Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series
Pharaoh’s Daughter, Hebrew Midwives, Miriam: Freedom Fighters of the Exodus
If I asked you who the freedom fighter is in Exodus, you would likely say “Moses.” But before he even has a name, women are the freedom fighters. Midwife, mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter, servant—together they defy injustice, refusing to align themselves with the oppressive policies of the empire. They hold no weapons but their own courage. They refuse to let a powerful dictator redefine what is good.
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Below, I will explore the two movements of the exodus story, highlighting the ways that Moses’ origin story anticipates the origins of the nation of Israel. First, I want to imaginatively retell the first movement to give you a fresh experience with this familiar narrative. A close reading of the biblical text paired with what Wilda Gafney calls “sanctified imagination”1Gafney draws on the Black church preaching tradition, calling sanctified imagination “the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text, particularly the spaces in the text, and fills them out with missing details.” Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 3. allows us to witness their valiant action.
Hurried footsteps, cloaked in darkness. A soft knock with her small hand. Then again more urgently.
The door opens a crack. The young visitor doesn’t wait for a greeting. She whispers firmly, “It’s time.” Shiphrah disappears inside her home, feels for her bag, and steps outside, joining the young girl in the night air. As the two wind between mud brick homes toward the child’s groaning mother, Shiphrah quietly gathers the information she needs. “When did the pains come?” “How often?” “Has her water broken?”
Shiphrah always works behind closed doors, with no men watching. This time she has no assistants, save this older sister, barely six years from her own birth. It is too dangerous to involve others. The fewer who know about this baby, the better. The girl now brings Shiphrah hot water, cold water, clean rags—whatever she needs.
A midwife is an unlikely revolutionary, far from the halls of power. Her only weapons are herbs and hot compresses and skilled hands. But this one has fire in her eyes and rebellion in her bones.
She refuses to give a moment’s thought to the king’s command. It is preposterous. Kill baby boys? Her years of training, the long hours spent watching and prodding, comforting and intervening, were not to end life, but to protect it. No man, no matter how high his throne, could tell her otherwise. Who does he think he is to sponsor death in his dominion? God will not look kindly on his legacy. Shiphrah’s greatest fear is offending God, not Pharaoh. Her eyes are on God, and that empowers her bravery.
And so this time, under the cover of darkness, Shiphrah and the baby’s sister and the laboring woman—the daughter of Levi—witness another miracle. They participate in a miracle. In defiance of the king, in defiance of his preposterous edict, they bring forth life.
Before morning, a newborn cry announces another successful birth. Shiphrah stifles the baby’s mouth, careful not to suffocate him, for he is indeed a boy. She lays him on the cushioned bricks and softly sings a blessing while rubbing his body clean. Later, she gathers her things, and issues instructions to his older sister, who will hold her brother after he finishes nursing so her mother can finally sleep. He must not cry. No one must know of this birth. This will be the most important secret our youngest heroine has ever had to carry.
They must be careful. This is dangerous business—birthing. It always has been. But now the dangers are more than wrapped umbilical cords or failure to progress or excessive bleeding or breech babies. Now they must stand guard against the bloody sword of Pharaoh and against the suffocating waters of the Nile.
In their own way, Shiphrah and Miriam are freedom fighters.
In the light of a new day, the daughter of Levi looks at her sleeping son, with milk still dribbling from the corner of his mouth, and she sees that he is good. Every child is—every single one a miracle of creation. Each one worthy of the Creator’s pronouncement: “good!” She spends her days indoors, away from the prying eyes of the overseers. The boy’s sister was her lifeline then, drawing water again and again, her tiny frame bending under the weight of the buckets. She understood what was at stake. If she spilled their secret, her brother could die. On that long night with Shiprah, the midwife’s courage had lit the fire in her own little eyes. She was an accomplice—not in murder, but in anti-murder—a partner in the revolution. A freedom fighter.
But they couldn’t hide forever. The daughter of Levi knew that, and so did her daughter. So they devised a plan. It was risky, but what choice did they have? Pharaoh had told everyone to throw baby boys in the Nile, so they would . . . gently.
The baby’s mother crafts a tiny ark for her son from the plants of the Nile. Just like the ark in the old stories, she coats it with tar to keep the water out. Just like the other ark, she hopes that this one will rescue her son from a watery death. She nestles it among the reeds along the shoreline, and then the boy’s sister stands at a distance to watch. A grown woman watching the river would draw attention. But she is a child, so she will be overlooked. Children usually are. But she isn’t playing. This young one “stands her ground,” bracing herself for whatever might happen.
She spots Pharaoh’s own daughter approaching the river. What goes through this sister’s mind? Is this all part of the plan? No Egyptian in their right mind would agree to shelter a Hebrew boy! The risks are too great. It has to be someone exempt from Pharaoh’s edict, someone above the law. Ironically, the only safe place in Egypt is Pharaoh’s own household . . . if they can find an ally. There is only one way to find out without jeopardizing the entire family.
At the edge of the Nile, the daughter of Pharaoh sees the basket. She sends her servant girl to get it. She opens the basket. The princess sees the baby. He is crying. In that moment, she knows what has happened. A Hebrew family must have left their son in the only place Pharaoh’s men will not be looking—the river of death. Whose side is she on? She will decide whether he lives or dies.
