Moses as a refugee—Exodus 2:15-17

Moses may have thought that killing an Egyptian oppressor was an act of justice, but the Egyptian overlords have different ideas. Once word about his action leaks, the attempted hero must flee for his life, soon becoming a fugitive in Midian from political repression.

Moses has reason to fear Pharaoh (Exod 2:14; cf. 14:10), though fearing God matters more (1:17, 21; 14:13; cf. 3:6; 9:30). Pharaoh wants to kill Moses just as Moses had killed an Egyptian (2:15). Now Moses has to flee for his life (2:15), abandoning any semblance of privilege and virtually all connections with both Egyptians and Hebrews. Undoubtedly his action shamed his adoptive family, but survival would now be his first concern. Moses’s ancestor Jacob had had to flee both his brother (Gen 27:43; 35:1) and his uncle (31:20-22, 27); but Moses’s flight from Pharaoh especially prefigures the flight of all Israel from Pharaoh a generation later (Exod 14:5). In contrast to Joseph, who went from being a pastoral nomad to being vizier over Egypt, Moses goes from being a high-status member of the Egyptian nobility to being a pastoral nomad.

Moses thus sits by a well in Midian, both a useful place to quench thirst and a normal place for meeting local people. Those who come to the well include the priest of Midian’s daughters. (The priest is apparently called both Reuel, as in 2:18 and some other passages, and Jethro, as at other times in Exodus. Alternatively, the term translated “father-in-law” in these passages might mean simply “male in-law,” allowing for a grandfather or brother-in-law who also held or shared the priestly office at different times.)

That these daughters come to draw water might not be unusual, but Moses might recall the story about himself being drawn from the water, an event commemorated even in his name (2:10). He might also recall stories about his ancestors. The servant whom Abraham sent to find a bride for Isaac found her at a well, where she graciously watered his camels (Gen 24:13-21). Jacob met Rachel at a well, when she was coming to water her father’s flock at the well’s watering troughs (29:9-11). Now Moses also acts gallantly, like his ancestor Jacob. Jacob rolled away a large stone and watered the flock Rachel had brought (Gen 29:10). Moses rescued the women here from bullying shepherds and watered their flock (Exod 2:17).

Moses acts like Jacob here, but also like himself: he had already demonstrated his hatred of oppression by killing the Egyptian in 2:12. That the text does not specify violent action on Moses’s part here might suggest that it proved unnecessary; standing up for the women may have been enough to make the bullying shepherds back down and wait their turn. (Moses did know how to try to resolve matters nonviolently; cf. 2:13.)

Yet like Pharaoh’s cupbearer temporarily forgetting Joseph, the young women leave their benefactor Moses at the well, apparently with no reward for his action—until their father intervenes (see 2:18-20, in the next lesson).

(For other posts on Exodus, see

The Hebrews were sinners too—Exodus 2:13-14

In Exod 2:11-12, Moses killed an Egyptian who was striking one of Moses’s own people. He meant to act for justice. Unfortunately, however, injustice was not limited to the Egyptians. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn confessed his dismay at his discovery that it was not only his oppressors who did evil. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Sometimes the oppressed share the same values as the oppressors. It was not only Egyptians who were striking Hebrews; the next day Moses encountered two Hebrews struggling and asked the wicked one, “Why do you ‘strike’ your neighbor?” (Exod 2:13, using the same Hebrew term as in 2:11-12). Far from being united against common oppressors, God’s own people were fighting among themselves. (For historical analogies of how devastating this can be, one may think of how European and Arab slave-traders and colonialists encouraged and exploited intertribal conflicts in Africa. European colonialists did the same in the Middle East. Many centuries ago, divisions among Christians also weakened traditionally Christian Mediterranean cultures in the face of their Islamic conquerors.)

Exodus does not inform us why the “wicked one” (Exod 2:13) was striking the other; perhaps he was a Hebrew overseer, but he may simply have been angry. The wicked, however, are not always dissuaded from actions if they lack fear of punishment. The aggressor demands, “Who made you a ruler or judge over us?” Asking who appointed him a ruler may be equivalent to asking whether he was appointed as one of their task masters (the same Hebrew term appears in Exod 1:11). Ironically, Moses would someday appoint leaders and judges over Israel (Exod 18:21, 25; Num 25:5; Deut 1:16).

