Perhaps the most important—and the simplest—lesson I received during the time when I was studying for my Master’s degree in biblical studies was this: Read the text carefully, going sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, slowly, closely examining every word. 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, and so on–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).
The birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10 is a good example. 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 New Revised Standard 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.” Nearly everyone I know is familiar with this passage, remembering the story of 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, 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 is actually communicated is that this mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child (because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives), enacts 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) suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understands 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.
Later in the story Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby boy and identifies it as “one of the Hebrews’ children”. 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 a 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 in opposition to her father and her father’s policies. Where Pharaoh uses his power to inflict indiscriminate death on a people he fears and 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?
Like the two other women we met in Exodus 1 (the Hebrew midwives), we witness two other women—this time from very different social locations–who model resistance to unjust power (wielded so far in the story exclusively by men). Moses’ mother and Pharaoh’s daughter show readers—wherever we fall on the spectrum—the practice of resistance to empire for which we are called during our time in history.
Director of Communications at Pax Christi USA