by Doug Ward
In the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures we read about many champions of faith, people who walked with God and accomplished great things. Some of their exploits are summarized in lists compiled in the Apocrypha (Sirach 44-50, I Maccabees 2) and the New Testament (Hebrews 11).
Those who are celebrated in these lists are mainly male. (Sirach and I Maccabees 2 concentrate exclusively on men, while Hebrews 11 makes particular mention of three women.) But faithful women have also played crucial roles in God's plan, roles just as essential as those of their male counterparts.
Consider, for example, Israel's Exodus from Egypt. God raised up a special leader, Moses, to lead the Israelites to freedom. Of Moses, Sirach says that God
"made him equal in glory to the holy ones, and made him great, to the terror of his enemies. By his words he performed swift miracles; the Lord glorified him in the presence of kings. He gave him commandments for his people, and revealed to him his glory. For his faithfulness and meekness he consecrated him, choosing him out of all humankind. He allowed him to hear his voice, and led him into the dark cloud, and gave him the commandments face to face, the law of life and knowledge, so that he might teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees" (Sirach 45:2-5, NRSV).
However, when we read the book of Exodus, we quickly discover that Moses' great accomplishments never would have happened without the courageous deeds of a number of women. The purpose of this article is to celebrate these heroines of the Exodus.1
Preserving a Nation
Slavery and freedom were major themes in Israel's history from the beginning. Jacob's son Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen 37), but he later became the "prime minister" under the Pharaoh of Egypt, with wide-ranging authority to manage Egypt's economy (Gen 41). Joseph's wise planning saved many lives during a seven-year famine. At the same time, his policies increased Pharaoh's power and reduced many Egyptians to a position of servitude (Gen 47).
Through Joseph's influence, Jacob's family was granted the use of some of the choicest real estate in Egypt. But they were foreigners in Egypt, a fact that the Egyptians never forgot. When the Israelites continued to prosper after Joseph's death, jealousy toward the strangers grew. A new Pharaoh used his power-power that had been enhanced by Joseph's programs-to enslave the Israelites (Exod 1:7-11).
Significantly, servitude did not slow the growth of the Israelite population (1:12), a fact that points to the faith of the women of Israel. By continuing to bear children, these women expressed a faith that God would watch over them and their families, even in their condition of slavery.
It would have been understandable, given the circumstances, if the Israelite women had decided not to bring children into a hard world filled with suffering. Instead, they chose to obey God's commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." In doing so, they helped make the Exodus possible. After all, Moses would have been unable to lead the children of Israel to freedom if there had been no more children of Israel.
In response to continued Israelite fertility, Egyptians "were grieved because of the children of Israel" (Exod 1:12). From an economic standpoint, this Egyptian reaction is puzzling. More Israelites meant a larger supply of slave labor, which would seem to be desirable from an Egyptian point of view. However, Egypt's main goal in enslaving the Israelites was not profit maximization. National security was a greater concern (v.10).
At the same time, Egypt's next move-a plan to murder male Israelite babies-showed that Egypt did not want to completely wipe out its slave labor force. Indeed, that objective would have been accomplished more efficiently by the killing of female babies. To explain this plan, the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi proposed that Pharaoh's astrologers had made a prediction about a male deliverer of Israel who would be born to an Israelite mother.2
To carry out his brutal policy, Pharaoh summoned the leaders of the Hebrew midwives and ordered them to have male Israelite babies killed at birth. The midwives were thus faced with a supreme moral dilemma. Their purpose as midwives was to help bring life into the world, but they were now being commanded by the Pharaoh of Egypt, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, to betray that purpose. What would they do?
Courageously, the midwives elected to place their own lives in danger, deciding to "obey God rather than men." Instead of killing the male babies, they "saved the men children alive" (1:17). God then protected the midwives, rewarding their faithfulness. According to Exodus 1:21, "he made them houses" (KJV).
We are left to speculate about the details of this reward. Some have said that "making houses" for the midwives meant blessing and establishing their families. Others have suggested that the "houses" were emotional havens, states of inner peace resulting from the midwives' faith.3 Certainly readers of the book of Exodus over the past three thousand years have learned the names of the leading midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and honored them as heroines of faith.
Having failed to intimidate the midwives, Pharaoh turned to the Egyptian people, ordering them to throw all male Israelite babies into the Nile (1:22). For the Israelite slaves, Pharaoh's decree was devastating news. We read about the response of one Israelite family in the following verses:
"Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months"(Exod 2:1-2, ESV).
