02 Saviors of the Exodus


Frymer-Kensky, Tikva   Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of their Stories.  (Shocken Books, New York, 2002).


Summary of the intervening action:

  • Rebecca and Isaac had 2 sons – Esau and Jacob
  • Jacob took two sisters as wives – Rachel and Leah
  • Jacob had 12 sons and 1 daughter from his wives and concubine.  Jacob is given the name Israel.
  • The 11 older sons resented the fact that Jacob/Israel loved his youngest son Joseph so much.  After first deciding to kill Joseph he ended up being sold into slavery.
  • Joseph found himself in Egypt in the house of a high court official
  • With some intervening events Joseph rises to the top – running all of Egypt for the Pharaoh
  • In a time of famine Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food
  • The brothers reconcile and the whole people (Jacob’s descendants / 12 tribes) moves to Egypt.    This ends the book of Genesis.
  • 400 years pass – The Israelites, descendants to Abraham and inheritors of the promise, are oppressed in Egypt.   They are so numerous that they appear to Pharaoh to be a threat.  (Part of the promise has come true, but what about the land?)  This begins the book of Exodus.


The midwives:  Exodus: 1:15-22

15 The king of Egypt told the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was called Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives for the Hebrew women, look on the birthstool:  if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she may live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt had ordered them, but let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this, allowing the boys to live?” 19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are robust and give birth before the midwife arrives.” 20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and grew very numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, God built up families for them. 22 Pharaoh then commanded all his people, “Throw into the Nile every boy that is born, but you may let all the girls live.”


The daughters: Exodus 2:1-10

1 Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and the woman conceived and bore a son. Seeing what a fine child he was, she hid him for three months.  But when she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket, daubed it with bitumen and pitch, and putting the child in it, placed it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stationed herself at a distance to find out what would happen to him.

5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the Nile, while her attendants walked along the bank of the Nile. Noticing the basket among the reeds, she sent her handmaid to fetch it. 6 On opening it, she looked, and there was a baby boy crying! She was moved with pity for him and said, “It is one of the Hebrews’ children.” 7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and summon a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter answered her, “Go.” So the young woman went and called the child’s own mother.  9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay your wages.”  So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 When the child grew, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son.  She named him Moses; for she said, “I drew him out of the water.”


Summary of the intervening action

  • Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household.
  • Moses kills an Egyptian in defense of a Hebrew / Israelite slave but ends up fleeing for his own life
  • Moses spends time as a shepherd until he comes across the burning bush.  Moses meets the daughters of Jethro at a well (Jethro is also called Hobab and Reul in other strands of tradition), is given Zipporah in marriage.
  • The LORD calls to Moses through the burning bush and then sends him back to Egypt to free His people.  The action below occurs on the journey back.


The wife:  Exodus 4:24-26

24 On the journey, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD came upon Moses and sought to put him to death. 25  But Zipporah took a piece of flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and, touching his feet, she said, “Surely you are a spouse of blood to me.” 26 So God let Moses alone. At that time she said, “A spouse of blood,” in regard to the circumcision.


Summary of the subsequent action:

  • Moses to the Pharaoh – “the LORD says: “Let my people go!””   Pharaoh says “no.”  10 plagues
  • Last plague = death of the firstborn male of Egyptians and their livestock
  • Pharaoh lets them go, but then changes his mind
  • Pharaoh has army and chariots chase after them, catches them at edge of the sea
  • Pharaoh’s army goes into the sea behind them, are drowned.
  • Moses leads the people, encounters the LORD at Mt. Sinai in the desert / wilderness
  • Moses and the people make a covenant at Sinai with the LORD.  Receive the Law (612 commandments).
  • After wandering in the desert for 40 years as punishment for disobedience Moses leads them to the edge of the Promised Land / Canaan.  Moses dies and Joshua takes over, they go into the land.   The second part of the promise is fulfilled.





With descendants almost as “numerous as the stars” the first of the promises is established.  What about the second? – the land flowing with milk and honey?

F-K p. 24: “Acting in their routine roles as midwives, mothers, daughters, and wives, women become the saviors of early Israel and bring on the redemption from Egypt.”    Without them, at most key steps of the way, it would not  have happened (or not as it did).  They save Moses.



F-K p. 25: “Pharaoh’s injunction seems strange.  To kill a population, one surely should kill the future birth-givers.  But Pharaoh is worried only about the boys.  From his perspective, the girls are insignificant.  Without men, they are not even Israel.  Their wombs have not yet been claimed and branded.  If married by Egyptians, they will produce Egyptian children.  The boys, however, may grow to be men who will fight against Egypt.  Within his limited perspective, Pharaoh is no fool.”

F-K p. 25: “The women were most probably Hebrews, for midwives usually come from the community they serve.  Their names can have meaning in Hebrew.  Shifrah from “beautiful” and Pu’ah from “pant”, or Pu’ah can be related to Ugaritic – “young woman.”

F-K p.25: “The midwives make an independent moral decision.  Fearing God, they refuse to obey immoral orders and do not murder the boy children.  Called on the carpet, they do not declare their defiance in what would have been both a futile and fatal act of frontal resistance.  Instead, they trick Pharaoh, belittling the Israelite women as “animals” who give birth so quickly that they need no midwives.”  (our NAB translates the Hebrew as ‘robust’)  The power of stereotypes comes in here – Pharaoh appears to accept this without question.  The “other” that is feared is different from “us”.  This remains true over the centuries – African Americans, Muslims.

Pharaoh decides to try again – all the people are told to throw Hebrew boys into the river.  His own daughters now subvert his attempt to interfere with the LORD’s plan.





