Exodus 2: 1-10 The Continued Resistance of Women
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
The resistance to the policies of the unnamed king of Egypt begins with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, and continues with a mother, a daughter of the Hebrews and a daughter of the king’s own household. Even in the time of oppression the Israelites continue to marry and bear children, even though the lives of those children are now threatened by a command to all the people of Egypt. Yet, even in ancient Egypt we hear a memory of the subtle and artful resistance to the abhorrent policies of murder. This one child rescued from being thrown into the Nile will later lead the people out of slavery and into a new calling and identity.
A mother looks upon her newborn son and seeing that, in similar language to the creation narratives in Genesis, that he is good attempts to preserve this small piece of God’s creation she holds in her hands. For three months she manages to keep the child hidden but ultimately the wickedness of humanity forces her, like God sealing up Noah and his family in an ark (and the word for the basket here is the same used for the ark in Genesis), places him in the waters of the Nile-the same waters that Pharaoh demanded the Egyptians cast the Hebrew sons into, and hopes against hope for deliverance from those very waters. The mother moves away from the basket leaving a final hope in God’s unseen hands but his sister, perhaps Miriam but unnamed here, continues to watch.
Deliverance comes from the household of the man who ordered the death of the Hebrew children. This daughter of Pharaoh has nothing to gain by being involved in this story. She could’ve easily allowed the basket to remain undisturbed by human hands and still she sees, she acts, and she becomes the deliverance for this child and a medium God will use in the deliverance of the people. She is able to see in this child the human cost of her father’s oppression and she takes pity and acts. She realizes that this indeed must be one of the Hebrew’s children consigned to death and she hears his cries, much as God will later hear the Israelite’s cries. All throughout this beginning of Exodus it is women who prefigure the ways in which God will act.
The surprising nature of the story continues when the daughter of Moses’ mother speaks openly to the daughter of Pharaoh and together they conspire to save the child’s life. It is Moses’ sister who suggests a subtle resistance that allows the mother of Moses’ to be shielded from losing her son and to be compensated by Pharaoh’s household for resisting the deathly order of Pharaoh himself. Moses will grow to be a child of two worlds, both the world of the Hebrews still connected to his family of birth and connected to the household of Pharaoh where he receives not only protection and privilege but also his name. Yet, like Pharaoh’s daughter, his mother and his sister, he too will see the cost of the oppression around him as a young man and be compelled to act.
Exodus 2: 11-15a: Reacting to the Oppression
11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.
Moses has grown up as a person of two worlds. He has both his identity as a child brought into the household of Pharaoh as well as his identity as a Hebrew. Perhaps he was shielded during his upbringing from the friction between these two identities but upon seeing the oppression of his people he feels compelled, like God will at the end of chapter two, to act. Moses reacts violently, he feels his kinship with the Hebrew being beaten, and he commits murder. His action may not be a reasoned and calm reaction, most likely we would brand this type of action today a terrorist action, and yet he sees the oppression and feels compelled to act. Perhaps this is something that God sees in Moses, one who cannot stand aside while the powerful abuse the powerless. Moses believes that he is able to act without his action being seen and known, yet he soon finds he is now seen by both sets of peoples as a murder. His fellow Hebrew sees his quest for justice in a different manner, as yet another person who acts with violence to achieve his goals.
Moses’ resistance is more violent and less effective than the resistance of the women who came before him. Moses ultimately ends up fleeing to preserve his life and going from being a person of two people to a man without a people. Yet, he will continue to see and act when he sees those with power taking advantage of those without. Moses will be unable to be the liberator of the people from their oppression on his own, ultimately he, like God, needs to see and to choose how to act. For Moses his actions mean giving up the protection that Pharaoh’s daughter was able to provide for him and he identifies with a people who is not ready to accept him.
Exodus 2: 15b-22: An Alien Residing in a Foreign Land
But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22 She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
Moses may have fled Egypt but he has not left his sense of justice behind. In Midian, where he comes to rest after his flight, he feels compelled this time to act on behalf of the daughters of Midian who are being harassed by the shepherd in that region and being made to wait until their flocks are watered so they can water their own flock. Moses again acts and breaks what was apparently an ongoing struggle. When their father is surprised by their early return he realizes something must have changed. Moses again sees and chooses to act and this action opens up a new home for the wanderer.
Reuel, the priest of Midian, after inquiring of his daughters about their early arrival challenges them to welcome in this stranger. “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” Reuel in extending his hospitality to Moses welcomes the alien residing in his land. This hospitality eventually transforms into a new kinship when he gives his daughter, Zipporah, to become Moses’ wife and later bear Moses his son Gershom. Moses now becomes a man of a third people and family and makes his home in the land of Midian away from the empire of Egypt and away from the oppression of the Hebrew people. His choices have led him to a new home away from the homes he knew. He once again is extended the unexpected saving hospitality of another and his life begins again. It will take God’s call to get him to reluctantly return to Egypt and become the one God uses to liberate the Israelites, and yet in his son’s name there is perhaps the longing for home and the identification of displacement he feels being an Egyptian and an Israelite in the household of the priest of Midian.
Exodus 2: 23-25: The God of the Israelites
23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Up to this point in Exodus we have seen a human drama where the Israelites and Egyptians have struggled to live within the fear of Pharaoh. But the God of the Israelites is a God who, like the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, and ultimately Moses, sees and acts. Unlike the gods of the Egyptians or the many gods of the nations than will surround the Israelites in the promised land the God of Israel has an eye for the oppressed. The pivot of Exodus is here where God hears their cry, God remembers the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God takes notice and God decides to act.
The death of the king of Egypt doesn’t change the position of the Israelite people. Individual policies may have changed and the order to kill infants may not have continued but the people are reduced to cries and groans. They may be numerous but they also feel powerless in their captivity. The God of the Israelites, who is ultimately the God of the whole earth, will challenge the gods of Egypt and their emissaries to bring out of the empire of the day a slave people who might learn to be the covenant people of God.