This week we’re* studying Exodus 2:1-10 – taking a close look at the story sometimes known as “Moses in the bullrushes,” the story of the special baby saved from the evil king. That special baby will later grow up to lead his people to freedom. This may remind us of more than one other story we know. Here are some notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re still working our way through the first narratives of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes thought of as “salvation history.” We’ve moved out of the book of Genesis, with its stories of individual patriarchs, and have entered the book of Exodus, which is famous for zooming out to give us wider-angle picture of the entire nation of Israel.
Robert Alter, in his introduction to the book of Exodus, points out that many of the narratives in Exodus have the feel of “folktales,” precisely because of the book’s more communal emphasis. By the same token, we never have quite the same sense of Moses “as a person” as we do of, say, Jacob or Joseph. Moses remains more archetypal or figural.
That treatment really starts right here, in this story, when the infant Moses becomes a symbol of promise, and of life drawn out of death.
We – if “we” are “the kind of readers who take the Biblical scholars seriously” – will probably think of Exodus as a genius compilation of traditional material, edited and stabilized as a text around the time of the end of the Babylonian exile, late 5th or early 4th century BCE. So, the book incorporates an interpretation of Israelite sacred history that has been informed by subsequent events, and that assesses what’s significant in that sacred history from that vantage point. We can think about how that might show up in our story.
[A nice map of Egypt, and links to other background material on Egypt from a Biblical perspective, are at Bible Odyssey; what kind of slavery would have been practiced in the Egyptian New Kingdom – the relevant time period, assuming our story is at least partially historical – is discussed by Dr. Mark Janzen at the Torah.com.]
Our story comes almost at the beginning of the book of Exodus. We’ve heard a recap of the relevant genealogy of the family of Jacob / Israel, followed by the ominous note that a king arose in the land who did not know Joseph, and then heard the story of the midwives who resist Pharaoh’s order to kill the baby boys. So Pharaoh changes genocidal policies – now, not only the midwives but people in general are supposed to participate. Then comes the tale of this one specific baby.
Saving Moses will set in motion a long-awaited train of events that – as we probably know – will culminate with God bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt with a mighty hand and signs and wonders. And then revealing Divine Law and the Design of the Tabernacle at Sinai.
Exodus 1:8-2:10 – so, our text AND the story of the midwives – is one of the lectionary’s texts for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A). It’s one of the all-time great stories of world literature. So the chances that we’ve heard it in church some time are pretty good. Quite aside from the chances that we’ve seen The Prince of Egypt.
CLOSER READING: Moses’ father – a man of the house of Levi – shows up in v1, and after that all the characters in the story are women, except for the baby, around whom all the women revolve: the baby’s mother, the baby’s sister, the daughter of Pharaoh, and her “maidens” or girls. We don’t learn the name of anyone in the story, until v.10, when the daughter of Pharaoh calls the name of the child Moses, because she drew him [mashah] out of the water.
Water will not stop being important in Moses’ life.
The story opens with a curious turn of phrase – the first word in the Hebrew sentence is “he went.” Why it’s there is a little mysterious, but the midrash sides with the idea that it emphasizes how courageous and exemplary it is to marry and have children under the harsh regime of the “new king.”
The verb “to take” repeats: the man takes a Levite woman – so Moses is, perhaps not surprisingly, a descendent of Levites on both sides of his family. Not surprisingly, because the endogamy would presumably have been common practice. Then, the mother takes an ark for the baby, and then one of the young women of the daughter of Pharaoh is sent to take that ark, which Pharaoh’s daughter has seen in the rushes. Then, the baby’s mother takes him to nurse him, by collaborative arrangement with the princess. So all this taking is directly life-giving or life-saving in this story.
The verb “to see” also repeats, significantly: the baby’s mother sees that the baby is good or beautiful [tov]. Then the daughter of Pharaoh sees the ark in the rushes, and then upon opening it she sees the child in the ark. Seeing this special beautiful baby, who elicits compassion from these women, is also life-saving.
[It doesn’t hurt that no one sees what these women do. Highlighting the importance of seeing, and who does it, by absence from the narrative. But remembered absence: the name of “Pharaoh” occurs often, in the repeated references to “the daughter of Pharaoh.”]
And then there is the verb “to call,” which coordinates the collaboration among the three women. The baby’s sister proposes calling a nursing woman; and getting the go-ahead from the daughter of Pharaoh calls the baby’s own mother. Later, the daughter of Pharaoh calls the child’s name Moses. Calling in this story elicits or draws out someone who will nurture and sustain – the mother, and then, the leader.
In v2, the baby’s mother hides – the word can also mean “treasured” or “stored up” – the baby as long as she can. Christian readers might be reminded of Mary’s “treasuring” various memories of the baby Jesus “in her heart” – maybe an act that is meant to remind us of this earlier precedent [Luke 2:19, 51].
There’s practically a crowd of women in this story, all “nameless,” “anonymous,” and more or less invisible – from the perspective of official-dom, that is. Off in the Hebrew precincts, or off by the river doing girly things like taking a bath. And organizing a conspiracy to rescue this baby. Disobeying the king of death. Working for the resistance, on the side of life.
* We’ve changed the day and time of our class from Sunday a.m. to Wednesday p.m. – 5:30 p.m., to be precise – so I’m working on posting notes a little earlier. I’ll try to have questions a lot earlier, too. We may need to start stop calling ourselves the “Not THAT early” class and start calling ourselves the “WAY early” Like, DAYS early.
Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Moses rescued from the river, fresco at Dura Europos synagogue, Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons