent criteria before it can be accepted that borrowing occurred:
Similarity of general motifs is not enough to “prove anything”; we must have “complex structures” (e.g., ‘system of deities’, ‘narrative structure’).
Ideally, we would need to establish the historical link first, before looking for borrowings.
Differences between structures/stories/complexes do not disprove influence, as long as the parallels are ‘too numerous’ and ‘too striking’.
Parallels must be ‘striking’ (i.e., unexpected, ‘odd’, difficult to account for).
Some/many parallels/parallel motifs are superficial (i.e., identical on the surface), and ‘prove nothing’.
Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be numerous.
Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be complex (i.e., with multiple parts and interrelationships).
Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be detailed.
The details in alleged parallels must have the same “conceptual usage” reflected in them (e.g., they must be used with the same meaning).
The parallels must have the same ‘ ideas underlying them’.
The similar ideas in alleged parallels must be ‘central features’ in the material–and not just isolated or peripheral elements.
Details which are completely unexpected (to the point of being unexplainable apart from borrowing) are strong evidence for borrowing
Details which are almost irrelevant to the new context, but which have function in the old context are strong evidence for borrowing
Moses/Sargon fails to make the grade on any of these, so critics will have a lot more to do then simply contrive excuses of “modification”.
Do you really think it was common for babies to be abandoned to rivers, later be adopted, and raised to power?
What’s “common”? We’re talking about just two people, in a span of thousands of years, over a widespread geographic area. It would require a great deal of mental cement to suppose that there would NOT be two, or even four or five, arguable instances of such a thing actually happening. More than that, this is another error of those who define what happened to Jesus and Osiris as “resurrection”: By classifying two very different events under the same simple subject heading (“raised to power”) the illusion is created of a strong and specific correspondence — one in which the differences are again excused away not as disproving the thesis, but as “modification” that saves the thesis.