This is the next sermon in the series called “Her-Story: Women of the Hebrew Scriptures.” Today we learn about the courage of Moses’ mother.
In addition, we’ve commissioned Rev. Rachel Frey to write a hymn for this sermon series, and she’s done a wonderful job! You can find the hymn here:
SCRIPTURE – Exodus 2:1-10
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reedsalong the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
Her-Story: Jochebed, Moses’ Mother
June 23, 2013
We pick up today where Robyn left off last week, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. There aren’t a lot of good stories about women in the Hebrew scriptures, and the ones that are in there happen sporadically. But in these two chapters of scripture at the beginning of Exodus, we have several strong, influential female characters, a rarity in the midst of such a male-dominated society.
Here’s what we learned from Robyn last week. The Israelites are now enslaved in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and to ensure the slave population doesn’t get too big, he orders the midwives to kill all the male Hebrew babies. But the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, lie to the Pharaoh and let the babies live. I found it interesting that their names literally mean “to swaddle” and “to coo,” not only because that goes along with their profession, but also because that would make a great new police drama. “Two pregnant detectives have nine months to solve the mystery. Swaddle and Coo, this fall on TNT.”
After he’s thwarted by Swaddle and Coo, Pharaoh decides to carry out his plan by having all the male Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile river. The last line of chapter 1 says, “Then the Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’” You see, for Pharaoh and for much of society in general, girls didn’t count. Oh boy, is he gonna get his!
So that’s where we pick up the story today. Upon hearing Pharaoh’s murderous edict, one young mother (notice she’s not named) decides to hide her baby for three months. That’s a pretty amazing feat, because if you’ve ever tried to keep a baby quiet, you know they don’t always cooperate. After three months of trying to protect her son, this mother makes for him a small basket, places him in it, and sets him off floating down the Nile. How ironic that the body of water the Pharaoh has destined for death this mother is trusting to save her young boy.
The boy floats along, his sister watching from the banks, until he is discovered in the river by the daughter of the very same Pharaoh who commanded boys like him to be killed in the very same river. Rather than carry out her father’s command, the daughter valiantly rescues the boy. But her nobility has its limits. She’s willing to save the baby, but she wants not part of changing dirty diapers, so she commissions the boy’s sister to find a nursemaid for him. The sister gets the boy’s mother, whom Pharaoh’s daughter actually pays to take care of the boy. Not long before this the mother was releasing her son to the fate of the river, and now she is being handed both her son and a wad of cash by the daughter of the guy who wants him killed! tell ya, you can’t make this stuff up.
Who would you say is the main character in this story? Who is the protagonist, the one who is responsible for moving the story along? You might say Moses’ mom, who gets the ball rolling by putting her bundle of joy on the Nile. Or you might say its Pharaoh’s daughter, who makes the decision to spare the boy’s life and ultimately adopts him as her own. You could even make an argument for Moses’ sister, who orchestrates the reunion of Moses and his mother. You could try to argue that it’s Moses, but all he really does it float and look cute.
But there’s one person that we would probably all agree is NOT a major player in this story, and that is God. God is not even mentioned in these 10 verses of chapter 2. You could argue that God has nothing to do with what happens to Moses. But I believe a closer reading of this passage shows us that God is indeed at work in this story. In fact, the author hints at this with the way he choose to tell the story.
For example, in verse 2, when Moses is born, the Bible says, “When she saw he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months.” Now, there’s nothing unusual about that statement. Every mother thinks their baby is a fine baby, even if they look like a plucked chicken. And even she didn’t think Moses looked particularly handsome, it’s not like she was going to toss him out the window. No, what’s interesting to note here is the Hebrew word for “fine,” translated other places as “goodly” or “wonderful.” The word here is “tob,” a word that readers would already be familiar with. In the creation story, when God makes each thing, he pronounces it “tob,” meaning “good.” For example, “God made the plants and animals, and God saw that it was tob.”
Why does this matter? Remember, the Israelites are now slaves in Egypt. They were originally promised, through Abraham, that they would inherit the Promised Land, but now they’re stuck. Their story has hit a dead-end. So the author connects Moses to the Creation Story as a way of showing that, through Moses, God was creating something new. There is reason, in the midst of their oppression and slavery, to have hope. If that connection wasn’t strong enough, Moses’ mother puts him in a boat made with bitumen and pitch, the same materials used to make another boat, Noah’s Ark, a boat that God used to create a new beginning for God’s people. By using these literary devices, the author is saying, “God is at work here, doing something new.”
