As I read through this story of the Pharaoh’s daughter finding a baby in a basket, I am struck by the strong females in this story. It’s not often in the Old Testament that we meet such women, as usually the stories revolve around the men and their roles in the lives of the Israelites, but here we have five women who are going against those in power and the unconscionable acts of their time. The most powerful man at this time in the region was the Pharaoh, or the king…. Two titles for the same man. He had seen the Israelite people growing in number and was scared, so he tried to destroy the most vulnerable, the lifeline of this group of peoples, by ordering the death of the boy babies. Some strong females, however, had other plans.
First, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are told to kill all the male babies born to Jewish women at birth. But putting their lives at risk they decide not to do this, and when the pharaoh demands to know why they have failed to carry out his orders, they use their wits and tell him that the Jewish women are not like the Egyptian women, and they give birth before they, the midwives, arrive. The pharaoh does not question this further, probably embarrassed to find out why this might be, or if there is truth to this as it would mean asking questions about the functions of a woman’s body during birth, and the midwives are free from his command to kill the babies. I appreciate both their strength to go against the pharaoh’s command in the first place, and their wisdom in spinning a story that he won’t question. As he already thought the Jewish and Egyptian women to be different, he just took Shiphrah and Puah’s word for it that their women were quicker at giving birth, like the animals he believed them to be!
And then we meet the mother of the baby who would later be named Moses. We don’t know much about her, but she had at least one other child at this time, a girl Miriam, who was at least old enough to negotiate with the Pharaoh’s daughter. At some point she also had another son, Aaron, who comes into the story later. Scholars say Miriam was at least seven years older than Moses, maybe more. Their mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a boy and hides him from Pharaoh’s men for three months. I imagine her trying to hush this baby as he cried, fearful for his life as the men tried to find all the baby boys to drown them. When the child was three months, already bonded with Jochebed, she realizes she can no longer keep him safe, and so she weaves a basket for him, takes him to where she knows he will be found, and hides him in the reeds.
The next woman we meet is Pharaoh’s daughter. I cannot decide if she has her dad wrapped around her little finger so tightly that she knows he won’t turn away a baby she brings from the river, or if the palace is so large and her father so distant, emotionally as well as physically, that she knows she won’t be found out. Whatever the situation, when Pharaoh’s daughter comes across this Hebrew baby she does not hesitate. She knows the danger, she knows her father has ordered all these babies to be killed, she knows exactly what she is doing,…. and she has empathy and does it anyway. She stands up to power, to what she knows is wrong, and takes the baby in. And I think she must have known when Miriam pops up out of her hiding place and offers to find a wet nurse for the baby, that it would be the baby’s own mother who would get to stay with him until he was weaned, so for at least the next three years!
While none of these women (and I’m including Miriam in this) held any power in the big structure of things, each was able to use the power they did have to make a difference against injustice. None could change Pharaoh’s mind to kill the baby boys born to the Jewish women, but each could save the lives they could by doing what was right in the moment that was before them. Each one saw the impossibility and insanity of the situation, and each one did something to bring about one little spark of hope, even as they grieved the losses they were surrounded by, the grief of the other mothers, the senseless killing of so many babies. Each one drew on some inner strength to take a stand for what they knew to be a step towards justice and hope.
I heard another strong woman speak these words this week:
Over the past years, a lot of people have asked me, “does going high still really work?” My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, ……. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.
But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one …. under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
I think this is what these women from today’s scripture did. The found a way to live together, even under the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh. They found a way to go high and work across their differences, with Moses’ mother keeping the baby fed and healthy even when she had given him up to the Pharaoh’s daughter. And the Pharaoh’s daughter trusted this, knowing that his birth mom was going to teach him the ways of his people, the ways of God, trusting that difference would be ok. Then, when Moses was old enough, he was taught in the ways of the Egyptians, and his birth mom had to trust that that, too, was going to be ok. Even the name, Moses, given to him by the Pharaoh’s daughter, was one that translated into both Egyptian (as rescued from the water) and Hebrew (as brought forth). Again, a coming together of the differences to allow a people to survive.
If, however, you had asked any of these women who they were, I doubt they would have said they were powerful, brave, or even change makers. I imagine they were humble and wanted to not even answer such a question. I wonder, if others had been asked, what they would have said. For all these 5 women were trying to do was to go high and save a life, to follow their compassion and passion and save one life at a time. They were not going up against the Pharaoh and forcing him to change, they were doing what they could do and change one life’s trajectory…. Not knowing that this would, indeed, change the whole nation.
Last week we met another strong woman who changed who we are today…. The Canaanite woman who asked Jesus for healing for her daughter. If she had not challenged Jesus, I wonder who we would be today, would be have a separate religion called Christianity? Would we be a group still only looking out for our own? Who would we be?
Jesus asked such a question in the Gospel reading this week. After this meeting with the Canaanite women things shift for Jesus, as he begins to turn to Jerusalem and his ultimate death by people in power who were afraid of him….. notice the returning theme! People in power wanting to destroy the life that might bring about their downfall, the voices that speak the truth, the ones who God has placed in a time and place to change nations. Jesus, in his turning to the acceptance of his looming death, asks, “Who do people say I am? Have people begun to notice who I am and what I am doing yet? Have those in power begun to recognize that I may be someone to fear? Have you grasped the enormity of what it means to follow me yet? Will you go to the cross with me, defeating the human made powers once and for all?”
The disciples try to worm away from the answer, except Simon Peter, now to be known as Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the future church will be built. He can see and name Jesus, saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As Christians we are not taught to shy away from speaking the truth, even speaking the truth to power. And we have many examples of how to do this in ways that are subtle, ways that changes nations, ways that go high, even when going “high means taking the harder path, means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top, means standing fierce against hatred.
Jesus went high, and it cost him his life. It’s a hard path to follow, but one that we must choose in order to bring life to things that need to change, to save lives no matter how inconsequential that act of one life may seem, to bridge differences and find ways to work together to enact courage and love. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And we see this, over and over, in today’s story of Moses’ early years. For if Shiphrah and Puah had carried out the orders to kill all Israelite boys at birth, if Moses’ mother had not decided to risk everything she could to save him, if Miriam had not stood by the river bank to make sure all was well, if Pharaoh’s daughter had not taken him in, if Mary, mother of Jesus had not said Yes, if Jesus, himself had turned away, then our world would have been very different.
Let us follow their examples and go high. Find ways to unite, to preserve life, to turn away from power that is undeserving of following. Go high, saying yes to the small steps that make a difference. Go high, even when it is hard. Go high, and proclaim that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, the son of the Living God, the God who calls us always to love and justice and life. Go high and find empathy and compassion for even just one other life, and God will use this to change the world!
 Michelle Obama