Questioning Moses’s authority over them, the aggressor reveals that he knows Moses’s crime against an Egyptian (2:14). Thus we read not only of disunity, but also of likely betrayal; not only of Hebrew infighting, but also of one’s willingness to appeal to Egyptian rulers to get one’s own way. Moses may have expected his people to welcome him as a deliverer; some without faith preferred their present arrangements.

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Standing for Justice—Exodus 2:11-14

Nobody’s perfect, but sometimes one side really is right and another is wrong. The civil rights reformers were not perfect (see the marvelous movie Selma:, but they were right that racial oppression was wrong. In that setting, whites who wanted to stand for justice needed to join the “black side.” The British, French and Americans were far from perfect, but Hitler’s genocidal activity was pure evil (see Fighting for justice in such circumstances could be standing for the “Jewish side.” When North Korea tortures and imprisons detractors, or ISIS or other religious vigilantes in Central or South Asia kill Christians or other religious minorities, these acts are evil. In our narrative, God was clearly on the side of the slaves. They were far from perfect, but they were unjustly oppressed—and they were God’s people.

Probably no one would have taken note when Moses went to visit his fellow Israelites; probably no one would by spying on this person of status despite his ethnic affiliation. Moses witnesses his people’s difficult “burdens” (Exod 2:11), a term describing their work as an enslaved people (in the OT found only in Exodus; see also 1:11; 5:4-5), burdens from which the Lord their God would ultimately deliver them (6:6-7).

But seeing an Egyptian “striking” a Hebrew, he “struck” the Egyptian (the same Hebrew term, often applied to killing). Moses intended the lethal outcome of his blow; he first made sure that no one was looking before he killed the Egyptian (Exod 2:12). The law of Moses later required the penalty of death for deliberately striking someone lethally (21:12), but Moses may have been saving the life of the Israelite being beaten. Certainly later Jewish interpreters and biblical voices understood Moses as acting for justice (cf. Acts 7:24-25). Moses identified with his enslaved people more than with his own privilege (cf. Heb 11:24-26).

Moses hid the corpse in the sand (Exod 2:12). (A contrast with Moses’s mother positively hiding him is possible but unlikely, since the narrator employs a different Hebrew term.) Moses did not expect to get caught, and trusted that his fellow Israelites would appreciate his action and not circulate it. But even if the Hebrew he rescued appreciated the action and was the only witness, questions about his own escape from beating might well lead to him recounting the story, and word about the action of this privileged Hebrew would quickly spread (see 2:14).

Although Moses’s action may prefigure his future role as deliverer, the difference between his failure as a small-scale deliverer here and his future success as an agent of God’s deliverance is clear. It’s not enough even to be right about our calling or destiny: we need to depend on the Lord to get us there. It’s important to stand for justice, but it’s ultimately the Lord who grants success. It is difficult to even quantify the vast chasm between Moses’s act of avenging and hopefully rescuing one Hebrew and the plagues that would later force Pharaoh to release Israel. It is the difference between the arm of flesh and the arm of the Lord.

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Moses as a third-culture kid—Exodus 2:7-10

Did Moses know that he was a Hebrew? Contrary to some of the movies we see (including my beloved Prince of Egypt!), he presumably did. In many periods in Egypt’s history, Asians could serve in the Egyptian court. Disloyalty to Egypt, however, would be harshly punished. A Hebrew less than fully assimilated in Egyptian culture and too Egyptian to be trusted by many of his fellow Hebrews, Moses was like what we call today a “third culture kid” (like many children of immigrants, refugees, missionaries, diplomats or other cross-cultural settings, and sometimes like children in bicultural homes). (Midianites who met him viewed him as Egyptian, Exod 2:19.)

In some cultures a child can identify with multiple cultures, but Moses grew up in a setting of prejudice where his Hebrew identity would have counted as a liability. So Moses grew up as a Hebrew, but also in Egyptian culture. This experience continued until he grew up (Exod 2:11).

