Week 3: An Inauspicious Birth

An Inauspicious Birth

Exodus is probably the most important book in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  In Exodus we learn God’s name, we begin to see what God is about (in the covenant at Sinai), and we see that God responds to and saves a people who are suffering and oppressed by the imperial ways of the world (in this case Pharaoh).  

There are two strands of creation in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).  The first are the two accounts found primarily in Genesis 1-9 (also in Psalms and Job). The first strand deals with the creation of the entire cosmos.  The creation story of Genesis 1 shows an orderly creation, where space has been made so that life can flourish.  God has the forces of chaos in control, placing limits and boundaries on the primordial depths and waters.  These boundaries are released at the beginning of the flood story, before being restored at its end.  We will see these forces again when we get to Exodus 15. The second strand of creation is found primarily in the book of Exodus (and the other pentateuchal books along with Joshua).  There are cosmic elements in this creation strand as well (especially in the story of the plagues and the Song of the Sea (EX 15).  This second parallel strand focuses on the creation of the people and nation.  It is the story of God creating a people.  

We won’t cover the whole story (which is all of Exodus 1-15), but we’ll hit some of the highlights.  Just like with the creation story study, I want to look at the story of the Exodus as a story (or myth/legend) putting aside historical questions and concerns for the moment.  It is my intention to put together a video that will do this in the near future.  

Exodus 1.22-2.10 

As you read the text, ask yourself two questions.  What did you notice? and What did you Wonder? Remember, as you do this we are not really interested in questions about how, but in why, what is God doing here, or who is doing it.   For example; I noticed that God seems to be largely absent from Moses’s rescue.  I wonder why the Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t execute her father’s order regarding male infants of Hebrew descent?

A few things I noticed:

This is Pharaoh’s second attempt to limit the growing Hebrew population.  Earlier in chapter 1 he tried to enlist the midwives in his scheme but they ‘outwit’ Pharaoh by ‘arriving’ too late.  It also won’t be the last time a person in authority in the Bible attempts to remove a threat to his reign and power by killing infants, which also involved Egypt.  Only, in the Gospel According to Matthew it is the infant Jesus who takes refuge in Egypt, after King Herod orders the death of ‘all infants 2 or younger’ in Bethlehem.  Matthew, especially, uses the story of Moses’s rescue to connect, at least in part, Jesus’s identity and mission with that of Moses’s identity and mission.  

Exodus is a salvation story.  While some strands in modern Christianity often limit salvation to a forgiveness of sin for an individual, salvation in the Bible cannot be reduced simply to forgiveness of sins or affecting only individuals.  In the Exodus story we will see salvation is about both the liberation and the creation of a people.  

We don’t get much of a description of Moses’s parents.  In fact there is a little ambiguity in the Hebrew text (which is removed from our english translations) about whether Moses’s parents were married.  A more literal translation of the Hebrew text says ‘A man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi.’ We are most likely to understand ‘took’ as married, but giving this story’s similarities with the story of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 bc) birth and rescue it leaves the question slightly open (see below for more on the connection between Sargon and Moses’s birth stories).   

Our English translator let us down slightly after Moses’s birth, a more literal translation would be ‘...she saw him, that he was good.’  Admittedly it is a little awkward, which is probably why our translators change good to ‘healthy and beautiful,’ but in so doing we miss the connection between this story and how good God saw creation was.  The connection with the creation story becomes even stronger in the next verse when Moses is placed in an ‘ark.’  The only two places the word translated here as ‘basket’ is found in the Hebrew Bible are in this story and the story of Noah, where it is translated as ‘ark.’  Once again we see that the forces of chaos threaten life.  Creation’s salvation and reordering hinges on an ark and its inhabitant. We will explore these mythical elements in more detail when we get to Exodus 15 and the Song of the Sea.

It is Pharaoh's daughter, who finds Moses floating in his ark.  She immediately recognizes him as a Hebrew infant.  Disobeying her father’s order that all Hebrew males be killed she instead adopts him, and brings him into her home.  It is an act of civil disobedience.  Furthermore, she hires (instead of compels) Moses's mother as a wetnurse for the child.  By paying Moses’s mother a wage, Pharaoh’s daughter criticizes the Egyptian slavery system, another act of civil disobedence.     

The story of Moses’s birth and rescue is most likely not directly dependent on the story of Sargon’s birth and rescue.  There are, however, a number of similarities to suggest that these types of stories were common to the milieu of the writer's time.  Unlike the story of Sargon, whose less than auspicious birth leads to greatness and royal succession, in Exodus the story is inverted.  Instead of finding greatness and royal succession Moses initially flees from that hierarchy (e.g. Pharaoh) and his return to Egypt will bring about its end.  The people’s salvation comes with the destruction of the royal house of Pharaoh, the liberation of the slaves, with the creation of a new people, and God’s establishment of a covenant with this new nation.