Formations 02.02.2020: Moses’ Early Life

Exodus 2:1-15a

Ever since I had children, I can’t read this old story without feeling the intense fear of a mother who is terrified for her child. In my mind, I picture her filling his belly with her breastmilk to make sure he won’t cry out in hunger on his journey. She wraps her baby boy tightly, binding his arms so he won’t try to pull at the basket. She uses a cloth that will keep him warm and repel any droplets of water that splash in. After she snuggles him safely inside, she leans down and kisses his soft cheeks. Her heart pounding, she sets the basket in the water among the reeds and hopes beyond hope that he will survive and thrive.

As a mother myself, I can sense her excitement and relief when she is asked to be a nursemaid for her own baby boy. Just when she thinks all is lost, she gets the gift of filling that belly, kissing those cheeks, and cuddling that soft body for many more months to come.

Those of us who are parents usually think our children are special. No matter their unique abilities or challenges, we believe God has a special plan and purpose for their lives. Our hearts ache with the hopes and dreams we have for them. We would put ourselves in harm’s way to keep our children safe. We love them with a tender, passionate, and overpowering kind of love. Moses was blessed with a mother who loved him like this.

I like thinking about Moses’ mother. We don’t know much about her. (See Exodus 6:20 for a few details.) But we do know that she fought for her baby boy’s life in a way that risked her own. She sought his protection and care at any cost. She let him go for his own safety, and then she rejoiced when she got him back in her arms. She cared for him faithfully until it was time to give him over to Pharaoh. She couldn’t have realized the gift her son would be to the Hebrew people. All she knew was that she loved him, and he was worth saving.

Stories like this one can help us think about how God wants us to care for the people who need us. We can’t foresee the impact these people will have one day, but we can recognize that they are worth our time, effort, and care. How might God need you to take a risk in your love for someone?


• Moses’ mother put her baby in the water to hide him from murderers. Her action was risky and could have been deadly for her and the baby, but she took it anyway because she knew it was his only chance. Who have you loved enough that you would take such a risk? Who has loved you enough to take such a risk for you?

• If you are a parent or anyone else who cares for a child, what are your hopes and dreams for that child? What actions have you taken to help them survive and thrive?

• How might God need you to take a risk in your love for someone, even when you are uncertain of the outcome?

Reference Shelf

In a fast-moving narrative, these verses trace the uncertain beginnings in the early life of the as-yet-undisclosed human agent, Moses: his survival at birth against the odds, upbringing at Pharaoh’s court, disastrous interventions, and ignominious flight.

Verses 1-4 presuppose the deadly decree of Pharaoh in 1:22. The focus now shifts from the fate of the people of Israel as a whole, and the threat to their survival by the drowning of their male infants, to a particular Israelite family and the birth of a particular male child along with the threats to his survival in both infancy (vv. 1-10) and adulthood (vv. 11-22). What can become of such a boy, born at such a time? The knowing reader is aware of how much depends on the survival of this child, whom God has destined to be Israel’s deliverer out of Egypt and mediator of the covenant and Law.

The story begins quite obliquely (vv. 1-2): a son is born to the family of Levi. The key role that the Levites will fill, as teachers and priests, in enabling Israel to realize its status as the special people of God only becomes clear later (see especially 4:14; 6:16-25; 32:26-28; 38:21). The story names none of the initial participants in the action: the child’s parents, his sister, the pharaoh, the pharaoh’s daughter, or her attendants. Only finally in v. 10 does it name the child himself, and thereafter only those immediately involved in his adult life (vv. 18-22).

Like the Hebrew midwives (Exod 1:15-19), this mother is defiant. Seeing her goodly child, she nurses him in secret for three months (v. 3). As resourceful as she is devoted, when she can no longer hide him, she makes for him an ark of reeds. Strikingly, the narrative uses the same word as for Noah’s ark (in both versions of the flood narrative, Gen 6:14 [P]; 7:1 [D]), thus associating the saving of Moses from the Nile with the saving of the few survivors of the human race and of the animals from the flood. She lines the ark inside with mud and caulks it outside with pitch. Trusting to providence, she consigns her child to the shelter of the papyrus reeds on the edge of the Nile. There must be some play between sûp, “papyrus reeds,” among which Moses’ mother hides him (2:3, 5), and yam sûp, “Red Sea,” the location of the divine deliverance of Israel (13:18). In a sense, she is obeying Pharaoh’s orders; but she gently “places” her son on the water (not “throws into” as in 1:22) and, in the first of many ironies, to opposite effect: salvation not destruction. To see what will happen to him, the baby’s sister (presumably Miriam) “takes her stand” nearby (v. 4). Verse 8 terms her an ‘almâ, implying that she is an adolescent (e.g., Isa 7:15) and thus older than Aaron, who according to 7:7 is three years older than Moses (cf. Num 26:29, which does not explain their order of birth).

Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe at the very spot (v. 5). She sees the ark, gets her attendant to fetch it, and opens it. When the baby weeps, she takes pity on him. She recognizes that the baby is a Hebrew (v. 6; how is not explained; presumably because he had been abandoned—hardly by his circumcision, also practiced by the Egyptians, Jer 9:24). The ironies multiply. As one of his “people” (1:22), Pharaoh’s daughter must have known her father’s brutal decree. What Pharaoh had inhumanly intended for harm, his daughter by her humanity turns to good. The baby’s sister immediately intervenes with the offer to find a Hebrew wetnurse. With a transparent ruse, she finds the baby’s mother, who then receives payment to suckle her own child. When she has weaned him, she brings him back to Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess adopts him as her son and gives him the name “Moses,” which the reader now learns for the first time (v. 10). Thus, Pharaoh’s daughter introduces into Pharaoh’s own court the subversive agent who will enable Israel to “go up” from Egypt, precisely the outcome that Pharaoh fears and that all his actions attempt to prevent (1:10). There are certain parallels with the Joseph story (Gen 37; 39–50): both involve a goodly child, advance at court, divinely imparted capacity and gifts for leadership, a sense of justice, and extreme swings of fortune.

Pharaoh’s daughter provides the name “Moses” with, surprisingly, a Hebrew etymology. The grammatical form of “Moses” in Hebrew is the masculine singular active participle of the simple form of the verb “to draw out”; Pharaoh’s daughter relates the name to her own action, “I have drawn him out of the water.” One might have expected the masculine passive participle, “the one drawn out,” referring to Moses. The form of the name may already contain a reference to Moses’ role as “the one who draws out” Israel from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. The name “Moses” is likely to be related to the element “-meses/mosis” meaning “is born,” as in the names of the pharaohs, Ra-meses (“Ra [the sun-god] is born”) and Tuth-mosis (“Thoth [the moon god] is born”). In the Hebrew Bible, Moses’ name cannot receive any prefix relating to an Egyptian deity: the Moses story is emphatically not about the incarnation of a foreign god but about the act of rescue by the God of Israel, of whom Moses is but the human agent.

William Johnstone, Exodus 1–19, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2014), 49–52.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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