Mother’s Day and the Story of Moses’ Mothers

Mother’s Day and the Story of Moses’ Mothers

Glynn Cardy

Sun 10 May

Mother’s Day is primarily about honouring mothers.  It is about appreciating that we were born and are alive.  It’s about appreciating that the circumstances of the time of our mothers’ lives were different from your own, and she was shaped by those, and made choices that might be different from choices she or we might make today.  It’s about appreciating that the word ‘love’ has many faces, and it often takes a lifetime to understand your mother’s. 

Talking about mothers can be tricky.  Some have not had the best of experiences.  Some have experienced deep hurt and abandonment.  Some have no knowledge of their birth mothers, and might have been mothered by grandparents, foster parents, siblings, or fathers. 

There are a number of people who have not only found their mother difficult but would use the descriptor ‘abusive’.  So love becomes complicated: trying to remember and hold to some good memories, while trying to forget and expunge the bad. 

For some too Mother’s Day is a reminder of the patriarchal myths that women need to marry [code for: need to be under the control of a man] and in order to be fulfilled need to produce progeny.  These myths can leave lasting scars.

Yet hopefully there are more people, most people, whose experience of their mothers was /is supportive, nurturing, encouraging, and loving – giving children the skills and confidence to be strong, and impart that strength to others – and therefore see Mother’s Day as a time to express gratitude, and acknowledge the strength, compassion, and often the feistiness of the women who raised us. 

The Bible is difficult when it comes to mothers.  This is because it is primarily written by men, for men, about men, for the purpose of men’s spiritual development and power.  So reference to Sarah is largely in relationship to Abraham, his desire for a son, and the dysfunctional relationship Abraham sired between Sarah and Hagar.  Reference to Rachel and Leah is similarly in relationship to their common husband, Jacob, and the competition he (and his father-in-law, Laban) sired between these two sisters.

Reference to Mary, Jesus’ mother, is also framed within patriarchal normality.  So Luke’s birth narrative has a compliant Mary (though note the angel appeared to her, rather than to Joseph).  Of Jesus’ birth and upbringing we are told ‘Mary remembered all these things in her heart’; but she is rarely honoured as Jesus’ first spiritual teacher.  The interesting thing about Mary is that the 4th Gospel (written some 60+ years after Jesus’ death) has created the wedding at Cana story (where Mary has an authoritative role), and also places Mary at the cross (also inferring an authoritative role in the post-Easter movement).  Was she a much more powerful woman, with a leading role pre and post-Easter movement, than what the crafters of the gospels and the New Testament canon have bequeathed us?  I suspect so.

My favourite story about mothers in the Bible though is from the Exodus tradition of baby Moses and his miraculous escape from death. 

God, you will note, does not appear as a character in this story.  God is no intervening Supreme Being deity.  That God doesn’t exist in this tale.  It’s as if the ‘miracle’ is the result of a synergetic spirit working through the courageous feats of five women – all ‘mothers’ of Moses, and thus all mothers of the Hebrew liberation/exodus from slavery to freedom.  It’s as if god is a spark of hope that is ignited when women, working together, endeavour to protect and provide for one who is very vulnerable.

The story beings in Egypt with two Hebrew midwives: Shiphrah and Puah.  On the one hand they were slaves, part of the Hebrew minority oppressed by their Egyptian masters.  On the other hand they were health professionals who were personally instructed by the Pharaoh and then later personally disobeyed him. 

The Pharaoh, allegedly frightened about the numbers and power of the Hebrew ethnic minority who were the servant/slave class, instructed the midwives to murder the male Hebrew babies. Shiphrah and Puah, refused. The penalty for refusing would have been death.  When summoned by Pharaoh, they lied: “The Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.”  It is doubtful that Pharaoh believed them.  Instead he circumvented them in order to carry out his murderous intent.

I think we need to remember and honour the ethics and courageous leadership of Shiphrah and Puah.  They are the only women in the Book of Exodus to act in an overtly political sphere.  They are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation, the liberated people of Yahweh their God.  Shiphrah and Puah understood their religion’s priority, and the priority of their profession, to save life had a higher priority than the dictates of any other God or any domination system.  By their actions they revealed their willingness to value the lives of slave children at the risk of their own lives. They revealed their belief not only in compassion but in equality, namely that slave babies had the same right to life as Egyptian babies did.

Shiphrah and Puah also were prepared to face the god-like Pharaoh and lie to him.  Honesty is sometimes not the best policy.  The ethic of preventing the death of children has a higher priority.

We are next introduced in the story to two nameless women: Moses’ mother, whom we know from other texts to be Jochebed[i], and his sister, whom we know to be Miriam[ii].  Bravery is again to the fore.  After his birth Jochebed hides Moses in her house for three months.  Think of the fears – that every little cry will be alerting someone, that every neighbour or stranger may betray them…

Then, in time, the family considers another option: place baby Moses in a basket, down by the riverside – ironically fulfilling Pharaoh’s requirements that babies be thrown in the river.  There Miriam stayed and watched over her brother.

Note, too, the bravery of Miriam when the Egyptian princess finds Moses: coming forward, rather than scuttling off, and bravely offering a wet nurse, namely her mother, for the babe. The Princess could have easily had the baby thrown into the deep.  It would also have been easy to surmise [or see?] the connection between Moses and Miriam, and deal with Miriam as one would with a lawbreaker.  Instead Miriam’s bravery enables Jochebed to carry on feeding, bonding with and enjoying her infant son, until such time as he was admitted to the palatial environs of Pharaoh’s abode.

Lastly there is the bravery of the unnamed princess: walking along and finding the baby; realizing that he is one of the immigrants that her father despises; knowing that her father has asked for these babies to be killed; feeling her heart moved to pity: and daring to act on the basis of that feeling. The princess of course is not Jewish, nor believes in the Jewish God, yet that synergetic spirit of hope that works through women to protect one who is very vulnerable alive in her.

The stunning part of the story though, the part that alerts us here we have a princess worthy of that title, is her naming Moses as her son.  To save the baby’s life she could have taken him as a slave.  That would have been enough to get daddy’s attention!  If she liked Moses she could even have had him castrated and elevated to the status of a royal eunuch.  Yet instead she takes this outcast, immigrant child, of the race her father detests, and invites him into the royal inner sanctum as her son.

Biblical commentators often compare birth stories in different traditions. The closest parallel is the birth of Sargon of Akkad, founder of the Assyrian empire, whose mother bore him in secret, and set him in a basket of rushes, sealing the lid with bitumen.  A certain Akki lifted him out and reared him as his own son.  The striking difference is the role of the five courageous women in the Moses saga, compared with the absence of women, save his mother, in the Sargon account.

Theologically speaking we could say that the divine spark of hope that works through women of courage to care for the vulnerable was here, in this story of Moses in the bulrushes, in the solid and confrontational ethics of the motherly midwives, in the love of his birth mother, the solution engendering bravery of his mothering sister, and the daring inclusivity of his adoptive mother.  

This is, first and foremost, a great story about mothers – birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and those who ‘mothered’ the survival and wellbeing of this child (including Shiphrah, Puah, and Miriam) – working together to enable a vulnerable child to live.  I love this story because their bravery and loyalty towards Moses was not due to attributes of Moses.  He was a baby after all.  They loved without a ‘why’ (as Angelus Silesius would say).  

Blessed are those who know

the joy of a mother, friend, or protector,

who accept us without rhyme

or reason or reward,

who love us with a power

that can withstand the assault

of our doubts and fears,

and lead us into a life

of purpose and fulfilment.

[i] Exodus 6:20.

[ii] Numbers 26:59.