Exodus: The Birth of Moses

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son. When she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him” (Exodus 2:1–4).

Moses Saved from the Waters
by Orazio Gentileschi (1633)

The Birth of Moses

The birth of Moses was the beginning of the redemption of Israel from their servitude in Egypt. Moses was born at a time when the oppression of his people had reached a crucial point. The text indicates that Moses was from a family of Levites. The Levites later on were selected to be in charge of the religious services of Israel. When the land of Canaan was distributed among the tribes of Israel, the Levites did not receive an inheritance of land; their inheritance was the service of God.

The name of Moses’ father was Amram; he was the grandson of Levi, the son of Jacob. Amram took as his wife Jochebed, his aunt, and out of this union three children were born, Aaron, Moses, and Miriam (Exodus 6:20). Miriam is named last, however, she was Moses’ older sister, Amram’s firstborn. Although Miriam is not mentioned in the genealogy of Moses’ family, Miriam was probably a teenager when Moses was born. Aaron was three years older than Moses (Exodus 7:7).

Jochebed conceived her third child, a beautiful and healthy boy. The child was born during the days when Pharaoh had decreed the slaughter of Israelite children. Since the Bible does not say anything about the problem of killing baby boys at the time Aaron was born, it is possible that the order to kill the male children was given between the birth of Aaron and the birth of Moses. After the birth of her son, Jochebed hid the child for three months, as long as she could. Jochebed wanted to save the life of her son by any means.

The occasion came when Jochebed could no longer hide her son from the Egyptians. In order to save her baby boy, Jochebed was willing to do the unthinkable, she was willing to give him away. She took a basket made of papyrus plants and coated it with tar and pitch (Exodus 2:3).

The Hebrew word for “basket” is the same word used to describe Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6:14. Papyrus grew in abundance on the banks of the Nile River. The tar Jochebed used, made the basket waterproof. Jochebed placed the child in the “ark” and placed the basket among the papyrus plants on the banks of the Nile River. By her action, Jochebed carried out Pharaoh’s order, that every boy that was born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the Nile (Exodus 1:22). She threw her baby into the river, but in a way that could preserve the life of her son.

The boy’s sister watched the basket from afar, keeping a distance between her and the basket. Moses’ sister’s name is not mentioned in the text, but she was Miriam (Exodus 15: 20; Numbers 20: 1; 26:59), a woman who, together with her brothers, would become one of the leaders who led the people out of Egypt.

In the days of the prophet Micah, Yahweh reminded the people of the three leaders who led the people out of Egypt, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).

Jochebed’s action indicates that she hoped for a divine miracle, an action of God to save the life of her son. The distraught and desperate heart of a mother hoped for the mercy of some person who would have compassion on her child.

Divine Providence

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river, while her attendants walked on the river’s edge. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent one of her maids to bring it to her. When she opened the basket, she saw the child. The child was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.

It seems that Jochebed had deliberately placed the basked on the river near Pharaoh’s palace. She also asked Miriam to follow the basket to see where the basket would stop and who would get the child. Divine providence brought the basket to a woman whose heart was open to receive the child.

Miraculously, God extended his hand to save the child and preserve his life. Divine providence brought Pharaoh’s daughter to come and bathe in the river at the moment in which the basket with the child was on the waters of the river. For the Egyptians, the Nile River was sacred and many believed that its waters had healing properties. Pharaoh’s daughter looked at the basket among the papyrus plants and commanded one of her servants to bring the basket to her.

When Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket, she looked inside and saw the child, and saw that it was a boy. The child was crying. Immediately she was moved to compassion by the tears of the child. The tears of the child reached the deepest part of Pharaoh’s daughter’s heart and she took pity on him. She recognized that the boy was a Hebrew because of his physical characteristics. She knew that no Egyptian woman had the need to expose a child to death in the waters of the river, therefore, the mother of the child had to be a Hebrew woman.

Divine providence once again was manifested for the protection of the child. God many times finds friends to protect his people even among his enemies. The king of Egypt cruelly sought the elimination of the people of Israel, but his own daughter compassionately saved the child that one day would become the liberator of Israel.

The word “Hebrew” is used in the text to designate the people of Israel. This word was probably related to the word “habiru.” The “habiru” was a group of people who served as Pharaoh’s slaves in his construction projects. The word “habiru” appears frequently in correspondence from Egyptian court with the nations of Canaan. The word “habiru” does not mean the name of a nation or an ethnic designation. Rather, the word “habiru” refers to a group of people who worked as laborers, as servants, or slaves. The “habiru” also are described as rebels and outlaws. Some of them sold themselves to serve as mercenaries in a foreign army.

