Sunday School Re-Visited Series
June 22, 2014
This morning we are continuing our “Sunday School Revisited” worship series. There are certain biblical stories many of us heard as children in Sunday School–stories like Creation, and Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the whale, and today’s story of baby Moses floating in a basket down the Nile river–stories that, as a child, I just took for granted as “church stories.” Yet as I got older and looked at the Bible from a more mature perspective, many of these stories did not seem like cute little kid stories. In fact, many of them seemed quite complicated–and even disturbing.
As we talked in worship committee about what to do for the summer series, this idea of “Sunday School stories” came up, and it turns out I’m not the only one to have an ambiguous relationship with some of these well-loved tales. Thus was born our summer focus on “Sunday School Revisited.” I am really looking forward to this series–both the opportunity to wrestle with some of these stories myself and the chance to hear others explore these familiar (and one not-so-familiar) texts.
We began, appropriately, with Creation in Genesis. And now I get to move into Exodus and think about baby Moses and his little boat ride down the river. I remember that as a child I loved this story. I mean, really really loved it. The little boat. The little baby. The unexpected rescue. The heroic big sister. (I was, after all, also a heroic big sister.) I honestly don’t remember what kind of lesson or moral my early Sunday School teachers pulled from this story, just some vague recollections of coloring in pictures of baskets and water and bulrushes.
I also remember that this was presented as a story about Moses–the beginning of the larger Moses saga; part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.
It’s easy to see, of course, from an adult perspective, that Moses is not the hero in this story. Moses is just a little baby. It is the women who are the true heroes of the story. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.
The story really begins not with Moses’ mother putting him in the basket, which is where we always started in Sunday School, but with the two Hebrew midwives Shiphra and Puah. Actually, the story starts with the Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrew people–these descendants of Joseph who are thriving in their new home of Egypt. This fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions.
Pharaoh insists that Shiphra and Puah kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women.
As readers, at this point we already know a couple of things about this particular Pharoh: he is paranoid and he is ruthless. Two qualities that would make me think twice about going against his orders. Shiprah and Puah, though, know the Pharaoh better than we readers do. Yes, he is paranoid and ruthless. But he is also, apparently, not too bright–at least not when it comes to matters of childbirth. The midwives come up with some story about the Hebrew women being more “vigorous” than Egyptian women. “They give birth before we even get there,” the midwives insist. And through a combination of his ingrained ignorance and prejudice, Pharaoh buys this explanation.
So it is thanks to Shiprah and Puah that Moses–and many other Hebrew boys–survive their births. But, since the midwives are not cooperating, Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile. Can you imagine a community where one group of people is instructed to take the boy babies of another group of people and throw them in the river? Can you imagine living in Iraq right now where your identification as Shiite or Sunni might get you killed? I heard an Iraqi woman this morning on NPR talking about the day armed men stormed her village and simply took away her brother–who has four daughters.
This story of the cute baby in a basket is set against a very troubling background. The mere thought of infanticide is, of course, deeply distressing. Then add to that this dynamic of all of Pharaoh’s people being instructed to be agents of this brutality . . . somehow we didn’t dwell much on this aspect of the story when we talked about it in Sunday School.
Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, has a baby. I imagine she was not happy to discover it was a boy. To be honest, at first I was a little bothered by the brief statement in verse 2: “When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.” I thought, well, what if he had not been a “fine child”? Would she have just let him be thrown in the Nile?
But then I thought, “What parent doesn’t think their newborn is a ‘fine child’?”. This wrinkled, squawking, mess of a mini human emerges into the world and the parents are beside themselves. Every newborn is the most beautiful baby in the world, destined for greatness, loved and adored. For Moses’ mother, I’m sure that Miriam was also a “fine child.” And Aaron. And now this unnamed boy whose life is in danger.
And I learned something interesting about the Hebrew in this passage. The phrase used here, ki tov, is the same phrase God uses in Genesis to describe Divine delight in creation: “God saw that the light was good.” The land produces plants of all kinds, and God saw that it was good. God creates wild animals, and God saw that it was good.
Moses’ mother gives birth to a boy and she sees that he is good.
And because she sees that he is good, she hides him for three months. This is another part of the story we never talked about in Sunday School. In Sunday School, Jochebed’s big accomplishment is hiding her son among the reeds in the basket. But now that I’ve raised an infant myself, I realize that hiding a baby for three months would be the hardest part of the whole endeavor. For one thing, I assume she was pregnant before she gave birth, which means people would have known a baby was coming. For another thing, babies cry. A lot. Plus, Aaron was about three at the time. Have you ever tried to get a three-year-old to keep a secret? There is a whole lot of skill and effort behind that little bit of the narrative: “she hid him for three months.”
The basket, of course, seems inevitable to us. It is the foundation of the Moses story. But from the text it seems like the basket was more of a last minute effort when Jochebed figures out she isn’t going to be able to hide the baby forever. Maybe the authorities have been asking questions or a nosy Egyptian neighbor came knocking on the door one night when the baby was crying too loud. Or maybe the baby is just getting too big and the stress is getting to be too much. For whatever reason, Moses’ mom is done hiding him and decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put him in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float.
I guess it makes sense that as a child I tended to place myself in the place of Moses when I heard this story. Floating down the river in a little mini boat seemed like it would be a grand adventure. But now that I am a mother, I think more about poor Jochebed, placing that basket–with her youngest son inside–among the reeds in the Nile. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket, except that she had to.
Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. Maybe Moses’ mom had to go back home to watch three-year-old Aaron. Or maybe she just couldn’t bear to watch that basket herself. So Miriam is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water.
That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.
What was Miriam thinking as she hid at a distance watching this scene? Was she relieved that the baby was found? Terrified about who found him? Possibly relieved and terrified at the same time? One thing is for sure, she did not want to have to go home and tell her mother that the baby had, after the hiding and the basket, been thrown into the Nile anyway. So Miriam hid and watched.
And what Miriam saw was shocking, really. Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.
Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!
Of course, once the child is weaned, Jochebed must return him to the Pharaoh’s daughter. So this is not quite a happily ever after story. But it also is not the tragedy it could have been. Moses’ story should have ended before it even began. He should have been killed by his mother’s midwife. And if not that, he should have been seized by loyal Egyptians and thrown into the the Nile. And if not that, at the very least, when Pharaoh’s own daughter found him, she should have carried out her father’s wishes and drowned the enemy.
But the women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. The midwives fear God more than Pharaoh. Jochebed’s love for her “fine child” is stronger than her fear of Pharaoh. Miriam is perhaps simply too young to know she should be afraid. And Pharaoh’s daughter . . . well, somehow she just knows that daddy won’t punish his little princess . . . I guess.
Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: the character with the least to be afraid of is the only one controlled by fear. It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.
Friends, we still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.