Moses and His Mother

Written By Susan Hanson

The woman conceived and bore a son; and 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: 2-4

According to tradition, Moses's mother Jochebed was 130 years old when she gave birth to him. But that’s just one of several remarkable details associated with his early life. In defiance of the Pharaoh, who out of fear of the growing population of Israelites ordered that all their male newborns be drowned in the Nile, Jochebed somehow kept her infant hidden for the first three months of his life. 

Why three months? As noted in The Legends of the Jews, Jochebed was actually three months pregnant before anyone realized she was expecting—meaning that the Egyptian bailiffs watching over her miscalculated the date of her baby’s birth; not expecting it until much later, they simply missed it when it occurred.

This same legend speaks of the reassuring dreams and premonitions Moses’ parents and sister, Miriam, had before he was born. Though Jochebed’s husband, Amram, was “very uneasy about his wife's being with child,” God came to him in his sleep, saying, “[T]he child out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be this child of thine, and he shall remain concealed from those who watch to destroy him, and when he has been bred up, in a miraculous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under by reason of the Egyptians.”

The remainder of the story, as told in the book of Exodus, is no less amazing. Having hidden her infant for three months, Jochebed placed him in a waterproof basket she had made and put it into the river—the same river into which other Jewish newborns had been thrown to die. Soon afterward, with Miriam watching nearby, Moses was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter Thermutis, who seemed to know immediately that this was one of the Hebrew’s children. Because “she took pity on him,” Thermutis accepted Miriam’s offer to fetch a woman from among the Israelites to nurse him. Not coincidentally, that nurse turned out to be Jochebed herself. The irony, of course, is that in giving up what she loved, Moses’ mother ultimately received it back again.

That’s a wonderful observation, but I’m more intrigued by another element of the story—the risk that Jochebed took in trusting her “enemy,” Thermutis. As Monica J. Melanchthon has put it in her study of this text, “For true liberation, we need to transcend barriers of caste, class, religion, race and gender.…We need to be resourceful and wise to discern the most appropriate strategy, even if this means maneuvering within an oppressive system.”

O God, help me to see opportunities for justice and liberation in the midst of oppression, for trust in the midst of suspicion, for love in the midst of hate.