Okay, this is the part where at least a thousand theologians share a corporate groan. What our culture has done to the biblically accurate imagery of the beginning of the Moses story is nothing short of annihilation. Though the basket in the river scene may not be the most important moment in Moses’ life considering everything that occurred from the burning bush to the delivery of the Law at Sinai, but it’s certainly one of the most iconic moments… We hear “Moses” spoken in a sermon or teaching and one out of three pictures pop to mind. The first two are probably the back of a man holding up a staff as the sea parts and climbs into giant walls; and then that angry moment, long beard whipping in the wind, holding aloft the stone tablets while wrath-lightning strikes in the background. So far as we can tell from responsible Bible study, these concepts aren’t completely off base.
The third picture, however, is of this popular theological train-wreck: A baby, in a basket, whooshing around on wild river rapids, barely escaping the gnashing jaws of alligators as he is ruthlessly bashed against the rocks and heavy reeds…and oh yeah, during all this thrashing about, the basket never has a lid (whoopsie, bit of an oversight there, Jochebed?…), so all this motion would have thrown the three-month-old non-swimmer to his watery death ten feet into his journey. (Watch Prince of Egypt again sometime if you don’t recall this depiction. This movie does very well in giving God much glory, and the soundtrack is simply beautiful. Nevertheless, the cartoon should never be the interpretive lens through which a scriptural passage is viewed.) Since, by some miracle, the baby in this scenario appears to miraculously survive for miles downstream to Bithiah’s bathing shore, we also fill in the blanks in our imagination of an endangered Miriam. There she is, twelve or so years old at the time, running through the thickets, tripping over sticks, skinning her knee on a stone—doing the opposite of hiding quietly in close proximity to the wild predators that would have been waiting for a meal to reveal itself at the water’s edge—as she rushes to keep an eye on the basket haphazardly carrying her brother. Then, at an abrupt dead-end of the Nile River where the former rapids inexplicably disappear and turn into a pond with Lily pads, Bithiah is busy maintaining the hygienic standards of the palace through a relaxing, routine bath. Suddenly, a perfectly clean, brand-new, untorn basket with a happy, cooing, totally untraumatized Hebrew baby floats into view, gliding across the calm, open waters. Bithiah orders her servant to retrieve the mysterious bundle, proceeds to name the child, and then takes him in with her to live in the palace from that very day forward, wherein he will never see his family or people again, and he will never know that he was a Jew.
Funnily enough, that’s not how it went down.
First, many miss the fact that Jochebed’s choice method to part with her son via the water was a technicality that placed her in obedience to the king’s command that all baby boys be “cast into the Nile River” (Exodus 1:22). This basket maneuver, commentators acknowledge, “is just within the law. She had indeed thrown her son into the river as ordered.”[i] Pretty clever mother, wasn’t she? Now, when Bithiah discovers the baby, Moses’ fate would not solely rely on a blend between her mercy for human life and her shamelessness in willingly disregarding her father’s own law about Hebrew offspring. Instead, when Bithiah discovered the baby, she would have immediately known that it was a silent petition for mercy from a Hebrew mother who actually obeyed the pharaoh, but whose son might be allowed to live due to a technicality. And don’t think this is all a theory based on pure speculation. Much other evidence supports this unspoken arrangement…
For example: The bath of Bithiah was not a routine act of hygiene. Under normal conditions, a royal princess of the palace wouldn’t have been caught dead taking a bath in the same river as the poor common folk. This would be far beneath her as a royal, and it is certain she had the option of cleaning herself indoors. At this time in Egypt, even regular, non-royal homes had bathtubs, if a person were wealthy enough to afford one. In fact, probably around five to seven hundred years before Moses was even born, affluent Egyptians had hot tubs—real, actual hot tubs big enough for several people to relax in. A giant bowl-shaped structure would be filled with water, and then stones that had been heated to the point of turning red would be lowered to the floor of the tub, increasing the temperature to whatever custom level of heat the group preferred. Because of the nearly-roasting climate of Egypt, these were more for therapeutic and medicinal purposes, not as much social. But also because of the climate and the sandy, dusty terrain, Egyptians in general had no choice but to keep themselves clean to avoid sickness and disease. This is part of the reason why hygiene was important in Egyptian culture, and why a royal would never, even for the sake of appearances, be seen cleansing her body in water shared by the poor, as well as frogs, bugs, and other potential yuck-factors. Her palace would have no doubt been equipped with multiple bathing facilities, and probably a shower, as those existed at the time also (a lower ceiling with multiple small holes would be installed in the bathhouse and servants would poor water over the top, creating a similar sprinkling system as what we have today).
