When we ended the story last week, Pharaoh had upped his game and opted for a more brutal policy of infanticide. Since the midwives refused to do his dirty work, he enlisted all of Egypt to make sure all the baby Israelite boys ended up sleeping with the fishes. So far as we can tell, that policy was more successful, and now Israel was not only brutally enslaved in Egypt, but were also well on their way to dying out.
Against this backdrop, several more women emerge in the tradition of Shiprah and Puah. Fearing God more than Pharaoh, a Levite woman named Jochebed marries and has a son (v. 1). She raises him for 3 months in secret (v. 2), “when she could hide him no longer,”
She took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.
Technically, she had followed Pharaoh’s orders and “cast” her son into the Nile. She just chose to include a flotation device, literally an “ark.” Then, the most unlikely of persons stumbles upon the scene:
Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
This story would have taken a decidedly different turn if she then said, “And Dad wanted all these little guys drowned, so let’s get him out of that little boat and feed him to the crocodiles.” But she didn’t. Instead, Moses’ older sister, Miriam, who had been standing off at a distance, rushes up and tries some diplomacy
Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
This was a pretty risky move considering the imperial policy and all. Presumably Miriam intuited a possible maternal instinct kicking in with Pharaoh’s daughter and decided she better act fast. Surprisingly, or we could say providentially, it went well:
And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
In this story, as one commentator notes, 1 ironies abound, eight to be precise:
- Pharaoh’s chosen instrument of destruction (the Nile) is the means for saving Moses.
- As in 1:15–22, the daughters are allowed to live, and it is they who now proceed to thwart Pharaoh’s plans.
- The mother saves Moses by following Pharaoh’s orders (with her own twist).
- A member of Pharaoh’s own family undermines his policies, saving the very person who would lead Israel out of Egypt and destroy the Dynasty.
- Egyptian royalty heeds a Hebrew girl’s advice! The princess may have been gently conned into accepting the child’s own mother as a nurse, but her pity is clearly stated.
- The mother gets paid to do what she most wants to do, and from Pharaoh’s own budget (anticipating 3:22)!
- Moses is educated to be an Israelite leader, strategically placed within the very court of Pharaoh.
- The princess gives the boy a name that betrays much more than she knows (including a Hebrew etymology for an Egyptian name): what she has done for Moses, Moses will do for all the people of Israel.
Even more than that, this whole story could be seen as a polemic against a popular Egyptian myth. Many people have pointed out the connection between the birth story of Moses and the birth story of Sargon. More likely the connection has to do with the birth story of Horus since Sargon was much later than Moses. 2 John Currid explains:
Although the persecuted-child motif appears throughout the ancient Near East, it is clear that the biblical narrative of Moses’s birth most closely resembles and echoes the Myth of Horus from Egypt. This makes perfectly good sense, since the setting of Moses’s birth is Egypt. In fact, the biblical author may have employed this echo from a well-known Egyptian myth for polemical reasons. In other words, the writer takes the famous pagan myth and turns it on its head in order to ridicule Egypt and to highlight the truth of the Hebrew world-and-life view…
In other words, whereas Egyptian thought teaches that Pharaoh is the incarnation of the persecuted Horus, the biblical writer is saying that, in reality, he is not the persecuted Horus but the persecutor Seth! Moses, on the other hand, is the Horus figure who survives infant persecution to grow up and deliver his people from the evil figure of Pharaoh as the Seth figure. This ironic twist is a polemic that serves as an overwhelming assault on Pharaoh and his status as the living embodiment of the god Horus. 3
Added to the irony and polemics is the fact that Moses’s story foreshadows the story of Israel as a whole. As Enns comments,
Moses’ safe passage through the waters of the Nile not only looks backward to the flood story, but forward to the passage through the sea in Exodus 14 for all of God’s people. Ironically, this child, once doomed to death by Pharoah’s decree, will become the very instrument of Pharaoh’s destruction and the means through which all Israel escapes not merely Pharaoh’s decree, but Egypt itself. 4
Later he expands this idea and applies to believers today:
In this respect, Moses’ infancy, his ‘death and rebirth’ on the Nile, is itself a microcosm of the people’s plight as a whole. As their leader, he experiences what the Israelites will experience later on. This identification of Moses’ and the people’s plight is similar to how Paul describes the effects of Christ’s death and resurrection. By virtue of Christ’s work, the church has been united to him (Rom. 6:5; Phil. 2:1). One way this union works itself out is in the believer’s journey from death to life, from being an enemy of God to being reconciled to him by the blood of Christ. Becoming a Christian means in a real (but imperfect) sense going through what Christ went through. 5
This story then works on multiple levels. As ancient Near East literature, it foreshadows the story of Israel, while simultaneously subverting a popular myth in Egypt. This would have helped the original readers to see how God works in unexpected ways to fulfill his promises. As Christian Scripture, this story shows how our own spiritual journey follows Moses/Israel and ultimately Christ himself.
The story is far from complete, and next week we’ll see where this unlikely birth goes and how it sets in motion the deliverance of God’s people from enslavement in Israel.
- Terence Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988, 37 ↩
- “James Hoffmeier rightly argues: A further problem for those wishing to find a correlation between the Sargon legend and the Moses birth story is, as noted above, that the earliest surviving copies of the Sargon text date from the Neo-Assyrian or later times. This factor, along with others, suggests that the legend may have been recorded by (or for) the late 8C Assyrian king, Sargon II, who took the name of his great Akkadian forebear and identified himself with that monarch. This possibility diminishes the case for the Sargon legend influencing Exodus because if we allow that J or E (usually dated to the 10C and 8C respective) is the source behind Exodus 2:1-10, and follow the traditional dating for these sources, both would predate the reign of Sargon II (721-705).” Quoted in John D. Currid, Against The Gods: The Polemical Theology of The Old Testament. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. ↩
- Currid, Against The Gods ↩
- Peter Enns, Exodus. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, 62 ↩
- Enns, Exodus, 71 ↩