Moses’ Two Mothers

On this Mother’s Day I want to reflect on the life of a blessed son who had two special mothers who dearly loved him. The story of this blessed son is found in chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Exodus. These chapters tell the story of the birth of a baby boy who grew up to become the leader of his people and who eventually delivered them from their oppressive situation in Egypt.

Moses Saved from the Waters
Orazio Gentileschi (1633)

The Women of Exodus

The book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible is called shemot, “the names.” And yet, for a book that emphasizes names, the names of Moses’ two mothers are not mentioned in these two chapters, as if the author of the book was concealing the names of the people involved in the birth of Moses in order to maintain the safety of the child. The name of Jochebed, Moses’ birth mother, is only mentioned later in the book, when the genealogy of her husband is given.

Moses was born at a time when “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This pharaoh was afraid of the Hebrews because they had become a multitude in Egypt and he was afraid that the Hebrews would join the enemies of Egypt and take control of their land. So, pharaoh ordered that all boys born of Hebrew women should be thrown into the Nile so that they could die (Exodus 1:22).

The purpose of killing baby boys was an effort at killing a nation, for as Siebert- Hommes wrote, “Without sons, the history of a nation has no future” (2011: 298). With the future of Israel threatened because of the killing of all baby boys, several women acted to provide a future for Israel by saving the life of one baby boy.

Several women were involved in the survival of baby Moses. These are all the women who worked to save the child: the two midwives, his sister Miriam, Moses’ mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter. These five women were behind the events that saved the life of the child who eventually would become the leader who delivered Israel from their oppressive situation in Egypt. J. Cheryl Exum (1994: 52), discussing the role of these women in preserving the life of Moses wrote, “without Moses there would be no story, but without the initiative of these women, there would be no Moses.”

Shiphrah and Puah, the Midwives

The two midwives who provided midwifery to the Hebrew women were named Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15). These two women were summoned to come before pharaoh who gave them an order to kill every Hebrew male child by throwing them into the Nile River (Exodus 1:22). Since the midwives were probably Hebrew women, they feared God and did not obey the orders of pharaoh: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17).

Although the midwives were ordered by pharaoh to kill all male children, they disobeyed the order of pharaoh and allowed some of the male children to survive. By disobeying the order of pharaoh, the two midwives saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of male babies, including the life of Moses himself. Moses was born after the new pharaoh gave the command that all Hebrew boys should be killed. Because of the work of the midwives, the people of Israel multiplied and became very strong.

Miriam, Moses’ Sister

Miriam was Moses’s older sister. According to Exodus 7:7, Moses was three years younger than his brother Aaron. It is possible that Aaron was born before pharaoh issued the decree that all Hebrew boys should be thrown into the Nile River. Miriam’s name does not appear in the story of Moses’ birth. In fact, her name does not appear in the book of Exodus until she sang a song commemorating Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:20).

After the birth of Moses, Miriam assisted her mother in the preservation of the life of her brother Moses. It was Miriam who negotiated with pharaoh’s daughter on behalf of his mother. After the servants of pharaoh’s daughter found the basket with the boy inside, Miriam approached pharaoh’s daughter and asked her, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7). By suggesting that she could find a nurse “for you,” Miriam is almost intimating that pharaoh’s daughter should become the legal guardian of the child.

Jochebed, Moses’ Birth Mother

When the birth of Moses was announced, the writer did not give the name of his mother: “a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:1-2).

Jochebed’s name appears only twice in the genealogies associated with her husband Amram. “Amram married Jochebed his father’s sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years” (Exodus 6:20). “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram: Aaron, Moses, and their sister Miriam” (Numbers 26:59).

From these two genealogical notices, we learn several things about Jochebed. First, she was the daughter of Levi and she was born in Egypt. Second, since Aaron was born before Moses, it is possible that the king’s order to kill the baby came after Aaron was born but before the birth of Moses.

Third, Jochebed was the aunt of her husband Amram. Later in the history of Israel, Levitical laws declared that a marriage between an aunt and her nephew was an incestuous relationship: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh” (Leviticus 18:12). Levitical laws prohibited this kind of marriage.

After the baby was born, Jochebed saw that her child was beautiful. She hid him for three months; however, this action placed the child in jeopardy of being found and killed. As the boy was growing up, she realized that she would be unable to hide him any longer. Out of love for her newborn son, Jochebed decided to defy the order of the king. Jochebed took the initiative to save her son.

Jochebed devised a plan to save her child. “When she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river” (Exodus 2:3). These actions by the child’s mother show how concerned she was for the survival of her child. What she did was the work of a mother who loved her child but was fearful for his safety. She took the basket and placed it on the Nile River, not to kill him, but to give him life. These actions show the mother’s love for her child and her concern that he live.

Did Jochebed know that pharaoh’s daughter would be bathing on that section of the Nile? The text does not provide an answer to this question. Jochebed and her daughter Miriam used deception to be able to save the life of her newborn son. Through the use of deception, she was able not only to save his life, but was able to spend several years nursing him and providing some early instructions on the traditions of the Hebrews. Before she gave him up to pharaoh’s daughter, Jochebed was able to give the child some basic instructions about the faith of her people. Throughout this ordeal one can see the resourceful actions of a mother who does everything on her own. Whether she consulted her husband, the text is silent.

Jochebed did not name her son. The name of the child was given by his adoptive mother, pharaoh’s daughter. However, it is inconceivable that after spending three years nursing and nurturing her son, that Jochebed would not give her son a Hebrew name. If she did, no record of Moses’ Hebrew name has survived.