Everyone else might bathe in the Nile, but not a rich person…and not a princess.
If the scholars are correct, this “bath” was the enactment of a solemn, religious ritual. It began with the royal family (or select members of it) bathing in the “sacred stream.” In Exodus 2:5, the Bible states that the maidens of the princess “walked along the riverside.” In proper cultural, historical, and lingual context, this is not describing a casual stroll, but a procession, a sort of “walking in a file line” sequence. The famous 1871 classic, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, goes on to say: “Peculiar sacredness was attached to those portions of the Nile which flowed near the temples. The water was there fenced off as a protection from the crocodiles; and doubtless the princess had an enclosure reserved for her own use, the road to which seems to have been well known to Jochebed.”[ii] In other words, the basket could never have reached Bithiah in the first place unless it was placed purposefully on the other side of the private fence leading directly to her. From technically acting within the limit of the pharaoh’s law to strategically placing her basket within the princess’ privately fenced ceremony zone, Jochebed knew very well what she was doing, and that baby was never thrashing about Hollywood-style over whitewater rapids.
In fact, in an oft-missed—but plainly stated—fact listed right in front of our faces, Jochebed placed Moses “in the reeds by the river’s bank” (Exodus 2:3) where the water was calm and the basket would have almost immediately become entangled between river plants anyway. The spot being described in this verse, scholars explain, would have been referring to “shallow water, where the current could not carry the basket away, with less danger of crocodiles than on an open sandbank or beach. There would also be some protection from the heat of the sun, in the reeds.”[iii]
Truth be told, though, it’s not a “basket” we’re really talking about anyway. Scholars do use the word “basket” during this discussion for simplicity and to avoid stopping for frequent clarification in their writings. However, this word is actually the Hebrew “boat,” appearing only in one other biblical account, there translated as “ark” (in the Noah story). What Jochebed actually built her son was “a miniature Nile boat,”[iv] experts say, which would have made any potential movement on the water easier and smoother than what we imagine when we think “basket in the river.”
Now, does some of Moses’ story look a little bit more like yours than it did fifteen minutes ago?
We have this idea in our mind that, for people like Moses, everything started off so grand right from the beginning. It’s all so huge and miraculous and sensational and opulent. Reading into the river verses the way our culture tends to is like taking an emotional journey through a barrage of thrilling, extraordinary, and romantic adventure. It’s the furthest thing from “relatable.” Then we look at how “regular,” “mundane,” “predictable,” or “anticlimactic” our own stories are by comparison, and we think, Okay, maybe Moses was a little eccentric, but I was never significant enough for God to have carried me through the rapids and past the mouths of hungry gators in a basket like that!
But consider what we’re talking about here. If we reimagine this scenario with all this information in mind, it looks much closer to this: Baby Drawn from the Water has mostly been chillin’ out under the shade of the reeds in a mini-boat, behind a safety fence, probably a few feet from where his mother placed him a half-hour or so before she knew that the princess would start her ceremony. He’s not sinking, because Jochebed has waterproofing skills (Exodus 2:3), but he’s not really going anywhere either, as his boat is likely wedged between two clusters of reed stalks. If anything, the breeze that is common near watery embankments is probably causing the reeds to sway, gently rocking our three-month-old back and forth, comfortingly. Miriam, far from panicked and out-of-breath, is sitting criss-cross-applesauce between the tall weeds nearby, watching calmly. She mindlessly fiddles with a stick, poking at the wet sand while she waits to see what Bithiah will do with the baby after his inevitable cries, coos, or fussing disrupts her ritual.
