Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10; 3:1-15
Up until fairly recently, most history classes were taught from a perspective that could accurately be described as the story of the “great men” who have shaped our world. Now and then the textbook would have a sidebar or maybe even part of a chapter about a few women who had some kind of prominent role in a time or an event; and you might get a little bit sometimes about how regular people lived in a particular era. But mostly you heard about kings and generals and rebel leaders, and a few philosophers or inventors, almost all male.
It turns out that a lot of the Bible operates from that perspective, too. We hear about the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers—but not so much the Matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. The Exodus story is largely a story about a great man who, functioning as God’s agent on earth, leads a people out of slavery.
That “great man” is, of course, Moses. But the Exodus story doesn’t begin with Moses. Without several, mostly ordinary, women, there would never have been a Moses.
We know all their names but one—while, at the same time, we’re never told the name of the king of Egypt. He (and his successor who is ruling at the time when Israel leaves Egypt) are never called anything but “Pharaoh,” which is a title.
We need to back up a little bit before we move into the stories of these women.
Last week, you’ll remember, we saw Jacob wrestling with a man, an angel, a demon, or God, all night, then receiving a blessing and a limp. The next day he’s reunited with his brother Esau, who turns out not to bear him any grudge for how he tricked him out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau has done pretty well for himself without any of that.
Then we move into the story of Jacob’s sons. He has twelve sons and one daughter with his two wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel, and two secondary wives, their servants Bilhah and Zilpah.
The second-to-youngest son, Joseph, is his father’s favorite, a fact that he never passes up an opportunity to throw in his brothers’ faces. He’s a spoiled little brat and a tattle-tale to boot, so finally his brothers get rid of him by selling him to some traveling Ishmaelites and telling their father he’s been killed by wild animals. Through a series of twists and turns, a roller coaster of good and bad fortune, and quite a few dreams, Joseph ends up second-in-command to the king of Egypt, and saves not just that country but the whole region from starvation.
Looking for food, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, and are reunited with Joseph—who by that time has grown up a great deal and recognizes that even though they might have intended to do him harm, God had been at work in his life for good; so there’s no particular reason for him to seek revenge on them. Ultimately the entire family—70 people in all—move to Egypt, settle in a region called Goshen, and fulfill God’s command to humanity at our creation by being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the land of Egypt.
But then the fortunes of Israel—or as they’re known through most of Egypt, the Hebrews—change for the worse. A new king sat on the throne in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph and feared that the Israelites would replace Egyptians in the land, because they had become so numerous and strong. So he enslaves Israel, and they are forced to build supply cities and other projects.
But even that isn’t enough; the Israelites continue to multiply. So Pharaoh decides genocide is a good option.
First he orders the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill any male Hebrew babies as soon as they’re born. These are the first of the five women we learn about in this first part of Exodus. The king orders them to kill the male Hebrew babies, but they refuse to do it, because they fear God.
It’s interesting to me—and it’s been interesting to a lot of commentators—that we don’t know the king’s name, but we know the names of these two seemingly insignificant characters. Scholars have devoted a lot of time and energy to trying to figure out the identities of the Pharaohs in Exodus (there are most likely two, the one at the beginning of the story and another when Moses comes back to lead his people out). But while they can guess, that’s all they can do—and yet we know the names of the midwives who defy his genocidal order.
When he calls them out for it, they baldfacedly lie to him: “Well, these women are just so strong and vigorous, the babies are already born before we can get there!”
That’s something else I find humorous in this story. Basic morality says that we ought always to be truthful. Remember that part of our country’s patriotic folklore is the story of young George Washington who, when accused of cutting down a cherry tree, says, “I cannot tell a lie.” We all know the proverb, “Honesty is the best policy”—if nothing else, if you always tell the truth, you don’t have to keep track of what lie you told to whom, to avoid getting caught. But Shiphrah and Puah are rewarded by God for their dishonesty!