Pharaoh’s Daughter, Moses’ Adoptive Mother

One day when pharaoh’s daughter came to the Nile to take a bath, she saw a basket among the papyrus plants and sent her slave girl to get it. Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket, looked inside it, and saw a baby. It was a boy and he was crying. When Pharaoh’s daughter saw that the baby in the basket was crying, she felt compassion for him because she realized that he was a Hebrew child. As a Hebrew boy, he was one of the many babies condemned by her father to be killed at birth.

The daughter of pharaoh faced a dilemma. Her father had ordered that all Hebrew boys should be killed at birth. If she decided to save the life of this Hebrew boy, she would go against her father’s will and put her own life in jeopardy. The text does not say whether she agreed or disagreed with her father’s decision to kill the Hebrew boys. She saw the baby crying and she had compassion for him. She felt sorry for him and decided to save him from the decree of her father.

When a young Hebrew girl approached her and offered to find “one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby” (Exodus 2:7), she agreed because she was afraid that an Egyptian nurse would tell the Egyptian authorities about the boy and the baby would be killed. Childs (1965: 112) said that “In the Ancient Near East infants were usually suckled by their own mothers. However, in certain instances among aristocratic families a wet nurse was hired. This practice was also common where the mother was unable to nourish her child or where the mother was unknown. The nurse assumed responsibility of raising the child as well as suckling it during the stipulated period.”

The daughter of Pharaoh accepted the suggestion of the young girl and hired a Hebrew woman to take care of the child. However, she did not know that she was delivering the child into the care of his birth mother who would serve as the wet nurse of the child. “So the woman took the child and nursed it” (Exodus 2:9). Jochebed took her son to her own home where she nursed her own son until he was weaned.

According to Ziesel (2017: 145), a mother would nurse her child for a minimum of two years, “with an awareness that nursing longer was probably the norm.” In Hebrew society, a mother would wean her child generally three years after the birth of the child (Gruber 1989: 63). This is the period of time a Jewish mother nursed her son: “But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: ‘My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you’” (2 Maccabees 7:27). Ziesel (2017: 146) said that a “quality of both maternal nursing and wet nursing was that children were thought to take on the mental and emotional characteristics of the women whose milk they drank.” From this, one can surmise that Moses’ personality grew under the influence of a mother whose devotion to God was strong.

“When the child grew up, she brought him to pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son” (Exodus 2:10). These words indicate that pharaoh’s daughter adopted the child as her own son. Thus, the pharaoh who intended to have the child be killed at birth, because of the action of his daughter, became the adoptive grandfather of Moses.

Pharaoh’s daughter gave the child an Egyptian name that reflected her royal line. By naming the child, pharaoh’s daughter acted as the mother of the child. In the Old Testament it is the father (Genesis 16:15) or the mother (Genesis 35:18) who gives the child a name. However, the text does not say that neither Amram nor Jochebed named their son. It is possible that they had a Hebrew name for their son since they kept him for two or three years. However, if they named their son, the Hebrew name of the child did not survive because it was the adoptive mother who named the child.

Pharaoh’s daughter named her son Moses. The name Moses is an Egyptian name and it means “son of” as in Rameses, Thutmose, and Ahmose. Hebrew tradition gave the name a Hebrew meaning by translating it as “to draw out.” Although the name of Moses is an Egyptian name, the author of the book of Exodus seeks to give a Hebrew meaning to the name. The transliteration of Moses’ name is an effort at understanding the name from a Hebrew perspective.

Conclusion

Moses was a fortunate and blessed man. He had two mothers who loved him, two mothers who did all they could to save him from a certain death.

Jochebed, his biological mother, loved her son and kept him as long as she could after he was born. When she no longer could keep him, she gave him away to save his life. By giving him away and by depriving herself of the blessing of seeing him grow into adulthood, she saved his life and the lives of thousands of people who were delivered from their servitude through the son she loved.

The Bible never reveals the name of pharaoh’s daughter. According to Jewish tradition, her name was Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:17, although this identification is very doubtful (Japhet 1993: 115). Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ adoptive mother, loved him from the first time she saw him. She also did everything she could to save his life. Going against the will of her father, she saved him and found a Hebrew woman who would be willing to nurse him for the first years of his life, and then, she adopted him as her own son, allowing him to grow up in the palace and making him the adoptive grandson of the man who commanded that all Hebrew boys be killed.

As an adopted child, Moses was blessed to know that he had two mothers who loved him. Jochebed, his birth mother, did not abandon him. She gave him away that he might live. Pharaoh’s daughter could have allowed him to die as her father had decreed that all Hebrew boys be killed, and yet, she chose life for him. Moses was a blessed child because his adoptive mother chose him to be her son, even though he was not an Egyptian. Both mothers loved their son. Both mothers made sacrifices for that little boy and that little boy grew up and became a blessing to many people.

Happy Mother’s Day to all birth mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day to all adoptive mothers.

Read more about Old Testament mothers by visiting Studies on Old Testament Mothers.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Childs, Brevard S., “The Birth of Moses, Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 109-122.

Exum, J. Cheryl, “‘You Shall Let Every Daughter Live’: A Study of Exodus 1.8–2:10,” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy. Pages 37-61. Edited by Athalya Brenner. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.

Griffiths, J. Gwyn, “The Egyptian Derivation of the Name Moses,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (1953): 225-231.

Gruber, Mayer I. “Breast-Feeding Practices in Biblical Israel and in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19 (1989): 61-83.

Japhet, Sara, I and II Chronicles. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

Siebert-Hommes, Jopie, “The Female Saviors of Israel’s Liberator: Twelve ‘Daughters’ in Exodus 1 and 2,” in Torah. Pages 295-311. Edited by Irmtraud Fischer and Mercedes Navarro Puerto. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Ziesel, Laura Rogers, “‘Like a Weaned Child”: Breastfeeding Practices in the Biblical Period,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 52 (2017): 141-150.

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