A Rabbinical Perspective on Pharaoh’s Daughter

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We have just finished reading the book of Genesis. The book of Genesis from the beginning to the end deals with families and individuals. Right from the beginning of the book of Exodus the scene changes and the focus is on a people, a nation, united tribes that have the same fate and the same problems.

The reading starts in Exodus 1:1 – 6:1, and from the prophets the reading is from for the Sephardic Jews is chapter 1 of Jeremiah and for the Ashkenazi Jews it is from Isaiah chapter 27. From the New Testament we read Acts 7:17-29.

The book of Exodus is called “Shemot” (“names” in Hebrew), because the first words of the text are the names of the sons of Jacob. The Hebrew bible doesn’t have book names or chapters or verse numbers. That tradition developed with the Septuagint (translation of the Hebrew Bible to Greek in the 2nd Century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and in Medieval Europe.

The Hebrew text was written in a scroll and the names are not based on logic like in the Greek bible, but on the first word or words of the scroll Exodus is a logical name because the book starts with the coming down to Egypt of Jacob and his family, all the sons and their tribes and clans and the book ends with the children of Israel going out of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai and on the way to the land that God has promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel.

The first chapter starts with the 70 souls of Jacob’s family going down to Egypt receiving from Joseph the best part of Egypt, the land of Goshen, in the Nile River Delta, and enjoying life in the diaspora. As long as Joseph was living the Israelites were living well and enjoying the wealth of Egypt.

It was after Joseph died – and probably after a major demographic change in the structure of Egyptian society and government – that a pharaoh came into power that didn’t know Joseph. This phrase means that this pharaoh didn’t appreciate Joseph and his contribution to Egypt. This pharaoh looks at the growth and the wealth of the children of Israel in the land of Egypt and feels a threat from their numbers and power.

You see, dear brothers, the Israelites have some set in their way characteristics. Israelites don’t mix or mingle well with people from another race or another nationality. The pharaoh who does not know Joseph feels that these strangers who have grown in numbers are like a 5th column in Egypt.

So, the first thing to do is cut down the population growth. An order, a royal order, is issued by Pharaoh that male babies are to be killed by drowning them in the river. The midwives are to do the job and kill all the male babies.

Here is the first and very important lesson for us all to learn. This lesson was not learned by the enemies of Israel in World War II or earlier in the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition.

The German, Austrian, Hungarian, Rumanian, Estonian, Latvian, Ukrainian, and Polish Christians didn’t disobey the German Nazis who appointed them to be the guards and the executioners that killed Jews in the death camps. They didn’t object to the killing of Jews on their land, in their backyards (so to speak) and in fact participated and even at times they outdid the German Nazi officers in the killing of the Jews.

Although it must be stated that there are thousands of Christians in Europe that did exactly what the two Egyptian midwives Puah and Shiphra did. These Christians endangered their own lives to save Jews and Jewish children from the Nazi death camps.

These very special people have a very special name. They are called Righteous Among the Gentiles. I am speaking of thousands of such men and women who saved Jews in the face of great self-sacrifice.

The state of Israel has the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem to remember the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. In that same place there is also a memorial for these Christians who saved Jews. There’s a tree with a name on it for each of these Righteous Among the Gentiles.

Although it must be stated that in proportion to the numbers of those who supported and participated in the Nazi killing machine the percentile is small, just like the two midwives in Egypt. Christians today ought to know that again there is a very real threat by Iran to delete the state of Israel and the Jews living here from the map!

Stand with Israel and pray! Also don’t neglect to let your voice for Israel and your Jewish neighbors be heard in the chambers of your government!

These two women who were appointed as the directors of this project of drowning the Hebrew male babies in the waters of the Nile River found ways of allowing these babies to live and didn’t kill them in the waters of the great river.

It is not clear if the two midwives who saved the Hebrew male babies at birth were Egyptian or Hebrew. Their names could be either Egyptian or Hebrew. These two very creative women found a good way to disguise themselves and get by with saving Hebrew males from sure death.

