The book of Exodus opens with an overture celebrating the courage and resourcefulness of women. The situation in Egypt is desperate. The Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph" is beset by a pathological fear of Joseph's kin, the Hebrews. And so he resorts to two measures favoured by tyrants everywhere: forced labour and genocide.
The two measures are mutually contradictory, and the Pharaoh who seeks to "deal shrewdly" with the Hebrews is in fact not shrewd at all. The portrayal of this Pharaoh in Exodus shows his omnipotence to be about as real as that of the Wizard of Oz; beneath the trappings of authority we see the vulnerable, fallible human being. The basis of his fear is military: the Hebrews may join his enemies in war. And since the military and the masculine are closely linked, Pharaoh makes his fatal mistake of underestimating the women.
The first to resist him are the midwives, Shifrah and Puah. Pharaoh has ordered them to kill every newborn Hebrew male. The text emphasizes the sex-specificity of this command: If it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. Shifrah and Puah let all the babies live, and when Pharaoh confronts them, their reply is bold and clever: The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are chayot. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.
Chayot literally means "alive"; it is also the word for "animals." The usual English translations--"lively", "vigorous"--do not quite convey the earthiness of Shifrah and Puah's response. Like Rachel, who told her father that she had her period to avoid revealing the idols she had stolen, they leave a male authority figure speechless by invoking female sexuality.
The writer of this section clearly has a special fondness for the midwives, which this reader shares (they are the only characters whose names we learn until Moses is given his name further on). But their tactic is only partially successful. While the midwives prosper, Pharaoh now calls on all the people of Egypt to carry out his terrible--and again sex-specific--command.
Two more brave women, a mother and daughter, take up the torch; we will later find out their names are Yocheved and Miriam. They seek to save Yocheved's newborn son by casting him adrift in a basket in the Nile. And their plan works because they are joined in their resistance by the most unlikely rebel of all: Pharaoh's own daughter, who takes the baby home and raises him as her own child, engaging Yocheved as a wet nurse. Women's resistance to Pharaoh's oppression crosses ethnic lines.
Exodus is silent about Pharaoh's daughter's motives, but it does reveal one crucial detail: she knows that the baby is a Hebrew--and thus, by implication, that she is expressly disobeying her father's order. We can glean some more clues from the richly suggestive verse in which she gives Moses his name, which in Hebrew is a series of independent clauses: [Yocheved] brought him to Pharaoh's daughter. He became her son. She named him Moses [Mosheh]. She said, "For I drew him [m'sheeteehu] out of the water."
The name Moses resembles a form that means "son of" in Egyptian names, and therefore relates logically to the preceding clause, "He became her son." But then Pharaoh's daughter improbably goes on to give a Hebrew derivation for the name of the Egyptian prince she is to raise. What's more, the derivation is deceptive. Mosheh is an active form, not a passive; it means "the drawer out," not "the one who was drawn out." Jewish commentators said the name was given prophetically, in anticipation of Moses' role as "the drawer out" of his people from Egypt.
Does this mean that Pharaoh's daughter consciously raised not only a Hebrew child, but one who would be ready for God's call to lead his people into freedom? Exodus leaves the rest of Moses' childhood to the imagination of future generations, but when we first meet Moses as an adult, in the very next verse, he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave. Here we see qualities--a strong identity as a Hebrew, a fierce commitment to social justice, and a certain recklessness--that could well have been encouraged by his foster mother.
Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh's daughter all play traditional female roles: this section is about birthing babies and raising children. But the flair and dynamism they bring to these roles resound through the millennia. To the pharaonic culture of death, Exodus counterposes a feminine culture of life. The ancient Jewish rabbis, not always the most attentive Bible readers when it came to women's contributions, were not deaf to this message: it was through the merit of the righteous women of that generation, they said, that the Hebrews were redeemed from Egypt.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld