THE FIVE WOMEN WHO SAVED MOSES
The figure of Moses absolutely towers over the pages of the Old Testament. Moses is remembered as the Israelite leader who confronts Pharaoh and then leads his people out of Egypt and into freedom. Moses is also the one who receives the Ten Commandments from God and delivers them to the new nation of Israel. It’s through Moses that God establishes his covenant with Israel – the covenant that confirms Israel to be God’s chosen people. This covenant will be the overriding theme of the Old Testament. Again and again the question will arise: is Israel living up to this covenant? Every time the prophets call the people back to God, they’re calling them back to this covenant that originated with Moses. These prophets see themselves as carrying on what Moses began. Moses himself, scripture tells us, was a prophet without equal. As Deuteronomy puts it, “No-one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
While Moses was this heroic man of God who performed a whole series of mighty acts, what is often overlooked in the story is that there were five women who made all this possible. Without the actions of these five women – who were each heroes in their own right – the story of Moses would have been over before it began. These five women literally saved Moses, and they put their own lives in danger to do it.
The story of Moses begins even before Moses’ birth. It begins with the rise to the Egyptian throne of a new Pharaoh. This Pharaoh had never heard of Joseph, the man with the coat of many colours who had faithfully served as prime minister of Egypt, and who had brought his family down from Canaan to settle in the land. The new Pharaoh only knew that Joseph’s Hebrew descendants had flourished in Egypt, and had increased greatly in number. The Hebrews understood this to be the blessing of God. But Pharaoh didn’t see it that way. He didn’t recognize God’s life-giving purposes at work. He just saw a threat to his power. He was disturbed to see such a large group of foreigners in his land, so he decided to do something about it.
His first thought was to bring the Hebrews under his control. So he made them slaves. But Pharaoh still feared them. That fear led him to an even more ruthless plan of action. He ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male babies as soon as they were born. There’s a word we have for that today. The word is genocide.
But Pharaoh didn’t know who he was dealing with when he gave this order to the Hebrew midwives. These women were so remarkable that their names have been preserved for us, these thousands of years later. Their names were Shiphrah and Puah. It’s says something that we know their names, but we don’t actually know the name of the Pharaoh.
It was soon clear that Pharaoh had more than met his match when Shiphrah and Puah refused to do what he told them. They feared God, but they didn’t fear Pharaoh, so they let the boys live. When Pharaoh found out, he called them in and demanded to know why they had done this. But Shiphrah and Puah were not intimidated. The explanation, they said, was that the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before the midwives arrived.
This explanation, it has to be said, wasn’t entirely the truth. In fact, it wasn’t true at all. But if Shiphrah and Puah were guilty of deception, it was a small thing compared to the monstrous atrocity that Pharaoh wanted carried out. They had decided that they were going to obey God, not Pharaoh, and in this situation they were confident that God would not frown on their deception. By standing up to Pharaoh in this manner, they had thwarted his death-dealing ways.
And even more than that, by standing up to Pharaoh, they had saved Moses’ life. They had made it possible for Moses to be born safely. If Shiphrah and Puah hadn’t bravely stood their ground, Moses would never have survived to become the great liberator of Israel.
But if God’s life-giving ways had prevailed over Pharaoh by means of Shiphrah and Puah, that didn’t mean the danger was over. Pharaoh would not give up easily. He was determined to impose his evil will on the Hebrew people, so he issued a new order: every male child that was born was to be thrown into the Nile River. Only the girls would be allowed to live.
But if Pharaoh was only afraid of the Hebrew males, he was seriously underestimating the Hebrew females. Already two Hebrew women had frustrated his plans. And they would not be the last.
When a boy was born to a man of the house of Levi, the terrible impact of Pharaoh’s order hit home. This child too, according to Pharaoh’s decree, was to be drowned in the river. This child was none other than Moses. Moses’ mother was well aware of what Pharaoh had commanded. But she was determined to save the life of her son. For three months she hid him. It was a dangerous thing to do. And it soon became clear this wasn’t a strategy she could continue indefinitely. So she came up with another plan.
The Pharaoh had ordered the male infants put into the river. Alright, Moses’ mother said, I will follow the Pharaoh’s command. But I will put the child in the river - in something that will float.
And that’s what she did. She got a basket made of reeds and coated it with tar and pitch. She turned it into a little ark, in which God’s chosen would ride above the waves and sail to safety.
Of course, setting your child adrift on the mighty river Nile is not exactly a safe thing to do. So Moses’ mother enlisted the help of Moses’ sister to watch from the river bank, to see what was going to happen to him. Moses’ sister was just a girl, but she became the fourth female to have a part in saving Moses.