Yet—and this is the best part!—God’s power and provision is still woven all throughout this story, despite the fact that reality was a little less “bang! pow! pizazz!” as we’ve assumed. The theologians behind Jamieson-Fausset-Brown had this basket-in-the-river concept figured out a hundred and fifty years ago, and they shared our sentiment about God’s undeniable presence in the story quite vividly…all while acknowledging that the romance is still overwhelmingly present:
The narrative is picturesque. No tale of romance ever described a plot more skilfully laid or more full of interest in the development. The…ark [basket], the slime and pitch, the choice of the time and place…the stationing of the sister as a watch of the proceedings, her timely suggestion of a nurse, and the engagement of the mother herself—all bespeak a more than ordinary measure of ingenuity as well as intense solicitude on the part of the parents. But the origin of the scheme was most probably owing to a divine suggestion, as its success was due to an overruling Providence, who…preserved the child’s life…. Hence it is said to have been done by faith (Heb 11:23), either in the general promise of deliverance, or some special revelation made to Amram and Jochebed—and in this view, the pious couple gave a beautiful example of a firm reliance on the word of God, united with an active use of the most suitable means.[v]
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE A MISFIT? PERFECT! GOD HAS BIG PLANS FOR YOU!
Just because the truth is not surrounded by trumpet blasts and shooting stars doesn’t ever make it a lesser truth. When a true story involves an act of Divine intervention—a supernatural intrusion of the hand of God that redirects circumstances and inspires people to move along the path He paved toward optimal endings—that doesn’t go away just because the story is less sensational than the movie. God made Moses, God led Jochebed to devise a plan, and then God ensured the successful delivery of that baby boy into the hands of a woman who was likely the only one who could have saved him the way she did.
This is the same Almighty who made you.
The next time you’re tempted to say, “My story started off a bit rocky and dysfunctional,” remember that you might have more in common with Moses than you thought you did. And it doesn’t stop there. Let’s see what happens next in the Word, beginning at Exodus 2:7…
Dude…Who Are You?
After Miriam witnesses the princess’ compassionate expression, she slips from her hiding place and offers to retrieve a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, which was a plan that Bithiah found agreeable. Jochebed responds to the call, and then proceeds to take the baby home with her until his weaning year, which in that day was somewhere around four to five years old. This timing is in line with what we know of ancient Egyptian customs. It might be surprising to some of us today who would consider a kindergartner too old to still be breastfeeding, or to those who know the DreamWorks Animation Prince of Egypt version of the Moses story, but history acknowledges this as a commonality for many ancient cultures, as well as in the case of adoption. Mesopotamian adoption documents speak of the “foundling infants” who, for the baby’s best chance at survival in vulnerable time periods, were left to live with a wet nurse and encouraged to suckle at the breast for as long as possible.[vi] Only then would an official adoption be carried out. This is what technically takes place in Exodus 2:10, after the boy did some growing up already, as the front end of the verse states: “And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’” So it’s at this part in the story that, for the first time, Moses is assigned a name that the reader is privy to, and it’s also at this point that Moses begins to live in the palace.
Prior to this, his entire identity for up to and around five years of his early life was as a Hebrew getting to know his siblings, his parents, and his God. Jochebed not only got to remain united with her boy, she was even paid wages for her “services” in nursing him (Exodus 2:9). The question then becomes: Did Moses know he was a Hebrew? Or was he taken to the palace, raised as a high-ranking member of Egyptian society, flippantly ignoring the woes of his people? Does he, like in the movies and cartoons, stumble upon the cryptic hieroglyphs of some distant passageway at night with a torch—it’s the movies; you have to put the dramatic torch thing in there—discovering once and for all his true identity? And then, does this lead to his subsequent yet inevitable mental breakdown that ends in the taking of an Egyptian slave-driver’s life?