As we later learn, this man and woman from the tribe of Levi were Amram and Jochebed (6:20), and the baby was Moses.
Although Moses had an older sister, Miriam (2:4; 15:20), and an older brother, Aaron (6:20, 7:7), these verses give the initial impression that Moses was the couple's first child, conceived shortly after their marriage began. An elaborate tradition arose to explain this unusual feature of Exodus 2:1-2.4 According to this tradition, Amram became so distressed at the prospect of babies dying in the Nile that he decided to have no more children for the time being. To advertise his baby boycott, he publicly divorced his wife. The statement in Exod 2:1 that Amram "went" is seen as a reference to his leaving Jochebed in a divorce.
However, Miriam convinced her father to reconsider his decision, arguing that in a sense he was being even worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh's decree targeted sons, but Amram's boycott stopped the growth of the female population as well. Amram and Jochebed were then remarried-the marriage referred to in Exod 2:1-and Moses was born.
This imaginative tradition reads quite a lot into Exodus 2:1, much more than is warranted by the text. But as is often the case with such traditions, it contains a valuable insight, one that we have previously noted. Moses' parents showed great faith in bringing a son into the world under such circumstances. Their faith is memorialized in Heb 11:23:
"By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict" (ESV).
As the infant grew, Moses' mother faced a major decision. If she continued to try to hide her son, someone loyal to Pharaoh would eventually learn of his existence. She decided to place the boy's future in God's hands by setting him afloat in a basket on the Nile (2:3).
One tradition says that when Jochebed let her son go, her act of faith also benefitted all the mothers of Israel. According to this tradition, once Moses was placed in the Nile, Pharaoh was informed by his astrologers that the male child he feared had been disposed of and was no longer a threat. Pharaoh then lifted his decree, putting other male Israelite infants out of danger.
Saving a Savior
The basket in which the infant floated is called an "ark" in Exodus 2:3. This choice of words reminds us how much was at stake. Like Noah's ark, the basket protected the future of mankind. The boy in the ark was Israel's future deliverer, and out of Israel was to come the Messiah, Savior of all nations.
Rescue came from an unexpected source. The daughter of Pharaoh, who had come to the Nile to bathe, spotted the ark and had it brought to her. When she saw what was inside, she decided to spare the life of the child (2:5-6) and adopt him as her own (2:10). This decision was not without risk for her, since it violated the spirit of her father's decree.
There is a rich rabbinic tradition about Pharaoh's daughter, based on a fascinating verse later in the Bible. In I Chron 4:18, it is mentioned that a descendant of Judah named Mered was married to a daughter of Pharaoh named Bithiah (or in Hebrew, Batya, which means "daughter of God"). Not enough information is given to pinpoint which Pharaoh was Bithiah's father, but it would certainly be fitting if Bithiah were the Pharaoh's daughter of Exodus 2. Assuming such a connection, Jewish tradition sees her bath in the Nile as a proselyte baptism, a declaration of her allegiance to the God of Israel. In this tradition, God tells Pharaoh's daughter, "Because you have adopted this baby as your son and named him, I adopt you as my own daughter and name you Batya." Whether or not Pharaoh's daughter became a follower of the true God, the tradition correctly highlights the importance of her decision to save Moses, another act of courage that helped make the Exodus possible.
Courage was also shown by Moses' sister Miriam, who was watching as Pharaoh's daughter discovered her baby brother. Miriam boldly approached the Egyptian princess and offered to find a nurse for the infant. As a result, Moses' birth mother was able to spend a few more years with her son, cementing a bond that helped ensure Moses would never forget his true identity.
God used the faith and courage of a number of heroic women to preserve his people while in slavery and prepare a special leader who would guide them back toward the Promised Land. In the style of Hebrews 11, we might summarize their exploits as follows:
By faith the women of Israel continued to bear children even in slavery, looking to God for strength and deliverance.
By faith the Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh's order, understanding that God alone is to be feared.
By faith Jochebed placed her baby in an ark, entrusting him to a faithful God.
By faith Pharaoh's daughter rescued Moses, declaring allegiance to the true King of the Universe.
By faith Miriam approached Pharaoh's daughter, giving her brother a strong connection to his birth family and his people.
2See chapter 4 of Moses' Women. For Christian readers, Rashi's proposal highlights the parallels between Pharaoh and Herod the Great, who had all infants two years old and under in Bethlehem put to death after he heard that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem (Matt 2).
3Moses' Women, chapter 8.
4Moses' Women, Chapter 10.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 08 May 2011, 13:59.