In that moment suspended in time, Pharaoh’s daughter replays the first scene of the infant’s life—Shiphrah looking at him on the birthing bricks, seeing that he is a Hebrew boy, deciding what to do. Like her father, does she see him as a threat to the empire? As a despised minority? Have her father’s murderous policies distorted her vision of what is good?
They have not. Like every other woman in this story, the daughter of Pharaoh stands against the empire. Like every other woman in this story—named and unnamed—the daughter of Pharaoh sees how God sees. She takes pity on him.
And his sister, with a sigh of relief, springs into valiant action. One more step will ensure her brother’s survival. In one moment, the young girl sees the need of the princess, the need of the child, and the need of her mother. To her the solution is obvious: “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” Her stroke of genius opens a new way forward for all of them. The daughter of Levi, who has hidden her child for three months under fear of discovery by Pharaoh, will now be employed by the daughter of Pharaoh to care for her own child. The wealth of Egypt will trickle into her home as mother’s milk trickles into her son’s belly. Two daughters—the daughter of Pharaoh and the daughter of Levi—will share the role of mother for this young boy.
It is not until his nursing years are over, probably three years later, that the child receives a name. For the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted him, his life began on the edge of the Nile where she “drew him out.” Moses, “one who draws out” is his name. He will later draw the Israelites out through the water, out of Egypt, and into the wilderness. Think of it: by naming him Moses, the daughter of Pharaoh memorializes her own audacity in drawing him out of the Nile rather than throwing him in. She, too, is a freedom fighter.
And that river where Pharaoh intended to drown the Hebrew boys? Before too long, it will turn to blood. In the end, the firstborn sons of the Egyptians will die instead of the Hebrews.
The reeds that hid the baby will mark his people’s journey into freedom while swallowing up the army that chases them. The Hebrews’ escape from a watery death in the Red Sea, the Sea of Reeds, mirrors Moses’ deliverance through the reeds of the Nile.
The story of the exodus unfolds in two movements. The first movement is the story of the women who rescue Moses from Pharaoh’s attempt to put him to death. The second movement is the story of the God who rescues the Israelites from Pharaoh’s attempt to work them to death. Israel’s rescuer is Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Sarah. Remarkably, Moses’ rescuers are these women—acting without divine command and at great risk to themselves. Rich and poor, young and old, Egyptian and Hebrew—they band together to do what is right.
In the first movement, Miriam takes her stand by the edge of the Nile and waits for the daughter of Pharaoh (Exod 2:4). She silently confronts her with an injustice, the oppressive policy of infanticide, and offers a solution, asking, “May I go to find someone to nurse the baby for you?” (v. 7) The daughter of Pharaoh responds, “Go!” (v. 8) And later the same representative of the royal household instructs the daughter of Levi regarding her son, “Let him go . . .” (v. 9).
In the second movement of the exodus story, Moses takes his stand by the edge of the Nile and waits for Pharaoh (Exod 8:20). He confronts Pharaoh with an injustice, the oppressive policy of enslavement, and offers a solution, demanding on Yahweh’s behalf, “Let my people go so that they may worship me.”2Technically speaking, in Exod 8:20 Moses requests that Pharaoh “send” them into the wilderness. However, elsewhere Pharaoh and Moses use the word “go” to refer to their departure (e.g., Exod 8:28; 5:3, 8, 17). Pharaoh does not allow them to go. It takes ten disastrous plagues, including the loss of his own son, before Pharaoh finally tells the people to “Go!” (Exod 10:28)
In the first story, God is silent and women work and Moses goes free. The women see and hear and know and send (Exod 2:2-6). In the second story, God works and that work is described in many of the same ways—God sees, God hears, God knows, and God sends help (Exod 2:24-25; 3:7, 10).
Pharaoh’s Daughter, Hebrew Midwives, Miriam: Faithful Women
Women do not usually take center stage on the pages of Scripture. But in this liberation story the sentences are crowded with feminine pronouns and feminine verbs. The narrative presents a dramatic face-off between the man in power and the women who defeat him. It anticipates God’s own work of redemption.
Any articulation of what women can and can’t do must reckon with the freedom fighters of Exodus.
Miriam was likely only 6 years old when she joined the fight against injustice. The risk of losing her brother weighed more than the potential risk to herself. She and her mother did what they had to do.
Shiphrah, one of two midwives named in Exodus, refused to obey the king’s edict because she knew that a higher power was watching her. She feared God rather than man and got busy doing his work.
Pharaoh’s own daughter used her privilege to save just one life. She could have said, “What difference would it make to save one baby boy when hundreds are in danger?” But she did what she could. And that one boy grew up to deliver the rest of the Hebrew nation.
These women take their place in the long line of faithful people whose contributions God has honored. No matter our context or convictions about what is allowed or what is possible, every woman then and now has a sphere of influence that she can leverage. Each of the Exodus women maximized her culturally defined role to flip the tables on injustice. And so can we.
1. Gafney draws on the Black church preaching tradition, calling sanctified imagination “the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text, particularly the spaces in the text, and fills them out with missing details.” Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 3.
2. Technically speaking, in Exod 8:20 Moses requests that Pharaoh “send” them into the wilderness. However, elsewhere Pharaoh and Moses use the word “go” to refer to their departure (e.g., Exod 8:28; 5:3, 8, 17).