Even the most responsible Bible study and exegesis doesn’t answer all the questions we have about the approximate thirty-five year span between Bithiah’s adoption and the slave-driver’s death (Moses is forty when he murders; c.f., Acts 7:23). First of all, there is almost no dismissing Acts 7:25, which reads, without ambiguity, that “[Moses] supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.” This verse is wedged between the murder (that’s what we’re calling it for now…but keep reading) of the Egyptian and the confrontation by the angry Hebrew, whose words directly led to Moses’ flight from Egypt. Thus, the timing pretty much forces the idea that by the age of forty, Moses already knew he was: a) a Jew, and b) the deliverer of Israel. Additionally, Hebrews 11:24–27 clearly states that, “By faith, Moses, when he was come to years” (meaning also at this moment in time), his motive in leaving Egypt was (at least in part) to join his people Israel, suffer in their affliction, forsake his former life of riches, and fear God more than the pharaoh.
However, because of the lack of narrative during the palace years, the discussion has been put out there for theologians and exegetes to consider for thousands of years just how much Moses knew and when. (Though, we would like to point out that it’s unrealistic that he grew up a pomp prince, uncaring for the slaves outside, then killed an Egyptian and suddenly [and conveniently] fell under the conviction to join his people… Much more on this to come.) No matter how clear it might seem already, academics (and Hollywood producers) keep resurrecting the idea that Moses had no idea who he was, or whether he knew he was poised as deliverer, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, during speculative moments like these, we can read what the Bible says, and also consider what it does not say. Remember that this is Moses’ story, and Moses is credited as the author of Exodus. It’s his story that he’s personally documenting, and by the time we arrive at the very next verse in order, Exodus 2:11, Moses, in his own autobiographical admission, identifies the slaves as his “brethren.” If he had not known he was a Hebrew, if this had been kept a secret while he was brought up an Egyptian who “only coincidently had the same features and skin color as the slaves outside,” Moses would have had reason to document that relevant detail. It can’t be proven that he would have written that part, but it’s certainly logical. Many of these research materials about Moses generally agree that it’s the absence of any mention of concealed identity that best argues for the probability that Moses always knew who he was and where he came from.
In addition, scholars acknowledge that Moses spent enough time with his mother at home amidst the Hebrews and their culture during his early developmental years that it would likely be impossible for him to forget those memories completely. It even says in the book of Jubilees (47:9) that his dad had begun to school him: “Amram thy father taught thee writing.”
It’s nearly certain that, despite his youth, the conviction of the Hebrews around him was such that he would have had received as much education about Yahweh as his community could have pressed into his mind before he was turned over to be raised by the pagans. It’s also extremely possible that, as conversation took place with or around Moses leading up to the moment he would be placed in palace care, folks may have discussed whether Moses’ princeling rearing was a part of God’s plan to free them. In other words, it’s possible that little four- or five-year-old Moses not only knew all along he was a Hebrew, but also might have been groomed to some extent by loved ones to believe that his role in the palace would be the very tool by which the royal family would someday be challenged.
And why not? Sure, it’s only speculative (and we wouldn’t go making that into a movie or cartoon that further perpetuates erroneous concepts about Moses), but since we’re “bringing him to life on the pages” a bit right now, let’s go there…
King Evil says all boy babies die, and this one lived against all the odds. As sure as he’s alive, he’s back home, legally and under the sanction of the princess, herself, so nobody can stop Moses’ family from investing in him spiritually. In the future, as soon as he’s weaned, he will be handed over to royalty and raised as a prince over all of Egypt. As he grows, he will be interacting with, and possibly influencing, future authorities whose throne will one day determine the fate of the Jews. With this scenario as a backdrop, why on earth wouldn’t the Hebrews—or the whole nation of Israel, for that matter—be instilling into Moses the pride of his people and grooming him toward future intervention for them?
