Exodus 2: The Birth and Early Life of Moses

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This chapter begins with the story of one family, just a very simple Israelite family. Their story stands at the vortex of the conflict between Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boy babies and God’s promise to make of them a great nation. A man of the house of Levi marries a Levite woman. It is important to establish from the beginning that Moses derives from a priestly family. His parents will be named later on, but for now, they are simply introduced as being from the tribe of Levi. They have a baby, and it’s a boy. Normally this would be a time of great, great joy, but now they have to suppress their excitement and hide their child.

Despite this reality, the mother says something that is very interesting. The literal translation of the Hebrew is, “She saw him that he was good.” Some translations render this as being “he is a fine child” or “a goodly child,” but the words are “he is good.” It appears that she hides him because “he is good.” No one believes this relates to his physical appearance or his behavior as a small child. To do so would suggest that if he had been an ugly child or colicky, she might not have tried to save him. There has to be another explanation.

Scholars have noted that this phrase has been used many times in the Genesis story of creation. Seven times the text states, “God saw that it was good.” It is impossible to hear the statement of Moses’ mother and not to hear the echo of that now. The narrator provides this linguistic connection for the reader’s benefit. Thus far in Exodus, God has only been mentioned in the context of the midwives. As far as the Israelites are concerned, this seems to be a story of escalating oppression. First there is slavery; then there is covert slaughter; now there is overt slaughter. One might reasonably ask where is God in all this? These linguistic echoes of God’s words at creation serve to remind readers that God is right there, ever-present in the story and in their lives. The very existence of the Israelites is a fulfillment of God’s blessings. They are fruitful, and they have multiplied. Now, this child is “good.” Something special has been created here; this is a moment of cosmic significance. This is not just a birth story, but a new creation. The story continues.

“When she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch….” The particular Hebrew word that is used for basket only occurs twice in the Bible—here and for Noah’s ark. In both cases, bitumen is used to waterproof the “ark.” What is Noah’s ark except a life-saving vehicle for Noah and his family? In like manner, this ark will be a life-saving vessel for Moses. In both cases, the ark is totally dependent upon God’s beneficence and benevolence. It has no steering mechanism, or sails, or captain to move it along. Again, the linguistic connection is unmistakable.

“…she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Most readers know the later story as the crossing of the Red sea, except in Hebrew it is the Reed Sea. And scholars are quick to point out that his mother lovingly “places” him among the reeds. There is no suggestion of abandonment. So encased within the mother’s actions are some monumental points. There is a looking backwards, both to creation and to the life-saving event of Noah’s family during the flood, as well as a looking forward to the saving event of the crossing of the Reed Sea. And let no one forget that this basket is placed among the reeds of the Nile—the Egyptians’ killing ground, the place where all male babies are to be drowned. The tension in the story builds.

After his mother places him among the reeds, his sister stands “at a distance, to see what would happen to him.” She will also be named later on, but for now she remains nameless, silently watching. Sometime later, the “daughter of Pharaoh comes down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walk beside the river.” She is not named either, but her relationship to Pharaoh is made very explicit. As his daughter, she should, above all, be loyal to her father’s wishes and decrees.

Nonetheless, when she “sees the basket among the reeds,” she sends her maid to “bring it. When she opens it, she sees the child. He is crying, and she takes pity on him.” She presumes from the outset that this “must be one of the Hebrews’ children.” That suggests she knows about her father’s decree, though it is true that an unwanted child would oftentimes be put outside in the hopes that someone else would find it and, literally, raise it as their own. In this case, though, the swaddling clothes might have identified it as being a Hebrew child. Her quick assessment of the baby suggests he might be hungry. Springing into action, the baby’s sister appears from among the reeds and says to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”

Without comment on this sudden appearance, Pharaoh’s daughter says to her, “Yes.” So the girl runs off and calls the child’s mother. Indeed, Pharaoh’s daughter says to his mother, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman takes the child and nurses it. When the child is weaned, his mother brings him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she raises him as her own.

Later on when he becomes her son, Pharaoh’s daughter names him. This is another indication how very important names are, and it further serves to emphasize the writer’s intent to keep Pharaoh and his daughter nameless. She names him Moses, “because I drew him out of the water.” Despite that translation, she uses the active form of the verb, which means, “the one who draws out.” Many scholars have pointed out that the passive form, “the one who was drawn out” would have been much more appropriate. On the other hand, the active sense of the word, “the one who draws out,” once again foreshadows what he will be doing. His job will be to draw the people out of Egypt. And while this makes biblical sense, it is unlikely that she is versed in Hebrew, nor is it likely that she would choose a Hebrew name that would draw attention to his origin. If the etimology is Egyptian, then it means “to bear, give birth to.” It could also be a shortened version of the god Thoth, as in Thutmoses – meaning born of the god Thoth. Perhaps Moses’ arrival is an answer to her prayers, and she believes the gods have sent him to her. Regardless, the duality of his name matches the duality of his origins.

Some scholars have skeptically wondered whether Pharaoh’s daughter would have had the authority to do any of this. While it is true that no one knows exactly which Pharaoh this is, scholars point out that Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE) had 59 daughters. Furthermore, being a matrilineal society, Egyptian women would have had the right to own and sell property and transact business dealings. Additionally, ancient legal documents include provisions that regulate and protect the adoption of a foundling. Beyond this, however, is the realization that women have been instrumental throughout this story in protecting the Israelites from Pharaoh’s destructive decrees.

Next, several incidents happen in Moses’ adult life. The first one is that he goes out and sees an “Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” No one knows if “one of his kinfolk” is the narrator’s addition or if Moses really identifies with the Hebrew people. Nonetheless, he looks around, “this way and that, and seeing no one he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand.” He is not authorized to intervene in this way even as Pharaoh’s adopted son. The reality of the situation is that an Egyptian would never have gotten into trouble for beating a slave regardless of the circumstances. Scholars conclude that this incident indicates a compassionate nature in the face of any injustice. His hiding of the body, however, has led to further speculation. Clearly, he knows he has done something wrong. This provides a hint that all is not well between Moses and Pharaoh. While he has been raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s household, scholars believe he must have been aware of his dual heritage. There is no suggestion that Moses identifies as a Hebrew. But, if he had been accepted as a fully adopted son, he would have been exempt from any wrongdoing, a sort of diplomatic immunity, if you will. And that does not seem to be the case.

The very next day he goes out again and sees a Hebrew beating another Hebrew. He says to the one who is in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” It’s a tragedy when the Israelites are assaulted by their oppressors, but it’s far worse when they fight against each other. The man retorts, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Such a reaction portends a hard future for Moses because he will be both beloved and reviled by his fellow Israelites. It is too much to assume that this Israelite sees Moses as a future savior of his people, but the rejection of his leadership will become all too common. In this way, it already starts here.

But now he realizes that his secret is out; people know. Indeed, when Pharaoh finds out, “he seeks to kill Moses.” With his life in danger, Moses flees. He goes to the land of Midian. Because the Midianites are a nomadic people, no one knows exactly where this is, but it is definitely beyond the Egyptian borders, south and east of the Sinai Peninsula. He is probably about 40 years old by now, and will spend the next 40 years of his life in Midian.

Going to Midian provides many connections to the Patriarchs. Midian was one of Abraham’s son by Keturah, his wife after Sarah had died. The Midianites transported Joseph to Egypt so many centuries ago. Both Moses and Jacob flee to a faraway land, meet their wives at a well, and go home to her father’s house. And of course, fleeing Egypt foreshadows the Exodus. Later on there will be many conflicts between the Israelites and the Midianites, but for now, they embrace Moses and play a significant role in his life.