At this point, Jochebed enters the narrative. Amram marries her, and the narrator is careful to point out that both he and Jochebed are members of the Levite tribe. With the entry of Jochebed, the action moves from passive to active resistance. Jochebed gives birth to a boy, and hides the child for three months, but that soon becomes impractical. Pharaoh has decreed that her son be cast into the Nile, and Jochebed decides to comply.
When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch.
The Hebrew word here translated “basket” is tevah. This is the only use of the word in the Old Testament other than in the Genesis story of the Flood, where it is rendered “ark.” In case we miss this allusion to Noah’s Ark, the author mentions that she waterproofed this “ark” with “pitch,” similar to the coating used by Noah. The author wants us to see Moses as a new Noah, who will, we can now expect, be delivered from death in the water by this boat, and the watch care of God. The Osiris myth also held that crocodiles would not touch anything floating in a papyrus boat on the Nile, and would add some Egyptian mystery to the little craft, which might have a positive effect on whoever might see it.
She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him.
There is another interesting irony here. Pharaoh had commanded that Hebrew boys were to be cast into the river. Jochebed can surely argue that she is obeying the command. After all, she is putting her son in the river (a wonderful example of how the letter of the law and the spirit of the law can be opposites). Pharaoh intends that the boy babies will drown, or perhaps be eaten by crocodiles. By placing her child in this carefully constructed boat, and having his sister Miriam watch, she clearly intends for the child to survive. Think of it as defiant compliance.
Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river. Her maidens walked along by the riverside. She saw the basket among the reeds, and sent her servant to get it. She opened it, and saw the child, and behold, the baby cried. She had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
So far, we have had four named women involved in the efforts to preserve Moses. The two midwives, his mother Jochebed, and his sister Miriam. Pharaoh’s daughter makes number five. Her reaction is fascinating. Perhaps out of curiosity, she asks her attendant to bring her the basket she sees floating in the reeds. She opens it and sees the baby, who promptly begins crying. And immediately, she recognizes that it must be a Hebrew child, for the narrator has her declare explicitly, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
Being Pharaoh’s daughter, you would expect that she would share her father’s concern about the multiplying of the Hebrews. If she does, there is no evidence of it here. Quite the contrary. Again, the narrator leaves no doubt, by stating “she had compassion on him.”
Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Should I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?”
Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.”
The maiden went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.”
This is really quite an extraordinary exchange. Miriam emerges from the reeds , and has obviously heard what Pharaoh’s daughter said regarding the child, because she inquires as to whether she should find a nurse among the Hebrew women to serve as, essentially, a nanny.
Pharaoh’s daughter has to realize what is happening here. Clever enough to have identified the child as one of the Hebrew children, it certainly takes no great reasoning to conclude that the girl waiting nearby might well be his sister and that the “Hebrew woman,” she is going to choose as nurse will in fact be the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter reacts in an amazing fashion, really, telling Miriam to take the child with her to the nurse, and that she, Pharaoh’s daughter, will pay wages for the service.
Don’t forget, Jochebed is a slave. Pharaoh’s daughter effectively owns her. She need only command Jochebed to do her bidding, and she would be bound to do it. Not only that, as we have seen, Pharaoh’s daughter almost certainly realizes that the nurse will be in fact the child’s mother. So we have this extraordinary circumstance where Pharaoh’s daughter will pay a Hebrew slave woman to take care of her own son — a son whom both of them were obliged by Pharaoh’s command to drown in the river. Frankly, we can almost see the winks and nods as these women enter into what can only be described as a conspiracy to circumvent Pharaoh’s will. But of course there are no winks or nods, as the neutral narration indicates.
These women are far too wise to give even the slightest indication that they are maneuvering around the express will of the dominant man. Maybe I’m wrong, but it strikes me that women haven’t changed all that much in the last 3500 years. When women decide to outmaneuver a man, they know very well exactly how to do so, and with a straight face.
The woman took the child, and nursed it. The child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water.”
Moses means “drawn forth.” It seems a rather blatant declaration of what they were doing. Or perhaps it was a reference to the Osiris legend mentioned earlier, which, among other things, involves floating down the Nile in a papyrus boat. Perhaps the very ambiguity of the name acted as partial protection.
These women, and this episode in Moses’ life, you probably remember. The next one, far less likely.