Food for thought, anyway…
The bottom line is that the Bible doesn’t say that Moses grew up in the dark regarding his relatives, but it does say that he recognized them as “brethren” even before the murder… So, for a moment, assuming his awareness, take a moment to imagine how much a misfit he would have thought himself to be:
- He’s not an Egyptian. Not really. Not by birth, anyway, which undoubtedly has its challenges in the palace. He’s going to look different from the others in the royal family and, these authors are certain, he will be treated differently from the others as well. Outside the palace, amidst his true family, he might be the embodiment of a hope glimmer, a tiny hero in training that twelve full tribes prayed for on the daily, a giant duck in the small and humble slave-pond…but he would not live with that support in his home. Inside the palace, we believe, there were those in his company that wouldn’t have appreciated a prince born from Hebrew blood and roots. There was probably some level of racial tension that Moses felt as he grew. Like a small duck in a wilderness-of-riches pond—he knew deep down he didn’t actually belong. How far that tension reached and the emotional effects it would have had on Moses is anyone’s guess, but it was probably present to some degree all the time—even if that was only manifest in Moses’ self-consciousness and not in any direct abuse, neglect, or disdain by the royals.
- He’s not a Hebrew. Not really. He may have been born of a Hebrew mother and father, but where it counts, he will never be able to say that he truly, deeply knew what it was to be one of his own. His privileged surroundings sewed a “seed of disconnect” between himself and the heart-cries of his oppressed relatives. The world of whippings, lashings, beatings, hard labor, dehydrated bodies under the sun, festering wounds, weakness, disease, and filth, all of that was outside…where “the slaves” lived. And he wasn’t one of them. Nor could he have honestly, deep down, sincerely enjoyed his individual liberty from that world. Though he wouldn’t come to full understanding of the extent of the Hebrews’ suffering until later (Exodus 2:11), his entire life, every time Moses heard a distant whip crack, or saw the erection of a newly built wall, he was reminded that it was his brothers and sisters out there. Each grand, opulent meal he attended in the palace—amidst countless servants who would tend to Prince Moses’ every desire—stood in sharp contrast to the humble dinner upon the Jewish table…a table that also might be entirely bare at any given time. No doubt, Moses cared. The later death of an Egyptian slave-driver by Moses’ hands is enough proof that he cared enough to defend them, proof he wasn’t calloused or aloof to his peoples’ hardships. His position in the palace and his faith in Yahweh absolutely did introduce a nagging guilt that lingered and hovered constantly, robbing him of the ability to completely relish in luxury while his people made bricks (c.f., Hebrews 11:24–27).
Therein lay the problem: Both the Egyptians and the Hebrews were “his people,” but Moses wasn’t truly “one of” either of them.
He wasn’t an Egyptian, but he wasn’t a Hebrew.
He wasn’t a prince, but he wasn’t a slave.
So, what was he?
…He was a misfit. And he felt it.
Moses didn’t “belong” for the first forty years of his life. And though the Word is silent on how he felt and what he thought during this thirty-five year period, we can imagine that Moses had his fair share of loner moments. His misfit rap-sheet was there from birth when he wasn’t supposed to be born. Then, it was carried into the palace where he was the illegitimate prince of slaves. And somewhere between his early years and the day he murdered an Egyptian soldier, his speech impediment developed.
UP NEXT: He Don’t “Word Good”
[i] Cole, R. A., Exodus, 64.
[ii] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary, 48.
[iii] Cole, R. A., Exodus, 63–64; emphasis added.
[v] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary, 49.
[vi] Ross, A., & Oswalt, J. N., Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus: Volume 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers; 2008), 293.