When we study scripture at the GCW, we look carefully at what the text actually says, often going through the passage a sentence at a time. Part of paying close attention to the story itself–identifying characters and what we know about them (social status, gender, occupation), the setting, the action taking place, the dialogue, etc–helps us to often see how different the passage can be from how we may have remembered it, from how it was told and interpreted for us by our churches, family members or even in the popular culture (i.e. in movies, TV, books, et al).

Our passage on Tuesday night, the birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10, gave us a good example of this. In the opening verses of this passage, we read about how a woman had a baby boy and kept him hidden for three months (the genocide of Hebrew male babies was Egyptian state policy at this time). When she could keep him hidden no longer, she put him in a basket and … and what? The NRSV version of the Scriptures reads “she put the child in it (the basket) and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Everyone present agreed that the popular telling of this story has the baby in a basket, floating down the river – a scenario found in movies from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But the text itself says nothing about the baby floating down the river; instead it shows a mother, fearing that the authorities are coming for her baby, very strategically putting the baby in a basket and hiding him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Furthermore, in verse 4, the sister of the baby is “stationed” at a distance to keep an eye on the baby.

Our popular understanding of this passage, a mother putting her baby in the river and abandoning it to fate, is challenged by a closer reading of the text. What we now see is a mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives, enacting what seems to be a concrete and strategic plan to protect her son–a plan which took intelligence, forethought, (having the bitumen, reeds and pitch on hand; picking out a safe place along the river bank), and strength of character to carry out. The baby being placed in the reeds and the daughter keeping an eye on him (far enough away not to draw the authorities to his hiding place) possibly suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Again, our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understand what she must do for her family’s survival, she is “street-smart” and adept at finding ways to resist the oppressive system she is living under.

Next Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby boy and identifies it as “one of the Hebrews’ children” in verse 6. She is faced with a dilemma. She knows that her father’s law is that all baby boys born to the Hebrew women are to be “thrown in the river” (notice the irony here of the Hebrew mother following the letter of the law while circumventing the spirit of the law). Yet she feels pity for the crying baby, and is faced with the dilemma of what to do – act on that compassion, or obey the law which she has surely been indoctrinated into, and kill (or at least ignore) the child. But before she acts, the sister of the baby boy pushes Pharaoh’s daughter to cross the line with a well-phrased question: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Notice how she helps Pharaoh’s daughter to identify with the child and to identify her responsibility to the child with that “for you?” And so Pharaoh’s daughter, who shares in the status and power of her father, will use her own power to diametrically oppose her father and her father’s policies. Where he used his power to inflict indiscriminate death on a people he despises, she identifies with those people who are being oppressed, breaks the law of the land, and uses her status and power to protect and nourish that life instead. She is risking much here, and she is modeling for future generations who read this story what it means for people who have power and status to practice solidarity – to use what they have on behalf of the struggle of those who are oppressed. It raises a powerful question for those of us who have some degree of power and status: Do we identify with those who oppress and enjoy the benefits of that oppression? Or do we identify with the struggle of the oppressed, practice solidarity alongside them, and risk losing what we have?

Here we have again, like the two midwives in Exodus 1, two women–this time from very different social locations–who model resistance to unjust power (wielded so far by men) and show readers, wherever we fall on the spectrum, what it is that we too are called to during our time in history–a time not so different than the one we read about in Exodus all those years ago.

– John

Posted on 09/26/2007, in SCRIPTURE STUDY and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sheila Broderick

    Holy Moses….what an awesome instruction!! I can join in your bible study a bit long distance via the web!! Lucky those who live in your company!



  2. What an awesome insight.

    I am so happy to have read this today. I am struggling hard Johnny and Kelli with how to help my students (particularly my poorer ones who I teach for most of the day) understand that there is something out there to BELIEVE in, something to WORK for. I see the despair cloud their eyes, I feel their angst at authority, and dammit I understand it!

    I walk a fine line at my school. I represent to the kids, authority and power and I try my hardest to represent to the administration and my co workers the voice of students who have been left behind for so very very long….

    I will keep reading your reflections, please please continue to post.

  3. Fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time and the effort to put these up on the web, Johnny and Kelli. I am certainly benefiting from it.

    I’m especially intrigued by your mention that Moses’ mother circumvented the intention of the law while still technically following the letter of the law. In an oppressive system, should we then find ways to negotiate this dialectic or are there times when we are called to throw out the law completely and take matters into our own hands? I love that point.

    Keep posting. I’m digging it.

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