The Baby in the Basket
Exodus 1:8 - 2:10
There arose a new king over Egypt, one who knew nothing of Joseph.
He said to his people, "See, the Israelites have become
too many and too strong for us. Let us deal with them
cunningly, to prevent them multiplying further. We must not let
it happen that, if we are at war, they join our enemies and
fight against us and escape from the land."
So they set taskmasters to force them to engage in heavy labour. That is how the store-cities of Pithom and Rameses were built. Yet the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied. The Egyptians hated the sight of them, and treated their Israelite slaves with the utmost severity. They had to work at clay and brick-making, and at all kinds of labour in the fields.
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, "When you are attending the Hebrew women in childbirth, kill the child if it is a boy. You can let the girls live." But the midwives were God-fearing. They did not obey the king's orders, and let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called them to account: "Why have you let the male children live?" The midwives replied that Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women - when they were in labour they gave birth before the midwife arrived. So God prospered the midwives; and the people grew in numbers and in strength. Because the midwives feared God, God gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded his own people to throw every new-born Israelite boy into the Nile, but to let the girls live.
A descendant of Levi married a Levite woman, who conceived and bore a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a basket made of bulrushes, sealed it with clay and pitch, put the child in it, and placed it among the reeds at the river's edge. The child's sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. Pharaoh's daughter came down to bathe at the river, while her servant-girls walked along the bank. She noticed the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she opened it she saw the child. He was crying. She felt sorry for him, and realised that this was one of the Hebrews' children. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and fetch one of the Hebrew women to suckle the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter told her to go, so the girl went and called the baby's mother. And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child away, and nurse him for me, and I myself will pay you for it." So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child was old enough she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him and named him Moses, "because" she said, "I drew him out of the water."
In my mind's eye I still see a faded old Victorian picture that used to hang on the wall of a Sunday School room. Its subject was Moses among the bulrushes.
The scene was the river Nile. You could tell that by the tall, feathery reeds that filled the background and most of the river. On the bank stood an Egyptian princess. She was young and beautiful and she wore a kind of crown with a snake on the front of it. Behind her stood a Negro slave, swinging a huge fan of feathers. It must have been very heavy, because it was drooping over the head of the princess, without quite touching her.
According to the Bible, she'd gone to the river to bathe, but there was no sign of that. In fact I'm not sure what sort of bathing suit an Egyptian princess wore. After all, she was an ancient Egyptian, and maybe they just stepped into the water with all their clothes on.
But she wasn't going to be swimming that day. Not her. She was staring at a woven basket held up by a servant, and there was a baby in it. At least you could just see his arms, and the princess was smiling, so you knew it was going to be all right.
She would take baby Moses, and hide him away from the wicked king who wanted to kill him, and all the Hebrew boys. And then Moses would grow up and save his people, and lead them out of Egypt.
There was something else about that picture too. If you took your eyes off the princess and the baby, and looked very hard, you could just see two women hiding in the bulrushes. And the teacher explained they were Moses' mother and his sister; they'd put the baby there, hoping it would be found and picked up and looked after, just like the princess was going to do.
It all seemed like a fairy story in the making, and my young mind could take all the magic that was going then.
It wasn't until years after that I could begin to imagine the sheer terror and desperation that must have driven any mother to such an act. And it's taken even longer to comprehend the instinct, the maternal faith that could believe a helpless baby might call forth love and compassion, when everything else had failed.
What a risk! Suppose one of Pharaoh's baby-hunters had found Moses first. Suppose the princess had turned out to be as cruel as her father. What desperate daring to leave a baby in a basket in such a world.
But Moses wouldn't have even made it to the basket, had it not been for another couple of women; and their story is hardly known at all.
According to the Book of Exodus, when the ruler of Egypt first became alarmed at the rapid growth of the slave population of Hebrews, he thought up a simple but effective means of birth control. He sent for the two women who acted as midwives for the tribe. Their names are remembered: they were called Shiphrah and Puah. They were told, 'When you help the Hebrew women give birth, see that the baby dies if it's a male. But if it's a girl, let it live.'
It really was a brilliant idea. Zero population growth without obvious brutality. Insidious weakening of the stock, without any need for the Egyptian equivalent of gas-chambers. Birth was always a hazardous business, and slave mothers were undernourished and weakened by work. How natural that the mortality rate should climb. How unlucky that so few sons were being born.
But the midwives made their own choice between life and death; not knowing what would happen to themselves, but certain that hands which had eased so many births could not now become the instruments of murder. And when it became obvious that they weren't obeying the royal command, and they were sent for by Pharaoh, they had their answer ready.
The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women', they told him. 'They give birth very easily, and their babies are born before either of us gets there.' Which must have sounded technical enough to be convincing; for the midwives survived - to have their own families.
If what they did seems heroic, don't think it was easy. We who get shivers up and down our spines if a traffic officer stops us and starts the long slow walk back to our car can hardly imagine what it must have been like for those two women to defy the ruler of Egypt.
Two slaves against the supreme, even magical power of Pharaoh.
Faith is always an act of courage and daring, but it's more than that. As the women in the Moses story show, faith is the expression of a strong and positive belief in life. Faith will save the baby in the basket.
© Colin Gibson