Miriam interceded for Moses when she saw the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, offering to secure a Hebrew wetnurse for the child (Exod 2:7). The period of nursing might take two years, and the nurse needed to be one who could provide milk for the child—in this case, Moses’s own mother, who now got paid to nurse her own baby (2:8-9).

Although Moses’s mother was able to nurse him, once he was weaned she had to return him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted Moses as her own son. The new mother also named him “Moses,” commemorating her finding him and drawing him from the water (2:10). “Moses” is not an unusual component of an Egyptian name, but Pharaoh’s daughter may have used a wordplay on the Hebrew words for drawing him out of the water because the child was a Hebrew. (Although the Hebrews lived in close proximity, in Goshen, in state servitude but living in their own mud-brick homes, she may have had to consult with Hebrew servants or others to find the right wordplay.) The providential irony here is that under Moses’s leadership God would someday deliver all his people through water.

Moses thus grew up in privilege, yet was also aware that he was Hebrew. Moses belonged to two cultures, but an event would soon force him to choose one at the expense of the other—in the short term costing him both (Exod 2:11-15).

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Where was God when tragedy happened?—Exodus 1:22

Sometimes in the midst of history, injustice seems to prevail. In light of a longer view, and especially an eternal view, however, justice will win out. This becomes evident over the span of a generation in the ensuing context of our present passage.

Before Pharaoh decided to oppress Israelites, they multiplied and became very strong (Exod 1:7). This was why the king decided to enslave them to begin with (1:8-11). But as he afflicted them, they multiplied still more (1:12)! So the king’s next strategy was to kill newborn Israelite males secretly, leaving any possible blame in the event of discovery on the Hebrew midwives (1:15-16). Yet this strategem, too, failed (1:17-19), and the refrain continues: the people multiplied and became very strong (1:20).

Finally Pharaoh now decides to take action more directly. The Hebrew midwives had not killed Israelite babies at birth, so Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill newborn Israelite males (1:22). (Aaron was three years older than Moses, and would not be among the children affected by the king’s decree; see 7:7.)

Ironically and unknown to Pharaoh, however, his own daughter would undermine his decree out of compassion for a Hebrew baby (2:6-10)—Israel’s future deliverer. God does not always prevent tragedy—but he does ensure his plan for the future of his people and for ultimate justice.

Indeed, Exodus resounds with the recognition that God, while not always stopping human wickedness, does not look the other way: Consider how God would return against the next generation of Egyptians what Pharaoh had done. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the first plague would turn the Nile to blood (7:20). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the last plague would strike Egypt’s firstborn children (12:29). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); God would drown Egypt’s army in a sea of reeds (14:28). Though long delayed, justice would come. As we often say in the African-American church, “God doesn’t always come when you want Him to, but He’s always right on time.”

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Is lying ever right?—Exodus 1:19-21

In the 2013 film, Return to the Hiding Place (, Eusi, a Jewish cantor staying with the Ten Booms, argues that saving a life is far more important than telling the truth. An ethical debate ensues; one of Corrie’s sisters insists that lying is always wrong. The issue is, of course, a very live one for Eusi: he is a secret refugee in the Ten Booms’ home, and telling truth to the Nazis would mean his death and that of other Jewish fugitives.

Is lying ever right? Very rarely, but in the present passage the Hebrew midwives lied to protect their lives, and God blessed their ruse designed to protect the Hebrew babies (as discussed in the previous lesson). As the previous study noted, God blessed the midwives for protecting the Hebrew babies, defying Pharaoh’s order. That God blesses midwives despite their lie might seem strange to some modern readers, but that may say more about how we have read some biblical principles too narrowly and ignored examples of extreme situations in some biblical narratives.

That people of truth should not lie is an important biblical principle (Prov 6:17, 19; 8:7; 10:18; 12:17, 19, 22; 14:5, 25; 17:7; 19:5, 9; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18; 26:19, 28; 30:8). Lies for personal gain (19:22; 20:17; 21:6) or what we would wrongly think is for God’s glory are always wrong (cf. Rom 3:7-8).