It turned out that Moses was put into the Nile at the very moment that Pharaoh’s daughter was coming down to the river to bathe. Perhaps that was a coincidence – of the kind that God is well-known for orchestrating. Or perhaps Moses’ mother knew exactly what she was doing. Perhaps she timed the launch of Moses’ little boat so that it precisely coincided with the arrival of Pharaoh’s daughter. If this is what she did, she no doubt prayed with all her heart and soul that Pharaoh’s daughter would take pity on this helpless child.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened – and Pharaoh’s daughter would become the fifth woman to have a part in saving Moses. When she looked at this Hebrew baby among the reeds, her heart went out to him. She knew what was going on. She knew all about her father’s order. But she refused to go along with it. She decided to save this Hebrew child’s life.
It was at this point that Moses’ sister did some quick thinking. She rushed over to Pharaoh’s daughter and offered to help. She asked if she should go and fetch one of the Hebrew women. She said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”
It was an ingenious idea, made all the more so by the fact that it was the child’s own mother that she had in mind. Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t realize this – again, perhaps there’s an element of deception. She seemed to think she was hiring a nurse maid – and she was quite willing to pay for it. So Moses’ own mother nursed him, and was paid for doing so. In due time, she took the child to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as a son, and gave him an Egyptian name – Moses.
Pharaoh’s daughter was not a Hebrew – but she displayed the same kind of courage and compassion as the four Hebrew women in this story. She may have been the daughter of the king, but even the daughter of the king was taking a risk by defying her father’s decree. She could have just kept walking along the bank of the river. She could have just looked the other way. She could have just ignored this helpless child. But she didn’t do that. She heard his cries and took pity on him.
There’s an ancient rabbinic tradition that speaks very highly of this Egyptian princess. According to this tradition, God told her that because she took in a child that was not her own, and called him her son, God would take her in and call her his daughter. And just as she gave Moses a new name, God gave her a new name. Instead of being called, in Hebrew, bat-Par’oh, the daughter of Pharaoh, she would be Bat-ya, the daughter of God.
Her actions, together with the actions of the other four women in the story, went a lot further than just saving a single Hebrew child. Because this child was Moses, saving him ultimately had the effect of saving the entire Hebrew people. As a man, Moses would lead his people out from under Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. He would form them into a nation that would be set apart by God. And ultimately this nation would give birth to Jesus, who would bring salvation not just to those who belonged to Israel, but to everyone on earth who put their faith in him.
These five women, then, are indispensible to the story of salvation. They are absolutely key to God’s plan of redemption. Without their courage and their compassion, the story of salvation would have been brought to a stop before it had even started. Think of it: we wouldn’t be here today if it had not been for the actions of these women. They truly should be remembered as heroes.
As with all heroes, their stories serve as an example for us to aspire to. When the times are evil, and the powers and principalities opposed to God’s rule seek to have their murderous way, the example of these women is particularly relevant. We see that in the book of Acts when the apostles are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus. Those in power are resisting God’s rule. They want all mention of Jesus to come to an end. But the apostles refuse to submit to what the authorities demand. They say to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than human beings.” They will not be muzzled, because ultimately it is God they must answer to, not the Sanhedrin – and God’s plan of salvation requires that the message about Jesus be spread – not just in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In standing up to the Sanhedrin, the apostles were courageous in doing the right thing – in doing what God had called them to do. But they were by no means the first to display such courage. The five women who saved Moses had done the very same thing long before them.
The amazing thing about these women is that they are, with the possible exception of the Pharaoh’s daughter, ordinary people. Their actions are heroic, and yet at the same time these actions are very simple. Anybody could have done them – anybody who had enough courage and enough compassion.
Many studies have been done of that dark period in modern history when the Nazis ruled most of Europe. There’s been a lot of interest in how people during this time responded to the Holocaust – the mass rounding up and killing of millions of Jews. What about the people who were neither Nazis nor Jews? What did these bystanders do when they saw what was going on around them? Sadly, the majority of these bystanders did nothing. They turned away from what they saw. They didn’t try to do anything to save the lives of those who were in mortal danger.
But even though most people did nothing, there were a few who did take action. These were the ones who, at the risk of their own lives, hid Jews and helped them escape. The story of Corrie Ten Boom’s family in the Netherlands is one of the most famous examples of this. This raises the question, why did these people take action when so many bystanders did nothing? What researchers have found is this: the bystanders who took compassion on the Jews were people who had already been doing small acts of compassion in their lives. They had been faithfully acting with compassion for a long time before the Nazis showed up. They had already made a commitment to live this way. So they were primed and ready to act compassionately when it suddenly became a matter of life and death.
There’s a lesson in that for us. We don’t currently live at a time and in a place where acting compassionately is a matter of life and death. But we never know when we might be called upon to put courageous compassion into effect. The way for us to be ready is to practice – it’s to do small acts of compassion right now, so that we weave compassion into the very fabric of our lives. That way we will be prepared if we are ever called upon to display compassion in dangerous times.
And there’s something else about those small acts of compassion – we never know what their long term effect is going to be. What may seem like a small gesture may have immense implications. After all, five women saved a single child, and the course of human history was forever changed.