Exodus Reflections (1): Moses' Six Deliverers
Everyone knows Moses is the great deliverer of the Hebrew people. He took on Egypt’s Pharaoh and led his people out of slavery there through the Reed Sea and on Mt. Sinai where YHWH gave him the Ten Commandments for his people.
Yet not as many are perhaps aware that this august figure, the greatest in the Old Testament, himself needed deliverers. Six of them, in fact. And they were all women!
It’s of course a commonplace that the Old Testament is primitive and retrograde in its view of women. And in a lot of ways that commonplace is true. But less than you might think. There’s a surprising number of figures and stories that feature the strength and wisdom of women. And those about Moses’ six deliverers are important examples.
The Hebrews are in Egypt, having moved here to survive a famine, under the good offices of Joseph, Pharaoh’s chief administrator. He’s long gone but the people continue to grow like nobody’s business. And that pushes the paranoid button of a new Pharaoh who fears the danger these numbers might pose to Egypt’s security. He decides to go tackle this problem aggressively. He assigns two Hebrew midwives to kill off newborn Hebrew boys.
These two, Shiphrah and Puah by name, outfox the Egyptian ruler though. By the way, the narrator of this story never tells us this Pharaoh’s name. Menial midwives get named but mighty Pharaoh does not. That’s a clue as to who the heroes of the story will be! At any rate, they perform civil disobedience as refuse to do Pharaoh’s bidding. When he calls them to explain themselves they tell him a whopper that my seven year-old grandson wouldn’t believe. Those Hebrew delivered too fast and the midwives just couldn’t get there in time. Right! But Pharaoh believes them. FYI, the Pharoah was considered to be the epitome of wisdom in a country famous for their wisdom teaching. Yet he buys this tall tale from two Hebrew women!
Shiphrah and Puah are essential to Moses’ deliverance because their brave and faithful response to Pharaoh causes him to change tactics and order the murder of all Hebrew males under two years-old. This enables the next round of deliverers to step forward and play their roles in delivering the great deliverer.
A Hebrew couple have a baby boy and take action to protect him as long as they can. When hiding him is no longer possible, his mother, the third deliverer, constructs a mini-Ark to house him when she hides him in the reeds along the river bank. The boy’s older sister stands watch to see and respond to whatever happens to the child from there. We later learn her name is Miriam and she’s the fourth deliverer.
She watches and one day sees Pharaoh’s daughter discover the little Ark and the child and take him back to the palace with her (the fifth deliverer). Miriam manages to get Pharaoh’s daughter’s ear and propose that she find a nanny for the boy. Who does she get? The boy’s mother of course!
Thus, Moses is raised by his mother in the identity and traditions of his people in his formative years. This would hold him in good stead later on. When he is old enough Pharaoh’s daughter takes him to court and he receives his education there.
These five women, then, make Moses possible. Without them, he would have died early. That he didn’t is due to the cunning, wise, aggressive action of Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter.
Yet I said Moses had six female deliverers, didn’t I? This one comes a bit later after Moses receives his initial call from YHWH to deliver his people. However, the great would-be deliverer fails right off the bat. Apparently he has failed to have his own son circumcised, contrary to God’s command to his people all the way back in Genesis 17. YHWH takes deep offense at his handpicked hero’s disobedience. One night he ambushes the family while they sleep seeking to kill Moses. Zipporah, Moses’ wife understands the situation and takes quick action. She grabs a sharp stone and does what Moses had not. Then she wiped some blood from the foreskin on Moses, and YHWH ceases his attack.
A strange story, no doubt. But the one thing about that is clear is that Zipporah’s take-charge action saved the day.
So there you have it. Six stellar women serve to preserve the Hebrew’s great deliverer. Even Pharaoh’s daughter, an Egyptian, acts against her father’s edict to keep the young boy alive. A stranger prelude to the life of a hero in the ancient world can scarcely be imagined. That these stories were preserved and passed on in spite of the bias against women at the time and against the grain of patriarchal background out of which the Old Testament came speaks loudly about the direction women’s fortunes would take under the Bible’s God. There’s a long way to go on this score in the Old Testament, to be sure. But the journey on that way has begun. Actually it began earlier in the creation stories but that’s another tale. These stories may perhaps at least whet the appetite of women reading them to persevere and see where the story goes. Of course, I’m a male, and I might be wrong. But that’s how it seems to me.