But lying to protect spies during some war circumstances was right. God had commanded warfare against Canaan (on which see;;, and Rahab was right to side with God’s people against her own and to give refuge to Israelite spies (Josh 2:4-5). After Absalom’s treacherous and deceptive revolt against King David, David’s allies were right to lie as spies or to hide and protect spies (2 Sam 16:16-19; 17:7-13, 20)

One also cannot blame Michal for lying even to her own father to save David’s life (1 Sam 19:14; 20:28-29) or her own (19:17). Saul was perpetrating great evil, and giving David more time to make good his escape was the right thing to do. That Michal showed loyalty to her husband over her own father could make some sense (cf. Gen 2:24), but what makes it definitively right here, whether Michal already understood this or not, is that David rather than Saul was God’s current chosen instrument. In his plan to take life unjustly, Saul forfeited his right to the truth. In a similar way, Bonhoeffer was right to insist that lying to the Nazi regime was acting truthfully before God, because the Nazis forfeited their right to the truth.

God sometimes handed people over to deadly deception because they did not merit truth (1 Kgs 22:22-23; 2 Thess 2:10-12). But did God himself ever endorse human deception? He barely ever does so, but there are exceptions. In some cases God allowed partial truth that could be construed as deceptive regarding real intentions. God gives Samuel a cover for his actions (1 Sam 16:2-3) that do not reflect his real mission; if Saul knew that Samuel were really going to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul would try to kill Samuel (for meddling in politics!) Although Jesus does not lie in John 7:6-10, his carefully chosen words may mislead his brothers: he goes to a festival secretly after telling his brothers that he could not go with them.

But a more explicit case is 2 Kings 8:10: Elisha instructs Hazael to inform Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, that he would recover—when in fact Elisha knew that he would surely die, and tells Hazael as much. Prophets usually had to tell the truth even at the risk of their own lives, but sometimes wicked tyrants so forfeit their right to truth that subverting them is an act of truth and justice. In the biblical world, it could seen as playing the game of cunning and winning. I could not play that game even in dangerous circumstances, lacking the requisite skills. But where it is a matter of life and death, God can sometimes grant people cleverness and the upper hand.

That observation brings us back to Exodus, which took place in a culture that valued such cunning. Pharaoh thought he was dealing cleverly with the Hebrews to keep them from multiplying (Exod 1:10). Instead, he is outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, at least in the first round (1:19). They could not prevent Pharaoh’s subsequent actions against other newborns, but they could protect at least the infants they were responsible for.

By the end of the chapter, Pharaoh seems to have the upper hand. But later in the narrative, when (a different) Pharaoh is willing to let the Israelites go worship in the wilderness, he wants to hold their animals hostage to guarantee their return. He is being clever. Moses, who knows that they will not return, insists that they must take their animals for sacrifice, and they won’t know until they reach their destination which animals they will need. Pharaoh knows that Moses is playing with him, and Moses knows that Pharaoh knows this; but it is a game of wit and power, and it becomes increasingly clear, as God continues to act, that Moses has the upper hand, and Pharaoh’s pretense of power is collapsing before YHWH.

Is lying ever right? Almost all the positive biblical examples reflect cases of protecting life, the deceiver’s or someone else’s. Most are also lies to those who have acted against the truth in such a way as to forfeit their right to truth. Scripture seems clear that if lying protects innocent fugitives from aggressors, it is the far more ethical course to lie than to betray those fugitives merely to recount the full truth to their enemies.

The Hebrew term for truth, emeth, involves especially integrity, genuineness, and faithfulness; faithfulness protects lives, not betrays them. These examples do not justify falsehood and dishonesty in our basic, everyday dealings with others; the normal biblical principle, reiterated in Proverbs, is valuing truth. But in some circumstances, truth and integrity require subverting a regime of falsehood. In Return to the Hiding Place, Eusi, joined by Corrie Ten Boom, was right.

Beating a tyrant at his own game—Exodus 1:15-22

The unscrupulous Pharaoh, determining to act shrewdly (NRSV, ESV) with God’s people, planned to kill their infants through the Hebrews’ own midwives. The chief midwives, however, prove shrewder than he, delaying Pharaoh’s extermination policy and so in the meantime saving the lives of many babies.

