Moses takes a DNA test

Moses takes a DNA test

Angela Himsel
Angela Himsel

Everyone was doing it, and so why not me? I expected to learn what I already knew: that I was descended from generations of inbred Egyptian pharaohs. I’d been named after them — Moses, like Thutmose and Ahmose and all of those other Moseses. Then the results came in.

I was 100 percent Hebrew. I had two siblings, Aaron and Miriam, as well as a bunch of cousins, aunts, and uncles who were Hebrew slaves. This was life-changing. The oppressor was actually — the oppressed.

Well, isn’t that always the way it is?

How do you reconcile your birth parents and birth tribe with the ones you’ve been raised to view as Grandpa Pharaoh and Auntie Hathsheput?

I grew up blissfully unaware of my Hebrew roots. Because those Hebrews were immigrants, outsiders, and they didn’t know their place. They were tolerated because we needed them to build our cities and pick our tomatoes and weed our gardens.

I went to my mother, the pharaoh’s daughter, and confronted her with my findings.

She was bathing at the river. I said, “Mama, I’m a Hebrew.”

“Yes, of course you are.” Like, she thought I knew all along.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Does it matter?” she asked, in her enigmatic, Sphinx-like way.

She told me how her father had decreed that all the Hebrew baby boys (me) should die. But she’d seen me floating down the Nile in a basket and pulled me out of the water. So my life was a whim, a passing fancy?

My biological mother had nursed me. Grandpa Pharaoh had loved me, and every time she saw him holding me and kissing me, she would ask herself, “Really? Does it matter?” Now that’s an epic troll — raising a hated Hebrew in her father’s own home!

Is blood thicker than water, I asked myself the following week when I saw a Hebrew slave being abused by an Egyptian master. Without thinking for a second, I killed the Egyptian. Guess that answered my question.

The Hebrew did not recognize my act of solidarity and, thinking me an Egyptian, snitched. The new pharaoh, not grandpa but one of my very annoying, power-hungry cousins, came after me. Not because I was a Hebrew (he still didn’t know) but because I’d killed someone and it would be a good reason to get rid of me and solidify his rule.

So I ran away from Egypt, my homeland. You can say I was running away from myself and my newfound DNA, and you can also say that all men are brothers, so killing an Egyptian is the same as killing a Hebrew and vice versa, but anyway, I ran.

Found a beautiful woman watering her sheep, and she became my wife, and it was all Bible-book, by-the-book romance. Until God appeared at the burning bush and told me to go home. Back to Egypt. To my people. And yeah, hah hah hah. They were both — the Egyptians and the Hebrews — my people, apparently. With great reluctance I set off across the desert, met up with my brother, Aaron, and then we rallied the Israelites. They were calling themselves Israelites now, and this name change thing is a common theme, but that’s as complicated as DNA so we won’t go there. We went up against the new pharaoh, who was also my kin. Or not.

Identity is a tricky thing. I was still me. But now, I had all these extra layers, thanks to my DNA test, which meant I could never go back to being the Egyptian royal man I once was. And even if I wanted to, they would never let me. Cultural appropriation, they said.

Then I led this band of unkempt, kvetchy Hebrews into the Sinai, where I was required to go up a mountain — twice! — to get the law. 

The final mountain I climbed was Mt. Horeb. I gazed across the Red Sea into Egypt to the west, and north of me was Canaan where the Hebrews would find their home, without me. I never came down that mountain.

Even before I took the DNA test, I understood that identity is relative and quite the slippery slope. Wherever I am, I am still me. I’m afraid of heights, I hate conflict, and will plead 10 times with the pharaoh rather than outwardly rebel. I will water camels and sheep if a pretty girl is nearby, I don’t like to speak publically, I have a temper, and I loved my mother. Raised in Egypt of a biological Hebrew background, and buried in an unmarked grave on the mountaintop, I’m Moses, the perennial outsider looking in, a guy who belonged to no one and thus to everyone.

Angela Himsel is the author of a memoir, “A River Could Be a Tree” (Fig Tree Books).

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