It’s some story, isn’t it?
And it’s one of those stories that gets told in children’s bibles almost minus the horror. The imagery I have is drawn straight from the Prince of Egypt film (as well as the theme song which has been in my head all week!), a wicker basket floating casually along down a calm looking river – I d; but the reality was much scarier and less picturesque.
God’s chosen people, the Israelites were a people in crisis. They were enslaved and under threat, the promises God had given Abraham of a land to call their own must have felt very far away; but the second part of the promise, descendants to outnumber the stars was being fulfilled as from the family of Joseph, now long forgotten, the Israelites had multiplied rapidly.
This rapid reproduction rate had the Pharaoh worried; so he gives his deadly orders – that any baby boy born to a Hebrew woman should be killed. It’s a barbaric, unthinkable order, the murder of countless baby boys in order to prevent the Hebrews raising an army.
But the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah enact their own rescue mission, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women gave birth too quickly – that the task couldn’t be done. This is the first exodus; and it was through the women that God saved. We never know the name of the Pharaoh – but we hear the name of the midwives – in fact the word ‘midwife’ appears 7 times in as many verses.
Despite the midwives best work however, Pharaoh is still determined and gives the order that every Hebrew baby born should be thrown into the Nile.
And it’s into these terrifying times that Moses is born.
As I was thinking about this morning; I couldn’t help but think of the babies born in the past year born into a climate of fear that will hopefully be hard to comprehend when they’re told about it in the years to come. Hopefully our own Exodus from this pandemic is beginning; but it will live long in our memories and shape our world in ways we don’t yet know of.
But I’ve skipped ahead in the story.
Because our reading begins with the birth of Moses.
And I’m aware that for some of you here today, or listening online, these words may hurt. You may have wanted to avoid today all together; whether because your relationship with your Mum is a painful one, you’re grieving or if motherhood is something you long for – or any other multitude of reasons, but I want to encourage you today as we look at three key women in Moses’ life; his birth mother Jochebed, his sister Miriam and his adopted Mum Bithiah. Three women linked in the way they mothered Moses and the part they played in the Exodus story.
I’m aware that this morning might be incredibly painful; for those who are longing to be mothers, those grieving their children or mothers, or simply those who aren’t with their Mums this morning and are missing them like I’m missing them! I believe that this morning we need to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. We want to rejoice with those who are celebrating with their Mums and children this morning, but we want to mourn with those who are apart, and who are hurting.
And I’m going to look at three things in the story of these three women; and the first of these is that mothering is a verb.
In this passage the three women mother Moses is very different ways and whilst for Jochebed it involved the physical act of giving birth; that wasn’t the case for Bithiah and Miriam.
It’s hard to imagine how Jochebed must have felt preparing to give birth to a baby that could be killed, as writer Kelley Nikonhenda puts it “birthed life under a death order”.
But I love this next part; where the text tells us that she hides him because he is a ‘fine child’. Now it’s common that parents think their child is the most beautiful child to ever be born – the language here is linking us right back to the creation story. The word we have translated as ‘fine’ (tov) is the same word that God uses to announce that his creation is ‘good’ – and the material of the basket she puts her son in was an ark of sorts – lined with tar to keep it afloat we’re meant to see the parallels between Moses’ trip down the Nile and Noah’s ark which carried God’s faithful through the flood.
Jochebed’s mothering uses the force that Pharoah’s wants to use to kill her baby to save him. Does it remind you of another story where the power of death is used to save life?
Mothering is a reflection of God’s heart just as much as fathering is. It’s the power of love and life over the forces of evil and death.
I love that. It’s all too easy I think to reduce mothering to disposing of dirty nappies, doing the school run and for me, standing in the freezing rain of the park yet again! But we see a vision here of mothering as something that is more than the sum of our day to day lives – it’s a reflection of the gospel and mothering is a verb of love.
And it’s one where everyone, parent or not has a role to play.
As Jochebed sent her baby boy along the river in the hope of saving his life; Moses’ big sister, who we will later learn is called Miriam is keeping watch. I love this image of a small girl keeping watch over her baby brother as he floats along the Nile; mothering him from a distance and then stepping in to ensure that her own mother can remain a part of Moses’ life. She fights for Moses in her mothering, and her role in this story, arranging for her Mother to be paid for nursing her own child, allowing them to remain close is proof if ever we needed it that “we are mothers when we generate life as much as when we advocate for the quality of life.”
Miriam is often referred to as a prophet and when she later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt alongside Moses and Aaron, she sings a song that we only hear a snippet of in scripture, but it’s enough for us to connect it to the song of another young woman tasked with a role God’s plan of salvation.