That Exodus names the midwives but leaves the Pharaoh anonymous (much to the chagrin of modern critics wanting to date the exodus) may say something about God’s priorities. Indeed, women, who usually lacked political power (though there were exceptions in Egypt), subvert Pharaoh’s purposes at every turn. As the Jewish Exodus commentator Nahum Sarna observes, God works through the female characters in the narrative, most of them seemingly in the background of the main action, to preserve the future deliverer: the midwives; Moses’s mother and sister; Pharaoh’s daughter; and finally the Midianite priest’s daughters who provide Moses’s connection with a place of refuge.

Because of the posture in which women gave birth on the “stones” that functioned as birth stools, the midwives could have killed some of the babies and pretended that they were simply stillborn. Midwives were positioned beneath the birthing mother to catch the baby when it emerged; they would immediately see the gender and could twist the neck without the mother seeing the action (although this would be impossible when other women were present, and a pattern of male “stillbirths” would quickly arouse suspicion).

Because Hebrew men could practice polygamy, killing male babies was not so much a long-term population deterrent as it was meant to prevent the Israelites from being strong enough to strike the Egyptians in battle in the rising generation (Exod 1:10). Pharaoh may have been concerned with a particular external threat on the horizon at that time. Using Hebrews to kill Hebrews (1:15-16) also minimizes potential repercussions for Pharaoh at this point (just like the later Roman and British empires often ruled through local elites).

Given Pharaoh’s power and his obvious willingness to exercise deadly force, the midwives were courageous to disobey Pharaoh’s decree. They disobeyed because they feared God (1:17)—a valuable deterrent against wrongdoing, and sometimes the only deterrent against wrongdoing in which one cannot get humanly caught.

Yet they were also not suicidal; they were cunning enough to offer Pharaoh a plausible explanation as to why they failed to execute his orders. Physically strong women could sometimes give birth quickly. For example, although it was surely very difficult on them physically, we read of some African-American slave women who gave birth in the field where they were working and then went back to work. Given the large number of Israelites (however we interpret the exact numbers), it is not hard to imagine that the midwives would have trouble reaching many women giving birth in Goshen if they gave birth quickly.

How could Pharaoh respond to them? He had already claimed that the Israelites were stronger than the Egyptians (1:9, though he meant this more numerically). If Hebrew women were especially strong, it was probably because Pharaoh himself was working the Israelites so hard (either all of them, or the men who therefore left more work at home for the women). Pharaoh may have suspected that they were lying, but if he chose to execute and replace the midwives, this would openly reveal his complicity in any subsequent infant deaths at the hands of new midwives. This means that if he wants to do away with Hebrew babies, he is going to have to do the dirty work himself and not expect Hebrews to do it for him (1:22). Ironically, the midwives’ claim that the Hebrew women differed from Egyptian women may portend the coming difference that God will make between Israel and the Egyptians (9:4; 11:7).

Yet the midwives are plainly lying. Exodus declares that they did not obey Pharaoh (1:17). God blessed the midwives not for lying but for refusing to kill the children; yet they would not have been alive to bless had they defied Pharaoh more openly instead of lying. God did not punish them for lying under these circumstances. Because the midwives acted from the fear of God rather than Pharaoh, God blessed them with families (1:21); they refused to harm others’ children, so God gave them their own.

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Be fruitful, multiply—and expect opposition—Exodus 1:8-14

Although being fruitful and multiplying (Exod 1:7) is a good thing, it can also provoke opposition from those who wrongly feel us threatening. Instead of treating Joseph’s benevolent legacy as a blessing for Egypt, a new Pharaoh was about to persecute Joseph’s people. Joseph had great favor with the Pharaoh of his day, but eventually a new Pharaoh, and probably a new dynasty of Pharaohs, arose who did not know Joseph or care about his legacy. Joseph had amassed grain in cities to provide for Egypt in the time of need (Gen 41:35, 49), but this new Pharaoh, forgetting Joseph’s benevolence, forces the Israelites to build “storage cities” (Exod 1:11; what the Hebrew designation seems to mean elsewhere).

If Joseph entered Egypt in the time of, or was otherwise somehow associated with. the Asian Hyksos dynasty, the later Egyptian reaction against the Hyksos would have carried over into a reaction against the Israelites. The fear that the Israelites might join Egypt’s enemies in a war would make some sense after the Hyskos were driven out, since they, like the Israelites, were from Asia.

Verse 7 says that the Israelites became very, very strong; in verse 9 the new Pharaoh warns that the Israelite people had become stronger than his own people. (God had promised to make Israel a mighty nation, Gen 18:18; later another enemy fears that Israel is too mighty, Num 22:6; and God promises to drive out mightier nations before Israel, Deut 4:38; 7:1; 9:1; 11:23.) Pharaoh thus wants to repress them, lest they multiply, fight the Egyptians, and go up from the land (Exod 1:10). The divine irony is that Israelites were already multiplying, the repression multiplied them still more (1:12), and that God would fight the repressers and take Israel up from the land.

The term for Israel “joining” Egypt’s enemies in 1:10 is the same root [ysf] for “Joseph” and might constitute a play on words. The term for the masters “oppressing” the Israelites in 1:11-12 (what God had predicted for Israel in Gen 15:13) does not appear again in Exodus until Exod 10:3—where the Lord demands that Pharaoh “humble” himself before the Lord. Israel suffered because Pharaoh imposed “servitude” on them (Exod 1:14; cf. the same term in 2:23; 5:9; 6:6, 9); but God exchanged that servitude for a better one, the service or worship of God (using the same term, 12:25-26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1-5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42). That is, the Lord made them his own servants instead of Pharaoh’s. But in contrast to Pharaoh, the Lord did not approve of treating servants ruthlessly (the term for ruthless rule in 1:13-14 appears elsewhere in Scripture only in Lev 25:43, 46, 53; Ezek 34:4).

God was even now preparing a deliverer through whom he would liberate his people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We cannot always see God’s activity in the short term. But while God sometimes works in hidden ways at first, the ultimate future belongs to him.

(For other posts on Exodus, see

Getting too comfortable in Egypt?—Exodus 1:1-7

Exodus opens where Genesis leaves off: Jacob and his family settled in Egypt (Exod 1:1-5), and Joseph and his generation died (1:6). Although Joseph’s generation died, their descendants were fruitful and multiplied and filled the land (1:7), far beyond all normal, natural expectations.

In so doing, they were fulfilling the ancient mandate and pattern offered in creation: God commanded his creatures to be fruitful, multiply, and fill their spheres of existence (Gen 1:22), including humans (1:28). God reiterated these commands after the flood (8:17; 9:1, 7). God promised Abraham that he would make him fruitful and multiply his descendants (17:6; cf. 22:17), a promise also reaffirmed to Ishmael (17:20), Isaac (cf. 26:4, 24), and Jacob (28:3; 35:11; 48:4). Their multiplication is already noted in Gen 47:27, and now reaffirmed here in the opening lines of Exodus. God will reaffirm this promise again in Lev 26:9.

As for “filling the land” (Exod 1:7), Jacob’s descendants are again fulfilling the mandate at humanity’s creation; the Hebrew term for “land” is the same Hebrew term for “earth” in Gen 1:28. Paul later apparently applies this biblical principle of multiplication to spiritual progeny. As believers today, we want to be fruitful and grow (Col 1:6, 10, using a word for “grow” from the most common Greek translation of Gen 1:28). We can do this in part by raising children in the faith (cf. Gen 18:19; Deut 6:7) but also by evangelism (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20; which uses the same term for “grow” as in the description of the Israelites growing in Egypt in Acts 7:17).

The Israelites were becoming comfortable in their new homeland. Yet God had promised them a different land, and the time would be coming when they would need to be happy to leave, despite the difficulties of translocating an entire people and their livestock. A new pharaoh, and possibly a new dynasty of pharaohs, was about to shake things up for Jacob’s descendants (Exod 1:8-14).

