A Baby in the Bulrushes

August 21, 2011

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 10 
    Exodus 1:8-2:10

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


There was once a mother, who gave birth to a child in secret, placed him in a basket of bulrushes sealed with bitumen, and cast the basket adrift on the river. It so happened that the child was miraculously found, rescued, and rose to become the king.

So is told the origins of Sargon of Akkad in 2300 BCE [i], a thousand years before Moses.


The Moses birth narrative is part of the legendary liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, a land in which they had been allegedly treated like slaves. The story is well-known. Pharaoh was reluctant to let the people of Israel go, so to force his hand, their God sent ten fearful plagues upon the Egyptians. The Nile was turned to blood; the land ravaged by locusts and frogs; and finally all first born Egyptian sons were killed by divine edict. 


It is not difficult for us today to understand how a community living by a river delta could be afflicted by algal blooms, plagues, and disease, and how such things could in time be ascribed to a deity in retribution for human actions and be woven into a mythical story.


That mythical story continues with Pharaoh then acceding to the Hebrews’ request but later changing his mind. His army chased the exiting Israelites and caught up with them at the Sea of Reeds. There God opened the sea allowing the ‘chosen’ Israelites safe passage and drowning the Egyptian army.


There is considerable debate in the academic community about whether any of this happened, including whether Moses existed and whether even one tribe of Israelites once resided in Egypt. There is a 13th century text of the Pharaoh Ramses II who mentions apiru in building operations, but this term seems to refer to a social class rather than an ethnic group. Was this Exodus episode a successful peasant’s revolt and Moses a trade union leader? If it was it would have been a rare occurrence at the time and made a lasting impression.


There is one mention of Israel in an Egyptian text dated about 1230 but it is referring to Israel as a people encountered by the Egyptians in Canaan [read modern day Palestine]. There were a number of tribes, who in time came to constitute the Hebrews, living in the Egyptian West Asiatic Empire – which included Canaan – that collapsed around the 13th century. That collapse may well have given a sense of liberation to minorities within the Empire and may even have facilitated the physical movement of some of those peoples.


I think the bigger problem is not the historical accuracy but what the story says about God. God is portrayed as a murderous tribal deity who has little compassion for anyone but his own favourites. Surprising as it may seem, in time the Israelites would transform this God into a symbol of transcendence and compassion. And yet this one-eyed, vengeful God is continually resuscitated and brought out of antiquity whenever we want a deity who is unequivocally on our side. 


The notion of God is particularly vulnerable to being exploited and abused. The myth of a ‘Chosen People’ and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Exodus author [ii] writing in the 7th century BCE right up to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism that are unfortunately rife in our own day. [iii]


I think one of our tasks today is to talk about our bias, broadly defined by the lived theology of Jesus, towards those on the margins of our society without demonizing those who disagree with and oppose us. If we believe God is that spirit of justice and compassion who takes the side of the most vulnerable, then we need to also hold to the belief that the spirit’s purpose in taking sides is to bring us all into an equitable community where everyone is valued and loved.


This last week we have farewelled our former Governor-General and Bishop, Sir Paul Reeves, a great friend of St Matthew’s. In the funeral speeches there was plenty of recognition of his ability to listen, laugh, and build bridges between people. However you don’t build a bridge by standing in the middle. And Sir Paul definitely stood on one side, or rather with those relegated to the sidelines, like women, Maori, gays and lesbians...


Speaking of women let’s return to the Moses birth narrative, for its real importance is not its historical accuracy – the story-tellers having probably borrowed a well-known miracle-birth scenario – but its extolling of courage. Courage is the word I use for faith. It’s also a good word to use for God. God is experienced when we act with courage on behalf of the vulnerable.


The difference between the account of Sargon’s birth and Moses’ are five women. Firstly there’s Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives. Pharaoh wanted them to murder the male babies. Shiphrah and Puah however refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death. When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.” Shiphrah and Puah were health professionals in the best sense of that title, putting the needs of their patients before the dictates of their overlord. Honesty is sometimes not the best policy. Saving children takes precedence.


We are next introduced to Moses’ mother, Jochebed [Ex 6:20], and his sister, Miriam [Num 26:59]. Bravery is again to the fore. After his birth Jochebed hides Moses in her house for three months, stifling every little cry for fear that a neighbour or stranger might betray them. Then, in time, the family decides to place baby Moses in a basket, down by the riverside – ironically fulfilling Pharaoh’s requirements that babies be thrown in the river! There Miriam stayed and watched over her brother. Note the courage of Miriam when the Egyptian Princess finds Moses: coming forward, rather than scuttling off, and bravely offering a wet nurse [i.e. her mother] for the babe. 


The Princess could have easily have had the baby thrown into the deep. It would also have been easy to surmise, or see, the connection between Moses and Miriam, and deal with Miriam as one would with a lawbreaker. The princess realized that the baby is one of those ‘despised others’, a Hebrew. She also knows that her father has asked every Egyptian to throw these babies to their death, and yet she feels her heart moved to pity, and courageously acts on the basis of that feeling. 


The stunning part of the story though, the part that alerts us that here we have a princess worthy of that title (royalty is about using your power for good – not fancy clothes and smiles for magazines), is her claiming and naming Moses as her son. To save the baby’s life she could have taken him as a slave. That would have been enough to get daddy’s attention! If she liked Moses she could even have had him castrated and elevated to the status of a royal eunuch. Yet instead she takes this outcast, immigrant child, of the race her father detests, and invites him into the royal inner sanctum as her son.


Five courageous women – four Jewish and one Egyptian – saving a life of a baby whose only crime was to be born of the wrong race and the wrong gender.


I don’t believe in a God that sends plagues, kills babies, opens seas of reeds, or drowns armies. I do believe in a God who is the compassion we offer to the vulnerable, the tears and care we offer to the suffering, and the courage we exhibit in order to try and make a difference. I don’t believe in a God who has a ‘chosen’ people and therefore relegates others to an ‘unchosen’ status. I do believe in a God who speaks and acts in the bravery of those who defend the weak and withstand the anger of the strong.


So let’s bravely stand too with the mothers, daughters, midwives, princesses, and former Governor-Generals…



[i] A Neo-Assyrian text from the 7th century BC purporting to be Sargon's autobiography asserts that the great king was the illegitimate son of a priestess. In the Neo-Assyrian account Sargon's birth and his early childhood are described thus:


My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and ... years I exercised kingship.


[ii] This passage of Exodus is ascribed to the author called the Deuteronomist.


[iii] Armstrong, K. A History of God, p.28.

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