But the story doesn’t only look backwards because hope also looks forward. We are told that Moses’ mom placed him in the ark and put him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Many years later, this same Moses will lead the Israelites to freedom from Egypt through what we know as the Red Sea, but what is literally translated as the Sea of Reeds. And when Pharaoh’s daughter names this boy Moses, because “I drew him out of the water,” astute readers will note that this same Moses will draw the Israelites through the water that will lead to their freedom. In this one story, we have an incredible reminder of God’s creative powers and an incredible foreshadowing of God’s liberating abilities. God will use this Moses to bring new life and direction to this dead-end story.
But that will only happen if the people that Pharaoh has discounted are courageous enough to act. Isn’t it delicious that the people who undo Pharaoh – Moses’s mom, his sister, and Pharaoh’s own daughter – are all of the gender that Pharaoh tossed off us not even important enough to fear? And yet, they all demonstrate amazing courage. Moses’ sister risks her freedom to connect Moses back with his mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter risks her father’s wrath by going against his command.
I believe the real hero of this story is Moses’ mother, who we learn a few chapters later is named Jochebed. Can you imagine being in her position? She has to reconcile her tremendous joy at giving birth to a son with her extreme dread of knowing her son is born under a death sentence. She does her best to protect him for three months, but must finally let go of him, placing him in a basket and entrusting him to the Nile. Moses floats from the safety of the amniotic fluid in his mother’s womb to the capricious waters of the river. What was Jochebed thinking when her hands let go of the basket?
What do we think when our hands let go of our children when they get on the bus, or go off to camp, or get behind the wheel of a car? I believe the whole art of parenthood is the practice of letting go. From the moment we cut the cord, parents have to learn how to let go of their children so they can become their own persons. That’s what we want, right? We want them to grow up to be the people God created them to be, we want them to be strong and independent and self-sufficient. We just don’t want them to do that without us. Like Moses’ mother, whether we’re letting go of our own children or saying goodbye to the children we’ve worked with during VBS, we have to practice letting go.
That is really a practice of trust, isn’t it? When we give over control of our children, we are trusting that someone else – a teacher, a camp counselor, a college professor – will step in and continue the work we’ve started. And ultimately, we are trusting God. When we cast our children out into the flowing currents of life, we are trusting that God is with them and will lead them to safe harbors. And when our children decide to steer their boats into rough waters, well, we trust that God is there, too. God can work through the most difficult circumstances of life, even ones of our own creation, to bring about good.
That’s what we see happening through Moses’ mom in this story. When Pharaoh makes his decree to have all the Hebrew boys killed, God doesn’t throw up His hands and say in exasperation, “Well thanks a lot, Pharaoh! Now what am I going to do?” God works through Pharaoh’s inhuman decision and Jochebed’s maternal instincts and the sister’s protective actions and Pharoah’s daughter’s desire for life over death to bring about good. There’s always going to be a Pharaoh out there, isn’t there? There’s always someone or something that’s threatening us or our loved ones with harm. There’s always plenty of reasons we can come up with not to act, not to trust God, not to believe that life is stronger than death. What’s your Pharaoh? What’s keeping you from trusting God? Is it a behavior or a circumstance in your life? Is it a person who holds you back from deeper faith? Is it you? There will always be a Pharaoh out there. But he’s no match for our God.
That’s what these women have to teach us today. With a mixture of fear and trust, Moses’ mom let go of Moses and entrusted him to God’s care. His sister kept a watchful eye on him, making sure that he was safe. Pharaoh’s daughter took him in and protected him. None of them sat idly by and set, “Oh well, it’s up to God now,” because God was counting of each of them to do their part, just as God is counting on each of us. There are situations in our lives where we have a role to play, an action to take, to live out our faith. We can sit back and wait for God to do something. Or we can realize God is waiting for us to do something. As we contemplate what we should do, may we remember the people in this story, who were willing to trust God enough to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. I pray we are as courageous as these women.