A river looms large in the narrative of Exodus. Exodus, of course, describes the suffering and oppression of God’s people in Egypt, and is the book where we read of their dramatic escape from slavery. Within Exodus, a river looms large – in fact it is the Nile River. And what we discover is that when the Nile makes its appearance in the narrative, it is often around themes of judgment.
This morning we are looking at a passage in the first part of Exodus, but later in the narrative we remember Moses making his appeal to Pharaoh: “Let my people go. Stop oppressing them. End their slavery.“ Of course Pharoah refuses to hear Moses out. He refuses to let the people go. The result of this refusal is the narrative of the 10 plagues. These 10 plagues are described as God’s response to the oppression of his people. The 10 plagues are the tool that God uses to change the mind of Pharaoh so that he will stop oppressing God’s people and will release them. And two of those plagues – two of these judgments against Pharaoh, implicate the Nile River. There is the plague of blood – when we read that the river turned to blood and “the fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.” And then there was the plague of frogs: “So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt and the frogs came up and covered the land.” The river is implicated in reality of judgment.
Earlier in the narrative of Exodus, in the passage we are looking at today, the Nile River also makes an appearance – but in that earlier instance, the River becomes a source of violence and harm against God’s people. In that earlier scenario, the King of Egypt, the Pharoah has become afraid of the Israelites. He had placed them under forced labour and under slave drivers. But the narrative tells us that over time, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. In other words, this slave people is a flourishing people – and the king is afraid of them. He is afraid that they will rise up against him. He wants to do something about their growing strength.
The king’s first attempt to bring them to heel is by making their labour even more difficult. We read in the first chapter of Exodus that the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and the with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.” But that first attempt to quash their growth and strength failed, they continued to grow. And so the Pharaoh tried a second plan. He tried to enlist the Hebrew midwives in his death-dealing agenda – he told the midwives that when a Hebrew woman gave birth to a male child, they should kill it. But through their cunning, the Hebrew midwives foiled the Pharoah’s plans, and would not become implicated in his death-dealing plot.
And so then the third and final program is launched. If the Hebrew midwives won’t kill the newborn Hebrew boys, then the king will enlist his own people in the task. We read: “The Egyptian King commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’” Here the river becomes a source of death and destruction for the Hebrew people.
This is not the first time in history that a river has been drawn into the reality and experience of human oppression and suffering. I recently read a novel entitled What is the What which is a fictional retelling of the story of the lost boys of Sudan. This group of boys was displaced by the civil war in Sudan, they walked through Southern Sudan facing innumerable threats, and eventually ended up in a refugee camp across the Baro river in Ethiopia. But some time after they took up residence in that refugee camp, a crisis unfolded in Ethiopia itself which suddenly meant that the refugee camp was no longer save either – in fact, as the Sudanese refugees fled back across the Baro river, they were attacked by Ethiopian militias. In the fictional retelling of the story we read of Valentino Deng’s swim back toward Sudan: “We were halfway across the river now, and my ears heard the hiss under the water and the bullets and mortars cracking the air. Each time my ears fell below the surface, a hiss overtook my head, and it felt like the sound of the crocodiles coming for me. I tried to keep my ears above the surface, but when my head was too high, I pictured a bullet entering the back of my skull. I would duck into the river again, only to hear the screaming hiss underneath.”
Jochebed is a Hebrew woman who has given birth to a boy in an oppressive and violent context – when Pharah’s henchmen are throwing newborn baby boys into the river to be drowned. Jochebed has kept the birth of her baby boy secret for three months – for three months keeping him hidden away in the house – silencing his cries as best she is able – keeping him out of sight, lest he be drowned in the Nile. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the boy hidden and so it is that we find Jochebed spreading a tar-like substance on the outside of a reed basket. The basket this Hebrew woman weaves is a fragile defense against the vengeful king. In the narrative we read how she placed her precious child in that basket, and then sets that basket hopefully among the reeds of the riverbank.
The command of the Pharoah had been for his people to throw the baby boys into the Nile. The Hebrew word used in the text is the word ‘abandon’ – the king wants them to abandon the infant children to the waters, abandon them to drowning, abandon them to death. The irony of this element of the story is profound as Jochebed releases the basket and the child to the river Nile. At one level Jochebed is obeying the command of the king, giving her child to the river, abandoning her child to the river. But the contrast couldn’t be clearer – the king calls for an abandonment to death, and Jochebed does nothing of the kind. She places the basket in the river with the love and hope of a mother who wants to her son to live. This little boy is not abandoned – His big sister stands watch. His big sister is given the task of watchfulness and care over the child placed among the reeds. The baby boy is not abandoned to the river but is protected by a small weaved basket, protected by his mother, protected by his sister, protected by the covenant God of Israel – protected against a violence that would destroy him.