The habiru were people who came from different countries. The Old Testament mentions that when the Israelites came out of Egypt “an ethnically diverse crowd also went up with them” (Exodus 12:38 HCSB), among them many foreigners (Numbers 11: 4).

It is probable that Miriam, the boy’s sister was near the basket when Pharaoh’s daughter found the child. This was what Jochebed was hoping would happen to her son, but she never expected that the person who would have compassion on her son and preserve his life would be Pharaoh’s daughter.

When Pharaoh’s daughter recognized that the child was Hebrew, she thought it would be better for the child to have a Hebrew nurse. The baby’s sister who was following the basket said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So Miriam went and called a Hebrew woman to nurse the child. The woman was her own mother.

Pharaoh’s daughter said to the woman, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. Pharaoh’s daughter did not know that she was entrusting the baby to his own mother.

Jochebed’s plan was successful. Moses’ life was preserved and he grew up in a home where the customs and traditions of Israel were observed. Moses grew up in an environment of love and reverence to God. In Jochebed’s home, the devotion to God was part of the formative character of the life of Moses.

This passage teaches us two important lessons. First the formative foundations for Moses’ life as the leader of God’s people were received in a home dedicated to the worship of God. Christian homes are very important in the moral, spiritual, and psychological formation of children.

Second, devotion to God must be part of the education of children. Parents often believe that the church is the only place where religious education is taught to children. Fathers and mothers have the responsibility of educating their children in the ways of God. Proverbs 22: 6 says, “If a child is trained up in the right way, even when he is old he will not be turned away from it.” Moses was breast-fed by his own mother; she received payment to take care of him even though Jochebed knew that when the child grew up that he would be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Jochebed took care of the child until he was weaned, probably when the child was three years old. When the child was returned to her, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him as her own son. The practice of adoption of people was common in the ancient Near East. However, the Old Testament does not say anything about adoption.

The Education of Moses

When the child grew up, the woman brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son. Pharaoh’s daughter named the child Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:5-10). The name has two meanings. Hebrew etymology relates the name Moses (Moshe) with the word Hebrew mashah which means “to draw out.” So the name of the child would be Moses (Mosheh) because he was drawn out (mashah) from the waters.

The second etymology of the name is related to the royal name of the kings of Egypt like the names Rameses (Ramoses) and Tutmoses. The Egyptian word moses means “son of.” The name Rameses means “Son of the God Ra.” The name Thutmoses means “Son of the God Thoth.” Since Moses was part of the royal family, it is possible that Pharaoh’s daughter had added the name of one of the gods from Egypt to the name of Moses, indicating his relationship with the family of the Egyptian king. The name of this Egyptian god was removed when Moses became a follower of the God of Israel.

The Exodus account says nothing about the education Moses received in Egypt. By divine providence Moses grew in the palace of the king of Egypt and was educated as the princes of Egypt were educated. Acts 7:21 says that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and became a great man in what he said and did.”

According to the book of Acts, Moses received a complete and extensive education since he was the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. This intellectual preparation enabled Moses to be a great leader and prepared him for his great work of liberating the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In all these things God was working for the good of the people and working to fulfill his plans for the nations.

The redemption of the people of Israel needed a leader who was prepared to lead a nation. Without knowing the purposes of God, Moses was getting ready to be the liberator of Israel. God used the life of Moses, preparing him for a future work. When God calls a person to do his work, God seeks and prepares the means to train that person.

Moses received an education in the king’s court; his intellectual preparation prepared him to be an ambassador of God in the court of Pharaoh. Moses was taught in all the wisdom of Egypt; he learned how to read and write because that was how the Egyptians educated their government leaders. The education Moses received in Egypt prepared him to write laws and commandments of God, “Moses put all Yahweh’s words into writing” (Exodus 24:4 NJB). Moses’ life is a confirmation of Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Conclusion

There are three important lessons we learn from this study of the life of Moses. First, any person who has a low esteem of life and despises his or her past can find help in Moses’ past. Moses was born the son of slaves, he was poor, and grew up in an adopted home, but God used these events in his past to prepare him for his future mission.

Second, any person who feels the call of God to a vocation in Christian ministry can find help in the life of Moses. God placed Moses in a home of parents who feared God and in the palace of an oppressive king. These events shaped Moses’ life. Through his experience in Egypt, Moses learned to have compassion for people in need.

Third, any person who wishes to serve others in the name of Christ can find helps in Moses’ experience in Egypt. God used the experience of Moses as the son of slaves and as royal heir to prepare his life so that Moses could be useful to God and helpful to many people in their search for the true God. God can use our experiences in life to help us help people whose lives have been greatly affected by their past experiences.

NOTE:

My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published in January 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to drmariottini@gmail.com and put Divine Violence in the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. Once the book is published, the 40% discount will no longer be available.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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