(For other posts on Exodus, see

A Mother’s Courage—Exodus 2:1-6

Moses’s mother was courageous to hide him for three months (Exod 2:2), but how long can one hide a baby who cries and needs to be breastfed? Rather than endanger the family any longer, his mother Jochebed (named in 6:20; Num 26:59) finally complied with Pharaoh’s orders for newborn males to be cast into the Nile (Exod 1:22). If parting with a newborn would be difficult, one imagines that parting with one’s child that one had nursed for three months would be even more difficult.

Instead of simply casting the child unprotected into the river, however, Jochebed patches a papyrus container for him and leaves him in the reeds by the bank of the Nile (2:3). Moses’s big sister, Miriam, undoubtedly also very attached to him by now, watches from a distance to see what will happen (2:4). Anyone who found the container could simply take it; more frighteningly, crocodiles can smell flesh from a distance even on land, and might find in the container a convenient meal. (Still, the container may have fully enclosed, 2:6.) If nothing else happened, the child would die of dehydration.

Yet the language used here suggests more than a mere attempt to prolong the infant’s life a bit longer. Jochebed waterproofs the papyrus container, and the Hebrew term for the container, which probably derives from an Egyptian word for a chest or coffin, appears only one other place in the Hebrew Bible. It appears repeatedly in Gen 6 through 9—for Noah’s ark. Jochebed probably knew the story of Noah’s ark; Exodus’s audience surely knew the account. As God kept alive the future of humanity and other creatures, this ark was now meant to protect the baby—who was also a promise for the future.

Moses’s location among the reeds (Exod 2:3, 5) would also prove striking for repeated hearers of the story, as members of Exodus’s first audiences undoubtedly were. The term recurs later in the exodus narrative—and always elsewhere in the Pentateuch—in the phrase typically translated into English as the “Red Sea.” Literally, in Hebrew, this is the “sea of reeds.” (Such a designation does not mean that its water was shallow; it could have acquired the name locally from reeds growing on its banks.) Moses is preserved among the reeds by the Nile; later, he will lead his people to safety from the Egyptians through the “sea of reeds.”

Miriam soon recognizes God’s providence. No crocodile or ordinary visitor finds her brother; it is the daughter of Pharaoh, surrounded by her entourage of young ladies, walking by the river. (One should not exaggerate the status of Pharaoh’s daughter, as movies that must simplify the story naturally do; Pharaohs typically had many wives and many children, so she was not likely Pharaoh’s only daughter.) One of her slaves brought the container to Pharaoh’s daughter, and when she opened it, the baby was crying. Sometimes we can look the other way or feel overwhelmed and helpless when we hear reports about injustices. But whose heart can resist the cry of a truly needy baby? (And what baby long separated from its mother’s milk and enclosed in such a container would not cry if it were awake?)

It’s no surprise, then, that Pharaoh’s daughter was moved. Yet Pharaoh’s daughter knew precisely what she had found: she recognized that this was one of the Hebrew children, presumably because she knew that Hebrew children were to be cast into the Nile. Miriam seized the moment, with a boldness and sense of impunity that might have eluded an adult. She offered to find a Hebrew nurse to breastfeed the child (2:7), and Pharaoh’s daughter, still knowing full well what she was doing, regularly agreed. Her father’s decree would not affect her own choices.

Contracting out even one’s own children to peasants or slaves for breastfeeding was not uncommon, and nursing a child of Pharaoh’s daughter would put Moses in a different category from the infants being thrown into the Nile. (If Pharaoh’s daughter had not had babies of her own—she may remain young and unmarried at this point—she would not be able to produce milk in any case.) Moreover, Moses would be returned almost immediately to the breast he longed for, the family would be safe, and Jochebed would even be rewarded for her efforts. It was customary to pay wages to poor but free wetnurses. To be paid to nurse one’s own baby, however, was clearly a remarkable turn of events. (It’s something like getting paid to study and teach the Bible—those of us who have that privilege ought to be very grateful for it!)

Through three different young women—Moses’s mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter—God was subverting Pharaoh’s plans. Pharaoh would not mind allowing an exception here and there, such as for his daughter; but this exception would bring freedom to God’s people, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in a sea of reeds.