It’s interesting that the Hebrew word used to describe Moses’ basket is the Hebrew word tevah. That word is used only one other time in the Hebrew scriptures – to describe the ark that Noah built. In fact, in older English translations of the bible, the word ark is used instead of basket. So in the King James Version, our passages is rendered: “And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes and daubed it with slime and with pitch.”
The use of this word is a reminder for us that the occupants of both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket were vulnerable and in a desperate situation. But the fact that the word tevah, ark, is used for both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket reminds us of the divine protection that is at hand. The ark that Noah built was deliverance for Noah and his family. And so the word reminds us that with Moses the divine protection is again at hand. So the ark of Moses will be for Moses’ deliverance. God is among his people. God is watching over his people. God is leading through the darkness. Through Miriam his older sister; through Jochebed his mother, God is guarding and watching over the life of this child.
The story continues and is rehearsed in short order. The daughter of Pharaoh comes down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walk nearby. She sees the basket among the reeds and sends her maid to bring it. When she opens it – she sees the child. He is crying. She says to herself, half aloud: “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” And she takes pity on him.
There is theme repeated in the opening chapters of Exodus as various women resist the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh over the Hebrews. The midwives Shiprah and Puah would not let themselves be implicated in the plan to kill Hebrew babies. Jochebed and her daughter Miriam together work for the preservation of the life of Moses. And finally the Egyptian princess herself joins in the resistance, granting a stay of execution to the child. She knows the command and determination of the king. But she takes pity.
Not only does this child receive a stay of execution. In the joyful telling of this story the baby’s mother is given an opportunity to contribute to his nurture and growth. One moment Jochebed is in the grip of fear – what will happen to the boy? And the next she has the confidence of being paid to nurse and nurture her own son. We read: “Miriam, who was nearby, said to the Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called Jochebed. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.” So it is that Moses is cared for at the hand of his own mother, in the house of his sister Miriam, and receives also the privileges of the royal house of Egypt. Through this dual citizenship, if you will, through his rescue from the river, Moses is well placed to act later for the wellbeing and freedom of his people.
The last verse of today’s scripture passage provides us with an interesting note as we work toward a conclusion. We read these words in verse ten: “The princess named him Moses, ‘because’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” This is an interesting note on which to end this morning because there is actually a bit of a problem here. You see the Egyptian princess wouldn’t have spoken any Hebrew. Yet here at the end of our passage the storyteller, the writer of Exodus, turns the princess into a Hebrew speaker. He turns her into someone who can explain the meaning of a Hebrew word. The word ‘moses’ after all, is a Hebrew word that means to draw out. The storyteller has this Egyptian woman, a non-Hebrew speaker, giving the Hebrew meaning of the name Moses. “Because I drew him from the water.”
Now as we’ve said, this Egyptian princess simply wouldn’t have known the Hebrew meaning of the name Moses. In fact Moses was a common Egyptian name that meant simply “to be born” or “boy child.” In other words, contrary to what the writer of Exodus says, in giving him the name Moses, the Egyptian was giving him a common Egyptian name – Moses, ‘boy child’.
But why, then, does the writer of the story put Hebrew words and ideas into the mouth of the Egyptian Princess? Why does the writer of Exodus have this Egyptian woman explain the Hebrew meaning of the name – ‘to be drawn out of the water’. Well, more than likely the writer of Exodus, who probably crafted parts of the narrative many generations later, didn’t know that Moses was a common Egyptian name. And so the writer provides a logical explanation of the name from his point of view. The baby was drawn out of the water, wasn’t he? So that must be why he has this name Moses.
But rather than putting the scripture writer on the spot based on our very modern preoccupation with the facts – perhaps we can push toward a deeper understanding of this passage by way of appeal to the Psalmist – the words of David. In fact, there is only one other use of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament – only one other use of this Hebrew word that lies behind the name of Moses. It is found on the lips of King David in Psalm 18. It is worth reading a portion of this beautiful Psalm as we conclude. David writes:
“The Lord reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters (there’s that word moses – he drew me out of the water). The Lord reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”
The story of Moses placed carefully in a basket by his mother; the story of Moses placed lovingly in the river; the story of Moses watched over by his sister; the story of Moses drawn out of the water by a loving princess; the story of Moses being saved to lead God’s people. All of this is Psalm 18 in narrative form.
The God we worship and praise.
The God we seek.
The God who shows his face in Christ Jesus
is a God who would lift his people out of the raging water, out of their strife and fear and abandonment to death..
The narrative of Moses and the Psalm of David are equally a prayer of God’s people for deliverance from the raging river we experience in different times and places – a prayer that we might learn to offer in faith and in hope – for ourselves and for our world.
“The Lord reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.