The second chapter introduces the reading with a family from the tribe of Levi, no names are given at this point of the story. The family from the tribe of Levi is determined to save their newborn baby boy.

They manage to hide the baby for three months but the danger of getting caught by the Egyptian taskmasters is too great. The mother is very creative, and she makes a basket of wicker and waterproofs it and floats the child inside the basket on the Nile River.

At this point there is a dramatic lesson to be learned, especially during times of persecution and horrible governmental official persecution. This lesson is often ignored by Christian theologians.

When there is persecution and suffering and horrible treatment and loss of human rights and social privileges, never give up! Always resist in smart and intelligent ways, without getting caught by the enemy.

Never lose the hope of freedom and never stop dreaming of better times. Always look for ways to get around the evil and ungodly laws and survive and do it not only for yourselves, but for all those around yourself.

The rule is this: always resist evil and oppression and enslavement and always keep the flame of hope burning and giving life and strength and encouragement to yourself and to those people around you whom you know well and whom you trust. Even when these people around you are very good friends and very good people, still look over your shoulders and suspect and confirm that your friends are faithful and trustworthy.

We say in Hebrew; honor and suspect, even your closest friends and it could also be family members. Always look for ways to improve your situation and find your freedom.

So, Moses’ mother is resourceful and floats the baby in the basket down the river. At this same time the daughter of Pharaoh is going with her servants and maidens to the river to wash.

There is a strange detail in this text that is most times ignored by biblical students:

“Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So, she had compassion on him, and said: ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’” – Exodus 2:5-6 [NKJV]

Here, it is important to pay attention to the details in the text. A prince of Egypt always has maidens that accompany her, especially when she is going to bathe in a river like the Nile.

The Nile River is one of the great rivers of the world and it has beauty and danger at the same time. There are crocodiles and dangerous fish and other dangers that are common in such big rivers like the Nile. It is very unusual to have the daughter of Pharaoh to go to bathe (wash) in the river and enter by herself.

If it is just bathing for washing sake – normally it would be done inside the palaces of the pharaohs’. There were pools and baths for washing in every one of the palaces and often very rich and fancy pools for washing. Even with warm water.

So, why is it in our text that Pharaoh’s daughter enters the water alone and her maidens are outside of the water walking alongside of the river? The rabbinical commentators paid attention to another detail. How is it possible that when the basket that was floating on the river and is brought to the princess, she opens it up and immediately recognizes that this baby is a Hebrew baby?

When has this daughter of the most powerful leader of the ancient world of the greater Middle East and North Africa been exposed to Hebrew babies? How would this very well-protected and well-guarded child of the great Pharaoh have an opportunity to see and handle and know what a Hebrew baby looks like, or a circumcised male child that is only three to four months old?

There is only one explanation to this scene with the daughter of Pharaoh, the rabbis reasoned, she was a convert to Judaism, and she went alone into the river for purification purposes not for fun or for a normal bath, but for a Jewish ritual purification a Mikveh.

This means that she had had some exchange and contact with Jews and especially with Jewish babies. The only plausible explanation of these scenes is that Pharaoh’s daughter was some kind of convert to the faith of the Hebrews and knew their traditions well enough to recognize that this baby floating on the Nile River was a Hebrew baby.

This is also the explanation of why she decided to keep this baby and bring it to the palace and raise it as her own child. By taking this baby and keeping it alive and by bringing the child to the palace and raising this male child as her own son inside the palace of the great Pharaoh she broke her own father’s law to kill every Hebrew male child.

The name that this Egyptian princes gives the baby is Moses. Moses is a name in the Egyptian language. It means exactly “son of the water.” (“Mo” is water and “Ses” is son of.) As you can see in the names of the pharaohs themselves: Ramses means the son of Ra, the chief god of the Egyptians during the late bronze period.

The second lesson that we ought to learn from this text is that no matter how hard our lives are and how hopeless things look from the outside, the Lord God who created the world is still in charge and still rules the Heavens and the Earth.

God is faithful to keep His promises and our history is proof positive that God’s faithfulness is uncompromised. Yes, we might not have the wisdom and foresight to see through the veil and see all the possible and impossible options, but God knows options that are beyond our own ability to know and to understand.

This is what faith means, it means that although we don’t see the solution or the light at the end of the tunnel, the light is there and the Lord is with us in the foxhole during the battle.

The third lesson from this Torah portion is from chapter 3 of Exodus. Moses has run away from Egypt and has left his family and his people and the palaces of Egypt and joined a band of Midianites under the leadership of Jethro, a priest of Midian.

Moses takes Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, for a wife, and has two sons by Zipporah. He spends his days shepherding Jethro’s sheep. The Bible tells us that for the Egyptians shepherding is one of the more despised professions, for an honorable man to be a shepherd.

In chapter 3 of Exodus, Moses, the shepherd of Jethro’s flocks, is leading his sheep to a very prominent mountain called Sinai. Suddenly Moses sees something unusual, a burning bush that is not consumed by the fire.

There near that burning bush the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals Himself to Moses and commissions him to deliver the children of Israel out of slavery into freedom out of Egypt to the land the Creator Himself gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses is a person who does not speak well and may have a strong stutter. God argues with Moses like a merchant in a typical Arabic market anywhere in the Middle East.

This situation of arguing, and not being decisive, and looking for excuses, which is why he is the wrong person for the job, goes round and round between Moses and God. The amazing and wonderful thing in this narrative is that God is willing to argue with Moses and not give up on this man with a heavy speech impediment, a person who had lost hope, and lost any vision or desire to change his lifestyle.

Here we come to chapter 4, now with another encounter and argument between God and Moses. This time God takes a different approach.

He asks Moses: Moses what do you have in your hand? Moses answers that he only has a stick, a shepherd’s staff in his hand, a piece of wood to drive the sheep.

God tells Moses to cast this stick to the ground. Moses does not suspect anything dramatic to happen. This same stick has fallen down to the ground many times, and nothing happened.

The stick falls down on the ground and becomes a snake. You can imagine how surprised Moses would have been. This stick that had served Moses so well, as a shepherd, for so many years, now has a surprise for him. That same stick that he was so familiar with, turns into a snake.

A shepherd of sheep in the Sinai Desert has more than a few opportunities to see and handle snakes. The Lord surprises Moses a second time when he tells Moses pick the snake up by the tail. Anyone who has handled snakes knows that this is the most stupid thing to do to a live snake.

Could it be the absolutely most unwise way to handle a snake? The snake by instinct will turn around very quick and give you a bite on your hand or leg or anywhere that the snake can reach you. But now Moses has gained a new experience and he can trust the Lord and obey even this unusual and seemingly stupid command of the Lord.

Here is the lesson from this narrative: God can use anyone that He chooses. He can even use a person like Moses who is not ready and doesn’t want the job. He can use a person that is damaged exactly in the area that he will need most in his mission.

God does not mind using a person like Moses who doesn’t want this mission of freeing the children of Israel from Egypt. He finds every possible excuse not to go back to Egypt and not to meet Pharaoh.

When God sets His mind on a person – He also equips him with the tools and the talents and the gifts that this person is going to need to accomplish the task set before him by the Almighty One of Israel.

We have so much to learn from Moses that can help us, especially here in Israel, to first of all, stop criticizing God’s servants and looking and concentrating on what we don’t have, but allow God to use what we do have and sharpen it exactly for the job that is set before us.

Each one of us has a stick and some kind of stutter (imperfection and blemish), but God can use our imperfections and blemishes for his glory. None of the heroes of our faith were perfect individuals and everyone had his own faults, but in God’s hand the faults and problems that our forefathers had become their advantage.

Let us stop criticizing the blemishes of our brothers and allow the Lord to use our blemishes and problems to His advantage. For now we ought to be ready to use our stutter and our stick for the glory of the Lord and prepare to see the Arm of the Lord lead and guide us to be perfect, by being the violin, and the Lord the violinist.

In the Lord’s hands the cheapest violin can produce the best sound of heavenly music!

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.