And it’s here that we meet Moses’ third mother; the Pharoah’s daughter Bithiah, born into unimaginable privilege and presumably well aware of the grief her Father’s policy is unleashing on the Hebrew people.
She is an example to us all in how to use our privilege, isn’t she? And I expect it was a risk to take in this baby, but the text tells us that she felt sorry for him – other translations talk about her being moved with compassion and she allows herself to be led by her love, rather than her fear in the same way that Jochebed and Miriam did before her.
It’s perhaps one of the greatest challenges of mothering; to mother out of our love rather than our fear and in reality we probably do both most of the time.
I know I do! My little boy loves nothing more than to scale play equipment far too big for him and to make friends with everyone he meets. I am by nature, much more cautious and it’s my constant inner dialogue about which risks to allow him to take, to allow him to explore and not be too limited by my irrational fears – but protected by the more rational variety!
Protection is an inescapable part of mothering; whether it’s Mum’s protecting toddlers from scaling heights or the fight to make the streets safer for women to walk it’s another reflection of the God who loves and protects with tar lined baskets and nails in a cross to protect us from a death without him.
And when Bithiah draws the infant from the water, she too is playing her part in God’s salvation plan.
I often wonder what it was like for Bithiah later on in the story, when Moses flees his title as Prince of Egypt to free his people from Pharaoh when she, like Jochebed before her will lose Moses to the wide world before him.
Mothering is a verb of lament, as much as a verb of love.
Author Rachel Moriston writes; “that is what it is to be a mother… to love and nurture that which is fragile, mortal, unpredictable, uncontrollable and ultimately not ever truly one’s own.”
Bithiah demonstrates this even in naming the baby that she mothers. The name Moses means ‘son’ in the Egyptian language, but it sounds like the Hebrew “Mashah’ which means ‘drawn out of the water.’ For her part, Bithiah’s naming of Moses honours his beginnings and the mother who came before her and in doing so foreshadows how he will grow to draw his people from Egypt in the Exodus.
In this world in search of shalom, of the fullness of peace, we cannot have love without lament. And mothering of any kind involves sacrifice.
It’s long been said that it takes a village to raise a child; and it’s something anyone who parents children will have felt especially keenly in the past year, as we have parented largely without our village.
It takes a village because mothering demands sacrifice from us, not just in what we give up in terms of sleep and time, but because the call of mothering is to one day let go. Children are not raised so that they stay as close to us as possible; but to be dedicated to God and allowed to lead their own lives once they’ve grown.
I think of Hannah, later on in the Bible, praying and weeping for the child she longed for, but raising him so that he would go on to be Israel’s leader and of course Mary, the who treasured the words of the shepherds in her heart, was told by Anna and Simeon that her child would cause a spear to pierce her own heart. She too would flee with her child to spare him from a tyrannical king – and see his own side pierced as he hung on the cross.
Whomever we mother; children, friends, colleagues or neighbours, we play a part in a sacrifice which points us to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for the people of the world. Jesus welcomed children, yes but he also poured himself out for each one of us.
Jesus lived as a sacrifice before he died as a sacrifice. He tenderly knelt and washed the feet of his disciples as his people were ruled by another tyrant in the Roman Emperor. Foot washing was a task so lowly that it was reserved for women, children, foreigners and the marginalised. Feet were calloused and dirty from walk It was, ostensibly women’s work and yet here was Jesus doing this work for his followers. Jo Saxton writes:
“[Jesus] tended to their wounds, washed off the dust and the dirt, washed the sweaty weariness. He saw where they’d been and how it affected them. He touched them, healed them, restored them and refreshed them for the journey ahead.”
And then he broke bread and shared wine with them, sharing of himself and pointing to the truth of what he was going to sacrifice for them.
This is the work of mothering – and it’s the work of the church. Brene Brown said that ‘church isn’t like an epidural, it’s like a midwife’ and I love that. When we think of the Hebrew midwives we looked at right at the beginning Shiprah and Puah- they delivered babies into a dark world, holding hands and mopping brows, not taking away the pain of childbirth but coming alongside them and ushering in new life.
We’ve looked at the mothering of Moses this morning, and I hope we can see that mothering – however it looks – is a reflection of the love of God for his family that welcomes everyone. That seats the sinners and the saints together to share in the body and blood of Christ as we will do at the communion table later on.
And that as women all over the world pour themselves out for their children and in their communities; we can catch a glimpse of our God whose power parted the Dead Sea and whose love reached down from heaven to rescue each one of us.
Through His Spirit may God bless those longing for their Mum this morning,
May he comfort those who grieve for what was, or what could have been.
May those who long for motherhood be cradled by God’s love,
And may all who gather at this table to share in body and blood of God’s son
Be met with the joy of belonging together in God’s family.