Sometimes doing things right isn’t the same as doing the right thing.
The next women we meet in these first chapters of Exodus are Moses’ mother and sister. They’re not named in today’s reading, but we know their names from other places: Jochebed and Miriam.
By the time they come onto the scene, the king has given up on pressing Shiphrah and Puah into service of his genocidal policies. Instead, he has simply ordered all the Egyptian people to kill male Hebrew babies whenever they encounter them.
We don’t ever really hear how the average Egyptian responds to this order. I’d guess it’s probably a mixed bag: those who are inclined not to hurt others, even these foreign interlopers, didn’t go around killing Hebrew babies; and those who were inclined toward violence may have reveled in this state-approved murder. In between were probably some folks who were prejudiced against the Hebrews, but hoped someone else would handle the dirty work, and probably also some folks with similar prejudices who, even so, didn’t approve of the king’s policies.
What that would have meant for Israelite families was that they had no idea who they could trust, which Egyptians were going to be kind and which weren’t; they never knew when the other shoe would drop, so they lived in fairly constant anxiety and fear. They may well have stayed out of sight as much as they could—when not being forced to make bricks and build cities—not going to the markets any more than absolutely necessary, not gathering for prayer or study, doing their best to keep the kids indoors and quiet.
Into this difficult time a baby boy was born. Jochebed and her husband Amram did their best to hide him, but one can’t hide a growing child for too long. Finally, when he got too noisy or too active to hide, Jochebed made a basket, waterproofed it with pitch, and put the baby inside.
The king’s order said male babies were to be put in the Nile, so that’s what she did—she followed the letter of the law. The king never said the babies couldn’t be set afloat in baskets.
I don’t know what Jochebed thought would happen to him.
His sister Miriam hid nearby to watch. Then along came the one woman in the story who isn’t named: the daughter of Pharaoh.
When she notices the basket floating in the river, she takes pity and decides to adopt the baby. At that moment Miriam comes out of hiding and says, “Would you like me to find one of the Hebrew women to nurse him for you?” Of course the answer was yes, so Miriam brings Jochebed to the princess.
In this way, Jochebed and Amram are able to keep the baby openly, under the protection of the daughter of the king who’d ordered his murder—and Jochebed gets paid to care for her own child! (Anybody tries to tell you there’s no humor in the Bible, tell them this story. It might not be the knee-slapper the story of Jonah is, or the ninth chapter of John, but still.)
When the boy is old enough to be weaned, he goes to live in the palace, and the princess names him and raises him as her own child.
Pharaoh’s daughter is never named in this story. The rabbis, as they pondered the story, thought that the woman who saved Moses ought to have a name, so they gave her one.
The name she gave to the little Hebrew boy she adopted is an Egyptian name. The text connects it to the Hebrew word mashah, which means “to draw out,” so the Hebrew version of his name is Mosheh. But his Egyptian name is Moses, and it’s a fairly common name, or part of a name: some of Ancient Egypt’s rulers have names that include a variant of it, like Rameses or Thutmose. His Egyptian name, according to the rabbis, means my son.
They say God rewarded Pharaoh’s daughter with a new name—she no doubt had an Egyptian name; we just don’t know it. This new name is a Hebrew name: Batyah.
Since this princess saved the savior of Israel and called him “my son,” the name God gave her means Daughter of God. Even though she is not one of God’s own chosen people, the Israelites, God takes her as a daughter, because of her kindness, compassion, and resistance to her father’s official policy of genocide.
Through Christ, we are all children of God, and we’re called to follow and imitate him, the Son of God. Perhaps we might consider also following the example of these daughters of God, Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed and Miriam, and Batyah.
 Exodus 6:20 gives us the names of Moses’ parents. Miriam is named and called a prophet in Exodus 15:20.
 Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, formerly a professor at Christian Theological Seminary, recounts this story in her book Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks (previously titled God’s Echo).