F-K p. 27: “The word ‘ark’ (teibah) appears only twice in the Bible: here and Genesis chapters 6-9.  Noah didn’t drown because God placed him in an ark; Moses didn’t drown because his mother did the same.  There is another allusion here: she seals the baby in the ark as God closed the ark for Noah.”

The mother and her daughter act to save Moses, then daughters of Pharaoh act for him as well – ironically involving Moses’ own sister and mother in the plot.

F-K p. 27: “On the one hand, as Pharaoh’s daughter, she should obey the royal decree and throw the boy into the Nile.  On the other side – she has pity.  Her motivation is not quite the same as that of the midwives: they acted on moral grounds, she acted on compassionate grounds.”

F-K p. 28: “ ‘Moses’ is a play on words.  Moshe/Moses comes from a standard Egyptian word mes for ‘son,’ as in Tutmoses (son of Tut).  At the same time, his name, like the names of Jacob’s children, is ostensibly related to his birth circumstances, for from the water I drew him out.  But the form moseh is an active participle of the verb “the one who draws out,” and the one who “draws out” from the waters is Pharaoh’s daughter, not Moses, who is only the one drawn out.  The narrator and the listeners know that the real meaning of the name refers to Moses’ life, not his birth.  For Moshe will be the one who ‘draws out’ the people of Israel from Egypt as their savior.  The ‘drawing out’ of Moses from the waters saves the one who will ‘draw out’ Israel from Egypt.”

F-K p. 28  Bible names the mother of Moses as Yochebed, his sister “Miriam”.  Midrash (Jewish tradition) names the daughter of Pharaoh as “Bithya”.   Three subversive daughters save the promise of the land.



F-K p. 29: “The object of the attack could have been the son, for the story says just ‘him.’  It was probably Moses, for ‘seeking to kill’ has been a leitmotiv in his life.  He fled to Midian because Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15), and God assured him that it was safe to go back because those who were seeking his life were dead (Exodus 4:19).  Now suddenly God apparently attacks and seeks to kill him; the narrator leaves this ambiguous to further heighten the enigmatic nature of this episode.”   (Herod sought to kill all babies as did Pharaoh, Joseph brought the family back when assured it was safe to do so …)

F-IK p. 29: “God may have attacked Moses or the uncircumcised son so that Zipporah would save with blood, thus foreshadowing the way Israel would save their firstborn children in Egypt with the blood of the lamb.  Certainly in both stories the Israelites are saved because blood is ‘touched’ to its object, and both stories use the verb ng’ to describe the ‘touching’.”      Also a parallel in God / angel battle with Jacob in the desert.

F-K p. 30: “Did circumcision rescue Moses or his son by sanctifying them?  Or was it the blood that averted the doom?  Does blood always have mystical protective properties, or is it only the blood of the first-born or a foreshadowing of the blood of the Paschal Lamb?”  It remains a mystery.

Used flint to circumcise because it was at hand?

A whole other line of thinking: Moses not “attacked” but fell suddenly and profoundly ill.  Zipporah discerns that God is behind the illness and reasons that as they leave their foreign land with Moses that the youngest son must be circumcised.  Doing this, Moses recovers.

F-K p. 30: “Traditional rituals are often highly conservative, and circumcisers may  have used flint long after sharp metal knives were available.  The Bible associates metal implements with warfare.  No metal was to be used to build an altar (Deut. 27:5) or the temple (I Kings 6:7), and it would make sense to avoid metal for circumcision.”

Touching his feet.  F-K p. 30: “Whose feet?  Her son’s?  Moses’?  God’s?  And is it really ‘feet’ that she touched, or is it genitalia?  And then Zipporah cries, ‘You are a bridegroom in blood for me.”  To whom is Zipporah talking, who is the ‘bridegroom’ and is she referring to a ‘bridegroom’?  Hatan often means ‘father-in-law’ rather than ‘groom’, so the ‘you’ may be God, and Zipporah may indicate that she has entered into a special relationship with God through this ceremony.”

F-K p. 31: “Moses cannot act.  He is either under attack, deathly ill, or paralyzed by a ‘dark night’ of the soul.  He needs another savior, and another woman steps up.  Zipporah may know about the protective value of circumcision or of blood from Moses or her own traditions.  Circumcision was widely practiced in the ancient world, and may have had an apotropaic aspect in her tradition.  She draws on ritual for dispelling the overwhelming power of deity, and on almost incantatory words to accompany her act.  Above all, she acts with whatever methods she knows to protect her young.”

Apotropaic = something that wards off evil

Sidebar – Who was the son of Moses and what happened to him?  His firstborn was Gershom, second (this one) Eliezer.  Moses, and therefore his sons, were members of the tribe of Levi.  As Levites they and their descendants ministered in the Tent and then the Temple.  The sons of Aaron, Moses brother, were a subset of the tribe of Levi – these became the priests of the Temple and actually offered the sacrifices.  The leadership that Moses exercised was not “inheritable”.

Zipporah means “bird”.

F-K p. 32: “Zipporah acts to prevent a killing.  In this experience of the frightening aspect of divine power, Moses’ wife grows into a savior.   She becomes a surrogate parent, protecting Moses as well as her children.  Moses’ Israelite ‘biological’ mother and his Egyptian ‘foster-mother’ are now joined in a triad of saviors by this Midianite ‘ritual’ mother.  Now Moses will turn from being the rescued to the rescuer, from the saved to the savior.”

F-K p. 32: “Women are used to ignoring outside events and regulations, used to maneuvering through the system to follow personal imperatives, helping their husbands, protecting their children, and being loyal to their God.”

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